Last-Minute Revision Notes: Hamlet, Shakespeare for A Level

June 27, 2018

Key Characters:

Hamlet - The Prince of Denmark

King Hamlet - The recently dead King of Denmark, Hamlet’s father

Gertrude - King Hamlet’s widow and Prince Hamlet’s mother

Claudius - King Hamlet’s brother, the new king, and now Gertrude’s new husband

Horatio - A friend of Prince Hamlet

Fortinbras - The Prince of Norway 

Polonius - A lord and friend of Claudius 

Laertes - Polonius’s son

Ophelia - Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s love interest. 

 

Plot Summary:

 

Act I

Scene i

The play starts in Elsinore Castle in Denmark with a group of watchmen. 

Bernardo comes to relieve Francisco. 

Bernardo is then joined by Marcellus and Horatio, a friend of Prince Hamlet. The two watchmen tell Horatio they want him to stay and see the apparition they have seen the past few nights--a ghost of dead King Hamlet. 

Indeed, the ghost appears for a moment and Horatio agrees that it looks just like the dead King. He thinks it is a sign of bad times to come to Denmark. 

They agree to tell Prince Hamlet about this, in hopes the apparition would speak to him.

 

Scene ii

The next day, King Claudius tells his court about his recent marriage to Gertrude, his brother’s widow and the mother of Prince Hamlet. 

He also says that the Norwegian Fortinbras has demanded the land back that King Hamlet won from them. He dispatches two men with a message for the King of Norway. 

Laertes, son of Lord Chamberlain, Polonius, says that he wishes to return to France, where he used to live, and Claudius gives is approval. 

Claudius and Gertrude ask Hamlet to stay in Denmark, rather than return to his studies abroad, and he agrees. 

When everyone has left, Hamlet cries that he wishes he could take his own life. He remembers how much his parents loved one another, and is upset to see his mother marrying his uncle so quickly. 

 

Scene iii

Laertes is preparing to leave for France. 

He speaks to his sister, Ophelia, and warns her not to fall in love with Hamlet. Because of their different positions, they may never be able to marry.

Polonius enters to bid his son farewell. He then asks Ophelia what they spoke of. She tells him that Hamlet has told her he loves her. Polonius tells her to stay away from Hamlet, and he is deceiving her. 

 

Scene iv

Hamlet is keeping watch with Horatio and Marcellus. 

The apparition of King Hamlet appears and beckons him to follow, and he goes into the darkness. 

Worried, Horatio and Marcellus follow after him.

 

Scene v

King Hamlet’s ghost says that he was murdered by Claudius.

Horatio and Marcellus arrive, and Hamlet tells them they cannot speak to anyone about what has happened, and warns them he may pretend to be a madman. 

 

Act II

 

Scene i

Ophelia tells Polonius that Hamlet accosted her, and Polonius believes he must be madly in love with her. 

 

Scene ii

Gertrude has sent for two of Hamlet’s friends from university, in hopes they can discover why he has been acting so strangely. 

Polonius informs Claudius that the Norwegian King said they will never attack the Danes, and instead request permission to travel through Denmark in order to attack the Poles. 

Polonius then says that he believes Hamlet is madly in love with Ophelia, and wishes to test his theory. When Hamlet walks by, he speaks to him alone, but Hamlet acts mad and Polonius leaves. 

Hamlet’s friends from university enter, and Hamlet confides in them that he is merely acting mad, but trying to deceive his mother and Claudius. 

Players come to give a performance, and Hamlet tells them he will arrange something for them to perform the next day. He decides to write a play about the death of a king, in hopes of shaking Claudius. 

 

Act III

 

Scene i

Claudius and Polonius hide to spy on Hamlet when Ophelia comes to talk to him. 

She tells him that she wishes to return his token of love, but he grows angry and says he may have never loved her at all, and urges her to shy from sin. He works himself up, until saying he wishes to end all marriages and storms off. 

Claudius believes his madness is not from love of Ophelia, and wishes to send him to England to clear his head. Polonius asks to spy on him further. 

 

Scene ii

It’s the night of the play, and Hamlet pretends to act even more mad around his family. 

The play is an exact copy of how King Hamlet’s ghost described the murder. 

When they reach the part where the murder pours poison in the king’s ear, Claudius cries out for the play to stop and flees. 

Hamlet’s mother calls for him.

 

Scene iii

Claudius is shaken by the play, and reflects that he has done a terrible thing by killing his brother. Still, he is not willing to confess or give up what he has gained. 

Hamlet sneaks into the room, intent on killing Claudius, but decides he will only do so when Claudius is sinning, not when he is vulnerable. 

 

Scene iv

Hamlet meets his mother in her room, where Polonius is spying on them. The queen berates Hamlet, but Hamlet shames her for marrying a murderer and her husband’s brother. 

Polonius makes noise, and, surprised, Hamlet stabs at the tapestry where he is hiding, killing him. 

The ghost of King Hamlet appears again, but Gertrude cannot see it, and thinks Hamlet mad when he speaks to it. The ghost tells Hamlet he has not yet succeeded in killing Claudius. 

Hamlet tells his mother his madness has been an act. 

 

Act IV

 

Scene i

Gertrude tells Claudius about what has happened, and Claudius says they must send Hamlet to England at once. 

 

Scene ii

Hamlet’s friends from university find him, but he calls them traitors. He goes with them to Claudius.

 

Scene iii

Hamlet is brought to Claudius who demands he tell them where Polonius’s body is. 

Hamlet leaves with his friends for England. 

Claudius reveals that he has requested Hamlet be put to death when he reaches England. 

 

Scene iv

Hamlet encounters Prince Fortinbras on his way to the ship.

He is amazed the Norwegian army will fight a bloody battle for hardly any land, while he is hesitant to kill for a fit revenge. 

 

Scene v

Ophelia appears to have gone mad

Laertes returns from France with a mob who call him “lord”. He is furious at his father’s death.

Claudius tells him what has happened, and encourages him to get revenge on Hamlet. 

 

Scene vi

Horatio gets a letter from Hamlet saying their ship was taken by pirates and they are returning to Denmark.

 

Scene vii

Laertes and Claudius hear that Hamlet is coming back, and devise a plan to kill him. They decide Laertes will challenge him to a duel, and put poison on the tip of his sword. If that does not kill him, they will give him a cup of poison to drink when he wins the duel.

News comes that Ophelia has drowned herself.

 

Act V

 

Scene i

Hamlet looks on as gravediggers prepare a grave for Ophelia. He wonders who the grave is for (as he does not know Ophelia died). 

Laertes cried at her grave, and Hamlet realizes who has died. He jumps from his hiding place, and declares his love for her. 

 

Scene ii

Hamlet tells Horatio how we switched out the letter his friends carried to England with instructions for his death for a letter that instructed their own death. 

A messenger tells Hamlet the King has bet on Hamlet winning a duel with Laertes, and Hamlet agrees. 

Claudius tells him that if he strikes Laertes, he will raise a cup to him and give him wine (wine which he has poisoned). 

Hamlet strikes, but refuses the wine. Gertrude drinks instead, before Claudius can stop her. 

Laertes hits Hamlet with the poisoned sword. Hamlet manages to strike Laertes with his own sword. Both Laertes and Gertrude die. 

In rage, Hamlet attacks Claudius and kills him. 

Hamlet tells Horatio he is dying, and says Fortinbras should be made king. 

 

Themes:

 

Death -The play touches on death in many ways--from the ghost of King Hamlet to the physical skulls and graveyard. He also thinks on suicide often, and is conflicted about the right and wrong of it. Ophelia does take her own life, leaving viewers to reflect on her death. The famous line, “To be or not to be” is Hamlet reflecting on suicide. He concludes that no one would choose to live if they were not so afraid of death. 

 

Madness - Throughout the play, Hamlet acts mad. In doing so, he can appear harmless while investigating his father’s murder. As the play goes on, Hamlet seems to act madder and madder, to the point that we don’t know if his madness is still an act, or if he has driven himself to madness by pretending so. 


Barbara Njau



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