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First performed around 1600, Hamlet tells the story of a prince whose duty to revenge his father’s death entangles him in philosophical problems he can’t solve. Shakespeare’s best-known play is widely regarded as the most influential literary work ever written. 

Characters

A brief overview of the main characters in this play.

Act 1

Hamlet's father's ghost reveals that his brother Claudius poisoned him. Hamlet vows to avenge his father. Meanwhile, Laertes advises his sister Ophelia not to fall in love with Hamlet, and their father Polonius agrees. Polonius then gives Laertes advice about how to behave while away in France.

Act 2

Ophelia tells her father that Hamlet is acting strangely toward her. Claudius and Gertrude try to determine the root of Hamlet’s strange behavior, and recruit two of his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on him. A troupe of actors arrives at the castle, and Hamlet devises a plan to use them to discover if Claudius killed his father.

Act 3

Claudius and Polonius hide and watch Hamlet talk to himself, then decide that he might be dangerous. The troupe of actors perform a play that recreates Claudius’ murder of his brother, and Claudius flees the room, which confirms his guilt in Hamlet’s mind. Hamlet confronts Gertrude while Polonius eavesdrops from behind the curtains; Hamlet mistakes him for Claudius, and stabs and kills him.

Act 4

Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England, where he plans to have him executed. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to ascertain the whereabouts of Polonius’ body from Hamlet, but he refuses to tell them and accuses them of spying on him. Horatio later receives a message that Hamlet’s ship was attacked by pirates, and Hamlet has quietly returned to Denmark. In the meantime, Ophelia goes mad with grief over the death of Polonius and commits suicide. Laertes returns from France and is devastated by his sister’s death; Claudius convinces him that it was Hamlet’s fault, and the two plot to kill Hamlet in a fencing duel. Laertes will fight with a poisoned sword, and as a backup plan, Claudius will give Hamlet a goblet of poisoned wine.

Act 5

Hamlet and Horatio are talking with gravediggers in a graveyard when Ophelia’s funeral procession arrives. Hamlet is shocked and upset, and he and Laertes fight in Ophelia’s open grave until they are pulled apart. Hamlet reveals to Horatio that he forged a letter to the king of England, causing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be put to death upon their arrival there. Later, Hamlet and Laertes duel. During the fight, Gertrude accidentally drinks from the poisoned cup and dies. Hamlet and Laertes are both wounded by the poisoned sword at different times; Laertes dies, revealing the plot that he and Claudius had to kill Hamlet. Hamlet then stabs Claudius and forces him to drink the remaining poison. Hamlet dies, and afterward Prince Fortinbras arrives and orders that Hamlet be buried with honor.