Hamlet and the Gravediggers, 1883 detail)
Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997. Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary, except as otherwise noted.
Overall Impression: An incomparable play, deeply moving and filled with timeless and profound language.
Per Bevington: The ultimate source is Saxo Grammaticus' "Historia Danica" 1180-1208, which tells the saga of Amlethus and emphasizes cunning and revenge. Amlethus' father Horwendil is the Governor of Jutland, who kills the King of Norway in single combat and wins the hand of Gerutha, daughter of the King of Denmark. The envious Feng slays his brother Horwendil and marries Gerutha. Amlethus feigns madness, is sent to Britain with secret orders to be executed, but foils this plot... This work was translated into "Histoires Tragiques" by Francois de Belleforest 1576. But WS prob. used an old Hamlet play. There are also many similarities to the Kyd play The Spanish Tragedy. A German play, "Der bestrafte Brudermord" (Fratricide Punished) is similar to the now lost manuscript on which Hamlet may have based.
Principal motifs/events: Healthy exterior concealing an interior sickness; concealed evil; humanity's fallen condition; incest of the uncle and Gertrude. Few persons know of the murder: Hamlet, Claudius, and Horatio belatedly. Polonius dies for meddling and is more complicit than he might seem in helping Claudius gain the throne. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern condemn themselves by interceding in deadly affairs they do not understand. Ophelia becomes an instrument by passively yielding to her father's demands. She and Gertrude oversimplify his dilemma. Polonius also distorts the complex truth and is complacent in his own analysis. Does Hamlet delay excessively? Modern analysis has emphasized the Oedipal trauma of Hamlet vs. Gertrude and the absurdity of action itself in a corrupt world. Three men, Fortinbras, Laertes, and Hamlet are called upon to avenge their fathers. Laertes is impulsive, Fortinbras is resolute but his efforts to win Poland are absurd and futile. Hamlet contemplates suicide. His path must lie between the rash suddenness of Laertes or the resoluteness of Fortinbras and the passivity of Ophelia or Gertrude and the stoic resignation of Horatio. The ghost demands revenge. Play ends in tragic waste. Justice has been fulfilled in a wild and extravagant way.
Per William R. Streitberger: he emphasizes that all sexual relations in this play are depicted as dirty and vile. This play is in the revenge play genre.
Elsinore castle, Denmark. Bernardo and Francisco, two sentinels, meet around midnight and are joined by Horatio (Hamlet's true friend and fellow Wittenberg student) and another watch Marcellus, who relieves Francisco (who has seen nothing). Marcellus and Bernardo tell Horatio of the apparition that has twice appeared around 1 AM. The ghost arrives in the form of the recently deceased King of Denmark, in full armor as when he defeated the King of Norway and on another occasion the Poles. Horatio attempts to talk to it, but it seems offended and leaves. Horatio suspects "some strange eruption to our state".
Marcellus asks why the need for the intense watch and the preparations for war including casting of cannons, etc. Horatio explains "our last king", old Hamlet, was challenged to combat by old Fortinbras, then King of Norway, and slayed him. By this act old Hamlet won lands formerly conquered by old Fortinbras [and the Norwegian kingdom subsequently went to Fortinbras' brother herein called only "Norway"]. Young Fortinbras has on the outskirts of Norway been raising an army to recover the lands his father lost to Denmark, his lost inheritance. Horatio recalls that in ancient Rome just before Julius Caesar fell there were portents such as the opening of graves and walking of ghosts in the streets, comets, eclipses, etc. and implies the ghost might be the same.
The ghost reappears, and Horatio asks it to tell them what it knows of their country's fate. But the cock crows and the ghost leaves, causing them to try to strike at it to detain it. Marcellus regrets their attempted violence to it, and notes it is invulnerable like the air. As dawn breaks, Horatio suggests they tell Hamlet of these events, suspecting the ghost will speak to him.
The castle. The new King of Denmark, Claudius (brother to the deceased king old Hamlet) enters with Gertrude the Queen (formerly wife of old Hamlet) and retinue. Claudius advises the court how his sorrow for his brother's death is mixed with his joy at marrying his new wife, and is thankful for the latter. He tells of Fortinbras' assumption that Denmark is weakened by the Danish king's death and his request for the return of the lands previously lost by his father. Claudius has written to the aged and bed-ridden king of Norway (i.e., brother to old Fortinbras) to ask him to restrain his nephew Fortinbras, and sends Cornelius and Voltimand on this diplomatic mission.
King asks Laertes what his plans are. L. is Polonius' son. King describes Polonius glowingly as apparently having played a critical role in bringing him to the throne: "The head is not more native to the heart,/The hand more instrumental to the mouth,/Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father." [This raises the unresolved question as to how complicit he was in the murder of old Hamlet]. L. who has come to attend the coronation, wishes to return to France. P. has granted his permission for this, and here the King also does so.
King asks Hamlet why he is so gloomy, and H. answers cryptically and bitterly with clever puns: "A little more than kin and less than kind" and "I am too much in the sun." Gertrude appeals to him to cast off his gloom and mourning, saying "Do not for ever with thy vailed lids/Seek for thy noble father in the dust:/Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die." But Hamlet says his inner core is even more gloomy than his exterior: "But I have that within which passeth show;/These but the trappings and the suits of woe." King appeals to his reason about the naturalness of a father's death, and gently rebukes him: "but to persever/In obstinate condolement is a course/Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;/It shows a will most incorrect to heaven", a "fault against the dead". He reminds H. that H. is the next in succession [though his rightful inheritance has been supplanted by Claudius]. He tells him he does not want H. to return to Wittenberg [a German university founded in 1502, anachronistic with respect to the much earlier historical setting of the source work], a request echoed by Gertrude. H. consents to obey her. King is happy with this and calls for drinking and celebration of this with cannon shots.
Left alone, H. contemplates suicide and laments "O, that this too too sullied [or solid] flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!", etc. and decries his mother ("Frailty, thy name is woman") and the haste with which the marriage took place ("O, most wicked speed, to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!")
Horatio arrives with Marcellus and Bernardo. Horatio says he came for his father's funeral but H. darkly jokes that it was for his mother's wedding--Horatio confirms it "followed hard upon". H. says the funeral leftovers fed the wedding feast. H. thinks he sees his father "in his mind's eye" and comments "'A [He] was a man. Take him for all in all,/I shall not look upon his like again." Horatio says he saw his father, and tells him of the apparition the three men have seen. The ghost had a sorrowful pale countenance. H. resolves to see for himself and asks them to say nothing. Alone he reflects: "My father's spirit in arms! All is not well;/I doubt [suspect] some foul play! Would the night were come!/Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise,/Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes."
Polonius' chambers. Laertes and Ophelia enter their father's chamber alone. L. cautions Ophelia about Hamlet's attentions to her, saying they are but "the perfume and suppliance of a minute" and "his will is not his own" and that she should not "your chaste treasure open". She graciously accepts his advice, though she counters: "Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,/Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,/Whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine/
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads/and recks [heeds] not his own rede [counsel]."
Polonius arrives and gives L. some wise precepts suitable for a young man going away, including "This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man." [His characterization is a blend of foolishness, craftiness, fatherly concern, and wisdom]. He also asks O. about her relationship to Hamlet. She says he has "made many tenders of affection to me" and "importuned me with love in an honorable fashion". But P. also is concerned with her chastity and asks her not to see or communicate with Hamlet further. O. says dutifully she will obey her father.
Guard platform. Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus arrive on a cold night. In the background, they hear the cannon shot, trumpets, and kettledrum which go off as the King drinks and carouses. Hamlet describes the drinking custom to Horatio, who apparently is not from around there, "Though I am native here/And to the manner born, it is a custom/More honored in the breach than the observance." He deplores the way this gives their country a reputation for excess drink, reflecting and extending his observation to how in some cases a man with a personal blemish or fault "Shall in the general censure take corruption/From that particular fault".
The Ghost appears, and Hamlet refers to him as Hamlet, asking "What may this mean,/That thou, dead corpse, again in complete steel/Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon,/Making night hideous, and we fools of nature/So horridly to shake our disposition/With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?/ Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?" The ghost wants him to follow it to converse alone, and Horatio is concerned that the ghost may endanger Hamlet. But H. has little concern for his life and threatens to kill anyone who will stop him from talking with it. Marcellus observes "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark."
The battlements of the castle. Hamlet and Ghost are alone. Ghost says "I am thy father's spirit,/Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,/.../List, list, O, list!/If thou didst ever thy dear father love/.../Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder./Murder most foul, as in the best it is;/But this most foul, strange and unnatural./.../The serpent that did sting thy father's life/Now wears his crown." He says Claudius seduced his mother while he still lived: "So lust, though to a radiant angel linked,/Will sate itself in a celestial bed,/And prey on garbage." [This is one of many sexual metaphors depicting its dirtiness and vileness.] Claudius poured a poison in his ear as he slept in his orchard, which instantly produced a leprous skin transformation and killed him before he could receive the Sacrament or Extreme Unction [and is thus left in an undesirable state, perhaps Purgatory]. He asks "Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven/And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,/To prick and sting her." [Thus he leaves it unclear if she had any role in or knowledge of the murder.] He ends "Adieu; adieu; adieu! Remember me."
Left alone, Hamlet swears to put aside all else and follow his father's commandment for revenge. Horatio and Marcellus return, and Hamlet refuses to tell them what was said, though he says it was an honest ghost. He makes them swear to never tell what they saw, heard, or anything about why Hamlet may subsequently take on antic behavior, saying also "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Polonius' chambers. P. gives Reynaldo money and notes. He is sending him to Paris to spy on his son Laertes' behavior. The spy will use deception and misrepresentation, talking of Laertes' minor sins and "slight sullies" but not putting any major scandal on him, as bait to draw out information.
Ophelia enters. She has been frightened by Hamlet, who appeared to her improperly clothed, perused her face, shook her arm, etc. Polonius misinterprets this as "the very ecstasy of love". She assures her father she has been repelling his advances and letters. P. plans to take this to the King.
The castle. King welcomes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, apparently fellow students Hamlet has known since childhood. He has hastily sent for them in secret to help him find out if the cause of Hamlet's transformation is other than his father's death. They are led away to Hamlet.
Polonius enters, to say the ambassadors to Norway are returned and that he has found the cause of Hamlet's lunacy. Ambassadors Voltimand and Cornelius enter and say Norway has taken measures to rebuke and suppress Fortinbras' levies and plans to march against Denmark. Fortinbras has pledged not to take arms against Denmark and has been given 3000 crowns to pursue his ambitions instead against Poland, asking only for permission to pass through Denmark on his way there. King is happy with this news.
Polonius then takes up his wordy explanation for Hamlet's behavior, saying "Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,/And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,/I will be brief. Your noble son is mad." Gertrude requests "More matter, with less art." Polonius babbles on, and gives them a love letter from H. to O. pledging his love and asking she not doubt him. P. explains how he had asked O. not to receive Hamlet's affections, and this caused H. to fall into a madness. King is dubious this is the full explanation and P. offers to further explore "where truth is hid". He offers to "loose my daughter to him" while he hides behind the arras [hanging tapestry] and listens.
Hamlet enters reading a book, with only P. nearby. [Here and elsewhere, it is unclear just to what extent H. is exactly following his plan of playing mad vs. being actually mentally deranged.] He calls P. a fishmonger, says an honest man is one in ten thousand, warns him of his daughter conceiving from walking in the sun, etc. Asked what he reads, he says "Words, words, words" and further offers "slanders" and suggests that P. could grow young like him "if like a crab/you could go backward." P. wonders "Though this be madness, yet there is method in 't." He resolves to contrive the meeting between H. and O. H. wishes P. could as easily take Hamlet's life as take his leave [thus he again is expressing suicidal thoughts].
Guildenstern and Rosencrantz greet Hamlet. [R&G often seem to take a superficial and baser view of things compared to the deeper and more introspective Hamlet.] They spar verbally about Fortune, which H. calls a strumpet. H. calls Denmark a prison. Ros. suggests it is H.'s ambition that makes it so, but H. answers "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." He presses R&G as to why they have come, and forces out of them that they were sent for, presenting his interpretation of why the king and queen did so: "I have of late ... lost all my mirth...What a piece of work is a man! ... Man delights not me... this quintessence of dust."
Ros. mentions the arrival of players, tragedians of the city, which brightens up Hamlet. They discuss how city actors are held in less esteem than before the current fad for children's acting companies, and that the players are now tarred in controversy. H. alludes to the lack of public respect for his uncle prior to his taking the throne.
The players enter and H. welcomes them to Elsinore, though he speaks with irony about the outward appearance of cordiality he assumes. He refers to his "uncle-father" and "aunt-mother".
P. enters to tell H. of the arrival of the actors, and babbles on about their skills in "tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical ..." [the various current play genres of WS's era]. H. to P. refers to Ophelia as like Jephtha's daughter [who was sacrificed by Jephtha in Judges 1.1]. H. calls for a speech and recites some of the lines about the slaughter of the Trojan king Priam by the Greek Pyrrhus [Achilles' avenging son] from the Aeneid. The First Player continues the lines about the killing. P. says it is too long but H. insists they continue describing the lament of queen Hecuba in seeing her husband being slaughtered [here H. seem to anticipate the pain he hopes to cause his own mother]. P. marvels that the player is shedding real tears at this tale. Hamlet dismisses the players, reflecting "Let them [the players] be well used, for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live." [Seemingly a real expression of WS's view regarding the importance of drama in culture beyond mere entertainment.]
H. speaks in private to the First Player, asking him to stage the Italian play "The Murder of Gonzago" and to include some 12-16 lines H. will write. Alone, H. reflects on how the player was able to force tears from his eyes as he recounted the suffering of Hecuba, who means nothing to any of them, whereas if the player had the motivation that H. has in his own suffering he would flood the stage with tears. H. must remain silent. "Am I a coward?" He ruminates on vengeance and plots how the play-within-a-play will bring out evidence of guilt in the king. Before taking revenge, he requires proof beyond the words of the ghost: "The spirit that I have seen/May be the devil, and the devil hath power/T' assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps/Out of my weakness and my melancholy,/As he is very potent with such spirits,/Abuses me to damn me. I'll have grounds/More relative than this. The play's the thing/Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."
The Castle. King discusses his strategy with R&G to use them to find out what is at the root of Hamlet's behavior. Guild. says H. "with a crafty madness keeps aloof." P. tells the King that H. wants King to see the play, and King agrees happily. King and P. remain as the others are sent away, and hide to hear H. as he confronts O. [She has explicitly agreed to obey the wish of the King and Queen in being used as bait in this manner.]
H. enters and soliloquizes: "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?" He is wondering about suicide but fears what is on the other side of dying: "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause." and "Who would fardels [burdens] bear,/To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/But that the dread of something after death,/The undiscovered country from whose bourn [frontier]/No traveler returns, puzzles the will, And makes us rather bear those ills we have/Than fly to others that we know not of?/Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/And thus the native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,/And enterprises of great pith and moment/With this regard their currents turn awry/And lose the name of action."
He greets O. She who wants to return his love tokens, since he has cruelly spurned her ("Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.") H. speaks cruelly and harshly to her: "Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness" and "I did love you once" and "I loved you not." He says "Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me ... What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?" He asks O. where her father is [perhaps he already suspects P. is spying on him?] He says "If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny" and "I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already--all but one--shall live; the rest shall keep as they are." O. says "what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" [is he truly mad at this point?] After H. leaves, King emerges and says it is not love or madness that H. suffers from but something fearful: "...Though it lacked form a little,/Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,/O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,/And I do doubt [fear] the hatch and the disclose/Will be some danger." He resolves to send H. to England ostensibly to demand tribute owed to Denmark. But P. still thinks it is love, and suggests the Queen talk further with H. and he will listen in. The king warns "Madness in great ones must not unwatched go."
The castle. H. gives extended advice to the Players [which seems to represent WS's beliefs on acting]: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue... Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature... O, there be players ... have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature's journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably... And let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them."
Horatio arrives and H. praises his virtue and value as a true male friend: "Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice/And could of men distinguish her election/Sh' hath sealed thee for herself, for thou hast been/As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,/A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards/Hast ta'en with equal thanks /.../ Give me that man/That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him/In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,/As I do thee." H. secretly enlists him to observe the King's reaction to the play.
King arrives and H. jests and puns that he eats air as does the chameleon. He asks P. about his days as a player, and P. says he played Julius Caesar and was killed in the Capitol. H. declines to sit by Ros. and asks O. if he shall "lie in your lap?" He continues to mock her with sexual allusions (e.g., "country matters") and again recalls bitterly how quickly his uncle married his mother after his father's death. [H. tends to exaggeratedly compress time intervals, here claiming it was only 2 hours interval.] When O. corrects him, he bitterly observes "Then there's hope a great man's memory may outlive his life half a year."
A preliminary version of the murder play is enacted in mime, the "Dumb show". [Claudius apparently does not seem to react to the poison in the ear episode.] H. claims to O. this show means mischief and jests that the prologue is brief, "As woman's love."
The play-within-the-play begins. The Player King and the Player Queen converse. They have been married 30 years. He is sick will die soon and he expresses his recognition that she will eventually want to take another husband. But she denies this and assures him she will be true to him: "Such love must needs be treason in my breast." and "The instances that second marriage move/Are base respects of thrift, but none of love./A second time I kill my husband dead/When second husband kisses me in bed." But the King is pragmatic, saying "I do believe you think what now you speak,/But what we do determine oft we break./Purpose is but the slave to memory/.../Our wills and fates do so contrary run/That our devices still are overthrown;/Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own./So think thou wilt no second husband wed,/But die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead." But still the PQ protests "...pursue me lasting strife,/If, once a widow, ever I be wife!" and to this Gertrude remarks to H. "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." H. remarks "they do but jest, poison in jest." King asks H. what the play is called and H. calls it "The Mousetrap" and claims it "touches us not." H. makes more bawdy comments to O. and says "Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge." The player Lucianus pours poison in Gonzago's ear and H. provides further commentary, but the King is suddently markedly perturbed and calls for light, then leaves.
Left alone with Horatio, they agree that the guilty expression on the king's face has proven the word of the ghost. R&G arrive, informing H. that the king is marvelous distempered, to which H. makes many puns. The queen has sent G. to fetch H. H. continues to deliberately misinterpret what they say. Ros. wants to know from him what is the cause of his own distemper. H. grabs a recorder from a passing player and demands to have Ros. play it, which Ros. is unable to do, then H. angrily says "...'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me." P. arrives to call H. to the queen. Left alone, H. says "'Tis now the very witching time of night,/When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out/Contagion to this world.... /now to my mother./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."
The castle. King is angry, fears Hamlet's madness, and wants him dispatched to England [where he is to executed] with R&G. Ros. praises the king and remarks how the afflictions of a king impact the entire state: "The cess [decease] of majesty/Dies not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw/What's near it with it/...Never alone/Did the king sigh, but with a general groan." P. plans to eavesdrop while H. meets with his mother. Left alone, the king is overcome with guilt and remorse for his actions: "O, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven." Unsure how he can possibly ask for forgiveness, since he still possesses the fruits of his crime, he nevertheless kneels and prays. H. enters unseen and contemplates killing him there, drawing his sword, then deciding against it. H. rationalizes that King would be better prepared to go to heaven if killed while in prayer, whereas H. wants better revenge against him and for him to go to hell. He envisions instead killing him while in incestuous pleasure or drunk asleep. King knows his prayer is futile: "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thoughts never to heaven go."
Queen private chamber. Queen meets with Polonius, who hides behind the arras [hanging tapestry]. H. arrives. They exchange accusations of offending the current and past king. She wonders if he plans to kill her.
H. hears a sound behind the arras and stabs Polonius with his rapier, thinking it is the king. On discovering who it is, he says "I took thee for thy better." He continues to lambast his mother for her infidelity, and compares Claudius ("like a mildewed ear") to the god-like Old Hamlet. She is too old he says to feel sexual passion, and he condemns her shameful behavior. She is distraught, saying "Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,/And there I see such black and grained spots/As will not leave their tinct." [Does this mean she also feels complicit in her husband's death?] H. envisions her sexual relations in the filthiest terms: "Nay, but to live/In the rank sweat of an enseamed [greasy and filthy] bed, /Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love/Over the nasty sty." H. compares her current husband to a murderer. The ghost of Old Hamlet appears though only to H., "to whet thy almost blunted purpose". Queen thinks H. is mad, as she sees nothing while H. talks to the ghost. She says "This is the very coinage of your brain." But he counters "Mother, for love of grace,/Lay not that flattering unction to your soul/That not your trespass but my madness speaks./It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,/Whiles rank corruption, mining all within, /Infects unseen." [again invoking an image of disease within covered up by a film.] H. insists she not go to her new husband's bed any further and begin a life of abstinence [obviously she does not live up to this request]. He repents his killing of P., but envisions himself as like a scourge sent from heaven to deliver punishment. He asks that she not divulge that he is not mad, and she agrees. H. tells her he is to be sent to England, and "my two schoolfellows,/ Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged,/They bear the mandate;/they must sweep my way/And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;/For 'tis the sport to have the enginer/Hoist with his own petard." [Enginer=maker of military contrivances; Hoist=blown up; Petard=explosive to blow down a door or make a breach.]
Castle. King wants to know from Queen where H. is. She says he is mad as the sea and wind, and has killed P. King views H. as a threat to them all. He wants to hush up P.'s murder and bury him quietly, and ship H. to England promptly. He asks R&G to find P.'s body.
Castle. H. plays games with Ros. about where P. body is, acting as if mad.
Same. King confronts H. and again demands to know where P. is. H. plays with him, saying P. is at supper with worms. King tells him "every thing is bent for England." H. plays more word games with King, calling him "mother". Left alone, King reflects that the letters he is sending call for Hamlet's execution.
Coast of Denmark. Fortinbras has landed and is preparing to march to win some land in Poland. Hamlet encounters a captain, who disparages the effort: "We go to gain a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name./ To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;/Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole/A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee." H. ponders the impending futile loss of 20,000 men and observes "This is th' imposthume [abscess] of much wealth and peace,/That inward breaks, and shows no cause without/Why the man dies." [again a metaphor of inward and concealed sickness]. To himself he reflects how he has been stymied for now: "How all occasions do inform against me,/And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,/If his chief good and market of his time/Be but to sleep and feed?" He is unsure himself why he has not yet had his revenge on King, and he compares the resolve of the large army to his own irresolution [?], deciding at the end "O, from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!"
Castle. A gentleman informs the queen O. wishes to speak to her, and she agrees though reluctantly. The man fears O. may spread dangerous conjectures about her father's death, the cause of which has been covered up. Queen's soul is sick. O. enters, distracted, singing mildly bawdy songs: "He is dead and gone, lady..." and "Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,/And dupped the chamber door,/Let in the maid, that out a maid/Never departed more." and "Young men will do't, if they come to 't;/By cock, they are to blame./Quoth she, 'Before you tumbled me,/You promised me to wed..." She departs saying "good night, sweet ladies" and King asks Horatio to follow her.
King laments "O, this is the poison of deep grief; it springs/All from her father's death--and now behold!/O Gertrude, Gertrude,/When sorrows come, they come not single spies/But in battalions." He says the people have unwholesome thoughts about Polonius' hushed-up death and burial, that Laertes has returned, etc. Laertes arrives angrily, after a messenger mentions that the people want him to be king.
Laertes rashly demands to know where his father is, spurning allegiance to the king, and demanding revenge. King says he himself is guiltless. O. enters, and L. is anguished to see her mad state. She is talking of flowers, each having a symbolic significance, though the violets [emblems of faithfulness] withered with the death of her father. She sings about a dead old man, presumably whom she equates to her dead father: "And will 'a not come again?/.../No, no, he is dead/He never will come again./His beard was as white as snow..." King pledges to explain to L. the reason for his father's obscure funeral.
Castle. Horatio meets First Sailor, who presents letters to him (some are for the king) from Hamlet. H. says in the letter to Horatio that after only 2 days at sea, H.'s ship was attacked by pirates, who took him prisoner, and that R&G continue on course for England.
Castle. King meets with Laertes. He reads the letter from H., who says he has landed "naked" on his shores and wishes to see him the next day. King flatters Laertes regarding his skill with swordsmanship. He craftily wins Laertes to his plan to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword, and if necessary with poisoned wine as a backup. In this he appeals to Laertes' rash desire for prompt action.
Queen enters saying "One woe doth tread upon another's heel/So fast they follow." Ophelia is dead. Queen gives a poignant description of her death: "There is a willow grows askant the brook..." Laertes weeps and pledges a speech of fire to come. King tells Queen they must follow L. as he fears Laertes may still do something rash.
A churchyard. First and Second clowns are digging a grave for Ophelia. They debate whether she is entitled to a Christian burial--one argues she might have drowned herself in her own defense, and concludes only because she was a gentlewoman is she being allowed this privilege. They joke about gallows makers and grave makers. As one goes to fetch liquor, Hamlet arrives with Horatio and comments on their irreverence as they go about digging the grave, tossing out skulls and joking. Hamlet reflects on the skulls and the abuse they receive now despite their potentially noble former existences, perhaps a singer, politician, courtier, lawyer, buyer of land, etc. He asks the clown who the grave is for and clown jokes and puns further. H. refers to "this three years I have took note of it." [What does he refer to in 3 years, the time he has been away?] He asks how long the man has been a grave digger, and he replies that he came when old Hamlet defeated Fortinbras and young Hamlet was born, thirty years ago [thus Hamlet is now 30 y/o].
Clown identifies a skull that has lain there in the ground for 23 years, that of the King's jester, Yorick. Hamlet recalls the man: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in my imagination it is!..." He thus reflects on the horrors of death and decay, an end even his lady [?mother] will come to: "Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come." He wonders if Alexander the Great came to such an ignominious fate and comments: "To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung-hole?" He continues his reflection on Julius Caesar's fate: "Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,/Might stop a hole to keep the wind away. /O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe/Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!"
King, Queen, Laertes, and a Priest enter with others, along with the corpse of Ophelia. Hamlet is not yet seen. H. notes how incomplete the ceremony appears to be and suspects the deceased is a suicide. Laertes is distraught with the priest, who states "Her obsequies have been as far enlarged/As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful" and refuses to do more ceremony for her. L. angrily proclaims "Lay her i' th' earth,/And from her fair and unpolluted flesh/May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest, A ministering angel shall my sister be/When thou liest howling." H. realizes it is Ophelia. Queen says "Sweets to the sweet! Farewell. I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife./I thought thy bride-bed to have decked, sweet maid,/And not have strewed thy grave." Laertes leaps into the grave and tearfully embraces his sister.
H. comes forward and announces himself as Hamlet the Dane [i.e., as if he were king.] L. attacks him, but H. declines to fight and warns him off. He claims he loved Ophelia and that his grief is as great as theirs. Queen says he is still mad. H. dismisses L.'s unstoppable abuse toward him: "Let Hercules himself do what he may,/The cat will mew, and dog will have his day" and departs. King privately tells Laertes they will put their plan for murder in action and says to Queen that the grave will soon have a living monument guards or Hamlet's death].
The castle. H. tells Horatio the events while he was away. H. recounts how he saved himself from death and reflects "There's a divinity that shapes our ends". Aboard the ship to England, he found the letters commanding his death and altered them so that they now called for the execution of R&G, affixing the signet [seal] he had from his dead father. The next day, they were attacked by pirates, and he was taken from the ship. H. reflects of the meddling of R&G in affairs they did not understand: "'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes/ Between the pass and fell incensed points/Of mighty opposites." H. says he wants to take action against Claudius, and Horatio warns that soon they will all know what transpired in England, though news has not yet come back. H. regrets his hostile behavior to Laertes and resolves to court his favors.
Osric, a courtier, arrives and in florid language (which Hamlet mocks) presents the king's proposal of a contest with rapier [2-edged narrow-bladed sword with pointed tip, though H. later refers to them as foils] and dagger [these do not actually appear in the contest] between H. and Laertes. The king has "wagered on your head", giving odds as if Hamlet were more likely to win. The contest is to proceed immediately. Queen wants H. to treat Laertes kindly before the contest. H. is confident he will win. Horatio has misgivings about the contest and wants H. to stall, but H. wishes to proceed. He speaks fatalistically: "There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is't to leave betimes [early]? Let be."
The court assembles. H. asks for Laertes' hand and asks his pardon for doing him wrong, saying how he has been punished for his actions by his "sore distraction", attributing his misdeeds to madness and not to Hamlet himself. L. gives a limited and qualified acceptance.
The contest. Laertes exchanges his foil for another, the poisoned one. King calls for wine to drink to Hamlet's health. H. scores his first, "a hit, a very palpable hit." King drinks again, and throws a pearl (a "union", but actually poison) in the cup he offers to Hamlet--but H. declines to drink at the moment. H. scores his second hit. Queen drinks from Hamlet's cup, though King tries to stop her to no avail. L. and H. play again, and H. is wounded mildly. In a scuffle, the swords are exchanged and Laertes is also wounded by the poisoned sword. Queen falls. Laertes laments he is killed by his own treachery. Queen announces she has been poisoned and dies. H. demands the doors be locked. Laertes tells H. he has been slain by the unbated (unblunted) and poisoned sword, and blames the king. H. stabs the king and forces him to drink the poisoned wine. King dies. L. says "He [the king] is justly served./It is a poison tempered by himself./ Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet/Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,/Nor thine on me.
The dying H. wishes he could tell the tale of what has led up to these actions, and asks Horatio to serve as the reporter of his cause and justification. Horatio wants to drink the poisoned wine and die [like as a true male friend] with H. but H. stops him, again asking him to live to tell the story.
Young Fortinbras arrives along with the English ambassadors. H. says his vote is for Fortinbras [i.e., in the upcoming election for king] and dies. Horatio says "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" Fortinbras comments on the havoc and bloody scene. The English ambassador announces "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Where should we have our thanks?" Horatio informs them that Claudius had not actually given that order. He asks the bodies to be placed high on a stage [platform] and says he will tell them what has happened. Fortinbras is eager to hear it and "to embrace my fortune." Fortinbras orders "Let four captains/Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage,/For he was likely, had he been put on [made king],/To have proved most royal; and for his passage,/The soldiers' music and the rite of war/Speak loudly for him." He concludes "Such a sight as this/ Becomes the field [of battle], but here shows much amiss." They bear off the bodies to a peal of ordinance.