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Introduction to Hamlet, by William Shakespeare •Written during the first part of the seventeenth century (probably in 1600 or 1601), Hamlet was probably first performed in July 1602. •Set in Denmark. Before the play begins •Hamlet is the story of a Danish prince, Hamlet, whose father has died under mysterious circumstances while the Prince is away at school. • The Prince returns to Denmark to find that his mother is about to marry his father’s brother, and that his uncle has assumed absolute control of the country in the Prince’s absence. Hamlet: The Prince of Denmark and our protagonist. A reflective and thoughtful young man who has studied at the University of Wittenberg. Hamlet is often indecisive and hesitant, but at other times prone to rash and impulsive acts. Claudius: The King of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle, and the play’s antagonist. Claudius is shrewd and manipulating. Claudius assumes control of the kingdom at the death of his brother. He also convinces his brother’s wife to marry him, probably to consolidate his control in Denmark. Gertrude: The Queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother, recently married to Claudius. The question of why Gertrude marries so soon after her husband’s death one of the most important questions in the play. What do you think? Hamlet (Prince Hamlet’s father): Before the play begins King Hamlet dies while sleeping in his garden. He appears in the play as a ghost. The real question is whether he is the ghost of Prince Hamlet’s father, or a demon that has taken the late king’s form to wreck havoc in the kingdom? Horatio: Prince Hamlet’s close friend, who studied with the Prince at the university in Wittenberg. Horatio is loyal and helpful to Prince Hamlet throughout the play. Polonius: The Lord Chamberlain of Claudius’s court, a pompous, conniving old man. He is the King’s principle advisor. Polonius appears to have risen to power by skillful manipulation, however, he suffers from overconfidence, and Hamlet enjoys exposing him as a fool. Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia. Ophelia: Polonius’s daughter and a beautiful young woman. Evidently, Prince Hamlet is in love with her, but their relationship is a secret at the beginning of the play. The problem is she is not of royal birth, so she is not a suitable match for the Prince. Laertes: Polonius’s son and Ophelia’s brother, a young man who spends much of the play away from court enjoying the pleasures of France. Passionate and quick to action, Laertes is clearly a foil for the reflective Hamlet. In addition, Laertes is the greatest swordsman in all of Denmark. Young Fortinbras: Another foil of Prince Hamlet. The Prince of Norway, whose father (also named Fortinbras) was killed by King Hamlet when Prince Fortinbras was a child. Now that King Hamlet has died, Fortinbras longs to avenge his father’s death, and regain the land his father lost in battle. In fiction, a foil is a character who contrasts with another character (usually the antagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of another character. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern: Two slightly bumbling courtiers, former friends of Hamlet from Wittenberg, who are summoned by Claudius and Gertrude to discover the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior.