The play is set in Elsinore Castle in Denmark - a country under threat from its neighbour and old enemy, Norway.
Young Hamlet returns home from university to discover that, not only is his father (Old Hamlet) newly dead, but that his mother, Gertrude, has married Old Hamlet's brother, Claudius, and that Claudius is now king. The resultant instability in the state of Denmark has also led to threats of invasion by the Norwegian prince, Fortinbras.
Late one night, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears to him on the cold battlements of Elsinore castle, accusing Claudius of his murder and urging Hamlet to revenge. This sets in motion a train of events that destroys both family and state.
No longer able to trust his own senses, the loyalty of his old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, or even the affections of his young love, Ophelia, Hamlet fakes madness in an attempt to provide himself with proof that the ghost is telling the truth. Aided only by his most loyal companion, Horatio, he persuades a travelling band of actors to re-enact the story of his father's murder in front of Claudius and Gertrude, hoping that Claudius will be so stirred by remorse that he will confess his crime.
During an intense meeting with his mother, Hamlet hears a noise and realises that they are being spied upon. In rage, he stabs the hidden eavesdropper, believing it to be Claudius. Instead his discovers it is the King's adviser, Polonius, father to both Ophelia and her brother, Laertes.
Afraid of what Hamlet might do next, Claudius has him arrested and despatched to England under guard, where he has arranged to have Hamlet murdered. Hamlet escapes, returns to Denmark and finally achieves his revenge.
The psychological effects of these upheavals on Hamlet lead to some of the greatest soliloquies in the English language and take the audience deep into the mind of Shakespeare's most famous protagonist.
Stop reading now if you don't want to know how it ends...
Ophelia, having been violently rejected by Hamlet, hears that her father has been murdered. She loses her mind and eventually drowns herself. Her brother, Laertes, returns to court at the head of an angry mob, determined to find out the truth. Claudius convinces him that Hamlet is the only guilty party and agrees to help Laertes gain revenge.
On learning of Hamlet's escape and return to Denmark, Claudius convinces Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a fencing match and advises Laertes on how to kill Hamlet during the duel without arousing suspicion. As a back-up plan, Claudius also poisons a glass of wine which he intends to offer to Hamlet. Gertrude, however, drinks from the glass first and dies.
During the duel, Hamlet is slightly wounded by Laertes, who has tipped his sword with a deadly poison. In the ensuing tussle, the swords get switched and Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned one. Realising that he is about to die, and that Claudius has manipulated the situation, Laertes confesses everything, forgives Hamlet and dies.
As the poison takes hold and he realises that he too is about to die, Hamlet finally carries through his dead father's wish for revenge. He forces Claudius to drink the remaining poisoned wine, which quickly takes effect.
With his dying breath, Hamlet asks Horatio to ensure that his story is told accurately.
Young Fortinbras of Norway arrives at the head of his army, ready to assume control of a Denmark whose royal family has been destroyed by betrayal, murder and revenge.
Written by Kathleen Bradley and Suzanne Worthington © RSC
Photograph by Hugo Glendinning shows Dharmesh Patel as Hamlet in the 2010 RSC YPS Hamlet © RSC