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Hamlet

First off, guess who’s playing Hamlet this fall on stage in London: Benedict Cumberbatch. And, guess who he played, in 2011, in a play and film – Victor Frankenstein! and, the monster. And of course of course – he is Sherlock. How did he know what we’d be reading this year?

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Here is an outline of where the scenes take place, who the characters are, and some action that might not be obvious. So much of what is going on is in the language itself, how the characters speak, so this is so you’re not wondering who the heck is this guy and why are they in a closet.

It’s not a summary, because the questions of why he’s doing what he’s doing, and right and wrong, are why it’s worth reading (and performing) 500 years later.

Act I

Scene 1

Elsinore – a castle in Denmark

Castle platform, night – FRANCISCO is a soldier, on guard. BERNARDO is his officer, coming to relieve him.

HORATIO, who is a nobleman and Hamlet’s friend, and MARCELLUS, who is another officer, come up. They see the ghost of the dead king, Hamlet’s father (also named Hamlet). He is in armour, and disappears when the cock crows.

Then you have some of the set up: MARCELLUS asks why all the preparation for war. King Hamlet had been at war with Fortinbras, the king of Norway, and killed him, and the deal was that Norway forfeited certain lands. Fortinbras’s son though is moving to get the lands back by force.

Scene 2

Castle throne room

KING, QUEEN, HAMLET (Prince Hamlet, son of the now deceased King Hamlet), POLONIUS (Chamberlain, an old and respected advisor), LAERTES (Polonius’s son), courtiers VOLTIMAND and CORNELIUS, and other lords and attendants.

KING tells how when his brother (King Hamlet) died, he married his dead brother’s wife, the Queen. He’s sending Voltemand and Cornelius to the king of Norway – Young Fortinbras’s uncle – who is bedridden – to see if he can call Young Fortinbras off.

LAERTES asks permission to go back to France to school.

KING asks Hamlet not to go back to school at Wittenberg.

HAMLET can’t get over his mother marrying his uncle so soon after the king’s death.

Everyone leaves but Hamlet, then HORATIO – who has come to Elsinore from Wittenberg, where they were going to school together – and BERNARDO and MARCELLUS (the officers) tell Hamlet about the ghost and invite him to come and try to talk to it.

Scene 3

Polonius’s house

POLONIUS, and his two children, LAERTES and OPHELIA.

He gives Laertes advice on conducting himself in France, and tells Ophelia that Hamlet can’t marry whomever he wants to, because he is royalty, and in any case don’t give him her heart – or body.

Scene 4

Castle walls again, Ghost appears, Hamlet follows it and the Ghost tells Hamlet he was murdered by his brother, and how. Tells Hamlet to get revenge.

Scene 5

Hamlet makes the others swear not to tell, and he starts acting crazy.

Act II

Scene 1

POLONIUS is telling his servant REYNALDO to go to France to spy on his son Laertes. OPHELIA comes in, says how Hamlet is wooing her. POLONIUS tells her not to have anything to do with him.

Scene 2

Castle. KING, QUEEN, and ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN, courtiers who had been friends with Hamlet, who have been summoned to try to figure out what’s wrong with Hamlet.

POLONIUS comes in, and Ambassadors VOLTIMAND and CORNELIUS who report that Young Fortinbras won’t attack Denmark but wants permission to go through Denmark on his way to fight Poland. POLONIUS says he’s figured out why Hamlet’s crazy, he’s in love with Ophelia. Suggests spying on Hamlet and Ophelia.

HAMLET and POLONIUS have an exchange. ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN come in, tell how a troupe of actors is coming. Then there seems to be a discussion of the theater in Shakespeare’s day. Players (theater company) come in, Hamlet requests a certain play. FIRST PLAYER recites part of a play, and is moved to tears. When it’s just Hamlet and the First Player, he asks if he can add some lines into the play they will perform at the castle.

When it’s just Hamlet, he berates himself for not having as much passion as the actor, who was moved to tears by the scene of the widow. Then he goes into his plan to confirm whether or not the ghost was telling the truth, see if his uncle will react to the murder reenacted in the play.

Act III

Scene 1

KING, QUEEN, POLONIUS, OPHELIA, ROZENCRANTZ, and GUILDENSTERN

King and Queen are quizzing Ros. and Guildenstern on why Hamlet’s acting crazy.

Then, the King and Polonius hide, to spy on Hamlet and Ophelia.

Hamlet’s soliloquy on suicide. Then Ophelia comes in and he’s nasty to her. King decides he has to get rid of Hamlet.

Scene 2

A hall in the castle.

HAMLET and the PLAYERS – Hamlet is coaching.

Hamlet confides his thinking, and his plan, to Horatio.

Everybody comes to watch the play. The “dumb show” is a pantomime, where they act out the technique used by Claudius (Hamlet’s uncle) to murder the king – by pouring poison in his ear while he was sleeping. Then in the play itself they act it out, and the King stops the play.

Hamlet is unmercifully messing with everybody.

Scene 3

KING, ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN

They plan to take Hamlet to England.

Polonius plans to spy on Hamlet and his mother.

The king is alone, and Hamlet has a chance to kill him, but doesn’t – reasoning that since his own father was killed before he had a chance to atone for his sins, and so went to Hell, he won’t kill the King when he’s praying, because then he might to go heaven.

Scene 4

The Queen’s closet (room). Hamlet accuses her, she calls for help, and Polonius calls out too, and Hamlet stabs him through the curtain he’s hiding behind. And drags the body away.

Act IV

Scene 1

A room in the castle – the Queen tells the King what Hamlet did, King sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find the body.

Scene 2

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet, he messes with them, but tells where the body is.

Scene 3

King is worried because Hamlet’s popular – so can’t just get rid of him. King’s plan is to tell the king of England to kill Hamlet, which he will do, because he is in fear of Denmark.

Scene 4

A plain in Denmark. Young Fortinbras sends a message to the King, to say he’s on his way through Denmark on his way to Poland.

Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern come in and talk to one of Fortinbras’s capains, who tells how they are going to Poland to fight for a piece of ground that’s basically worthless, just to do it.

HAMLET all alone, again feeling inadequate, how these guys are going to fight and maybe die just for the glory of it.

Scene 5

a room in the castle

Ophelia is officially crazy. King comes in, message that LAERTES (his father was Polonius) is back, and that the people want him to be king. Laertes comes in and he is pissed. Especially when Ophelia comes in and she’s crazy.

Scene 6

another room in the castle –

HORATIO and a sailor – with a letter from Hamlet to the King and to the Queen. Hamlet’s back.

Scene 7

another room in the castle

King tells Laertes that Hamlet killed Polonius. Gets Hamlet’s letter – how pirates boarded the ship, and Hamlet is back, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still on their way to England.

King and Laertes hatch a plan to kill Hamlet and make it look like an accident, by baiting him to a fencing match with Laertes – but, they will take the button off the end of Laertes’s foil, and, for good measure dip in poison with no antidote. And just to make sure, they’ll have a cup of poisoned wine, get Hamlet good and sweaty so he needs a drink.

News that Ophelia has died – in her insanity she was gathering flowers and weeds, and reaching for one fell in the water, and just lay in the water and sang until she sank.

Act V

Scene 1

a churchyard (graveyard)

Two clowns/gravediggers.

Hamlet and Horatio come up – repartee on how death is the great leveler.

They see Ophelia’s funeral. Since she’s presumed a suicide, they can’t have a full service. A graveside scene, pretty intense.

Scene 2

a hall in the castle

Hamlet tells Horatio how, on the ship to England, he stole the orders that R and G had, and saw that the order to the English king was to execute Hamlet. So he swapped it out with one telling the English king to execute R and G.

Then the fencing match, and it goes tragically, shall we say.

 

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