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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

For other uses, see Hamlet (disambiguation).

The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke is a tragedy by William Shakespeare and is one of his best-known and most-quoted plays. Evidence suggests that it was complete and being performed by 1600, but had some topical references added (which still survive) the following year.[1]

Hamlet is probably the most popular of Shakespeare's plays, judging by the number of productions; for example, topping the list at the Royal Shakespeare since 1879. [2] The plot contains elements of revenge tragedy, fratricide, murder, existentialist self-questioning and supernatural intervention. It is Shakespeare's longest play[3], and the part of Prince Hamlet is by far the largest role in any of his plays.[4]

Performance and publication

The earliest recorded performance of Hamlet was in July 1602; in 1603 the play was acted at both Universities, Cambridge and Oxford. Along with Richard II, Hamlet was acted by the crew of Capt. William Keeling aboard the British East India Company ship Dragon, off Sierra Leone, in September 1607. More conventional Court performances occurred in 1619 and in 1637, the latter on January 24 at Hampton Court Palace. Since Hamlet is second only to Falstaff along Shakespeare's characters in the number of allusions and references to him in contemporary literature, the play must have been performed with a frequency totally missed by the skimpy historical record.

Hamlet was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on July 26, 1602, and published later that year by the booksellers Nicholas Ling and John Trundell. Q1 is a "bad quarto," containing just over half of the text of Q2; Q2 was published in 1604,[5] again by Nicholas Ling. Reprints of Q2 followed in 1611 (Q3) and 1637 (Q5); there was also an undated Q4 (possibly from 1622). The First Folio text appeared in 1623. Q1, Q2, and F are the three elements in the textual problem of Hamlet (see Text below).

The play was revived early in the Restoration era; Sir William Davenant staged a 1661 production at Lincoln's Inn Fields. David Garrick mounted a version at Drury Lane in 1772 that omitted the gravediggers and expanded his own leading role. William Poel staged a production of the Q1 text in 1881.[6]


Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix
Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix

The story of the Danish Prince "Amleth", who plots revenge on his uncle, the current king, for killing his father, the former king, is an old one (see the legendary Hamlet). Many of the story elements — Hamlet's feigned madness, his mother's hasty marriage to the usurper, the testing of the prince's madness with a young woman, the prince talking to his mother and killing a hidden spy, the prince being sent to England with two retainers and substituting for the letter requesting his execution one requesting theirs — are already here in this medieval tale, recorded by Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum around 1200. A reasonably accurate version of Saxo was rendered into French in 1570 by François de Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques.[7]

Shakespeare's main source, however, is believed to be an earlier play — now lost (and possibly by Thomas Kyd) — known as the Ur-Hamlet. This earlier Hamlet play was in performance by 1589, and seems to have introduced a ghost for the first time into the story.[8] Scholars are unable to assert with any confidence how much Shakespeare took from this play, how much from other contemporary sources (such as Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy), and how much from Belleforest (possibly something) or Saxo (probably nothing). But certainly, Shakespeare's Hamlet has elements that the medieval version does not: the secrecy of the murder, a ghost that urges revenge, the "other sons" Laertes and Fortinbras, the testing of the king via a play, and the mutually fatal nature of Hamlet's (nearly incidental) "revenge".[9][10]

The three texts

There are three extant texts of Hamlet from the early 1600s: the "first quarto" Hamlet of 1603 (called Q1), the "second quarto" Hamlet of 1604/5 (Q2), and the Hamlet text within the First Folio of 1623 (F). Later quartos and folios are considered derivative of these, so are of no particular interest in capturing Shakespeare's original text. And in fact, Q1 itself is only marginally useful; in practice Q2 and F are the editions editors rely on. Unfortunately, these two versions have significant inconsistencies that have engendered a growing body of commentary, starting with early studies by J. Dover Wilson and G. I. Duthie and continuing to today. (See References below, and also: Folios and Quartos (Shakespeare)).

The first quarto's rendering of the "To be or not to be" speech
The first quarto's rendering of the "To be or not to be" speech

Early editors of Shakespeare's works, starting with Nicholas Rowe (1709) and Lewis Theobald (1733), combined material from the two earliest sources of Hamlet then known, the quarto of 1604/5 and the First Folio of 1623. Each text contains some material the other lacks; there are many minor differences even in the material the two shared in common, so that only a little more than 200 lines are identical in both. Many editors have taken an approach of blending, conflating, synthesizing the materials of Q2 and F, in an effort to create an inclusive text that was as close as possible to an idealized Shakespearean original. Theobald's version became standard for a long time.[11] Certainly, the "full text" philosophy that he established has influenced editors to the current day. Many modern editors have done essentially the same thing Theobald did, also using, for the most part, the 1604/5 quarto and the 1623 folio.

The discovery of a rare copy of Q1 in 1823[12] raised new difficulties. The deficiencies of the text were recognized immediately—Q1 was instrumental in the development of the concept of a "bad quarto." Yet it also has its value: Q1 contains stage directions that reveal actual stage performance as the others do not, plus an entire scene (usually labeled IV,vi) that is not in either Q2 or F. At least 28 different productions of the Q1 text since 1881 have shown it emminently fit for the stage. Q1 is generally thought to be a "memorial reconstruction" or pirated copy of the play as it had been performed by Shakespeare's own company. It is considerably shorter than the full text because the version from which it is taken had been heavily cut for performance. It is thought that one of the actors playing a minor role (Marcellus, certainly, perhaps Voltemand as well) in the legitimate production was the source of this version.

As with the two texts of King Lear, contemporary scholarship is moving away from the ideal of the "full text," recognizing its inapplicability to the case of Hamlet. The Arden Shakespeare's 2006 publication of multiple texts of Hamlet is the best evidence of this shifting focus and emphasis.[13]

A detail of the engraving of Daniel Maclise's 1842 painting The Play-scene in Hamlet, portraying the moment when the guilt of Claudius is revealed.
A detail of the engraving of Daniel Maclise's 1842 painting The Play-scene in Hamlet, portraying the moment when the guilt of Claudius is revealed.

List of characters

  • Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Prince Hamlet, the title character, is the son of the late King, also named Hamlet. He is just back from Wittenberg, where he was a sometime student at the university.
  • Claudius, King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle
Claudius is the current King of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle, who succeeded to the throne upon the death of his brother, the old King Hamlet. He also, in short order, married Gertrude, his brother's widow. He is revealed to be the killer of King Hamlet.
  • Gertrude, Queen of Denmark, Hamlet's mother
Gertrude is Hamlet's mother. Widowed by King Hamlet's death, she rather too quickly wedded Claudius. In Shakespeare's England marriage to the brother of one's deceased husband was considered incest by the Church.[14]
  • Ghost appearing to be Hamlet's father, the former king
The ghost is, in form, the old King Hamlet, but may be an evil spirit. The old king has died recently, so his spirit, while suffering in Purgatory, could be walking at night, vexed and vengeful.
  • Polonius, counselor to the king
Polonius (who was known as Corambis in the "bad" first quarto) is Claudius's chief advisor and father to Ophelia and Laertes. He is old, and often humourously played as fatuous and long-winded.
  • Laertes, son of Polonius
Laertes is a young aristocrat who has been living in Paris, come home for the coronation of Claudius. "Laertes" is the name of Odysseus's father in Homer's epics.
Ophelia by John William Waterhouse.
Ophelia by John William Waterhouse.
  • Ophelia, daughter of Polonius
Ophelia is Polonius's daughter. She and Hamlet have had a romance, although whether it was mainly in the form of letters, gifts, and significant looks, or had advanced further, is not clear.
  • Reynaldo, servant to Polonius
  • Horatio, Hamlet's friend and fellow-student
Horatio is a friend of Hamlet's from Wittenberg. Apparently a Dane, he had come to Elsinore for old Hamlet's funeral and has stayed on. He is viewed as a "scholar", and converses easily with almost everyone in the court, from the guards to the royals. Horatio is the only character with whom Hamlet converses freely with for the majority of the play.
  • Marcellus, Barnardo, Francisco, officers of the watch
  • Voltemand, Cornelius, ambassadors to Norway
  • Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, former schoolfellows of Hamlet
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are old school-fellows of Hamlet. If they knew him at university, it must have been a while ago, as they seem not to know Horatio, recently from Wittenberg. Both their names were extant in Denmark at the time Shakespeare composed Hamlet, so he could have obtained them from a number of sources.[15]
  • Fortinbras, Prince of Norway
Fortinbras is the Norwegian crown prince. He is the son of King Fortinbras, who was killed in battle by Hamlet's father, so he, too, has vengeance on his mind. His firm and decisive action contrasts with Hamlet's procrastination. His name means "strong arm".
  • Captain in the Norwegian army
  • First Player
  • Other Players
  • Osric, Lord, Gentleman, courtiers
Osric is a courtier, "full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse"[16], who referees the sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes.
  • First Clown, a gravedigger and sexton
A popular character, he is almost never cut in performance. What would Hamlet be without Yorick's skull?
  • Second Clown, his assistant
  • Sailor
  • Messenger
  • Priest
  • English Ambassador
He who utters 'Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead'
  • Lords, Attendants, Sailors, Soldiers, Guards


Plot summary

Marcellus, Horatio, Hamlet, and the Ghost by Henry Fuseli.
Marcellus, Horatio, Hamlet, and the Ghost by Henry Fuseli.

This is a story about young Prince Hamlet who bears the same name as his father, the King of Denmark, who has recently and unexpectedly passed away. His brother, Claudius, has inherited the throne and taken the former king’s wife (and also Prince Hamlet’s mother), Gertrude, as his own. Prince Hamlet is greatly grieved by the surrogation of Claudius to the throne and Gertrude’s hasty remarriage to her departed husband’s brother, whom Prince Hamlet considers hardly worth of comparison to his father.

On a dark winter night, a ghost resembling the deceased King Hamlet appears to Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio, watchmen of Elsinore Castle in Denmark, seemingly with an important message to deliver. However, the ghost vanishes before his message can be told. The sentries notify the prince, prompting his investigation into the matter. The apparition appears once again and speaks to Hamlet, revealing to him that his father was murdered by Claudius. After commanding Hamlet to avenge his father’s death, the ghost disappears. Hamlet plots to confirm Claudius’s guilt by feigning madness.

Hamlet and Ophelia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Hamlet and Ophelia by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Upon notice of Claudius and Gertrude, a pair of Hamlet’s schoolmates named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are appointed to monitor him and discover the cause of his apparent insanity. Polonius, the councellor to the king, suspects that the origin of Hamlet’s madness lies with his love for Polonius’ daughter, Ophelia. However, in a secretly overseen meeting between the two suspected lovers, there is no evidence that Hamlet loves Ophelia; to the contrary, he orders her away to a nunnery.

Hamlet contrives a plan to uncover Claudius’s guilt by staging a play reenacting the murder. Claudius interrupts the play midway through and leaves the room. Horatio confirms the king’s reaction and Hamlet goes to avenge his father. He is poised to kill when he finds Claudius in prayer but concludes that killing him now would result in his soul’s passage to heaven – an inappropriate fate for one so evil. However, when he leaves, Claudius reveals that he had not been praying in a very pious manner.

Hamlet goes to confront and reprimand his mother. When he hears a noise behind the curtain, he thrusts his sword into it, killing the eavesdropping Polonius. Fearing for his own safety, Claudius deports Hamlet to England along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who, unbeknownst to Hamlet, carry a request for the arrangement of his death.

Ophelia, afflicted by grief, goes mad and drowns in a river (perhaps by her own doing). Laertes, her brother and Polonius’s son, returns from his visit to France enraged. Claudius convinces Laertes that Hamlet is to blame for the death of Polonius. Hamlet sends word that he has returned to Denmark after his ship was attacked by pirates on the way to England. Claudius, realizing in Laertes an opportunity to get rid of Hamlet, wagers that Hamlet can best Laertes in a fencing match. The fight is a setup; Laertes’ blade is poisoned, as is the wine in a goblet from which Hamlet is to drink.

During the bout, Gertrude drinks from the poisoned goblet and dies. Laertes succeeds in cutting Hamlet, then is cut by his own blade. With his dying breath, he reveals the king’s plot to kill Hamlet. Hamlet manages to kill Claudius before he too succumbs to the fatal poison. Fortinbras, a Norwegian prince with ambitions of conquest, leads his army to Denmark and comes upon the scene. Horatio recounts the tale and Fortinbras orders Hamlet’s body to be carried away honorably.

Hamlet as a character

Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet in the acclaimed 1964 film by Grigori Kozintsev.
Innokenty Smoktunovsky as Hamlet in the acclaimed 1964 film by Grigori Kozintsev.
Main article: Prince Hamlet

In this play, Prince Hamlet is by far the major presence: his problem is central to the plot, and his public wit and private speculations dominate the action. The part of the Prince is far longer than any other in all of Shakespeare's plays. This most popular tragedy has many dark corners (Is the ghost good or evil? Why did Ophelia die?), yet the biggest mysteries of all concern Hamlet's character, his psychology, and his real motivations. Can we make any sense of him at all? There has been no dearth of speculation on these and many other questions about this central character in Western literature[18]. Another important aspect of the character is the debate regarding Hamlet's exact age in the play. While some consider it to be in the thirties, other interpret his age in the teens to better explain his rebellious attitude.


Hamlet in cinema and TV

  • According to the Internet Movie Database there have been 22 theatrically released movies entitled Hamlet, plus another 16 made for TV. Another 50 productions have included this name as part of the title or have used a foreign language variation of the name. For more details, see Shakespeare on screen (Hamlet).
  • The makers of Disney's The Lion King acknowledge the influence of Shakespeare's Hamlet on the movie.


  • The Mystery of Hamlet King of Denmark, or What We Will (Bond Wheelwright, 1950) by playwright Percy MacKaye is a series ("tetralogy") of four plays written as prequels to Hamlet itself, written by MacKaye to expand upon Shakespeares original characters. The four plays are:
    • The Ghost of Elsinore
    • The Fool in Eden Garden
    • Odin Against Christus
    • The Serpent in the Orchard

The Internet and other media

Hamlet is also currently being adapted as a web comic that uses stick figures and in a fifteen-second, multimedia version.

Cultural references

The play has greatly influenced culture. See the below articles for more information.

  • References to Hamlet in popular culture
  • Phrases from Hamlet in common English phrases from the play in everyday English


  1. ^ Jenkins, pp. 1-6; the topical material concerned the "war of the theatres" and — possibly — the Essex rebellion in early 1601 ("the late innovation")
  2. ^ (Crystal, 2005, p.66)
  3. ^ Crystal (2005), p. 139
  4. ^ Crystal (2005) p.99
  5. ^ Some copies of Q2 are dated 1605, possibly reflecting a second impression; so that Q2 is often dated "1604/5."
  6. ^ Halliday, p. 204.
  7. ^ Edwards, pp. 1-2
  8. ^ Jenkins, pp. 82-5
  9. ^ Edwards, p.2
  10. ^ see Jenkins, pp. 82-122 for a complex discussion of all sorts of possible influences that found their way into the play.
  11. ^ Hibbard, pp. 22-3
  12. ^ Jenkins, p.14
  13. ^ Thompson & Taylor, 2006
  14. ^ Hibbard, p. 164, note 157
  15. ^ Jenkins, p.422
  16. ^ T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
  17. ^ character list (not indented commentary) taken from Edwards (2003)
  18. ^ Jenkins, p.147


  • Crystal, David, & Ben Crystal, The Shakespeare Miscellany. New York, 2005.
  • Duthie, G. I., The "Bad" Quarto of "Hamlet," A Critical Study, Cambridge University Press, 1941.
  • Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Phillip Edwards, ed. Cambridge, 2003. Updated 1985 edition.
  • Halliday, F. E., A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964.
  • Hamlet. G.R. Hibbard, ed. Oxford, 1987. (Oxford World's Classics).
  • Hamlet. Harold Jenkins, ed. Methuen, 1982. (The Arden Shakespeare).
  • Thompson, Ann, and Neil Taylor, eds., Hamlet, The Texts of 1603 and 1623, Arden Shakespeare, Third Series, 2006.
  • Wilson, John Dover, The Manuscript of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Cambridge, 1934.

External links

Wikisource has original text related to this article:
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:
Wikibooks has more on the topic of
  • Hamlet, available freely at Project Gutenberg
  • the 'Bad Quarto' version of Hamlet, available freely at Project Gutenberg
  • Hamlet Summary Literature summary of the play.
  • Hamlet on the Ramparts - from MIT's Shakespeare Electronic Archive
  • Multiple versions of Hamlet, numerous commentaries, concordances, facsimiles, etc.
  • Hamlet Summary - wiki summary of characters, scenes, discussion and essay topics.
  • The Switzer's Guide to Hamlet An Extra's view of the Royal Shakespeare Company's 2004 production of Hamlet with Toby Stephens in the title role
  • Hamlet in original and modern language
  • "Nine Hamlets" — An analysis of the play and 9 film versions, at the Bright Lights Film Journal
  • "HyperHamlet" - A project at the University of Basel
  • "The Hamlet Weblog" - a weblog about the play.
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