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Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's Hamlet

TL;DR (may contains spoilers): Hamlet sees his dead dad's ghost, pretends to go crazy with revenge, actually goes crazy with revenge (debatable), and everyone dies.

Hamlet Summary

The ghost of the King of Denmark tells his son Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing the new king, Hamlet's uncle. Hamlet feigns madness, contemplates life and death, and seeks revenge. His uncle, fearing for his life, also devises plots to kill Hamlet. The play ends with a duel, during which the King, Queen, Hamlet's opponent and Hamlet himself are all killed. 

More detail: 2.5 minute read

Late at night, guards on the battlements of Denmark's Elsinore castle are met by Horatio, Prince Hamlet's friend from school. The guards describe a ghost they have seen that resembles Hamlet's father, the recently-deceased king. At that moment, the Ghost reappears, and the guards and Horatio decide to tell Hamlet.

Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, married Hamlet's recently-widowed mother, becoming the new King of Denmark. Hamlet continues to mourn for his father's death and laments his mother's lack of loyalty. When Hamlet hears of the Ghost from Horatio, he wants to see it for himself. 

Elsewhere, the royal attendant Polonius says farewell to his son Laertes, who is departing for France. Laertes warns his sister, Ophelia, away from Hamlet and thinking too much of his attentions towards her. 

This above all: to thine own self be true. — Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 3

The Ghost appears to Hamlet, claiming indeed to be the ghost of his father. He tells Hamlet about how Claudius, the current King and Hamlet's uncle, murdered him, and Hamlet swears vengeance for his father. Hamlet decides to feign madness while he tests the truth of the Ghost's allegations (always a good idea in such situations). 

The set shows a largely empty stage. On a floor marked with squares, and which extends forward of the proscenium arch, is just a cloth-draped chair. Some way behind a semi-transparent curtain with a curved drape at the top hangs from a wooden frame.

According to his plan, Hamlet begins to act strangely. He rejects Ophelia, while Claudius and Polonius, the royal attendant, spy on him. They had hoped to find the reason for Hamlet's sudden change in behaviour but could not. Claudius summons Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, old friends of Hamlet to find out what's got into him. Their arrival coincides with a group of travelling actors that Hamlet happens to know well. Hamlet writes a play which includes scenes that mimic the murder of Hamlet's father. During rehearsal, Hamlet and the actors plot to present Hamlet's play before the King and Queen.  

At the performance, Hamlet watches Claudius closely to see how he reacts. The play provokes Claudius, and he interrupts the action by storming out. He immediately resolves to send Hamlet away. Hamlet is summoned by his distressed mother, Gertrude, and on the way, he happens upon Claudius kneeling and attempting to pray. Hamlet reasons that to kill the King now would only send his soul to heaven rather than hell. Hamlet decides to spare his life for the time being.  

Hamlet, Courtyard Theatre, 2008. In modern dress Gertrude (on the right) is in conversation with Polonius. He wears a dark suit, she a tight dress with a straight top above the bust and a light garment over her arms and shoulders.

Polonius hides in Gertrude's room to protect her from her unpredicatable son. When Hamlet arrives to scold his mother, he hears Polonius moving behind the arras (a kind of tapestry). He stabs the tapestry and, in so doing, kills Polonius. The ghost of Hamlet's father reappears and warns his son not to delay revenge or upset his mother. 

What a piece of work is man! — Hamlet, Act 2 Scene 2

Hamlet is sent to England, supposedly as an ambassador, just as King Fortinbras of Norway crosses Denmark with an army to attack Poland. During his journey, Hamlet discovers Claudius has a plan to have him killed once he arrives. He returns to Denmark alone, sending his companions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in his place. 

Rejected by Hamlet, Ophelia is now desolate at the loss of her father. She goes mad and drowns. 

Hamlet, holding a sword and what may be either a dagger or Laertes' sword kneels looking up at his opponent (out of shot). He wears modern clothing, a suit jacket and jeans, but with African-style designs on the sleeves and one leg.

What dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. — Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

On the way back to Denmark, Hamlet meets Horatio in the graveyard (along with a gravedigger), where they talk of the chances of life and death. Ophelia's funeral procession arrives at the very same graveyard (what luck!). Hamlet confronts Laertes, Ophelia's brother, who has taken his father's place at the court. 

A duel is arranged between Hamlet and Laertes. During the match, Claudius conspires with Laertes to kill Hamlet. They plan that Hamlet will die either on a poisoned rapier or with poisoned wine. The plans go awry when Gertrude unwittingly drinks from the poisoned cup and dies. Then both Laertes and Hamlet are wounded by the poisoned blade, and Laertes dies. 

Hamlet, in his death throes, kills Claudius. Hamlet dies, leaving only his friend Horatio to explain the truth to the new king, Fortinbras, as he returns in victory from the Polish wars.

Learn more of what Shakespeare has to say on the subject of life in Hamlet and other plays: Shakespeare Quotes on Life

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A quick overview of what happens in the plot of Hamlet.

If you're looking for fun ways to discover more about the plot of Hamlet while learning at home, take a look at our  Activity Toolkit .

The King of Denmark has died and his wife, Gertrude , has married his brother, Claudius . The king's son Hamlet has come home to Elsinore for his father's funeral.

Did you know? Elsinore

Elsinore is a real place between Denmark and Sweden and the whole play is set in the castle there. In the play it is referred to as Elsinore Castle but the only castle that actually existed in that town was called Kronborg Castle and it still stands today.

Hamlet sees the ghost of his father. The ghost tells him that it was his brother Claudius, the new king, who killed him and commands Hamlet to get revenge.

Hamlet has been behaving strangely and Claudius asks Hamlet’s childhood friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern , to find out why.

A group of travelling actors visit the castle and Hamlet asks them to perform a play about a man who murders a sleeping king, to see how Claudius reacts.

Hamlet tells his girlfriend Ophelia that he never loved her and then asks Gertrude how she can be happy when her husband has only just died.

The actors perform the story of the murder of a sleeping king and Claudius storms out. This confirms Hamlet's belief that Claudius killed his father.

Hamlet and his mother Gertrude argue about his behaviour. During their argument Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius , Ophelia's father.

Hamlet will not tell anyone where Polonius’ body is. Claudius sends him to England but he doesn’t arrive.

Ophelia’s brother, Laertes , comes home and finds Ophelia has gone mad with grief. She kills herself and Claudius and Laertes plot to murder Hamlet.

Hamlet agrees to fight Laertes. During the duel, Gertrude drinks poison and both Hamlet and Laertes are fatally wounded. Hamlet kills Claudius before he dies.

Teacher Notes

The following print out provides a more detailed synopsis of the play that can be shared with students.

Hamlet Synopsis

You can also print the ten lines on this page and ask students to work in pairs to arrange them in the order they take place in the play.

brief summary hamlet

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No Sweat Shakespeare

Hamlet Summary

Read our short Hamlet summary to help you understand the play. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a much loved – and studied – play, set in Elsinore, a bleak region of Denmark. The main themes are revenge, reality, deceit and mortality, and is regarded as one of Shakespeare’s finest tragedies .

Here’s a brief Hamlet summary:

Prince Hamlet’s student friend, Horatio , goes to the battlements of Denmark’s Elsinore castle late at night to meet the guards. They tell him about a ghost they have seen that resembles the late king, Hamlet. It reappears and they decide to tell the prince. Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, having become king, has now married Hamlet’s widowed mother, Gertrude.

In the court, after envoys are sent to Norway, the prince is dissuaded from returning to university. Hamlet still mourns his father’s death and hearing of the ghost from Horatio he determines to see it for himself. Laertes, son of the courtier, Polonius, departs for France, warning his sister, Ophelia, against thinking too much of Hamlet’s attentions.

The ghost appears to Hamlet and tells him that he was murdered by Claudius. The prince swears vengeance and his friends are sworn to secrecy as Hamlet decides to feign madness while he tests the truth of the ghost’s allegations. He rejects Ophelia , as Claudius and Polonius spy on him seeking to find a reason for his sudden strange behaviour. Guildenstern and Rosencrantz , former student friends of Hamlet, are summoned by Claudius and their arrival coincides with that of a group of travelling actors. The prince knows these players well and they rehearse together before arranging to present Hamlet’s choice of play before the king and queen, which will include scenes close to the circumstances of the old king’s death. At the performance Hamlet watches closely as Claudius is provoked into interrupting the play and storming out, resolving to send the prince away to England. Hamlet is summoned by his distressed mother and, on the way he spares Claudius whom he sees kneeling, attempting to pray. To kill him while he is praying would send his soul to heaven rather than to the hell he deserves.

Polonius hides in Gertrude’s room to listen to the conversation, but Hamlet detects movement as he upbraids his mother. He stabs the concealing tapestry and so kills the old man. The ghost reappears, warning his son not to delay revenge, nor to upset his mother.

As the army of Norway’s King Fortinbras crosses Denmark to attack Poland, Hamlet is sent to England, ostensibly as an ambassador, but he discovers Claudius’s plan to have him killed. Outwitting this plot Hamlet returns alone, sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in his stead. During Hamlet’s absence, Ophelia goes mad as a result of her father’s death and she is drowned.

Hamlet returns and meets Horatio in the graveyard. With the arrival of Ophelia’s funeral Hamlet confronts Laertes who, after attempting a revolt against Claudius, has taken his father’s place at the court. A duel is arranged between Hamlet and Laertes at which Claudius has plotted for Hamlet to die either on a poisoned rapier or from poisoned wine. The plans go wrong and both Laertes and Hamlet are wounded, while Gertrude unwittingly drinks from the poisoned cup. Hamlet, in his death throes, kills Claudius, and Horatio is left to explain the truth to the new king, Fortinbras, who returns, victorious, from the Polish wars.

And that’s a quick Hamlet summary. What are your thoughts – anything unclear, or missing? Please let us know in the comments section below.

See summaries of Shakespeare’s other plays >>

See All Hamlet Resources

Hamlet | Hamlet summary | Hamlet characters : Claudius , Fortinbras , Horatio , Laertes , Ophelia . Osric , Polonius , Rosencrantz and Guildenstern | Hamlet settings | Hamlet themes  | Hamlet in modern English | Hamlet full text | Modern Hamlet ebook | Hamlet for kids ebooks | Hamlet quotes | Hamlet quote translations | Hamlet monologues | Hamlet soliloquies | Hamlet performance history | All about ‘To Be Or Not To Be’

Hamlet holds up a skull in front of him

The British actor and director Kenneth Branagh holding a skull in his hand in Hamlet. 1996 (Photo by Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images).

Bahiru Adamu

Why did HAMLET delay in taking revenge of his father’s death?

the guy

because his uncle/stepfather was praying for forgiveness and Hamlet didn’t want to send him to heaven but to hell so he waited until his uncle sinned again.

yellow lead plane

because hamlet loved Claudius even though he was banging his mom


That’s my boiiii!!

blue and cat coloured dog

Because his ‘sword’ was too short for his step dad to take and he felt ashamed, but his step dad appreciated the gesture and Hamlet had a pretty little son named Horatio. Horatio went on to slay Fortinbras, the murderer of his dad.

Hamlet Summary

I find the character of Hamlet quite fascinating and feel that we all can relate to it in one place or the other. The summary here and every where else is as intriguing as the play. I wonder how Shakespeare procured thoughts for such a philosophical play and could win the hearts of the audience. The brilliant measure of depth, versatility and that ‘magical’ touch makes Hamlet the best and I feel honored to read it every time.

Sahil Kumar

Arguably the greatest work written in English, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a joy to read, and, with a lesson in every sentence, is also enlightening in the upmost. Including some of the most famous lines ever written, Hamlet walks on higher ground than just about anything else.


Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a joy to read, and, with a lesson in every sentence, is also enlightening in the utmost. Including some of the most famous lines ever written, Hamlet walks on higher ground than just about anything else.

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William Shakespeare

Hamlet Plot Summary

William Shakespeare's famous work " Hamlet , Prince of Denmark" is a tragedy set across five acts written around the year 1600. More than just a revenge play, "Hamlet" deals with questions about life and existence, sanity, love, death, and betrayal. It is one of the most quoted works of literature in the world, and since 1960 it has been translated into 75 languages (including Klingon).

The Action Begins Otherworldly

As the play begins, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is visited by a mysterious ghost resembling his recently-deceased father the king. The ghost tells Hamlet that his father was murdered by Claudius, the king’s brother, who then took the throne and married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. The ghost encourages Hamlet to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius.

The task before Hamlet weighs heavily upon him. Is the ghost evil, trying to tempt him to do something that will send his soul to hell for eternity? Hamlet questions whether the specter is to be believed. Hamlet’s uncertainty, anguish, and grief are what makes the character so believable. He is arguably one of literature’s most psychologically complex characters. He is slow to take action, but when he does it is rash and violent. We can see this in the famous “​curtain scene” when Hamlet kills Polonius.

Hamlet’s Love

Polonius’ daughter Ophelia is in love with Hamlet, but their relationship has broken down since Hamlet learned of his father’s death. Ophelia is instructed by Polonius and Laertes to spurn Hamlet’s advances. Ultimately, Ophelia commits suicide as a result of Hamlet’s confusing behavior toward her and the death of her father.

A Play Within a Play

In Act 3, Scene 2 , Hamlet organizes actors to re-enact his father’s murder at the hands of Claudius in order to gauge Claudius’ reaction. He confronts his mother about his father’s murder and hears someone behind the arras. Believing it to be Claudius, Hamlet stabs the man with his sword. It transpires that he has actually killed Polonius.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Claudius realizes that Hamlet is out to get him and professes that Hamlet is mad. Claudius arranges for Hamlet to be shipped to England with his former friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who have been informing the king about Hamlet’s state of mind .

Claudius has secretly sent orders for Hamlet to be killed on arrival in England, but Hamlet escapes from the ship and swaps his death order for a letter ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

To Be or Not to Be …

Hamlet arrives back in Denmark just as Ophelia is being buried, which prompts him to contemplate life, death, and the frailty of the human condition. The performance of this soliloquy is a big part of how any actor portraying Hamlet is judged by critics.  

Tragic Ending

Laertes returns from France to avenge the death of Polonius, his father. Claudius plots with him to make Hamlet’s death appear accidental and encourages him to anoint his sword with poison. He also puts a cup of poison aside, in case the sword is unsuccessful.

In the action, the swords are swapped and Laertes is mortally wounded with the poisoned sword after striking Hamlet with it. He forgives Hamlet before he dies .

Gertrude dies by accidentally drinking the cup of poison. Hamlet stabs Claudius and forces him to drink the rest of the poisoned drink. Hamlet's revenge is finally complete. In his dying moments, he bequeaths the throne to Fortinbras and prevents Horatio's suicide by imploring him to stay alive to tell the tale.

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