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, needs no intro, so I won’t give him one (keep it clean, folks). I’d refer to him as the titular character—but I frickin’ hate that wanky-ass phrase, so I’m not gonna. Anywho—he’s as Danish as bacon, his Dad (KING Hamlet—yup) has only gone and snuffed it, and his Pop’s brother Claudius has creepily snapped up H’s mother, Gertrude. Ew. Hence, King Claudius reigns, albeit rather sorta-incestuously-ish.
The Scene: swanky royal castle, Elsinore. Foreshadowing ante: upped to the max.
Some guard-dudes tell Hamlet’s buddy, Horatio, that they’ve seen King H’s ghost. This gets back to young Hammy m’lad, who resolves to see said apparition for himself. That night, the Ghost appears (nicely telegraphed, Shakey) and spookily informs Hamlet that Claudius was the geezer-wot-bumped him off, aurally. Ghostdad demands his son avenge his foul and most unnatural murder; H doesn’t need telling twice, and although he’s not altogether convinced, he goes with the flow, runs with it—feigning madness in the process (it’s Shakey, kids. Everyone’s either nutso or pretends to be).
Anxious about Ham’s increasing bonkersness, two of his chums go undercover to get the goss. Hammy 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 forty-thousand brothers.) Shortly afterwards, Ophelia meets Hamlet in secret (her Dad and brother Laertes are none too happy about the dude) but tells her father about H’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. Niiice.
Hamlet decides to stage a gig (play-within-a-play: Shakey 101) re-enacting his ol’ man’s murder, reckoning he can determine Claudius’ guilt by eyeballing his reaction. After seeing the Character-King murdered with poison in the ears (I told you —aurally), Claudius abruptly fucks off for a bit: PROOF! (It’ll never hold up in court, mate.)
Gertiebaby summons Hamlet to her boudoir (as y’do … bit icky, mind, but whatever). On his way, H passes Claudius praying his little arse off but lets him live, reckoning that death in prayer would send the twat to heaven rather than to the hell he so richly deserves. Hamlet and his Ma have a barney. Polonius, earwigging behind a tapestry, squeaks (or something like that) and Hamlet, believing it to be Claudius, gets a bit pissy and a tad stabby, killing said tapestry. And Polonius. Oops.
Ghostie comes back, nagging H to take Claudius out. Coz, yknow—he got it A BIT WRONG last time, the clumsy fucker. Gertie, blind and deaf to the spectre, is by now pretty certain her son has lost the proverbial plot. Ham hides Polonius’ DB; and Claudius, shitting himself, banishes Hamlet to save his own skin (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 (as is often the case) that Hamlet’s badassery is still a threat, so Claudius concocts a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet, with—GET THIS—poison-tipped rapiers (with a side order of equally bedrugged wine—gotta have a contingency plan).
Gertie reports that Ophelia has drowned. Two conveniently-placed gravediggers discuss her apparent suicide, all the while digging her imminent six-feet-underness. Hamlet arrives with Horatio and one of the gravediggers unearths the grinning skull of a jester. You all know the quote. Or you all THINK you know the quote.
Ophelia’s Laertes-led funeral procession approaches (they organised ‘em 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 details his escape, just so WE know 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. Gertie accidentally drinks the poisoned wine (coz reasons) and rushes into the secret house (where she snuffs it). Just before he kicks the bucket, Laertes reveals Claudius’ dodgy death plot to Hamlet. Just before HIS expiry date (keep up, double-oh-seven), Hamlet manages to kill Claudius and names Fortinbras as his heir. Fortie orders Hamlet’s body be borne off in honour. Here’s the rub: (almost) everybody dies. Nobody wins*.
(*Except maybe Norway. It’s one-nil to Norway. Ish. Kinda. Not really. Maybe. I’m confused.)
Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives
must die; passing through nature to eternity.
^Except for Billy Bob Shakespeare, of course, who gets to live forever. Sigh.