"To be, or not to be. That is the question."
— Wm Shakespeare
The most famous of the plays of William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark tells the story of a young prince seeking revenge for the death of his father while trying to navigate the intrigues of the royal court and continually second-guessing his own motives.
The story is based, it is believed, on a Danish prince named Amleth, mentioned in Gesta Danorum (Deeds of the Danes) by a 13th Century historian named Saxo Grammaticus. Many scholars believe that Shakespeare's play is a re-working of an earlier drama, now lost to us, which has been given the name of Ur-Hamlet.
Hamlet is student at Wittenberg who returns home to the palace of Elsinore when his father, the King of Denmark dies. Upon his return, he finds that his father's brother, Claudius, has assumed the throne and has married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude. This majorly squicks Hamlet out, but he contents himself to simply brooding about it and uttering soliloquies.
Hamlet learns that the ghost of his father has appeared, haunting the castle. When Hamlet confronts the ghost, his father tells him that he was actually murdered by Claudius, and charges Hamlet to avenge his cruel and most unnatural murder. Which Hamlet vows to do. But he then spends the better part of four hours on stage trying to nerve himself to do it.
Part of the reason for this is because Hamlet isn't entirely sure the ghost is being truthful. For all he knows, the apparition he saw might not be his father at all, but a demon trying to sucker him into doing something stupid. Another reason is that Hamlet gets the clever notion of trying to confuse his family and other enemies at court by pretending to be crazy. Or maybe he really is crazy. Shakesperian scholars argue about this.
It ends bloodily, as revenge tragedies generally do.
Game and Story Use
- In a historical or time-travel campaign, Hamlet might make an interesting, if aggravating, character to meet.
- Perhaps the PCs are recruited by Hamlet to aid in his revenge
- Or perhaps they are hired by Claudius to deal with his unstable nephew.
- Or perhaps they can be the pirates whom Hamlet joins up with at one point. Really. Don't you remember the part about the pirates?
- The other characters in the play could serve as models for members of a Renaissance Era court.
- The whole plot is eminently stealable - and, indeed, if a PC happens to be of noble or royal birth…
- The basic premise of the plot even more so: "A ghost asks you to perform a task on its behalf … do you think this is a good idea?"