50 Minute Hamlet – synopsis by adaptor/director Jeff Christian
In 50 Minute Hamlet, the action of Shakespeare’s masterpiece is condensed and performed by only two actors — one playing the title character and one who switches masterfully between all the other roles. Both actors also provide narration to forward the plot, clarify the scenes, and share the adventure of creating the play in this way. Shakespeare created what on the surface might appear to be a mass-appeal murder and intrigue story, while underneath it ventures to explore a variety of complex human themes.
As the play begins, Prince Hamlet has hastily returned from his studies at Wittenberg to the Danish court at Elsinore. He no sooner attends his father’s funeral, but then must witness his mother’s (Gertrude) marriage — to his Uncle Claudius — and the subsequent coronation of Claudius to Hamlet’s father’s seat as king.
One night the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him and tells him he was murdered by Claudius, who then won Gertrude’s affections, and orders Hamlet to take revenge on the king. In hesitation at performing this command, Hamlet vacillates between action and inaction, and between sanity, madness and feigned madness. He criticizes himself for not acting against his uncle. He considers the dangers and rewards of suicide. He seeks comfort from his one true love, Ophelia, only to learn that the King and Queen are using her to deceive him. Thus, he rejects her.
Hamlet plots to “catch the conscience of the king” by having a band of traveling actors perform a play representing the crimes of his uncle — and Hamlet is delighted to see his uncle’s violent reaction to the play, all but confirming Claudius’ guilt. Claudius flees from the play to kneel in private prayer, where Hamlet discovers him — but passes up the opportunity to kill him, fearing he would send him to heaven by killing him while he was praying. In a furious meeting with his mother in her bedroom, Hamlet thinks he stabbed the king, but accidentally kills Polonius (a counselor to the king and father of Ophelia and Laertes), who had positioned himself behind the draperies to eavesdrop. The ghost of the former king appears to Hamlet again to remind him of his duty.
Claudius exiles Hamlet to England and sends secret orders that he be executed upon his arrival. Destroyed by the loss of Hamlet and her father’s death, Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself, even as word comes that Hamlet has had his guards (former good friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) killed by forging an execution warrant for them, and is on his way back to Denmark. Meanwhile Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, storms back from France with the intent to avenge his father’s death by confronting the king. Claudius, however, turns Laertes’s wrath against Hamlet. Together they plot to kill Hamlet with a poisoned sword to be used during a fencing match.
At the match, Hamlet has scored two hits when his mother unknowingly drinks to his health from a cup that Claudius has also poisoned. Laertes, desperate, catches Hamlet off guard and cuts him with the poisoned sword. As the fight continues Hamlet exchanges weapons with Laertes and wounds him with the poisoned tip. As the queen dies, Laertes clears his conscience before his death by revealing the whole plot, spurring Hamlet to kill Claudius with the poisoned sword. As Hamlet takes his dying breaths in the arms of his best and last remaining friend, Horatio, he names Fortinbras as successor to the Danish throne.