Shakespeare's Hamlet: Character Analysis & Description

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  • 0:00 Background on ''Hamlet''
  • 0:41 Plot Overview
  • 4:14 Character Analysis of Hamlet
  • 6:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shamekia Thomas

Shamekia has taught English at the secondary level and has her doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Hamlet is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare. It is a story about revenge and the growing pains of life. Learn more about the story of Hamlet and explore an analysis of his character before testing your knowledge with a quiz.

Background on Hamlet

In our quest to figure out what life is all about, we all experience a range of emotions and conflicts. Sometimes we have conflict with others and at other times we experience conflict inside of ourselves. William Shakespeare's Hamlet is a story about the human spirit and the difficulties that can result when we experience internal conflict. Like so many of us, Hamlet experiences a range of emotions in his struggle to mature and discover what life is really about. Hamlet is a young man who experiences a crisis just like many other teenagers. He frequently talks to himself, has problems in his relationship, feels pressure to be like his father, and does not like his stepfather.

Plot Overview

Hamlet, son of Queen Gertrude and the late King Hamlet, is a teenage boy who is loyal to his father and wants to protect his mother and his family's legacy. After the death of his father, Hamlet's mother Gertrude married Claudius, Hamlet's uncle and the new King of Denmark. One night, a ghost (said to be the ghost of King Hamlet) appears to Hamlet's best friend Horatio. When Horatio tells Hamlet about seeing the ghost, Hamlet requests to see the ghost himself. When the ghost appears to Hamlet, it tells him that his father (King Hamlet) was murdered by his brother Claudius. Hamlet agrees with the ghost to avenge his father's death by killing Claudius, but not to punish his mother for her behavior, which causes a personal conflict for Hamlet. Hamlet is not sure if he should believe the ghost and struggles to determine what to do about his father's death.

Hamlet is in love with Ophelia, the daughter of Claudius' most trusted counselor, Polonius. As time goes on, Hamlet's behavior becomes more and more disturbing. Everyone believes Hamlet is experiencing extreme grief from the death of his father. Some thought his behavior was the result of being in love. Hamlet's uncle Claudius sends two men, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to find out the cause of Hamlet's erratic behavior but they're unsuccessful in finding out what was wrong with him.

After this failure, Claudius and Polonius ask Ophelia to talk to Hamlet while they listened in the next room. At that time, Hamlet makes a number of disturbing statements including the famous line, to be or not to be. Hamlet is so overcome with emotions that he considers taking his own life. He is also aggressive towards Ophelia and tells her to, get thee to a nunnery.

Still trying to decide if he should believe what the ghost told him, Hamlet decides to have a group of stage performers put on a show about his father's death. Hamlet thinks he will be able to see if his uncle is guilty by the look on his face during the show. During the show, Claudius runs out of the room and Hamlet believes this is evidence of his guilt.

As Hamlet and his mother Gertrude argue about his behavior, Polonius cries out when he thinks Hamlet is harming her and is killed by Hamlet, who thinks he is actually Claudius. The ghost reappears and Gertrude sees Hamlet talking to himself and comes to believe her son to be mentally unstable. Claudius becomes afraid that Hamlet might kill him and sends Hamlet on a trip to secretly have him killed. However, Hamlet is wiser and his two escorts, Rosencratz and Guildenstern, are killed instead.

Ophelia is upset about the death of her father and begins acting strangely and eventually drowns herself. Her brother, Laertes, is upset about his sister's behavior and his father's death and is convinced by Claudius that his father's death was caused by Hamlet. Claudius decides to hold a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes poisons his sword so that Hamlet would surely die if scratched. Claudius also creates a backup plan to poison Hamlet's wine if he fails to be killed in the duel. Hamlet is scratched by the sword but does not die right away. Unfortunately for Claudius, Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine and Hamlet kills Laertes with the poisoned sword. In his dying breath, Laertes informs Hamlet of Claudius' plans to kill him. Hamlet then stabs Claudius with the sword and makes him drink the poisoned wine. Before his death, Hamlet announces a new heir to the throne and asks Horatio to tell the story of what happened. The new heir to the throne, Fortinbras, has Hamlet's body buried with honor.

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