LITERARY CORNER: HAMLET by William Shakespeare


    Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play and is considered among the most powerful and influential works of world literature, with a story capable of being retold and adapted by others. It was one of Shakespeare’s most popular works during his lifetime and still ranks among his most performed, topping the performance list of the Royal Shakespeare Company and its predecessors in Stratford-upon-Avon since 1879. It has even inspired many other writers from Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe and Charles Dickens to James Joyce and Iris Murdoch—and has been described as “the world’s most filmed story after Cinderella. Hindi film “Haider” released in 2014 is a modern day adaptation of Shakespere’s tragedy Hamlet.

    The play is divided into four acts.

Act I.

    Prince Hamlet of Denmark happens to be the main protagonist of this play. He is the son of the recently deceased or killed King Hamlet, so essentially there are two characters by the name of Hamlet in this play. Then you have King Claudius, who is Hamlet’s uncle and his father’s brother and also the successor. After the death of King Hamlet, Claudius hastily marries his widow. Her name is Gertrude, who is also Hamlet’s mother, and occupies the throne himself. The play goes on to say that the country of Denmark has a long-standing feud with the neighbouring Norway, in which King Hamlet had once killed King Fortinbras of Norway in a battle some years ago.

    Although, Denmark defeated Norway and the Norwegian throne fell to King Fortinbras’s infirm brother, Denmark does fear a retaliation led by the dead Norwegian king’s son, Prince Fortinbras, as imminent. Then the scene changes to a cold night on the ramparts of Elsinore, the Danish royal castle, where the sentries Bernardo and Marcellus discuss a ghost resembling the late King Hamlet which they have recently seen, and bring Prince Hamlet’s friend Horatio as a witness. After the ghost appears again, the three vow to tell Prince Hamlet what they have witnessed. As the court gathers the next day, while King Claudius and Queen Gertrude discuss affairs of the state with their elderly adviser Polonius, where Hamlet looks on glumly. During the court, Claudius grants permission for Polonius’s son Laertes to return to school in France and also sends envoys to inform the King of Norway about Fortinbras. Claudius scolds Hamlet for continuing to grieve over his father and refuses him permission to return to his schooling in Wittenberg. After the court adjourns, Hamlet despairs on his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage. Learning of the ghost from Horatio, Hamlet resolves to see it himself.

    As Polonius’s son Laertes prepares to depart for a visit to France, Polonius decides to give him a contradictory advice that culminates in the famous ironic maxim, “to thine own self be true.” (Meaning he must think of his own benefit first). Meanwhile Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, admits her interest in Hamlet, but Laertes warns her against seeking the prince’s attention, and Polonius orders her to reject his advances. That night on the rampart, the ghost reappears in Hamlet’s, presence telling the prince that he was murdered by Claudius, his own brother and demands that Hamlet avenge him. Hamlet agrees, and the ghost vanishes. The prince confides in Horatio and the sentries that from now on he plans to put an ‘antic disposition’ on, or act as though he has gone mad, and forces them to swear to keep his plans for revenge a secret. But privately, however, he remains uncertain of the ghost’s reliability.

Act II

    Ophelia rushes to her father, telling him that Hamlet arrived at her door the prior night half-undressed and behaving erratically. Polonius blames love for Hamlet’s madness and resolves to inform Claudius and Gertrude. But as he enters to do so, he finds the king and queen finish welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two student acquaintances of Hamlet, at Elsinore the royal palace. The royal couple requests that the students investigate the cause of Hamlet’s mood and behaviour. In the meanwhile some additional news requires that Polonius waits further to be heard. When messengers from Norway inform Claudius that the King of Norway has rebuked Prince Fortinbras for attempting to refight his father’s battles. The forces that Fortinbras had drafted to march against Denmark will instead be sent against Poland, though they will pass through the Danish territory to get there.

    Polonius tells Claudius and Gertrude his theory regarding Hamlet’s behaviour and speaks to Hamlet in a hall of the castle to try to uncover more information. Hamlet feigns madness but subtly insults Polonius all along. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, Hamlet greets his “friends” warmly but quickly discerns that they are spies. Hamlet becomes bitter, admitting that he is upset at his situation but refuses to give the true reason why. Instead he comments on “what a piece of work” humanity is. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that they have brought along a troupe of actors that they met while traveling to Elsinore. Hamlet, after welcoming the actors and dismissing his friends-turned-spies, asks them to deliver a soliloquy about the death of King Priam and Queen Hecuba at the climax of the Trojan War. Impressed by their delivery of speech, he plots to stage, “The Murder of Gonzago,” a play featuring a death in the style of his father’s murder (that reminds of the last song of Rishi Kapoor’s film Karz) to determine the truth of the ghost’s story, as well as Claudius’s guilt or innocence, by studying Claudius’s reaction.


    Polonius forces Ophelia to return Hamlet’s love letters and tokens of affection to the prince while he and Claudius watch from afar to evaluate Hamlet’s reaction. Hamlet is walking alone in the hall as the king and Polonius await Ophelia’s entrance, musing whether, “to be or not to be.” (The famous phrase that means to act or not to act). When Ophelia enters and tries to return Hamlet’s things, Hamlet accuses her of immodesty and cries, “get thee to a nunnery,” (give her to the whore house) though it is unclear whether this, too, is a show of madness or genuine distress. His reaction convinces Claudius that Hamlet is not mad for love. Shortly thereafter, the court assembles to watch the play that Hamlet has commissioned. In which after seeing the protagonist King being murdered by his rival by pouring poison in his ear, Claudius abruptly rises and runs away from the room. For Hamlet, this indeed is a positive proof of his uncle’s guilt.

    After which Gertrude his mother summons Hamlet to her room to demand an explanation. Meanwhile, Claudius talks to himself about the impossibility of repenting, since he still has possession of his ill-gotten goods that is his brother’s crown and his wife. He sinks to his knees in frustration. Meanwhile, Hamlet, on his way to visit his mother, sneaks up behind Claudius but does not kill him, reasoning that killing Claudius while he is praying will send him straight to heaven while his father’s ghost is still stuck in purgatory. In the queen’s bedchamber, Hamlet and Gertrude fight bitterly. Where Polonius, spies on the conversation from behind a tapestry, calls for help as Gertrude, believing Hamlet wants to kill her, also calls out for help herself.

    Hamlet, believing it is Claudius behind the tapestry, stabs wildly, but in the process he kills Polonius. He pulls aside the curtain and discovers his mistake. In a rage, Hamlet unsparingly insults his mother for her apparent ignorance of Claudius’s villainy. But just then the King Hamlet’s ghost enters and reprimands Prince Hamlet for his inaction and harsh words. Unable to see or hear the ghost herself, Gertrude takes Hamlet’s conversation with the ghost as a further evidence of his madness. After begging the queen to stop sleeping with Claudius, Hamlet leaves, dragging Polonius’s corpse away.

Act IV

    Hamlet jokes with Claudius about where he has hidden Polonius’s body, and the king, fearing for his life, sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to accompany Hamlet to England with a sealed letter to the English king requesting that Hamlet be executed immediately.

    Shocked by grief at Polonius’s death, Ophelia wanders aimlessly around Elsinore. Meanwhile Laertes returns from France, enraged by his father’s death and his sister’s madness. Claudius convinces Laertes that Hamlet is solely responsible for the killing, but a letter soon arrives indicating that Hamlet has returned to Denmark, foiling Claudius’s plan. Claudius switches tactics, proposing a fencing match—a sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet to settle their differences. Laertes will be given a poison-tipped sword, and Claudius will offer Hamlet poisoned wine as a congratulation if that fails. Gertrude interrupts to report that Ophelia has drowned, though it is unclear whether it was a suicide or an accident exacerbated by her madness.

    In the meanwhile Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet, explaining that the prince escaped by negotiating with pirates who attempted to attack his England-bound ship, and the friends reunite offstage. Two grave-diggers discuss Ophelia’s apparent suicide while digging her grave. Hamlet arrives with Horatio and banters with one of the grave-diggers, who unearths the skull of a court jester from Hamlet’s childhood that he loved. His name was Yorick. Hamlet picks up the skull, saying “alas, poor Yorick” as he thinks of death. Meanwhile, Ophelia’s funeral procession approaches, led by Laertes. Hamlet and Horatio initially hide, but when Hamlet realizes that Ophelia is the one being buried, he reveals himself, proclaiming his love for her. Laertes and Hamlet fight by Ophelia’s graveside, but the brawl is soon broken up.

    Back at Elsinore, Hamlet explains to Horatio that he had discovered Claudius’s letter in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s belongings and that he had replaced it with a forged copy indicating that his former friends should be killed instead. A foppish courtier, by the name of Osric, interrupts the conversation to deliver the fencing challenge to Hamlet. Hamlet, despite Horatio’s pleas, accepts it. Hamlet does well at first, leading the match by two hits to none, when Gertrude raises a toast to him using the poisoned glass of wine Claudius had set aside for Hamlet. Claudius tries to stop her but is too late in doing so. She drinks, and Laertes realizes the plot will now be revealed. He slashes Hamlet with his poisoned blade. In the ensuing scuffle, they switch weapons, when Hamlet wounds Laertes with his own poisoned sword.

    In the meantime Gertrude collapses exclaiming she has been poisoned, she dies. Further, in his dying moments, Laertes reconciles with Hamlet and reveals Claudius’s plan. Enraged Hamlet rushes at Claudius and kills him. Soon the poison takes effect on Hamlet. Who upon hearing that Fortinbras is marching through the area, names the Norwegian prince as his successor. Horatio, distraught at the thought of being the last survivor and living whilst Hamlet does not, says he will commit suicide by drinking the dregs of Gertrude’s poisoned wine, but Hamlet begs him to live on and tell his story. Hamlet dies in Horatio’s arms, proclaiming “the rest is silence.” Meanwhile, Fortinbras, who was ostensibly marching towards Poland with his army, arrives at the palace, along with an English ambassador bringing news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths. Horatio promises to recount the full story of what happened, and Fortinbras, seeing the entire Danish royal family dead, takes the crown for himself and orders a military funeral to honour Hamlet.

    In the final analysis a demon such as Claudius is sufficient to destroy the entire clan.

Synopsis by Kamlesh Tripathi



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