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Hamlet

Events before the start of Hamlet set the stage for tragedy. When the king of Denmark, Prince Hamlet's father, suddenly dies, Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, marries his uncle Claudius, who becomes the new king.

A spirit who claims to be the ghost of Hamlet's father describes his murder at the hands of Claudius and demands that Hamlet avenge the killing. When the councilor Polonius learns from his daughter, Ophelia, that Hamlet has visited her in an apparently distracted state, Polonius attributes the prince's condition to lovesickness, and he sets a trap for Hamlet using Ophelia as bait.

To confirm Claudius's guilt, Hamlet arranges for a play that mimics the murder; Claudius’s reaction is that of a guilty man.  Hamlet, now free to act, mistakenly kills Polonius, thinking he is Claudius. Claudius sends Hamlet away as part of a deadly plot.

After Polonius's death, Ophelia goes mad and later drowns. Hamlet, who has returned safely to confront the king, agrees to a fencing match with Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, who secretly poisons his own rapier. At the match, Claudius prepares poisoned wine for Hamlet, which Gertrude unknowingly drinks; as she dies, she accuses Claudius, whom Hamlet kills.  Then first Laertes and then Hamlet die, both victims of Laertes's rapier.
 

Early printed texts

The textual history of Hamlet is complicated. The play was first published in a quarto in 1603 (Q1) that differs in significant ways from subsequent editions: it is much shorter, the “To be or not to be” speech is in a different place, and many passages appear to be jumbled. Only two copies are known to have survived, now held at the British Library and the Huntington Library. (Facsimiles of those copies can be found in The Shakespeare Quartos Archive.) Most modern editions of the play are based on the texts of the Second Quarto (Q2), published in 1604, and the First Folio (F1), published in 1623. Q2 and F1 differ both from Q1 and from each other: there are passages that appear in one and not the other, F1 is shorter and omits most of 5.5, and there are smaller alterations throughout. Editors often choose to present a text that combines all the text that appears in Q2 and F1. The Folger Edition also combines Q2 and F1, but it indicates those parts that appear in only one of the two early texts: F1-only language is marked off by pointed brackets, and Q2-only language is set off in square brackets.

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opening of Hamlet in the Second Quarto
Item Title: 
The tragicall historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke
Item Call Number: 
STC 22276
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1604

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opening of Hamlet in the Third Quarto
Item Title: 
The tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke
Item Call Number: 
STC 22277 copy 1
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1611

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opening of Hamlet in the First Folio
Item Title: 
Works. 1623] Mr. William Shakespeares comedies, histories, & tragedies : published according to the true originall copies.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22273 Fo.1 no.68
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1623

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opening of Hamlet in the Fourth Quarto
Item Title: 
The tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke
Item Call Number: 
STC 22278 copy 1
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1625

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opening of Hamlet in the Second Folio
Item Title: 
Mr. VVilliam Shakespeares comedies, histories, and tragedies. : Published according to the true originall copies.
Item Call Number: 
STC 22274 Fo.2 no.07
Item Creator: 
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616.
Item Date: 
1632

Picturing Hamlet

As part of an NEH-funded project, the Folger digitized thousands of 18th-, 19th-, and early 20th-century images representing Shakespeare’s plays. Some of these images show actors in character, while others show the plays as if they were real-life events—telling the difference isn't always easy. A selection of images related to Hamlet is shown below, with links to our digital image collection.

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Painting of William Salter Herrick of Hamlet in Gertrude’s chamber (Act 3, scene 4; 1857)

The Ghost appearing to Hamlet in Gertrude’s chamber (Act 3, scene 4; 1857)

Item Title: 
Hamlet in the Queen's chamber [graphic]. by William Salter Herrick.
Item Call Number: 
FPa37
Item Creator: 
Herrick, William Salter, artist.
Item Date: 
1857

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Photograph of Julia Marlowe as a mad Ophelia (Act 4, Scene 5; late 19th or early 20th century)

Julia Marlowe as a mad Ophelia (Act 4, Scene 5; late 19th or early 20th century)

Item Title: 
[Julia Marlowe as Ophelia in Shakespeare's Hamlet] [graphic] / White.
Item Call Number: 
ART File M349.5 no.90 part 2 PHOTO (size M)
Item Creator: 
White Studio (New York, N.Y.), photographer.
Item Date: 
New York : [s.n., late 19th or early 20th century?]

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Johan Ramberg's painting of Ophelia drowning (Act 4, Scene 7; 1829)

Ophelia drowning (Act 4, Scene 7; 1829)

Item Title: 
Hamlet, IV, 7, Ophelia falling into the water [graphic] / [Johann Heinrich Ramberg].
Item Call Number: 
ART Box R167 no.5 (size L)
Item Creator: 
Ramberg, Johann Heinrich, artist.
Item Date: 
[1829?]

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Photograph of Edwin Booth in the role of Hamlet (mid to late 19th century)

Edwin Booth as Hamlet (mid to late 19th century)

Item Title: 
Edwin Booth [as Hamlet in Shakespeare's Hamlet] [graphic] / Sarony.
Item Call Number: 
ART File B725.4 no.61 part 3 PHOTO (size XS)
Item Creator: 
Sarony, Napoleon, 1821-1896, photographer.
Item Date: 
New York : [s.n., mid to late 19th century?]

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Lithograph of Charles Kean in the role of Hamlet (1838)

Charles Kean as Hamlet (1838)

Item Title: 
Mr. Charles Kean as Hamlet [in Shakespeare's Hamlet] [graphic] / A.E. Chalon, R.A. ; Edward Morton, lith.
Item Call Number: 
ART File K24 no.18 copy 1 (size L)
Item Creator: 
Morton, Edward, 19th cent., printmaker.
Item Date: 
London : Published by J. Mitchell, 1838.

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Drawing by John Austen of the Ghost appearing to Hamlet (Act 1, scene 4; early 20th century)

The Ghost appearing to Hamlet (Act 1, scene 4; early 20th century)

Item Title: 
Hamlet [a set of 121 original drawings] [graphic] / John Austen.
Item Call Number: 
ART Box A933 no.10 (size L)
Item Creator: 
Austen, John, artist.
Item Date: 
[not after 1922]

More images from Hamlet can be found in our digital image collection. (Because of how they were cataloged, some images from other plays might appear in the image searches linked here, so always check the sidebar to see if the image is described as part of a larger group.)