Hamlet: A Guide for Young Readers

Act I, Scene 1

Barnardo, Francisco, Horatio and Marcellus, castle guards at Elsinore, the home of the king and queen of Denmark, are working the night shift.  Having passed the evening without an appearance by the mice that plague the building, the conversation soon turns to ghosts[1]The spirit of the recently deceased King Hamlet appears, and Horatio attempts to talk to it, because he went to college.  However, it storms off in a huff without saying anything, leaving the guards to reminisce about the time the king frowned after beating up a cast member of the popular show Polacks On Ice.

Act I, Scene 2

Claudius, the new king of Denmark, and Gertrude, the old queen of Denmark, are worried about Prince Hamlet.  Just because his father died from a snakebite and his mother married his uncle, thus leapfrogging his way onto the throne that Hamlet assumed would go to him, they explain, is no reason for him to go around moping all the time and bumming everybody out.

This spurs Hamlet into an extended period of moping, dispelled only by the arrival of Horatio, who explains the whole thing about King Hamlet’s ghost.  Hamlet subjects him to rigorous questioning to make sure it wasn’t somebody else’s ghost; once he is satisfied, he agrees, having nothing better to do, to hang out with the guards until it shows up again.

Act I, Scene 3

Ophelia, Prince Hamlet’s girlfriend, is seeing off her brother Laertes, who is heading off to backpack around Europe for the summer.  Laertes warns her that Hamlet, like most aristocrats, is a sex pervert, and is probably just hanging out with her so that he can get into “the rear of her affections”, if she knows what he means.  Laertes’ father, the royal advisor Polonius, arrives and gives him a bunch of boring advice, but, the smart phone having not yet been invented, he has no choice but to listen.

Polonius, too, is worried that Ophelia might let Prince Hamlet go all the way without securing even a barony out of him, especially when she starts talking about “something touching the Lord Hamlet”.  He demands that she stop seeing him, and that he will have to content himself with monologues from now on.

Act I, Scene 4

Prince Hamlet and the guards are dicking around on the battlements when the ghost of King Hamlet appears.  Horatio, fearful for his job and possibly a negligence lawsuit, warns him not to listen if the ghost tells him to jump off a cliff.  The ghost explains how Claudius used a magical ear poison to kill him, and since he died without repenting for punching that Polish skater, he went to Hell and now he has to watch his gross brother doing it with his wife every night.  He tells Hamlet that he has to kill Claudius, and Hamlet reluctantly agrees, as he is no happier about the thought of his mom and his uncle having sex than anyone else.

Act II, Scene 1

Ophelia tells her father about how a half-naked, deranged-looking Hamlet barged into her room, physically assaulted her, and ran off into the night.  Since we never hear anything about Polonius’ wife, we must assume that the strain of raising two children on his own has rendered him insensate, as this leads him to believe that Hamlet is in love and not a booze-shattered date rapist.  He decides to tell the king and queen about it, because Ophelia’s sex life is apparently the business of everyone in Denmark.

Act II, Scene 2

Claudius and Gertrude don’t know what the kids today are all about, so they ask Prince Hamlet’s school chums Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to see if they can’t snap him out of his funk with the video-games or the rock music or what have you.  Meanwhile, Polonius, cementing his Father of the Year status, steals some of Ophelia’s love letters and shows them to the king and queen, who ask him if he can further intrude on her personal life in order to get Hamlet to stop acting like such a jackass.

Polonius encounters Prince Hamlet reading a book, and Hamlet, who after all is royalty, tells him to his face that he sells fish for a living.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern attempt to engage Hamlet in some dirty talk, but he is more interested in discussing how moody and depressed he is.

A group of actors arrive at Elsinore.  This cheers Prince Hamlet up, although Polonius, in one of his rare moments of actual insight, says that they are boring.  Hamlet, who is worried that the ghost might not have been a ghost, but rather a demon, or perhaps a vampire, determines to put on a play about a guy who kills his brother, the king, and takes his place on the throne.  In this way, rather than by searching Claudius’ room for ear poison or maybe even just asking him, he reckons to determine his uncle’s guilt or innocence.  Since everyone else has left by this point, no one remains on stage to point out that this is a pretty circuitous way of going about things.

Act III, Scene 1

Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius all attempt to explain Prince Hamlet’s peculiar behavior to the king and queen, but they are all stupid incompetents and none of them hit on the obvious explanation, id est, that his father was killed and his uncle married his mother and stole the kingdom out from under him.  Gertrude and Claudius, likewise not the sharpest tools in the drawer, hope for their part that Hamlet is just in love with Ophelia and everything will work out fine as long as she lets him keep crashing into her bedroom with his junk hanging out every time he ties one on.

Hamlet considers killing himself, but decides against it because he thinks the afterlife might be weird or scary.  Which, when you think about it, is a pretty strange reason not to commit suicide, but that didn’t stop this passage from becoming the most famous one in the history of western literature.

Ophelia stops by to return some of Hamlet’s love letters on account of him being such a prick, and he throws a massive tantrum, claiming he never liked her in the first place and telling her to become a nun even though he knows she wants to go to med school.  He also kind of confesses that he is going to kill his uncle, but Ophelia, who is the unfortunate recipient of Polonius’ genes, doesn’t notice.  Luckily, she is spared the humiliation of having to recount the story to her father and the king, because it turns out they were spying on her the whole time.

Act III, Scene 2

Prince Hamlet gives a lengthy speech about how to be good actors to a group of professional actors, and, given that he is royalty, they just have to sit there quietly and listen.  He then proceeds to talk dirty to Ophelia in public, on the theory that she has not suffered enough already for being nice to him when he was trying to be moody and depressed.  The actors put on Hamlet’s play, and even Claudius is not so stupid that he misses the message of it.

Act III, Scene 3

Claudius is pissed that Prince Hamlet made him watch a play with such an obvious, unsubtle message, so he decides to send the gloomy asshole to England, where he can join a band or something.  Beginning to think that murdering his brother was a lot more trouble than it was worth, he begins praying for forgiveness on the assumption that God is as big a chump as Polonius.  Hamlet happens by and almost kills Claudius, but decides not to, on the off chance that if Claudius dies while praying his soul will go to Heaven.  Meanwhile, in Hell, Hamlet’s father rolls his eyes and wonders why he didn’t entrust the job of avenging his death to one of a million other Danes who aren’t indecisive, whiny little shits.

Act III, Scene 4

Polonius and the queen, who at this point can only be described as slow learners, put their heads together to try and figure out what is bothering Hamlet.  Even as they speak, the prince arrives in a tizzy, and Polonius proposes hiding in the closet and eavesdropping.  Gertrude, who is as up for a wacky Three’s Company-style adventure as the next queen, agrees.  Hamlet, apparently unable to find Ophelia to heap abuse upon, calls his mother a slut and slaps her around until Polonius yells for help, at which point Hamlet continues his hot streak of shitting all over people who didn’t have anything to do with his father’s death by murdering Polonius.  King Hamlet’s ghost appears to say “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

Act IV, Scene 1

Hamlet has hidden Polonius’ body, because why not.  The King, catching on to what the audience figured out way back in Act I, decides that Hamlet is nuts and suggests to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that they get him to cough up the remains.

Act IV, Scene 2

Hamlet mistakes Rosencrantz for a sponge, to the surprise of no one.

Act IV, Scene 3

When Claudius demands to know the location of Polonius’ body, Hamlet gives a lot of wise-ass answers, because he thinks he’s funny.  Meanwhile, Claudius makes arrangements with the king of England to have Hamlet beaten to death by soccer hooligans instead of letting him just hang around pubs singing along with the Smiths.

Act IV, Scene 4

Out of nowhere, Fortinbras, the nephew of the king of Norway, shows up, and Hamlet watches him engage in the Nordic cultural pastime of harrassing Polish people for no discernable reason.   Hamlet decides that if 20,000 Poles can get slaughtered over nothing, he might as well man up and murder his uncle.  “FINALLY”, King Hamlet shouts from the pits of Hell.

Act IV, Scene 5

With the news of her father’s death at the hands of her jerk of an ex-boyfriend, further complicated by his playing hide and go seek with the corpse for his own amusement, Ophelia goes predictably insane.  Like many privileged young women, her insanity takes the form of flitting around handing people dried flowers and reciting terrible poetry.

Act IV, Scene 6

On the way to England, Hamlet’s boat is attacked by pirates.  He bribes them into letting him go, and, continuing his tradition of killing everyone but the one guy he’s supposed to, sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on to England, where they are fatally pummeled by lager-crazed Leeds United fans.

Act IV, Scene 7

Claudius, who shares with his brother an inability to delegate effectively, tries to get Laertes to kill Hamlet.  It’s kind of a hard sell until the queen arrives with the completely not shocking news that Ophelia has killed herself due to having be crapped on by everyone in the whole play despite being completely innocent.  Claudius closes out the scene on a sensitive not, scolding his wife for having undone all the hard work he did to keep Laertes from flipping out.

Act V, Scene 1

Two gravediggers engage in the kind of hilarious verbal interplay that makes shoveling corpses into the ground the #1 occupation for would-be comedians.  Hamlet and Horatio show up and the prince also engages in some witty badinage, because it’s not like he has more pressing matters to deal with.  Finding the repulsive, maggot-ridden skull of a funny guy he used to hang out with when he was a kid, Hamlet exposes Horatio to his curious sense of humor by exchanging witticisms with it, and also manages to call his mom a dirty slut again.

Ophelia’s funeral party arrives, and Hamlet notices the grief-stricken Laertes.  Pausing exactly zero seconds to consider the fact that he murdered Laertes’ father and was primarily responsible for driving his sister to suicide, Hamlet figures, in for a penny, in for a pound, and starts a fistfight with the grieving young man.

Act V, Scene 2

Hamlet is trying to remember what exactly he was supposed to do for his dad when Osric, a courier, shows up and tells him that the King thinks it would be hilarious if Hamlet and Laertes had a swordfight.  The whole thing seems a little suspicious to Horatio, but Hamlet figures there’s no point in making sense at this stage in the game, and besides, he is an awesome swordfighter and the audience is getting bored.

Before the fight, Hamlet tells Laertes he’s sorry or whatever, and Laertes says that it’s no big deal because he didn’t like his dad that much in the first place, but before they are able to hug it out, Osric shows up with the swords and they go at it.  In the first decisive action of the entire play, Claudius has decided to quit fucking around, and poisons everything in sight.  Unfortunately for everyone, things get a little out of control, as they tend to do during drunken aristocratic swordfighting competitions, and before you know it, Laertes has stabbed Hamlet, Gertrude has guzzled down an entire box of poisoned wine, and Hamlet has stabbed both Laertes and the king, which, if he had done so four hours ago, would have saved a whole lot of dead bodies.  Horatio takes the gentlemanly route and pretends to be sad about Hamlet dying, although he is secretly hoping that the next royal best friend he ends up with isn’t such an idiot.  Fortinbras shows up again out of nowhere and declares that he is the new king of Denmark, and no one can think of a particularly convincing reason why he shouldn’t be, so he orders a bunch of soldiers to clean the dead bodies out of his new castle, and then has them all shot.  THE END.



[1] Apparently, good help was as hard to find in 1605 as it is today.

One Response so far.

  1. Nullstellensatz
    09/14/2011 at 3:29 PM

    I think the definitive version of “Hamlet” is Adam McNaughton’s classic Scots ballad “Oor Hamlet”.

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