[Act by Act Synopsis]

Hamlet Notes


The word Tragedy comes from the Greek "goat-song". It is a common form of drama and one of the most easily recognised .

Basically a tragedy traces the career and downfall of an individual and shows in the downfall, both the capacities and limitations of human life.

.The PROTAGONIST may be superhuman, a king, or an ordinary person, who becomes a "scapegoat" or sacrifice.

Tragedy evolved from Ancient Greek drama, which itself began as religious rites which then developed into dramatic competitions. Companies of actors performed these works in a highly stylised way which included dance as well as speech.

According to Aristotle, Greek tragedy represented a single action of great magnitude which provoked in the audience emotions of pity and terror which were then resolved or dissolved by the process of CATHARSIS at the play's climax. Certain features of the plot were common, too, like the connection between the protagonist's downfall and his preceding behaviour (HAMARTIA "error") and also the process of "reversal of fortune" (PERIPETEIA) and the moments of "discovery" (ANAGNORISIS) by which the protagonist learns the truth of his situation.

By the Middle Ages tragedy had come to be merely the story of an eminent person who suffers a downfall, and by the time of Shakespeare the great person was "flawed" in some way, which led to a series of catastrophic events.

In English Literature the great ages of tragic drama were the Elizabethan and Jacobean, whose drama followed the Roman style of five acts and during which the Revenge Tragedy made its appearance.

The revenge tragedy was a form full of blood, horrific incidents and sensational incidents in which a quest for vengeance leads to a bloodthirsty climax. Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (c.1601) is one of the most famous examples of this type of tragedy.

Shakespeare's tragedies are characterised by their variety and freedom from convention, which is probably why they are still so popular. They tend to concentrate on the downfall of powerful men and often illuminate the damage and corruption done to the society around them. The protagonists of Shakespearean tragedy are not always good men and the reason for their fall is sometimes deserved. The relationship between human evil and the justice of fate (or God) is at the core of Shakespeare's tragic writing and he also examines the morality and psychology of his characters. His protagonists are shown to be responsible for the choices that result in their downfall, thus introducing a Christian element into the work. The interdependence of good and evil in Christian thinking is what contributes to the special success of tragedy of this period.


A Greek word which translates as "purging" or "purification".

In tragedy it denotes the effect of the drama on the audience. When the protagonist experiences his fate, the audience itself feels pity and fear as the drama unfolds. These emotions are "purged" by the final cathartic outcome and the audience is thus stripped of feeling and able to contemplate the tragic fate in thoughtful calm. Also it is possible to apply the cathartic idea to the protagonist himself, especially true in "Hamlet", when by the end of the play Hamlet's passion is spent and he approaches his death in a state of rational calm.

Hamlet as a tragedy

The hallmark of Shakespeare's tragic hero is that he is doomed and he accepts his doom without flinching. Hamlet accepts his fate despite the premonition he has in Act 5 , he is, by this stage in the play , resigned to what he knows must happen and not intimidated by the possibility of his own death in the duel with Laertes. He has undergone a process of catharsis which has been a healing process and has been able to rid himself of the passions and emotions, the "antic" disposition, which have crippled him throughout the early part of the play.

By the time he meets Laertes for the duel he is resigned to the fact that death is no longer to be feared. He may indeed be sung to his rest by "flights of angels", but the tragic reality for the audience is that the protagonist has met his doom; that he has experienced the realisation of that fate; that they themselves have experienced the cathartic purging of watching the tragedy unfold and that their sympathies have been engaged.

As well as the two major emotions laid down by Aristotle as the basic necessities in tragedy - pity and fear - Shakespeare adds a third - that of disgust for life in general. He also takes liberties with the plot structure of Aristotelian tragedy and instead of one straightforward plot, there are three interwoven acts of revenge, all dealing with similar themes and each having a different outcome. In effect Shakespeare gives his audience three acts of revenge, each of which affects the other. Fortinbras attempting to avenge his father's death and deposition from the throne of Norway at the hands of Hamlet's own father in single combat; Laertes determination to avenge the murder of Polonius at the hands of the Crown Prince and of course the central struggle of Hamlet to nerve himself to kill Claudius for the murder of the King.

The tension and dramatic "high spots" of Greek tragedy occur at the end of the play, but in Hamlet the most intense moments occur in Act 3 and there are several moments of recognition, beginning with the revelation of his father's murder and ending in the duel scene with the knowledge that he is trapped and poisoned.

There is almost no dramatic irony in Hamlet, where the audience is aware of the character's situation and the character does not know himself, until the very last scene when the audience is aware of the poisoned swords and Hamlet is not. Up to that point the audience, because of the peculiar intimacy which Shakespeare builds into Hamlet's character, knows exactly what Hamlet knows as he knows himself! The audience becomes an accomplice to Hamlet's confusion; his despair and his deception of others and he communes with the audience directly, using it as a sounding board for his own deliberations.

The imagery of the play produces a background of disease, corruption and death and each character in the play contributes in some way to this, from Francisco's declaration that he is "sick at heart" at the beginning, through the ghost's description of the horrors of purgatory, Ophelia's grim death, described with such sinister detachment by Gertrude; Laertes' speeches about hell, devils and damnation and the desperate sickness of the kingdom, the image of which recurs throughout Hamlet's dialogue. It is as if every character sees only blackness, except perhaps for Polonius, whose nose is too near his own business to consider anyone other than himself.

Shakespeare moves away from traditional tragedy in the creation of such a gallery of complete characters and also in structuring the play around their internal struggles, chiefly those of the Hamlet himself. The element of fate in Shakespeare's tragedy is not external, but internal. Hamlet's disposition is something over which he has no control and the situation in which he finds himself makes it inevitable that his internal characteristics operate as a curse, rather than a blessing. He is a sensitive scholarly introvert with a gentle loving disposition; natural affection and respect for his parents and an unwillingness to involve himself in violence. These are the characteristics which work against him when he is given the role of revenger by the ghost and which lead to a very real struggle within his soul between his natural honour and his passion for revenge.If we are to see Shakespeare's tragedy as "greatness flawed", then this is possibly Hamlet's character deficiency - that he is too sensitive and too hesitant to act.

The young prince receives a "violent shock to his moral being" (A.C. Bradley) which plunges him into melancholy before the play begins, by the death of his father and his mother's "o'er hasty marriage" to his detested uncle Claudius. In addition to this he is forced into the role of revenger of his father's murder and it is this which makes it virtually impossible for him to act. He is hampered by his grief; his melancholy and his sense of worthlessness and rendered virtually impotent until he is released by his own acknowledgement of the inevitability of death. At the same time, though, there is a nobility and a spirit in him which also surfaces in his humour and his wit when he is putting on the "antic disposition"; in his dealings with Polonius and in his clever manipulation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Perhaps most significant, though, is the spite and clear resolve which he displays when he has the chance to kill Claudius after the play and decides not to go ahead because the revenge is not perfect enough. This psychological complexity adds to the effectiveness of the play and makes Hamlet as a character much more developed than the conventional tragic hero. He undergoes a process of self discovery with which the audience is invited to identify by means of the soliloquies. As they experience his pessimism and his realisation of the sickness which infects the kingdom, the audience are able to come to a realisation of their own precarious position. He is, as tragic heroes must be, a person of high degree who is shown to be as vulnerable and as accountable as the "ordinary" spectator. The Elizabethan audience would identify both with the personal tragedy of a young man drawn into a web of deceit and disgust which leads inevitably to his fateful downfall, and also with the idea that the state itself is precarious and uncertain. As they (and we) witness the events of the play, they and we , see how disgusting life can be. The emotion will, of course, be purged before the audience leaves the theatre, being replaced by the state which Hamlet calls "readiness" as he himself accepts his fate and his death.

Hamlet seems to embody the sense of futility which dogs human existence and which certainly accords with the scriptural view of man as essentially bad ( a sinner) and not innately good. In this way also the play differs from the Greek idea of tragedy in that it concentrates not on fear or pity but on this sense of disgust. Shakespeare regards the world as a stage and what is portrayed through the characters is a view of the human condition.


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[Act 1] [Atc 2] [Act 3] [Act 4] [Act 5]


The first act consists of five short scenes which quickly establish all the major characters and the revenge motif. This is done either by interrogation or by investigation. There is, at first, no apparent connection between each scene, and a sense of disjointedness, but this is cleverly intended by Shakespeare to underpin he idea of time being "out of joint".

The sense of threat is established in the first scene with the appearance of armed guards, and talk of a "dreadful sight", which is quickly followed by a ghostly apparition and information about the threat of an invasion from neighbouring Norway. The tone of the dialogue is tense and fearful, with language suggesting doom and threat "This bodes some strange eruption to our state", says Horatio (l.69) who also refers to the supernatural portents which heralded the assassination of Julius Caesar (l. 111)

Note also the Christian references to spirits, Heaven and Hell.

In scene 2 we meet the court and learn of the marriage and of Hamlet's gloom and melancholy. Note here the antagonism between Hamlet and his mother and also the hatred he feels for the usurper, Claudius "a little more than kin and less than kind" Note also the relationship between Laertes and the King and the contrast between the way he is treated compared to the heir, who is placed under the "comfort of our eye" by his uncle. Hamlet's first soliloquy (l. 129) reveals his distress due to his desire for suicide, which cannot be because of his obedience to the law of heaven.

Hamlet's disgust at his mother's marriage is intense and he feels that it "cannot come to good", but he cannot speak, although his heart is breaking. The news of his father's appearance in ghostly form is related in a fast paced narrative which begins the [process which will eventually lead to Hamlet's own death and the death of so many other characters. the sense of secrecy is reinforced at the end of the scene when Horatio is sworn to "give it an understanding but no tongue".

The secondary plot involving the other conventional revenger, Laertes is also introduced with Polonius forbidding the relationship between Ophelia and Hamlet and Laertes also suggesting to his sister that Hamlet's intentions are dishonourable. In Polonius we see an accomplished spy and a trusted courtier whose service to both Kings has been regarded as valuable. It is tempting to dismiss Polonius as a bumbling fool on the strength of his tedious speech and laborious language, but it must be remembered that his position at court is very important and Claudius especially values his abilities as an informer and a spy. The advice he gives to Laertes is to be all things to all men and we see also his preoccupation with his own standing in the court when he tells Ophelia to tender herself more dearly lest she tenders him a fool.

The act ends with Hamlet's encounter with the ghost and his charge to avenge his father's murder by killing his uncle, Claudius. Hamlet is put into an intolerable position when he is commanded to leave his mother alone, not to "contrive aught" against her and to leave her to Heaven. His behaviour afterwards is "wild and whirling" , a combination of the "antic disposition" which he assumes to cover his intentions and actions from Claudius and the court and genuine shock at the experience he has just undergone.

[Act Index]

Shakespeare maintains the theme of spying and treachery by an exchange between Polonius and Reynaldo, who is being sent to spy on Laertes in Paris, Ophelia comes to her father to report on Hamlet's actions and Polonius goes straight to the King. More spies arrive in the shape of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are charged to watch Hamlet and report back to Claudius. In sharp contrast we see the "good" heir, Young Fortinbras, reported as being dutiful and obedient to his uncle, and withdrawing from his threatened invasion of Denmark, for which he is rewarded (and of course he finally gains the crown as a result of Hamlet's disobedience to the laws of Heaven)

There is little doubt that the letter which Polonius intercepts from Hamlet to Ophelia is genuinely sincere, but note his obsequious remarks to Claudius about what he made Ophelia promise and why and also the irony of his conceit in ascribing Hamlet's madness to love. The unscrupulous Polonius even uses his daughter as a pawn "I'll loose my daughter to him" to prove his own conclusions about the prince's state of mind.

Hamlet's exchange with him in scene two shows not only the arrogance of Polonius but also the antagonism towards him felt by Hamlet who uses the antic disposition to cover a series of gross insults to Polonius. His exchange also with Ros. & Guild. varies between bawdy humour, intensely poetic despair and acute perception of why they have been sent for. As he says in l. 362 "I am but mad north-north-west...."

The arrival of the players brings an opportunity for Hamlet to contrive a proof of Claudius's guilt; to test whether the ghost was evil or not. His businesslike dealing with the actors is not that of a madman, nor is his consideration of Polonius's treatment by others of lesser degree ("Follow that lord and look you mock him not" l.519) and the second soliloquy "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I..." is a heartfelt condemnation of his inability to carry out his revenge. The disgust which he has felt for his mother, for Denmark and for Claudius is now directed at himself and as he does in the first soliloquy, he invites the audience to share his inner turmoil.

[Act Index]

The tension builds and the pace quickens at the beginning of this Act, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting back to Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet's "crafty madness" closely followed by Ophelia being "loosed" to Hamlet so that Claudius and Polonius can spy on him. Note the irony of Polonius's remark that

"with devotion's visage

And pious action we do sugar o'er

The devil himself."

and also Claudius's reaction to it.

Hamlet's third soliloquy is observed by the king and Polonius, although Hamlet is, at the time, unaware of being watched. The sentiments of the speech are not, though, those of a man who wishes for suicide, but rather someone who is contemplating the consequences of committing murder. Hamlet muses on the nature of life and death in this speech and seems to conclude that fear of death is the thing which makes men cowards, and which prevents men from taking action to accomplish important tasks. Given that he has just prepared a trap for the King, this speech is not that of a weakling, but of a potential killer, and in rejecting the warnings of conscience, he is preparing himself for the role of revenger while musing upon the theme of death and its mysteries.

(It is important also to remember that there is a strong argument that the third soliloquy has also been interpreted as a consideration of suicide, given the content of the first two and taking into consideration Hamlet's intense melancholy. There is no "right" interpretation. You may wish to conclude that he is merely musing on life and death in general terms, if you wish.)

His encounter with Ophelia immediately afterwards becomes a violent denunciation of women and is spoken in prose. Hamlet treats her with disdain and extreme cruelty, obviously aware that they are being watched and using disrespectful language throughout the encounter. Note the use of the collective "you", which seems to refer to all women rather than just Ophelia. She seems to bear the brunt of Hamlet's anger and disdain for all women, his mother in particular. He will have "no more" of marriage and "those that are married already, all but one, ( Claudius) shall live".

Ophelia's reaction to Hamlet's violence is to mourn the loss of a "noble mind o'erthrown" and to ascribe it, like her father, to madness. Ironically, of course, it is Ophelia who is driven truly mad by the encounter, and who loses her life by suicide, thus providing the means for Laertes to kill Hamlet in revenge.

Claudius's assessment of the scene he observes is accurate, of course, in that the "something" in Hamlet's soul "will be some danger". His decision to send Hamlet away to England is obviously already made. Polonius seals his own fate by refusing to believe that it is not love which is the cause of Hamlet's behaviour and arranging the meeting between Hamlet and Gertrude after the play.

Scene two deals with the "mousetrap" play-within-a-play which Hamlet uses to confirm his knowledge of Claudius's guilt. The passion which was evident in his rejection of Ophelia and all women in the previous scene increases as he watches the king watch the dumbshow murder of a brother and climaxes with the violent short 4th soliloquy "'Tis now the very witching time of night.." when he is ready to execute the revenge his father commanded.

Horatio is now acquainted with the "circumstance..of my father's death" and is set to watch with Hamlet as the play unfolds. When Claudius leaves, confirming Hamlet's suspicions, he reveals also his knowledge of the schemes which are afoot to deal with him when he challenges Guildenstern to "play upon this pipe" and admonishes him not to "play upon me."

His decision to "speak daggers" to his mother is a calculated one. He does not go to Gertrude as a penitent, but as an avenger, although it must be said that he still retains the determination not to do her physical harm, as his father ordered.

This is not the case with Claudius, though, as we see when Hamlet chances upon the King apparently at prayer in scene three. It is at this point that Hamlet shows a deep immorality when he decides in cold blood not to kill Claudius at prayer, so as to deny his soul entry to Heaven. Hamlet, in effect, takes over God's task here, and pronounces a kind of divine judgement on the King, preferring to wait until Claudius is .."in th'incestuous pleasure of his bed" before sending him to Hell, where "his soul may be damned and black." This is the lowest point of Hamlet's descent into immorality - fuelled by the passion which has driven him since the revelation of the murder and it is also at this point that his own fate is sealed.

His confrontation with Gertrude is observed by Polonius who hides behind the arras (tapestry) in her closet (sc. 4) and is stabbed by Hamlet when he tries to intervene to protect Gertrude from her son's anger. This murder sets off the chain of events which leads to Laertes attempt to avenge both his father and his drowned sister in the duel scene. Hamlet passionately denounces his mother's conduct and we see for the first time evidence of her own disgust at what she has done (l. 88). Hamlet's words enter "like daggers" into her ears and she is saved only by the appearance of the ghost, who intervenes to "whet " Hamlet's " almost blunted purpose". He is able then to ask his mother to repent and turn from her sin, although the fact that she does not see the ghost only serves to convince her that her son is indeed mad.

Note that Hamlet does repent of the murder of Polonius and acknowledges that

"I do repent; but heaven hath pleased it so,

To punish me with this,"

He also reveals that he knows the King's plot to kill him on the way to England and that he will "delve one yard below their (Rosencrantz & Guildenstern) mines and blow them at the moon". His dismissal of Polonius as "guts" to be lugged away, and as a "foolish prating knave" mark both his lowest point of honour and also the turning point of his resolve to obey his destiny.

[Act Index]

Hamlet believed by everyone in the Court to be mad, is despatched to England, to be killed there so as not to taint Claudius with his death in Denmark, where Hamlet is "loved of the distracted multitude". The first three scenes are taken at a hectic pace and mirror the haste which drives Claudius to cover his guilt

Hamlet's fifth and last soliloquy is spoken in scene four, as he meets the army of Fortinbras on its way to fight in Poland. He muses on the nature of honour and courage, admiring the soldiers who are prepared to die away from their home land for "a little patch of ground" which is worthless. He describes Fortinbras as a "delicate and tender prince" who is courageous and admirable, while Hamlet himself has "let all sleep" to this point. He leaves the stage and the action for some time concluding that "from this time forth my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth." When he returns, it will be as a changed man, having found himself, and, ironically being more ready to be King, being doomed never to inherit the throne which is his by right.

The remainder of the act is taken up with the fate of Ophelia and the return of Laertes to seek revenge for the murder of his father Polonius. In Hamlet's absence events are set in motion which result in his own death and that of others.

In the mad scene, we see Ophelia's fate after her rejection by Hamlet and the death of her father. Her madness, unlike Hamlet's antic disposition, is real, not feigned, her gentle soul having collapsed under stress. Note here the real sexuality of the behaviour she displays as her mind becomes progressively more unhinged and also the compassion of Claudius and his genuine concern for her welfare.

The arrival of Laertes with an armed rabble quickens the pace of the play, and we see another example of the cleverness of Claudius, this time as the skilful politician, disclaiming responsibility for the death of Polonius and averting violence to himself at the hands of Laertes. Ophelia's madness is also made known to her brother, fuelling the anger which the King will later use against Hamlet.

In a contrived "letter scene", we learn that Hamlet has escaped his fate in England and is on the way back to Denmark and Claudius is quick to use this information to influence Laertes to act as revenger so that neither the Queen, nor the people will see Hamlet's death as being the fault of Claudius himself. A duel will be seen as honourable, since both men have considerable reputation as swordsmen and Claudius knows that Hamlet's decency will prevent him from suspecting dishonour in the fight. The poisoned sword will never be suspected, neither will the chalice and Laertes will be able to "requite him (Hamlet) for your father". This sick plotting is interrupted by Gertrude, conveying the news of Ophelia's death by drowning, in a beautiful piece of verse (scene 7) which contrasts sharply with the venom of the preceding exchange.

Dramatically this act serves to hasten the action on to the final encounter and the acts of revenge. It also emphasises the corruption of the court and the disease which has tainted all the lives of the courtiers. No one is free from the effects of the original regicide, done by Claudius and as the plot becomes more muddy so it becomes more obvious that there will be many more victims.

[Act Index]

In a total change of scene and pace, the act opens with the gravediggers, preparing Ophelia's grave and exchanging coarse and earthy (!!) jokes. It is apparent from the beginning of the scene that Hamlet, arriving with Horatio, is much changed. He is calm and rational, exchanging jests with the gravedigger and musing on the skull of Yorick, the King's jester, about the nature of death and its inevitability. Compare his mood here with his reaction to Claudius's speech to him about the same subject in Act 1 and see how Hamlet has, now, arrived at the same conclusion, that man must die and that death is a great leveller.

The dialogue is in prose, but there is a real sense of respect between the speakers, despite the difference in their stations.

Ophelia's burial is observed by Hamlet, in a stark parallel with the nunnery scene. Note the sentiments expressed by the priest, that "her death was doubtful" (i.e. suicide) which means that, like her father, she is buried "hugger-mugger", not in unsanctified ground, but without a requiem mass, lest she should "profane the service of the dead". This is even more fuel to Laertes' anger, of course, as we see in his insult to the priest. His passionate leave taking is matched in intensity by Hamlet's speech over the grave, in which he is finally able to articulate his love for Ophelia. From this point on we can compare the two revengers; Laertes determined to kill Hamlet and driven by his rage to deceit and dishonour, and Hamlet now, of course, composed, "I loved you ever" and resigned to his destiny.

Scene two shows Hamlet rational and calm as he explains his escape from the ship to Horatio. He is, now, as Horatio says, ".."a King.." and is able to accept that it is his duty to kill Claudius. he seems also to have resolved the problem of his own damnation, believing that it is more sinful to let the King live than to remove him. Note also the genuine remorse he feels for his rage towards Laertes, and his understanding of his grief for Ophelia.

Shakespeare sandwiches this nobility between two very amusing encounters, the first with the gravediggers and the second with the mincing Osric, who comes to deliver the challenge from Claudius. Again this exchange is in prose, and we see three different tones; firstly disrespect for Osric, then neutrality for the anonymous Lord and lastly a courteous harmony of tone in the dialogue between Hamlet and Horatio when Hamlet says regally that "we defy augury". (note the royal plural, here). His calm acceptance of the inevitability of death echoes the sentiments of Matthew's Gospel, with its assurance that God sees all and takes care of even the smallest sparrow. He is, finally, at peace and accepts his destiny, under God's guidance.

The play now gathers pace and moves swiftly to its climax with the duel scene. The dialogue moves smoothly into the formality of blank verse and Hamlet's gracious and accomplished apology to Laertes, which is received stiffly and with courtesy. The duel itself is obviously stage "business" which needs little in the way of dialogue, until it is necessary for Laertes to confess his treachery, reveal the plot to poison Hamlet, and ask for and receive Hamlet's forgiveness. Hamlet's own death is marked with three noble gestures; forgiveness of Laertes; a request that Horatio clears his name and the bestowal of the crown to Fortinbras. "The rest is silence."

His epitaph, spoken by the "good" Prince, Fortinbras, is most fitting:

"For he was likely, had he been put on

To have proved most royal.."

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Copyrightę 2000 Val Pope