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The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a tragedy written by William Shakespeare between 1599 and 1602. Set in the Kingdom of Denmark, the play dramatizes the revenge Prince Hamlet exacts on his uncle Claudius for murdering King Hamlet, who was Claudius's brother and Prince Hamlet's father, and then succeeding to the throne and taking as his wife Gertrude, the old king's widow and Prince Hamlet's mother. The play vividly portrays both true and feigned madness—from overwhelming grief to seething rage—and explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption.
The protagonist of Hamlet is Prince Hamlet of Denmark, son of the recently deceased King Hamlet, and nephew of King Claudius, his father's brother and successor. Claudius hastily married King Hamlet's widow, Gertrude, Hamlet's mother. Denmark has a long-standing feud with neighbouring Norway, and an invasion led by the Norwegian prince, Fortinbras, is expected.
The play opens on a cold winter midnight on "platform before the castle" of Elsinore, the Danish royal castle. The sentry Francisco is keeping trusty guard when two figures appear in the darkness. He calls out, "Who's there?" and receives answer that it is the other sentry Bernardo come to relieve him. As Francisco retires to bed, he encounters Horatio and Marcellus who are coming to visit Bernardo. Bernardo and Marcellus discuss the recent appearance of a curious intruder which they describe as a "dreaded sight" which they have already bumped into twice on the battlements, but which Horatio is inclined to dismiss as "but our fantasy." Marcellus has brought Horatio along to "watch the minutes of this night" in case the scary ghost appears again to fright. The ghost appears, and is described by the three witnesses as looking like the late King Hamlet. They endeavour to open a conversation with it, but "it is offended" and "stalks away." The three men take this opportunity to discuss Danish politics, noting that Denmark has begun military preparation because Fortinbras has "shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes / For food and diet." The ghost of Hamlet wanders back. When it declines to talk to them they attack it with daggers, but it escapes. Marcellus admits that this was a bad idea: "We do it wrong... to offer it the show of violence / For it is... invulnerable." They decide to tell prince Hamlet that his father's ghost is up and about.
The scene shifts to "room of state in the castle." Various royal figures come in. Claudius and Gertrude talk with Laertes about his upcoming trip to France. His father Polonius admits that he has signed off on this jaunt. The King and Queen then turn to Hamlet. Perturbed by Hamlet's continuing deep mourning for his father and his increasingly erratic behaviour, Claudius and Gertrude try to persuade him to lighten up. They tell him that fathers die all the time, but he does not appear comforted by this. When they leave, he soliloquizes that his mother jumped into a new marriage too quickly after the death of Hamlet's father. Marcellus, Horatio and the sentry come in and tell Hamlet about the castle Ghost. Hearing the news, Hamlet resolves to see the Ghost himself.
Claudius and Gertrude send two student friends of his—Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—to discover the cause of Hamlet's mood and behavior. Hamlet greets his friends warmly, but quickly discerns that they are spies. That night, the Ghost appears to Hamlet and tells him that Claudius murdered him by pouring poison in his ear. The Ghost demands that Hamlet avenge him; Hamlet agrees and decides to feign madness to avert suspicion. He is, however, uncertain of the Ghost's reliability.