Plot Summary

Old Hamlet, King of Denmark, is dead and has been succeeded by his brother. The new king has also married Gertrude, the widowed queen. Hamlet, Gertrude's son, is already distressed by his father's death and the hasty remarriage; when his father's ghost appears to tell him that he was murdered by his own brother, Hamlet vows revenge. To cover his intentions, he feigns madness. Polonius, councillor to the court, whose daughter Ophelia is all but betrothed to Hamlet, believes that his madness is caused by love. Spied on by Polonius and the king, Hamlet encounters Ophelia and violently rejects her. A company of actors arrives and Hamlet asks them to perform a play, hoping that its similarity to the murder of his own father will force the king to reveal his guilt. Hamlet's suspicions are confirmed. He visits his mother, reviling her for her hasty marriage, and accidentally kills Polonius, who is hiding in the chamber. The king sends Hamlet to England, planning to have him murdered. Laertes, Polonius' son, demands revenge for his father's death. His sister, Ophelia, maddened by grief, has drowned. Hamlet returns and confronts Laertes at her funeral. The king, meanwhile, has plotted with Laertes to kill Hamlet in a fencing match in which Laertes will have a poisoned sword. The plot miscarries and Laertes dies. Gertrude drinks from a poisoned cup intended for Hamlet, and also dies. Hamlet, wounded by the poisoned sword, kills the king before he, too, dies. Young Fortinbras of Norway arrives and lays claim to the throne of Denmark.

Relationship to De Vere

Ophelia is a Greek word meaning "profit" or "indebtedness". To de Vere, Anne Cecil meant both - profit in the sense of securing the promise of a dowry, and indebtedness to the house of Cecil.

Like Anne Cecil, Ophelia was caught between a headstrong lover and a duplicitous father. Ophelia never sees through the dealings of her father and brother, and follows obediently to her fate. She permits herself to be used by everyone. Anne Cecil undoubtedly behaved in a similar way.

In March 1575, Anne Cecil - four months pregnant at the time - sought an abortion from the Queen's physician Richard Master. De Vere undoubtedly heard of this. In the play, Ophelia drowns beneath a white willow tree whose flowers were known to cause abortions. Before drowning, she distributes flowers to Danish courtiers. The flowers were used as antifertility drugs. One the flowers - rue, was the most powerful abortion medicine in contemporary literature.

In a confrontation with Ophelia's father, Hamlet says:

HAMLET: ... Have you a daughter? Let her not walk i' th'sun. Conception is a
Blessing; but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to 't.

De Vere suspected that Anne Cecil may have had her child Elizabeth by another may. In the play, Ophelia, in her distracted state, sings bawdy songs and recites tales of copulation. ("Young men will do't if the come to't;/By Cock they are to blame.")

The Gravedigger explains that Yorick, the royal jester whom Hamlet once knew, had died 23 years before. Yorick's inspiration was probably Will Somers, the royal jester who had died in 1560 and whom de Vere would have known as a child.

Hamlet's primary sources - the chronicle histories of Belleforest and Saxo Grammaticus - were in Burghley's library.

In 1583, de Vere's brother in law - Perergrine Bertie - had paid an extended visit to Elsinore on a mission from Elizabeth to invest King Frederick II of Denmark as a knight of the Garter. Between 1582 and 1585, Bertie spent five months at Elsinore. Hamlet chronicles a peculiarly Danish ritual: King Claudius says: "There's no health the king shall drink today but the great cannon of the clouds shall tell." Bertie met top Danish officials, including one courtier Rosenkrantz and two called Guildenstern. Bertie also visited the astronomer Tycho who had observed a supernova ten years before. Guards in the play mention the "star that's westward from the pole". De Vere acknowledges Bertie's contribution to the play by having the English Ambassador to Elsinore (Bertie) say a few lines to close the play.

De Vere had a tendency to make bad investments in ventures such as Frobisher's search for the north-west passage. Hamlet (de Vere) claims he was "but mad north north-west".

In 1561, Thomas Cecil was living in Paris, and gaining a reputation as a lout. William Cecil was gathering intelligence on his son's behaviour. In Hamlet, Polonius sent spies to check on his son Laertes, living in Paris.

De Vere's family inheritance was stolen from him. A week before his death, de Vere's father created a will in which the "use" of his properties was vested in the Duke of Norfolk - a 26 year old nephew - and Robert Dudley, a favourite of the Queen. This was a legalistic trick to avoid losing inheritance in the Court of Wards bureaucracy under William Cecil. Shortly after, William Cecil dies unexpectedly. Robert Dudley, a beneficiary in the will, was suspected of poisoning his wife, thereby creating the possibility that he might marry Elizabeth. In the play, Hamlet's chief motivation for revenge is the murder of his father and the theft of family inheritance. Hamlet notes: "I can say nothing - no, not for a king upon whose property and most dear life a damned defeat was made."

De Vere had a falling out with Philip Sidney over a tennis match. De Vere suspected that Burghley used this event to promote enmity between de Vere and Sidney. In Hamlet, Polonius recites dirty tricks that can be used to discredit a courtier, including starting a smear campaign over a "falling out at tennis".

Giordano Bruno was an astronomer who believed (1) the stars were free floating objects in a fluid universe, (2) the universe was infinite, leaving no room for a heaven or hell, and (3) the elements of the universe contain a divine spark at the root of life. Bruno gave lectures at Oxford, which de Vere would have heard. Later, Bruno taught at the University of Wittenberg. In the play, Hamlet is a student of Wittenberg University. He recites Bruno's theory of an infinite universe ("I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams."). In a poem to Ophelia, Hamlet wonders what the stars are made of and whether they are indeed fluid or fixed in space ("Doubt thou the stars are fire/Doubt that the sun doth move/Doubt truth to be a liar/But never doubt I love"). Hamlet laments the loss of a comforting and familiar framework of five elements ("This goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'er hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.").

In 1585, de Vere was returning from the campaign in the lowlands when a shipping carrying de Vere's provisions and money and an important letter was looted by pirates. In Hamlet, there is an meeting with pirates, and a plot twist involving stolen letters.

In 1603, James I replaced Elizabeth as King of England. In July, James restored the de Vere family properties at Waltham Forest and Havering House in Essex to de Vere. The properties had been stripped from the family by Henry VIII. In August, the new king extended de Vere's annuity of £1,000. As if to say thank, as Hamlet is dying, he tells his confidant Horatio that the prince from the northern kingdom (Fortinbras = James I) should inherit the throne.

HAMLET: I cannot live to hear the news of England.
But I do prophesy th'election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice ...
FORTINBRAS: For me, with sorrow, I embrace my fortune.
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,
Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me.

In 1576, de Vere encountered a Teutonic prince who paraded his troops before de Vere. Soon after, de Vere boarded a ship for England, but was stripped naked by pirates, and left in England. Hamlet has troops paraded in front of him by Fortinbras. Afterward, he boards a ship, which is attached by pirates. Hamlet is stripped naked and left on Danish shores.

In a conversation with his cousin Henry Howard, de Vere commented on a dream in which his mother Margery and her husband Charles Tyrell visited him in a dream. Charles Tyrell had a whip, and his mother, dressed in sheet, foretold him of things to come. Hamlet was visited in a dream by his dead father.