The play’s the thing. And WHAT a piece of work is this play. How noble in structure, how infinite in interpretation. In form and moving, how express and admirable.
Our main guy, H, the titular character, needs no intro. He’s as Danish as bacon, his Dad (KING Hamlet) has recently snuffed it, and his Pop’s brother Claudius has creepily snapped up H’s mother, Gertrude. Hence, King Claudius reigns, albeit rather incestuously. Eww.
The Scene: swanky royal castle, Elsinore.
The guards tell Hamlet’s buddy Horatio that they have seen King H’s ghost. This gets back to Hamlet who resolves to see this apparition for himself. That night, the Ghost appears (nicely telegraphed, Shakey) and tells Hamlet that Claudius bumped him off, aurally. Ghostie demands that Hamlet avenge him; H doesn’t need telling twice, and although he’s not altogether convinced by the ghost, he runs with it – feigning madness in the process.
Anxious about Hamlet’s increasing bonkersness, two of his chums go undercover to get the goss. Hamlet cottons on pretty quickly that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are shifty little shits.
Polonius is Claudius’ counsellor-in-chief, and his daughter, Ophelia, is banging Hamlet. Probably. (She IS a Nymph, in thy orisons, and he DOES love her, even more than 40,000 brothers).
Shortly afterwards, Ophelia meets Hamlet in secret (her Dad and brother – Laertes- are none too happy about H) but tells her father of Hamlet’s crazy state. Polonius gives Claudius and Gertrude the heads-up, blaming H’s state on an ecstasy of love. At their next date, Hamlet kicks off at Ophelia, imagining all kinds of incestuous sluttery in his bonce, and insisting that she GET THEE TO A NUNNERY. Niiiice.
Hamlet decides to stage a play re-enacting his dad’s murder, reckoning he can determine Claudius’ guilt by eyeballing his reaction. After seeing the Character-King murdered with poison in the ears, Claudius abruptly rises and leaves the room: PROOF!!!!
Gertrude summons Hamlet to her boudoir (as y’do…bit icky…) for an explanation. On his way, H passes Claudius in prayer but lets him live, reckoning that death in prayer would send him to heaven rather than to the hell he deserves. Hamlet and his Ma have a barney. Polonius, earwigging behind a tapestry, squeaks (or something like that) and Hamlet, believing it is Claudius, stabs wildly, killing Polonius. Oops.
Ghostie comes back, nagging H to take Claudius out. Gertrude, blind and deaf to the ghost, is by now pretty certain that Hamlet has lost the proverbial plot. Hamlet hides Polonius’ DB; and Claudius, shitting himself, banishes Hamlet to save his own skin because H is such a badass (but not before re-deploying his two spies).
Demented, Ophelia wanders around in bawdy banshee-mode. Claudius convinces Laertes that Hamlet is entirely to blame for all the death and all the crazy.
News arrives that Hamlet’s badassery is still a threat, so Claudius devises a plot, concocting a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet with poison-tipped rapiers (with a side order of poisoned wine as a nice little contingency plan).
Gertrude reports that Ophelia has drowned. Two conveniently-placed gravediggers discuss her apparent suicide, all the while digging her six-feet-underness. Hamlet arrives with Horatio and one of the gravediggers unearths the chap-fallen, grinning skull of a jester, Yorick. You all know the quote. Or you all THINK you know the quote.
Ophelia’s Laertes-led funeral procession approaches (they organised them pretty quickly in those days). He and Hamlet have a bit of a go at each other but are swiftly told to knock it off.
Hamlet tells Horatio that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. (They have to be. They made a movie about it). He also tells of his escape, just so that WE know that Horatio knows…..
With Fortinbras’ Norwegian army closing in, it’s Face/Off. It’s time for H and L to fence, grunting and sweating under their weary lives. Laertes pierces Hamlet with a poisoned blade but is fatally wounded by said weapon. Gertrude accidentally drinks the poisoned wine and throws a six. Just before he kicks the bucket, Laertes reveals Claudius’ dodgy death plot to Hamlet. Just before HIS sell-by-date, Hamlet manages to kill Claudius and names Fortinbras as his heir. When Fortinbras arrives, Horatio gives him the low-down and Fortinbras orders Hamlet’s body be borne off in honour. Here’s the rub: everybody dies. Nobody wins*.
(*Except maybe Norway. It’s one-nil to Norway. Ish. Kinda. Not really.)
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives
must die; passing through nature to eternity.
Except William Shakespeare, who will, of course, live forever. Sigh.