The play opens up with some night watchmen seeing the ghost of the last king, who recently died. They set out to find the ghost’s son, Hamlet, and tell him. Then we’re introduced to the new king, who is the old king’s brother, and his queen, who was previously the first king’s wife and queen. We’re introduced to Laetes when he asks to depart for France, and his father, who grants him permission. We then finally see prince Hamlet himself, still mourning his late father, king Hamlet.
Some night watchmen see a ghost resembling the late king Hamlet, father to prince Hamlet, and go to tell him. Laertes asks king Claudius for permission to go to France, and Hamlet is told by Claudius and Gertrude to stay here with the royal family. Hamlet is pretty upset over his father’s death, and then receives word that said father’s ghost has been wandering around at night, and plans to see it for himself. Meanwhile, Laertes, preparing to leave, gives some advice to his sister Ophelia: Give up on loving Hamlet, for he does not truly love her, and he is bound to royal duties even if he did love her. Polonius arrives, and sends Laertes off with some fatherly advice, and then repeats his warning to Ophelia more intensely: she is innocent and will make a fool of herself. Ophelia agrees to obey. We then see Hamlet and the watchmen at night, searching for the ghost. When it arrives, Hamlet follows the ghost, which confirms his identity as the dead king and states that his brother, the current king Claudius, murdered him. Hamlet is told to get revenge for the “murder most foul.” In order to do this, he plans to pretend to go insane.
Ophelia comes to her father Polonius, speaking of his strange behavior since she’s spurned him. Polonius believes that unrequited love is the cause of it. Meanwhile, the king has brought some of Hamlet’s old friends here to meet with him to try and figure out what’s wrong. He sends them away and meets with Polonius, who tells the king of his theory. They plot to prove or disprove it, while Hamlet rebuffs his former friends and correctly guesses that they’re working for the king, and so tells them nothing. Then, actors arrive, and Hamlet arranges for them to preform a play, altered, in the hopes of proving the king’s guilt.
Before the play, the plot to see if Hamlet is mad from love plays out. Ophelia is instructed to return the letters to Hamlet while Claudius and Polonius secretly watch. Upon her doing so, Hamlet gets enraged and verbally lashes out before stalking away. Claudius believes that Hamlet is up to something, and plans to send him to England, whereas Polonius sticks with his theory. The play begins, with Hamlet and his friend Horatio watching Claudius for signs of guilt. In the meanwhile, Hamlet harasses Ophelia and bothers his mom, because he’s still pretty upset that she married his father’s brother. The king does eventually stand up and run out, which abruptly ends the play. Hamlet is told the king is angry, and his mother wishes to speak to him. He agrees to go, but first has some pretty clever wordplay while yelling at Rosencrantz, (or Guildenstern?) accusing him of trying t o play Hamlet like a pipe. Hamlet comes upon Claudius trying to pray, and thinks to kill him then, but hesitates because doing so then would send him to heaven, which isn’t a very good revenge. Thwarted, he goes to his mother, berates her for marrying her husband’s murderer, and stabs Polonius, who was hiding and listening, because Hamlet mistook him for the king. Just then, Hamlet sees the ghost again, who tells him, essentially, to stop yelling at his mother, who didn’t know she was marrying a murderer. As it turns out, Gertrude can’t see the ghost- only Hamlet can. With that, Hamlet leaves to stash the corpse.
It takes him a while to tell the others where Polonius’ body is hidden, and then Claudius sends Hamlet away to England at once, revealing to the audience that he’s planning to have Hamlet killed while there. Hamlet sees a Norwegian army marching to war while going, and strengthens his resolve to avenge his father. The king and queen learn that Ophelia has gone completely mad, and Laertes busts in, demanding revenge for his dead father. The king calms him down, learns that somehow Hamlet will be returning alive, and plots with Laertes to kill Hamlet, who killed Polonius- his resolve solidifies upon hearing that Ophelia has died. Horatio meets Hamlet and the two are heading back home when they see a funeral party. Hamlet leaps out and gets into a fight with Laetes once he learns that it was Ophelia’s funeral, and must be pulled away. Later, he tells Horatio how he learned of the plot to kill him and schemed to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed instead, and he also agrees to a fencing match against Laertes. It’s presented as friendly competition, but in fact Laertes uses a poison-tipped blade. While they duel, the queen drinks poison that was also meant for Hamlet, and shortly after Hamlet is scratched, steals the blade, and scratches Laertes in turn. The queen exclaims that she was poisoned with her dying breath, and Laertes admits his plot to Hamlet. Hamlet, enraged, stabs Claudius and force-feeds him the rest of the poisoned drink, killing him. Everybody is dying and Horatio, still alive, is feeling a little left out, and tries to join them- Hamlet stops him, telling Horatio he must live on to tell Hamlet’s story. The leader of the Norwegian army from earlier, Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, arrives to find a bunch of dead royal people and asks Horatio what happened, while also casually declaring himself the new ruler of the lands.
The play Hamlet has a tragic end because nearly all the main characters, minus Horatio, die. Our protagonist and hero, Hamlet, succeeds in killing Claudius only after forfeiting his own life, killing another man, dooming a third to die, and indirectly causing the death of his love, Ophelia. It’s not a very happy ending.