Hamlet, young prince of Denmark, is still shaken by the recent death of his idolized father and by the marriage, scarcely a month later, of his widowed mother, Queen Gertrude, to his uncle, the present King Claudius, whom he despises. He tells of his despair in soliloquy:
- "O that this too, too solid flesh would melt,
- That and resolve itself into a dew!
- Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
- His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!...
- But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!"
Horror and anger are added to his grief when the ghost of his father comes to tell Hamlet that he was not slain by a serpent as had been announced, but by the poison of Claudius. He pleads that his death be avenged. The ghost cautions Hamlet to spare his mother, saying: "Leave her to heaven, and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge." Hamlet vows to exact retribution, swearing his companions, his friend Horatio and a soldier who is with them, to secrecy as to the appearance of the ghost. He refuses, however, "in wild and whirling winds," to tell them the nature of his father's revelation.
Later, in the home of Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain, his daughter Ophelia, with whom Hamlet has been in love, tells her father how Hamlet has just visited her, unkempt and with "a look so piteous in purport as if he had been loosed out of hell." The girl, who had once returned Hamlet's love but had dismissed him at her father's order, reports that the Prince, "after such perusal of my face as he would draw it," had sighed brokenly and left her without a word. Polonius then tells the King and Queen that Hamlet is not mad, but madly in love, and, to prove it, arranges that he and the King shall listen, in hiding, at a meeting of Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet, coming to this tryst, reflects:
- "To be, or not to be; that is the question:
- Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
- The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
- Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
- And by opposing end them. To die: to sleep;
- No more; and by a sleep to say that we end
- The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
- That flesh is heir to, 'tis a consummation
- Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
- To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub;
- For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
- When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
- Must give us pause...."
Before Ophelia, Hamlet forces himself to deny ever having given her the remembrance tokens she tries to return to him, saying: "You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not.... Get thee to a nunnery; why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?" He mocks her, too, with: "God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another: you jig, you amble, and you lisp, and you nickname God's creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance. Go to, I'll no more on't; it hath made me mad." The King, listening to this, resolves to send Hamlet to England after, as Polonius suggests, the Queen shall attempt to placate him.
Meanwhile, Hamlet has arranged with a troupe of players, brought to court by the King and Queen to try to divert Hamlet's mind from his broodings, that they shall enact a scene similar to the murder of his father as recounted to him by the ghost. He plans to watch the King for evidences of guilt during the performance so that he may determine whether or not he has imagined the ghost. The King hastily commands the play to end, and Hamlet is convinced of his uncle's perfidy.
The Prince is then summoned to his mother, and Polonius hides behind a tapestry in her chamber so that he may hear what Hamlet has to say. Hamlet, on his way to the interview, sees King Claudius kneeling in prayer. He wishes to kill him then, but forgoes the deed in order that Claudius may not have the advantage over his father of having died confessed. He continues to his mother's rooms, reflecting: "O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever the soul of Nero enter this firm bosom: let me be cruel, not unnatural: I will speak daggers to her, but use none."
Hamlet's reproaches so alarm the Queen that she calls for help. Polonius, behind the tapestry, echoes her cry, and Hamlet thrusts his rapier through the arras, killing the old man. He then continues his indictment until his mother confesses her shame. The ghost comes to intercede for her and to spur Hamlet to his final purpose. The Queen, to whom the ghost does not appear, now believes her son is quite mad, and tells the King of this tragic episode. The King plots to have Hamlet killed on his way to England where he has decided to send him.
Ophelia now visits the Queen. The shock of her father's death and Hamlet's bahavior have driven her out of her mind, and she babbles childish and lewd songs in a manner pitiful to witness. Laertes, her brother, has hastened home to avenge his father's murder, and his rage is added to by Ophelia's tragic recitation of Polonius' burial. The King tells Laertes that the absent Hamlet is the murderer of Polonius. Word is now received that Hamelt, supposedly on his way to England, has outwitted his escorts and is returning home. Laertes and the King then plan to dispose of Hamlet in a fencing match with Laertes--where the latter's foil shall be buttonless and poisoned.
The mad Ophelia, weaving garlands of flowers beside a brook, falls into the stream and, still chanting of love and death, is drowned. At her burial, Laertes throws himself into her open grave to take one last farewell of his sister. Hamlet, who has now returned, follows him, crying: "I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers could not, with all their quality of love, make up my sum." He challenges Laertes: "Dost thou come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her, and so will I." Bystanders separate the youths.
The fencing match has been arranged. Before it begins, Hamlet confesses his wrong to Laertes, begging his pardon. The King offers a poisoned cup of wine to Hamlet, but he refuses it. The Queen unwittingly drinks from the cup and dies. In the confusion of the scene, the foils are exchanged and both Laertes and Hamlet are wounded by the poisoned blade, Laertes dying at once. Hamlet stabs the King, also forcing him to drink the rest of the poisoned wine. Claudius then dies. Hamlet, too, soon expires, and Horatio, his friend, mourns: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"
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