ACT I, scene i
Doubting the tales of a ghost that has twice visited them, Horatio joins Marcellus and the other guards on their midnight watch to verify or disprove their strange story. Not only does Horatio see the ghost when it appears, but he notes that it resembles the king of Denmark who has recently been buried and resolves to inform Hamlet, the king's son, of the ghost's appearance.
ACT I, scene ii
Judging Hamlet's mourning for his father to be excessive, King Claudius (Hamlet's uncle) and Queen Gertrude (Hamlet's mother) appeal to the prince to "throw to earth this unprevailing woe." Hamlet humors them by agreeing to stay at the castle rather than returning to Wittenberg, but he remains melancholy. Left alone, however, Hamlet rages. He's angry at his mother for remarrying only two months after his father's death. Horatio and the guards arrive with news of the ghost, and Hamlet decides to accompany them on their next watch to see for himself.
ACT I, scene iii
As Laertes prepares to embark for France, he warns his sister, Ophelia, not to get romantically involved with Prince Hamlet who, being heir to the throne, is not free to marry a mere courtier. Their father, Polonius, arrives and offers his departing son a few words of wisdom before seconding his opinion regarding the prince.
ACT I, scene iv
At midnight, Hamlet joins the soldiers on their watch, and when the ghost appears, he follows it despite the protests of Horatio and the frightened sentries.
ACT I, scene v
The ghost reveals itself as Hamlet's father and urges him to avenge its "foul and most unnatural murder" -- unnatural because he was poisoned in his sleep by his own brother, Claudius who now wears the crown. After the ghost vanishes, Hamlet swears Horatio and Marcellus to silence.
ACT II, scene i
Polonius instructs his servant Reynaldo to follow Laertes to Paris and inquire of his behavior there. Ophelia enters, frightened, and tells Polonius of a mad encounter she has just had with Hamlet who burst into her closet unannounced and pale and looking as if he had been "loosed out of hell." Though Hamlet said nothing, only staring at the poor girl before retreating with an agonized sigh that "did seem to shatter all his bulk," Polonius interprets this strange behavior as a sign of true love for his daughter and decides to inform Claudius.
ACT II, scene ii
King Claudius and Queen Gertrude entreat Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's schoolmates that they have sent for, to help them discover what weighs so heavily on the prince's mind.
Two ambassadors have returned from Norway and report that a potential confrontation with Fortinbras, the prince of that country, has been peaceably resolved. Claudius agrees to give the Norwegian army safe passage through Denmark for a campaign they plan to wage over some disputed land.
Polonius claims to have discovered the "cause of Hamlet's lunacy" and presents to the King and Queen love letters that Hamlet has written to Ophelia. Hoping that Hamlet is merely lovesick, and this the cause of his violent mood swings, they decide to arrange some encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia in order to test the theory.
Meanwhile, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern present themselves to Hamlet and attempt to discover what afflicts him, but he percieves in their questions and unexpected arrival in Elsinore some deception and refuses to reveal the true reason for his strange behavior.
A group of traveling players arrives at the castle, and Hamlet requests a monologue of one of the players who performs it to the point of tears. Hamlet asks the players to perform "The Murder of Gonzago" and to insert a speech he has written. They readily agree.
Alone, Hamlet chastises himself for not more passionately pursuing revenge for his father's murder. He wishes to be more like the player who worked himself to tears over the death of a fictional character. He plans to test the King's conscience by having the players play something like the murder of his father. "If he but blench," Hamlet says, "I know my course."
ACT III, scene i
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to the King and Queen that they have been unable to determine the cause of Hamlet's lunacy. Claudius and Polonius hide behind a curtain, hoping to observe Hamlet wooing Ophelia, but the prince, perhaps realizing that he is being watched, denies that he has ever sent her any letters. Ophelia laments his apparent madness.
ACT III, scene ii
After instructing the players on how best to perform the play he has written for them, Hamlet lets Horatio in on his plan. He asks his friend to watch the king's face carefully during the performance and mark whether he looks guilty when the players reenact the murder of his father as described by the ghost. During the play, when the Player King is poisoned, Claudius rises and, calling for light, rushes out of the theatre. Hamlet and Horatio confer, and both agree that the king did indeed betray his guilt. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern inform Hamlet that the queen wishes to speak with him in her closet. They press him again for the cause of his "distemper," and he chastises them for trying to play him like a pipe.
ACT III, scene iii
Fearing that he has been discovered, Claudius orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to escort Hamlet immediately to England. Alone, the king prays for forgiveness for his brother's murder. Hamlet overhears this, but chooses not to kill Claudius until he is about some act that "has no relish of salvation in't."
ACT III, scene iv
Polonius hides in Gertrude's chamber in order to overhear her interview with Hamlet. When the prince hears a noise behind the curtain, he assumes it is Claudius hiding there and runs Polonius through with his sword, killing the old courtier instantly. Gertrude is shocked at this "rash and bloody deed", but Hamlet is furious at the queen for her complicity in his uncle's theft of the kingdom and rebukes her for coupling with such a villain, reviling her until she begs him to speak no more. The ghost appears to whet Hamlet's "almost blunted purpose" and urges him to console his mother, but Gertrude cannot see the ghost and thinks Hamlet has gone mad. Advising her not to be tempted again into his uncle's bed, Hamlet drags the corpse of Polonius from the room.
ACT IV, scene i
Gertrude informs Claudius of Polonius' murder. The king sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find the old man's body and bring it to the chapel.
ACT IV, scene ii
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confront Hamlet, but he refuses to tell them where he has hidden the body.
ACT IV, scene iii
Hamlet is brought before the king and admits to hiding Polonius' body in the lobby. Claudius sends Hamlet to England where he secretly plans to have him executed.
ACT IV, scene iv
Escorted by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet speaks to a captain of the Norwegian army as it marches, under Fortinbras' command, across Denmark to battle Poland over "a little patch of ground." Inspired by the boldness of Fortinbras, Hamlet swears, "O, from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"
ACT IV, scene v
Ophelia seeks an audience with the queen. She appears to have gone mad at the news of Polonius' death. Laertes, having returned from Paris after learning that Hamlet has slain his father, storms the castle with a group of armed followers and demands justice.
ACT IV, scene vi
Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet in which the prince explains that he has escaped the king's escort (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and is returning to Denmark aboard a pirate ship.
ACT IV, scene vii
A messenger informs Claudius of Hamlet's return. The king and Laertes plot against Hamlet, hoping to draw him into a fencing match in which Laertes will be armed with a poisoned rapier. As a backup plan, if Laertes fails to deliver a fatal wound, Claudius will give Hamlet a poisoned cup from which to drink during the match. Gertrude interrupts their plotting with the news that Ophelia, in her madness, has fallen into a stream and drowned.
ACT V, scene i
In a churchyard, Hamlet and Horatio find two gravediggers preparing a grave. When Hamlet asks who the grave is for, the first gravedigger tells him only that it is for "one that was a woman." As he clears the ground, the gravedigger produces a skull from the earth that he identifies as Yorick, the king's jester who has been dead for 23 years. Hamlet tells Horatio that he knew the man and used to ride on his back as a child. The King and Queen and Laertes appear with attendants carrying the corpse of Ophelia, but the priest refuses to perform a full ceremony because her death is considered a suicide. Laertes berates the priest and leaps into his sister's grave to hold her one last time. Hamlet, grief stricken at the news of Ophelia's death, leaps into the grave as well. Furious at the sight of his father's murderer, Laertes grapples with Hamlet who claims that "Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum." Hamlet and Laertes are separated, and Claudius urges Laertes to to be patient.
ACT V, scene ii
Hamlet explains to Horatio how he learned of the king's treachery. After sneaking into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's cabin and unsealing the king's official commission, he had read the decree and discovered that he was to be beheaded when they reached England. He then forged a new commission instructing instead that the bearers of the letter (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) be put to death and sealed it with his father's signet ring. As he relates this story, a courtier appears to inform Hamlet that the king has laid a wager on him, betting that the prince will not lose by more than three hits in a fencing match with Laertes. Hamlet accepts the challenge, promising to win for the king if he can. During the match, Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned rapier, but they change weapons in a scuffle and Laertes is wounded with the poisoned rapier as well. Drinking from the poisoned cup that Claudius has prepared for Hamlet, Gertrude swoons and dies. Hamlet orders that the doors be locked until the treachery is discovered, and Laertes admits the whole plan to Hamlet before dying. Hamlet kills the king and afterwards dies himself, overcome by the poison. With his last breath, he begs Horatio to "report his cause aright to the unsatisfied." Fortinbras, next in line for the throne, arrives and orders his soldiers to bear Hamlet away.
END OF PLAY