The central reason for the play's eminence is the character of Hamlet. His brooding, erratic nature has been analyzed by many of the most famous thinkers and artists of the past four centuries. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described him as a poet - a sensitive man who is too weak to deal with the political pressures of Denmark. Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud viewed Hamlet in terms of an “Oedipus complex,” an overwhelming sexual desire for his mother. This complex is usually associated with the wish to kill one’s father and sleep with one’s mother. Freud points out that Hamlet's uncle has usurped his father's rightful place, and therefore has replaced his father as the man who must die. However, Freud is careful to note that Hamlet represents modern man precisely because he does not kill Claudius in order to sleep with his mother, but rather kills him to revenge his father’s death. Political interpretations of Hamlet also abound, in which Hamlet stands for the spirit of political resistance, or represents a challenge to a corrupt regime. Stephen Greenblatt, the editor of the Norton Edition of Shakespeare, views these interpretive attempts of Hamlet as mirrors for the interpretation within the play itself - many of the characters who have to deal with Hamlet, including Polonius , Claudius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern , also develop theories to explain his behavior, none of which really succeeds in doing so. Indeed, nothing sure can be said about Hamlet except that it has been a perennial occasion for brilliant minds to explore some of the unanswerable questions of human existence.
Back at Elsinore, Hamlet explains to Horatio that he had discovered Claudius's letter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's belongings and replaced it with a forged copy indicating that his former friends should be killed instead. A foppish courtier, Osric , interrupts the conversation to deliver the fencing challenge to Hamlet. Hamlet, despite Horatio's pleas, accepts it. Hamlet does well at first, leading the match by two hits to none, and Gertrude raises a toast to him using the poisoned glass of wine Claudius had set aside for Hamlet. Claudius tries to stop her, but is too late: she drinks, and Laertes realizes the plot will be revealed. Laertes slashes Hamlet with his poisoned blade. In the ensuing scuffle, they switch weapons and Hamlet wounds Laertes with his own poisoned sword. Gertrude collapses and, claiming she has been poisoned, dies. In his dying moments, Laertes reconciles with Hamlet and reveals Claudius's plan. Hamlet rushes at Claudius and kills him. As the poison takes effect, Hamlet, hearing that Fortinbras is marching through the area, names the Norwegian prince as his successor. Horatio, distraught at the thought of being the last survivor and living whilst Hamlet does not, says he will commit suicide by drinking the dregs of Gertrude's poisoned wine, but Hamlet begs him to live on and tell his story. Hamlet dies in Horatio's arms, proclaiming "the rest is silence". Fortinbras, who was ostensibly marching towards Poland with his army, arrives at the palace, along with an English ambassador bringing news of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's deaths. Horatio promises to recount the full story of what happened, and Fortinbras, seeing the entire Danish royal family dead, takes the crown for himself, and orders a military funeral to honor Hamlet.