Hamlet's father, the King of Denmark, is dead and has been succeeded by his brother Claudius, who has married the old king's wife, Gertrude. The King's ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him, and makes Hamlet promise to avenge his death. The play traces the process by which Hamlet negotiates the conflict between his need to take violent action and his uncertainty about the rightness of doing so.

He pretends to be mad and contemplates suicide. He unintentionally murders Polonius, the new King's counselor, and violently confronts his mother for what he sees as an unfaithful and incestuous marriage to her brother-in-law. He also verbally abuses Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius, whom Hamlet had loved before, contributing to her mental illness and eventual death.

Hamlet finally decides that he must submit to his fate--or his dramatically determined role as the hero of a revenge tragedy--and agrees to a fencing match with Ophelia's brother, Laertes. Arranged by Claudius, the match is rigged. Laertes's rapier is poisoned, and both Laertes and Hamlet are killed with it. Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine intended for Hamlet and dies. Hamlet's last action is to kill Claudius, but whether this counts as the successful culmination of a revenge plot is dubious. As a new order takes over in Denmark, and as the dying Hamlet asks that his story be remembered, we realize that his existential quandaries remain largely unresolved.


Hamlet has medical relevance in several ways, though it is probably important not to reduce the play's remarkable complexity by overemphasizing or straining the connections one can draw from it. The play raises questions about evidence and action (or diagnosis and course of treatment): at what point does one have enough information to be sure that one's action is going to be the right one (both effectively and ethically)? Hamlet doubts the identity and motives of the ghost, and has the murder reenacted in a play which functions as a kind of experiment, trying to prove Claudius's guilt by exposing his reaction. Even after this, though, Hamlet cannot find the certainty to carry out the action which he also cannot avoid.

Hamlet's ethical struggle leads him to consider, in minute and eloquent detail, what it means to be human, embodied, and mortal. He contemplates suicide and wrestles with his fear of a possible afterlife, but the solidity of the dead Polonius and the "anatomy lesson" given to him by the gravedigger present him with a more materialist view of being human: Yorick's hollow and silent skull seems to lead him to a fatalistic--and one might say secular and modern--attitude to action and to death. Rather than pursuing vengeance, he seems to forget the ghost and allows Claudius's own machinations to bring about the chain of deaths that end the tragedy.

The play presents two usefully compared images of madness. Hamlet's bitterly humorous and manic "antic disposition" grows out of a profound melancholy. Not only has he become an iconic figure of Renaissance medicine's version of this humoral imbalance, but his cry, "How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!" (1.2.133-34), is immediately recognizable as a sign of what we'd now call clinical depression.

Ophelia's madness is even more serious. Her passivity and obedience leave her helpless when the guiding male figures of father, brother, and lover are all taken from her, and Hamlet's obscene taunts and his implication in her father's death leave her entirely demented. Her death, not quite suicide, has become a powerful if debatable image of female psychological vulnerability.

The play offers a revealing analysis of two families and the response of each to the death of the father: the old king in one case, and Polonius in the other. In each, part of the central action develops from perceptions of sexuality: the desires of a widow and her son's refusal to accept their continued existence in one case and, in the other, Polonius's refusal to countenance the sexuality of his daughter. While the stylized carnage that ends the play might seem far removed from medical concerns today, the motivations and responses of Shakespeare's characters, and their concern with the condition of their own bodies and minds and souls, remain resonant and often very familiar.


First published: London, 1603 (first quarto) and 1623 (first folio). Also known as The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

Primary Source



Oxford Univ. Press

Place Published

New York




G. R. Hibbard

Page Count