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Free Study Guide-Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Free Book Notes Summary
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The basic structure of the plot of Hamlet is remarkably simple; a wrong occurs and the hero seeks revenge to make it right. In the process, everyone is destroyed. Shakespeare develops the plot of his "revenge" tragedy in classical form. Act I is largely expository in nature, introducing the main characters and the conflict. Acts II, III, and IV contain the rising action of the plot as the conflict develops, largely in Hamlet's mind. Act V contains the climax, a short period of falling action, and the denouement, or conclusion, in which Fortinbras takes control of Denmark to bring order to the country once again.

The genre of "revenge tragedy" or "tragedy of blood" was immensely popular among English Elizabethan dramatists. In typical revenge tragedies, such as Hamlet, the plot arises largely out of a situation for which the hero is not responsible. Additionally, even though the hero may have a tragic flaw that contributes to his downfall, he is usually undone by circumstances over which he has no control. Accordingly in Hamlet, the crime that calls for vengeance has already been committed before the play begins. The real cause of the tragedy is the evil and intolerable situation surrounding Claudius' murder of Hamlet's father, the King. As Hamlet tries to find a way to avenge his father's death, murder, madness, and ghosts are all brought to the front of the stage, creating interest and tension in the audience.

The plot of the play is not complex. It progresses in a linear fashion, with all events happening in chronological order. There are a few flashbacks, as when Hamlet recounts the events that happened on the ship some time after they occurred, but they are easily followed and understood. The play-within-a-play even functions as a flashback as it reveals how Claudius has murdered the late King Hamlet. There are also many foreshadowings to indicate what will happen later in the play; for example, the stabbing of Polonius foreshadows the stabbing of Claudius and the victorious return of Fortinbras foreshadows his ascension to the Danish throne.

The climax of the plot is a masterfully written conclusion to a tense drama dominated by internal and external conflict. All of Act V is filled with dramatic irony, as many of the characters, as well as the audience, know that Laertes' sword is unscathed and bears a poison tip; also they are aware that the wine for Hamlet to drink has been poisoned by Claudius. Only Hamlet and his naïve mother seem to be unawa re of the tragedy that is to unfold. The entire scene is made more tense by the fact that Hamlet at first seems to winning the conflict -- making the first two strikes, remaining untouched by Laertes' foil, and refusing to drink the poisoned wine. In presenting a recovered Hamlet, now acting with determination and control, Shakespeare hints that tragedy may be avoided. Unfortunately, the tragic hero has procrastinated too long, and the rotten state of Denmark seems to have affected everyone. As a result all must die; Hamlet is stabbed by the poisoned sword, Laertes is killed by Hamlet, Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine and dies, and Claudius finally gets his just rewards when Hamlet drives the poisoned sword into his flesh and forces him to drink from the poisoned wine. Fortunately, Horatio is left behind to explain the villainy of Claudius and the innocence of Hamlet; additionally, a savior, in the person of Fortinbras, is left to restore order to the corrupt state of Denmark.


The Theme of Vengeance

The main theme in Hamlet is one of vengeance and family honor. Initially Fortinbras is the representation of vengeance. Hamlet's father, the late King, has defeated Fortinbras' father in battle. As a result, young Fortinbras aspires to recover the lands and power lost by his father as a way of honoring and avenging him. Though he eventually finds another means of vengeance, his example is duly felt. Hamlet does not act as quickly as Fortinbras; his own indecision and fear paralyze him. Eventually his revenge occurs, but at great cost to all. The irony is that Hamlet, by fulfilling his revenge, has destroyed the family whose honor he sought to avenge. His mother and he both perish, as well as the woman who would have willingly borne his children. Laertes is the third son to avenge a father, but he, too, causes great destruction. He allows his base emotions to rule him, and he becomes a cohort of the evil Claudius. Rather than approach vengeance as a task to be carried out in the most acceptable fashion, Hamlet and Laertes fix themselves on murder as the only means of revenge. Unfortunately, this decision ultimately destroys them both.

Appearance vs. Reality

Shakespeare also examines his favorite theme of the discrepancy between appearance and reality. The dilemma of what is "real" is established at the very beginning of the play. The dead King appears to have been bitten by a snake. In reality, he has been poisoned. The Ghost appears as an apparition from the depths of hell; in truth, he is the medium of reality, revealing the facts to Hamlet. Since Hamlet doubts the veracity of the Ghost's revelation, he decides to put on the appearance of being mad; in the process he really drives Ophelia mad, causing her death. At times it also seems that Hamlet's appearance of madness has become a reality. The duel scene also presents an appearance vs. reality. The duel appears to be an innocent competition between two rivals; in reality, it is a deadly match that causes the death of the four main characters. The most obvious, and perhaps the most clever, symbol of "Appearance vs. Reality" is the play-within-a-play. The actors, representing mythical figures, appear onstage and act out the events that have happened in reality. Hamlet carefully orchestrates this appearance so that he can gauge the degree of reality by Claudius' reaction. In summary, the theme of appearance vs. reality is so well developed that everything in the play must be questioned, for nothing appears certain.

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Free Study Guide-Hamlet by William Shakespeare-Free Online Plot Synopsis


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