Hamlet Summary & Analysis

March 18, 2024

hamlet summary and analysis act 1

A regular on the AP Lit List, Hamlet (The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark) is one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s plays. (Coincidentally, it’s also the longest.) It’s a great compelling read – full of violence, poison, pirates, and madness. At the same time, Shakespeare’s language can be difficult to parse. With this challenge in mind, I think it’s helpful for student readers to have a clear, scene-by-scene Hamlet summary (with a bit of analysis). I’m using Project Gutenberg’s searchable Hamlet as my source text.

Without further ado…

Hamlet Summary & Analysis

Act I 


Act I begins on the ramparts of the castle. Marcellus, Barnardo, and Horatio are on watch and discussing the strange appearance of a ghost the previous night. Most strange is that the ghost looks exactly like the recently deceased King of Denmark (Hamlet’s father). Marcellus, Barnardo, and Horatio discuss whether this ghostly appearance bodes poorly for the Danish state. The ghost appears again but disappears at the crowing of the rooster. Marcellus, Barnardo, and Horatio resolve to tell Hamlet as soon as possible.


In scene II we meet Claudius (Hamlet’s Uncle) in the stateroom of Elsinore. Though Hamlet’s father has been dead for less than two months, Claudius has already married Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. Claudius entreats Hamlet to get over his father’s death. When Gertrude and Claudius leave, Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo arrive to tell Hamlet about the ghost of his father. Hamlet swears them to secrecy and tells them he will stand watch with them that night.

Hamlet Summary & Analysis Act 1 (Continued)


Scene III features Laertes, his sister Ophelia, and their father Polonius. Before Laertes leaves for France, he warns Ophelia not to give too much credence to Hamlet’s tender words. Polonius arrives to see Laertes off and advises him, “This above all: to thine own self be true.” Laertes gone, Polonius also warns Ophelia against spending too much time with Hamlet.

What strikes me about this scene is that it establishes Ophelia’s lack of agency vis-a-vis Hamlet. Both Ophelia’s father and her brother warn her to guard her purity and not be tricked into giving away her honor.


Hamlet goes to the ramparts in scene IV to see the ghost for himself. When the ghost appears, Hamlet insists on following it, against the advice of Marcellus and Horatio. This causes Marcellus to utter the famous line, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Hamlet Summary & Analysis Act 1 (Continued)

The seriousness of Hamlet’s madness is linked to the fact that he is the embodied representation of the state. Hamlet’s health (or madness) has geopolitical ramifications that go far beyond his individual wants and desires.


In scene V, Hamlet finally talks to the ghost of his father. The ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius (poison in the ear) and asks him to avenge his death (though he asks Hamlet to leave his mother alone). Dawn comes and the ghost leaves. Horatio and Marcellus find Hamlet and ask him about the ghost. Hamlet is cagey and makes them swear never to reveal what they’ve seen.

Act II


Scene I opens with Polonius talking to Reynaldo, one of his servants. Polonius wants Reynaldo to go to France to keep an eye on Laertes. Ophelia enters and describes Hamlet’s concerning behavior, behavior which Polonius takes for unrequited love. They go to the king to share their concerns.

While the viewer knows that Hamlet’s behavior is caused by the death (assassination) of his father, this scene gives a different read. Polonius thinks Hamlet is merely lovestruck. In this moment, we see the tension between Hamlet as an individual (love-sick) and Hamlet as the rightful representative of the Danish state. Depending on which perspective he honors, Hamlet has very different commitments. On the one hand, he owes something to Ophelia (love), on the other hand, he owes something to the state (revenge). Hamlet is constantly pulled between these two commitments.


In scene II, the king brings Hamlet’s friends Rosencranz and Guildenstern to Denmark with the hope that they can help figure out what’s wrong with him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go directly to Hamlet. Meanwhile, the king has audiences with both Voltemand (his ambassador from Norway) and Polonius. The former informs the king that Fortinbras is no longer a threat and that he has requested leave to pass through Denmark. Polonius explains that Hamlet is mad…ly in love with Ophelia. The king isn’t sure, so he and Polonius contrive to eavesdrop on a conversation between Ophelia and Hamlet. Hamlet appears and gives strange responses to Polonius’ questions.

Hamlet Summary & Analysis Act 2 (Continued)

While Hamlet is happy to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it doesn’t take him long to figure out that they have been sent for by his mother and uncle. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern manage to distract Hamlet with news that one of his favorite troupes of actors is on their way to the castle to perform for him. The actors arrive and perform a number of speeches. As they leave the room, Hamlet asks the principal actor whether the troupe can perform The Murder of Gonzago and whether he might substitute a speech of some dozen lines. The principal actor says he can – at which point he departs, as do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Finally alone, Hamlet berates himself for his lack of courage. He compares his undirected mopeyness to the force of feeling he saw in the actors. He hatches a plan to have the actors perform a scene that resembles the alleged killing of Hamlet’s father. As the actors perform, Hamlet resolves to watch Claudius’ face to see any sign of guilt.  What is particularly striking in this scene is Hamlet’s belief in the power of theater to rouse hidden passions.



In scene I, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report back to Claudius and Gertrude. The latter are glad that Hamlet seems to be looking forward to the troupe’s performance. Claudius asks Gertrude to leave so that he and Polonius can listen in to Ophelia’s conversation with Hamlet.

As they prepare for Hamlet’s arrival, we read an exchange that speaks to Claudius’s guilt. Polonius suggests to Ophelia that she read a prayer book and then says that “devotion’s visage and pious action…do sugar o’er the devil himself.” In other words, religious devotion and piety often hide evil. Claudius then mutters guiltily, “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!”

Claudius and Polonius hide themselves and Hamlet enters. Hamlet then gives his most famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. (Check out an excellent line-by-line gloss of Hamlet’s famous speech here.) To summarize, Hamlet wonders what the point of life is given all the injustice and suffering in the world. He concludes that it is only the unknown behind death that keeps people from killing themselves. He stops talking when he sees Ophelia.

Hamlet Summary & Analysis Act 3 (Continued)

What puzzles me in this scene is the disconnect between what Hamlet says about Ophelia and his subsequent treatment of her. At the end of his soliloquy, he says, “The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons / be all my sins remember’d.” In other words, Hamlet hopes that Ophelia’s prayers forgive his sins. This reverence belies the rejection that follows but suggests an awareness of his faults. For me, it’s unclear how conscious Hamlet is regarding his behavior.

Ophelia tells Hamlet that she would like to return the tokens of affection he gave her. Hamlet denies having given her anything and interrogates her on the connection between her beauty and her purity (“honesty”). Hamlet then says, “Get thee to a nunnery,” lest Ophelia produce more sinners like himself. (Check out the Royal Shakespeare Company’s discussion of the “nunnery” scene here.) Ophelia is shocked at the change in Hamlet’s behavior. Hamlet departs and the King and Polonius enter and discuss Hamlet’s mood. The King doesn’t think Hamlet’s melancholy is caused by love and wants to send him to England to restore his spirits. Polonius still suspects love and asks for leave to eavesdrop on a later conversation between Hamlet and his mother, Gertrude.

Hamlet Summary & Analysis (Continued)


Scene II begins with Hamlet telling the principal actor how to deliver the speech he has prepared for him. As the actors prepare, Hamlet tells Horatio to keep his eyes on the King during the speech to see if his guilt shows itself. Sure enough, when the actor pours the poison in the king’s ear, Polonius stops the play and leaves. Guildenstern approaches Hamlet after the play has ended, tells him the King feels unwell, and that his mother would like a word with him. While Hamlet accuses Rosencrantz of trying to manipulate him, Polonius enters and tries to get Hamlet to talk to his mother. Polonius and Rosencrantz leave and Hamlet promises himself that he will take no violence against his mother, however angry he becomes.


At the beginning of scene III, the King resolves to send Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Polonius arrives and tells the King that he is going to listen in to Hamlet’s conversation with his mother. When Polonius leaves, the King falls to his knees and laments his sins. Hamlet enters, set on killing Claudius. Upon seeing him praying, he stops. Hamlet wants Claudius to die while sinning, not while making his amends to God. He sheaths his sword and leaves to go talk to his mother.

Hamlet Summary & Analysis Act 3(Continued)


Hamlet goes to talk to his mother in scene IV. Polonius hides behind a curtain. Seeing Hamlet’s anger, Gertrude worries that he will harm her and calls for help. Polonius starts yelling and Hamlet, thinking him to be Claudius, kills him. Standing over the body of Polonius, Hamlet continues to berate his mother for her choice to marry Claudius. The ghost suddenly reappears (only Hamlet can see him) and urges Hamlet to take his revenge. Hamlet asks his mother to not go back to Claudius tonight and to not speak of what she’s seen. Hamlet drags the body of Polonius out of the room and exits.

Act IV


In scene I, Gertrude goes to Claudius and tells him what has happened. The King regrets not taking action earlier. He tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to go to Hamlet and retrieve the body of Polonius. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go to Hamlet in scene II and try to get him to tell them where the body is. Hamlet responds evasively and then flees. Hamlet goes to talk to the King in scene III and tells him where he’s put the body of Polonius. Claudius enjoins Hamlet to hurry to England, and, when all have left the stage, reveals that he has asked the king of England (Denmark’s vassal) to assassinate Hamlet upon his arrival.


In scene IV, Hamlet, having departed for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, comes upon the army of Fortinbras (nephew of the King of Norway) on his way to fight with Poland. Seeing Fortinbras ready to give his life for a cause (no matter how misguided), again incites Hamlet to violence. The chickens come home to roost in scene V. Ophelia has gone crazy with grief and Laertes has returned from France in a regicidal rage. He confronts Claudius, who denies any involvement with Polonius’ death. Claudius tells Laertes to get his wisest friends to judge his guilt. If they believe that he had something to do with Polonius’ death, Claudius swears to give his crown and kingdom to Laertes.

Hamlet Summary & Analysis Act 4 (Continued)


In scene VI, We find out that Hamlet’s ship was boarded by pirates and Hamlet taken prisoner. He sends word to Horatio. Claudius and Laertes hear of Hamlet’s return in scene VII and plot his death. Claudius suggests a duel between Laertes and Hamlet. Laertes agrees and says that he will poison his blade so that the slightest cut will kill. In case this plan fails, Claudius will also prepare a poisoned chalice to offer him during the fight. If all this drama weren’t enough, Gertrude enters with the news that Ophelia has drowned.

Act V


In scene I, we meet two gravedigging “clowns” (the grave turns out to be for Ophelia). The gravediggers point out the hypocrisy of the fact that while Ophelia killed herself, her position in society allows her to still get a Christian burial. Hamlet appears with Horatio and watches the gravediggers as they toss skulls out of the hole. Hamlet muses on the finality of death and asks the gravedigger who one of the skulls belongs to. The gravedigger says the skull belongs to Yorick – the king’s old jester. Hamlet recalls his time with Yorick and thinks about how death is the final leveler – even Alexander the Great became food for worms.

Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Ophelia’s funeral procession. Hamlet sees Laertes and realizes the grave is Ophelia’s. He watches as Laertes is overwhelmed with grief and jumps into the grave. Not to be outdone, Hamlet jumps in as well and declares his grief to be greater than that of Laertes. Claudius and Gertrude manage to separate them. Hamlet leaves with Horatio while Claudius assures Laertes that he will soon have his revenge.

Hamlet Summary & Analysis Act 5 (Continued)


By the start of scene II, Hamlet has calmed down. He tells Horatio how, while on the boat to England, he filched the letters that Claudius had given to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Reading them, he realized Claudius’ plot to have him killed. Hamlet rewrites them, asking that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed. He reseals them with his signet ring and replaces them. The next day, the ship was boarded by pirates – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have gone to meet their deaths in England.

About this time, Horatio and Hamlet are joined by Osric, who tells them that the king has wagered that Laertes can beat Hamlet in a duel (this is, of course, a ruse to kill Hamlet). Hamlet goes to duel with Laertes. During the duel, Gertrude accidentally drinks the poisoned chalice, Hamlet is poisoned, Laertes is then poisoned by his own blade. Before dying, Laertes confesses Claudius’ involvement in the plot. Hamlet then stabs Claudius with the poisoned blade and makes him drink the poisoned cup.

Hamlet Summary & Analysis Act 5 (Continued)

As Hamlet dies, Fortinbras’ victorious army arrives from Poland as the ambassadors from England (bearing news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths). Fortinbras is understandably horrified by the sight of four dead bodies just laying around. When he asks what happened, Horatio volunteers to tell him the story of Hamlet.

Everybody dies…

If you were looking for a happy ending, you’d be better off with one of Shakespeare’s comedies (I’ve always been partial to Much Ado About Nothing.) However, if you’re looking for a tragedy that explores the tension between an individual and the systems of power into which they are born, Hamlet is for you.

Hamlet Summary & Analysis – Additional Resources

You may also be interested in the following literature analyses: