A ghost resembling the recently deceased King, Old Hamlet, is seen by guards at the Danish royal palace. Horatio decides his friend Prince Hamlet, the late King’s son, must be told.
Claudius, the new King, has recently married his brother’s widow, Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. King Claudius conducts affairs of state involving the warlike actions of Norwegian Prince Fortinbras. Counsellor Polonius allows his son Laertes to leave the court, but the King and Queen insist Hamlet must stay and criticise his melancholy mood. Horatio tells Hamlet about the Ghost.
Laertes lectures his sister Ophelia on her response to Hamlet’s romantic intentions. In turn he is given some parting fatherly advice by Polonius, who then quizzes Ophelia about Hamlet. He instructs her to reject him.
The Ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by his own brother, King Claudius, and demands Hamlet avenge him. Hamlet must now decide what action to take.
Polonius instructs his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris. Ophelia appears, greatly distressed by Hamlet’s strange behaviour. Polonius concludes that Hamlet’s melancholy is due to his love for Ophelia which has now sent him mad. The King and Queen ask Hamlet’s old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to discover what’s wrong with him. Hamlet plays the mad prince when Polonius and the two false friends question him.
Some actors arrive at court. Hamlet asks them to perform a play including some new lines written by him. He hopes the performance will cause the King to betray his guilt.
The King, Queen and Polonius arrange for Ophelia to meet with Hamlet as though by accident. The King and Polonius hide and listen as Hamlet behaves erratically. Hamlet instructs the actors to perform with truth. Their play about a nobleman murdered by a relative who then seduces his widow makes the King walk out. Hamlet is now convinced of his guilt.
The King decides to send Hamlet to England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet meets his mother in her bedchamber, but Polonius is hiding there. Hearing a noise, Hamlet stabs Polonius, then condemns his mother for her shameful behaviour. The Ghost appears to remind Hamlet that he is still waiting for revenge. The Queen confronts her own guilt, but the King sends Hamlet to England immediately with secret orders for his execution.
While travelling, Hamlet sees Prince Fortinbras marching to a pointless battle in Poland.
Back at the palace, the King, Queen and Horatio encounter Ophelia, sent mad by her father’s murder. Laertes returns, seeking revenge. Ophelia’s madness leads to her death by drowning. Horatio receives a letter from Hamlet. He is back in Denmark. The King and Laertes concoct a plot to kill Hamlet during a fencing challenge with a poisoned blade and poisoned wine.
Hamlet and Horatio meet a gravedigger in a churchyard and Hamlet considers the skull of the old court jester Yorick. A funeral procession approaches. When Hamlet discovers it is Ophelia’s funeral, he brawls with Laertes.
Hamlet tells Horatio of his adventures at sea. He arranged it so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be executed instead of him in England. Osric, a foolish courtier, brings Hamlet a challenge to fence with Laertes. During the match Hamlet is wounded by the poisoned blade, but so is Laertes. The Queen drinks the poisoned wine by accident and dies. Laertes tells Hamlet about the plot and dies. Hamlet kills the King and dies. Prince Fortinbras arrives, sobered by the carnage, but ready to claim the Danish throne.