This is an explanatory overview, in detail, provided to give the reader a quicker idea of the play than would be gained by going through the individual Scene pages. However, nobody is going to understand the play well unless he does go through all the Scenes carefully. Even a relatively quick look at the play takes a while, because Hamlet is complicated, and there are a number of instances where small details, even a single word, are important to the play overall.
The significant preplay events are:
- King Hamlet slew Elder Fortinbrasse in a single combat over land;
- Denmark fought a war against Norway;
- King Hamlet died, with a coroner's verdict of snakebite;
- Queen Gertrude married Claudius;
- Claudius was elected King.
Also see the Earlier Events page.
As the play begins, sentinels are keeping watch on a platform beside the Castle, on a chilly night, at midnight. Francisco is on duty. Barnardo approaches to relieve him, sees Francisco as a shape in the darkness, stops and cries out, "Who's there?" The darkness and the mystery, of "who's there," set an ominous tone. Francisco departs as Horatio and Marcellus arrive. Horatio has been told of a Ghost, but is skeptical, so he has accompanied Marcellus to see for himself.
A Ghost appears that looks exactly like the recently-deceased King of Denmark, King Hamlet. The Ghost reacts to the men, but doesn't speak.
The men discuss a rapid military buildup in Denmark. Horatio speaks of a single combat in which their late king, King Hamlet, killed the Elder Fortinbrasse of Norway and thereby won his land. Horatio further speaks of Young Fortinbrasse raising an army, supposedly for use against Poland. However, they fear Fortinbrasse's army may really be for use against Denmark, in an attempt by Fortinbrasse to retake the land his father lost. They wonder if the Ghost is an omen of disaster for Denmark, and they decide to tell Prince Hamlet about it.
Go to: Scene 1
Go to: Interscene 1 - 2 where Marcellus, Horatio, and Barnardo arrive outside the Throne Room, and find they have to wait to see Hamlet, because Claudius is holding a council meeting, with Hamlet in attendance.
In the Throne Room, Claudius, the newly-elected King, is holding his first session of the royal court. He announces that the mourning period for his brother is over, with his assumption of the throne. He goes through the formalities, of mentioning that he has married Gertrude, and thanking his supporters.
Claudius sends a diplomatic mission to King Norway, to try to deal with the apparent threat from Fortinbrasse.
Claudius gives Laertes permission to return to France.
Claudius then speaks to Hamlet, who responds, "a little more than kin and less than kind." Gertrude speaks to Hamlet, trying to persuade him not to be so downhearted, and Hamlet responds that his grief is not just a show. Claudius then lectures Hamlet at considerable length, and although Claudius puts on a show of concern, it's obvious that he hates Hamlet and fears him. Gertrude asks Hamlet to stay at Elsinore Castle, and Hamlet agrees to do so, despite his desire to return to school in Wittenberg. Claudius says he'll celebrate Hamlet's agreement to stay by carousing that night, and the session ends.
All except Hamlet exit, and Hamlet speaks his "sallied flesh" soliloquy. Marcellus, Horatio, and Barnardo enter, tell Hamlet about the Ghost, and he decides to go with them that night to see it.
Go to: Scene 2
Go to Interscene 2 - 3: Laertes, accompanied by Ophelia, has gone to the harbor at the town of Elsinore, where the ship that will take Laertes to France is ready to sail. Polonius observes from the Castle that the ship has not sailed yet, and makes his way down to the harbor to see why not.
Laertes, before he leaves, gives Ophelia a long-winded lecture against Hamlet. Laertes can't imagine Hamlet being serious about Ophelia, because of the difference in social status. Hamlet is royalty, Ophelia is not.
Polonius arrives, and gives Laertes long-winded advice about how to conduct himself.
After Laertes boards the ship, Polonius gives Ophelia a long-winded lecture against Hamlet, much as Laertes just did. Polonius can't imagine Hamlet being serious about Ophelia, either. In the course of Polonius's lecture, Ophelia hints to Polonius that she and Hamlet are engaged to be married, but Polonius misses that. Polonius concludes by ordering Ophelia to have nothing further to do with Hamlet.
Interscene 3 - 4: That evening, Ophelia writes Laertes a letter, as she promised she would, and gives it to Polonius to send to Laertes.
Claudius celebrates until after midnight, with trumpets, drums, and cannon fire to accentuate his drinking.
Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus assemble and go toward the sentinel post on the platform, to see if the Ghost will appear again.
Go to: Scene 3
Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus arrive at the sentinel post on the platform, soon after midnight. They're startled by an abrupt noise of cannon fire, while Claudius carouses. Hamlet criticizes such behavior, and speaks of why some men do foolish things.
The Ghost appears, and beckons to Hamlet. After argument with Horatio and Marcellus, Hamlet follows the Ghost into the darkness, alone. Horatio and Marcellus hesitate, then decide to follow after Hamlet.
Interscene 4 - 5: Hamlet follows the Ghost for a considerable distance. Horatio and Marcellus lose Hamlet in the darkness, and search for him.
At the graveyard, Hamlet stops and tells the Ghost he'll go no farther. The Ghost speaks to Hamlet, saying he's the spirit of Hamlet's father, and that Claudius murdered King Hamlet, using the strange method of poison in the ear. The Ghost calls upon Hamlet for revenge.
The Ghost implies that he's in purgatory, and that Gertrude is less than virtuous, but makes neither statement expressly. Nor does the Ghost tell Hamlet what to do for revenge, but the implication is obvious that Hamlet should kill Claudius. The Ghost tells Hamlet to remember him, and exits. Hamlet condemns Gertrude and Claudius, and swears to himself that he will remember.
Horatio and Marcellus find Hamlet. Hamlet speaks to them in an odd and roundabout way, and doesn't tell them what the Ghost said. Hamlet draws his sword, and asks them to swear on it that they won't reveal what has happened. The Ghost cries out, from the earth beneath their feet, for them to swear. Hamlet moves away, but the same thing happens three times. Hamlet then puts his sword away without allowing them to swear on it. Hamlet repeats that they must say nothing, and the three exit.
Interscene 5 - 6: Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus return to the Castle. Hamlet goes to his room to get some sleep. He has a terrifying nightmare that something has happened to Ophelia, and that she is dead. Hamlet jumps up and runs to Ophelia's room, to check that she's all right. He says nothing, and he leaves Ophelia puzzled and very worried about him.
(The strange notion, that one will find almost universally assumed in Hamlet commentary, of a two-month delay between Scenes 5 and 6, has no factual basis in Shakespeare's playscript, other than Ophelia apparently saying the word "twice" in Scene 9. However, her word "twice" there is not even something she intends to say, it is a product of her lisp as she speaks the word "two," which she immediately corrects. Shakespeare included Ophelia's "twice," as a consequence of her mild speech disorder, for allusion to the events surrounding King Hamlet's death happening twice, so to speak - first in reality, and then in depiction during the Mousetrap Play. Her "twice" is not in the Hamlet dialogue to provide information about the passage of time. Historically, virtually all commentators, misunderstanding Ophelia's "twice," have supposed a lapse of time, at this point, that does not exist. There is no two-month "hole" in the play. Scene 6 follows Scene 5 by only two or three hours.)
In Polonius's office in the Castle, the day after Laertes leaves for France, Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to check up on Laertes in Paris. Polonius is suspicious of why Laertes was so insistent on returning to France, and he fears Laertes is involved in vice there, so he wants to find out about that right away. Polonius has waited only until the next day to send Reynaldo, just so that Reynaldo won't be on the same ship as Laertes.
As Reynaldo exits, Ophelia enters, and tells Polonius that Hamlet rushed into her room, and stared at her without speaking. Polonius concludes that Hamlet is mad with love for Ophelia, which raises Polonius's hopes Hamlet will marry Ophelia. Polonius concludes they must go to the King about it.
Interscene 6 - 7: Reynaldo goes to the harbor, to board the ship which will take him as far as a ship can toward Paris.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive and present themselves to Claudius, who speaks with them privately. He asks them to try to find out whether Hamlet is ambitious to become King (Claudius being worried that Hamlet might try to become King the same way he did, although Claudius doesn't tell R & G that.)
The Danish ambassadors to Norway are on their way back.
Polonius demands Ophelia's love letters from Hamlet, and when she doesn't want to surrender them Polonius takes them by force. Polonius wants the letters as tangible proof he can show to Claudius that Hamlet has expressed love for Ophelia. Polonius then leaves Ophelia locked in her room so she won't tell Hamlet that Polonius has taken his letters.
In the Throne Room, Claudius and Gertrude speak to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (call them R & G for short,) and instruct them to spend time with Hamlet. Claudius tells them he wants to find out anything that, unknown to him, might be bothering Hamlet. R & G exit to find Hamlet.
Polonius tells Claudius he has discovered the cause of Hamlet's lunacy, but advises Claudius to see the ambassadors before hearing about that. The ambassadors enter, and only very briefly describe to Claudius an agreement they've reached with King Norway. Claudius says he likes it, but will read it later, and dismisses the ambassadors, who exit. Claudius pays little attention to the ambassadors, he wants to hear about Hamlet.
Polonius makes a long-winded - one might even say gassy - speech during which he shows the love letters Hamlet has written to Ophelia, and he reads one of them. Claudius asks how the matter can be tested further, and Polonius recommends eavesdropping when Hamlet thinks he's alone with Ophelia.
Hamlet enters, because he has heard the ambassadors are back, and he expects Claudius to be talking to them. Hamlet is curious whether an agreement has been reached that will prevent a war which might kill thousands.
Seeing Hamlet, Polonius panics and begs Claudius and Gertrude to leave. Polonius is terrified lest they speak with Hamlet, and Hamlet discover Polonius has his letters. Claudius and Gertrude, and everyone else at the court do leave, as Polonius approaches Hamlet to talk to him.
Polonius hopes to make friends with Hamlet, since he sees the prospect of Hamlet becoming his son-in-law, and also so that if Hamlet does discover Polonius took his letters, Hamlet won't do something mad like stabbing him to death. Hamlet and Polonius have an odd conversation, during which Hamlet says obscure things, but he does refer to Ophelia, and he does call Polonius "friend." Polonius, pleased with that much, exits as R & G enter.
Considering the time that has passed, R & G must have been all through the Castle, looking for Hamlet, and now they have finally found him in the Throne Room, which is where they originally left to look for him. (The "so it goes" amusement of that, provided by Shakespeare's subtle wit, has, unfortunately, apparently gone entirely unremarked in historical Hamlet commentary.) Hamlet greets R & G happily enough, but quickly discerns, from the course of the conversation, that they can't be there to visit him out of friendship, as purely their own idea, which leaves the alternative that Claudius and Gertrude sent for them, a fact which Guildenstern finally admits. R & G, during the course of the conversation, do try to query Hamlet on the subject of his ambition, but get no useful reply.
Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that Players are on the way to offer Hamlet their services. Hamlet asks why the Players are traveling, and Rosencrantz says he thinks it's because of the change of government (from King Hamlet to King Claudius. Apparently King Hamlet had sponsored the Players, as the King's Men, but Claudius did not renew that sponsorship, leaving the Players at loose ends. Thus the Players, some of whom are Hamlet's friends, have come to Elsinore to offer Hamlet their services, hoping to gain Hamlet's royal sponsorship and become the Prince's Men.) R also says the Players have lost business due to competition from a children's company.
The Players enter, to a fanfare of trumpets. Polonius reenters, having heard the fanfare. Hamlet greets the Players warmly, and requests a passionate (emotional) speech from the First Player, who performs it. The Player's performance is so good that Polonius reacts to it with alarm, as if it were real, giving Hamlet the idea that Claudius might react to a play, which could provide proof that what the Ghost said was true, about Claudius killing King Hamlet.
Hamlet asks the Lad of the Players if he knows a play about the murder of Gonzago, and if the Lad can learn a few lines Hamlet would add to it. The Lad assures Hamlet on both counts. Hamlet chooses the Gonzago play because he knows it includes a king being killed with poison in the ear. Hamlet gives no thought to where Claudius might have gotten the idea to use that method to kill his brother.
All but Hamlet exit, and he bemoans the situation he is in, but expresses his hope that a play will "catch the conscience of the King."
Interscene 7 - 8: Hamlet works on the play he wants the Players to perform, making certain changes so the play will have a better chance of catching Claudius's conscience.
Polonius tells Ophelia that he has arranged for Claudius to eavesdrop on Hamlet talking to her, when Hamlet thinks the conversation is private between them. Polonius says that if Claudius can hear, for himself, Hamlet express love for Ophelia, Polonius will be able to get Claudius's approval for Hamlet to marry Ophelia. Polonius says Ophelia can offer Hamlet the return of keepsakes he's given her, to further motivate Hamlet to express his feelings. Polonius is so sure Hamlet is madly in love with Ophelia, that he'll refuse to accept the keepsakes back, and declare his love, for Claudius to hear. On the basis that it should get her married to Hamlet, Ophelia agrees to participate.
In the Throne Room, Claudius speaks to R & G, who admit they were unable to find out about Hamlet's ambition, which is what Claudius mainly wanted to know. R & G mention the Players, and that Hamlet will have them perform a play that night. Polonius adds that Claudius and Gertrude are invited to attend, and Claudius says he will.
Claudius asks Gertrude to leave, and explains that he and Polonius have arranged to eavesdrop on Hamlet when Hamlet thinks he's alone with Ophelia, to ascertain whether Hamlet truly loves Ophelia, as a test of whether Polonius is right. Claudius says he's summoned Hamlet "closely," i.e. his message to Hamlet said it would be a private meeting, just the two of them. Claudius expressed his summons to Hamlet that way to be sure Hamlet wouldn't bring anyone else with him, whose presence might inhibit Hamlet from expressing himself frankly to Ophelia.
Gertrude tells Claudius she'll obey (since there's no time to argue the point) and she speaks briefly and kindly to Ophelia. Gertrude then pretends to leave, but hides behind an arras to listen, when the others aren't looking. (We know this fact from the Second Quarto corrected printing, which shows Gertrude's exit after the end of Ophelia's "noble mind" speech, much later in the Scene, and also from common sense about people, which tells us Gertrude wants to listen to what her son says, of course.)
Polonius gives Ophelia a book, and tells her to walk near an arras, pretending to read. The show of that familiar activity is supposed to reassure Hamlet, and lead him to approach her and speak to her. Polonius remembers what Ophelia told him about Hamlet saying nothing to her, when Hamlet rushed into her room and stared at her. It wouldn't do here, for Hamlet to say nothing, as there would be nothing for Claudius to hear in that event. Thus, Polonius provides Ophelia with the book as a conversation starter. Polonius supposes that if Hamlet can't think of anything else to say, to begin the conversation, he'll ask Ophelia what she's reading, the same as Polonius asked Hamlet what he was reading, during their earlier "fishmonger" dialogue in Scene 7. The book is an academic book that Polonius thinks would interest a university scholar like Hamlet, and give him something to talk about. (The book is not a Bible or a prayer book.)
Polonius makes an offhand remark, which accidentally catches Claudius's conscience, proving that Claudius does indeed have a conscience, meaning Hamlet's idea about a play to catch Claudius's conscience could be successful. (Polonius's remark is incidental to this Scene, in that way, and carries no implication of Ophelia being engaged in devotions.)
They hear Hamlet's approach, and Claudius and Polonius hide behind the arras near Ophelia. Hamlet, as he enters, doesn't see Claudius, and he takes it, as anybody naturally would, that Claudius isn't there yet. Hamlet does see Ophelia, but doesn't approach her, as he ponders the situation. Waiting for Claudius, Hamlet says his "To be or not to be" speech (not a soliloquy) on the point of whether he can, and should, kill Claudius when Claudius arrives alone. Is "Hamlet's Revenge" to be, or not to be, when Claudius arrives, alone, in a minute or two, is the question Hamlet is asking in his speech. Hamlet is not thinking of killing himself, he is thinking of killing Claudius, and achieving his revenge.
(The conventional wisdom that Hamlet's "To be or not to be" speech is a contemplation of suicide is patently absurd. Hamlet is expecting to meet Claudius here, but he's thinking of killing himself? Nonsense. He's pondering killing Claudius, of course.)
Hamlet has arranged for the play performance, to test Claudius, but if he can talk himself into killing Claudius here, based only on the Ghost's word, he won't need to worry about the play.
Hamlet wants Ophelia to leave, as he certainly can't kill Claudius with her as a witness against him. Hamlet keeps his distance from Ophelia as he says the "to be or not to be" speech. Hamlet is both waiting for Claudius, and hoping Ophelia will finish what she's reading, and leave. To Ophelia, as Hamlet stays at a distance, it appears that Hamlet doesn't want to talk to her.
After waiting for some time, Hamlet decides that Claudius isn't going to arrive for their meeting, and Hamlet then does approach Ophelia. Ophelia greets Hamlet in a strangely formal way, as if they were in the midst of a crowd at a formal gathering. Her greeting informs Hamlet that somebody must be behind the arras, listening, since she would never greet him in such a formal way if they were alone together.
Hamlet easily guesses Polonius must be behind the arras, since Hamlet knows Polonius is so snoopy and so dominating of his daughter. Hamlet further surmises that Claudius may be behind the arras, as well, since he's supposed to be in the room at this time, according to his summons. But Hamlet naturally asks himself, why would they be hiding behind the arras?
Ophelia proceeds as she was persuaded by Polonius, and offers Hamlet the return of his remembrances. She tosses in a saying about "rich gifts" as part of her improvised dialogue for her "show" for Hamlet, sure that Polonius will approve of her reciting a saying, since Polonius habitually recites sayings. Hamlet doesn't understand she's only speaking a saying for her father to hear, and Hamlet thinks she means it. He thinks she's returning his "poor gifts" as she calls them, because she's getting "rich gifts" from somebody else. Who could that be?
Hamlet concludes that the same thing has happened with Ophelia as happened with Gertrude, and with R & G. Hamlet thinks that Ophelia has gone over to Claudius, to be his courtesan, the typical reason a rich, immoral, married man would take an interest in a pretty, young girl. Hamlet takes it that Ophelia is returning his "poor gifts" because she's getting valuable gifts from Claudius. Hamlet further concludes that Claudius has set this up so that Claudius can listen, laugh at Hamlet, and relish Hamlet's humiliation as Ophelia dumps him. Hamlet becomes murderously angry, not at Ophelia, whom he takes to be a foolish victim, but at Claudius and Polonius.
Hamlet does take his remembrances back, to Ophelia's disappointment. She has no idea of what he has concluded about the situation, and about her.
Hamlet, under his mistaken conclusion, that Ophelia has become a courtesan for Claudius, tries to explain to her about how beauty can corrupt honesty. He also tries to warn her that men are not virtuous, so she mustn't believe everything they tell her. He supposes, now, Ophelia is such a fool she requires basic instruction on those points. Hamlet confusingly says both that he did love her, once, and that he didn't.
Hamlet tells Ophelia, several times, to go to a nunnery (which has made "Nunnery Scene" a key phrase for this Scene.) He speaks of his own faults, and hers, and says he forbids any more marriage. He says, with both Claudius and Gertrude hearing it, that a married person shall die, and he storms out.
- Intrascene 8: Hamlet, heartbroken, finds a niche where he can't be seen, pounds the wall with his fist, and weeps.
Ophelia is devastated, with no idea why Hamlet said what he said, or behaved as he did, and she thinks Hamlet has lost his mind. She speaks her "noble mind" speech to express her despair, and saying she's seen enough, sinks to the floor, covering her eyes.
Gertrude exits, from behind her arras, unseen by the others. Claudius and Polonius emerge from behind the arras closest to Ophelia, after waiting long enough to be certain Hamlet is gone (which is what gives time for Ophelia's speech.) They heard how Hamlet sounded, as if he were ready to kill somebody, and neither of them was ready to volunteer to be his victim. Claudius says it didn't sound like love to him, the way Hamlet spoke, but he perceives danger. Inspired by the diplomatic mission to Norway, Claudius says he'll send Hamlet on a mission to England. Polonius has not given up yet, and rationalizes that there's still love involved. He speaks to Ophelia, oblivious to her despair. Polonius then suggests that, after the play, he could eavesdrop on Hamlet talking to Gertrude, and Claudius says that's agreeable.
Interscene 8 - 9: In the evening, everyone gets ready for the play.
In the Banquet Hall, that night, Hamlet speaks to the Players about how to perform the play. He offers general advice that they should make the play performance look natural. He adds that the Players should restrain their clowns (which is high irony from Shakespeare in advance of Hamlet's own clownish behavior that will occur during the performance.)
Hamlet speaks to Horatio, asking him to help keep an eye on Claudius, and Horatio promises he will.
Hamlet speaks briefly to Claudius, Polonius, and Gertrude, declines an invitation to sit beside Gertrude (since he couldn't watch Claudius from there,) and sits beside Ophelia. He makes indecent remarks when he does so. Hamlet speaks that way to try to catch Ophelia's conscience about her being Claudius's courtesan, but since she is really no such thing, he only sounds mad to her and to the others who hear him.
Hamlet speaks of how long his father has been dead, and Ophelia says "twice," a word which has been so badly misinterpreted over the years. Ophelia's "twice" is an involuntary product of her lisp, as she tries to say "two." She instantly corrects it, since Hamlet angrily condemned her lisp in the Nunnery Scene, earlier. Shakespeare included Ophelia's "twice" in this Scene for wordplay on King Hamlet's death happening "twice," first in reality and now in representation in the 'Mousetrap' play.
A dumb show starts off the Players' performance. It is performed allegorically, as "Serpent in the Garden." A King and Queen enter, and embrace. The King then lies down to take a nap, and the Queen leaves. A villain slithers in, costumed as a serpent, and imitating one. The serpent villain takes the King's crown, and poisons him. The Queen returns, finds the King dead, and laments as his body is borne away. The serpent villain woos the Queen with gifts, and she changes her affection, to him.
(Hamlet has arranged the dumb show with its "Serpent in the Garden" symbolism following the facts of King Hamlet's death occurring in an orchard, and the Ghost calling Claudius a serpent. Claudius does not recognize himself as a serpent, and to the extent he associates the play performance with events at Elsinore, he sees the dumb show as representing the official coroner's verdict in the death of his brother. This is the answer to the old question of why the dumb show doesn't catch Claudius's conscience. Claudius doesn't recognize himself as the serpent. Nobody would.)
Ophelia asks what the dumb show meant, and Hamlet answers obscurely. He is not going to tell her about his intent of revenge against Claudius. A brief prologue is recited, and the play begins.
A King and Queen enter. The King speaks of their thirty-year marriage. The Queen expresses fear about the King's health, that he is very sick, and she expresses great love for him. The King says he's dying, and he hopes she'll find another husband to love. She denies she'll ever remarry. The King expresses doubt of that, and supposes she'll forget her promise, with time. The Queen says if she does remarry she hopes she'll suffer for it. The King says he needs to sleep, asks her to leave him to his nap, and she does so. The scene ends, and the King and Queen players exit.
(The play dialogue is in rhymed couplets, in sestets. However, two of the Queen's speeches are eight lines. Those are where Hamlet made his changes to the play dialogue, in the part recited by the Lad. Hamlet did not respect the play's sestets. In confirmation, that those are the changes Hamlet made to the dialogue, Hamlet speaks up during those two speeches, because he's so excited by a professional actor reciting his lines onstage, and so eager for success, he can't keep still.)
During the interlude, Claudius asks the name of the play, and Hamlet says "The Mousetrap" (which is why this Scene can be called the Mousetrap Scene.) Hamlet goes on to speak of the source of the play, that it is based on a real murder, of a person named Gonzago. Hamlet still gives no thought to where Claudius may have gotten the idea for how to poison his brother.
The villain of the play enters, in a solo scene. The King and Queen were introduced in the first scene, and the villain is now introduced in this second scene. The villain speaks of poison he has prepared.
Hamlet still can't keep quiet, and he again speaks of the Gonzago story, upon which the play is based, but still with no thought of where Claudius might have gotten his idea about how to commit fratricide. Claudius abruptly rises and leaves.
- Intrascene 9: Claudius hurries to his room, the King's Room, followed by Gertrude, R & G, and Polonius. To conceal the true reason he left, that Hamlet's talk of Gonzago scared him badly, Claudius tells them Hamlet's unruliness was too much for him, that he couldn't enjoy the play because of Hamlet's interruptions. The others believe Claudius, since they also saw and heard Hamlet's disruptiveness. Claudius says he'll order Hamlet locked up. Polonius reminds Claudius about the idea of Gertrude talking with Hamlet while Polonius eavesdrops, also, about sending Hamlet on a diplomatic mission to England. Gertrude says that she does want to talk to Hamlet. Claudius, reassured that the others have no suspicion of him in connection with his brother's death, agrees that Gertrude can talk to Hamlet, and if she can calm Hamlet down, he'll send him on the diplomatic mission, instead of confining him.
Gertrude instructs R & G and Polonius to tell Hamlet she wants to talk to him. She says she'll wait in her room, the Queen's Room, in the expectation Hamlet will agree to talk to her. R & G and Polonius leave, to return to the Banquet Hall. Gertrude leaves for her room, accompanied by Claudius, to wait for the others to return with Hamlet's reply.
R & G take the shortcut across the courtyard, while Polonius stays inside and goes the longer way, because of concern at his age about the nighttime chill; this is why Polonius will arrive so much later than R & G, to convey Gertrude's message to Hamlet.
Claudius having left, Hamlet talks to Horatio, and mocks Claudius. Hamlet preens himself, (while mentioning feathers,) and says only half jokingly that he's earned a share in a company of players. Hamlet now has the idea he could be a player.
R & G arrive, and speak to Hamlet at considerable length, before finally revealing that Gertrude wants to talk to him. Hamlet draws Guildenstern aside for a "recorder lesson," which is Hamlet's attempt to instruct G, via an object lesson, about what he can do, and what he can't. The recorder lesson is further on the point that G should be his own man, play his own tune, and not be just a sidekick for Rosencrantz or a tool for Claudius.
Polonius arrives, and says Gertrude wants to talk to Hamlet. Hamlet puts Polonius through the "cloud talk" passage, in which Hamlet insults Polonius as a stupid beast of burden, a polecat, and as fat as a whale, Polonius understanding none of it. Hamlet says, yes, he'll speak to Gertrude, and R & G and Polonius leave. Hamlet dismisses Horatio and the Players, who leave.
Hamlet recites his "witching time of night" soliloquy, and then exits, on his way to the Royal Apartments.
Interscene 9 - 10: R & G and Polonius have left the Banquet Hall, to tell Gertrude that Hamlet agreed to talk to her. R & G again take the shortcut across the Castle courtyard. Polonius again takes the longer way, staying indoors, since at his age he's worried about catching a chill from the night air. This is why Polonius arrives so much later than R & G, in the next Scene.
Hamlet trails only a minute or so behind the others, as he leaves to go to the Royal Apartments, where the King and Queen rooms are. He also takes the shortcut across the Castle courtyard. In doing so, he gets ahead of Polonius, who doesn't see him.
R & G arrive at Gertrude's room, and tell her, and Claudiius, that Hamlet will talk to her. While they're all in Gertrude's room, Hamlet arrives and finds the King's Room empty. He steps inside, and hides behind an arras, to wait for Claudius, to kill him.
(From the start of the next Scene, the Prayer Scene, Hamlet will be present in Claudius's room, hiding. He'll hear everything said in that Scene, except Claudius's brief speech in closing. The above is how he got there. This is how hamlet will know of the trip to England, as he'll mention toward the end of the Closet Scene, Scene 11. Hamlet will also hear Polonius say that he'll hide in Gertrude's room to eavesdrop. This point, of Hamlet being present from the beginning of Scene 10, has been missed in earlier commentary, in other sources, because of a failure to appreciate the technical nature of the stage directions in the Second Quarto. Most commentators on Hamlet have had only literature backgrounds, which has left them unprepared to address, or even notice, the technical nature of the Q2 stage directions. Essentially, the stage directions in Q2, when they use a character's proper name, primarily mark an actor being in his speaking position onstage, to perform the playscript, since the Q2 publication is only the playscript, very nearly. The stage directions in Q2 are not director's notes about an actor's physical presence onstage. Thus, in Q2, an actor can be onstage without having yet received his entry; he'll get his playscript entry when he has lines. There's more to the Q2 stage directions, since, as mentioned, they're technical, but that's the immediate point for understanding Hamlet's presence at the beginning of Scene 10.
Claudius and R & G leave Gertrude's room, where she waits for Hamlet, and they go to Claudius's room, the King's Room.
In the King's Room, Hamlet is hiding, behind an arras, as Claudius enters with R & G. Hamlet hears everything that's said in the room, up to his exit. The others have no idea he's there.
Claudius expresses his worry about Hamlet, and tells R & G he'll send Hamlet to England, with R & G to accompany him. R & G pledge their loyalty to Claudius, and exit to pack for the trip.
Polonius arrives as R & G exit, having finally returned to the Royal Apartments after making his slow way around through the Castle hallways. Polonius says he'll go to Gertrude's room to eavesdrop. (Hamlet hears Polonius say it.)
Claudius, taking it for granted he's alone in the room, thinks out loud, and expresses at some length his worry over his guilt in the death of his brother. He wonders how he can be forgiven, to someday reach Heaven, and whether prayer could do any good. Hamlet is listening, and, with great irony, Claudius accidentally catches Hamlet's conscience, because what Claudius says would apply to Hamlet. If Hamlet murders Claudius, in direct violation of the Commandments, how could he be forgiven?
Claudius kneels and prays, silently. Hamlet emerges from hiding, behind Claudius, and draws his sword. Hamlet doesn't admit that Claudius caught his conscience. Since Hamlet so despises Claudius, he gives him credit for nothing. Hamlet rationalizes to himself, aside, that if he kills Claudius during prayer he may be sending Claudius to Heaven, which is not good enough to qualify as true revenge. Hamlet sheaths his sword, and leaves to talk to Gertrude.
Claudius finishes his prayer, and rises. He feels no different, and so he believes his prayer went unheard. He has no idea it saved his life. (There is a vastly unappreciated irony, that Shakespeare showed a Miracle of Prayer, where a prayer from a woeful sinner immediately saves his life, and then the poor, ignorant sinner says he doesn't think prayer did him any good. Whatever one's views on religion may be, it's a delicious achievement in stagecraft.)
Claudius exits, in terms of the playscript, as the Scene ends. In silent action, he goes to his desk, to finish the paperwork for the diplomatic mission to England.
Interscene 10 - 11: Polonius has gone to Gertrude's room, preparing to eavesdrop on Hamlet's conversation with her. Hamlet has left Claudius's room, and is approaching.
In the Queen's Room, Polonius, being bossy, tries to lecture the Queen about what to say to Hamlet. They hear Hamlet approaching, Polonius hides behind an arras, and Hamlet enters.
Gertrude tries to warn Hamlet that Claudius was threatening to lock him up, but in the process she calls Claudius Hamlet's father, which annoys Hamlet.
Hamlet, knowing Polonius is in the room, draws his sword, to poke at the arrases, find Polonius, and chase him out of the room, so Hamlet can have a truly private talk with his mother.
Gertrude is unaware Hamlet knows Polonius is present, so she thinks Hamlet has drawn his sword against her. (This is why she asks, "how now?") She asks if Hamlet has forgotten her, meaning, "you wouldn't stab your own mother?" The question irritates Hamlet, who raises his sword in the direction of Gertrude, and swears by it, using his sword to symbolize the Christian cross, that he knows who she is, but he doesn't like it that she's his mother.
As Hamlet holds the sword up at her, and says he doesn't like it she's his mother, Gertrude becomes alarmed. She remembers what she heard in the earlier Nunnery Scene, when Hamlet said that a married person would die, and she suddenly worries that Hamlet meant her. She starts for the door to summon guards to restrain Hamlet.
Hamlet stops her and makes her sit down. Then, speaking poetically, he says in an obscure way that he will set up a mirror in front of her, in which she can see her soul, and the condition of it. He means that he will paint her a picture in words, so it will be like she's looking at her soul in a mirror. While saying that, Hamlet points to Gertrude's wardrobe mirror, in an attempt to illustrate what he means. (Gertrude, the Queen of the nation, has a large wardrobe mirror to check her appearance every day before she goes out; this is not mere vanity, since she's the Queen it's part of her job to look good in public.)
Gertrude, not following Hamlet's figurative speech, takes him literally. She takes it that Hamlet has madly said he's going to move her mirror over in front of her, then slice her open with the sword he's holding, and make her look at her internal organs in the mirror. Frightened, she jumps up from the chair, throws it at him to protect herself, and screams for help, as loud as she can yell. (Hamlet, knowing he intends no threat to her with the sword, does not realize why she reacts that way, and takes it she's 'madly' resistant to hearing him criticize Claudius.)
Polonius, from behind the arras, hears Gertrude scream for help, and he also yells for help. (His exact words, "What ho! Help!" are surprisingly important. A long, detailed explanation is required, which can be found on the Scene 11 page, but essentially, Polonius accidentally yells the magical incantation which summons the Ghost. That is why the Ghost will appear, later in this Scene; he was accidentally summoned by Polonius.)
Hamlet now knows which arras Polonius is hiding behind. In his speech, Hamlet yells the word "rat" to insult Polonius, and the word "dead" to scare Polonius, then lunges and jabs at the arras with his sword. Hamlet is intending that Polonius should hear him, and then see the point of the sword come through the arras, so that it will frighten Polonius out of ever eavesdropping on him again. Hamlet is intending only to scare Polonius.
Hamlet steps back and looks at the arras. Gertrude looks at the arras. Polonius totters out from behind the arras, to a few feet to the side of downstage center, and collapses, dead.
Gertrude steps forward - Hamlet is now behind her - looks down at Polonius, and exclaims, "what hast thou done?"
Hamlet, behind her, does the "praying for a miracle" gesture, of crossing his fingers and holding them to his chest, and closing his eyes, and he says, "Is it the King?" This is the old, well-known action of, when you see something unfortunate, you close your eyes and try to wish it away, hoping that when you open your eyes the situation will be what you wanted to happen. Hamlet knows that it's Polonius he has killed.
However, Gertrude does not see Hamlet's wishful-thinking action, she only hears his words, because he's standing behind her. Only hearing Hamlet, she thinks he is asking a serious question, of whether he has killed Claudius. As things proceed in the Scene, Hamlet has confused Gertrude into believing he thinks he has killed Claudius. He never corrects her misapprehension. Throughout the entire remainder of this Scene, and even beyond, Gertrude continues to believe that Hamlet madly thinks he has killed Claudius, and that Claudius is dead.
Hamlet now has Polonius not eavesdropping, even though it's not the way Hamlet intended to achieve that. Hamlet is determined to talk to Gertrude, despite. He leads her to sit in the chair, again. As he does so, Gertrude asks, "What have I done?" The question poses a problem for Hamlet, in that he doesn't know what she's done. He has suspicions, but no facts.
Hamlet gets an idea. He'll do a play for Gertrude, to catch her conscience, and obtain a confession from her of what she's done. That way, she'll answer her own question, and then he'll know. After having seen Claudius flee the 'Mousetrap Play,' and then having heard Claudius confess, Hamlet is confident that he, himself, can achieve the same result with Gertrude by doing a play for her, himself.
Having gotten the idea, he immediately embarks on acting a play for her, totally improvised. However, he gives Gertrude no sane explanation for what he's doing. As Hamlet recites ad lib dialogue, and improvises acting moves to go along with what he says, Gertrude thinks he's just gone crazy.
In the midst of Hamlet trying to do the play for Gertrude, the Ghost arrives. (The reason for the delay in the Ghost's arrival takes a while to explain.) Hamlet takes it the Ghost is his father's spirit, there to scold Hamlet for not killing Claudius when he had the chance. The Ghost plays along with that. After the Ghost exits, Hamlet tries to convince Gertrude he's not crazy, but Hamlet is still in "play actor" mode, and he only makes it worse. Gertrude becomes certain, beyond any doubt, that Hamlet is hopelessly mad.
Hamlet mentions the trip to England, that he heard Claudius speak of in the previous Scene. Hamlet then says he'll drag Polonius's body to the "neighbor room." This is the Queen's Room, so the neighboring room is the King's Room, Claudius's room.
Hamlet has thought of a way to handle Polonius's death, and also get away with killing Claudius. He intends to take Polonius's body to Claudius's room, stab Claudius to death, and then claim Polonius did it. Hamlet would say, oh, he had left his mother's room, and he happened to glance into Claudius's room, where he saw Polonius stab Claudius. He didn't know why; the old man must have gone mad. So, Hamlet drew his sword, rushed in, and stabbed Polonius to try to save Claudius. But he was too late, and they're both dead, oh no. To understand this, you merely have to know about Macbeth, and the way Macbeth sets up the murder of Duncan to try to blame it on servants.
So when Hamlet exits, dragging Polonius's body, he intends to go to Claudius's room, kill Claudius, and make up a story as above.
After Hamlet exits, Gertrude paces and frets, without saying anything, as she wonders if there's anything she can do about her crazy son, and his killing of Polonius. Suddenly it strikes her, what Hamlet meant by "neighbor room." She still thinks Hamlet thinks he's killed Claudius. So she takes it Hamlet madly believes he's merely returning Claudius to his room. Gertrude foresees Claudius will be in his room, see Hamlet enter with Polonius's body, and immediately summon guards and arrest Hamlet for murder. Gertrude doesn't perceive Hamlet intends to kill Claudius, because she thinks he madly thinks he already has.
Gertrude exits, a minute or two after Hamlet. (Gertrude's exit is not printed in Q2, because Q2 is only a playscript printing. It does not include description to separate Gertrude's exit from Hamlet's. Printing Gertrude's exit, in Q2, would have made it look as if she leaves at the same time as Hamlet, which is quite wrong. Thus, her exit was omitted from the Q2 publication. Unfortunately, that has led previous editors and commentators on Hamlet to believe she doesn't exit at all, which is quite wrong.)
- Intrascene 11: During the course of this Scene, R & G finish their packing for the trip to England, and return to Claudius's room to get their diplomatic credentials and the letter from Claudius to the King of England.
Interscene 11 - 12: Hamlet drags Polonius's body near the doorway to Claudius's room, but discovers R & G are in the room with Claudius, which foils Hamlet's plan to use Polonius's body in connection with killing Claudius. Hamlet drags Polonius's body on down the hallway, and around the corner, to hide it under the Lobby stairs until Claudius is alone in his room.
Gertrude rushes into the hallway, from her room, and seeing the hallway empty, concludes Hamlet must already have gone into Claudius's room, and is probably already under arrest for murder there. She sprints down the hallway, and runs into Claudius's room, intending to try to defend her son against a charge of murder.
In the King's Room, Claudius is giving R & G the paperwork for the trip to England when Gertrude runs in. Gertrude tells R & G to leave, and they do so, without saying anything.
(It is clear that whoever did the First Folio version of Hamlet did not know the play well enough. Because R & G say nothing, the Folio editor left them out of the initial stage direction, in the First Folio printing of Hamlet. However, by omitting R & G from that stage direction, the Folio editor killed Claudius. He did not realize the importance of their physical presence to prevent Hamlet carrying out his plan of using Polonius in the death of Claudius. If Hamlet is not stopped by R & G being present at the start of Scene 12, Hamlet will kill Claudius. Amusingly, in the Folio Hamlet, from Scene 12 onwards Claudius is a ghost; Hamlet has killed him.)
Claudius asks how Hamlet is. Gertrude reveals the death of Polonius, and tries to defend Hamlet as mad (which implies him being not responsible.) Claudius says he'll ship Hamlet away as soon as possible, and tells R & G, who have reentered, to find Hamlet and Polonius's body.
Interscene 12 - 13: Hamlet is hiding Polonius's body underneath the stairs that go up to the Lobby.
R & G get whomever they can stir at that early time of the morning, and look for Hamlet.
Claudius goes to the Chapel, where he told R & G to take both Polonius's body and Hamlet. Claudius expects that R & G will be able to obey his order.
Gertrude returns to her room to try to get some sleep, in preparation for talking to political supporters (their "wisest friends" mentioned during Scene 12) the first thing in the morning.
Hamlet has just finished stowing Polonius's body underneath the stairs. He is standing only a few feet from the stairs as R & G enter. Hamlet refuses to tell them where Polonius's body is, and all leave to return to Claudius, (leaving Polonius's body unfound, only a few feet from where R & G were speaking to Hamlet. R & G, and the others with them, did not even search for Polonius's body, and when Hamlet refused to tell them where it was, they were baffled. In modern terms, R & G's ability as "detectives" could be expressed by the sarcastic question, "are you guys really from Scotland Yard?")
Interscene 13 - 14: Hamlet is escorted to the Chapel.
In the Chapel, Claudius speaks about Hamlet's political popularity. Hamlet and R & G arrive, and Rosencrantz tells Claudius they've found Hamlet but not Polonius. Hamlet talks to Claudius, and gives him a verbal runaround before finally revealing where Polonius's body is.
Claudius says that because he cares so much about Hamlet, he's sending him away, to England. Hamlet is astonished. He expected that, since Claudius now knows he's killed Polonius, he'd be imprisoned to await trial, and the trip to England would be cancelled. Kill your ex-girlfriend's father and win a free ocean cruise? – It's unheard of. Hamlet leaves, as does everyone else, except Claudius. Claudius, talking to himself, reveals that his letter to the King of England is an order to execute Hamlet.
Interscene 14 - 15: Hamlet, accompanied by R & G, goes to his room to pack. Escorted by them, he then leaves the Castle, on his way to the harbor at the local town of Elsinore.
Hamlet sees Fortinbrasse's army arrive in Denmark, speaks to a Captain, then exits to board the ship to England.
Interscene 15 - 16: Two days out from Elsinore, the ship carrying Hamlet and R & G is attacked by pirates, and Hamlet is taken prisoner.
Ophelia appears, greatly changed since the death of her father. She sings odd songs about death and sex, says "good night" during the daytime, and exits.
Laertes storms the castle with a band of recruits from the local town, and challenges Claudius, over the death of Polonius. (Based on the simple facts, that Hamlet killed Polonius and then Claudius sent Hamlet on a trip to collect money, it looks like "hire and salary," that is, Laertes has gotten the idea that Claudius hired Hamlet to kill Polonius. That's why Laertes is so irate at Claudius. Those who support Laertes against Claudius have gotten the same idea.)
Ophelia appears again, sings, and hands out flowers.
Claudius tells Laertes that he can explain his innocence in Polonius's death.
Interscene 16 - 17: Claudius leaves with Laertes to try to convince Laertes and his supporters that Claudius is innocent in Polonius's death.
Sailors bring a letter from Hamlet to Horatio. Hamlet writes that his ship was attacked by a pirate ship, and he was taken captive, but the pirates have returned him to Denmark. Horatio leaves with the sailors/pirates to go where Hamlet is.
It is important to observe that this Scene 17 is intrascene during Scene 16. Horatio speaks to the sailors in the Lobby while Laertes is confronting Claudius in the Throne Room.
Interscene 17 - 18:
Claudius has explained to Laertes that Hamlet is solely responsible for Polonius's death, and Claudius is blameless.
Claudius, to his surprise, receives a letter from Hamlet saying that Hamlet is back. Claudius and Laertes conspire to arrange a fencing match at which Laertes can kill Hamlet in revenge for the death of Polonius.
Gertrude reports that Ophelia is dead, after a fall from a willow tree into the brook, where she drowned.
Interscene 18 - 19: To appease Laertes, Claudius orders an immediate coroner's inquest into the death of Ophelia, and the court quickly returns a verdict of accidental death. The court sends a deputy to inform the sexton, as we find at the start of the next Scene. Arrangements proceed for Ophelia's funeral.
Horatio has found Hamlet, and is returning to Elsinore Castle with him.
Two Clowns, the church Sexton and the coroner's court Deputy, discuss Ophelia's death while the Clown Sexton digs her grave. Contrary to the coroner's verdict, they conclude (without any factual basis) she must have committed suicide.
Hamlet and Horatio see the grave being dug, without knowing whose grave it is. Hamlet talks to the Clown Sexton, during which Hamlet utters his famous "alas, poor Yorick" speech.
The funeral procession nears, and Hamlet and Horatio hide to watch. Hamlet is shocked to learn it's Ophelia's funeral.
Laertes jumps into the grave excavation for Ophelia, and proclaims his love for her in high-flown terms. Hamlet challenges Laertes that he loved Ophelia more than "forty thousand" brothers could, and they scuffle.
Claudius calms Laertes, and reminds him of the rigged fencing match they've arranged to kill Hamlet.
Interscene 19 - 20:
Hamlet explains to Horatio that he became suspicious about the trip to England, so he looked at Claudius's letter to the King of England during the night when R & G were asleep. Hamlet discovered that it was an order to the King of England to have Hamlet executed. Hamlet substituted a forgery, ordering England to kill R & G, instead of him. Hamlet gives Claudius's letter to Horatio to read later.
Ostrick tells Hamlet of the fencing match, and despite his misgivings, Hamlet agrees to participate.
At the match, Claudius and Laertes have arranged for Laertes to use a poisoned foil, and Claudius also poisons Hamlet's wine, in case the poisoned foil doesn't work.
The match begins, and Hamlet scores the first hit, "a very palpable hit." Gertrude innocently drinks from Hamlet's poisoned wine to salute him. Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned foil, then they grapple and exchange foils, and Hamlet wounds Laertes, with the same poisoned foil. Gertrude exclaims that she's been poisoned by the wine, and dies. Laertes, also dying, reveals that Claudius is to blame, and asks Hamlet to exchange forgiveness with him, which Hamlet does. Laertes dies.
Hamlet wounds Claudius with the poisoned foil, and also holds the cup of poisoned wine to Claudius's lips. Claudius, an alcoholic, can't help but swallow some wine, even when he knows it's poisoned. Claudius dies.
Hamlet, dying of his injury from the poisoned foil, says he supports Fortinbras as the next king, and speaks his final words, "the rest is silence." When Hamlet dies, Horatio says "flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."
Fortinbras enters, with ambassadors from England who announce that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Fortinbras takes over at Elsinore, says that Hamlet would have "proved most royal," and orders a salute to be fired, which concludes the play.
© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan
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