Hamlet - Book Summary

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet follows the young prince Hamlet home to Denmark to attend his father’s funeral. Hamlet is shocked to find his mother already remarried to his Uncle Claudius, the dead king’s brother. And Hamlet is even more surprised when his father’s ghost appears and declares that he was murdered. Exact dates are unknown, but scholars agree that Shakespeare published Hamlet between 1601 and 1603. Many believe that Hamlet is the best of Shakespeare’s work, and the perfect play.

Written by: William Shakespeare

Type of Work: play

Genres: tragedy

First Published: between 1601 and 1603

Setting: Denmark

“>Main Characters: Hamlet; King Claudius; Queen Gertrude; Polonius; Ophelia; Laertes; Horatio

Major Thematic Topics: fate; free will; revenge; political instability; mortality; madness

Motifs: incest; hearing/ears

Major Symbols: Yorick’s skull

Movie Versions: Hamlet (1948); Hamlet (1990); William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1996); Hamlet (2000)

The three most important aspects of Hamlet:

  • The most famous of the five soliloquies delivered by Hamlet over the course of the play begins “To be, or not to be? That is the question.” Here, Hamlet is considering suicide. He finally decides against doing so, however, reasoning that as difficult as life can sometimes be, it is preferable to death, which might be even worse.
  • Hamlet‘s central characters are Hamlet himself, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Horatio. But only Horatio survives when the curtain falls at the end of Shakespeare’s play. Another central character, Hamlet’s father King Hamlet, appears only as a ghost — he has been dead since before the play began.
  • If the character of Hamlet has a tragic flaw, it may be his inability to act decisively. On the other hand, his occasional impulsiveness — for example, in rejecting Ophelia and stabbing Polonius — results in death and destruction as well.
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