The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, usually referred to simply as Hamlet is the most famous play by William Shakespeare and is generally considered to be his best work. It was the most popular of Shakespeare's plays during his lifetime and theatrical performances of it continue to draw large audiences. The play was first performed on an unknown date some time between the years 1599 and 1602. Two text versions were published during Shakespeare's lifetime, in 1603 (the First Quarto) and 1604 (the second Quarto). A third version was published in the First Folio, the first edition of Shakespeare's complete works which was published in 1623, seven years after the writer's death. Each version contains lines and entire scenes that are missing from the other two. Most modern texts of the play are based on the version from the First Folio with some additional lines from the Second Quarto.
The title character and protagonist is Prince Hamlet the son of the former king of Denmark. Hamlet's father, King Hamlet, has recently died suddenly and has been succeeded by his brother, Hamlet's uncle, whose name is Claudius. Claudius has also married Gertrude, the previous king's wife and Hamlet's mother. The ghost of Hamlet's father appears. He explains that he was murdered by Claudius and tells Hamlet to kill Claudius in revenge. Hamlet is uncertain if the ghost is really that of his father, fearing that it might be the Devil, but seeks to uncover the truth. For his own protection, he pretends to be mad while he tries to find out if Claudius really did kill his father and while he plots revenge.
The story is based on a Danish legend which is similar to other stories that exist in the folklore of Ireland and Iceland. The first written version appeared in the 13th century Latin book Historia Danica by the Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus. The story was rewritten in French by the 16th century writer Francois de Belleforest. Shakespeare probably read de Belleforest's version. It is widely believed that there was an earlier Elizabethan play about the Hamlet story, which has now been lost, by another writer which Shakespeare would have seen. Some scholars have suggested that Shakespeare himself wrote the earlier version of Hamlet.
Scholars have debated for centuries whether or not the character of Hamlet merely continues to pretend being mad or if he actually goes mad. Another point of discussion is why Hamlet waits so long to take revenge on Claudius. Sigmund Freud suggested that Hamlet's inaction was as a result of unresolved feelings towrds his parents.
The play takes place in the castle of Elsinore in the Kingdom of Denmark. The play opens outside the castle. Three soldiers, Bernardo, Francisco and Marcellus, are joined by Horatio a student and friend of hamlet's. The three soldiers say that they have seen the ghost of Hamlet's father, the previous king Old Hamlet. Horatio is skeptical until he sees the ghost himself. he tries to speak to the ghost but it disappears at dawn without speaking. The four agree to tell Prince Hamlet about what they have seen.
The next scene introduces Hamlet, the courtier Polonius and his son Laertes, Hamlet's mother Gertrude and his uncle Claudius the new king and the new husband of Hamlet's mother. Claudius gives Laertes permission to return to Paris to continue his studies but does not allow Hamlet to return to university in Wittenberg. Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo enter and tell Hamlet about the ghost.
The following scene introduces Polonius' daughter Ophelia. There appears to be a romantic relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia but she is warned by Laertes and Polonius that Hamlet is her social superior and therefore will not marry her.
In the final scene of Act I, Hamlet waits for the arrival of the ghost with Horatio and the soldiers. The ghost leads Hamlet away from the others and tells him that he was murdered by his brother Claudius. The ghost tells Hamlet to kill Claudius in revenge but to do no harm to his mother. Hamlet rejoins the others, tells them that he has a purpose to fulfill and will pretend to be mad in order to carry it out. He makes the others promise not to reveal they know he is not really mad.
At the beginning of Act II, Ophelia tells her father Polonius that Hamlet has been acting strangely. Polonius thinks that Hamlet has gone mad because he is lovesick for Ophelia.
Two of Hamlet's fellow students, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are brought to Elsinore and told by Claudius and Gertrude to find out the cause of Hamlet's madness.
Claudius is told that the army of Prince Fortinbras of Norway will pass through Denmark on its way to attack Poland.
Polonius informs Claudius and Gertrude that he thinks love for Ophelia has driven Hamlet mad. Polonius tries to speak to Hamlet but can get no sense out of him.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak to Hamlet. He reveals that he knows they were sent to spy on him. They tell him that a troupe of actors are on the way to the castle.
The actors arrive. Hamlet asks the leader of the troupe to perform a play called The Murder of Gonzago in front of the king and all of the court. The play shows a man being murdered in the way in which the ghost told Hamlet that he was killed. Hamlet wants the play to be performed in order to find out if what the ghost said was true.
Following Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, Claudius and Polonius spy on a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet speaks very harshly to the young woman, convincing Claudius that love for Ophelia is not the cause of Hamlet's madness.
The play is performed in front of the king and the court. Claudius stops the play before the end. Hamlet now knows that Claudius murdered his father but Claudius also knows that Hamlet has discovered the truth.
Hamlet is told by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that his mother wants to talk to him in private. Claudius tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they will soon leave for England with Hamlet. Polonius tells the king that he will hide behind a tapestry and spy on the meeting between Hamlet and his mother.
On the way to the meeting with his mother, Hamlet sees Claudius on his own praying. Hamlet has the opportunity to kill the king but decides not to, arguing that if Claudius were killed while praying his soul would go straight to Heaven.
During the meeting with his mother, Hamlet finds out that there is someone hiding behind the tapestry. Believing that it is Claudius, hamlet stabs at the person with his sword, only to find out that he has killed Polonius.
The ghost of Hamlet's father reappears, Hamlet sees and hears the ghost but his mother does not. The ghost chides Hamlet for not having taken revenge on Claudius and reminds him not to harm his mother.
Hamlet reminds his mother that he will be leaving for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who he does not trust, and leaves dragging away the corpse of Polonius.
Claudius asks Hamlet where he has hidden the dead body of Polonius and reminds him that he will soon be leaving for England. After Hamlet leaves, Claudius reveals that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be carrying a letter telling the king of England to put Hamlet to death.
On his way to the ship, Hamlet sees the army of Prince Fortinbras heading for Poland. He is impressed that Fortinbras is prepared to take action simply to obtain a small piece of land. He is disappointed with himself for not having taken action against Claudius.
It is revealed that, following the murder of her father, Ophelia has gone mad. Laertes returns to Denmark, initially prepared to kill Claudius who he thinks is responsible for his father's death.
Horatio and Claudius both receive letters telling them that Hamlet has escaped being put to death in England and has returned to Denmark. Claudius persuades Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a fencing match, during which Hamlet will be killed.
Act IV ends with the revelation that Ophelia has drowned herself.
Act V opens in a graveyard where a man is digging Ophelia's grave, displacing old bones in the process. Hamlet and Horatio arrive. Hamlet asks the gravedigger whose grave it is, but does not get a straight answer, and asks how long it takes for people to decompose. The gravedigger shows hi a skull that he says belonged to Yorick the jester.
Hamlet and Horatio hide when they see the king and the entire court arrive for a funeral. When he finds out that it is Ophelia's funeral, Hamlet reveals himself and proclaims that he loved her. he is attacked by Laertes but they are separated and Hamlet leaves.
Back at Elsinore castle, Hamlet tells Horatio that he read the letter carried by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and replaced it with one telling the king of England to put Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to death instead. A courtier arrives and tells Hamlet that Laertes wishes to challenge him to a fencing match.
During the fencing match, Claudius places a pearl coated in poison in a cup of wine for Hamlet and Laertes uses a sharp sword that is also coated in poison. Hamlet does not drink the wine but his mother does. Laertes and Hamlet are both scratched by the poisoned sword. Gertrude dies from drinking the poisoned wine. Before he dies, Laertes tells Hamlet that Claudius is to blame. Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword and forces him to drink the poisoned wine. While he is dying, Hamlet tells Horatio not to commit suicide and follow him because he must tell people what has happened. It is announced that Fortinbras is approaching the castle and the dying Hamlet chooses him to be the next king of Denmark.
Hamlet's soliloquy: To be, or not to be
In Act III scene i of Hamlet is what is one of the most famous speeches in the English language. Almost everyone recognizes the phrase "to be, or not to be" whether or not they know its source. And scholars have debated its meaning for centuries.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Hamlet is the most filmed of Shakespeare's plays and the second most filmed story in the history of cinema, after "Cinderella".
The first successful screen adaptation of Hamlet was a five-minute excerpt from the play which starred the French actress Sarah Bernhardt as the prince. The movie was an early talkie, in that a phonograph recording of music and dialog was made which was intended to be played while the film was being shown. Silent versions of Hamlet were made in 1907, 1908, 1913, 1917 and 1920. The 1920 version stars the Danish actress Asta nielsen as the title character. In the final scene it is revealed that Hamlet was really a princess who was raised as a boy.
The 1948 black and white version directed by and starring Laurence Olivier won the Academy Award for best picture and Olivier won the award for best actor. Olivier considered the movie to be an essay on Hamlet's psychology rather than a performance of Hamlet. The screenplay is a heavily abridged version of the play with several characters being left out.
Franco Zeffereli's 1990 movie version is also a heavily abridged version of the play. The movie stars Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glenn Close as his mother Gertrude. The costumes, scenery and weapons used in the movie were designed to clearly show that the story took place some nine hundred years ago.
Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version runs for four hours. Every word of the standard text of Shakespeare's play (a combination of the texts from the First Folio and the Second Quarto) is included. The movie is set in the mid 19th century and was filmed at Blenheim Palace, an 18th-century building in England. Flashbacks are used to show happier times in Hamlet's earlier life.
Michael Almereyda's 2000 version starring Ethan Hawke as the title character moves the story to present-day New York City. Claudius becomes the CEO of Denmark Corporation who has murdered his brother to take control of the country.
Grigori Kozintsev's 1964 black and white Russian language version which stars Innokenty Smoktanovsky as the prince is generally considered to be the best movie version by Shakespeare aficionados. It has been praised by both Sir Laurnce Olivier and Kenneth Brannagh.
One of the more unusual movie adaptations of Hamlet is Enzo G. Castellari's 1968 spaghetti western Johnny Hamlet which stars Andrea Giordana as Johnny Hamilton, the Hamlet character. The movie's original Italian title is Quella sporca storia nel' West, which means "That Dirty Story in the West", suggesting that is a familiar old story in a new setting. Upon hearing that his father has been murdered by a notorious Mexican bandit, Johnny Hamilton returns from fighting in the American Civil War to his hometown of Danark. He finds that his Uncle Claude has married his mother and taken control of El Señor, the family ranch. Uncle Claude claims to have avenged his murdered brother by killing the bandit who slew him but Johnny doubts the truth of what his uncle says. Apart from the setting, the movie is an unusual adaptation in that the Hamlet character remains alive at the end of the story.
- Sound files of public domain audiobooks from LibriVox;
- ↑ "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark". First Folio 1623; copied from Wikipedia's article on To be, or not to be