Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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To find out if the Ghost is telling the truth, he arranges for a play (which he jocularly calls ‘the Mouse-trap’) to be performed to Claudius, in which his murder of Old Hamlet will clearly appear before him. His reactions will then betray his guilt. This plan allows Hamlet to continue with at least some sense of purpose: he debates the whole problem of action in the famous ‘Nunnery Scene’ with Ophelia.

The play takes place. Claudius guilt is confirmed, but also Hamlet’s knowledge of the murder made known to the King. Certain at last, it seems, Hamlet goes not to seek out Claudius, but, almost incredibly, to upbraid his mother, who he tries to persuade not to sleep with Claudius. The unpredictability of his actions at this point in the play is shown by the fact that on the way to the ‘Closet Scene’ with Gertrude, he avoids killing Claudius, deciding to spare him on the grounds that he is praying and therefore repenting of his crime. It appears – wrongly – to Hamlet that to kill Claudius at prayer would lead to the salvation of his enemy. Then, during the ‘Closet Scene,’ Hamlet impetuously kills Polonius, who was spying on him, later treating his dead body with remarkable callousness. Captured by Claudius, he is bundled off to England on an embassy (which is merely a cover to expedite his assassination). Preparing to embark, he makes his final soliloquy on his determination, finally, to dispatch Claudius! Perhaps, Shakespeare wishes the audience at this point to see Hamlet as rather absurdly unaware of the true nature of his situation.

On board ship with the King’s two spies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet finds an opportunity to pick their pockets; he does so, and discovers the plot against his life: the King of England has been instructed by Claudius to execute him. Hamlet writes a letter instructing the King of England to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead, and substitutes it. He is then conveniently captured by pirates, who, with remarkable consideration for Shakespeare’s plot requirements, deposit him back in Denmark, something of a changed man.

The scene is then set for the catastrophe in which Hamlet meets his death.

HORATIO. Hamlet’s confidant and fellow student at Wittenberg. In terms of the plot, Horatio’s importance is minimal. He is simply a means to channel some important information. Thematically, however, he provides an important contrast to Hamlet’s demeanour during the play. His ‘philosophy’ makes him sceptical and cautious, but, above all, Hamlet admires his stoicism in the face of disaster: ‘A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards/Hast ta’en with equal thanks,’ a man ‘That is not passion’s slave’ (III.ii.67-8, 71). It is easy to see why Hamlet admires these qualities in Horatio: he desperately needs them himself.

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William Shakespeare