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Free Study Guide-Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes Summary
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KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS

SETTING

The play is set at Elsinore, the royal court of the King of Denmark. The play begins in the open battlements of the castle on a bitterly cold night, then shifts inside the castle to the formality and conventions of the court. A total of two scenes take place on the battlements; the rest occur in various locations inside the royal court, except for a brief scene at the cemetery.

CHARACTERS

Major Characters

Hamlet

The Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is the central character and protagonist of the play. His father, the King, has recently died, and his mother has remarried within weeks of his death, causing Hamlet great unhappiness. The ghost of his father tells him that he was murdered and that his uncle, the new King, is responsible. Hamlet becomes fixed on vengeance for his father and feigns insanity as a means of executing his plot.

Claudius

The present King of Denmark and Hamlet's uncle. He succeeds to the throne by murdering his brother and incestuously marrying his sister-in-law. He is devious and manipulative, except for one moment of fearful regret.

Gertrude

Hamlet's mother and the foolish, weak-willed Queen of Denmark. She is accidentally killed in the finale by drinking poisoned wine that Claudius intended for Hamlet.

Ophelia

Polonius' daughter. She loves Hamlet but is forbidden to see him at the request of her father. Later, when her father commands her to receive Hamlet, she is rejected. Hamlet's "madness" and her father's death are unbearable to her, and she has a breakdown. She drowns in the creek in what is probably a suicide.

Polonius

Ophelia's father and the Lord Chamberlain of Elsinore. He has an annoying habit of spying and eavesdropping. He is a pompous and wordy fool who is accidentally killed by Hamlet when he is mistaken for King Claudius.


Minor Characters

Horatio

Hamlet's loyal friend and confidante. He is a scholar and philosopher, as well as the first character to speak to the Ghost. He is the only person on whom Hamlet can rely in times of adversity. At the end of the play, Hamlet gives him the responsibility to "report me and my cause aright /To the unsatisfied."

Laertes

The hot-headed son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia. He is a man of action and represents a distinct contrast to Hamlet. He orders Ophelia not to reciprocate Hamlet's love. Near the end of the play, he challenges Hamlet to a duel to avenge the deaths of his father and sister. He willingly conspires with Claudius and uses a poisoned foil to ensure Hamlet's death. In the end, he confesses all to Hamlet before both men die.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - former friends of Prince Hamlet. They conspire with Claudius to spy on Hamlet. Their alliance with Claudius eventually leads to their deaths.

Fortinbras

Prince of Norway. He is an aggressive leader who longs to recover the lands and power lost by his father in a past battle with Denmark. Eventually, he is asked by Hamlet to rule Denmark in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Marcellus, Francisco, and Bernardo

Danish officers on watch on the battlements. They are the first to see the Ghost.

Osric

A foppish young courtier who organizes the duel between Hamlet and Laertes.

Voltimand and Cornelius

Danish courtiers who are sent to Norway by Claudius. They return to announce Fortinbras' friendship with Denmark.

Reynaldo

The patient and persevering servant of Polonius.

The Gravediggers

Clownish figures who dig Ophelia's grave and provide comic relief before the culminating tragic scene.

The Ghost of Hamlet's Father

An apparition that reveals how Claudius treacherously murdered him by pouring poison in his ear.

A group of strolling players

Traveling actors whom Hamlet enlists to re-enact the murder scene at the court.

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