In the play Hamlet, we see a man who is driven to revenge after the murder of his father. However, this man, the titular character of the play, Hamlet, is indecisive and goes through a variety of problems in his quest for revenge.
He is supported or schemed against by a variety of characters, many of who act as a character foil to Hamlet. A foil is used as a parallel and contrasts the main character, letting us better see his various traits, the reasoning behind decisions, or important differences.
In Hamlet, his prominent character trait of indecisiveness and other traits are revealed and better seen when compared and contrasted to the rest of the cast.
One of these foils is the character of Laertes. Laertes and Hamlet both share a common goal, revenge for the murder of their father. However, the way they go about this is different.
Unlike Hamlet, he is ablaze with motivation and action, and says that he will throw “conscience and grace to the profoundest pit”. (A4, S5 150) But, Laertes is very shallow and Hamlet is a genius in comparison. Yet, it is his intelligence and tendency to overthink which is Hamlet’s flaw.
However, we do see that in anger both Laertes and Hamlet can be very rash and impulsive and bring problems upon themselves. When Laertes learns of his father’s death he immediately assumes it was Claudius.
As a result of Laertes’ speculation, he instinctively moves to avenge Polonius’ death. “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 worlds I give to negligence, let come what comes; only I’ll be revenged most thoroughly for my father.” (A4 S5 149-154)
Hamlet also thrusts out in rage in an attempt to kill Claudius he stabs through the curtain and kills the hiding Polonius instead.
Another foil we see is Ophelia, the “love” of Hamlet. Hamlet says he is in love with her and pines for her, but, the most important plot in the play is not that of romance, and so it is not the contrast/comparison of characters like Romeo and Juliet that can be made. Instead, only in revenge and death do we see her as a character foil.
After her father’s death, she goes truly mad, as seen by the singing in Act 4, Scene 5. One of the most debated topics surrounded Hamlet is whether or not Hamlet truly goes mad by the end of the play, or if it is only an illusion concocted by him. I believe that in seeing Ophelia as a character foil, with her real madness, Hamlet’s wasn’t real and he was indeed in control the entire time.
We also see the weakness of her character and the strength of Hamlet. Her death is debated as being a suicide, and only someone who was weak and mad would turn to that solution. In contrast, we see Hamlet consider suicide himself in Act 3 Scene 1 but not go through with it, instead of working towards his goal of revenge.
The characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also act as a foil to Hamlet. They are always seen together, acting together and working together. This is a stark contrast to Hamlet, and how he acts alone. Hamlet is frequently by himself with the play and does much of what he does alone, without any help.
Other than his confidant/friend Horatio, he frequently acts alone. This is further shown by the betrayal of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were seen as Hamlet’s friends at the beginning of the play. They are also simpler than Hamlet and of a lower class and have a less educated manner of speaking.
When talking to Hamlet we see the contrast and see the intelligence of Hamlet. They also act as pawns; following the King’s will blindly which is a contrast to Hamlet’s independence.
Hamlet’s best friend Horatio is also a foil to him. Though they are similar and are friends, there is some contrast, and Hamlet can be seen as an equal with him, instead of lording over many of the other characters which he does by his status/rank or with his wit and intelligence. Horatio is sensible, level-headed, and reasonable more often than not.
When Horatio sees the Ghost he initially doubts its existence but when does believe it is truly there he logically goes to inform Hamlet immediately. When Hamlet then goes to follow the Ghost, Horatio warns him and says he to be careful, as the Ghost may be an evil spirit, something Hamlet didn’t consider as he blindly followed the Ghost.
Horatio is a stalwart friend and is consistently a reliable source of information and warnings. He cares for Hamlet and when Hamlet is about to die, he goes to drink from the poisoned cup but Hamlet stops him, telling him he must tell the story of what transpired here.
The final character foil to Hamlet is Fortinbras. Both are noble princes, their fathers killed, and their Uncle now on the throne. They both seek to regain the throne and avenge their father’s deaths. However, they go about this in a different manner despite their common goals.
And though they come from a similar background, various differences come into play to show Hamlet’s weakness. The contrast lies in their motives; Hamlet wishes to kill Claudius for personal revenge while Fortinbras works in the name of Norway and of honor. This difference shows their inaction and action, while Hamlet is doing this for personal reasons; he is bound by personal morals and hesitates to kill Claudius, like the instance of when Claudius is praying in the chapel, because he believes killing him then would send him to heaven.
Since Fortinbras’ mission is not one of revenge, he does not debate over any moral dilemmas. And so, Fortinbras takes action while Hamlet has no initiative and spends most of his time in a state of “madness”. Hamlet also has the weakness of his father’s murder not being public knowledge. While Hamlet has to scheme and plan against Claudius secretly and tread carefully, Fortinbras is free to march his armies and plan openly.
Hamlet struggles with his anger and has difficulties killing those who are guilty; he becomes jealous of Fortinbras and his ability to lead and channel his anger in retaking the land he lost and seeing no problem in killing those who are innocent. Hamlet wishes to be Fortinbras and it is because of this, that we clearly see Hamlet’s flaws. Fortinbras showed us Hamlet’s tragic flaw, his indecisiveness and inability to act.
In conclusion, the tragic flaw of Hamlet, his indecisiveness is clearly seen when we look at character foils. It is the similarities and differences between Hamlet and the other minor characters that further our understanding of him.
Through comparison and contrast, we see Hamlet’s traits, characteristics, and flaws. Although Hamlet is the main character of the play, it is through the minor characters that we can truly see who Hamlet is and the reasoning behind his decisions.