Note: I put this guide together quite quickly. Therefore, none of the text is my own work. All credit must go to Course Hero. I have referenced and provided links throughout this page. They have stunning resources for English literature, as well most other subjects. To visit Course Hero, click on the link below.



Hamlet is the grief-stricken protagonist of the play. Read More


Polonius is the king's chief counselor and father of Laertes and Ophelia. Read More


Claudius is the corrupt brother of King Hamlet who takes the throne after the king's death and marries his former sister-in-law. Read More


Horatio is Hamlet's school friend who remains a loyal companion.


Laertes is Polonius's son—a strong, active, and noble confidant for Hamlet.


Ophelia is Hamlet's love interest. Read More


Gertrude is Hamlet's mother. Read More


The ghost is the spirit of King Hamlet. Read More


Barnardo is a castle guard.


The captain is a member of Fortinbras' troops; Hamlet shares a conversation with him about thoughts and actions.


Cornelius is a courtier sent as ambassador to Norway.

First Player

First Player, a member of the company of players, agrees with Hamlet that they will perform his edited version of The Murder of Gonzago.


Fortinbras, prince of Norway, is the quick-thinking and passionate foil to Hamlet.


The gravedigger and sexton are responsible for digging Ophelia's grave.


Guildenstern, a friend of Hamlet, is hired by Claudius to spy on Hamlet.


Marcellus is a castle guard.


Osric is the king's pretentious messenger.


Reynaldo is a spy sent to monitor Laertes's activities in France.


Rosencrantz, a friend of Hamlet, is hired by Claudius to spy on Hamlet.


The sailor delivers letters from Hamlet to Horatio and Claudius.


The sexton and gravedigger are responsible for digging Ophelia's grave. A sexton is a church official who looks after church property.


Voltemand is a courtier sent as ambassador to Norway.

Course Hero, "Hamlet Study Guide," September 2, 2016, accessed May 6, 2017, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Hamlet/.

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Yorick's Skull

The most obvious symbol in the play—and perhaps in Shakespeare's entire body of work—Yorick's skull represents mortality. Should the audience have any question about this symbolism, Hamlet explains it to them (and Horatio) when he says, "No matter one's stance in life, we all must face our own mortality." Hamlet has learned that death is inevitable and, given the "haunting" by his father's ghost, that the physical body is only temporary (Act 5, Scene 1).

The Mousetrap

Hamlet, in asking the players to perform The Murder of Gonzago with a few revisions, suggests that he has an understanding and appreciation for the idea of life imitating art. In this particular case, Hamlet is hoping to put that idea to use to catch the conscience of the king. In The Mousetrap, the edited version of the play, nearly everything is a symbol for the truth Hamlet hopes to uncover, with the most obvious symbols in the casting: "I'll have these players play something like the murder of my father." The King in The Mousetrap symbolizes King Hamlet and The Poisoner obviously symbolizes Claudius.

The Ghost

While the ghost symbolizes decay or evil—"Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (Act 1, Scene 4)—it is an ambiguous character. It is not clear whether the ghost is truly the spirit of Hamlet's father, a demon that wants to mislead the prince, or a figment of Hamlet's imagination. Hamlet tries to find out by asking it, "Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damned/... Be thy intents wicked, or charitable?" The ghost appears with the purpose of seeking revenge for his death. He comes dressed in armor, prepared for battle, but because he is a spirit, he needs Hamlet's physical strength to exact revenge. Vengeance is a dangerous emotion, however, and it nearly drives both Hamlet and Laertes mad through obsession: "O, from this time forth my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"



For a play that is often depicted by the image of Hamlet contemplating Yorick's skull in the graveyard scene, it is not surprising that Shakespeare uses mortality as a central theme. It comes across in a number of ways: the ghost of Hamlet's father; Hamlet's contemplation of suicide and Ophelia's suicide; Hamlet's tendency for black dress (at least in the early scenes); the players' performance of The Murder of Gonzago; the gravediggers, the grave, and the funeral as well as the skull in the graveyard scene; and the numerous deaths in the play's final scene.

But what does Shakespeare say about mortality in his presentation? Primarily, he explores the concept as part of the cycle of life, looking at it from both religious and secular perspectives.

Truth versus Deception

The idea of truth versus deception, which at times is expressed more as reality versus appearance, is prevalent in Hamlet. This theme plays out in major ways; the deceitful way by which Claudius came to power underpins the entire play. And it is also developed in smaller ways; the fact that Polonius is willing to spread rumors about Laertes to investigate his behavior in France tells us something about the nature of Polonius's relationships with his children.

The play presents many characters who thrive on deceit (Polonius, Claudius), and many situations that evolve out of deceit (Polonius's death when he tries to eavesdrop on Gertrude and Hamlet).

Every scene and act contain examples, such as:

The presence of the ghost—as a witness to the truth, or as a figment of Hamlet's imagination

The presence of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—and their true mission—in Elsinore

Claudius's motivation in bringing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore

Claudius's very existence

The company of players

Hamlet putting on an "antic disposition"

Thought versus Action

A life of thought versus a life of action is a theme woven throughout the play. Although Hamlet seems like a man of thought through much of the play, by the end he finds balance between the two. This suggests that Shakespeare's final idea on the topic is that the best approach to life strikes a balance between thought and action.

From the outset, both Laertes and Fortinbras are foils for Hamlet. Whereas Hamlet initially thinks deeply before any action, Fortinbras seems prone to action before thought. Laertes, like Fortinbras, wants to take immediate steps to avenge his father's death and has none of the doubt that causes Hamlet to delay his revenge against Claudius.


Madness is a theme explored in Hamlet, particularly as it relates to Hamlet, Ophelia, and maybe even Claudius (if one considers egomania a form of madness). Interestingly, too, madness goes hand-in-hand with truth versus deception because whether Hamlet's madness is real or feigned remains an open question throughout the play.


Revenge is a prominent theme in Hamlet and a catalyst to many events in the plot. Several characters seek revenge:

The ghost of Hamlet's father wants Hamlet to avenge his death.

Laertes wants to avenge both Polonius's and Ophelia's deaths.

Fortinbras wants revenge for his father's death and for military losses.

Of the characters prominently involved in vengeful action, Fortinbras is the only one who does not die as a direct result. It might be said that Hamlet's death was less a result of his own action (or attempted action) and unavoidable because Claudius and his need to protect his position was the force behind that string of events. It could be argued that Claudius's actions might have resulted in Hamlet's demise regardless of whatever Hamlet decided to do about the ghost's entreaty.

Both Hamlet and Fortinbras grow in spite of—or perhaps because of—the vengeful actions they undertake or attempt to undertake. The same might not be said about Laertes, however, unless the last-minute wisdom by which he asks for and extends forgiveness counts. And, ultimately, with the carnage of the final scene so poignant, Shakespeare could be making a case for the uselessness of revenge, but that could also be a 21st-century viewpoint overlaid on a 17th-century drama.


The play opens soon after the death of the king of Denmark. Claudius, the king's brother, has claimed the throne and taken his sister-in-law—Hamlet's mother, Gertrude—as his queen. These events have left Prince Hamlet distraught and grieving. As the story begins, the ghost of King Hamlet appears in Elsinore, Denmark's royal castle. Sentinels who witness the ghost alert Horatio, who, upon seeing the ghost himself, goes to tell his dear friend Hamlet.

Hamlet's world is shaken anew when Horatio tells him that he has seen a ghost resembling his father. When Hamlet joins Horatio (Act 1, Scene 4) and sees the ghost himself, he is terrified. The ghost tells Hamlet that he has been murdered and that Claudius poisoned him. He commands Hamlet to avenge his death but insists that he not harm his mother. Hamlet questions whether the ghost is real, but his mourning is now compounded by rage.

Earlier, Hamlet had returned from his studies in Germany after learning of his father's death. Already in mourning, Hamlet is pushed deeper into despair by his mother's hasty second marriage. It is clear from his soliloquy in Act 2 that he is confused that his mother could disregard the sorrow of losing her husband and enter into marriage with his brother.

Meanwhile, Claudius seeks some semblance of normalcy for Denmark. Holding court one afternoon, Claudius draws attention to young Prince Fortinbras of Norway, who is raising an army against Denmark. Fortinbras seeks to avenge the death of his father, who had died in battle against King Hamlet some years before. Claudius does not see the parallel between that young prince and his nephew, nor does he take a note of caution from the situation.

Claudius casts a more fatherly eye on Laertes, son of his counselor Polonius, who seeks the king's blessing for his to return to France, which Claudius approves. Claudius next chastises Hamlet for the unseemly way in which he mourns for his father, after which he and Hamlet's mother deny his desire to return to Germany, insisting he stay in Elsinore.

As Laertes prepares to leave for France, he confronts his sister, Ophelia, about her relationship with Prince Hamlet. He warns her not to take Hamlet's affection seriously. Her father, Polonius, overhears; when Laertes has gone, he agrees with his son's advice and orders Ophelia to avoid Hamlet. Heartbroken, Ophelia says she will obey.

Sometime later, Ophelia tells Polonius of a distressing encounter with Prince Hamlet. She says Hamlet came to her looking bewildered. Polonius thinks Hamlet's love for Ophelia is driving him mad and decides he must tell the king and queen of this occurrence.

When Polonius visits the king and queen, they are already meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's childhood friends, in an attempt to figure out Hamlet's strange behavior. Also at hand are Voltemand and Cornelius, the ambassadors Claudius sent to Norway, who are reporting that "Old Norway" has commanded Fortinbras to abandon aggression against Denmark. Fortinbras vows obedience and will turn his attention to Poland. Finally, Polonius relates the story of Hamlet's encounter with Ophelia; he tells the king and queen that he believes Hamlet's love for Ophelia has driven him mad.

Hamlet meets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and becomes suspicious of their presence in Elsinore. When they tell him that a company of players (actors) has arrived, he is excited. Hamlet seeks out the actors and asks them to perform a version of the play The Murder of Gonzago. By inserting a scene depicting his father's murder, Hamlet hopes his revised play, The Mousetrap, will catch the king in his guilt.

Claudius and Polonius plan to eavesdrop on Ophelia and Hamlet. As they hide nearby, Hamlet comes upon Ophelia and they chat. However, he quickly becomes suspicious of Ophelia's motives when she tries to return gifts he gave her. He rages wildly with sorrow and disappointment and tells Ophelia to "get thee to a nunnery" before leaving her.

Ophelia is devastated; Claudius and Polonius are shocked. Claudius realizes Hamlet poses a threat to him. He decides to send Hamlet to England to be rid of him. Polonius agrees but suggests one last try: have Gertrude talk with him after the play that evening, and he, Polonius, will eavesdrop on the conversation.

That evening the theater company performs for Claudius's court. As the players reenact the scene of the king being poisoned in the garden—as the ghost told Prince Hamlet—Claudius flies into a panicked rage, halting the play and fleeing the room. Hamlet, with Horatio beside him, takes this as an admission of guilt.

After the play, Claudius meets with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and tasks them with taking Hamlet to England. When they leave to find Hamlet, Claudius admits to King Hamlet's murder in a soliloquy. He attempts to pray, but finds he cannot repent, because he is unwilling to give up the rewards gained from the murder: the throne and his wife. Hamlet passes and sees Claudius on his knees. He thinks how easy it would be to kill his uncle then and there, but decides not to. Hamlet believes that to kill Claudius while he is in prayer would grant him entry to Heaven, which Hamlet does not want.

Hamlet meets with Gertrude in her chambers; Polonius hides nearby. Hamlet confronts Gertrude about her part in King Hamlet's death. When she cries out, Polonius shouts, revealing his presence, but not his identity. Believing that Claudius is hiding there, Hamlet stabs Polonius through the tapestry and kills him. Hamlet leaves, dragging Polonius's body with him. The encounter convinces Gertrude that her son is indeed mad.

Gertrude goes to tell Claudius of her meeting with Hamlet and of Polonius's death. Once he is alone, Claudius reveals that Hamlet is also soon to die; the documents he is sending with the ship call for Hamlet's execution.

As Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern head to the boat, they spy Fortinbras and his army en route to Poland. Hamlet is struck by the contrast between himself and young Fortinbras. He sees Fortinbras's ability to act—instead of think—as a mark of greatness. When contrasting himself with Fortinbras, Hamlet finds himself wanting.

Ophelia asks to meet with Gertrude and Claudius, and they realize that she has gone mad with grief. Laertes, back from France, storms in to see the king and queen and is heartbroken to find Ophelia in such a confused condition. Claudius convinces Laertes they had nothing to do with Polonius's death or Ophelia's madness. He counsels Laertes to be patient and encourages him to follow his counsel to exact his revenge. Laertes consents.

A messenger finds Horatio, bearing letters from Hamlet to Horatio and to Claudius. Hamlet's letter informs Horatio that he is back in Denmark and has much to tell him about his failed trip to England. He asks that Horatio lead the messenger to the king to deliver his letters to him. After that, the messenger will lead Horatio to him.

Claudius and Laertes are together when the king receives word of Hamlet's return. They plot a fencing duel between Hamlet and Laertes, with Laertes using a poison-tipped foil (sword). As a backup, they plan to have a poisoned cup of wine ready for Hamlet to drink. They intend to give Laertes his revenge without putting either of them in harm's way. As they conclude their meeting, Gertrude brings word that Ophelia has drowned.

Hamlet and Horatio meet in the graveyard where Ophelia is about to be buried. As the funeral procession gathers around her grave, the grief-stricken Laertes jumps into her grave and proclaims his love. Hamlet, overcome in the moment, follows, and they fight. Horatio and the other mourners separate the two as Hamlet boldly proclaims his love for Ophelia.

When Horaito and Hamlet leave the graveyard and enter the castle, Osric, one of Claudius's courtiers, tells Hamlet that Claudius has wagered on Hamlet to win a fencing match against Laertes. Hamlet accepts the challenge and says he will strive to win on the king's behalf.

The duel begins. Hamlet strikes Laertes twice and Gertrude drinks to Hamlet's health, unknowingly drinking the poisoned wine. Alarmed by the way the competition is going, Laertes finally strikes Hamlet, they scuffle, and the foils are exchanged. Hamlet's next hit on Laertes poisons him.

Suddenly, the queen collapses. As she dies, Laertes reveals to Hamlet that both of them have also been poisoned by the foil now in Hamlet's hands. Laertes reveals the plot to everyone, proclaiming that the king is to blame. Before he closes his eyes for the last time, he and Hamlet exchange forgiveness.

Enraged, Hamlet kills Claudius—stabbing him with the poisoned foil and forcing him to drink the rest of the poisoned wine. Hamlet watches him die, but he himself is soon to follow. As the prince approaches death, he begs Horatio to carry his story to the world.

Young Fortinbras, returning from Poland, arrives to find the gruesome scene—Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius all dead—and to hear Horatio's explanation.Q

AHamlet, Shakespeare's timeless tragedy, has both intrigued and shocked audiences for centuries. Written between 1599 and 1601, the story about a sensitive and confused young man who is forced to seek revenge for his father's death continues to encourage audiences to think about both mortality and morality.

Some of the greatest actors in the world have taken on the play's titular role both for the stage and the screen. It is the most widely performed play in the world, and there are dozens of film versions. This tale of murder, family, political intrigue, madness, love, and hate still has the power to engage critics and thrill audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

Hamlet, Shakespeare's timeless tragedy, has both intrigued and shocked audiences for centuries. Written between 1599 and 1601, the story about a sensitive and confused young man who is forced to seek revenge for his father's death continues to encourage audiences to think about both mortality and morality.

Some of the greatest actors in the world have taken on the play's titular role both for the stage and the screen. It is the most widely performed play in the world, and there are dozens of film versions. This tale of murder, family, political intrigue, madness, love, and hate still has the power to engage critics and thrill audiences of all ages and backgrounds.


Timeline of Events

Before action begins

Claudius kills King Hamlet.

Act 1, Scene 1
Four weeks later

Claudius marries Gertrude, King Hamlet's widow.

Act 1, Scene 2
Four weeks later

Hamlet sees the ghost.

Act 1, Scene 4
Two months later

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sent to spy on Hamlet.

Act 2, Scene 2
One day later

Hamlet stages The Mousetrap.

Act 3, Scene 2
Later that evening

Hamlet kills Polonius.

Act 3, Scene 4
Later that evening

Claudius banishes Hamlet to England.

Act 4, Scene 3
Eight weeks later

Claudius and Laertes plot to kill Hamlet.

Act 4, Scene 7

Later that day

Ophelia dies.

Act 5, Scene 2

One day later

Hamlet returns—he, Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes die.

Scene Summary

Act 1, Scene 1

Sentinels Barnardo and Francisco stand the night watch at Denmark's Elsinore castle. Francisco is about to go off duty w... Read More

Act 1, Scene 2

Claudius holds court at Elsinore and thanks everyone for their support through the kingdom's recent events: the death an... Read More

Act 1, Scene 3

As Laertes prepares to head back to France, he and Ophelia talk about his trip and promise to write to each other, but L... Read More

Act 1, Scene 4

Hamlet and Horatio accompany Marcellus on his watch. Near midnight they hear much revelry from within the castle, and Ha... Read More

Act 1, Scene 5

Hamlet follows the ghost to another part of the castle wall, where the ghost tells Hamlet he must avenge his murder. The... Read More

Act 2, Scene 1

Polonius sends his servant, Reynaldo, to France to bring Laertes money and snoop into his son's life. Polonius suggests ... Read More

Act 2, Scene 2

Claudius and Gertrude hire Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's childhood friends, to spend time with Hamlet, h... Read More

Act 3, Scene 1

Claudius and Gertrude interrogate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about their discussion with Hamlet. The men have little t... Read More

Act 3, Scene 2

Hamlet coaches the actors in anticipation of the performance they are about to give for Claudius, Gertrude, and the rest... Read More

Act 3, Scene 3

This scene takes place the same evening as the production of The Murder of Gonzago. After everyone has dispersed from th... Read More

Act 3, Scene 4

This scene also takes place on the night of the production of The Murder of Gonzago in which Hamlet has tried to prove t... Read More

Act 4, Scene 1

King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, come together once again in Elsinore Castle. ... Read More

Act 4, Scene 2

In a passageway somewhere in Elsinore castle, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet. They insist he tell them where P... Read More

Act 4, Scene 3

Claudius, by himself, talks of his intent to send Hamlet to England—a plan made all the more reasonable because Hamlet h... Read More

Act 4, Scene 4

In this scene, set somewhere near Elsinore Castle, Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are headed for the ship that wi... Read More

Act 4, Scene 5

Back at Elsinore Castle, Ophelia has requested an audience with Gertrude. Having heard that Ophelia has been acting stra... Read More

Act 4, Scene 6

Horatio is approached by sailors bearing letters from Hamlet. One of the letters is for him; the others are for the king... Read More

Act 4, Scene 7

Claudius and Laertes are together in Elsinore. As promised, Claudius explains the circumstances of Polonius's death to L... Read More

Act 5, Scene 1

In a churchyard, a sexton and a gravedigger prepare a grave. As they go about their business, they are wrapped in their ... Read More

Act 5, Scene 2

In the final scene, all are back at Elsinore Castle. Hamlet gives Horatio the details of the failed journey to England. ... Red More

Course Hero, "Hamlet Study Guide," September 2, 2016, accessed May 6, 2017, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Hamlet/

Things you didn't know.

1. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play.

While it is difficult to get a precise count because of variations among texts, with around 4,042 lines Hamlet is by far the longest of the 38 plays written by Shakespeare. By comparison, his shortest play, A Comedy of Errors, is less than half the length of Hamlet at about 1,787 lines. According to one estimate, Shakespeare plays are usually performed at the rate of 1,000 lines an hour, so Hamlet would run well over four hours.

2. Shakespeare reportedly played the Ghost of Hamlet's father.

While there's no incontrovertible evidence Shakespeare played the Ghost in Hamlet, he was an actor as well as director and playwright of his theater company, and he certainly played roles in several of his own plays. Shakespeare's first biographer, Nicholas Rowe, claimed that Shakespeare played "the Ghost in his own Hamlet" and called it "the top of his performance."

3. Many common phrases used today originated in Hamlet.

Beyond the well-known "to be or not to be," many phrases from Hamlet have made their way into daily life. These include "neither a borrower nor a lender be," "heart of gold," "in my mind's eye," "cruel to be kind," "a piece of work," and "the lady doth protest too much."

4. There's speculation that The Lion King may be an adaptation of Hamlet.

The Walt Disney Company claims in its film notes that the 1994 animated film The Lion King was an original story, but most critics believe it is based, at least in part, on Hamlet. Both stories include a father murdered by his brother and a prince stripped of his throne. Both include dual sidekicks (Rosencranz and Guilderstern; Timon and Pumba) and an appearance by the ghost of the prince's father. However, there is far less bloodshed and death in The Lion King, which also has a happier ending.

5. In one of the most unusual early performances, Hamlet was staged at sea in 1607.

In 1607 Hamlet was staged on board the East India Company ship The Dragon off the coast of Sierra Leone. The captain even noted in his journal that the play kept his crew "from idleness and unlawful games, or sleep."

6. Hamlet has been translated into Klingon.

Hamlet has been performed or published in more than 75 languages, including Klingon—the fictional language spoken by the Klingons in Star Trek. The varied languages into which it's been translated include Hebrew, Welsh, Icelandic—and even Esperanto and Interlingua, both constructed international languages.

7. Hamlet has more lines than any character in any of Shakespeare's plays.

Hamlet has 1,506 speaking lines in the play. His closest rivals are Iago in Othello, with 1,088, and Henry V, with 1,031. The female character with the most lines is Rosalind in As You Like It, with 685 lines.

8. The brother of Lincoln's assassin made his theater comeback playing Hamlet.

Edwin Booth had his greatest acting success playing the role of Hamlet. After his brother, John Wilkes Booth, fatally shot President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Edwin retired from the stage. The public, however, clamored for his return, and he appeared in the role again in January 1866. The press raved about his performance.

9. Actor Laurence Olivier directed himself in a film adaptation of Hamlet and won an Oscar.

In the 1948 film of Hamlet, Sir Laurence Olivier directed and played the lead role, winning an Academy Award for Best Actor. He was the first actor to win an Oscar by directing himself. He also provided the spooky voice of the Ghost by recording his own voice and playing it back at a slower speed.

10. The Globe Theatre performed Hamlet in almost every country in the world.

The Globe to Globe Hamlet, a project that ran from 2014 to 2016, was undertaken by the Globe Theatre, a reconstruction of Shakespeare's original theater in London. The Globe's troupe was unable to perform in Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali due to security concerns, but they put on Hamlet in 184 countries and traveled some 180,000 miles. Many of the performances were given for free to school groups or displaced persons.

Course Hero, "Hamlet Study Guide," September 2, 2016, accessed May 6, 2017, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/Hamlet/.

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