Hamlet is one of the great plays of all time. It is widely considered William Shakespeare’s finest work, and it is the proverbial goal of any young actor to play the eponymous lead role. The play, remade and remodelled with every generation, and with over 160 film adaptations to boast, is a tragedy of epic proportions. Unedited, the play runs for nearly five hours (view Shakespeare play lengths) and this dense and insightful play is a must-read for any actor. And its centre is the titular Prince of Denmark: a staggeringly rich and complex character, whose inner life and strange motives have provided countless actors, for hundreds of years, the most delightful riddles and mysteries to be solved in rehearsal and performance. It is no surprise that the Dane appears on our list of Best Shakespeare Characters (and our our corresponding list of Best Shakespeare Comedy Roles).
Updated 7th October, 2022.
Like many actors, I come back to this play, again and again, and my raggedy copy of Hamlet looks like an old treasure map! I do this because this play is so rich and dense. It is a never-ending well that we can draw on as actors, artists and human beings. I hope this page and all the information we provide across the website, will help you fall in love with Shakespeare and this incredible play.
Here is some useful Hamlet information, enjoy!
In short, it’s a story of revenge. Hamlet, the young Prince of Denmark, is alerted by soldiers on the ramparts of Elsinore, that his father’s ghost is haunting the castle. The Ghost tells Hamlet that his brother (the new King of Denmark) murdered him in order to steal his crown and his wife (Hamlet’s mother Gertrude). With this news, Hamlet fumes, broods, hesitates and then eventually enacts an elaborate plan in which he acts as though he’s lost his mind; he hires a troupe of actors to help him stage a play in which he all but publicly accuses his uncle of the murder.
Hamlet’s ‘madness’ continues to wreak havoc in the lives of those around him. It reaches fever pitch when he spurns his lover Ophelia and accidentally murders her father; he is promptly sent away by his uncle, who orders his death in absentia. However, Hamlet learns of the plot and returns to Denmark in order to confront the parties that moved against him. During a series of public duels, all save for Hamlet’s friend Horatio lie slain. Finally, the invading Norwegian army converges on Elsinore and puts an end to the tragic scene.
For something a little more in-depth (and yet extremely simple to understand), check out this excellent synopsis video below:
Below, we’ve collected the kind of first-glance information on Hamlet you’ll need to get your bearings, including the setting, characters and some of the useful given circumstances that will help you get a sense of the play’s world.
Denmark. More specifically, a castle—home to Denmark’s royal family—named Elsinore. “Elsinore” is an anglicisation of the Danish town name Helsingør, where the real castle Kronborg is situated—and still stands today. While much of the action takes place within the walls and grounds of the castle, an important distinction occurs in Act V, when Hamlet and Horatio visit the site where gravediggers are preparing to bury Ophelia.
It’s important to remember, when reading Hamlet, that the kingdom in this play is not some distant, remote locale. Cutthroat geo-politics of the time play heavily into the story: Norway is on the proverbial doorstep threatening invasion, and Hamlet is sent to England by his uncle/father, where student friends of his reside. The complexity of the play’s world give Hamlet a very modern feel, which contrasts with a play like Macbeth that seems more caught up in internal, civil power struggles than the concerns of a modern world.
Hamlet: Prince of Denmark
Claudius: Hamlet’s uncle (and father-in-law) and new King of Denmark
Gertrude: Hamlet’s mother and Queen of Denmark
Ghost of Hamlet’s Father
Polonius: Lord Chamberlain, Ophelia’s Father
Ophelia: Daughter to Polonius, Hamlet’s romantic interest in the play
Laertes: Son of Polonius
Horatio: Hamlet’s friend
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Wayward friends of Hamlet
Osric: A foppish Courtier
Marcellus: King’s Guard
Francisco: King’s Guard
Bernardo: King’s Guard
Reynaldo: Servant to Polonius
Fortinbras: Prince of Norway, invader of Denmark
Voltemand and Cornelius: Danish Courtiers
Some Useful Given Circumstances
These points aren’t necessarily expanded upon in the body of the text—especially if you are only performing a monologue or short scene from the show. But these kinds of given circumstances are vital in helping you understand the world of the story/motives of the characters at any given time.
- Hamlet’s Father has recently died. The Ghost of the old King haunts the play—literally and metaphorically. It is the plot point that sets the tragedy of the play in motion, and yet it occurs before the action begins on stage.
- Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle, marries Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. Evidence of this we do see on stage: the play opens with the wedding banquet, during which we learn that the death of the old King was a startlingly recent event. Much like his father’s death, Hamlet is spurred to act by the torment of this incestuous union.
- Fortinbras, the Norwegian prince, is expected to invade soon. Death stalks the tragedy of Hamlet: not just its characters, but the death of the very kingdom of Denmark. The threat of invasion by Norway places great pressure on the new King Claudius, and expands the concerns of the play beyond the mere melodrama of the characters on stage.
- Hamlet has changed. Whether it is the death of his father, or the wedding of his mother to his creepy uncle, Hamlet has undergone a significant change in mood and personality at the start of this play. As eulogised by Ophelia in her excellent monologue, Hamlet was a scholar, a soldier, an uplifting member of the court full of intelligence and wit. All of that is missing from the man who presents himself to his friends and family as driven insane.
Hamlet is a detailed and complex play. The first task of any actor working on this play is understanding it. This takes a lot of research and reading. The great thing about Shakespeare is that everyone has their own opinion on his work. Was Hamlet really mad or just acting? Does Hamlet love Ophelia? Is the ghost he sees really his father? And on and on. Academics, directors, actors and even the audience have been arguing over these questions for centuries. The important thing as an actor is to be aware of the arguments and to have an opinion. This especially important if you are playing Hamlet or Ophelia.
One of the most challenging aspects of the titular character is determining why he does what he does. His overall objective—arguably his super-objective of wanting revenge—is clear enough. But then why does he spend so much of such a long play hesitating? Why does such a brilliant individual concoct such a ridiculous plan? While it might be easy enough to chalk it up to simple madness, the actions you choose in playing Hamlet are what bring complexity to the role, not to mention what keeps bringing audience members back to see it year after year.
And if you’re not playing Hamlet but one of the supporting players, take a look at how your role serves the story. For a production of Hamlet to work, it requires a great ensemble. Think about how your character adds to the story: how do they react to the young Prince’s madness? How did they view him before this? And how do the larger pressures of politics and war play into their lives?
Are you keen to work on a Hamlet Monologue? We have the most comprehensive list of Hamlet monologues on the internet, and a full analysis of the most well-known speeches from the play.
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