Book Review: Hamlet by William Shakespeare

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Shakespeare’s Hamlet is his most popular and most puzzling play. This play takes the form of a revenge tragedy in which Hamlet seeks revenge against his father’s killer, his uncle Claudius, now king of Denmark. The play’s fascination lies in its uncertainty, however.

Is the Ghost Hamlet’s father seeking justice, a tempting demon or an angelic messenger? Is Hamlet insane or just pretending to be? When he knows Claudius is a murderer, why does he not act? Gertrude, his mother, was she unfaithful to her husband or complicit in his murder?

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book review will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

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Plot Summary

A young prince loses his life while avenging the murder of his father.

ACT 1 

Hamlet, the Danish royal prince and a student at Wittenberg University, has been recalled to Denmark by the sudden death of his father, the king. Hamlet is in a severe depression; his grief over his father is compounded by the hasty remarriage of his mother, Queen Gertrude, to his father’s devious brother, Claudius, and by Claudius’s seizure of the throne.

The play opens the night before Claudius’s coronation. On the watch platform of Elsinore Castle, the Ghost of the late king appears to Hamlet’s friend Horatio and two military officers, Marcellus and Bernardo, but the Ghost disappears without speaking. 

After the coronation the following morning, Claudius begins the official business of the court, assigning ambassadors and hearing petitions (requests). He sends ambassadors to Norway, which is threatening an invasion of Denmark—young Fortinbras, ruler of Norway, is demanding the return of lands that the former King Hamlet had seized from his father.

Laertes, son of Polonius (adviser to Claudius) is given permission to return to the University of Paris. The queen begs Hamlet, who is dressed in black (a violation of coronation etiquette and an insult to the new king) to put away his mourning clothes. 

When everyone leaves, Hamlet reveals in a soliloquy (i.e., a speech delivered alone on the stage) his disillusionment with his mother because of her hasty marriage (less than a month after his father’s death) to such a dishonorable man. Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo come to tell Hamlet about his father’s Ghost.

At Polonius’s house, Laertes advises his sister, Ophelia, not to get romantically involved with Hamlet. He explains that Hamlet’s position prevents him from marrying whomever he wishes. 

Polonius gives his children a long-winded, hypocritical lecture on morality and behavior, demanding that Ophelia reject Hamlet’s courtship since he is the son of a king and could never marry a woman like Ophelia, who is socially inferior.

That night, on the ramparts of the castle, the Ghost appears to Hamlet and reveals that Claudius seduced Gertrude, then murdered him by pouring poison into his ear while he was asleep. The Ghost asks Hamlet to avenge his murder. Hamlet confides to Horatio that he will pretend madness while working out his plan of revenge.

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ACT 2 

Two months later, Polonius instructs his servant, Reynaldo, to take money to Laertes in Paris and to check on his behavior. Ophelia enters in great agitation and tells Polonius that Hamlet has just acted very strangely with her: his clothes were in disarray and he stared at her wildly, but said nothing.

Polonius, certain that this is the madness of unrequited (unreturned) love, rushes off to inform Claudius and Gertrude. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s university friends, are summoned by Claudius to spy on Hamlet. 

Polonius reports to Claudius that Hamlet has gone mad because Ophelia rejected his love. When a company of players (i.e., actors) arrive at Elsinore, Hamlet commissions them to perform a tragedy at court. Hamlet reveals in a soliloquy that he will have the actors reenact the murder of his father and observe Claudius’s reaction (“The play’s the thing / Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King”).

ACT 3 

Claudius and Polonius, having planned an encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia, hide behind a tapestry so they can eavesdrop. When Hamlet arrives, he reveals in a soliloquy (“To be or not to be …” ) that he feels caught between his code of honor (i.e., his father’s death must be avenged) and his religious code (i.e., it would be a sin to commit suicide, which he is thinking about). 

When Ophelia arrives, he cruelly rejects her and cynically denounces marriage, telling her to stay away from men by becoming a nun (“Get thee to a nunnery”). When the two exit, Claudius remains unconvinced of Hamlet’s madness and tells Polonius he is sending Hamlet off to England.

The king, queen, and courtiers assemble for the players’ performance. Their play, the “Murder of Gonzago,” opens with a pantomime (acted in gestures without words) in which a villain murders the sleeping king by pouring poison in his ear, then courts the widowed queen with gifts. 

When the play reaches the moment where the villain poisons the player-king, a horrified Claudius leaps up and rushes out of the hall, thereby confirming Hamlet’s suspicions. Polonius informs Hamlet that his mother wishes to speak with him.

Claudius goes to his chamber and tries to pray. In a soliloquy, he confesses the murder, but finds that his prayer remains earthbound. He realizes he cannot be forgiven for his sins while retaining the benefits for which he committed them—his crown, his ambition, and the queen. Hamlet slips in unobserved, his sword drawn to kill Claudius. Seeing Claudius on his knees in prayer, Hamlet decides not to kill him: if Claudius is praying for forgiveness, he might then go to heaven.

Hamlet proceeds to Gertrude’s chamber and violently denounces his mother. When she attempts to leave, he seizes her and throws her into a chair. Terrified, she calls out for help. Polonius, concealed behind a curtain, makes a move to help her. Hamlet, thinking it is Claudius, stabs the curtain and kills Polonius.

Hamlet’s pent-up rage erupts against his mother as he confronts her with her sins. At the height of Hamlet’s outburst, the Ghost appears and reminds him of his “almost blunted purpose” (the Ghost had told Hamlet to let heaven punish Gertrude). 

As Gertrude cannot see the Ghost to whom Hamlet speaks, she concludes her son is indeed mad. In a calmer mood, Hamlet asks Gertrude to confess her sins to heaven, repent, and refrain from sleeping with Claudius.

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ACT 4 

Gertrude rushes to tell Claudius about the slaying of Polonius. Claudius speeds up his plans for sending Hamlet to England, and in a soliloquy reveals that he has plotted Hamlet’s death in England. Hamlet is escorted to England by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who carry a sealed death warrant, the contents of which they seem unaware. 

Ophelia, who has gone mad, calls on the queen with incoherent babbling and singing. Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet, announcing that his ship was overtaken by pirates and that he has been taken prisoner by them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain on board the ship headed for England, and Hamlet has been well treated on the pirates’ ship. 

In the meantime, Laertes has stormed Elsinore palace at the head of an angry mob of supporters who want him to be king. Overpowering Claudius’s personal guards, he invades the king’s chamber and demands an explanation for Polonius’s death, the unmarked grave, and his hasty funeral. Claudius tells him that he cannot punish Hamlet for Polonius’s death because the Danish people love the young prince. 

A messenger arrives with the news that Hamlet is returning to Elsinore the next day. Claudius proposes an “accidental” death for Hamlet, suggesting a fencing match with Laertes, a master swordsman. Laertes consents and volunteers to poison the tip of his sword, in order to guarantee the outcome. Gertrude enters to report that Ophelia has drowned.

ACT 5 

In the churchyard, two gravediggers (called clowns) joke as they prepare Ophelia’s grave. Hamlet and Horatio enter, unaware that the grave is for Ophelia. Hamlet speaks to one of the clowns, who tosses to him the skull of Yorick, once the king’s jester. 

Hamlet remembers the jester with great fondness (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him …”). When the funeral procession enters—headed by the king, the queen, and Laertes—Hamlet and Horatio move out of view. 

Laertes complains bitterly to the priest that the funeral rites are too brief, but since it is assumed that Ophelia committed suicide, the Church is not permitted to perform the customary funeral. In an outburst of grief, Laertes jumps into the open grave. When Hamlet realizes it is Ophelia’s grave, he rushes forward and confesses his love for her.

Laertes attacks Hamlet and a fight begins, but they are quickly separated. At the castle, Hamlet tells Horatio that he had secretly opened Claudius’s commission—the death warrant—and had forged a substitute warrant containing the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, thereby sending them to their death.

Osric a vain young man of the court, brings Hamlet the king’s invitation to the fencing match. A royal fanfare announces the entrance of Claudius, Gertrude, and the court for the match. Foils, daggers, and wine are brought in. 

Before the match, Hamlet begs Laertes’ forgiveness for slaying Polonius, claiming that madness made him do it. He pledges his friendship, which Laertes accepts, but Laertes must still avenge his father’s death. Trumpets and drums signal the beginning of the match. 

Hamlet wins the first few points (hits) and Claudius offers him some poisoned wine. Hamlet declines and continues the match, but Gertrude, toasting Hamlet’s points, drinks from the poisoned cup. 

As the match becomes more intense, Laertes wounds Hamlet with the poisoned foil, but in a scuffle, their rapiers are accidentally exchanged and Hamlet wounds Laertes, who cries out that he has been justly killed by his own treachery. 

The queen, stricken by the poison, warns Hamlet that the cup is poisoned, then dies. Laertes confesses the plot and lays the blame on Claudius, whom Hamlet slays with the poisoned foil. Horatio vows to die with Hamlet, but Hamlet begs him to stay alive so that he can tell people about the nobleness of Hamlet’s cause. 

Fortinbras of Norway enters, lays claim to the Danish crown, and orders Hamlet’s body to be carried off with honors befitting a soldier.

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Key Characters

Hamlet: Danish royal prince; son of Queen Gertrude and the recently murdered King Hamlet. Brilliant, artistic, virtuous, idealistic. Personal charm and grace. At the play’s beginning, Hamlet experiences a near-suicidal depression from the shock of his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage, but also of being bypassed in the succession to the throne. Under pressure, he becomes cynical, sarcastic, and ruthless, and thinks obsessively about himself. This comes as a dramatic contrast to his former joyful, exuberant, positive nature.

Claudius: King of Denmark; Hamlet’s uncle. Treacherous, ruthless, lecherous. Capable of subtle, charming behavior.

Gertrude: Queen of Denmark; wife of Claudius; mother of Hamlet. Gracious, royal, sensual, self-indulgent. Contradictory character: she had seemed devoted to her late husband, but committed adultery with Claudius; is inconsolable at husband’s death, but marries Claudius within a month.

Polonius: Claudius’s chief adviser. Father to Laertes and Ophelia. Devious, cynical. Claudius’s henchman. Pompous, old-fashioned, long-winded, hypocritical.

Laertes: Son of Polonius. Reckless, outspoken, cynical, decadent. Contrast to Hamlet. Master swordsman always prepared for battle.

Ophelia: Daughter of Polonius. Loves Hamlet. Young, basically innocent; lacks willpower, not assertive. The moral conflict between her sense of duty to her father and her own conscience finally drives her mad.

Horatio: Hamlet’s trusted friend. Gentleman, scholar, not of noble rank. Modest, relaxed, honest. Intensely loyal to Hamlet.

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Themes and Ideas

1. Revenge

The three sons in the play must avenge their fathers’ deaths:

Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras (whose father was slain in battle by Hamlet’s father). As Hamlet delays his revenge, the moral question of blood vengeance comes into focus. Hamlet personifies the Renaissance prince and belongs to a new age of enlightened justice, not the primitive eye-for-an-eye kind of justice, as in his father’s age. 

Whereas Hamlet’s father was a warrior-king, Hamlet is a scholar, a thinker, an artist, and a humanist who is repulsed by the notion of cold-blooded revenge. 

Laertes’ revenge with the poisoned rapier perpetuates the earlier tradition of bloody retaliation and represents the vengeance practices of Claudius’s morally corrupt court.

Fortinbras is committed to avenging his father’s death by recapturing the lands lost by his father. His waste of troops for an insignificant piece of land is a commentary on the absurdity of vengeance. Shakespeare’s message is that vengeance only leads to more vengeance.

2. Sin

The play demonstrates the effects of Claudius’s sin on every level of life: personal, public, and political. It corrupts the Danish court (officials, courtiers, the queen), is responsible for ruining two families (Hamlet’s, Polonius’s), for terminating the royal lineage of King Hamlet, and for causing the physical and moral destruction of the prince (i.e., Hamlet) who was the hope of Denmark’s future.

3. Betrayal

Claudius’s evil undermines family ties, love, friendship—relations normally considered sacred. His crime is even more despicable because he betrayed his brother. Ophelia breaks her love bond by betraying Hamlet (she reports his behavior and permits Polonius and Claudius to eavesdrop).

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray friendship bonds by spying on Hamlet and serving Claudius. Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Danish Court, betrays his role as protector of the prince by becoming Claudius’s henchman. Laertes violates the bonds of friendship and honor by accepting Hamlet’s pledge of friendship, then slaying him with the poisoned foil.

4. Disease

This theme runs through the entire play, beginning with the comparison of the political state of Denmark to a “disease.” Denmark is ill with a concealed disease and Hamlet has come to “cure” it, though the outcome is tragic. 

At the beginning, the castle guard says, “I am sick at heart,” referring to his fear of the Ghost that has appeared for the previous two nights. When the Ghost enters, Horatio concludes, “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” Hamlet compares Denmark to an “unweeded garden / That grows to seed,” a place where “things rank and gross in nature / Possess it…” 

Fortinbras thinks Denmark is “disjoint and out of frame.” Laertes says Danish people are “muddied / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers.” The disease is based on (a) the seizure of the throne, the usurpation by a corrupt new king who is a “smiling villain” and murderer; and (b) the incestuous marriage of Claudius to Gertrude. 

The disease is exposed when Claudius storms out of the play within the play; Hamlet has properly “diagnosed” the disease and, as a result, intends to murder Claudius in Act 5. Fortinbras arrives as a strong, new, “healthy” ruler.

5. Corruption of Youth

The innocence and idealism of young people like Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern are corrupted by elders who should be virtuous role models. 

The evil spreads from the decadent inner circle of the court—Claudius, Polonius, Gertrude—to the young. Hamlet’s fury with his mother, along with his outrage about Claudius, destroys his natural goodness. 

His brilliant wit turns to sarcasm. Claudius’s manipulation of Laertes (i.e., the poisoned fencing match) is the final undoing of a young man already prone to intrigues. Ophelia’s innocence is destroyed by misplaced loyalty to her father; if she had followed her natural love for Hamlet, this might have been avoided. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s corruption by Claudius seems innocent but proves deadly. Only Horatio remains uncorrupted.

6. Political Fighting

The struggle for political power is the basis of the play. Denmark has been threatened by Norway, and internal factions seek to overthrow Claudius. The Danish people are angry when Hamlet is bypassed for the kingship. 

The threat of revolt grows stronger with the slaying of Polonius, for which Claudius is blamed. There are references to dark mutterings among the citizens of the country. Laertes raises a mob to seize power, and Claudius, aware of Hamlet’s popularity with the Danish people, is determined to make Hamlet’s murder appear an accident.

7. Perversion of Love

The love of the late king for Gertrude—noble, tender, virtuous, and sanctioned by marriage—is Hamlet’s ideal of love. He bases his love for Ophelia on this. But contrasted to this pure love is the adulterous, incestuous love of Claudius and Gertrude. 

Hamlet has honourable intentions toward Ophelia, but Laertes and Polonius claim his motives are merely sexual. Hamlet’s denunciation of marriage and the rejection of Ophelia are a result of their attitude, along with the shattered idealism he feels from Gertrude’s betrayal of his father.

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Hamlet Symbols

1. Poison 

A recurring symbol of treachery and the betrayal of trust, symbolizing the decadence of the court: Hamlet’s father was murdered by poison; the queen, Laertes, Hamlet, and Claudius die from poison; Polonius “poisons” Ophelia’s feelings toward Hamlet; Gertrude “poisons” the memory of her happy marriage with the late king by marrying the lecherous and treacherous Claudius.

2. Spying

Symbolizes the mistrust and suspicion that undermine the relationships in the play: Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spy on Hamlet; Claudius and Polonius eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia; Polonius is killed while spying on Hamlet.

3. Masks and Play-Acting

Symbolize the deception, lies, and turning off the truth upside down in the play. Hamlet wears the “mask” of madness while deciding his course of action; Gertrude’s gracious manner masks her lack of morals. In revealing Gertrude’s adultery, the Ghost refers to her as “my most seeming-virtuous queen”. 

Hamlet loathes the smiling appearance under which Claudius masks his villainy. Polonius talks to Hamlet about play-acting, telling him that he once played Julius Caesar; the conversation emphasizes the idea that both men are play-acting, with Hamlet pretending madness and

Polonius is pretending loyalty. The play within the play appears to be fiction but is a mirror of reality and of the murder of King Hamlet.


1. Depth and Complexity

Hamlet is a play filled with profound themes and intricate characters. Shakespeare’s genius lies in his ability to create a world that reflects the complexities of human nature. The play delves into the depths of human psychology, exploring themes of revenge, love, madness, and mortality. Each character is layered and nuanced, providing a rich tapestry of emotions and motivations. The story is not merely a linear narrative but a multi-dimensional exploration of the human condition.

2. Skillful Use of Language

Shakespeare’s mastery of language is evident in Hamlet. Despite being written in Elizabethan English, the dialogue doesn’t feel unnatural or inaccessible. The language adds a poetic and lyrical quality to the play, enhancing the emotional impact of the characters’ words. Shakespeare’s ability to craft memorable lines and soliloquies, such as “To be or not to be” and “To thine own self be true,” showcases his talent for capturing the essence of human thought and emotion.

3. Endless Interpretations

One of the remarkable aspects of Hamlet is its ability to be interpreted in multiple ways. The play offers a vast spectrum of meanings and allows for different perspectives. Whether you approach it from a psychological, philosophical, or political angle, there is always something new to discover. Hamlet’s timeless themes and universal dilemmas make it a work of literature that invites continuous exploration and discussion.

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1. Complexity and Language Barrier

One of the challenges of reading Hamlet is its complexity and the language barrier presented by Shakespearean English. The intricate plot, numerous characters, and dense poetic language can be overwhelming for readers who are not accustomed to the style. Some may find it difficult to grasp the nuances and intricacies of the play, leading to confusion or frustration.

2. Length and Pacing

Hamlet is a lengthy play, and its pacing may not suit everyone’s preferences. The story unfolds at a deliberate pace, with numerous soliloquies and introspective moments. While these elements contribute to the depth of the characters and the exploration of complex themes, they can also make the narrative feel slow-moving for readers who prefer a faster pace or more action-oriented plots.

3. Tragic and Incomplete Ending

Hamlet is a tragedy, and as such, it ends in a somber and unresolved manner. Some readers may find the tragic conclusion disheartening or unsatisfying, particularly if they prefer stories with a more optimistic or conclusive ending. The play’s exploration of despair and realism through imperfect annihilation may not resonate with everyone’s taste or preference for closure.


Hamlet by William Shakespeare stands as a fascinating reflection of the contrasting concepts of the Renaissance prince during a tumultuous period in history. The play explores the ideals of the noble and virtuous ruler, as exemplified by Hamlet, and the Machiavellian tyrant, embodied by Claudius. These opposing portrayals capture the essence of the Renaissance era, with its simultaneous celebration of excellence, devotion to the arts, and yearning for good governance, along with the darker undercurrents of power dynamics, force, and cruelty.

It is worth noting the historical context in which Hamlet was written and performed. The Elizabethan era, under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, was marked by a desire for stability and peace. The recent memories of the Wars of the Roses and the execution of Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex, were still fresh in the minds of the Elizabethans. Through the complex political landscape of Denmark, Shakespeare subtly drew parallels to the potential chaos that could threaten Elizabethan England if not carefully managed.

Hamlet’s exploration of power, corruption, and the consequences of political intrigue resonated with the Elizabethan audience, serving as a cautionary tale and a reflection of their own anxieties. Shakespeare’s ability to weave historical and political elements into a timeless story of human nature is a testament to his mastery as a playwright.

About The Author

William Shakespeare, born around 1564 in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, made his way to London around 1586. His impressive career spanned from the early 1590s to 1612, during which he excelled as a playwright, poet, actor, and theater shareholder.

Shakespeare was a versatile writer, producing a wide range of plays for the popular theater. His repertoire included tragedies, comedies, romances, and historical dramas. In his early works, he captured the optimistic and vibrant spirit of a burgeoning England, asserting its position as a global power.

However, his later plays, renowned tragedies such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, took on a darker tone. They explored themes of pessimism, cynicism, and the pervasive decadence and political corruption within the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts.

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