Discover the story of Brett Dean's Hamlet opera

Act I

Scene 1: The funeral I

King Hamlet’s funeral has come to a close, and his son Hamlet is left alone at the graveside, contemplating human frailty. He remembers his father’s goodness and virtue. The wedding of Hamlet’s mother Gertrude to King Hamlet’s brother Claudius follows quickly after the funeral, and Hamlet, lost in thought, is suddenly surrounded by revellers.

Scene 2: The Wedding

Claudius proposes a toast to his new bride. Among the wedding guests are Laertes and his sister Ophelia, who is in love with Hamlet. Laertes worries that it is just a casual flirtation for the Prince, and warns his sister. Laertes asks and receives Claudius’s permission to leave Denmark for France. Hamlet’s friends, Horatio and Marcellus, arrive from Wittenberg, but Hamlet is distracted and agitated – upset by the sudden wedding. He sees a vision of his dead father. Horatio and Marcellus tell him that they too have seen the dead king and all three plan to watch again for the ghost that night.

Scene 3: The visitation

The ghost appears and beckons Hamlet to follow him. The ghost tells Hamlet that his death was not a natural one, that he was murdered by Claudius. Hamlet is horrified and full of rage – both at Claudius himself, and his own mother for succumbing to her lust and marrying him so soon. The ghost orders Hamlet to take revenge, and Hamlet swears that he will.

Scene 4: The conspiracy theory

Hamlet’s university friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, arrive at Claudius’s invitation. He hopes Hamlet’s friends will discover the reason for his anger. Polonius, father of Laertes and Ophelia, interjects – he knows the cause of Hamlet’s mood, he is in love with Ophelia. He summons her to explain. She does, and they resolve to put her account to the test. They set up a meeting between the lovers, which Polonius will secretly observe.

Hamlet is lost in thought. Interrupted by Ophelia he spurns her violently, denying that he ever loved her or wrote her letters. Disturbed by his rejection she retreats into her head, clinging to the hope of love. Ever the optimist, Polonius also remains stubbornly positive of a happy resolution.

Scene 5: The players

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet Hamlet, who is immediately suspicious of their unexpected arrival, believing them to be in league with his uncle. Polonius interrupts them to announce that a troupe of actors has arrived in Elsinore. Hamlet asks them to insert a scene into their play mimicking Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet, and they agree.

Hamlet talks to Horatio, explaining his hope that Claudius’s reaction to the play will reveal his guilt. He plans to watch him closely, and look for signs.

Scene 6: The play’s the thing

The court is assembled to watch the play. Hamlet is manic and excitable, teasing Ophelia and his mother, but his humour has a bitter cruelty to it. The play unfolds, and when the murder takes place Claudius is visibly unsettled. Suddenly he rises and leaves, bringing the performance to an abrupt close. The court follows him, and Hamlet is left alone. Gleeful, he vows revenge, convinced that the ghost has spoken the truth.

Scene 7: The confession

Claudius is alone, praying. Hamlet enters, unnoticed by Claudius, and overhears him confessing to his brother’s murder. Hamlet prepares to kill Claudius then and there but then doubts himself – unable to kill the king while he is at prayer. He decides instead to choose another moment, and goes to speak to his mother and warn her of Claudius’s wickedness.

Scene 8: Murder and incest

Hamlet enters his mother’s room, unaware that Polonius is concealed and listening to their conversation. Gertrude reproaches Hamlet, telling him how angry he has made Claudius. Hamlet brushes her aside and, hearing a noise and believing it to be Claudius, suddenly lashes out, stabbing Polonius through the curtain he is still hiding behind. Polonius dies, and a horrified Gertrude is now confronted by Hamlet, who tells her of Claudius’s part in her husband’s death and accuses her of incest for marrying her dead husband’s brother.

The ghost of Hamlet’s father appears, reproaching Hamlet – why has he delayed so long in taking revenge? Hamlet promises to take action. Gertrude cannot see the ghost, and is convinced of her son’s madness. The Act ends with Hamlet leaving the room, dragging the dead body of Polonius after him.

Act II

Scene 9: Madness and mad plans

Laertes returns to Elsinore to avenge his father Polonius’s death. The people of Elsinore look to him as a leader, threatening Claudius’s leadership. But Claudius manages to harness Laertes to his own political cause by telling him that Hamlet is the guilty one and persuading him to kill the prince, promising to conceal Laertes’ crime.

Ophelia enters, seemingly driven mad with grief at Hamlet’s rejection and her father’s death. Laertes is horrified by what he sees, which only reinforces his resolve to kill Hamlet.

Gertrude enters with the news that Ophelia is dead – she has drowned herself in a nearby stream.

Scene 10: The funeral II

Hamlet and Horatio enter a graveyard where a gravedigger is working. Asked by Hamlet whose grave he is digging, they exchange some darkly humorous conversation. It then becomes evident that the grave belongs to Ophelia, whose funeral the two men have inadvertently stumbled upon.

The courtly funeral procession enters, and Hamlet encounters Laertes, provoking him to fresh anger, despite Gertrude’s attempt to calm the situation.

Scene 11: The wager

Sent by Claudius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go to Hamlet to set the king’s plan in motion. They tell him that Claudius has made a wager that Hamlet would beat Laertes in a duel. Hamlet accepts the challenge and agrees to fight. The court assembles to see the duel.

Scene 12: Death

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern distribute the foils. Claudius arranges it so that Laertes fights with one whose tip has been dipped in poison, and has also poisoned a cup of wine that he intends to offer the prince. But Gertrude drinks from the cup before Claudius can prevent her. Laertes wounds Hamlet, but in the scuffle they swap rapiers.

The queen collapses to the floor and dies, but not before revealing that the cup of wine was poisoned. Laertes also collapses and dies. Hamlet rushes at Claudius, but stabs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instead. He then kills Claudius before dying himself.

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