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Welcome to Hamlet OnLine:
the best place to learn the
Shakespeare play Hamlet.
Hamlet Second Quarto Title Page
To my sister, Jennifer:
happily kin, and more than kind.


Hamlet is a stage play by William Shakespeare. It is explicitly of the tragedy genre, as stated on the title pages of the original publications from the early 1600s.

Hamlet is the longest of the Shakespeare plays, and is the one most often performed, although hardly ever at full length. Historically, it has been considered the most puzzling of the plays, and the most controversial. It is without doubt the most discussed play in the world. It is also the Shakespeare play which has stimulated the most parodies.

It is said that Hamlet is the second-most quoted writing in the western world, after the Bible. Hamlet stands as an icon of western culture.


Elsinore Castle.

Kronborg Castle

The stage action of Hamlet is located in and around the fictional Elsinore Castle, which is based on the real Kronborg Castle at the town of Helsingor, Denmark. The name, Elsinore, is an English adaptation of "Helsingor." Since Kronborg Castle is on the Øresund, the Sound, we are to understand that Elsinore Castle is also a coastal castle, beside a strait.

Kronborg Castle was in the news in England in Shakespeare's time. Kronborg was completed in 1585, and as one of the great coastal castles of Europe, it was well known to English sailors. Beyond that, King James VI of Scotland married Princess Anne of Denmark at Kronborg Castle in 1589 (although it was not quite that simple.) James was a favorite to become the next King of England, after Elizabeth I, which he eventually did. Certainly, those in England took note of James's activities, including his marriage at Kronborg. More can be found to indicate why Shakespeare would have set Hamlet at a castle based on Kronborg. (The source story of Amleth by Saxo Grammaticus is set in Denmark, as far as that much goes.)

Shakespeare's Elsinore Castle is not exactly Kronborg Castle, however, since Shakespeare's Elsinore Castle has battlements, as the play expressly states, which Kronborg does not. For more, see the Location page.

Time Period

The time period of Hamlet is Renaissance, contemporary with Shakespeare's England, although a few anachronisms can be found. See the Time Period page.

Time of Year

Wild Narcissus

The time of year is the Spring. See the Time of Year page.


These are the fictional persons of the play. The named characters of greater significance are given first, then the lesser characters who have names, then as stated in the headings.

Prince Hamlet Ophelia
King Claudius Queen Gertrude
Polonius Horatio Rosencrantz Guildenstern Laertes
Bernardo Cornelius Fortinbrasse Francisco Lucianus
Marcellus Ostrick Reynaldo Voltemand
Anonymous, speaking, appearing on stage:
Captain Clown Deputy Clown Sexton Doctor of Divinity
English Ambassadors First Player Gentleman Ghost
Lad Lord Messenger Ruffians Sailors
Anonymous, non-speaking, appearing on stage:
Players Royal Entourage Swissers
Plus Musicians, Pages, Guards, etc. as needed.
Offstage, known by reference only, alive or dead:
Baptista Claudio Elder Fortinbrasse Gonzago King Hamlet
King Norway Lamord Yorick

Dumb Show and 'Mousetrap Play' parts
The Play King, in both the Dumb Show and the Mousetrap Play, same as the First Player;

The Play Queen, in both the Dumb Show and the Mousetrap Play, same as the Lad;

Lucianus, the Mousetrap Play villain, same as the Dumb Show "Poisoner"

Alternate Spellings or Terminology
Character Variants
If you don't see a name, or a term, that you think should be there, check the Character Variants page. Numerous names, and references, have arisen over the years for the characters in Hamlet. The Character Variants page has a list of variations in spelling and terminology, with pointers to the terms used on this site.


Hamlet is so widely misinterpreted and misunderstood that an explication of the play, in considerable detail, is mandatory as part of any acceptable presentation. So, here it is: Explication.     The Walkthrough that includes a timeline may also be helpful.


Here's the play.
This listing of the Scenes includes keywords or key phrases to help identify them, and brief descriptions of the events of the Scene. For detailed information about how the Hamlet playscript is presented on this site see the page About the Scenes.

Earlier Events

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.

Scene 1 - Who's There? (Act 1 scene 1)
Who's there

On a platform between the Castle and the sea, the sentinels Marcellus and Barnardo, accompanied by Horatio, see the Ghost. Horatio speaks of how King Hamlet killed the Elder Fortinbrasse in a single combat, and won his land, in earlier times. Horatio also speaks of Young Fortinbrasse raising an army, and the men wonder if the Ghost is an omen of disaster for Denmark. They decide to tell Hamlet about the Ghost.

Interscene 1 - 2:

Marcellus, Horatio, and Bernardo arrive outside the Throne Room, and find they have to wait to see Hamlet, because King Claudius is holding a session of the royal court, with Hamlet in attendance.

Scene 2 - Too Too Sallied (Act 1 scene 2)
our son

In the Throne Room, we see Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, Polonius, and Hamlet, as the new King Claudius holds his first session of the royal court. Claudius sends diplomats to Norway to try to deal with the problem Fortinbrasse poses. Claudius grants Laertes permission to return to France. Hamlet, in obedience to Gertrude, agrees to stay at Elsinore. Claudius announces that he will celebrate that night, and adjourns. Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo enter and tell Hamlet about the Ghost.

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 left yet, and makes his way down to the harbor to see why not.

Scene 3 - Primrose Path (Act 1 scene 3)
steep and thorny

At the harbor, Laertes, before he leaves, gives Ophelia a long-winded lecture against Hamlet. 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, and Polonius concludes by ordering Ophelia to have nothing further to do with Hamlet.

Interscene 3 - 4:

In the evening, Ophelia writes Laertes a letter, as she promised she would, and gives it to Polonius to send to Laertes. Claudius carouses until after midnight, with trumpets, drums, and cannon fire to punctuate his drinking. Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus assemble and go toward the sentinel post on the platform, to see if the Ghost will appear again.

Scene 4 - Rotten in Denmark (Act 1 scene 4)
Something is rotten

Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus arrive at the platform. They're staggered by the upwell of noise that Claudius has ordered to go along with his drinking. The Ghost does appear, and it beckons to Hamlet. Hamlet follows it alone into the dark of night. Horatio and Marcellus, after brief discussion, decide to follow Hamlet.

Interscene 4 - 5:

Hamlet follows the Ghost for a considerable distance. Horatio and Marcellus lose Hamlet in the darkness, and search for him.

Scene 5 - Murder Most Foul (Act 1 scene 5)

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 conclusion is obvious that he 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, but only after the Ghost has departed. Hamlet speaks to the men in an obscure 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 speak of the events. 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 horrible has happened to Ophelia, and that she is dead.

Hamlet awakens, and runs to Ophelia's room, to check that she's alive and alright. He says nothing, and he leaves Ophelia puzzled and very worried about him.

Scene 6 - Madness of Love (Act 2 scene 1)
ecstasy of love

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, merely 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:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive and present themselves to Claudius, who speaks with them privately before greeting them in public in the next Scene.

The Danish ambassadors to Norway are on their way back.

Polonius demands Ophelia's love letters from Hamlet, so that Polonius will have tangible proof to show the King that Hamlet has expressed love for Ophelia. When Ophelia doesn't want to surrender her love letters and resists, Polonius takes them anyway, and leaves Ophelia locked in her room so she won't tell Hamlet that Polonius has taken his letters.

Scene 7 - The Play's the Thing (Act 2 scene 2)
Folio "mad north north-west..."

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are instructed to spend time with Hamlet. The Danish diplomats, returned from Norway, report that they have reached an agreement. Polonius argues to Claudius that Hamlet loves Ophelia. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern talk with Hamlet, but Hamlet only gives them a verbal runaround. An acting company arrives. Hamlet decides to have a play performed to test what the Ghost said.

In the performances of Hamlet by Shakespeare's company at the Globe Theater, the first day of performance ended here.

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 and himself 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. On the basis that it should get her married to Hamlet, Ophelia agrees to participate.

Scene 8 - Nunnery Scene (Act 3 scene 1)
"noble mind" speech beginning

In the Throne Room, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern admit to Claudius they were unable to find out what Claudius wanted to know about Hamlet. They mention the Players.

Claudius and Polonius hide behind an arras and eavesdrop on Hamlet talking to Ophelia. Hamlet reacts with anger, and storms out. Claudius mentions the idea of sending Hamlet to England.

Interscene 8 - 9:

In the evening, everyone prepares for the play.

Scene 9 - The Mousetrap (Act 3 scene 2)
good as a chorus

Hamlet coaches the actors before the play. Hamlet asks Horatio to help him watch Claudius. The Mousetrap Play proceeds. Claudius rushes out in the middle of the play. Hamlet agrees to talk to Gertrude.

Interscene 9 - 10:

Hamlet finds a chance to hide behind an arras in Claudius's room, and waits there to kill Claudius.

Scene 10 - Prayer Scene (Act 3 scene 3)
speedy viage

Claudius tells Rosencrantz & Guildenstern to prepare to escort Hamlet to England. Polonius says he'll hide in Gertrude's room to eavesdrop on Hamlet talking to Gertrude. Claudius worries about his soul and decides to pray. Hamlet leaves without killing Claudius.

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.

Scene 11 - Closet Scene (Act 3 scene 4)
rash and bloody

Polonius hides in Gertrude's room to eavesdrop. Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius. Hamlet goes on at considerable length to Gertrude, during which the Ghost appears, but Gertrude can't see it. Hamlet drags Polonius's body away to take it to Claudius's room, and use it in connection with killing Claudius. Gertrude, not knowing Hamlet intends to kill Claudius, and fearing Hamlet will be arrested for murder, rushes to Claudius's room.

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 out, 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.

Scene 12 - Mad as the Sea and Wind (Act 4 scene 1)
discord and dismay

Gertrude rushes into Claudius's room, finds to her surprise that Hamlet is not under arrest there, and, while trying to defend Hamlet, reveals to Claudius that Hamlet has killed Polonius. Claudius sends R & G 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 are looking for Hamlet.

Claudius goes to the Chapel, expecting his order will be obeyed, for R & G to take Polonius's body, and Hamlet, to the Chapel. Gertrude returns to her room to try to get some sleep.

Scene 13 - Where's the Body? (Act 4 scene 2)

In a hallway, Hamlet has just finished hiding Polonius's body underneath the stairs to the Lobby. 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 they leave to go to Claudius, (leaving Polonius's body unfound, only a few feet from where R & G were speaking to Hamlet.)

Interscene 13 - 14:

Hamlet and R & G go to the Chapel, where Claudius told R & G to bring Polonius's body.

Scene 14 - For England? (Act 4 scene 3)
the present death of Hamlet

Claudius talks to Hamlet, and eventually learns where Polonius's body is. Claudius tells Hamlet that, despite his killing of Polonius, Claudius is still sending Hamlet to England, which astonishes Hamlet. Claudius, when alone, 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.

Fortinbrasse, leading the Army of Norway, has sailed across the Sound, and the ships are docking at the harbor at Elsinore Town, for the army to debark.

Scene 15 - Fortinbrasse Arrives (Act 4 scene 4)
patch of ground

Hamlet, while being escorted by R & G to the harbor at the local town, sees Fortinbrasse's army arriving, and talks to one of the army captains.

Interscene 15 - 16:

Fortinbrasse's Captain gets the written license from Claudius which allows the Norwegian Army to be in Denmark, and he then goes to rejoin the army, some distance away.

Hamlet and R & G begin their voyage to England.

Polonius's funeral is held, quickly and with little ceremony.

Laertes, having been informed of the death of his father, returns to Denmark, and spends some time in the town, talking with the townspeople. He becomes outraged by what he hears, and he begins recruiting people to storm the Castle and overthrow Claudius.

Ophelia has been acting strangely since the death of her father.

Scene 16 - Baker's Daughter (Act 4 scene 5)
blackest devil

Ophelia appears, madly. Laertes has returned from France, and irate over the death of his father, leads a rabble from the local area to storm the Castle and challenge Claudius. Ophelia appears again, madly, sings, and gives Laertes flowers. Laertes agrees to listen to Claudius's side of the story in the death of Polonius.

Interscene 16 - 17:

(Does not exist, as such, chronologically. Scene 17 is simultaneous with part of Scene 16.)

Scene 17 - Thieves of Mercy (Act 4 scene 6)
"So that thou..." from the Second Quarto

Sailors (pirates) bring Horatio a letter from Hamlet, saying Hamlet has returned to Denmark, after being captured and then released by pirates. They also have letters for the King and Queen. Horatio exits with the pirates to go to Hamlet.

In the performances of Hamlet by Shakespeare's company at the Globe Theater, the second day of performance ended here.

Interscene 17 - 18:

Horatio provides for delivery of Hamlet's letters, then leaves with the pirates to go where Hamlet is.

Claudius meets with Laertes and his disgruntled followers, and explains, to their satisfaction, that he had no hand in Polonius's death. Claudius returns to the Castle with Laertes.

While Claudius and Laertes are talking in the first part of Scene 18, Ophelia gathers flowers, and climbs a willow tree to get flexible twigs to make crown wreaths with those flowers. A branch breaks, which drops her into the brook, where she drowns.

Scene 18 - There Is a Willow (Act 4 scene 7)
flame of love

Claudius has convinced Laertes of his innocence in Polonius's death. Claudius receives the letter from Hamlet, which informs him Hamlet is back. Claudius and Laertes conspire to arrange a fencing match where they can murder Hamlet with poison. Gertrude announces Ophelia is dead, drowned in the brook after falling from a willow tree.

Interscene 18 - 19:

To help pacify Laertes, Claudius orders an immediate coroner's inquest into the death of Ophelia, and the court returns a verdict of accidental death. The court sends a deputy to inform the church sexton of the court's decision, since it affects the funeral service. Arrangements proceed for Ophelia's funeral.

Horatio has found Hamlet, and is returning to Elsinore Castle with him.

Scene 19 - Poor Yorick (Act 5 scene 1)
"The cat will mew..." line in the Folio

At the Graveyard, two Clowns, the church Sexton and the coroner's court Bailiff, argue about Ophelia's death, as the Sexton digs her grave. Hamlet and Horatio arrive at the graveyard, and Hamlet talks to the Sexton. Hamlet makes his famous "poor Yorick" speech. Ophelia's funeral procession arrives, Hamlet is shocked to hear Ophelia is dead, and he and Laertes scuffle.

Interscene 19 - 20:

The main characters return to the Castle. Claudius and Laertes make their necessary preparations for the fencing match.

Fortinbrasse has heard about Laertes leading the rabble to storm the Castle. It sounds like too good an opportunity to miss, so he leads his army back to the Castle, and they are now nearby. They have not been to Poland, and never intended to go there.

The English have executed R & G, obeying what they thought was the King of Denmark's order, and English ambassadors are arriving at Elsinore Town harbor to inform Claudius.

Hamlet and Horatio have returned to the Castle and are discussing events, with - it's a safe bet - Hamlet doing most of the talking.

Scene 20 - The Fencing Match (Act 5 scene 2)
point envenomed

In the Banquet Hall, Hamlet tells Horatio how he learned the trip to England was intended to kill him. A pretentious courtier tells Hamlet about the fencing match. Hamlet and Laertes fence, and the conspiracy against Hamlet goes badly awry. Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius, and Hamlet all die. Fortinbrasse enters, and reclaims Elsinore Castle and the land his father lost to King Hamlet.

The End.

Later Events

A very few can be deduced.


Acting the Dumb Show Acting the Player's Recital Acting the "Swear" Passage
Stage Directions Visual Cueing

in Hamlet

Themes and Motifs

illustration of the Wheel of Fortune from the Carmina Burana

Themes - as the term is used here, these are the repeated, or continuing, concepts which are of greatest significance to the events of the play. The course of events is most driven by these. The Themes are all identified from express statements in the dialogue. Knowledge of the Themes (and the Motifs, below,) is helpful in understanding the character speeches and the events, and in simply reading the play.

Putting on a Show -- is the major theme of Hamlet. This "show" Theme comprises instances of usage of the word "show," itself, and the word "play," also instances of false appearance (e.g. "painted face,") and also instances of misleading or deceptive speech and behavior, which are many. The most obvious instance is the actual "show" of the Gonzago/Mousetrap play-within-a-play, but in Hamlet all the characters, in one way or another, for one reason or another, and to a greater or lesser degree, "put on a show." Hamlet might even be thought of as Shakespeare's "show about shows."

The Themes, as I identify them, are:

Death Duty Fortune Love
Madness Revenge Putting on a Show

Motifs - is the term used here to refer to concepts which are recurrent in the play, but which mostly "set the stage." They communicate ideas to the audience. They may have some influence on events, but they don't drive the course of the action the way the Themes do. However, the Motifs can be vitally important in particular cases. It is a judgement call whether a recurrent concept is a Theme or Motif.

See the Motifs page for a list with links to the individual Motif pages.


Various features of the play not covered above.


Brief notes about the historical, Biblical, fictional, legendary, or mythological figures mentioned during the course of the play can be found on the Figures page, which includes links to the lines where they're mentioned.

Flora and Fauna

About the plants and animals mentioned in the dialogue.

Misconceived Words

The Misconceived Words page provides a listing of neologisms and other special words, and phrases, that occur in the course of the dialogue, with links to the lines where they occur, and links to the dialogue Notes about them.

Speeches and Passages

the line "to be or not to be" from the First Folio

Listings of significant speeches and passages in the play, with links to where they occur, and some commentary.

Stage v Page

Some observations on the Second Quarto being prepared from material written especially to be printed.

Hamlet Q & A

The Hamlet Q & A page has brief answers to some questions about the play, with links to dialogue lines.

Original Publications

These are the known publications of Hamlet, the books in which the play was originally printed.

Registration - A comment about the play's registration with the Stationers' Company in 1602.

Second Quarto First Folio First Quarto


These are the works which have been identified as contributing directly to the story line and characters of Hamlet. They are, apparently, the most immediate sources of the play.

Saxo - Amleth "Ur-Hamlet"
( ? - and maybe ) Belleforest - Amleth

Contributing Works

These notable writings, earlier than Hamlet, contributed certain elements to the play.

Clouds, Aristophanes Dæmonologie, King James Frogs, Aristophanes
Le Morte D'Arthur, Malory Metamorphoses, Ovid Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer Natural History, Pliny
Ralph Roister Doister, Udall Satires of Horace Treatise of Melancholy, Bright


Whatever might be left that's worth mentioning.

Fratricide Punished Hendiadys Humorism (Four Humors, medicine) Tarot

Elizabethan Times

Background material for the culture from which Hamlet arose.

Book of Common Prayer, 1559 Geneva Bible Gerard, "Herbal" Tilley, "Proverbs"


Hamlet Works - Offers a large amount of historical material, and also the Enfolded Hamlet, listed separately below.

Enfolded Hamlet - The Enfolded Hamlet offers the Second Quarto and First Folio texts of Hamlet combined in a way so that one can easily see the differences. Also, the Enfolded Hamlet line numbers link to historical notes, and other information.

Original Hamlet Publications Compared - From The Wooster Group, a side-by-side comparison of the First Quarto, Second Quarto, and First Folio texts of Hamlet.

  • Facsimiles

Internet Shakespeare Editions, Hamlet page. - Offers facsimiles of the original Hamlet publications, transcripts, and related materials.

The Shakespeare Quartos Archive - Offers Hamlet facsimiles and related materials.

Rare Book Room, Hamlet - The Rare Book Room has facsimiles of the original Hamlet publications, both first editions and early reprints.

Shakespeare in Quarto - From the British Library "Treasures in Full" site, this offers the Hamlet quartos, and much additional information about Shakespeare and the plays.

  • Dictionaries

The Century Dictionary Online - A classic unabridged dictionary of English from the late 1800s. It's of special interest for Shakespeare studies because it includes words and definitions now obsolete or archaic, which are omitted from most current dictionaries.

Online Etymology Dictionary - Useful for checking the roots of English words.

Wiktionary - A rather good dictionary in some ways.

Hamlet Genealogy

A speculative account of how the Shakespeare Hamlet came to exist.

Other Than Hamlet

Shakespeare's Sonnets

© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan

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