When we last took a look at the Hamlet plot summary, Hamlet had found Claudius seemingly at prayer. Hamlet had the proof he needed to avenge his father’s murder, but as killing a man at prayer would send him to heaven, Hamlet decides against it. Ironically, Claudius couldn’t bring himself to pray.
So similar to Hamnet, the name of Shakespeare’s dead son, fraternal twin to daughter Judith. Hamnet died in August of 1596; Hamlet was written at some point between 1599 and 1602. It might be neat (and by that I mean “well-composed” and “skilled and precise,” as opposed to, like, “really cool”) to think that Hamnet’s death and the birth of Hamlet might be related, but it’s probably not the case, and such critical opinion has fallen out of vogue. The connection toTwelfth Night is probably more probable.
Our Hamlet plot summary picks up with the first three scenes of Act Three.
When we left Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, he had devised a plan to use the performance of a play to “capture the conscience” (II.ii.543-4) of the king. When we rejoin Hamlet the play, Claudius enters with his queen, Polonius, Ophelia, and his spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The king asks for reports. Rosencrantz admits that Hamlet himself admits his “distracted” (III.i.5) state, but nothing more; Guildenstern feels that Hamlet’s “crafty madness” (III.i.8) hides “his true state” (III.i.10). Both Rosencrantz and Polonius note Hamlet’s “joy” (III.i.18) at the players; Claudius states his “content(edness)” (III.i.24) at the news.
At this point, Claudius sends away the courtiers and his wife, as the king and Polonius set Ophelia out as bait for Hamlet while they hide to watch. Hamlet enters and begins what most consider to be (see what I’m doing here?) the most famous speech in all of Shakespeare:
Our Hamlet plot summary continues with Act One, Scene Four, when it’s later that night, and Hamlet has joined Horatio and Marcellus on the battlements, waiting for the Ghost.
The Ghost doesn’t appear right away, but something else does: the sound of the king rousing and drinking, a custom Hamlet feels is “more honored in the breach than the observance” (I.iv.16), since it has cemented the Danes’ reputation as “drunkards” (I.iv.19) and have degraded their “achievements” (I.iv.21). After his long rant against the “dram of evil” (I.iv.36) that can kill “all the noble substance” (I.iv.37), the Ghost makes his appearance.
Hamlet immediately fears the apparition, calling for “angels and ministers of grace (to) defend us” (I.iv.39). He doesn’t know if the spirit is good or evil, “from heaven or … from hell” (I.iv.41), but despite this, he will call the Ghost, “Hamlet, // King, father, Dane” (I.iv. 44-5). He questions the apparition, calls for it to answer him. The Ghost remains silent but “beckons” (I.iv.58) for Hamlet to follow. Horatio and Marcellus plead with him not to follow the Ghost, fearing it might “deprive (Hamlet’s) sovereignty of reason // And draw (him) into madness” (I.iv.73-4). Hamlet struggles and breaks free from his partners, who are left at the end of the scene to proclaim, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (I.iv.90).
Hamlet begins simply enough–with question: “Who’s there?” (I.i.1). And if this was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, it might have been proceeded by the sound of knocking. But this is not a knock-knock joke, as the response is more than just a little paranoid: “Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself” (I.i.2).
As it turns out, we the audience have happened upon two sentries, Barnardo and Francisco, the former coming to relieve the latter. These are men who are on-edge. Barnardo tells Francisco that if he sees Horatio and Marcellus, then he should send them to Barnardo; he doesn’t have to wait long… they arrive in the next line. Once Francisco has left the stage, Horatio give some inkling why the guards are nervous: “What, has this thing appeared again tonight?” (I.i.21).
Thing? Appeared? Night? Nope, not a knock-knock joke.