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The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, or more simply Hamlet, is a tragedy by William Shakespeare. The play, set in the Kingdom of Denmark, recounts how Prince Hamlet exacts revenge on his uncle Claudius, firstly for murdering the old King Hamlet (Claudius's brother and Prince Hamlet's father) and secondly for then succeeding to the throne and marrying Gertrude (King Hamlet's widow and mother of Prince Hamlet). The play vividly portrays real and feigned madness - from overwhelming grief to seething rage - and explores themes of treachery, revenge, incest, and moral corruption.
Three different early versions of the play have survived: these are known as the First Quarto (Q1), the Second Quarto (Q2) and the First Folio (F1). Each has lines, and even scenes, that are missing from the others. Shakespeare based Hamlet on the legend of Amleth, preserved by 13th-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus in his Gesta Danorum as subsequently retold by 16th-century scholar FranÃ§ois de Belleforest. He may have also drawn on, or perhaps written, an earlier (hypothetical) Elizabethan play known today as the Ur-Hamlet.
The play's structure and depth of characterisation have inspired much critical scrutiny, of which one example is the centuries-old debate about Hamlet's hesitation to kill his uncle. Some see it as a plot device to prolong the action, and others see it as the result of pressure exerted by the complex philosophical and ethical issues that surround cold-blooded murder, calculated revenge and thwarted desire. More recently, psychoanalytic critics have examined Hamlet's unconscious desires, and feminist critics have re-evaluated and rehabilitated the often maligned characters of Ophelia and Gertrude.
Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play and among the most powerful and influential tragedies in the English language. It has a story capable of "seemingly endless retelling and adaptation by others." During Shakespeare's lifetime, the play was one of his most popular works, and it still ranks high among his most-performed, topping, for example, what eventually became the Royal Shakespeare Company's list since 1879. It has inspired writers from Goethe and Dickens to Joyce and Murdoch, and has been described as "the world's most filmed story after Cinderella".
The title role was almost certainly created for Richard Burbage, the leading tragedian of Shakespeare's time. In the four hundred years since, it has been performed by highly acclaimed actors and actresses from each successive age.