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.
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.
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.)
Teacher & student resources
Created by teachers and curated by the Folger, these teaching modules can help you with Hamlet in the classroom:
- “To be or not to be”: Close Reading Hamlet’s Soliloquy
- Enter Players: Pre-reading Hamlet
- A Guilty Gertrude: Performing Spoken and Silent Moments in Hamlet
- Paparazzi Shakespeare: Ophelia’s Madness Revealed!