What happens in Hamlet

It’s daunting, it’s endless, and there’s basically nobody to like in it, but it’s full of the most beautiful words ever written. For the July edition of What Happens in Shakespeare, let’s tackle Hamlet.

The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “Hamlet avenges his father, and it only takes four hours.”

What happens in Hamlet

Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. His uncle Claudius murdered Hamlet’s father, married Hamlet’s mother, and is now the King.

When the play begins, Hamlet sees his father’s ghost, who tells him to get revenge for the murder.

Hamlet pretends to be crazy so he can plan his revenge without being found out. He alienates his girlfriend Ophelia to keep up the act.

Hamlet hires a theater company to put on a play about a murder similar to his father’s killing, in the hopes that he will catch Claudius acting guilty. That’s where this famous line happens: “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

Hamlet waffles about killing both Claudius and himself (“To be or not to be?”) He confronts his mother for marrying a murderer. Polonius, Ophelia’s father, eavesdrops. Hamlet thinks the eavesdropper is Claudius and stabs him to death.

Claudius twigs that Hamlet may suspect him of murder and sends him out of town to get killed himself, but that plan backfires and Hamlet gets two of his friends killed in his place. (There’s another whole play by Tom Stoppard about those two: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.)

In the midst of all this faking of mental illness by Hamlet, Ophelia actually does lose touch with her sanity because her boyfriend dumped her for no reason and then he killed her father.  She kills herself.

Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, wants to get revenge on Hamlet for the death of his father and sister. He plots with bad old uncle Claudius to kill Hamlet. Claudius gives Laertes a poisoned sword and gets a poisoned glass of wine ready as a backup.

Hamlet and Laertes duel. Laertes cuts both himself and Hamlet with the poisoned sword. He reveals the Claudius-hates-Hamlet plot to Hamlet and then dies. Hamlet’s mother accidentally drinks the poisoned wine and dies.

Hamlet stabs Claudius with the sword, killing him. Hamlet dies of the wound inflicted by Laertes. His last words are: “The rest is silence.” Actually his very last utterance is “O, O, O, O.” Oddly enough, even though it seems more like a stage direction, those words are always printed at the end of his dying speech.


For real scholarship by experts, visit the Shakespeare Resource Center’s Hamlet page. I also like No Fear Shakespeare, which offers a line-by-line translation of the play into modern English.