ENGLISH MIDTERM- Hamlet Plot, Themes, and Summary

Summary Something is amiss in Denmark — for two successive nights, the midnight guard has witnessed the appearance of the ghost of Old Hamlet, the former King of Denmark who has recently died. The guards bring Horatio, a learned scholar and friend of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, to witness this apparition. Though skeptical at first, Horatio sees the ghost and decides to report its appearance to Hamlet. Meanwhile, a new king of Denmark has been crowned: Claudius, Old Hamlet’s brother. Claudius has taken Old Hamlet’s widow, Gertrude, as his wife. We watch their marriage celebration and hear about a threat from the Prince of Norway, Fortinbras, which Claudius manages to avoid by diplomacy. Hamlet is in attendance at this wedding celebration; he is hardly in joyous spirits, however. He is disgusted by his mother’s decision to marry Claudius so soon after his father’s demise. Horatio tells Hamlet of the appearance of the ghost and Hamlet determines to visit the spirit himself. Meanwhile, the court adviser, Polonius, sends his son, Laertes, back to Paris, where he is living. Laertes and Polonius both question Ophelia (sister and daughter, respectively) about her relationship with Hamlet. Ophelia admits that Hamlet has been wooing her. They tell her to avoid Hamlet and reject his amorous advances, emphasizing the importance of protecting her chastity. Ophelia agrees to cut off contact. That night, Hamlet accompanies the watch. The ghost appears once more. Hamlet questions the ghost, who beckons Hamlet away from the others. When they are alone, the ghost reveals that Claudius murdered him in order to steal his crown and his wife. The ghost makes Hamlet promise to take revenge on Claudius. Hamlet appears to concur excitedly. He has Horatio and the guards swear not to reveal what they have seen. Act Two finds us some indefinite time in the future. Hamlet has been behaving in a most erratic and alarming way. Claudius summons two of Hamlet’s school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in order to discover the meaning of this strange behavior. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s attempts to discover the reason for Hamlet’s madness are met with evasion and witticism. Meanwhile, Polonius hatches a theory of his own: he thinks that Hamlet is insane due to Ophelia’s rejection of his love. He arranges to test his theory by setting Ophelia on Hamlet when they are apparently alone and then observing the proceedings with Claudius. Hamlet’s only consolation appears to be the coming of a troupe of players from England. Hamlet asks the player’s whether they could play a slightly modified version of a tragedy. We realize that Hamlet plans to put on a play that depicts the death of his father, to see whether Claudius is really guilty, and the ghost is really to be trusted. In Act Three, Ophelia approaches Hamlet when they are apparently alone; Claudius and Polonius hide behind a tapestry and observe. Hamlet behaves extremely cruelly toward Ophelia. The king decides that Hamlet is not mad for love of her but for some other hidden reason. Hamlet prepares to put on his play, which he calls “The Mouse Trap.” After instructing the players in their parts, Hamlet retires to the audience, where Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, and Polonius have gathered, along with many others. In the course of the play, both Gertrude and Claudius become extremely upset, though for different reasons. Gertrude is flustered by Hamlet’s veiled accusation that she was inconstant and hypocritical for remarrying after Old Hamlet’s death; Claudius is shaken because he is indeed guilty of his brother’s murder. Claudius decides that he must get rid of Hamlet by sending him to England. Following the play, Gertrude calls Hamlet to her room, intending to berate him for his horrible insinuations. Hamlet turns the tables on her, accusing her of a most grotesque lust and claiming that she has insulted her father and herself by stooping to marry Claudius. In the course of their interview, Polonius hides behind a tapestry; at one point, he thinks that Hamlet is going to attack Gertrude and cries for help. Hamlet stabs Polonius through the tapestry, thinking he has killed Claudius. When he finds that he has merely killed a “rash, intruding fool,” Hamlet returns to the business of “speaking daggers” to his mother. Just as Gertrude appears convinced by Hamlet’s excoriation, the ghost of Old Hamlet reappears and tells Hamlet not to behave so cruelly to his mother, and to remember to carry out revenge on Claudius. Gertrude perceives her son discoursing with nothing but air and is completely convinced of his madness. Hamlet exits her room, dragging the body of Polonius behind him. After much questioning, Claudius convinces Hamlet to reveal the hiding place of Polonius’ body. He then makes arrangements for Hamlet to go to England immediately, accompanied by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius writes a letter to the English court asking them to kill Hamlet immediately upon his arrival and places the letter with his two cronies. On their way to the ship, Hamlet and his entourage pass Fortinbras’ Norwegian army en route to a Polish campaign. Back at Elsinore (the Danish palace), Ophelia has gone mad following her father’s death. She sings childish and bawdy songs and speaks nonsensically. Laertes soon returns to Denmark with a mob in tow, demanding an explanation of Polonius’ death. Claudius gingerly calms the young man and convinces him that Hamlet was the guilty party. Letters arrive attesting to a strange turn of fortunes on the sea. Hamlet’s ship to England was attacked by pirates, who captured Hamlet and arranged to return him to Denmark for a ransom. Hamlet sends Claudius an aggravating letter announcing his imminent return. Claudius and Laertes decide that Hamlet must be killed. They decide to arrange a duel between Laertes and Hamlet in which Laertes’ sword is secretly poisoned so as to guarantee Hamlet’s immediate death. As backup, Claudius decides to poison a cup of wine and offer it to Hamlet during the contest. Just as Act Four comes to a close, more tragic news arrives. Gertrude says that Ophelia has drowned while playing in a willow tree by the river. Act Five begins at a graveyard. Two gravediggers joke about their morbid occupation. Hamlet and Horatio arrive and converse with them. Soon, Ophelia’s funeral begins. Because there are doubts about whether Ophelia died accidentally or committed suicide, her funeral lacks many of the customary religious rites. Laertes bombastically dramatizes his grief, prompting Hamlet to reveal himself and declare his equal grief at the loss of his erstwhile beloved. After a short tussle, Hamlet and Laertes part. Later, Hamlet explains to Horatio that he discovered Claudius’ plot to have him killed in England and forged a new letter arranging for the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. While they are conversing, Osric, a ridiculous courtier, approaches and proposes the duel between Laertes and Hamlet. Hamlet eventually accepts this challenge. The duel begins with Osric as referee. Hamlet wins the first two passes, prompting Claudius to resort to the poisoned drink. Hamlet refuses the drink. In his stead, Gertrude drinks a toast to her son from the poisoned cup. After a third pass also goes to Hamlet, Laertes sneak-attacks the prince and wounds him. A scuffle ensues in which Hamlet ends up with Laertes’ sword. He injures Laertes. Just then Gertrude collapses. She declares that she has been poisoned. Laertes, also dying, confesses the whole plot to Hamlet, who finally attacks Claudius, stabbing him with the poisoned sword and then forcing the poisoned drink down his throat. Hamlet too is dying. He asks Horatio to explain the carnage to all onlookers and tell his story. Hamlet dies. Just then, Fortinbras arrives at the court, accompanying some English ambassadors who bring word of the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. With all the immediate royalty of Denmark dead, Fortinbras asserts his right to the crown. He arranges for Hamlet to receive a soldier’s burial.
THEME 1; DEATH Death has been considered the primary theme of Hamlet by many eminent critics through the years. G. Wilson Knight, for instance, writes at length about death in the play: “Death is over the whole play. Polonius and Ophelia die during the action, and Ophelia is buried before our eyes. Hamlet arranges the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The plot is set in motion by the murder of Hamlet’s father, and the play opens with the apparition of the Ghost.” And so on and so forth. The play is really death-obsessed, as is Hamlet himself. As as A.C. Bradley has pointed out, in his very first long speech of the play, “Oh that this too solid flesh,” Hamlet seems on the verge of total despair, kept from suicide by the simple fact of spiritual awe. He is in the strange position of both wishing for death and fearing it intensely, and this double pressure gives the play much of its drama. One of the aspects of death which Hamlet finds most fascinating is its bodily facticity. We are, in the end, so much meat and bone. This strange intellectual being, which Hamlet values so highly and possesses so mightily, is but tenuously connected to an unruly and decomposing machine. In the graveyard scene, especially, we can see Hamlet’s fascination with dead bodies. How can Yorick’s skull be Yorick’s skull? Does a piece of dead earth, a skull, really have a connection to a person, a personality? Hamlet is unprecedented for the depth and variety of its meditations on death. Mortality is the shadow that darkens every scene of the play. Not that the play resolves anything, or settles any of our species-old doubts and anxieties. As with most things, we can expect to find very difficult and stimulating questions in Hamlet, but very few satisfying answers.
THEME 2; Intrigue Elsinore is full of political intrigue. The murder of Old Hamlet, of course, is the primary instance of such sinister workings, but it is hardly the only one. Polonius, especially, spends nearly every waking moment (it seems) spying on this or that person, checking up on his son in Paris, instructing Ophelia in every detail of her behavior, hiding behind tapestries to eavesdrop. He is the parody of a politician, convinced that the truth can only be known through the most roundabout and sneaking ways. This is never clearer than in his appearances in Act Two. First, he instructs Reynaldo in the most incredibly convoluted espionage methods; second, he hatches and pursues his misguided theory that Hamlet is mad because his heart has been broken by Ophelia. Claudius, too, is quite the inept Machiavellian. He naively invites Fortinbras to march across his country with a full army; he stupidly enlists Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his chief spies; his attempt to poison Hamlet ends in total tragedy. He is little better than Polonius. This political ineptitude goes a long way toward revealing how weak Denmark has become under Claudius’ rule. He is not a natural king, to be sure; he is more interested in drinking and sex than in war, reconnaissance, or political plotting. This is partly why his one successful political move, the murder of his brother, is so ironic and foul. He has somehow done away with much the better ruler, the Hyperion to his satyr (as Hamlet puts it). It’s worth noting that there is one extremely capable politician in the play — Hamlet himself. He is always on top of everyone’s motives, everyone’s doings and goings. He plays Polonius like a pipe and evades every effort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to do the same to him. He sniffs out Claudius’ plot to have him killed in England and sends his erstwhile friends off to die instead. Hamlet is a true Machiavellian when he wants to be. He certainly wouldn’t have been as warlike as his father, but had he gotten the chance he might have been his father’s equal as a ruler, simply due to his penetration and acumen.
THEME 3; Madness By the time Hamlet was written, madness was already a well-established element in many revenge tragedies. The most popular revenge tragedy of the Elizabethan period, The Spanish Tragedy, also features a main character, Hieronymo, who goes mad in the build-up to his revenge, as does the title character in Shakespeare’s first revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus. But Hamlet is unique among revenge tragedies in its treatment of madness because Hamlet’s madness is deeply ambiguous. Whereas previous revenge tragedy protagonists are unambiguously insane, Hamlet plays with the idea of insanity, putting on “an antic disposition,” as he says, for some not-perfectly-clear reason. Of course, there is a practical advantage to appearing mad. In Shakespeare’s source for the plot of Hamlet, “Amneth” (as the legendary hero is known) feigns madness in order to avoid the suspicion of the fratricidal king as he plots his revenge. But Hamlet’s feigned madness is not so simple as this. His performance of madness, rather than aiding his revenge, almost distracts him from it, as he spends the great majority of the play exhibiting very little interest in pursuing the ghost’s mission even after he has proven, via “The Mouse Trap,” that Claudius is indeed guilty as sin. No wonder, then, that Hamlet’s madness has been a resilient point of critical controversy since the seventeenth century. The traditional question is perhaps the least interesting one to ask of his madness — is he really insane or is he faking it? It seems clear from the text that he is, indeed, playing the role of the madman (he says he will do just that) and using his veneer of lunacy to have a great deal of fun with the many fools who populate Elsinore, especially Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Perhaps this feigned madness does at times edge into actual madness, in the same way that all acted emotions come very close to their genuine models, but, as he says, he is but mad north-nothwest, and knows a hawk from a handsaw. When he is alone, or with Horatio, and free from the need to act the lunatic, Hamlet is incredibly lucid and self-aware, perhaps a bit manic but hardly insaneSo what should we make of his feigned insanity? Hamlet, in keeping with the play in general, seems almost to act the madman because he knows in some bizarre way that he is playing a role in a revenge tragedy. He knows that he is expected to act mad, because he thinks that that is what one does when seeking revenge — perhaps because he has seen The Spanish Tragedy. I’m joking, of course, on one level, but he does exhibit self-aware theatricality throughout the play, and if he hasn’t seen The Spanish Tragedy, he has certainly seen The Death of Gonzago, and many more plays besides. He knows his role, or what his role should be, even as he is unable to play it satisfactorily. Hamlet is beautifully miscast as the revenger — he is constitutionally unfitted for so vulgar and unintelligent a fate — and likewise his attempt to play the madman, while a valiant effort, is forced, insincere, anxious, ambiguous, and full of doubts. Perhaps Hamlet himself, if we could ask him, would not know why he chooses to feign madness any more than we do. Needless to say, Hamlet is not the only person who goes insane in the play. Ophelia’s madness serves as a clear foil to his own strange antics. She is truly, unambiguously, innocently, simply mad. Whereas Hamlet’s madness seems to increase his self-awareness, Ophelia loses every vestige of composure and self-knowledge, just as the truly insane tend to do.
PLOT; On a dark winter night, a ghost walks the ramparts of Elsinore Castle in Denmark. Discovered first by a pair of watchmen, then by the scholar Horatio, the ghost resembles the recently deceased King Hamlet, whose brother Claudius has inherited the throne and married the king’s widow, Queen Gertrude. When Horatio and the watchmen bring Prince Hamlet, the son of Gertrude and the dead king, to see the ghost, it speaks to him, declaring ominously that it is indeed his father’s spirit, and that he was murdered by none other than Claudius. Ordering Hamlet to seek revenge on the man who usurped his throne and married his wife, the ghost disappears with the dawn. Prince Hamlet devotes himself to avenging his father’s death, but, because he is contemplative and thoughtful by nature, he delays, entering into a deep melancholy and even apparent madness. Claudius and Gertrude worry about the prince’s erratic behavior and attempt to discover its cause. They employ a pair of Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to watch him. When Polonius, the pompous Lord Chamberlain, suggests that Hamlet may be mad with love for his daughter, Ophelia, Claudius agrees to spy on Hamlet in conversation with the girl. But though Hamlet certainly seems mad, he does not seem to love Ophelia: he orders her to enter a nunnery and declares that he wishes to ban marriages. A group of traveling actors comes to Elsinore, and Hamlet seizes upon an idea to test his uncle’s guilt. He will have the players perform a scene closely resembling the sequence by which Hamlet imagines his uncle to have murdered his father, so that if Claudius is guilty, he will surely react. When the moment of the murder arrives in the theater, Claudius leaps up and leaves the room. Hamlet and Horatio agree that this proves his guilt. Hamlet goes to kill Claudius but finds him praying. Since he believes that killing Claudius while in prayer would send Claudius’s soul to heaven, Hamlet considers that it would be an inadequate revenge and decides to wait. Claudius, now frightened of Hamlet’s madness and fearing for his own safety, orders that Hamlet be sent to England at once. Hamlet goes to confront his mother, in whose bedchamber Polonius has hidden behind a tapestry. Hearing a noise from behind the tapestry, Hamlet believes the king is hiding there. He draws his sword and stabs through the fabric, killing Polonius. For this crime, he is immediately dispatched to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. However, Claudius’s plan for Hamlet includes more than banishment, as he has given Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sealed orders for the King of England demanding that Hamlet be put to death. In the aftermath of her father’s death, Ophelia goes mad with grief and drowns in the river. Polonius’s son, Laertes, who has been staying in France, returns to Denmark in a rage. Claudius convinces him that Hamlet is to blame for his father’s and sister’s deaths. When Horatio and the king receive letters from Hamlet indicating that the prince has returned to Denmark after pirates attacked his ship en route to England, Claudius concocts a plan to use Laertes’ desire for revenge to secure Hamlet’s death. Laertes will fence with Hamlet in innocent sport, but Claudius will poison Laertes’ blade so that if he draws blood, Hamlet will die. As a backup plan, the king decides to poison a goblet, which he will give Hamlet to drink should Hamlet score the first or second hits of the match. Hamlet returns to the vicinity of Elsinore just as Ophelia’s funeral is taking place. Stricken with grief, he attacks Laertes and declares that he had in fact always loved Ophelia. Back at the castle, he tells Horatio that he believes one must be prepared to die, since death can come at any moment. A foolish courtier named Osric arrives on Claudius’s orders to arrange the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. The sword-fighting begins. Hamlet scores the first hit, but declines to drink from the king’s proffered goblet. Instead, Gertrude takes a drink from it and is swiftly killed by the poison. Laertes succeeds in wounding Hamlet, though Hamlet does not die of the poison immediately. First, Laertes is cut by his own sword’s blade, and, after revealing to Hamlet that Claudius is responsible for the queen’s death, he dies from the blade’s poison. Hamlet then stabs Claudius through with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink down the rest of the poisoned wine. Claudius dies, and Hamlet dies immediately after achieving his revenge. At this moment, a Norwegian prince named Fortinbras, who has led an army to Denmark and attacked Poland earlier in the play, enters with ambassadors from England, who report that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Fortinbras is stunned by the gruesome sight of the entire royal family lying sprawled on the floor dead. He moves to take power of the kingdom. Horatio, fulfilling Hamlet’s last request, tells him Hamlet’s tragic story. Fortinbras orders that Hamlet be carried away in a manner befitting a fallen soldier