Hamlet by William Shakespeare

in context 1st performed July 1602; mirrors real story of Danish prince; transforms revenge story into play whose problems resonate with fundamental concerns of Renaissance; demonstrates how difficult it is to know people and to understand motivations, feelings, mental states
Act I The ghost of King Hamlet demands that his son Hamlet kill Claudius, the current king and Hamlet’s uncle. *watchmen & Horatio first to see ghost, they tell Hamlet*Hamlet reluctantly agrees to stay in Denmark*Polonius forbids Ophelia to see Hamlet & Laertes leaves for France
Act II Hamlet pretends to be crazy, hesitates to kill Claudius, and increasingly feels alienated from everyone else.*Ophelia tells Polonius that Hamlet has accosted her, acting crazy*Hamlet feels betrayed by school friends and worries Gertrude and Claudius with crazy behavior
Act III Reeling from Claudius’s violent reaction to a play, Hamlet mistakenly kills Polonius.*Hamlet contemplates suicide and spurns Ophelia when he suspects that she has betrayed him*Hamlet almost kills Claudius but because Claudius is praying hesitates*Hamlet kills Polonius behind the curtain
Act IV Claudius sends Hamlet to England, but Hamlet manages to return, resolved to kill Claudius.*On way to England, Hamlet encounters Fortinbras of Norway, resolves to stop wallowing and start acting*Ophelia goes mad and drowns, Laertes demands revenge and plots with Claudius
Act V Denmark is purged of corruption as Claudius’s treachery is exposed and everybody dies.*Hamlet meets gravedigger, realizes all men turn to dust*Gertrude drinks poison wine, Laertes stabs Hamlet, Hamlet stabs Laertes and Claudius*Hamlet tells Horatio to live to tell story, Fortinbras to become king
Characters in Hamlet Bernardo and MarcellusCaludiusFortinbrasFranciscoQueen GertrudeThe GhostHamlet, Prince of DenmarkHoratioLaertesOpheliaOsricPoloniusReynaldoRosencrantz and GuildensternVoltimand and Cornelius
Hamlet more than meets eye, but not forthcoming about true nature; becomes obsessed with proving Claudius’s guilt, plagued with questions about afterlife, suicide, what happens to bodies after death; discontent with state of Denmark, family, and world; contemplates own death and option of suicide
Claudius Hamlet’s antagonist; shrewd king, contrast with other male characters; most concerned with power; politician; craftiness undoes him in the end
Gertrude actions and feelings are hard to read; craves affection and has strong instinct for self-preservation; best in social situations
Horatio Hamlet’s close friend. Loyal and helpful throughout the play. Only major character to survive past the last act.
Ophelia Polonius’s daughter, Laertes’s sister, and Hamlet’s sometime love. A sweet and innocent young girl, Ophelia obeys both Polonius and Laertes. Ophelia is smart and loving, but madness and death overtake her.
Polonuis The Lord Chamberlain of Claudius’s court, and the father of Laertes and Ophelia. Polonius is a pompous, conniving old man.
Themes the impossibility of certaintythe complexity of actiondeath
Motifs incest and incestuous desireears and hearing- language is slippery
Symbols Yorick’s skullrot
the impossibility of certainty Hamlet questions what people around him take for granted- ghosts exist, ghost of Hamlet’s father is what it appears to be, ghost has reliable information; wonders if our actions have intended consequences; refusal to act paralyzes Hamlet
the complexity of action Hamlet questions if can act in controlled way; Claudius’s power grab leads to his death
death Hamlet ponders spiritual aftermath and physical remainders of death
incest and incestuous desire Gertrude and Claudius were siblings-in-law, subtle hint found in Laertes’ relationship with Ophelia; strongest overtones found between Hamlet and Gertrude
ears and hearing language is slippery; communicate facts, but also distort truth, manipulate people, further corrupt quests for power
Yorick’s skull makes Hamlet think about inevitability of death and bodily disintegration; reveals fascination with physical consequences of death
rot draw explicit connections between moral legitimacy of ruler and the health of a nation; upright Fortinbras’s rise to power suggests Denmark will be strengthened
major conflict Hamlet struggles with doubts and difficulties as he considers killing his uncle Claudius to avenge his father’s death.

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