Buckle up! It’s time for Shakespeare’s longest play. Grab some refreshments and get ready for a moody, broody, and maybe loony protagonist.
Act I, Scene 1
Bernardo comes to relieve Francisco from his watch. Francisco is tired after his quiet watch and is ready for bed. Just as he leaves, Horatio and Marcellus come to join Bernardo.
Marcellus and Bernardo have invited Horatio to join them because they have seen a ghost two nights in a row. Horatio believes it to be their imaginations, but has agreed to stand guard with them to see if he can see it too.
They are just getting ready to tell Horatio the story again when wouldn’t you know it, the Ghost walks right in. Horatio is in shock because it looks just like the dead king, all armored up and ready for war. Marcellus and Bernardo are too chicken to talk to it, so they make Horatio do it. Horatio asks the ghost what it’s doing and why it looks like the dead king. This appears to offend the ghost and it leaves.
The men decide to take the opportunity to discuss why they are on watch at all. Horatio explains that the dead King fought with the King of Norway, Fortinbras, and won by slaying Fortinbras. It had been determined that Fortinbras, upon his death, would forfeit all lands he had conquered to Denmark, not his son, also named Fortinbras. Young Fortinbras isn’t too happy about these turn of events, so he’s on his way to make war against Denmark. They think the ghost may be some sort of omen.
The ghost pops back in and they try to stop it or at least talk to it. The ghost is about to finally say something when the rooster crows and it disappears. They aren’t too surprised it disappeared because they heard that spirits aren’t allowed out during the day, so they’re not big fans of roosters.
They decide to tell Hamlet that they saw his ghost dad.
Act I, Scene 2
Claudius, now King of Denmark, addresses his court. He understands that they all must still be sad about his brother’s, also named Hamlet, death. But, they should also be happy because he married the queen, his sister in law.
As if none of that is odd, Claudius turns his attention to Norway. He is sending a message to young Fortinbras’ uncle to tell him about his nephew’s shenanigans, in the hopes that old Norway will stop his nephew.
Now it’s Laertes’ turn to ask the King for a favor. He wants to return to school in France. Claudius doesn’t care as long as it’s okay with his father, Polonius. Polonius is more than willing to let his son return to France.
Finally, Claudius turns his attention to his nephew/stepson, Hamlet. The King and Queen can’t seem to understand why Hamlet seems so sad all the time. Surely he must be over his dead dad by now. Hamlet tries to convince them that he’s fine, despite being sad. Claudius points out that everyone loses a father at some point, so Hamlet should perk up. It’s not manly to be so sad. It offends heaven, the living, and the dead. Plus, Hamlet should be happy. He’s next in line for the throne and Claudius loves him like his own son. Claudius and Gertrude ask Hamlet to stay in Denmark instead of going back to school. Hamlet agrees. That’s good enough for them and they leave to go be happy somewhere else.
Once Hamlet’s alone, he lets out his true feelings. First, he doesn’t want to be alive anymore. He is most definitely suicidal. Second, he is pretty upset with his mom for marrying another man, his uncle, so quickly. His father just died not even two months ago and his father was so devoted and loving toward Gertrude and she cast him aside before his father was even cold.
Horatio and Marcellus come in, much to Hamlet’s delight. Horatio explains that he came to see the King’s funeral. Hamlet thinks it was to see the wedding. Horatio is forced to admit that the one quickly followed the other. Hamlet mentions that he sometimes sees his father in his mind. Horatio sees this as a good opportunity to tell Hamlet about his ghost dad.
This news obviously peaks Hamlet’s interest and he explains a desire to hear more. Horatio explains the whole scene, which I won’t, if you need a refresher scroll up a bit. Now Hamlet is all excited and asks for details. He confirms that his father was armored from head to toe, but with the mask up, so they could see his face. The dead King looked sad and pale (probably because he’s dead). Hamlet commits to join them on their watch that night to see his father. He asks the rest to keep the ghost a secret until he can figure out what’s going on. They agree and leave. Hamlet senses foul play.
Act I, Scene 3
Laertes is ready to head off to France, but not before imparting some wisdom on his sister. He warns her that Hamlet’s love is likely fleeting because his marriage must be for the benefit of the state of Denmark. However, if she were to give her maiden chastity to Hamlet, that damage may never be undone. He warns her repeatedly to be cautious around Hamlet. Ophelia tells him to practice what he’s preaching.
Now it’s Polonius’ turn to impart wisdom on his departing son. He tells his son to keep his good character. To keep his thoughts to himself and do not act on impulse. He tells his son to keep his true friends close, but not indulge in every new fad brought to his attention. Laertes should avoid getting into an argument or fight, but if he finds himself in one, make the opponent rue the day. Listen to any man, but counsel few. Listen to all sides and reserve judgement. Do not flaunt his riches, but dress according to his rank. Don’t borrow or lend money. Those that lend money tend to lose their money and their friends. Above all, Laertes should always be himself.
Laertes says goodbye before his father can talk any more and tells Ophelia to remember what he said. She promises to do so. Polonius, of course, wants to know the hot gossip. Ophelia explains that Laertes talked to her about Hamlet. Polonius also doesn’t trust Hamlet. He tells Ophelia to be more exclusive with her private time and not just be letting Hamlet come in any time he wants. Ophelia repeatedly tries to assure her father that Hamlet has given her true promises of his affection, but Polonius thinks that’s baloney and tells her to stop seeing him. She agrees to obey her father.
Act I, Scene 4
Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus stand watch. It’s cold and almost midnight. Then, they hear trumpets, cheering, and general merry-making. Horatio wonders what that is about. Hamlet explains that it’s tradition for the trumpets to blare whenever the King and his fellow party people finish a barrel of wine from all the toasts. Even though it’s tradition, Hamlet thinks it makes all the Danish look like crazy drunken fools.
The Ghost makes his usual appearance and to say Hamlet is stunned would be an understatement. He asks the ghost if it really is his father or some sort of demon. If it is his father, why isn’t his soul at rest. The Ghost beckons Hamlet to follow him. The others think this is probably a bad idea. Hamlet doesn’t though. That’s his daddy. Plus, he doesn’t care too much about “staying alive”. Despite all attempts to stop him, Hamlet follows the ghost.
Act I, Scene 5
Hamlet asks the ghost to talk because he is tired of following this possible ghost dad. Ghost Dad tells Hamlet that he is doomed to walk the Earth at night and be tormented in Hell during the day until his sins can be purged away. He isn’t allowed to tell Hamlet what Hell is like, but he assures Hamlet that it’s pretty much the worst thing ever. He wants Hamlet to avenge his murder. Murdre?! Yes, “murder most foul” (copyright William Shakespeare approximately 1602). He unfolds the whole tale…
He was taking a nap in his orchard, like you do, when a “serpent” stung him. A serpent who now wears his crown. GASP. His brother poured some poison in his ear, killed him, took his crown, and his wife. Hamlet needs to avenge that dastardly deed, but leave his mom out of it. Ghost out.
Hamlet is ready for some avenging. He promises to push all other thoughts out of his brain and focus solely on taking out his scheming uncle.
Horatio and Marcellus pop back in to hear the whole story. Hamlet won’t tell them a thing until they swear not to tell a soul. Not to even hint that they know something about a ghost or evil doings in Denmark. After some help from Ghost Dad, they swear to Hamlet’s content.
Act II, Scene 1
Polonius is sending a servant, Reynaldo, to deliver some money and a letter to Laertes. He’s not just handing over the letter though. Oh, no. He’s going to snoop around town, talk to people who know Laertes, to find out about any naughty things Laertes may be up to. Reynaldo can’t just ask though. He needs to talk about Laertes as though he does things such as sleeping with prostitutes or gambling, so that the listener may share his own true information. Reynaldo doesn’t think it will work, but agrees to follow through with the plan and leaves.
Ophelia runs in, all upset because Hamlet just burst into her room. He was disheveled from head to toe. He stared at her for an awkwardly long amount of time and then just left. Polonius realizes now that Hamlet must have truly loved her because Ophelia shunning him made him go crazy. They go to tell the King.
Act II, Scene 2
Claudius and Gertrude have also noticed that Hamlet seems a little off. They invited some of his good friends from school to come and spend time with him, Rosecrantz and Guildenstern. Their hope is that the young men will be able to draw him out of his melancholy or otherwise figure out what’s wrong. The King, of course, will be very generous if they are successful. They are happy to help and go off to settle in.
Polonius brings the news that the ambassadors have returned from Norway. Also, he knows why Hamlet is crazy, but first, Norway. Gertrude doubts Hamlet is mad for any other reason than his father’s death and their hasty marriage.
The ambassador’s explain that old Norway thought his nephew was prepping troops to take back some land in Poland. He was dismayed to realize that it was actually preparations to march against Denmark. He scolded his nephew and made him promise not to invade Denmark. Fortinbras agreed and as a reward was given a huge allowance. Old Norway encouraged Fortinbras to use the troops against Poland. They ask for safe passage through Denmark on their way to Poland. Claudius agrees to think about it.
Polonius now turns their attention to Hamlet and his madness. In his typical long-winded fashion, Polonius reveals that Hamlet has been writing love letters to Ophelia and he reads one. He explains that he thought it best to discourage the match and had Ophelia reject Hamlet’s affections. This made him sad, which drove him into madness.
Claudius and Gertrude agree that his unrequited love for Ophelia must be the source of his madness, but how could they prove it? Polonius has a plan for that as well: He will make sure that Ophelia runs into Hamlet as he spends hours walking around the main room of the castle. They will hide to hear what is said and come to a conclusion.
Hamlet comes in, reading, and Polonius goes to speak with him alone. Hamlet says Polonius is a fishmonger and asks if he has a daughter. Hamlet warns him not to let his daughter out in the sun because conception? He’s crazy. It doesn’t have to make sense. Polonius remarks that Hamlet immediately talked about his daughter and tries to ask what he’s reading. Hamlet first gives the frustratingly vague answer of words and when pressed further explains that he is reading a satire. It must be satire because it said old men have grey beards and wrinkled faces and lack wit. That surely can’t be true because Polonius is right there, unless he moves backwards like a crab (again, crazy.) Polonius acknowledges the madness but recognizes moments of clarity. He asks Hamlet if he wants to go outside. Hamlet says to his grave. Polonius decides to leave and set up the meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. Hamlet is happy to see the tedious old fool leave.