McCarter play synopses are provided to help inform curious or potential audience members about the story content of our plays in production. They are fairly detailed in their description of a play’s events. Some may want to read the overview of the story of Hamlet below before the performance, while others may skip the synopsis to avoid the revelation of plot points before experiencing the play in performance. The choice is up to you!
Hamlet has returned home to Elsinore Castle in Denmark to mourn the death of his father. In the two months since his father has passed, his mother, Queen Gertrude, has married the late King’s brother, Claudius, who is now the King. Hamlet is perturbed by the series of events and senses foul play. Denmark also faces the threat of Young Fortinbras who has been in control of the Norwegian army since his father was killed in combat by King Hamlet.
Hamlet learns from his friend, Horatio, that a ghost resembling the late King has been visiting the castle in the dead of the night. Hamlet sets out the next evening determined to see the Ghost for himself. Sure enough, the Ghost appears and reveals to his son that he was murdered by Claudius. The Ghost implores Hamlet to avenge his death, and Hamlet swears to take action.
Meanwhile, Laertes, son of the Claudius’ dutiful advisor Polonius, prepares to leave Elsinore Castle and return to France. He bids farewell to his dear sister, Ophelia, and warns her to protect herself against Hamlet’s romantic advances. Polonius shares his son’s reservations about Hamlet and orders Ophelia to cease all contact with him.
Since seeing his father’s ghost, Hamlet appears depressed and develops a miserable temper. Concerned by this mercurial attitude, Claudius and Gertrude call upon Hamlet’s school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to return to Elsinore to determine what is troubling him. Polonius tells the King and Queen that Hamlet’s madness has been caused by Ophelia’s rejection, but they are not convinced.
When Hamlet comes across Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he quickly suspects that Claudius has enlisted them to determine the root of his ill temper, which only increases the prince’s frustration with his step-father. Before they can discover anything, a troupe of actors arrives at the castle. Hamlet asks the company to stage a play that mirrors the supposed circumstances of his father’s murder, as described to him by the Ghost. He plans to observe Claudius as he watches the play to determine if his uncle’s reaction demonstrates a guilty conscience.
Still suspicious of Hamlet’s changed behavior, Polonius suggests that he and Claudius spy on the young prince in conversation with Ophelia. Polonius plants his daughter in the hallway where she is shortly discovered by Hamlet. In their conversation, Hamlet denies having any feelings for Ophelia, harshly accuses her of being wanton, and tells her to go to a nunnery.
After this exchange, the court at Elsinore gathers for the play. When the murder plot is revealed, Claudius grows distressed and orders the actors to cease performing. Shortly after, Hamlet finds the King kneeling in prayer. Poised to stab the King and avenge his father’s death, Hamlet stops himself, fearful that if he kills his uncle mid-prayer, Claudius will go to heaven.
Following the performance, Gertrude calls Hamlet to her room where mother and son quickly fall into a heated exchange about the death of King Hamlet and Gertrude’s hasty marriage to Claudius. During the argument, Hamlet hears a noise from behind a curtain and stabs at the hidden figure. Hamlet thinks it is Claudius, but it is in fact Polonius. Polonius dies. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father reappears briefly to remind him of his vengeful purpose. The Ghost goes unseen by Gertrude, which causes her to believe that her son has become unbalanced. Hamlet drags Polonius’ body out of the room, leaving his mother alone.
Growing desperate and paranoid, Claudius sends Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England where he has ordered his nephew’s death. Hamlet discovers Claudius’ plot en route and replaces his name in the execution order with that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He leaves them to die while he heads back to Denmark.
Back at Elsinore, Ophelia has become mad with grief over the death of her father. When Laertes returns from France, his own grief, coupled with the pain of seeing his sister so unhinged, makes him susceptible to Claudius’ plotting. The King convinces Laertes to avenge Polonius’ death by dueling against Hamlet with a poisoned blade. Once Gertrude arrives with news of Ophelia’s death, Laertes becomes even more determined to avenge his family.
Hamlet accepts Laertes’ challenge and the court gathers for the duel. In addition to poisoning Laertes’ blade, Claudius poisons Hamlet’s wine to ensure his nephew’s demise.
Spoiler alert! If you would like to read what happens next in the story and how the play ends, click here.
In the course of the duel, Gertrude drinks the wine intended for Hamlet. Laertes wounds Hamlet and then in a scuffle they switch swords and Hamlet wounds Laertes. Gertrude falls to the floor, proclaiming that the drink was poisoned, and dies. Laertes reveals to Hamlet that the blade of his sword was poisoned and that they both will die. Laertes cries that the King is to blame. Hamlet swiftly takes the poisoned sword and stabs Claudius, in his own death finally avenging that of his father.
An army is heard approaching, and as he dies, Hamlet tells Horatio to ensure that Fortinbras becomes King. Fortinbras then arrives, immediately takes charge, and orders that Hamlet’s body be given military honors.