Topic: Entertainment & MediaEvents

Last updated: January 11, 2020

The qualities and motivations of a character are highlighted through the use of foils. In literature, a foil is a character whose actions and words contrast the characteristics of another character. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, various characters are foils to Hamlet, revealing his prominent character traits and the reasoning behind his decisions. Fortinbras’ haste and success illustrate Hamlet’s inability to act upon his desires. Furthermore, Horatio’s intelligence and stable nature illuminate Hamlet’s melancholia. Moreover, Laertes’ lack of remorse and impulsivity emphasizes Hamlet’s tendency to overthink. Fortinbras, Horatio and Laertes are used as foils to emphasize key attributes seen within Hamlet and to further develop his characterization and tragic flaws.
The inability to act upon one’s desires is foiled by the haste and success of another.
Hamlet and Fortinbras are both princes whose fathers have been killed, and Uncles are presently on the throne. Despite their common goals to regain the crown and avenge their fathers’ deaths, they carry out their plans for revenge in different manners. Fortinbras, whose Father is killed by Old Hamlet in a duel over land, schemes to rebuild his Father’s kingdom and threatens to invade Denmark to reclaim the land that has been lost. Claudius informs the Danish court that Fortinbras plans to attack Denmark. Claudius states,
“…young Fortinbras, Holding a weak supposal of our worth, Or thinking by our late dear brother’s death Our State to be disjoint, and out of frame, Colleagued with this dream of his advantage, He hath not fail’d to pester us with message Importing the surrender of those lands Lost by his Father, with all bands of law, To our most valiant brother; so much for him” (Ham.1.2.17-25).
Fortinbras does not hesitate or struggle to pursue his desires. Fortinbras believes the Kingdom of Denmark is in a vulnerable state as a result of Old Hamlet’s death and therefore does not wait to achieve his goals. Fortinbras assembles his army and threatens to wage war against Denmark. The pace that Fortinbras takes to enact his plan is drastic compared to Hamlet and shows Hamlet’s weakness; his inability to act upon his desires. When the ghost of the late King informs Hamlet that Claudius murdered him, Hamlet promises to avenge his Father’s death to take back the kingdom that is rightfully his. However, Hamlet delays his pursuit of revenge for months, failing to accomplish what he desires. Thus, the hastiness of Fortinbras brings forth Hamlet’s tragic flaw of procrastination. Also, Fortinbras’ success in his endeavours shows Hamlet’s lack of motivation. Fortinbras and his army are advancing through Denmark as Hamlet is about to depart for England. Fortinbras is taking an entire army to Poland to fight a meaningless battle, while Hamlet delays his plot for revenge and is presently on his way to his death; unbeknownst to him. Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras stating, “Witness this army of such mass and charge, / Led by a delicate and tender prince, / Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d Makes mouths at the invisible event, …O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (Ham.4.4.47-50; 65-66). Hamlet reflects on Fortinbras’ ability to take action regardless of the consequences. He vows to be more like Fortinbras who is successful in his acts, yet Hamlet once more delays his revenge on Claudius. Harold Jenkins states, “First Hamlet watches Fortinbras leading his army to action and is given a long soliloquy to lament the comparison with himself. Fortinbras risks death for a ‘fantasy’ of honour while he himself in his more substantial cause lets all sleep” (Jenkins). Fortinbras is willing to risk his life and the lives of other men to protect his honour and nobility, a much lesser cause than Hamlet’s. Fortinbras’ haste renders him successful in reclaiming the land his Father lost and results in his election as King of Denmark when Hamlet dies, whereas Hamlet’s inability to act with intent results in his downfall. Contrastingly, Horatio’s stability and intelligence emphasize Hamlet’s instability as a result of his melancholia.
The stability and intelligence of a confidant illuminate one’s melancholic disposition.
Horatio is a loyal friend whom Hamlet confides in throughout the play. He is level-headed and bases his decisions on rational thinking, whereas Hamlet’s emotions fuel his decisions. Horatio witnesses the ghost of Old Hamlet. He is unsuccessful in communicating with the ghost and therefore informs Hamlet of the apparition in hopes that the ghost will speak to him. Horatio believes that the ghost is the late King of Denmark, however, he is skeptical of its intentions and warns Hamlet of the consequences associated with following the ghost. Horatio states, “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord, / Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff That beetles o’er his base into the sea, / And there assume some other horrible form Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, / And draw you into madness?” (Ham.1.4.69-74). Horatio thinks before he acts and understands the consequences associated with his actions in order to deal with a situation properly. Hamlet ignores Horatio’s warning and does as he pleases without thinking beforehand what might occur if he follows the ghost. This illustrates Hamlet’s flaw; his melancholia. Hamlet’s state of melancholy resulting from his Father’s death causes him to automatically believe that the ghost is his Father. He is so loyal to his Father and overcome with grief that he allows this to cloud his better judgement and prevent him from thinking about the consequences until after he promises to avenge his Father’s death. In addition, Horatio’s stability accentuates Hamlet’s unstable nature as a result of his melancholy. Hamlet’s melancholy alters his personality and reactions to situations while Horatio’s stable nature allows him to remain calm and collected through the events that occur. Before the play within the play begins, Hamlet speaks to Horatio about his plan to determine Claudius’ guilt. Hamlet comments on Horatio’s calmness stating,
“Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice, And could of men distinguish her election, Hath seal’d thee for herself, for thou hast been As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing, A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those Whose blood and judgment are so well commedled That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger To sound what stop she please” (Ham.3.2.65-73).
Hamlet flatters Horatio because of his steady personality that does not waiver in times of doubt or conflict. Through his stability he demonstrates the different ways he and Hamlet handle situations, Hamlet is impulsive and Horatio is cautious of his actions. Hamlet also has a sense of calm, however, his melancholia causes certain events in his life to overwhelm him which ultimately result in his death. Leo Rockas states, “Horatio is meant to remind us through his elective affinity with Hamlet, of those qualities of blood and judgement which Hamlet displays throughout the dramatic action. Hamlet and Horatio are both by contrast meditative, cautious and honourable” (Rockas). Although similar in some aspects, Horatio’s emotions remain true to form whereas Hamlet’s melancholy and loyalty to his Father result in his rash decisions which lead to his demise. Consequently, Laertes’ rashness brings out Hamlet’s inability to seek revenge as a result of his overthinking.
The tendency of one to overthink is emphasized by another’s impulsivity and lack of remorse. Hamlet and Laertes share a common ambition for revenge; however, they seek this revenge in contrasting ways. Hamlet accidentally murders Polonius who is hiding behind the arras as Hamlet speaks to his mother. As soon as Laertes discovers that his Father has been murdered he immediately leaves France for Denmark. Laertes storms Elsinore Castle with a mob of commoners and states, “How came he dead? I’ll not be juggled with: 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 reveng’d Most thoroughly for my Father” (Ham.4.5.129-153). Laertes plans to murder Claudius, assuming that he is responsible for his Father’s death. His intention to kill Claudius without verifying if he is the perpetrator indicates a lack of thought and planning. Laertes is not concerned with the details of the murder; his only thought is to avenge his Father’s death and restore honour to his family name. This, in turn, brings out Hamlet’s tragic flaw; his tendency to overthink. Hamlet dwells on his plan to avenge his Father’s death and constantly doubts himself. His overthinking is so drastic that before he even attempts to murder his Uncle, he feigns madness to ensure there will be no repercussions. As a result, Hamlet delays carrying out his revenge several times throughout the play. Although Hamlet is also impulsive, he does not use this trait against his Uncle to seek revenge, whereas Laertes does and it proves effective. In addition, Laertes’ willingness to murder illuminates Hamlet’s concern with his conscience and morals. Laertes is hot-headed and therefore killing is not an issue if it ensures he will bring honour back to his family. As a result, when Laertes discovers that Hamlet killed his Father, Claudius and Laertes plot to murder Hamlet. Laertes shows great pleasure in the fact that he will be able to kill Hamlet and seek revenge for his Father. Laertes states, “To cut his throat i’ the church” (Ham.4.7.127). Laertes boasts about killing Hamlet in the church. Although the reference of killing in the church is sinful, Laertes will do whatever it takes to ensure his revenge. Harold Jenkins states, “His situation of seeking vengeance for his Father’s death, and his every word and gesture stresses by implication what Hamlet does not do. Hamlet has reflected on the conscience that makes ‘cowards of us all,’ but Laertes consigns conscience to the ‘profoundest pit’; Hamlet knows how man may quail in the dread of something after death, but Laertes dares damnation” (Jenkins). Laertes does not worry about the afterlife, and there are no concerns about conscience; Hamlet has killed Polonius and therefore must die at his hands, regardless of the circumstances. This dramatically contrasts Hamlet, who overthinks every detail of what may occur if he murders Claudius. Hamlet is given many opportunities to kill his Uncle but fails to do so since he is lost in thought about the minor details of the offence he wishes to commit. Hamlet finds it difficult to murder people especially if it goes against his conscience and morals. Hamlet can kill his Uncle while he is praying in the church but stops himself in fear that it will send him to heaven. Hamlet is unaware that Claudius is insincere in his prayers and that he will not be sent to heaven if he is killed. As a result of Hamlet’s overthinking he misses the countless opportunities to avenge his Father’s death, unlike Laertes, who’s impulse allows him to seize every opportunity for revenge.
The character foils of Fortinbras, Horatio and Laertes contrast Hamlet in various ways that highlight his tragic flaws and reveal his true nature. The hastiness of Fortinbras and his contrasting approach to avenge his Father’s death foils Hamlet’s procrastination. Horatio’s calm and pure personality foil Hamlet’s melancholy state that overwhelms him and clouds his better judgement. Laertes’ impulsivity and lack of remorse foil Hamlet’s tendency to overthink and his lackadaisical attitude regarding his revenge. In Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Hamlet is supported and schemed against by varying characters, who act as character foils and bring forth his tragic flaws of procrastination, overthinking and melancholia which ultimately lead to his demise.


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