Foil Characters in Hamlet
Hamlet is one of the most famous and influential characters throughout literature. Hamlet is unique due to his meditative and enigmatic nature. Throughout Hamlet, the contrast that foil characters provide, allows many of Hamlets distinct characteristics to become visible. Shakespeare displays the difference between Hamlets actions and those of Laertes and Fortinbrass. Even in similar circumstances, Hamlet has a different approach than the other two foil characters to his fathers death.
Although Hamlet and Laertes share several characteristics, their attitudes differ greatly. Laertes actions are purely guided by his feelings, while Hamlets only by his mind. Proof of this is when Hamlet apologizes to Laertes and he accepts the apology but then clarifies that in terms of honor he isnt satisfied. "I am satisfied in nature, / Whose motive, in this case, should stir me most / To my revenge: but in my terms of honour / I stand aloof" Act V sc. ii. What Laertes calls honor is actually the desired vengeance, which he needs as a way to seal the death of his father and carry on with his life. Hamlet, on the other hand, acts, or better said, refrains from acting because of the conclusions he draws from his reflections and speculations. A great example of Hamlets complicated and elaborate ways of obtaining what he wants is the plot of the Mouse Trap for catching the Kings conscience. Instead of asking the king violently, just like Laertes, if he had killed his father, he prefers to use subtler suggestions expressed through parallel stories that mirror Claudius actions and situation. There is yet one more example that displays clearly the difference between these two characters; they essentially want the same thing: to fulfill their duties and carry on with their lives. Despite their common end, each one of them has a very different approach than the other for the resolution of their troubles. Laertes falls into violent reclamation and desperation when he questions the king about his fathers murderer and how might he murdered. On the other hand, Hamlet avoids direct confrontation with the king and recurs to indirect methods through which he might learn the truth, as the one mentioned in the Mouse Trap.
Regarding their fathers death, these two characters also behave very differently. For instance, Hamlet feels sorrow and suffers greatly for the loss of his father and the early marriage of his mother. In contrast, Laertes first reaction to his fathers death is that of anger followed by a desire of vengeance. Since Laertes is more connected to physical and sensible world, he is more likely to follow the rules of a greatly immature and morally underdeveloped society. In a very different manner, Hamlet is a man deeply connected to the thoughtful and more humanistic world of ideas. Thus his actions are almost inoffensive and if he must hurt someone, he rather do it with words and slashing puns. The lack of rationality in Laertes makes him vulnerable to manipulation and in the end he agrees with a complicated scheme to kill Hamlet. Laertes initial desires were so impulsive that he wanted to kill Hamlet while prayers. Only because of Claudius suggestions and alternatives did Laertes accept to delay Hamlets death to a duel in which he would be killed with trickery. In contrast, Hamlet procrastinates action; he plans, almost until perfection, a way in which he can be completely certain that Claudius murdered his father. His plans are so perfect that he even takes into account eternal damnation. Laertes, impulsively, cares about the action of revenge and not of its consequences: To hell, ... allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil! Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit! I dare damnation. To this point I stand, That both the worlds I give to negligence, Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged Most thoroughly for my father. Act IV sc iv. Hamlet, knows what he is doing when he kills Claudius, he knows that he is condemning himself to damnation; he has already given much thought to this matter and knows that there is no other way out. However, Laertes doesnt even contemplate eternal damnation, once again he cares only about the present, how he feels and what he does.
Other common ground that links Hamlet and Laertes is that they were both raised together, they became scholars, they both loved Ophelia, and they were both spied by their paternal figures: Raymond is sent to Laertes, while Hamlets spies are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. With these small details Shakespeare makes the connection between these two characters undeniable so that their dissimilar behavior can be only the result of a different spirit or nature and not by their nurture and education. The fact that these two personalities, so different in character, were raised together and were exposed to the same environment throughout their youth, tells much about Hamlets uniqueness. Despite their shared education and childhood, Hamlet became a man passionate of thought. He, unlike Laertes, is deeply interested in the different unanswerable questions and each single possibility he explores with an utmost interest and passion. This difference in attitude is not because Laertes has no education, because he is also a scholar studying in France. What really creates this discrepancy is that Hamlet is interested in the metaphysical, unanswerable and the uncertain world of thoughts, while Laertes is more attached to the earthly and palpable world of feelings and action. These two characters lack a balance between these two extremes of the physical and metaphysical worlds; this is finally expressed through Fortinbrass success that contrasts harshly to that of Hamlet and Laertes.
Shakespeare draws several parallels that relate Hamlet to Fortinbrass. He does this in order to establish another perspective of Hamlets actions. Perspective which shows Hamlets negative and flawed condition. Fortinbrass, like Hamlet belongs to royalty and has as well lost his father by unnatural death. Hamlet and Fortinbrass are both the rightful heirs of the throne and were ripped off their noble office by their uncles. Additionally, Shakespeare hints with subtle details such as being named after their fathers, the closeness of these two characters. Despite their common situations, they have very different attitudes. Fortinbrass, just like Laertes, is a character of action, however, Fortinbrass actions arent guided by feelings and impulsive decisions; they are guided by practical and logical analysis in order to achieve a specific goal. For example, Hamlet challenges the kings authority, through puns and clever disdain; Hamlet expresses his discontent with the king. Nevertheless, Hamlets strategy for treating the King causes him more trouble. Its because of his faked madness that the king and queen send Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. Fortinbrass, unlike Hamlet, uses an effective strategy: he abides quietly to his uncles command and waits for a better occasion upon which to seize power of the declining Denmark.
At last, in the end of the play Fortinbrass goal becomes true as Hamlet prophesizes he will become the king of Denmark. Fortinbrass character is truly revealed in this scene for the first time, as soon as he arrives, he quickly analyzes the situation, estimates his ambitions and acts accordingly. One of the main differences between Hamlet and Fortinbrass is that the later plans his actions and then effectively executes his plans. Hamlet doesnt reach the last part, he troubles himself too much planning complicated and unfeasible plans that at the end vanish into thin air. This occurs because Hamlet lacks ambitions, he has lost all hope; his actions are resigned to fates decree. Unlike Hamlet, Fortinbrass has the ambitions of a true leader; he wants to regain the lands lost by his father, and takes responsibility for the rebirth of Denmark after its rotten period.
During the play Hamlet laments on his own passiveness and compares himself with the vigorous and energetic Fortinbrass. However Hamlet couldnt be expected to behave like Fortinbrass because he doesnt belong to a world of action and bravery, hiss rightful place is in the world of ideas and meditative thought. This is evident throughout the play; one of the reasons that make him angry against his imposed fate is the fact that he cant return to his studies, and even more, that he has to kill his uncle and avenge his father. The imposition of such destiny is completely out of his power; he doesnt deserve this fate, still, he has to abide by it and condemn himself for eternity. Nevertheless, the fact that Hamlet doesnt belong to a world of action doesnt mean he doesnt regret his own over-thoughtful condition. Near the end of the play, Hamlet soliloquizes on the frustration of his inaction up to the moment. He watches how men fight for futile reasons, while he who has a strong and founded motive is unable to execute his plans. However, even at the end of his speech Hamlet fails to achieve action for he says O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! Hamlet says let my thoughts be bloody but doesnt make reference to his actions. Another aspect that creates discrepancy between Hamlet and Fortinbrass is that when Hamlet takes action, he acts quickly without planning his actions. This doesnt mean that he acts mindlessly, but rather that he refrains from creating complicated schemes and plots. Thus with his strategies for incriminating and then killing the king, we know that he isnt likely to execute this plans. As a matter of fact, Hamlet murders the king on completely improvised circumstances and isnt able to prevent his mothers death. Thus he is unable to comply with his fathers request of saving his mother. Fortinbrass is an element that allows the play to end completely. Thanks to him, the story continues and doesnt have a dead end, its foreshadowed that Fortinbrass will be king of Denmark and will set right that kingdom that had been rotting in corruption.
Finally, through Laertes and Fortinbrass comparison with Hamlet, Shakespeare displays both the positive and negative aspects of Hamlets condition. He shows how well Hamlet thinks before acting and evaluates the possible outcomes of his actions. In contrast to Laertes reckless acts, this seems rather an attribute than an obstacle. However, as Shakespeare shows with Fortinbrass, Hamlet is too thoughtful and ends up tangled in imaginary sceneries that never come true. Thus, Hamlet is a character that oscillates between extremes: life or death, action or inaction, role-playing or fighting, and thinking or acting.