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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

Tragedy by *Shakespeare which has provided literature's leading example of a moody young man, brilliant but indecisive, with dark obsessions in his response to women. Hamlet's central problem is that his mother, Gertrude, has married his father's brother, Claudius, within weeks of Claudius killing Hamlet's father, the king of Denmark, and usurping the throne. The young prince parades his grief by wearing black at his uncle's court at Elsinore, but he is prompted to take more violent action by the appearance of his father's ghost, demanding vengeance.

The prince seizes every opportunity of avoiding action and of rebuking himself for inaction. Even after Claudius has demonstrated his guilt (in his response to a play called The Mousetrap, depicting the murder, which Hamlet persuades some travelling players to present at court), the prince cannot bring himself to kill his uncle when he next finds him alone – because he is praying and Hamlet will not send his soul to heaven.

Hamlet vents his frustrations on *Ophelia, who loves him and is driven insane by his obsessive cruelties. In a passionate scene in the bedroom of his mother he upbraids her violently for her betrayal of his father. He is now clearly dangerous and Claudius arranges for two courtiers, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to take Hamlet to England and there to kill him. He escapes and returns, chancing on the way upon a gravedigger who finds for him the skull of a favourite jester, Yorick, which sets the prince musing once more ('Alas, poor Yorick').

There then arrives in the graveyard the funeral procession of Ophelia, who has fallen into a stream in her madness and has been drowned. Hamlet brawls in the grave with her brother, Laertes, and the drama moves at last to a conclusion. Claudius tries to kill Hamlet by organizing a fencing match with Laertes, who has a poisoned rapier (which Hamlet turns on Laertes); and then by offering him a poisoned drink (which Hamlet forces on Claudius himself, after Gertrude has unwittingly drunk from it). Hamlet has himself been nicked by the rapier and he too dies. 'The rest is silence' are his final words.

Shakespeare makes great use in this play of soliloquies, a device entirely appropriate to the introspective nature of his central character, traditionally known in theatrical circles as 'the moody Dane'. In two of them, beginning respectively 'O, that this too too solid flesh would melt' and 'To be, or not to be: that is the question', Hamlet contemplates suicide. In an extremely complex plot other important characters include Horatio, Hamlet's faithful confidant; and Polonius, the pompous court chamberlain, father of Ophelia and Laertes, who is the butt of much humour but has one of the play's best-known speeches, including the line *'Neither a borrower nor a lender be'.

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