Hamlet deeply depressed over the recent death of his father, King Hamlet, and his uncle Claudius’ ascension to the throne and hasty marriage to Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. One night, his father’s ghost appears to him and tells him that Claudius murdered him in order to usurp the throne, and commands his son to avenge his death.
Claudius sends for two of Hamlet’s friends from Wittenberg, to find out what is causing Hamlet so much pain. Claudius and his advisor Polonius persuade Ophelia — Polonius’ daughter and Hamlet’s love interest — to speak with Hamlet while they secretly listen. Hamlet enters, contemplating suicide (“To be, or not to be“). Ophelia greets him, and offers to return his remembrances (tokens of his love interest), upon which Hamlet questions her honesty and tells her to “get thee to a nunnery” (a suggestion of either erotic criticism of hypersexuality, or of escape from the Danish succession crisis that will become bloody.)
Hamlet devises a test to see whether Claudius is guilty: he hires a group of actors to perform a play about the murder of a king in front of the royal court, and has Horatio gauge Claudius’ reaction. Claudius demands the play be stopped half through because it causes him to experience guilt. When Claudius leaves the on stage “audience” deeply upset, Hamlet knows that the ghost was telling the truth. He follows Claudius into his chambers in order to kill him, but stops when he sees his uncle praying; he does not want to kill Claudius while he is in a state of grace because Hamlet wants Claudius to suffer in purgatory and Claudius has just attempted to cleanse his sin through confession. A second attempt on Claudius’ life ends in Polonius’ accidental death.
To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.
There’s the respect
That makes Calamity of so long life:
For who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time,
The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s Contumely, [F: poore]
The pangs of dispised Love, the Law’s delay, [F: dispriz’d]
The insolence of Office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th’unworthy takes,
When he himself might his Quietus make
With a bare Bodkin? Who would Fardels bear, [F: these Fardels]
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of Resolution
Is sicklied o’er, with the pale cast of Thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment, [F: pith]
With this regard their Currents turn awry, [F: away]
And lose the name of Action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia? Nymph, in thy Orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.