Events before the start of Hamlet set the stage for tragedy. When the king of Denmark, Prince Hamlet's father, suddenly dies, Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, marries his uncle Claudius, who becomes the new king.
A spirit who claims to be the ghost of Hamlet's father describes his murder at the hands of Claudius and demands that Hamlet avenge the killing. When the councilor Polonius learns from his daughter, Ophelia, that Hamlet has visited her in an apparently distracted state, Polonius attributes the prince's condition to lovesickness, and he sets a trap for Hamlet using Ophelia as bait.
To confirm Claudius's guilt, Hamlet arranges for a play that mimics the murder; Claudius’s reaction is that of a guilty man. Hamlet, now free to act, mistakenly kills Polonius, thinking he is Claudius. Claudius sends Hamlet away as part of a deadly plot.
After Polonius's death, Ophelia goes mad and later drowns. Hamlet, who has returned safely to confront the king, agrees to a fencing match with Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, who secretly poisons his own rapier. At the match, Claudius prepares poisoned wine for Hamlet, which Gertrude unknowingly drinks; as she dies, she accuses Claudius, whom Hamlet kills. Then first Laertes and then Hamlet die, both victims of Laertes's rapier.
Hamlet character map
Understanding and interpreting Hamlet
Insider's Guide: Hamlet
This video provides an introduction to the play's major characters and plot points.
Cast and crew from Folger Theatre's 2010 production of the play discuss the main character and his transformation.
Soliloquies feature heavily in Hamlet as the troubled prince of Denmark examines himself and works through a plan to take his revenge. Learn about these famous speeches.
How Catholic and Protestant beliefs affect Hamlet’s reaction to his father’s ghost
When Hamlet first encounters his father’s ghost, the Danish prince’s reactions reflect Shakespeare’s understanding of the theological differences between early modern Catholics and Protestants regarding the spiritual realm.
Hamlet in performance: Notable actors and productions
The ABCs of Performing Hamlet
Explor how Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Michael Redgrave, Jonathan Slinger, Richard Burton, and many others have portrayed one of Shakespeare’s most memorable and mercurial characters.
Derek Jacobi: Playing Hamlet
Renowned actor Derek Jacobi talks about the Shakespearean role for which he is best known, Hamlet.
The Globe to Globe Hamlet Tour
In 2014, Shakespeare’s Globe in London sent a group of actors on a two-year tour to perform Hamlet all around the world.
Hamlet 360: Virtual Reality Shakespeare
Hear the behind-the-scenes story of Hamlet 360: Thy Father’s Spirit, an hour-long virtual reality adaptation of Shakespeare’s play that puts the viewer in the center of Shakespeare’s tragedy.
Hamlet wasn't always the prince with the common touch
Today we might assume that every Hamlet will be colloquial, familiar, and down to earth. But this approach to the role was a break with convention in the 1860s.
Theater history: Portraits in Hamlet
In staging the confrontation between Hamlet and Gertrude, directorial choices significantly affect what audiences see when Hamlet says, "Look here upon this picture, and on this."
Ophelia in 19th-century English art
Explore the evolution of artistic ideas about the character of Ophelia.
Ophelia and Madness
This short, educational video explores Ophelia's madness.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Read dramatug Michele Osherow's notes on the 2015 Folger Theatre production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which retells Hamlet from the perspective of two minor characters.
In 2016 the Folger commissioned an interactive one-man play called Gravedigger’s Tale, in which the character of the Gravedigger answers questions from the audience using lines from Shakespeare's text.
Lisa Klein on 'Ophelia'
Lisa Klein’s YA novel, now a movie starring Daisy Ridley, approaches the events of Hamlet from Ophelia's point of view.
Early printed texts
The textual history of Hamlet is complicated. The play was first published in a quarto in 1603 (Q1) that differs in significant ways from subsequent editions: it is much shorter, the “To be or not to be” speech is in a different place, and many passages appear to be jumbled. Only two copies are known to have survived, now held at the British Library and the Huntington Library. (Facsimiles of those copies can be found in The Shakespeare Quartos Archive.) Most modern editions of the play are based on the texts of the Second Quarto (Q2), published in 1604, and the First Folio (F1), published in 1623. Q2 and F1 differ both from Q1 and from each other: there are passages that appear in one and not the other, F1 is shorter and omits most of 5.5, and there are smaller alterations throughout. Editors often choose to present a text that combines all the text that appears in Q2 and F1. The Folger Edition also combines Q2 and F1, but it indicates those parts that appear in only one of the two early texts: F1-only language is marked off by pointed brackets, and Q2-only language is set off in square brackets.
As part of an NEH-funded project, the Folger digitized thousands of 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century images representing Shakespeare’s plays. Some of these images show actors in character, while others show the plays as if they were real-life events—telling the difference isn't always easy. A selection of images related to Hamlet is shown below, with links to our digital image collection.
More images from Hamlet can be found in our digital image collection. (Because of how they were cataloged, some images from other plays might appear in the image searches linked here, so always check the sidebar to see if the image is described as part of a larger group.)
Teacher & student resources
Created by teachers and curated by the Folger, these teaching modules can help you with Hamlet in the classroom:
- “To be or not to be”: Close Reading Hamlet’s Soliloquy
- Enter Players: Pre-reading Hamlet
- A Guilty Gertrude: Performing Spoken and Silent Moments in Hamlet
- Paparazzi Shakespeare: Ophelia’s Madness Revealed!