Monday, July 1, 2013

Hamlet Notes

The Actors Before Hamlet, by Ladislas von Czachorski 

Basic Facts:

v It’s a tragedy and a revenge play.

v First published in 1603.

v Based on the writings of Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1150-1220) a Danish historian who wrote the first complete history of Denmark.

v The original Hamlet was actually named Amleth.

v It was one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays in his life time, and is still the most commonly performed today, according to the Royal Shakespeare Company.

v There are three different versions to the play, each with special scenes that are missing from the others. Combined, the play is over 4 hours long, but hardly anyone performs the whole play.

v Hamlet is special for its soliloquies and asides. These are monologues where Hamlet talks to himself, in order to explain his thoughts to the audience. Asides are shorter, usually jokes. This was something new at the time. Most playwrights felt you should simply show the action and let people contemplate what the characters were thinking.

v If the original text seems confusing, it’s not simply because Shakespeare used an older vocabulary. Very often, Hamlet says something with several meanings, especially as he pretends to go crazy. Hamlet had to be cryptic, as he was keeping his father’s secret. The other characters are often just as confused as the audience.

Main Characters:

Hamlet: son of former King, nephew of the present king.
King Claudius: King of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle.
Queen Gertrude: Hamlet’s mother, Claudius’s wife.
Polonius: Lord Chamberlain, responsible for organizing all court functions –parties, meetings, etc. He likes Claudius, and dislikes Hamlet.
Laertes: son of Polonius. He also dislikes Hamlet.
Ophelia: daughter of Polonius. Hamlet is in love with her.
Horatio: Hamlet’s friend.
Ghost of Hamlet’s Father: former king of Denmark


1. Castle Guards see a ghost that looks like the old king. Horatio finds Hamlet and tells him.

2. Hamlet goes to the ghost, who tells of how Claudius killed him with poison. He wants his son to kill Claudius in revenge.

3. Hamlet goes to tell Ophelia, but changes his mind at the last minute. He says nothing, and she thinks he’s crazy.

Ophelia, by John William Waterhouse

4. Ophelia goes to her father, Polonius, to ask his advice. He assumes Hamlet is just love sick, but goes to tell Claudius about this weird behaviour.

5. King Claudius is suspicious of Hamlet and wants to know why he’s acting strange. Secretly, he’s worried that Hamlet might know the truth about how he killed Hamlet’s father. So, Claudius sends two old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to spy on him. But Hamlet realizes what they’re doing, and says nothing.

6. Claudius then sends Ophelia to speak with Hamlet, while he secretly listens to the conversation. She finds Hamlet contemplating suicide, “To be, or not to be. That is the question.” He doesn’t trust her, tells her nothing, and tells her to “get thee to a nunnery,”meaning, go join a convent and be a nun, I’ll never marry you. There’s actually a double meaning, as “nunnery” was a slang term for a brothel.

7. Hamlet begins to doubt whether his father’s ghost was telling the truth. So, when travelling actors come to the castle, he has them perform a mini play-within-a-play called The Murder of Gonzago. They re-enact a murder similar to Claudius and his brother, and Hamlet watches the king’s reaction. When Claudius gets up and walks away nervously, Hamlet sees it as proof of guilt.

The Play Scene in Hamlet, by Edwin Austin Abbey

8. After the play, Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, summons Hamlet to her room. She’s angry. Obviously, she knows about Claudius’s crime. She’s very politically savvy, and wants to keep herself safe. She’s worried about what Hamlet is planning. When he comes they argue, and Polonius, who was hiding behind a curtain, fears that Hamlet will try to kill his own mother. He shouts for guards to save her. Hamlet assumes it’s the king hiding behind the curtain, and stabs wildly with his sword. He kills Polonius, and, when realizing his mistake, shows little remorse. At this moment the ghost returns, reminding Hamlet to kill Claudius, but to spare Gertrude. She can’t see or hear the ghost, so she thinks Hamlet is completely crazy.

9. King Claudius now plans a sneaky way to kill Hamlet. He sends Hamlet to England on some diplomatic mission, but the people sent with him, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, are supposed to give a special letter to the English king to kill Hamlet. The plan fails. Hamlet finds the letter, and replaces it with a similar one, instead asking the English king to kill Rosencratz and Guildenstern instead. Hamlet then sails home, and claims his ship was attacked by pirates, and had to return to Denmark. In this way, he saves his life, and can pretend ignorance of the whole plan.

10. Meanwhile, poor Ophelia goes crazy, walking along the parapets, singing strange songs. Her fiancé just killed her dad, so she feels her life is ruined. When her brother Laertes comes back from France, King Claudius tells him it’s all Hamlet’s fault. Claudius and Laertes plan to kill Hamlet in a fencing duel. Laertes decides to poison his sword, while Claudius adds that he’ll poison Hamlet’s wine as well. Right then, Gertrude comes in, telling Laertes that his sister has just committed suicide, jumping into the river and drowning.

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais

11. Next comes the funeral. Grave diggers first argue whether Ophelia deserves a Christian burial. Hamlet and his friends find the skull of Yorick, a jester who used to entertain Hamlet as a child. Then the funeral procession comes, and Laertes loses his temper, accusing Hamlet of causing her death, and they fight a bit. King Claudius breaks it up, reminding Laertes of their plan.

12. Next comes the fencing match. Gertrude accidentally drinks the wine meant for Hamlet and dies. Laertes stabs Hamlet in between rounds. An angry Hamlet takes his sword and cuts him with it. Before dying, Laertes apologizes, and admits that the poison was all Claudius’s idea. Hamlet then stabs Claudius and makes him drink from the poisoned cup to make sure he really dies.

13. Dying, Hamlet suggests Prince Fortimbras as heir to the throne. Horatio, very unhappy with what has happened, wants to drink the poison as well, but Hamlet stops him, so that he can be witness to the events. Prince Fortimbras then comes in, Horatio tells the story, and Hamlet gets an honourable funeral.


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