Background for the Play

1) Classic Elizabethan Plot or Senecan Revenge Plot: The classic Elizabethan plot of most Shakespearean tragedies has a rise, a turning point, and a fall. Both rise and fall are due to the character's tragic flaw which causes a character to destroy himself. The Senecan revenge plot follows the basic pattern of the common short story: exposition (introduction to characters, setting, and problem or issue), rising action (where the protagonist overcomes obstacles and plans the means of his revenge), climax (where protagonist and antagonist fight to the death), and resolution (where the loose ends of the plot are addressed).

2) Danish and Elizabethan Features of the Play: While the setting and actual historical events of the play are Danish elements, the main element of characterization are all Elizabethan. These characters speak, think, and act like Elizabethans of Shakespeare's time. They are Elizabethan because that is what Shakespeare knew best and that is what his audience would expect and understand.

3) Psychological Elements:
* The Oedipal Complex has been connected to this play because of the unnatural closeness between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude. This is open to interpretation.
*Madness theories are based on the play's most pronounced unanswered question: "Is Hamlet insane." The three answers are that he's only acting insane to cover up his investigation, he really is insane but is unaware of it, or playing insane eventually makes him insane.

4) Unanswered Questions: As indicated above, Hamlet's madness is one of the many unanswered questions in this play. The ambiguity is generally considered a strength of the play because its multiple interpretations have encourage the audiences to become more involved in the interpretation, but the famous port and critic T .S. Elliot found the unanswered questions to be a weakness of the play.

5) The Faces of Hamlet: Hamlet will speak in three "voices" throughout the play: the public voice will be full of double meanings, humor, madness, and deception to fool the various audiences in Elsinore; the one with sick humor and dark irony will be used when Hamlet is with Horatio; and in the soliloquies, Hamlet will speak of fire and vengeance, with words full of rage and fury.

6) The Intrusive Poet: While Shakespeare was respected for his ability to allow his characters to develop naturally, independent of the writer's values and beliefs, Shakespeare was intrusive when it came to Hamlet. Hamlet is a mirror for Shakespeare, speaking his theories and his philosophies on life and on the theater. This is best seen when Hamlet talks to the traveling players.

7) The Norway Subplot: Before the play begins, there has been a war between Denmark and Norway. Denmark won Norwegian lands and the king of Norway is dead. To parallel the situation in Denmark, the dead Norwegian king's brother has received the crown and the prince of Norway is quite unhappy. As the play begins, this prince, Fortenbras, intends to invade Denmark with a large army to avenge his father's death. The "warlike" atmosphere will remain in the background throughout the play.


Act I Plot Summary

Act I, Scene I:

Hamlet opens with the sentry, Francisco, keeping watch over the castle at Elsinore. He is relieved by Barnardo, who is shortly joined by Horatio and Marcellus. Barnardo and Marcellus reveal that they have witnessed an apparition. The ghost of the late king of Denmark appears and promptly withdraws into the night. Horatio recognizes the armour covering the ghost and remarks that it is the very armour that the King wore "when he the ambitious Norway combated." Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio suspect that the appearance of the ghostly King is an ominous message to all of Denmark, as they prepare for war with Norway. Horatio pleads with the apparition to reveal its intentions. The ghost, however, refuses to speak, and disappears as the cock crows. Horatio decides to tell Prince Hamlet all that has transpired, for he knows that the ghost will only reveal his purpose to his son.
Act I, Scene 2:

The scene opens with King Claudius of Denmark giving a magnificently ostentatious speech on the death of his brother and his marriage to Queen Gertrude, his sister-in-law and Hamlet's mother. Claudius despatches two of his courtiers, Cornelius and Voltimand, to Norway as peacekeepers, and he grants Laertes, who has come to Denmark specifically for the coronation of Claudius, permission to return to his studies in France. With such matters attended to, Claudius focuses on his troublesome nephew. He commends Hamlet on the length and severity of his mourning, but insists that his "unmanly" grief must come to an end. He reassures Hamlet that his father lost a father, and his father before him, and so on. He implores Hamlet not to return to his studies in Wittenburg, but to remain in Denmark to fulfill his role of courtier, cousin, and son. Gertrude also pleads with Hamlet to stay, and calmly, he agrees. Satisfied with Hamlet's answer, the royal couple leave the room. Hamlet is left alone to expound his consuming rage and disgust at his mother for her incestuous marriage to Claudius, within a month of his father's death. Hamlet is gratefully interrupted by Horatio, along with Barnardo and Marcellus. They tell him that the ghost of his father has appeared on the castle wall, and Hamlet is at first shocked and disturbed. The three further describe the ghost to Hamlet -- his silvered beard, his pale and sorrowful countenance, his full body armour -- and, with excitement Hamlet agrees to meet them on the platform, between eleven and twelve.
Act I, Scene 3:

Laertes, who is about to leave for France, warns his sister, Ophelia, that Hamlet's love for her will undoubtedly not last. He will be the next king, and as such his wants must yield to the demands and interests of the citizens of Denmark. When it is no longer convenient or appropriate for Hamlet to love her, Laertes cautions, he will cast her aside. Ophelia defends Hamlet. Their father, Polonius, enters the room and agrees that Ophelia has been seeing far too much of Hamlet. He begins a rant on the state of young men's morality, insisting that passion causes them to make false vows. He forbids Ophelia from seeing Hamlet again, and she respectfully obeys.
Act I, Scene 4:

Shortly before midnight, Hamlet meets Horatio on the battlements of the castle. They wait together in the darkness. From below they hear the sound of the men in the castle laughing and dancing riotously; the King draining his imported wine. Hamlet explains to Horatio his dislike of such drunken behaviour. To Hamlet, drinking to excess has ruined the whole nation, which is known as a land full of drunken swines abroad. It takes away the country's accomplishments and renders men weak and corrupt. Then Horatio spots the Ghost approaching. Hamlet calls out to the Ghost and it beckons Hamlet to leave with it as though it had something to say to Hamlet alone. Despite the pleading of Horatio and Marcellus, who are afraid that the apparition might be an evil entity in disguise, Hamlet agrees to follow the Ghost and the two figures disappear into the dark.
Act I, Scene 5:

Hamlet will go no further with the Ghost and demands it speak at once. The Ghost tells Hamlet that the hour is approaching when it must return to the tormenting flames of purgatory and it reveals the hideous and demented truth to a tormented Hamlet, on the verge of hysteria throughout the conversation. The Ghost is indeed the spirit of Hamlet's father, and he has not died naturally, but has been murdered, poisoned by his own brother, Claudius. The ghost disappears, leaving Hamlet horrified and enraged. Hamlet is not yet sure how he will carry out his revenge, but he vows to think about nothing else until Claudius has suffered for his betrayal. Amidst the echoing cries of the Ghost rising from beneath the earth, Hamlet insists Horatio and Marcellus swear that they will not reveal to anyone the events of that night. Upon Hamlet's sword the two take their oath, assuring him that they will remain silent. Hamlet then calls to his father's spirit "rest, rest", and the scene and entire act close.


Act I Lecture Topics

1. Fortenbras has two reasons to invade Denmark: their government is in confusion over the death of their king and he wants to kill Danes to avenge his father.

2. The main propose of I.i is to establish mood and setting. No major character is met until scene ii. Clearly, in the background, is the war-like preparation for the invasion from Norway. Why do the guards, and later Horatio, fail to sound the alarm or report the strange appearance to the proper authorities? They are strongly loyal to Hamlet and will secure his opinion before taking any other action. After all, the ghost looks just like Hamlet's dead father. This also suggests that Claudius may not be very popular.

3. Horatio is a scholar, but not an extremely insightful one. He participates in very little action and is there to mirror Hamlet's thoughts, allowing Hamlet to speak in one of his three "voices": the one with sick humor and dark irony. Horatio, in acts I and V, demonstrates his knowledge of Roman history.

4. Contrast Laertes with Horatio. While Horatio is loyal to Hamlet and has left school to be present at his friend's father's funeral, Laertes has been getting into trouble in France and returns home to see Claudius's wedding.

5. Contrast Hamlet's "falling star" with the "rising star" of Polonius's family. Hamlet, the prince, may not be the actual heir to the throne, though Claudius says he is. Polonius, as chief advisor to the king, has new-found status and that reflects on his children. (also, this means there's a greater impact when they embarrass him through their actions)

6. The "rotten in the state of Denmark" concept arises from the appearance of a ghost. This is an Elizabethan belief that ghosts appear to bring a crime or injustice to light. Thus, the ghost is there because of some unresolved crime.

7. Hamlet's three voices are the sickly humorous voice he uses with Horatio, the word-manipulating and twisting voice that he uses in public (this is also the "insane" voice used in Acts II--III--IV), and the horrible and rage-filled voice that is heard when he is along and speaking in soliloquies.

8. The king and queen both advise Hamlet to put an end to his mourning for his father, Gertrude with kind words and Claudius with insults. They are embarrassed because he is such a public figure and they're trying to gain acceptance from the Danish people as well as negotiate a treaty with Norway. Claudius wants Hamlet to stay in Elsinore, and it is possible that it's a part of a plan to kill Hamlet.

9. Even before he meets the ghost, Hamlet talks of suicide. This is the soliloquy "voice" which vents rage and voices frustration. Here he predicts that his mother's marriage is evil and that no good can come from it. He "senses" some crime behind it all. Also, in the speech, Hamlet expresses how dishonorable and low a man like Claudius is in relation to the dead king, Claudius's own brother. This "lowness" of Claudius will often be repeated in later acts.

10. Laertes advises Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet, because Hamlet will take advantage of her innocence and then dump her. Laertes is genuinely concerned about his sister's safety, but he is just projecting his own values and attitudes on Hamlet, who may be honorable. Ophelia states that moral advice from him is totally worthless.

11. Polonius advises Laertes to behave once he returns to France. Actually, the advise is very appropriate and valid for a man like Laertes. This also proves that Polonius expects trouble with his son and knows that it will reflect badly on his position with the royal court.

12. Polonius advises Ophelia to avoid Hamlet, eventually telling her that she's not allowed to communicate with him. He is motivated by the belief that she will make him look like a fool, but there's more: it may indicate that Polonius knows that the king plans to put Hamlet at a distance or even kill him when the time is right.

13. Is the ghost "airs from heaven" or a "blast from hell"? This concerns both Hamlet and his trio of friends who fear for his safety. However, Hamlet must speak to the ghost; and his behavior, threatening to kill his friends, is somewhat out of character because it's so impulsive. When he calls it an honest ghost after talking to it, it doesn't reflect the uncertainty that will cause him to "test" the ghost in Acts II and III.

14. As the act closes, Hamlet's couplet in the last three lines indicate his status: the end-purpose of his life has been to perform an act of revenge and then die. His bitterness is very obvious and he even curses the fact that he was born. He considers himself, from this point on, as a dead man.


Act II Plot Summary

Act II, Scene I:

Act II opens in a room in Polonius's house, two months after Hamlet has seen his father's ghost. Polonius is making arrangements to send his servant, Reynaldo, to Paris to spy on Laertes. Polonius justifies his actions by arguing that he is only concerned for the well-being of his son, so far away from home. The frightened Ophelia rushes into the room to tell her father that Hamlet came to see her while she was sewing, and that it had been a terrifying experience. Polonius at once assumes that the loss of Ophelia's affections has driven Hamlet insane. He expresses regret that he ever asked his daughter to behave so heartlessly toward the love-sick prince, and he decides the King must know that Hamlet has gone mad.
Act II, Scene 2:

King Claudius has noticed Hamlet's strange behavior even before old Polonius can tell his tale. Claudius has summoned two of Hamlet's classmates at Wittenberg -- Guildenstern and Rosencrantz -- hoping that they will be able to uncover what has sparked such a transformation in Hamlet. The two seek out the Prince and Polonius is granted license to speak before the King and Queen. He begins a tiresome explanation of his theories about the nature of Hamlet's madness, and produces a love letter that Hamlet has sent to Ophelia. The Queen believes Polonius may be right, but she knows that her hasty marriage and the death of Hamlet's father have also been responsible for his dramatic change in behavior. In the midst of the discussion, the King receives good news from his messengers, Voltimand and Cornelius, back from Norway. They inform him that the King of Norway has decided to redirect his attack toward Poland, if the Norwegian army is granted safe passage through Denmark. Happy with the news, the King turns again to Polonius, and, after more tedious lecturing by the old man, the King agrees to eavesdrop on Hamlet when he next visits Ophelia. Polonius sees Hamlet approaching and he advises the King and Queen to leave him alone with the Prince. Hamlet does speak with Polonius, but his answers are nonsensical and rude; due not only to his desire to continue his act as a madman, but also to his utter lack of regard for Polonius, whom he sees as a "great fool". After a few moments, Polonius gives up, convinced that Hamlet's babbling is a result of his insanity. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter the room and Hamlet greets them with excitement. Hamlet makes the two admit that they are spies of the King and then gives them an answer to the burning question: the trouble is, simply put, melancholia. Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that the players will be there soon, and when they do arrive, Hamlet greets them and asks the First Player to recite a scene from a story about the Trojan War--about a son avenging his dead father. Hamlet is so moved that he asks the First Player to stop speaking and also to perform a play in front of the court that evening. The play will be The Murder of Gonzago, and Hamlet will intermittently add dialogue that he himself will write. Polonius leads Rozencrantz and Guildenstern away, and Hamlet is left alone, safe to reveal his secret anguish. Hamlet still cannot decide what is true or untrue; right or wrong. Is the Ghost an evil spirit? Is it tempting the Prince to orchestrate his own demise? Hamlet must be sure of his uncle's guilt before seeking revenge. His plan is to reenact the murder of his father during the production of The Murder of Gonzago. If Claudius turns pale, Hamlet will have his proof.


Act II Lecture Topics

1. Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes because he is afraid that Laertes will dishonor him (line 23) or cause a scandal (line 31). Polonius believes that Laertes will gamble, get into fights, and associate with paid women; and this belief leads to an assumption that Laertes has done these things before. When Polonius tells Reynaldo to "Let him ply his music," (line 80), it indicates that Polonius wants Reynaldo to give Laertes the chance to get into trouble, testing if the new position and recent advice have had an effect. Ironically, this situation parallels the way that the king and queen are treating Hamlet.

2. When this act begins, Hamlet has been pretending to be insane for over a month, so his meeting with Ophelia is no great shock. When Hamlet appears in Ophelia's chambers (a violation of privacy much like walking into someone's bedroom), he is loosely dressed and looking haggard. His expression is one of confusion and perplexity. He says nothing, in dumb show fashion, but acts very upset and delivers a letter to her. This is important to Polonius because he told her that she's not allowed to communicate with him. Also, Polonius believes that Hamlet's mental problems are the result of his command to Ophelia and reports his belief to the king and queen.

3. The king tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to keep an eye on Hamlet, but not affect his behavior, even if it means that Hamlet's causing trouble for the court. This is a direct parallel to the instructions that Polonius gives to Reynaldo.

4. The update from Norway is as follows: A) the king of Norway, learning that Fortinbras planned an invasion of Denmark, arrested his nephew B) once under arrest, Fortinbras made a deal with his uncle to invade Poland instead; and if he would he would get many more men and much more money to support his army, so Fortinbras agrees C) the new treaty terms involve a request for the Norway's army to pass through Denmark on its way to Poland. The whole plan seems questionable. The kings of Denmark and Norway are coming to terms very quickly and it isn't likely that any king would allow a foreign army to pass through his territory if they had been at war recently.

5. Polonius tends to play the "fool" most of the time, with Hamlet using suggestive language that goes over his head. Also, in lines 92--101, Polonius rambles on and then says "brevity is the soul of wit," meaning that he is lacking wit. The queen doesn't believe that Hamlet's madness has be caused by Ophelia. More insults to Polonius follow in the "questioning" scene where Hamlet asks him if he's a fishmonger, attacking his honesty.

6. The letter that Polonius delivers professes his love in no questionable terms; however, Hamlet's true feelings may or may not be expressed here. As far as we know, the madness had been planned before Ophelia's rejection, so logic suggests that Hamlet is using their relationship to confuse his enemies. Also, it would seem that he is driving Ophelia away because he doesn't want to see her hurt.

7. The first good clue that Ophelia is pregnant is in lines 203-204, dealing with two meanings of "conception." More will follow.

8. When Polonius is "questioning" Hamlet, Polonius says "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't," meaning that what Hamlet says is not just the ravings of a mad man, but can be interpreted to make much sense. Later, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well as Claudius will detect the same thing.

9. When Hamlet meets first with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he acts depressed and disappointed with Denmark and all that surrounds him. Calling Denmark a prison, he claims he has lost his mirth. Also, he becomes obsessed with the issue of whether they were sent for by the king and queen; and eventually they say they were.

10. When the players arrive, Hamlet's mood abruptly swings upward, but he still continues to mock Polonius--the "ears" of the king.

11. Asking the chief player to recite lines from the Aeneid, Hamlet has selected a scene that shows the way he would have wanted his mother to behave. As Pyrrhus (Hamlet) cuts Priam (Claudius) to pieces to avenge his father's death, Hecuba (Gertrude) shrieks in horror and tears. Polonius detects that the player is actually crying due to the sorrow of the scene, and this will be the theme of Hamlet's act--closing soliloquy.

12. Clearly with something more than a play on his mind, Hamlet asks the player if he can perform the "Murder of Gonzago" with some line changes made by Hamlet. The player says he will prepare for the performance. Of course, Hamlet intends to recreate the murder of his father, right down to the poison in his ear. By watching the king during the performance, Hamlet will see if the king shows signs of guilt.

13. Hamlet's closing soliloquy for act II, as always, is full of rage and frustration. When he sees the player cry for a fictional character, it makes him remember that the madness "game" has put an end to his mourning for his real father. His anger is directed at himself because he has a thousand reasons to kill the king and yet he hesitates. Here is a Shakespeare error: in the soliloquy, it suddenly dawns on Hamlet that a criminal seeing a play about his particular crime might confess, so "The play's the thing..." However, Hamlet must have thought this earlier because of his request for the "Murder of Gonzago" with some line changes.


Act III Plot Summary

Act III, Scene I:

Rozencrantz and Guildenstern report to the King that, while Hamlet seems distracted and sad, they do not have a concrete reason for his strange behavior. The King is now forced to rely upon Ophelia for information about his nephew. Polonius arranges for Ophelia to be in a place where she will surely meet Hamlet, and then he and the King hide in wait for the Prince to arrive. Hamlet enters talking to himself, in a state of desperation, contemplating suicide. Ophelia greets him, holding some trinkets he has given her in happier times. Hamlet, enraged at all women because of his mother's betrayal, can show Ophelia not a drop of affection. He lashes out at the poor girl, rudely suggesting that she quickly get to a nunnery. Hamlet charges from the room and Ophelia is left to believe that Hamlet has gone utterly mad. But the hiding King may know better than to blame Hamlet's behavior on unrequited love. Claudius decides to send Hamlet away to England, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Polonius, who continues to meddle in the whole affair, suggests that the Queen will surely be able to discover what troubles her son, and that she should meet in private with Hamlet after the play, with himself eavesdropping behind the chamber-curtains. The King agrees.
Act III, Scene 2:

Hamlet coaches three of the Players and stresses the importance of the upcoming performance. They must not overact or improvise, for that will ruin the purpose of the play. Hamlet then confesses his plan to Horatio and asks him to watch the King's face during the poisoning scene. The King, Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rozencrantz and Guildenstern enter and take their seats. Hamlet, nervous and excited, lies down at Ophelia's feet. She tries to make conversation, but again, his answers are confusing and hostile. The Murder of Gonzago begins, and the King is visibly shaken. The King rises and calls for lights and the performance comes to an abrupt end. Hamlet and Horatio are left alone to discuss what has happened. They agree that the King has indeed behaved as a guilty man would, and Hamlet is overjoyed. When Rosencrantz comes in to tell Hamlet that the Queen wishes to see him, Hamlet revels in the idea of finally confronting her.
Act III, Scene 3:

Polonius tells the King that Hamlet plans to visit his mother. The King is now aware that Hamlet knows his secret and that he is no longer safe in his own castle. He soliloquises on the crimes that he has committed, and falls to his knees to pray for forgiveness. But, he knows the prayer will remain unanswered, for he still enjoys the fruits of his treachery. Hamlet, on his way to his mother's chamber, sees the King kneeling in prayer; and his first thought is how simple a task it would be to plunge a sword into his uncle's back. But that will not do, for the King would be murdered in a state of repentance and would surely go to heaven. This would be a benefit and not revenge. He wants to kill Claudius in the same state of sin as his father was in when Claudius poisoned him -- that is, not "full of bread" -- not penitent and fasting. Hamlet wants the King to die when he is drunk or enraged or in his incestuous bed with the Queen. So the Prince goes, and the King is left to finish his empty prayer.
Act III, Scene 4:

Polonius is already in the Queen's chamber, unable to resist telling her exactly what she should say to the Prince. As he is speaking, they hear Hamlet down the hall. Polonius hides behind the wall hanging, intending to report every word that is said to the King. The Queen, terrified that Hamlet has come to murder her, cries out for help; and foolish Polonius echoes her cry from behind the curtain. Hamlet, thinking the King has followed him into the room, thrusts his sword into the drapery and pierces Polonius. When Hamlet realizes he has killed the wrong man, he stops to briefly address the situation, but shows no deep regret for taking Polonius's life. Hamlet holds Polonius himself directly accountable. After this brief acknowledgement of Polonius's death, Hamlet attacks his mother with a barrage of insults and accuses her of being a hypocrite and a harlot. She is bewildered, and begs Hamlet to have mercy; but he is relentless. The Ghost, who has before expressed his concern for Gertrude, appears before Hamlet and reminds him to take pity on the Queen. Hamlet, with now a calm and civil tone, urges Gertrude to confess her sins and refrain from further intimacy with the King. He bids her good night and looks again upon the body of Polonius. Hamlet is aware of the severity of his deed. Hamlet leaves, dragging Polonius' body behind him.


Act III Lecture Topics

1. This plan to observe Hamlet and Ophelia while hiding, the king calls this "lawful espials" meaning that it's not an invasion of privacy if it concerns the best interest of younger family members. Consider the "lawful" element when Hamlet unintentionally kills Polonius.

2. In lines 50--56 of scene one, Polonius talks about how Ophelia should "present" herself to Hamlet, saying than actions that seem noble can "sugar" over the devil's motivations. This speech serves two functions: it foreshadows Hamlet's "face painting" insult where he tells Ophelia that all women are deceivers and it will register the first signs of guilt in Claudius because it describes so well what Claudius has been doing.

3. The "To be or not to be..." speech that precedes Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia, returns to the concept of suicide, but with a twist. It's not about living or dying; instead, it's about dying now by his own hand or dying later by another's hand. Remember, he considers himself a dead man. This speech is the first of many Hamlet speeches dealing with where we go after death. Later in the play, it becomes an obsession with him.

4. In his meeting with Ophelia, Hamlet's mood swing is very severe; but, whether it's to sell the idea that he's insane or it's genuine emotional hurt because of Ophelia's betrayal, we really don't know. After she returns his gifts from the past, he asks her if she's honest. This, of course, can have multiple meanings. The mood swing develops when she lies about her father being at home (he probably knows he's being spied upon). At this point he gets angry and insulting (some films show him as violent). Numerous times, Hamlet tells Ophelia to go to a nunnery. There are three theories for this: unmarried mothers often went to convents to have their babies secretly, Hamlet feels she should become a nun because the sinful world was not meant for her, and a convent is a place of sanctuary or safety where the innocent can be protected by church law.

5. So, Ophelia, Polonius, and Claudius are now fully convinced that Hamlet's insane. Scene one closes with the king's desire to get Hamlet away from Denmark, by sending him on official business to England to collect a payment. The closing line "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go" says a great deal. Claudius feels that, at any cost, Hamlet's behavior must be controlled.

6. Though there's little of importance to the plot when Hamlet tells the players how they should perform, this section is highly interesting because Hamlet is speaking with Shakespeare's voice. For an author who usually let his characters be who they would be, Hamlet is the one exception, and it's most apparent in this very scene.

7. Before the play begins, Hamlet asks for Horatio's help in watching the king. They will see how he behaves when his crime has been reenacted (remember, he believes no one even suspects murder). Hamlet will watch but it will be difficult because many will be watching him. Ironically, in the audience, Hamlet's "performance" draws more attention than the actors on stage.

8. As the audience arrives for the play, Hamlet sits near Ophelia which he knows will make everyone uncomfortable. In lines 114-32, Hamlet makes more allusions to the possibility of Ophelia being "with child." Also, Hamlet makes a bitter and ironic joke about his father's name being completely forgotten in such a short time.

9. The play (The Murder of Gonzago or The Mousetrap) involves two performances: the first is a "dumb" show during which the actors briefly pantomime the true plot of the play, and the second is the actual full-length play. The king runs out calling for "light" after the second play has shown his crime against his brother. This situation leads to three interpretations. First, "light" could also represent truth, meaning that he does want to confess; but it could also mean that he is plagued to know how any one else discovered the crime. Second, Hamlet has now discovered that the king actually did murder his father, so he has every right to revenge; however, revenge now will be much harder because the king knows that Hamlet suspects him of the crime. Third, why does the king run out during the second play when the dumb show performed the same plot as the full-length play? There are some explanations, but most are weak.

10. During the play, Hamlet asks his mother how she likes it and Gertrude responds that "The lady doth protest too much," not knowing that the queen in the play was meant to represent her. The character in the play swears that she'll never marry another man if her husband dies; but, all--too--quickly she attaches herself to her husband's murderer. Is Gertrude completely innocent of her husband's murder?

11. Hamlet's joy over his discovery of truth is quickly converted to rage when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell him that he is supposed to meet his mother in her chambers and then attempt to manipulate Hamlet into revealing his inner thoughts. By saying that they can't "play upon" him, Hamlet is doing the same thing he has just done with the king: he's revealing that he knows more than they suspected.

12. After Claudius goes to his chambers, he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they will accompany Hamlet to England and that he will write the "commission." There is no proof that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know the orders are for Hamlet's death upon arrival in England. The king then tries to pray, but quickly learns that his prayers are "bootless" because God can never forgive him unless he gives up the crown and the queen. Even if he wanted to give them up, he feels that doing so would be as much as a confession to the murder of his brother. Thus, he feels that his soul in forever damned. It is difficult to say if guilt or fear motivate Claudius more, though there is surely a mixture of the two, guilt having already been established.

13. While the king is attempting to pray, Hamlet has the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius; and the situation is so private that Hamlet might even avoid the blame for killing his uncle. This leads to two of the weakest plot elements in the play. One, Hamlet won't kill the king while he's praying because it will send his soul to heaven, and he wants his uncle's soul in hell forever. But, if Hamlet is so smart, he should be able to see what Claudius sees, that there is no way that God can ever forgive him. Two, Hamlet says he'll kill the king when he's involved in "sin"; but when Hamlet kills Polonius, thinking that he's the king, there is no "sinful" activity going on, unless it be spying on his step-son, which isn't much of a crime.

14. Of course, Hamlet kills Polonius thinking it's really Claudius and then feels grief, though he calls the dead man "wretched, rash, intruding fool." He intends to speak daggers to his mother in order to make her see that she's married to a murderer. As before, he contrasts the greatness of his father to the inferior quality of Claudius. After he tells her that she's too old to fall in love, he sees the ghost, for the second and last time. The ghost demands action, and Hamlet's behavior her convinces his mother that his insanity is beyond help. Through the rest of the play, Gertrude will do what Hamlet asks her to do, but her motivation can be given in two ways: she may obey him for fear that he will snap again and kill someone else in a fit of rage, or she may actually accept the idea that Claudius killed her first husband so she is putting a careful distance between Claudius and herself.


Act IV Plot Summary

Act IV, Scene I:

The Queen informs the King that Hamlet has killed Polonius in a fit of madness, and he orders Rozencrantz and Guildenstern to find the body. Claudius, happy he now has a reason to send Hamlet away, tells Gertrude that they will report Hamlet's crime to his council.
Act IV, Scene 2:

Scene II opens in another room in the castle, where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet alone. They confront him, asking what he had done with the dead body. Hamlet, scornfully contemptuous of the two courtiers, calls Rosencrantz a "sponge," and is outraged that they dare demand an answer from him. They persist and order him to accompany them back to the King. The courtiers believe him to be incoherent. Hamlet agrees to see the King and runs off stage. He yells out to begin a game of hide-and-seek.
Act IV, Scene 3:

In a meeting room in the castle, Claudius sits with his lords and reports to them that Hamlet has killed his lord chamberlain. He tells them that the Prince must be sent to England, but the public, who love Hamlet, must not know the true reason why he is leaving. Rosencrantz brings the guarded Hamlet before the King. Hamlet finally tells Claudius that the body is on the stairs that lead into the lobby. The King informs Hamlet that he must leave for England, for his own safety. Hamlet slyly replies that he knows the King's real purpose for sending him away, but he nonetheless gladly obliges and bids farewell to his mother. When Hamlet exits the room, the King demands that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern follow the Prince closely, and they rush off. Claudius is now alone to reveal his sinister plan to have Hamlet assassinated when he lands on British soil.
Act IV, Scene 4:

On his way to England, Hamlet meets a captain in the army led by Fortinbras, the Prince of Norway. Hamlet asks the Captain where they are going and who commands the troops, and the Captain tells him that Fortinbras is leading his men to capture a little, worthless patch of ground. Hamlet is impressed by the idea of so many soldiers preparing to die for an inconsequential piece of land, and he admires their resolve. He longs to be more like Fortinbras and his men -- they do not lament and waste time pondering. When honour is at stake, they act. Hamlet vows that, if he must still think at all, he will think only bloody thoughts.
Act IV, Scene 5:

Scene V opens back at the castle in Elsinore, where Hamlet has been gone a few days. The Queen, Horatio, and a gentleman are discussing poor, tormented Ophelia, who has shattered under the strain of her father's death and Hamlet's cruelty and has gone completely insane. Ophelia enters the room and begins to sing a song about a dead lover and another about Saint Valentine's day. The King has arrived and speaks gently to Ophelia. She leaves, mumbling good night to the court, and the King asks Horatio to follow her. A messenger enters and reports to Claudius that he save himself, for Laertes has heard of Polonius's death and holds the King responsible. He has raised a rebellion, and his men are crying make Laertes king. Suddenly, the doors burst open and Laertes rushes into the castle. He holds his Danish rebels at bay and speaks to Claudius alone. But Claudius knows how to control the young and impetuous Laertes and soon directs Laertes's rage towards Hamlet. From outside the meeting room, Laertes hears footsteps. It his his sister, Ophelia, and he greets her with a outpouring of grief, vowing revenge for her madness. Ophelia replies with a nonsensical song and gives her brother some violets. Laertes is overcome with sorrow. The King offers his condolences once more and then suggests to Laertes that he focus on sweet revenge. They move to another room to discuss a course of action, and the scene comes to a close.
Act IV, Scene 6:

A sailor brings Horatio a letter from Hamlet. He writes of his capture by pirates on his way to England. These "thieves of mercy" have released the Prince, on the condition that he will repay them when he returns to Denmark. Hamlet finishes the letter by asking Horatio to come to him at once and to ensure that the King receive letters intended only for him. Hamlet adds that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have continued their course for England. Horatio grants the sailor permission to take the letters to the King, emploring him to return swiftly, so that they can meet with Hamlet at once.
Act IV, Scene 7:

The King and Laertes meet to discuss Hamlet. The King tells Laertes that he cannot harm the Prince directly, out of respect and concern for his beautiful Queen, who loves Hamlet above all else. Moreover, Claudius cannot enrage the people of Denmark, who adore the Prince and would surely rise up in protest. So the King proposes that they arrange a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet, and that Hamlet, thinking it is for sport, will use a blunt sword, while Laertes will use his own military sword. To ensure Hamlet's death, Laertes will anoint the tip with poison. The King then suggests that a goblet full of poisoned wine be set out for Hamlet to drink in case he becomes thirsty during the match. Suddenly, they hear noise outside the door. The Queen enters with the news that Ophelia has fallen off a willow tree branch and drowned. Laertes tries to fight his emotion, but storms out of the room. The King, worried that Laertes will act in haste and ruin the plan, rushes to follow him.


Act IV Lecture Topics

1. The queen serves as a "witness" twice in the play, in IV.i when she reports on Polonius's murder and later when she reports Ophelia's drowning. On Hamlet, Gertrude says that he's "Mad as the wind and sea when both contend/ Which is the mightier." Still, there is no proof that she completely believes this. Now, publicly, Claudius says that the victim might have been himself. This gives the king a stronger reason to send Hamlet to England (to his death).

2. The main focus of scene i is to accomplish two related aspects. After this, the center of attention becomes the obsession with finding Polonius's body; the reason for this appears to be that the king is being political by attempting to "cover-up" the incident because his popularity with the people is already weak. From hiding Hamlet's madness to keeping Polonius's body from public view, Claudius's plans for secrecy will backfire and explode at the start of Act V when he tries to bury Ophelia "quietly."

3. In scene ii, there is the usual playfulness with that we have come to expect from Hamlet when dealing with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but Hamlet is a little more suggestive of Denmark's politics when he calls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Claudius's sponges. Later, Hamlet cryptically states, even more politically, that the people don't support the king and that the king is a "thing" or an empty title. This will be repeated often in this act. In the very next scene, Claudius states that Hamlet is loved by the multitudes, and this may imply that Claudius is not loved by them. Claudius has said that the people of Denmark would never support putting Hamlet in prison, regardless of the severity of his crime.

4. In scene iii, Hamlet has returned to his madness act, possibly for the same reason that Gertrude has reported it to the king. Still, Hamlet takes the opportunity to employ some choice insults for Claudius. In his riddle about a beggar, worm, fish, and king, Hamlet reflects on the food chain in life, but says more. A king, when all is said and done, is going to be worm food eventually, as are we all. Thus, Claudius's time of "greatness" is terminal. Also, Hamlet will use creative word play in lines 34-39 to tell Claudius to "go to hell" and then that he will be able to "nose" or smell Polonius's body under the stairs in a month. The crudeness continues when Hamlet says of Polonius, "He will stay till you come." Hamlet is having risk-free fun because he knows that there is no relationship between himself and the king which remains to be damaged.

5. While it's completely clear that the king intends to have Hamlet killed upon his arrival in England, there is no proof that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are aware of the letter's contents. Hamlet, however, has little doubt that his "friends" are intentionally leading him to his death.

6. The captain of Norway's army seems to take a different view from Hamlet concerning the impending war in Poland. The captain feels that the whole enterprise is a pointless effort, certainly not worth the lives it will cost. Hamlet remains non- judgmental as he listens and later tells the captain that the situation is made possible due to a surplus of both men and wealth, otherwise the goals would be more reasonable. (note: he uses a voice with a stranger that isn't one of the 3 voices identified) In his following soliloquy, he will return to his voice of bitter and raging irony.

7. "How all occasions do inform against me..." is the way Hamlet begins, meaning that he is inactive while all others around him are "doing." He claims that human reason elevates man above all other creatures, and there must be something wrong with him for allowing reason to stay his hand continually. He calls it one part wisdom and three parts coward. Next, he claims that right before his eyes, a prince is leading thousands to their deaths, just for the honor and not the profit. He says that is true greatness--to fight for something worthless when it's a matter of honor. This, of course, connects with killing Claudius, which surely will bring Hamlet no profit. He closes scene iv with "My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"

8. In scene v, the attention is instantly focused on Ophelia, now that Hamlet has departed. Her insanity, in contrast to Hamlet's, is real. Her songs, however, tend to indicate that she has more trouble than a dead father and a lost lover. The two songs in lines 50--68 are the most suggestive. They imply that she and Hamlet have been very close, to the point of producing a child. If this is so, then the combination of a fatherless infant, loss of husband, and loss of parent may easily be seen as the reasons for her insanity.

9. Claudius's sorrow for Ophelia's insanity is sympathetic with the queen's. He says that sorrows come in "battalions," and still he doesn't know that more are yet to come. Also, for the king's concern, look at lines 83--84 which indicate concern over how the people will react. Again, because Hamlet is away, attention must be focused in another area--this time on Laertes.

10. A messenger reports a mob or riot led by Laertes. By their chant to make Laertes king, they indicate that Claudius is equally unpopular with the lower class (waterfront people) as he is with the middle class. When Laertes confronts Claudius, Laretes's speech is filled with a multitude of threats, clearly in contrast to Hamlet who masks his meaning and intentions. Laertes says "I dare damnation" in order to get revenge, and he really means it. The king may or may not be able to calm Laertes for the moment, but the arrival of the mad Ophelia divert's Laretes's attention. To end this scene, Laertes says that Claudius must answer for the dishonorable (politically quiet) treatment of his father's death. This will parallel his rage over Ophelia's burial in act V.

11. Scene vi is very brief and is used to refocus on Hamlet, even though he's away, before returning to the disrupted lives of Laertes and Ophelia. Hamlet's letter to Horatio is vague in detail because there's no guarantee that it won't fall into he wrong hands. Hamlet tells Horatio about the pirate attack, his capture, and the continuation of their ship for England. He also indicates that there is much more to tell. There seems to be enough of a possibility that the pirate attack may have been planned by Hamlet because it accomplishes exactly what Hamlet most desired at this point: he gets to return to Denmark with an excuse and he gets rid of the two spies who have continually followed him.

12. Scene vii returns to Laertes and Ophelia. As Claudius and Laertes discuss the reasons behind the quiet burial of Polonius and the lack of punishment for Hamlet because of it, they receive the letter from Hamlet saying that he returns tomorrow. Since Hamlet will be returning "alone," Laertes and Claudius begin their discussions of a murder plot for Hamlet. The king tells of a Frenchman who will back Laertes in a fencing contest against Hamlet. With the addition of a double dose of poison, they will be rid of Hamlet. Claudius also solves another problem with this plan: if Laertes kills Hamlet, the mob will no longer follow him and his anger at the king will be diminished and less dangerous. Restating his willingness to lose his soul, Laertes says he's willing to cut Hamlet's throat in a church.

13. Unlike Gertrude's report of Polonius's death which we had already seen, the report of Ophelia's death is long and packed with enough detail so we can make some judgments. The question of accidental death or suicide will remain open and complicate the burial details for the beginning of act V.


Act V Plot Summary

Act V, Scene I:

Ophelia is to be buried in the churchyard and the two grave-diggers preparing her grave find it unusual that someone who has committed suicide be buried on sacred ground. They agree that Ophelia is receiving a Christian burial because she is a gentlewoman, belonging to "great folk." They banter back and forth, trying to alleviate the boredom of digging. Horatio and Hamlet come upon the scene just as the second grave-digger is leaving to fetch some liquor from a nearby tavern. Hamlet is disturbed that the first grave-digger, who has begun to sing a love song, can be so happy on such a solemn occasion. Horatio replies that habit has made the grave-digger indifferent to the gravity of his work. The grave-digger produces a skull that belonged to the King's jester and Hamlet takes the skull, sparking his thoughts on death and its power to ravage even the most wealthy and powerful of people. A funeral procession approaches, and Hamlet sees the King and Queen and Laertes and asks who has died. Laertes, hysterical with grief, leaps into the grave. When Hamlet realizes who is being buried, grief overcomes him too. He leaps into the grave with Laertes, and they begin to grapple. The King's attendants pull them out of the grave. Hamlet is restrained and leaves the funeral, sorrowful and bewildered at Laertes's behavior and hostility towards him. Hamlet did not intend to murder Polonius; it was an accident brought on by the old man himself. And Hamlet was enroute to England when Ophelia fell ill, so he really does not understand Laertes's rage. The King asks Horatio to go with Hamlet, and reminds Laertes of their plan for revenge.
Act V, Scene 2:

Back at the castle, Hamlet expresses regret for his outlandish behavior at the grave site. He converses with Horatio, telling him that he intercepted the letter Claudius sent to England and replaced his own name on the death warrant with the names of the courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet presumes that they met their end in England, but their deaths are not on his conscience, for they were destroyed by their own persistent meddling. Horatio is shocked by Hamlet's cynical apathy. Hamlet reminds Horatio of the horrible events that have transpired and asks him if it is not his right to feel anger and thirst for vengeance. The courtier Orsic enters and welcomes Hamlet back to Denmark. Orsic tells Hamlet that the King requests him to meet Laertes in a fencing match. The King has placed his bets on Hamlet and has wagered a fine collection of goods: Barbary horses, French rapiers and poniards, and gun carriages. Hamlet accepts the challenge, believing that it is indeed only a friendly match. He does expresses a hint of doubt, but he dismisses it, telling Horatio that he is prepared to die if fate commands it so. The court assembles to watch the match, and the Queen takes her place at the elaborately decorated head table. The King puts Laertes's hand into Hamlet's to start the duel. Hamlet begs Laertes's pardon, denying that he ever meant to hurt anyone. Laertes pretends to accept Hamlet's apology. They fight, and Hamlet easily wins the first round of combat. The King pours wine to toast Hamlet's success and tries to persuade Hamlet to stop and take a drink of the poisoned brew. The Prince does not want to interrupt his winning streak and refuses the wine, placing the goblet on the table beside the Queen. Gertrude is thirsty and, despite the King's plea, drinks from the cup. The fight intensifies and Laertes wounds Hamlet. But in the ensuing scuffle, they exchange rapiers, and Hamlet pierces Laertes with the poisoned sword. In a whirlwind of confusion, the Queen falls and dies after telling Hamlet that she has been poisoned. Laertes, knowing he will be dead in moments, confesses to Hamlet that he has poisoned his sword and that Hamlet will too be dead in less than a half hour. Laertes admits to plotting against Hamlet and casts blame upon the King. Hamlet stabs Claudius with Laertes's sword and forces him to drink the wine that has killed Gertrude. Laertes, with his dying breath, asks Hamlet to exchange forgiveness with him and absolves him of Polonius's murder. Horatio tries to drink the poisoned wine, but Hamlet pleads with him to stay alive and tell the world his story. Although he lay dying, Hamlet remembers his people will be left without a king and so he chooses Fortinbras, the valiant Prince of Norway, to rule Denmark. Hamlet is finished. Fortinbras orders four captains to carry Hamlet away and give him a soldier's burial, and he salutes Hamlet's kingly virtues as the play comes to a close.


Act V Lecture Topics

1. In scene i, the elements of death abound. It gets so graphic, that a man is actually tossing human bones out of the ground to make room for more. This is not to be considered strange, because consecrated ground often had to be "recycled" and the decomposition process was much more rapid than in modern times. Hamlet, who has obsessed over the "dreams" of death so many times before, now looks at the physical aspects. Much like a student working on a research project, he questions a grave digger on the process of decomposition.

2. The most logical explanation for Hamlet's presence in the graveyard is that he seeks a quiet and secret place to discuss matters with Horatio before he returns to Elsinore. While Hamlet wants to be unobserved, Claudius has even more reason to conceal the actions taking place. His intention to bury Ophelia" secretly" in consecrated ground totally backfires. Because he wishes to keep this "questionable" deed quiet, few people know; so Horatio is unable to tell Hamlet about her funeral and Hamlet's unplanned behavior at the grave eventually erupts into a scandal that would be news to all of Denmark in a short time.

3. As a part of the comic relief for the bloody scenes to follow, the grave digger and clown provide multiple elements of humor that will serve as the first of three injections of humor in the act. The other two will arrive at the middle and end of the scene, with Osric and the ambassadors from England. Here, though, the two comics are talking about legal issues of state and sound like lawyers with questionable vocabulary. While the riddle really isn't funny, the surrounding dialogue is. They see the truth: Ophelia is being buried in consecrated ground only because she belonged to an important family. Otherwise it would be considered a crime against the church. The second humorous aspect is when the grave digger talks about Hamlet to the stranger who actually is Hamlet. He intentionally mocks Hamlet's questions, sounding like Hamlet himself.

4. In the reflection on Yorick's skull, Hamlet does more than reflect on our eventual fate in death. The skull reminds him of a former "loved" one who has been taken from him forever, another lost link from the happy past. This clearly foreshadows his reaction on the discovery of Ophelia's death. In addition to the loss of a loved one, Hamlet also feels the crumbling of his past in conjunction with guilt at having driven Ophelia to her death. Unlike Laertes, Hamlet feels sorrow over their grave-side fight which quickly follows.

5. When abusing the priest conducting the funeral, Laertes is not interested in the debate over whether Ophelia committed suicide. He is in rage and personally insulted that his father and sister were given unimpressive funerals. Laertes's role in the grave-side fight is easy to explain, but Hamlet's behavior is a little unexpected. Fighting inside the grave is something that Hamlet later regrets and the only valid explanation is that as with the situation when he killed Polonius--Hamlet was surprised and acted before he thought. Again, this is not Hamlet's general mode of behavior.

6. Before the arrival of Osric, the opening of scene ii simply clarifies some ambiguous information concerning Hamlet's sea journey. Hamlet actually has the letter, written by Claudius, that orders Hamlet's death. We must assume that Osric is taking on Polonius's old job since he receives a similar treatment to what Polonius usually received. This is the second element of humor in the act. While the terms of the contest aren't very important (Laertes must score 8 of the 12 hits to win the event), Hamlet's attitude is interesting. Horatio senses a trap, but Hamlet has no concern over it. If Claudius will make another attempt to kill Hamlet, so be it, and let fate decide the game.

7. As the fencing match is about to begin, Hamlet extends his regrets to Laertes for what has happened. Laertes says he accepts in nature (emotionally) but not honor (publicly). This ironically proves true when Laertes shows his sorrow for killing Hamlet, though it may have something to do with Laertes's fear of meeting his God.

8. As with many of Claudius's plans, the plot to poison Hamlet backfires when the truth is revealed and Claudius also dies. Claudius's plan is a rather treacherous one: if successful, he will claim that Laertes is responsible for both poisons and be rid of his chief opposition.

9. Horatio wants to join Hamlet in death, but he must live on to make the story public. Horatio is the only one who knows all of the events from Hamlet's point of view and Horatio knows of the letter that ordered Hamlet's death. The arrival of Fortinbras and his assumption of the role of king doesn't seem to be well-supported in the plot developments. There is no clear reason for this to happen. Just because he has Hamlet's "voice," doesn't mean he will be accepted by the people.

10. Hamlet's final words, "the rest is silence," like so many other Hamlet lines, have multiple meanings. It may mean that he has found the answer to be that death is nothing more than silence or that the rest means his story has come to its conclusion and there's nothing left. The final elements of humor, quite ironic, is the arrival of the English ambassadors who have come to collect their reward for killing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, not knowing that the deed wasn't really wanted and the employers are now dead.