Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s best-known plays, but what is it actually about? Here we offer a summary of Hamlet in simple English, breaking down the story into five acts. Finally, we suggest teaching resources to help your students understand this excellent play.
What is Hamlet?
Hamlet is a play written by William Shakespeare. It is estimated to have been written between 1599 and 1601. One of Shakespeare’s best-known and most highly regarded works, it is also his longest, containing 29,551 words and 4042 lines.
Interestingly, three different versions of the play have survived to this day. The first version, published in 1603, is only just over half as long as the second, which was printed a year later in 1604. The third version was published in 1623 as part of the first version of Shakespeare’s Complete Works. The version most of us know today combines the second two versions.
Hamlet’s tragedy deals with various themes, including love, death, revenge, and mental health.
Because the play is so long and written in the language of the 17th century, many readers find it helpful to summarize Hamlet in simple English.
What is the story of Hamlet?
The play centers around the main character, Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark. When Hamlet’s father dies, Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, marries his mother and takes the throne for himself. Hamlet’s father appears to the young prince as a ghost, telling his son that Claudius murdered him, and he wants Hamlet to kill Claudius to avenge his death.
Hamlet feels he needs proof before taking any drastic action, and he pretends to be mentally ill while investigating the claims made by his father’s ghost. However, he genuinely becomes deeply affected mentally by the situation and accidentally kills another man, Polonius, believing him to be Claudius. Polonius is the father of Hamlet’s girlfriend, Ophelia, and on hearing the news, she kills herself by drowning.
The story culminates in a sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes, Ophelia’s brother. Unfortunately, Laertes has dipped his sword in poison, which he has added to some wine; this results in the deaths of Hamlet, his mother Gertrude, and Claudius at the end of the play.
So, that’s a summary of Hamlet in simple English. Now let’s break it down into its five acts.
A summary of Hamlet in five acts
The play opens with a meeting between Hamlet’s friend, Horatio, and two of the palace guards. The guards inform Horatio that they have seen a ghost resembling the King, who has recently died. The spirit then appears to the group, and they decide to tell Hamlet about it.
We then cut to the wedding of the King’s widow, Gertrude, to his brother, Claudius, the following morning. Claudius has taken the throne, and Hamlet is heartbroken about this and his mother’s wedding. Horatio and the guards inform Hamlet about the ghost.
The following scene shows a conversation between the new King’s advisor, Polonius, and his son and daughter, Laertes and Ophelia. Ophelia has a romantic interest in Hamlet, and her father and brother advise her against this. She agrees not to see him anymore.
That night, Hamlet sees the King’s ghost. The ghost tells him that Claudius murdered him, and he wants Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing Claudius. However, he doesn’t want Hamlet to harm Gertrude in any way. Hamlet agrees to his father’s wishes but decides to get proof of the truth before taking action. He thinks the best way to do this is by feigning mental illness, and he informs Horatio and one of the guards of his plan.
Hamlet starts to carry out his plan, acting strangely. Ophelia breaks off her relationship with him, telling Polonius that Hamlet’s behavior is highly out of character. Polonius is convinced that Hamlet is still in love with Ophelia and tells Claudius. The pair start to spy on Hamlet to try and find a reason for his strange behavior.
Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is also concerned about the change in her son. She asks his old school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to try and find out what’s wrong with him. Unfortunately, they’re unsuccessful, as Hamlet won’t answer their questions.
A traveling theatre company then arrives at the palace. Hamlet requests that the following night they perform a play about a man who kills his brother and marries his brother’s widow, hoping it will provoke a guilty reaction in Claudius.
Ophelia and Hamlet meet so she can return the gifts he gave her when they were together. Hamlet tells her the best thing she can do is go to live in a nunnery; this confuses Polonius and Claudius, who is spying on the pair. They conclude that Ophelia hasn’t caused Hamlet’s madness, and Claudius thinks Hamlet should be sent away to live in England if nobody can find out what’s wrong with him.
That night, the theatre company performs the play. Claudius storms out, stopping the action and convincing Hamlet that his father’s ghost is telling the truth. He decides to murder Claudius that night but hears him praying and decides to wait.
Hamlet goes to see his mother, Gertrude, and they argue about everything happening. When Hamlet hears someone moving behind a tapestry, he thinks it’s Claudius and stabs the intruder. He then realizes it’s Polonius he’s killed. The old King’s ghost appears again, telling Hamlet he shouldn’t have upset his mother. Gertrude can’t see the spirit and thinks Hamlet’s one-sided conversation proves he’s gone mad. The scene ends with Hamlet dragging Polonius’s body away.
Claudius sends Hamlet away to England with his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. On the way, he discovers that Claudius has asked the English King to kill him when he arrives. Hamlet decides to send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in his place and return home. He sends a letter to his friend Horatio, explaining that he has stowed away on a pirate ship that is bringing him back to Denmark.
Ophelia has gone mad with grief following her father’s death. Finally, she kills herself by drowning. Her brother Laertes, blaming Hamlet for his sister’s death and his father’s, swears to get revenge. He teams up with Claudius, and the pair devise a way to bring about Hamlet’s death.
On his return to Denmark, Hamlet meets Horatio in the graveyard. He finds the skull of an old friend, the court jester Yorick, and talks to Horatio about life and death. Ophelia’s funeral procession then arrives.
During the funeral, Hamlet and Laertes fight. A duel is arranged between the two of them to settle their differences. However, Claudius and Laertes have already hatched their plan to kill Hamlet. They agree that they will dip Laertes’s sword in poison and bring some poisoned wine to the duel for Hamlet to drink.
At the duel, Hamlet refuses to drink the wine Claudius has offered him. However, his mother, Gertrude, drinks it and dies instantly. Laertes and Hamlet each wound each other. As he’s dying, Laertes confesses the plot he and Claudius hatched to kill Hamlet and asks for Hamlet’s forgiveness. Hamlet then stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword, killing him.
Hamlet, of course, has also been stabbed with the poisoned blade. In his last breath, he asks Horatio to tell the future King about him. The play ends as Hamlet dies, and Horatio promises to tell his story.