Literature Foils: Contrasting Characters in “Hamlet”
Literary techniques evoke images, emotion and in the case of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” teach a lesson. The dominant literary technique ongoing throughout “Hamlet” is the presence of foils. A foil is a character who, through strong contrast and striking similarities, underscores the protagonist’s distinctive characteristics. Hamlet shares many distinct characteristics and situations with both Laertes, son of the slain Polonius, and Fortinbras, son of the slain King of Norway. However, the three sons of murdered fathers all see their own situation differently and attempt to even the score’ in different manners. Shakespeare uses the similarities and differences between the foils to accentuate the alternate routes Prince Hamlet could have taken in his quest for revenge.
After the death of King Hamlet, the Queen Gertrude and the king’s younger brother Claudius marry hastily(1.2.1-13). Because Prince Hamlet has yet to return from school to take the throne, Claudius declares himself King. Grief-stricken, Hamlet does not protest but rather sulks in the very thought that his mother would be involved in such an incestuous relationship. When Hamlet learns that his father did not die of natural causes, but rather has been murdered by Hamlet’s new stepfather, Hamlet vows to have his revenge (1.5.118-19). However, there are some defining characteristics in Hamlet’s personality and situation illustrate his inability to act upon his vows for revenge. Hamlet is a well-educated and moral man. He is quite rational, and no matter how passionate he is, he thinks about his actions before committing them. He even expresses his resentment at the fact that he must be the one to correct the situation when he says, “O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right(1.5.210-11).” Furthermore, Hamlet is a Christian, and he thus must keep in mind that his actions will be judged later on in the afterlife. In Hamlet’s central soliloquy, he states “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,” referring to the fact that morals keep him from acting(3.1.91). Another factor that hinders Hamlet from having his revenge is the fact that the story of his father’s murder can only be corroborated by a Ghost. The rest of the court, save Claudius, thinks King Hamlet passed away from natural causes. Hamlet must consider the consequences of his actions and the possibility of his own imprisonment if he were to kill Claudius. When Hamlet finally shows that he is ready to take action by saying, “We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow…The readiness is all,” it is essentially too late(5.2.233-37). Claudius and Laertes have already plotted against Hamlet and he has run out of time. In this sense, Hamlet’s downfall did not come from his inability to act, but the length of time he chose to take before taking action.
Young Fortinbras finds himself in a very similar situation to that of Prince Hamlet. His father has been killed and the country has been left in the hands of his uncle(1.2.28-32). However, there are two main differences between the situation of Hamlet and the situation of Fortinbras which defines their fate. The first difference is that King Hamlet was murdered by poisoning, while King Fortinbras died on the battlefield(1.1.95). Hamlet’s desire to murder Claudius is out of revenge, while Fortinbras’ plan, however personal it may be, is done in the name of the nation of Norway and in the name of honor. Hamlet even compliments Fortinbras on this point when he says, “Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honor’s at the stake (4.4.56-59).” It is the difference between Hamlet and Fortinbras’ motive that decides their action and inaction. While Claudius is praying and Hamlet has a chance to kill him, Hamlet realizes that he cannot kill Claudius because it would send him to Heaven(3.3.80). Personal vengeance makes Hamlet stagnant, but Fortinbras’ mission is not one of revenge, and therefore he presumably doesn’t debate over any moral dilemma. The second major difference is that Fortinbras’ father’s death is public knowledge, however no one knows that Hamlet’s father was murdered. While Fortinbras is able to freely plan his attack on the nation of Denmark, Hamlet has no such opportunity to devise his plan against Claudius.
Hamlet’s other foil also shows many similarities to him, but Laertes and Hamlet are only truly compared by the audience toward the end of the play. Laertes and Fortinbras both share one thing in common: quick action. In fact, it is Laertes’ quick action that causes the play to end, for had Laertes been unable to act, he would never have killed Hamlet. Laertes learns of his father’s murder and decides that he must have his revenge upon Hamlet (4.7.160-61). At one point in the play, when Laertes says “I have a speech o’ fire that fain would blaze, but that this folly drowns it,” it seems that he might be too overcome with grief to act, but his hot-head is only ephemerally cooled (4.7.216-17). Laertes and Hamlet share one crucial trait; they are both avenging their father’s murders. Furthermore, to have this revenge, they both need to kill a person of royalty. However, like with Fortinbras’ father’s death, Polonius’ murder is also a matter of public knowledge and Laertes is not hampered by dealing with informing the court of his motives, as Hamlet is. Hamlet makes the connection between himself and Laertes when he says “I’ll be your foil, Laertes (5.2.272).” The resemblance between Laertes and Hamlet and Fortinbras is strikingly obvious, however their flaws and strengths set them apart in the final moments.
Clearly, Fortinbras and Laertes both play foils to Hamlet. They are in similar situations as he, yet they take different routes in solving their problems. Hamlet is slow to action, but quite rational. Laertes is quick to action, but irrational. Fortinbras however, is both quick and rational. Shakespeare uses Laertes and Fortinbras to show both how Hamlet could have gone about his situation differently, but also what characteristics he finds as admirable and exemplary. In the end of the play, both Hamlet and Laertes are dead. Laertes dies because he was irrational and Hamlet because he was slow to act. Only when rational thought was combined with quick action did any character live to tell about it. While Fortinbras becomes the King of Denmark and accomplishes his goals, it must not be overlooked that both Hamlet and Laertes avenged their father’s murders. Shakespeare shows through these foils that while he admires both rational thinking and quick action, it is the combination of the two virtues which leads to success.
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