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Hamlet in acts

Showing Shakepeare's Hamlet broken into acts to see the underlying structure.


Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's most celebrated plays. It has, allegedly, been perfomed more often than any other work of theatre in human history. Shakespeare divided his plays into acts but, strangely, didn't give a great deal of thought to the way his work would be performed on screen. Breaking Hamlet into the three-act structure makes for a slightly unbalanced script, but instructive all the same.

The reason to analyse such well-known stories is simply that anyone looking to cement their understanding of screenplay structure can find examples with which they are thoroughly familiar. The reason to examine Shakespeare is because nobody has ever equalled him in the delicate balancing act of structure, plot, character and dialogue. He is, simply, the best public storyteller the world has yet seen.

Act 1

Hamlet and Horatio are introduced. Hamlet is the son of the recently deceased King of Denmark, Horatio an old friend. Horatio has come to Denmark, like Hamlet, to attend the King's funeral, which has, with unseemly haste, led to Hamlet's uncle, the late King's brother, marrying the widow and assuming the throne. Hamlet came from studies overseas to his home and has been back in Denmark for more than a month.

Hamlet is in deep mourning, something that lowers the tone at a feast in the evening. His uncle tells him to cheer up but Hamlet is unmoved. The feast introduces the other essential characters into the plot. Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, Polonius, an elderly statesman of the court, his lovely daughter Ophelia and his noble son, Laertes. Hamlet, agrees under pressure to remain in Denmark and not return to his studies. After the feast, Hamlet is told by Horatio and some guardsmen that they have seen the ghost of his father at night. Hamlet spends the night with them to see if he can see this ghost as well.

Laertes departs for France, after giving Ophelia advice to keep clear of Hamlet, who has made it clear he's very attracted to her. She likes Hamlet as well, but her father also tells her not to pursue the Prince.

Hamlet sees his father's ghost and the ghost tells him that he was murdered by his brother, the Uncle. The ghost demants Hamlet avenge his death, Hamlet agrees.

Act 2

Ophelia tells her father that a raving Hamlet appeared at her door the night before. Polonius thinks Hamlet is maddened by love for Ophelia and decides to take the matter up with the King and Queen. Meanwhile the Royal couple are welcoming two of Hamlet's friends, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstren, to court. They have been invited to spend time with Hamlet and find out why he's so gloomy. An ambassador of the court then enters to pass the news that Fortenbras, the Prince of Norway, has been ordered by his King to abandon his plans to invade Denmark. Instead he will thake his army to invade Poland, the message includes a request that the army be allowed to pass through Denmark on its way to Poland.

Polonius explains his theory of Hamlet's condition, then talks with Hamlet to find out more. Hamlet exaggerates his madness for Polonius, mostly so he can hurl insults at him without causing real offence. Hamlet welcomes Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, but quickly realises why they're in Denmark. They inform Hamlet they've brought a travelling company of actors to court. Hamlet does reveal, in true honesty, that he is suffering from severe depression, in one of the most eloquent descriptions of the condition ever written.

Hamlet speaks with the actors privately, agreeing a plot to stage a play, with revisions by Hamlet, that will show on stage a scene similar to the fratricide Hamlet wants to avenge. The idea is that he will watch Claudius' reaction when the crucial moment is performed. He's looking for guilt.

Polonius tells Ophelia to return Hamlet's gifts to her. Meanwhile Hamlet thinks about suicide.

When Ophelia brings the gifts to Hamlet he accuses her of immodesty, essentially of leading him on. Witnessing this, Polonius now believes Hamlet isn't mad with love for Ophelia.

The play is performed, with Hamlet's alterations, and at the crucial moment, when the murder is depicted, Claudius jumps up and leaves the room, Hamlet believes now that the ghost's story is true, that Claudius killed his father. Claudius muses to himself that repentance is impossible for him since to repent he must first give up his gains, crown and wife. Hamlet finds him praying, and chooses not to kill him, because he thinks if he dies while at prayer he will go to heaven, while the ghost remains in purgatory having been murdered before he atoned for his own sins.

Hamlet argues with his mother, during the argument he hears a noise of someone hiding behind a tapestry. Believing it must be Claudius he stabs the tapestry, only to find he has killed Polonius. The ghost appears and rebukes Hamlet, Gertrude can't see the ghost and is utterly convinced of Hamlet's madness. Hamlet hides Polonius' body, though it is quickly found when he's questioned as to its wherabouts. Claudius, fearing that Hamlet will kill him sends him to England with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern and a letter to the King of England asking that Hamlet be executed on arrival.

Act 3

Ophelia suffers from desperate depression after her father's death. Laertes returns to court and confronts Claudius. Claudius tells him Hmalet is responsible and implies that the matter is already taken care of. Immediately, however, a letter arrives to tell them that Hamlet has returned. Claudius worries that Hamlet may tell Laertes more of what happened, so he offers to arrange a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes to settle their difference. The match is intended to be non-lethal, but Laertes will use a poisoned foil and, should that fail, Claudius will give Hamlet poisoned wine. News arrives that Ophelia has drowned, nobody is sure if it's accidental or suicide.

Hamlet arrives at court in time to witness Ophelia's funeral. He and Laertes fight at the graveside but it's broken up. The formal challenge to the fencing match is delivered.

During the fencing Hamlet moves to an early lead, two hits to nothing, and with the bout set to end at three hits, Laertes is desperate. Hamlet has refused the cup of poisoned wine, wanting to focus on the fight. Gertrude toasts her son, using the poisoned wine. Laertes, worried he might not get a hit before the match is over, cuts Hamlet with his blade when he's not ready. Hamlet turns on him, a brawl develops and in the confusion their swords are dropped. Hamlet, not knowing it's poisoned, picks up Laertes' sword and pursues him, scoring the third hit.

Gertrude collapses and dies, revealing the poisoned cup. Laertes, dying, reveals the plot's details. Hamlet stabs Claudius, before falling. Hamlet, hearing that Norwegial Prince Fortenbras is nearby, names him a successor to the Danish throne. After Hamlet dies news arrives from England that Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are dead, Hamlet having found the letter from Claudius and replaced it with one asking the English King to kill his companions instead of himself. Fortenbras arrives and takes the throne, Horatio telling him he'll recount the story of how the entire Danish Royal Family died.


Hamlet is a classic tragedy. Our protagonist dies, in esence, through his own drive for vengeance. We don't know if the ghost he sees is even real, after all, Gertrude can't see it. He is frequently described as mad, but these days we know more about depression and his description of his mood is very accurate for that diagnosis.

So, in the third act all the loose ends are tied up. The ending is almost inevitable once Laertes returns, only Ophelia's death can be seen as extraneous to the main plot, but it too adds to the pressure on the duel.

So, eventually, the flaws in human condition mean that not only the evildoers, but everyone, is caught up in the orgy of death at the end. Tragedy must be inevitable, and this is, once the second act is complete the characters are rushing to their end. By modern standards the second act is long and the first act is short, and rather convenient, putting everyone around a banquet table.

"A wide screen just makes a bad film twice as bad."

Samuel Goldwyn