Learn More about the Play

"Meet it is I set it down..." - Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

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Welcome to the Online Program for the SF Shakes production of Hamlet! We hope to provide you with some information that will enhance your enjoyment and understanding of Shakespeare's play. Read below to find a detailed synopsis of the show, or click the links to the right to learn more about where Shakespeare got the idea for Hamlet, why Ophelia spends so much time talking about flowers, and what the idea of "madness" meant in Shakespeare's time, as well as some thoughts from the director of SF Shakes' production.

WHAT HAPPENS IN HAMLET

*Please Note: This is a synopsis for our production of "Hamlet," in which the characters of Polonius, Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Laertes all identify as female.

The play begins late at night on the battlements of the Castle Elsinore of Denmark, where sentries are keeping watch. These guardsmen tell a scholar, Horatio, of a Ghost in the form of the late King Hamlet that they’ve seen walking the battlements recently. Suddenly the Ghost appears. As morning breaks, Horatio decides that they will tell Prince Hamlet, Horatio’s friend and son of the deceased King, what they’ve seen.

The court of Denmark gathers within the castle. King Claudius, brother to the late king, discusses his recent marriage to old King Hamlet’s widow (Prince Hamlet’s mother), Gertrude. He also sends ambassadors to handle a recent threat to the state in the form of young Fortinbras of Norway, who’s leading an army to Elsinore to reclaim the lands his father lost in war. Once Hamlet is left alone, he despairs over his father’s recent death and his mother’s hasty remarriage. Horatio arrives and tells Hamlet of the Ghost. They make plans to confront the ghost that night.

As Laertes prepares to leave for France, her mother and the King’s counsellor, Polonius, gives advice on how to act while away. Left alone, Laertes warns her younger sister, Ophelia, not to trust the romantic advances that Hamlet has recently made toward her. Polonius also turns her questions to Ophelia. Ophelia admits her interest in Hamlet, but Polonius advises her to cut all contact with the Prince.

On the battlements, the Ghost walks again. Hamlet’s friends urge him not to follow the questionable spirit, but he does so anyway. From the Ghost, he learns that his father was in fact murdered by King Claudius. The Ghost demands that Hamlet avenge his death by killing the new King. Once the Ghost disappears, Hamlet confides in Horatio and the sentries that he plans to “put an antic disposition on” from this point onward, and makes them all swear not to share his revenge secret.

Some time later, Ophelia rushes to her mother claiming that Hamlet has acted erratically towards her—actions which Polonius blames on Hamlet’s supposed love for Ophelia. Claudius and Gertrude welcome Hamlet’s friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to court and ask them to seek out the cause of Hamlet’s recent strange behavior. The ambassadors return from Norway with news that the Norse King has reprimanded young Fortinbras and will send him to march against Poland instead. Polonius reports to the King that love is the cause of Hamlet’s recent madness, and to prove it conspires with the King and Queen to stage an encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia and spy on the ensuing conversation.

Hamlet, seemingly alone, contemplates life and death, but becomes erratic as Ophelia enters to give him back the tokens of affection he previously gave her. He leaves Ophelia distraught after a wild show of madness, and Claudius becomes certain that love isn’t the cause of his strange behavior. Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern all try to get to the bottom of Hamlet’s madness, but he will reveal nothing to them. Hamlet is intrigued by his friends’ report of a player troupe coming to Elsinore, and decides to have the players perform a play similar to the story of his father’s murder. He hopes this will force the King to confess, and thus help him verify the truth of the Ghost’s accusations.

The next day, Claudius can still get no good answer to Hamlet’s cause of madness. The entire court comes together to see the players’ play, and Hamlet, frustrated with the actors, jumps in as the Player King’s killer. Claudius abruptly rises and flees the room, which Hamlet takes as positive proof of his uncle’s guilt.

Hamlet is summoned to his mother’s room by way of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, both of whom he accuses of disloyalty to him. The two report back to the King, who then commands them to accompany Hamlet away to England. Alone, Claudius frets over his guilt and tries to pray. Hamlet sees this while on his way to his mother’s chamber and considers murdering Claudius, but ultimately decides against it, as doing so while he is praying will send the King straight to Heaven absolved of his sins.

In the Queen’s chamber, Hamlet confronts his mother angrily. Polonius, spying on the conversation from behind a curtain, makes a noise which Hamlet mistakenly suspects is the King. Hamlet stabs at the noise, killing Polonius, and then turns on his mother. The Ghost appears and reprimands Hamlet for his harsh words and for his inaction toward taking revenge on Claudius. Unable to see or hear the Ghost, Gertrude takes Hamlet’s responses as true madness, which she then reports to Claudius. Hamlet jokes about where he has hidden Polonius’ body, and Claudius sends Hamlet immediately to England with a sealed letter: a letter asking the English king to kill Hamlet upon arrival.

Later, having escaped from his trip to England thanks to a pirate attack, Hamlet comes across young Fortinbras’ army marching through Denmark. Back in Elsinore, Ophelia, driven mad by grief, sings songs and wanders the castle. Laertes arrives back from France, enraged by her mother’s death and her sister’s madness. When Claudius hears that Hamlet is returning home, he and Laertes scheme to for Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a seemingly harmless duel. During the duel, Hamlet will be poisoned either with Laertes sword or with Claudius’ wine. Gertrude interrupts to tell them that in her madness, Ophelia has drowned.

Two gravediggers discuss Ophelia’s apparent suicide while digging her grave. Hamlet and Horatio arrive, banter with one of the gravediggers, but retreat upon a funeral procession appearing. Hamlet watches silently, but starts up when he realizes Ophelia is the one to be buried, proclaiming his love for her.

Back at Elsinore, Hamlet explains to Horatio that he had discovered Claudius’ letter on the ship and replaced it with one commanding Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be put to death instead. A courtier arrives to deliver Laertes’ fencing challenge to Hamlet and he accepts. Hamlet seems to be winning the match when Gertrude raises a toast to Hamlet using the poisoned wine. Before Claudius can stop her, Gertrude drinks the wine and Laertes slashes Hamlet with the poison blade. In the ensuing scuffle, Hamlet wounds Laertes with his own sword, fatally poisoning him, and before he dies Laertes reveals the King’s plot. Hamlet finally kills Claudius, both with the blade and the poisoned wine. As Hamlet dies, he begs Horatio to tell his story.