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The protagonist of Hamlet is Prince Hamlet of Denmark, son of deceased King Hamlet and his wife, Queen Gertrude.
The story opens on a chilly night at Elsinore, the Danish royal castle. Francisco, one of the sentinels, is relieved of his watch by Bernardo, another sentinel, and exits while Bernardo remains. A third sentinel, Marcellus, enters with Horatio, Hamlet's best friend. The sentinels inform Horatio that they have seen a ghost that looks like the dead King Hamlet. After hearing from Horatio of the Ghost's appearance, Hamlet resolves to see the Ghost himself. That night, the Ghost appears again. It leads Hamlet to a secluded place, claims that it is the actual spirit of his father, and discloses that he—the elder Hamlet—was murdered by his brother Claudius pouring poison in his ear. The Ghost demands that Hamlet avenge him; Hamlet agrees, swears his companions to secrecy, and tells them he intends to "put an antic disposition on" (presumably to avert suspicion). Hamlet initially attests to the ghost's reliability, calling him both an "honest ghost" and "truepenny." Later, however, he expresses doubts about the ghost's nature and intent, claiming these as reasons for his inaction.
Polonius is Claudius's trusted chief counsellor; Polonius's son, Laertes, is returning to France, and Polonius's daughter, Ophelia, is courted by Hamlet. Both Polonius and Laertes warn Ophelia that Hamlet is surely not serious about her. Shortly afterward, Ophelia is alarmed by Hamlet's strange behaviour, reporting to her father that Hamlet rushed into her room, stared at her, and said nothing. Polonius assumes that the "ecstasy of love" is responsible for Hamlet's "mad" behaviour, and he informs Claudius and Gertrude.
Perturbed by Hamlet's continuing deep mourning for his father and his increasingly erratic behaviour, Claudius sends for two of Hamlet's acquaintances—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—to find out the cause of Hamlet's changed behaviour. Hamlet greets his friends warmly but quickly discerns that they have been sent to spy on him.
Together, Claudius and Polonius convince Ophelia to speak with Hamlet while they secretly listen. Hamlet enters, contemplating suicide (To be or not to be). Ophelia greets him, and offers to return his remembrances, upon which Hamlet questions her honesty and furiously rants at her to "get thee to a nunnery."
The "gravedigger scene" (Artist: Eugène Delacroix 1839)Hamlet remains uncertain whether the Ghost has told him the truth, but the arrival of a troupe of actors at Elsinore presents him with a solution. He will have them stage a play, The Murder of Gonzago, re-enacting his father's murder and determine Claudius's guilt or innocence by studying his reaction to it. The court assembles to watch the play; Hamlet provides an agitated running commentary throughout. When the murder scene is presented, Claudius abruptly rises and leaves the room, which Hamlet sees as proof of his uncle's guilt.
Gertrude summons Hamlet to her closet to demand an explanation. On his way, Hamlet passes Claudius in prayer, but hesitates to kill him, reasoning that death in prayer would send him to heaven. However, it is revealed that the King is not truly praying, remarking that "words" never made it to heaven without "thoughts." An argument erupts between Hamlet and Gertrude. Polonius, spying on the scene from behind an arras and convinced that the prince's madness is indeed real, panics when it seems as if Hamlet is about to murder the Queen and cries out for help. Hamlet, believing it is Claudius hiding behind the arras, stabs wildly through the cloth, killing Polonius. When he realises that he has killed Ophelia's father, he is not remorseful, but calls Polonius "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool." The Ghost appears, urging Hamlet to treat Gertrude gently, but reminding him to kill Claudius. Unable to see or hear the Ghost herself, Gertrude takes Hamlet's conversation with it as further evidence of madness.
Claudius, now fearing for his life, finds a legitimate excuse to get rid of the prince: he sends Hamlet to England on a diplomatic pretext, accompanied (and closely watched) by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Alone, Claudius discloses that he is actually sending Hamlet to his death. Prior to embarking for England, Hamlet hides Polonius's body, ultimately revealing its location to the King. Upon leaving Elsinore, Hamlet encounters the army of Prince Fortinbras en route to do battle in Poland. Upon witnessing so many men going to their death on the brash whim of an impulsive prince, Hamlet declares, "O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"
At Elsinore, further demented by grief at her father Polonius's death, Ophelia wanders the castle, acting erratically and singing bawdy songs. Her brother, Laertes, returns from France, horrified by his father's death and his sister's madness. She appears briefly to give out herbs and flowers. Claudius convinces Laertes that Hamlet is solely responsible; then news arrives that Hamlet is still alive—a story is spread that his ship was attacked by pirates on the way to England, and he has returned to Denmark. Claudius swiftly concocts a plot to kill his nephew but make it appear to be an accident, taking all of the blame off his shoulders. Knowing of Hamlet's jealousy of Laertes' prowess with a sword, he proposes a fencing match between the two. Laertes, enraged at the murder of his father, informs the king that he will further poison the tip of his sword so that a mere scratch would mean certain death. Claudius, unsure that capable Hamlet could receive even a scratch, plans to offer Hamlet poisoned wine if that fails. Gertrude enters to report that Ophelia has drowned.
Hamlet avenged his father by killing his uncle (Artist: Gustave Moreau date unknown)In the Elsinore churchyard, two "clowns", typically represented as "gravediggers," enter to prepare Ophelia's grave, and, although the coroner has ruled her death accidental so that she may receive Christian burial, they argue about its being a case of suicide. Hamlet arrives with Horatio and banters with one of them, who unearths the skull of a jester whom Hamlet once knew, Yorick ("Alas, Poor Yorick; I knew him, Horatio."). Ophelia's funeral procession approaches, led by her mournful brother Laertes. Distraught at the lack of ceremony (due to the actually-deemed suicide) and overcome by emotion, Laertes leaps into the grave, cursing Hamlet as the cause of her death. Hamlet interrupts, professing his own love and grief for Ophelia. He and Laertes grapple, but the fight is broken up by Claudius and Gertrude. Claudius reminds Laertes of the planned fencing match.
Later that day, Hamlet tells Horatio how he escaped death on his journey, disclosing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent to their deaths instead. A courtier, Osric, interrupts to invite Hamlet to fence with Laertes. Despite Horatio's warnings, Hamlet accepts and the match begins. After several rounds, Gertrude toasts Hamlet—against the urgent warning of Claudius—accidentally drinking the wine he poisoned. Between bouts, Laertes attacks and pierces Hamlet with his poisoned blade; in the ensuing scuffle, Hamlet is able to use Laertes's own poisoned sword against him. Gertrude falls and, in her dying breath, announces that she has been poisoned.
In his dying moments, Laertes is reconciled with Hamlet and reveals Claudius's murderous plot. Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword, and then forces him to drink from his own poisoned cup to make sure he dies. In his final moments, Hamlet names Prince Fortinbras of Norway as the probable heir to the throne, since the Danish kingship is an elected position, with the country's nobles having the final say. Horatio attempts to kill himself with the same poisoned wine but is stopped by Hamlet, as he will be the only one left alive who can give a full account of the story.
When Fortinbras arrives to greet King Claudius, he encounters the deadly scene: Gertrude, Claudius, Laertes, and Hamlet are all dead. Horatio asks to be allowed to recount the tale to "the yet unknowing world," and Fortinbras orders Hamlet's body borne off in honour.