Hamlet Book Summary - Hamlet Book explained in key points
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Hamlet summary

William Shakespeare

A Young Prince’s Tragic Descend Into Madness and Revenge

4.8 (49 ratings)
24 mins
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    Part 1: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”

    Hamlet opens on a cold winter night on the ramparts of Elsinore Castle.

    A nervous soldier keeps watch. He hears movement. “Who’s there?” he shouts. “Nay, answer me,” comes the reply: “Stand and unfold yourself.”

    Reassured by the familiar voice, he lowers his weapon. It’s a fellow guard, come to relieve him. As he leaves, he thanks his comrade-in-arms. “’Tis bitter cold,” he says, “and I am sick at heart.”

    These greetings, and the parting soldier’s comment, suggest that all is not well in Denmark. Elsinore – the seat of this kingdom – is in a state of anxious anticipation.

    Listening to the soldiers’ conversations, we learn about a revolt in Norway – a Danish colony during the time of the late king Hamlet. Years earlier, King Hamlet killed Fortinbras, Norway’s king, and annexed his lands. Now the younger Fortinbras, the slain king’s son, seeks vengeance, and Denmark is busily readying itself for the coming war.

    A cloud hangs over those preparations. For two nights, King Hamlet’s ghost has appeared on Elsinore’s ramparts. Dressed in armor, this dreaded sight has terrified the castle’s guards. Unable to explain its purpose, they confide in Horatio, a faithful friend to the late king’s son – Prince Hamlet. Has the king come to combat “ambitious Norway” once more, if only in spirit? Horatio can’t shake the suspicion that the ghost’s fearsome grimace reveals a deeper purpose.

    The strange atmosphere in Elsinore heightens that suspicion. As a soldier who’s seen the ghost says, something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

    King Hamlet’s death wasn’t mourned long. Within two months, his brother, Claudius, had taken his crown and married his widow, Gertrude. As the soldiers talk of war and apparitions, the royal court is celebrating the couple’s union with wine, music, and fireworks. 

    It was the wedding which brought Horatio back to Denmark. In Elsinore, he finds his grief-stricken old university friend, Prince Hamlet. When we first hear Hamlet speak, we encounter a man consumed by profound sadness – and righteous anger. How swiftly his mother ceased to mourn his father! How cynically the costs of funeral and marriage were kept down by combining the two! It was, he tells Horatio, as if the food prepared for mourners one day had been thriftily repurposed for a merry banquet the next.

    For Hamlet, the world has grown weary and stale; all his joy and interest in it are gone. Denmark is nothing but an unweeded garden full of things “rank and gross in nature.” His mother’s overhasty marriage is unnatural – incestuous, even. Claudius, for his part, is nothing but a lustful drunk compared to “so excellent a king” as his father was. 

    What, though, can Hamlet do? Claudius may be an unworthy successor, but he’s the king and Hamlet is his adopted son and heir. To publicly condemn the king and queen would be to sow division in Denmark and undermine the state whose wellbeing also rests on his actions. No, he must play the part of the dutiful prince and hold his tongue, even if it breaks his heart.

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    What is Hamlet about?

    Hamlet (c. 1509-1601) is widely regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest play. A tragedy in five parts, it tells the story of Prince Hamlet, a thinker who must turn to action to avenge his father. It’s not only the finely crafted plot that’s fascinated readers and theatergoers down the centuries, though – Hamlet is also a penetrating study of the meaning of life and death.

    Who should read Hamlet?

    • Shakespeare lovers who haven’t gotten around to reading Hamlet
    • Those who find Shakespeare’s original language difficult to enjoy
    • Fans of Hamlet who want a refresher

    About the Author

    William Shakespeare was an English poet and playwright who lived at the height of the Renaissance. Hailed as the world’s greatest dramatist, he penned 38 plays and over 150 poems. His work has been translated into every major language and staged more often than that of any other playwright.

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