The main setting is Elsinore Castle in eastern Denmark, on the Oresund strait separating the Danish island of Sjælland (Zealand) from the Swedish province of Skåne and linking the Baltic Sea in the south to the Kattegat Strait in the north. Elsinore is a real town. Its Danish name is Helsingor. In Shakespeare's time, Elsinore was an extremely important port that fattened its coffers by charging a toll for ship passage through the Oresund strait. Modern Elsinore, or Helsingor, is directly west of a Swedish city with a similar name, Helsingborg (or Hälsingborg). Within the city limits of Elsinore is Kronborg Castle, said to be the model for the Elsinore Castle of Shakespeare' play. Construction on the castle began in 1574, when Shakespeare was ten, and ended in 1585, when Shakespeare was twenty-one. It is believed that actors known to Shakespeare performed at Kronborg Castle. Other settings in Hamlet are a plain in Denmark, near Elsinore, and a churchyard near Elsinore. Offstage action in the play (referred to in dialogue) takes place on a ship bound for England from Denmark on which Hamlet replaces instructions to execute him (see the plot summary below) with instructions to execute his traitorous companions, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Hamlet -- Plot Synopsis
After the death of his beloved father King Hamlet, a grief-stricken Prince Hamlet returns home from his studies in Wittenburg to the Danish court at Elsinore. Hamlet senior’s brother, Claudius, has assumed the old king’s place in more ways than one -- as ruler of Denmark and as a second husband to Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother--with less than two months having passed since the king’s death. The prince, profoundly disturbed by the shocking speed of these events, struggles to find meaning in his radically altered world.
The old king’s ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius and exhorts him to kill Claudius in revenge; Hamlet vows to think of nothing else, but his restless intellect soon plunges him into uncertainty about the rightness of the deed he’s sworn to do. He comes up with a plan to act as if he is mad to conceal his true intentions from the new king while he seeks concrete proof of his guilt. Hamlet had shown a romantic interest in Ophelia, but her father, Polonius, intervened, insisting she reject the prince’s attentions. Hamlet’s subsequent odd behaviour, especially with Ophelia, leads Polonius to conclude that he has been driven mad for want of her love. Claudius distrusts his step-son and sends to Wittenburg for two of his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hoping they will get Hamlet to reveal his true state of mind. Self-doubting and guilt-ridden about his failure to act on his vow of revenge, Hamlet seizes on the opportunity presented by the visit of a band of traveling players and has them reenact the death of the old king in front of the new. Claudius reacts violently to the play, giving Hamlet his proof and a renewed resolve to act, which he does later that night in his mother’s chamber when he mistakes an eavesdropping Polonius for Claudius, killing him. Hamlet’s murderous intentions now revealed, Claudius immediately acts to eliminate him. He sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; a secret letter Hamlet’s former friends carry will ensure his speedy execution by that country’s king. But Hamlet outsmarts his enemies and makes his way back to Denmark, only to find that Ophelia, driven mad by his rejection and her father’s murder, has drowned under circumstances that suggest suicide. Laertes, her brother, returns from university in Paris for her funeral. He vows vengeance against Hamlet for the deaths of his father and sister. Claudius and Laertes plot together against Hamlet, making arrangements for a duel between the young men that isn’t what it appears to be: both Laertes’s sword and a cup of wine to be offered by the king are poisoned. Hamlet is cut by Laertes’ s poisoned sword, but winds up exchanging his own sword for it as the duel progresses. Queen Gertrude accidentally drinks the poisoned wine and dies. Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned sword; he reveals the plot and forgives Hamlet for the death of Polonius before he dies. In his last few moments of life Hamlet kills Claudius. Fortinbras, the valiant prince of Norway, is Hamlet’s chosen successor to the Danish throne.
There will be 18 actors in this NAC production of Hamlet, nine of whom will take on other roles in addition to being members of the troupe of travelling players.
Major Characters: The Older Generation
Claudius: The antagonist of the play and the new king of Denmark. Claudius is the “smiling, damned villain” of the piece, a devious, lustful, and corrupt politician and master manipulator of people and circumstances. Despite the darkness in his soul, his seemingly genuine love for Gertrude and his pangs of conscience over his crimes add a more sympathetic dimension to his personality.
Gertrude: The Queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother.
Gertrude’s secret affair with Claudius, her brother-in-law, culminates in their very public marriage. While Gertrude is a loving mother to Hamlet, her excessive sensuality and desire for social status motivate her immoral behaviour.
Polonius: Lord Chamberlain of the Danish court and counselor to King Claudius. Polonius is the suspicious and controlling father of Ophelia and Laertes. He is a self-important, rather bumbling schemer and Claudius’ chief spy against Hamlet.
The Ghost: The spirit of King Hamlet, the prince’s murdered father. The Ghost calls upon Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing Claudius, his uncle/step-father/king, but the true origin of this spirit is never made clear. Hamlet fears it may be have been sent by the devil to manipulate him into performing an evil act. Shakespeare is said to have played this role in the firstproduction of Hamlet. Major Characters: The Younger Generation
Hamlet: The protagonist of the play and prince of Denmark.
He is around 30 years old when the play opens. Hamlet is the natural son of Queen Gertrude and the recently deceased old king from whom he takes his name. As a result of his mother’s hasty remarriage to Claudius, her former brother-in-law, Hamlet’s former uncle is now also his step-father and the new king. Hamlet’s keen wit, intellectual gifts, and natural tendency to question things make him an ideal candidate for the studies he has pursued at university in Wittenburg, but the events that bring him back home to Elsinore Castle have left him cynical and embittered.
Horatio: Hamlet’s one true friend and trusted ally.
They attended university in Wittenburg together. He has a calm, skeptical, and dispassionate outlook that helps to balance Hamlet’s intellectual and emotional excesses. Hamlet entrusts him with the task of telling his story to the world after his death.
Ophelia: Polonius’ young, beautiful, and emotionally vulnerable daughter, sister to Laertes and Hamlet’s love interest until he ruthlessly rejects her. Dutiful and obedient, Ophelia passively accepts her father’s and brother’s commands to reject Hamlet’s advances. She allows herself to be used as bait in the trap Polonius lays to spy on Hamlet. Her madness and subsequent death fuel her brother’s desire to take revenge on Hamlet.
Laertes: Son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia.
Laertes’ rash and action-oriented approach to seeking revenge against Hamlet in the last acts of the play contrasts sharply with Hamlet’s brooding hesitancy over killing Claudius. In this way Laertes is a far more typical revenge tragedy figure than Hamlet.
Fortinbras: The young prince of Norway.
His father, King Fortinbras, was slain by Hamlet’s father in one-on-one combat on the day Hamlet was born. His fate is parallel to Hamlet’s in that both have had their rightful place on the throne of their respective countries usurped by uncles. A military man of action whose name means “strength in arms,” Fortinbras responds to his fate by raising an army and marching off to do battle. He becomes Hamlet’s chosen successor to the Danish throne in the final scene of the play.*
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Former university friends of Hamlet who are brought to Elsinore by Claudius to try to find out the true cause of Hamlet’s apparent madness. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are pawns in a deadly game of political intrigue and revenge that they never fully comprehend.
Reynaldo: servant to Polonius sent by him to spy on Laertes at school in Paris.
Marcellus and Barnardo: officers of the watch who first see the Ghost.
Francisco, Cornelius: ambassadors to Norway who divert young Fortinbras impending attack through diplomacy and negotiation
Osric, Lords, Gentlemen: courtiers at Elsinore castle
A Troupe of Players: actors whose performance at court Hamlet uses to prove to himself Claudius’s guilt.
First Clown, a gravedigger, and Second Clown, his assistant: men who, unbeknownst to Hamlet, are digging a grave for Ophelia
Captain in the Norwegian army: tells Hamlet of Fortinbras valour
Lords, Attendants, Sailors, Soldiers, Guards