Here is a more detailed look at what happens in each scene of Hamlet, to help you look at the structure of the play and interrogate it.

As you look at each act we’ve included some things to notice. These are important character developments, or key questions that an acting company might ask when they first go through the play together at the start of rehearsal. If you work through these as you go, they will help you to make sense of the play. It’s a good idea to have a copy of the text nearby.

  • Act 1

    Act 1 scene 1

    Marcellus and Bernardo have seen a ghost on the castle battlements for the past two nights. Horatio comes to investigate and Marcellus informs the other guards that Horatio has said '‘tis but our fantasy, / And will not let belief take hold of him'. Suddenly, the apparition appears looking exactly like Old Hamlet, the dead King of Denmark. The ghost of the king is dressed in his battle armour. Horatio explains to the other guards how the ambitious Fortinbras tried to conquer Denmark but was killed by Old Hamlet, ‘who by a sealed compact, / Well ratified by law and heraldry, / Did forfeit, with his life, all these lands / Which he stood seized on to the conqueror'.

    What do we learn?

    • The ghost of the dead King of Denmark has been seen stalking the castle at night.
    • Horatio does not believe the ghost exists until he sees it himself.
    • The ghost of the king is dressed in the armour he wore when he conquered Fortinbras and seized land from Norway.

    Act 1 scene 2

    King Claudius addresses the court and talks about the sad death of his brother, Old Hamlet. He then toasts his marriage to his brother’s wife, Gertrude, saying 'With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage, / In equal scale weighing delight and dole' he has 'Taken to wife' his 'sometime sister'. He then continues to address political problems by talking about Prince Fortinbras of Norway. Claudius gives Laertes permission to return to his studies in France having celebrated the coronation of the new king and queen. Gertrude and Claudius then speak to Hamlet and urge him to stop grieving over his father. Claudius says 'to persever / In obstinate condolement is a course / Of impious stubbornness: ‘tis unmanly grief'. Hamlet is appalled by his mother’s marriage to his uncle and privately says 'O, most wicked speed, to post / With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!'. His good friend Horatio interrupts him to report that he’s seen the ghost of his father.


    • Hamlet’s father has died and his mother, Gertrude, has married his uncle, Claudius.
    • Claudius is now king and is trying to stop a possible war with Norway.
    • Hamlet is suffering from grief after his father’s death and is revolted by his mother marrying his uncle 'within a month' of his father's death.

    Act 1 scene 3

    Before Laertes returns to France, he encourages his sister Ophelia not to take Hamlet’s wooing seriously. Polonius then gives Laertes some fatherly advice for while he studies abroad and also tells Ophelia to stay away from Hamlet.


    • Laertes doesn't trust Hamlet's feelings for his sister, Ophelia.
    • Laertes has gone to France and left his father and sister behind.
    • Ophelia listens to her father who asks her not to speak to Hamlet.

    Act 1 scene 4

    Hamlet meets Horatio at night to try and see the ghost for himself. The apparition appears and Hamlet says 'Angels and ministers of grace defend us! / Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned'. The ghost beckons Hamlet to follow him.


    • Hamlet sees the ghost of his father but he does not trust it straight away.

    Act 1 scene 5

    The ghost tells Hamlet how he was murdered by his brother, Claudius. He reveals that Claudius poured poison in his ear while he was asleep and managed to seduce Gertrude. He instructs Hamlet to 'Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder'. The ghost disappears and when Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus what has happened he begs them not to tell anyone. The ghost reappears and forces them to 'Swear.' The two men immediately give their word.


    • The ghost of Old Hamlet says that he was murdered by Claudius.
    • Hamlet promises to avenge his father.
    • Everyone who witnessed the ghost’s appearance has sworn not to talk about it.

    Things to notice in Act 1

    • Notice how Shakespeare has chosen to open the play, with the ghost's first appearance rather than with the title character, Hamlet. What tone does this set for the play?

    • Take note of Gertrude’s character and her actions. We learn from Hamlet that she lost her husband and then married his brother very quickly. How does Hamlet feel about this? Why do you think Gertrude might have done this?

    • Notice how Claudius, the new king, is presented in Act 1. Does he display any suspicious behaviour? How does he respond to Hamlet’s grief and is this the reaction you would expect?

    • Act 1 sets up the circumstances around Old Hamlet’s death and Hamlet’s need for revenge – showing us how Hamlet feels about his mother’s new marriage and the promises he makes to the ghost of his father, to avenge his murder. How does Hamlet come across in this act? Do you think his behaviour is understandable or extreme?

  • Act 2

    Act 2 scene 1

    Polonius employs a servant to travel to Paris and spy on his son, Laertes. Polonius then learns that Hamlet has been behaving oddly towards Ophelia and has been physically rough with her. Polonius claims 'This is the very ecstasy of love, / Whose violent property fordoes itself / And leads the will to desperate undertakings'. He believes Hamlet is sick with love for his daughter and intends to report this to the king.

    What do we learn?

    • Polonius sends someone to spy on his son.
    • Ophelia says Hamlet treated her in a rough manner and seemed mentally unstable.

    Act 2 scene 2

    Claudius invites Hamlet’s childhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Elsinore Castle to investigate 'Hamlet’s transformation’ and find out why he is behaving strangely. Polonius enters and shares his view with Claudius and Gertrude that Hamlet has been driven to madness because of his love for Ophelia. Polonius reads from a letter that Hamlet sent his daughter: 'Doubt that the stars are fire, / Doubt that the sun doth move, / Doubt truth to be a liar, / But never doubt I love'. Polonius suggests the king and queen spy on Hamlet as he talks to him. Hamlet speaks in riddles, suggesting that he is mad, though his speech also contains hidden meanings which Polonius picks up on. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern enter and Hamlet reveals that he knows they were sent to spy on him. They announce that the ‘tragedians of the city’ are arriving to cheer Hamlet up. The travelling players arrive and Hamlet asks them to perform a moving speech from ‘Hecuba and Priam’. He then asks them to perform 'The Murder of Gonzago' for the king and his guests the following evening. Before they leave he gets their permission for him to write a 12 line speech that he wants to be included in the play. Alone, he praises the actor who delivered the speech for connecting to his true emotions when performing and criticises himself for being unable to express his inner feelings.

    What do we learn?

    • Claudius and Gertrude ask Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet.
    • Polonius believes Hamlet’s odd behaviour is caused by his love for Ophelia.
    • A group of travelling actors accept Hamlet’s request to perform 'The murder of Gonzago', the plot of which is very similar to what happened to Hamlet’s father.

    Things to notice in Act 2

    • Look at the way the older generation behave in Act 2, all employing spies to investigate their children’s behaviour. What does this tell us about the relationships between the generations? What kind of relationship does Polonius have with Claudius and Gertrude? What do you think his position is within the castle and how might this affect the way Polonius feels about a potential relationship between his daughter Ophelia and Hamlet?

    • Take note of Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia and his conversation with Polonius. What do the letter and the conversation show you about Hamlet? He later suggests to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he might not be mad and that he’s been putting on an act like one of the travelling players might - do you believe him? Is his conversation with Polonius a performance? Do you think he knows he is being watched?

    • In Act 2 we see Hamlet’s actions change and the people around him start to observe different behaviour. How many examples of Hamlet’s changing behaviour can you find in these two scenes? Do you think that these changes are part of Hamlet’s plan or has he really changed?

  • Act 3

    Act 3 scene 1

    Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to Claudius, telling him that they don’t know why Hamlet is behaving strangely. Claudius then arranges a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia so that he and Polonius can hide and watch them. They believe this will confirm whether Hamlet is sick with love or not. Before this, Hamlet delivers a soliloquy talking about his own existence and delivering his famous speech beginning ‘To be, or not to be, that is the question’. When Ophelia enters, Hamlet confuses her with mixed messages. One moment he says 'I did love you once', the next 'I loved you not'. He goes on to insult Ophelia and tells her to go to a nunnery to repent her sins. Ophelia doesn't understand the way he treats her and can't believe she 'sucked the honey of his music vows' in the past. Having seen all of this, Claudius decides that Hamlet is not in love with Ophelia and believes 'what he spake, though it lacked for a little, was not like madness'.

    What do we learn?

    • Hamlet is questioning his own existence and whether there is any point to his life.
    • Hamlet tells Ophelia he never loved her and confuses her.
    • Claudius doesn't think love is the cause of Hamlet’s recent change in temperament but he also doesn’t think Hamlet is mad.

    Act 3 scene 2

    Hamlet talks to the actors before they perform. He wants the play to 'hold a mirror up to nature' as the plot is very similar to the events leading up to his father’s death. Hamlet instructs Horatio to observe Claudius’ response to the play to see if he shows any guilt. The performance begins by depicting a happily married king and queen but the player king becomes sick and worries that his queen may marry again. Another actor enters and poisons the player king. Hamlet announces that this man plots to marry the dead king’s wife and, at this moment, Claudius rises in fury and calls for 'light' before storming out of the performance. Queen Gertrude follows him. Hamlet and Horatio take this reaction as proof that the ghost was telling the truth and Claudius killed his brother. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern summon Hamlet to talk to his mother and he snaps at them, declaring that he has known all along that they were spying on him. Alone, Hamlet talks about revenge and says ‘now could I drink hot blood / And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on'.

    What do we learn?

    • Hamlet uses the play to find out if Claudius is guilty and if the ghost was telling the truth.
    • Claudius is angered by the scene in the play that depicts a sick king being poisoned and his murderer seducing the queen.
    • Hamlet and Horatio are now certain Claudius murdered the former king of Denmark and Hamlet wants revenge.

    Act 3 scene 3

    Claudius has grown tired of Hamlet’s antics and tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to get ready to go to England. He wants to send them away from Denmark, with Hamlet. Alone, Claudius sinks to his knees and prays. He confesses to the murder of his brother, whispering 'O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven: / It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, / A brother’s murder'. Hamlet observes him as he prays but decides not to kill his uncle while he is talking to God.

    What do we learn?

    • Claudius intends to send Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
    • Claudius confesses to murdering his brother while praying.
    • Hamlet chooses not to kill Claudius while he is praying in case his uncle goes to Heaven.

    Act 3 scene 4

    Hamlet visits his mother in her closet and threatens her. Polonius is spying on them from behind an arras and when Gertrude screams, Polonius makes a noise. Hamlet is shocked and stabs through the arras with a knife. He is surprised when he pulls back the screen to see the dead body of Polonius. Hamlet’s fury builds as he confesses his disgust at his mother’s recent marriage. The ghost of his father appears and tells him not to be so harsh on Gertrude. Gertrude either can’t see the spirit or pretends not to. Hamlet demands that his mother changes her ways and that she doesn’t tell Claudius about their meeting. He also reveals that he knows about the plan for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to take him to England and tells her he has to go. Hamlet leaves the closet, pulling the corpse of Polonius with him. Gertrude then tells Claudius that Hamlet is ‘Mad as the seas and wind when both contend / Which is the mightier’ and has killed the ‘good old man’ Polonius. She tells him Hamlet has gone ‘to draw apart the body he hath killed’, and taken the body away.

    What do we learn?

    • Hamlet is aggressive towards Gertrude and scares her.
    • Hamlet has murdered Polonius, thinking he was Claudius, and has dragged his body away.

    Things to notice in Act 3

    • Notice how Hamlet behaves towards Ophelia in Scenes 1 and 2. Why is Hamlet so cruel to her in this Act? Has he really stopped loving her? Why else might he treat her so badly?

    • Look closely at the choices Hamlet makes in this act, particularly when he decides not to kill Claudius and then, in the next scene, murders Polonius by accident. Why do you think Hamlet stops himself from killing Claudius whilst he’s alone and asking God for forgiveness? Do you think Hamlet believes in God? Are there any signs, before Polonius’ death, that Hamlet is capable of murder?

    • Take note of Hamlet’s behaviour in Act 3 Scene 4. Are you surprised by Hamlet’s behaviour in this scene? Why do you think he behaves this way? What do you notice about his reaction to Polonius’ death and does it surprise you? Has your view of Hamlet changed following this scene?

    • Act 3 is important because it confirms Claudius’ guilt – from his reaction to the play, Hamlet learns that his uncle was responsible for killing his father. How does Hamlet react to this?

  • Act 4

    Act 4 scene 1

    When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find Hamlet, he tells them he keeps his ‘own counsel’ and will not listen to them. He tells them that Claudius is using them like a ‘sponge’ and ‘when he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again’. He refuses to tell them where the body is, answering their questions in riddles.

    What do we learn?

    • Hamlet confronts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
    • Hamlet has taken away the body of Polonius and will not tell Rosencrantz and Guildenstern where it is hidden.

    Act 4 scene 2

    Claudius worries that he cannot punish Hamlet too much because the people of Denmark love him. When Claudius questions Hamlet over the whereabouts of Polonius’ body, he answers in riddles again before saying that he will smell the corpse ‘as you go up the stairs into the lobby’. Claudius informs Hamlet that he must travel to England for his own ‘especial safety’. Alone, Claudius reveals that he has sent letters to England ordering the ‘present death’ of Hamlet and is pleased that he will be out of the way.

    What do we learn?

    • Claudius sends Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
    • Claudius has planted sealed letters requesting that the English authorities kill Hamlet.

    Act 4 scene 3

    Fortinbras talks to a captain in his army and orders him to go and see the Danish king and claim their right to march across Denmark.

    What do we learn?

    • Fortinbras’ army is passing through Denmark on its way to claim land from Poland.

    Act 4 scene 4

    Ophelia visits the queen, who does not want to see her but eventually she agrees. Ophelia sings songs and when Claudius comes in he and Gertrude agree that Ophelia is sick and he says that ‘this is the poison of deep grief: it springs / All from her father’s death’. Messengers then report that Laertes has returned and that the Danish people want him to be their king. When Laertes enters he is in a rage, demanding to know what happened to his father. He then sees the state of his sister Ophelia, exclaiming ‘O heavens, is’t possible a young maid’s wits / Should be as mortal as an old man’s life?’ Hearing news that Hamlet is responsible for both tragedies, he declares that Hamlet will have an ‘obscure burial -- / No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o’er his bones’.

    What do we learn?

    • Ophelia’s mental state is growing worse.
    • Laertes has returned and the people have called for him to be king.
    • Laertes declares that he wants revenge on Hamlet for his father and his sister.

    Act 4 scene 5

    Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet saying that he has been kidnapped by pirates but they've taken mercy on him. Meanwhile, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have gone to England. Hamlet demands that Horatio meet him at once so that he can impart some shocking news to him.

    What do we learn?

    • Hamlet wants Horatio to meet him.
    • Hamlet’s letter claims Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continued to England without him.

    Act 4 scene 6

    Claudius tells Laertes that Hamlet left Denmark without being punished for Polonius’ murder because the Danish people love him. News reaches Claudius that Hamlet is now back in Denmark and he plots with Laertes to set up a duel between Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes says ‘I’ll anoint my sword’ and plans to dip his blade in deadly poison before the fight. Claudius doesn't want to take any risks so he says he will also prepare a 'chalice' of poison for Hamlet to drink in case he ‘by chance escape your venom’d stuck’. Gertrude then enters with the news that Ophelia has drowned herself. Laertes is too devastated to cry and says 'Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia, / And therefore I forbid my tears'.

    What do we learn?

    • Hamlet is back in Denmark.
    • Claudius and Laertes plan to poison Hamlet, either with a sword or a drink.
    • Ophelia has drowned.

    Things to notice in Act 4

    • Notice how each of the characters reacts to Polonius’ murder. How do Gertrude and Claudius each feel and how do they act in the scenes that follow? Why do you think Hamlet takes the body of Polonius away with him after Act 3 and hides it? Do you think others characters would have reacted differently if he had left the body?

    • Look closely at the structure of this act. Act 4 has six scenes; what effect does this have on the drama? How might this affect the pace of the story and why would Shakespeare want to create that pace?

    • Take note of Ophelia’s behaviour when she talks to Gertrude and Claudius. What do her songs reveal? Do you think this is grief or madness? Would Ophelia have killed herself if Polonius had been killed by someone other than Hamlet? How responsible is Hamlet for Ophelia’s death?

    • Act 4 is important because we see the responses to Hamlet’s actions in Act 3 – Gertrude and Claudius react very differently, Ophelia commits suicide and Laertes returns and plans his revenge with the king. What does their plan tell you about Claudius and Laertes? Who is the driving force behind their plot and why would they chose this method of murder?

  • Act 5

    Act 5 scene 1

    Two gravediggers are discussing whether Ophelia should have a Christian burial when she is believed to have killed herself. As the two characters dig the grave, they throw out the bones of other dead people and sing songs. Hamlet passes this grave with Horatio and is shocked to see the bones of dead people being treated so badly. One of the gravediggers shows Hamlet the skull of a court jester. Hamlet is taken aback saying ‘Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy'. Hamlet then contemplates how we all turn to dust in the end. The scene is interrupted by the royal family and Laertes entering the graveyard to bury Ophelia. An argument takes place between Laertes and Hamlet when Hamlet leaps into the grave and says 'I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers / Could not -- with all their quantity of love -- / Make up my sum’ and they fight. Hamlet leaves and Horatio goes after him.

    What do we learn?

    • Ophelia is going to be buried in a churchyard even though she ended her own life.
    • Hamlet claims he loved Ophelia and argues with Laertes over who loved her most.

    Act 5 scene 2

    Hamlet reveals that he found the sealed letter Claudius had written ordering his death in England. He tells Horatio he used his father's seal to write another letter ordering the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and swapped them. A servant invites Hamlet to make amends with Laertes by fighting him in a duel. The court then comes together to watch the fight. Hamlet starts by apologising to Laertes and saying ‘Give me your pardon, sir: I’ve done you wrong’. The men then choose their weapons and Laertes takes the sword with a poisoned tip. After they have started, Claudius drinks to Hamlet’s health before dropping a poisoned pearl into the cup and offering it to Hamlet. Hamlet doesn’t drink it but during the fight Gertrude drinks the wine from the poisoned cup. Claudius tries to stop her saying ‘Gertrude, do not drink’ but it’s too late and Gertrude slowly dies. The fight continues and both men end up swapping swords. They are both wounded with the deadly poison. Laertes falls first and warns Hamlet ‘thou art slain’ and that ‘the king, the king’s to blame’. In a fit of rage, Hamlet forces Claudius to drink the poisoned wine and ‘Follow my mother’. Before Laertes dies, he and Hamlet forgive each other. Hamlet then asks Horatio to tell his story to others and predicts that Fortinbras will become King of Denmark. He utters his final breath, saying ‘The rest is silence. O, o, o, o!’. Fortinbras enters with his army, celebrating the fact they have claimed the land in Poland and ambassadors also arrive from England saying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been killed. Horatio promises to explain the chaos. Fortinbras is moved by Hamlet’s story and orders a soldier’s burial for the dead prince.

    What do we learn?

    • Hamlet has forged a letter to order Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s deaths.
    • Hamlet feels guilty about Laertes’ grief .
    • Gertrude, Hamlet, Laertes and Claudius are all poisoned.
    • Hamlet tells Horatio to tell others his story.
    • Fortinbras becomes the new king of Denmark.

    Things to notice in Act 5

    • Look at how the gravediggers speak to each other and to Hamlet in Scene 1. These characters are often called ‘clowns' and the way they speak is very light-hearted, with jokes and songs. Why do you think Shakespeare included humour in the final act of this tragedy? Particularly in a scene where Hamlet talks about death and then sees Ophelia’s funeral?

    • Take note of the number of deaths in the final scene. How many deaths do you think Claudius is responsible for, directly or indirectly?

    • Notice the way Hamlet behaves in the final scenes, accepting Laertes’ challenge, avenging his mother’s death and reconciling with Laertes. Why do you think some people consider Hamlet a ‘hero’? Would you agree that he is a heroic figure?

    • In Act 5 we see the tragic conclusion of the play – Hamlet accepts Laertes’ challenge and is poisoned during the fight. Laertes, Claudius and Gertrude also all die. The only central character left alive at the end of the play is Horatio and Hamlet asks him, as he dies, to ‘tell my story’. Why do you think Shakespeare leaves Horatio alive? Why do you think the final lines of the play are delivered by Fortinbras? Are there any parallels you can draw between Fortinbras and Hamlet?