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Shakespeare Midterm: Hamlet Characters

Terms in this set (10)

-Hamlet is immature: he's acts like a moody and smart-alecky kid with suicidal tendencies, a penchant for wearing black mourning clothes, and a habit of delivering long, drawn-out speeches on the futility of life (the gravedigger tells the reader that he's thirty) T
-In his first soliloquy, he tells us he wishes his "too, too sullied flesh would melt / Thaw, and resolve itself into dew" and that the world seems "weary, stale, flat," like an "unweeded garden (1.2.133-134; 137; 139)
-Has some issues; it turns out his father, Old King Hamlet, died less than two months ago, so Hamlet's feeling the loss; to make matters worse, his mother, Gertrude, has already remarried and is now the wife of Hamlet's uncle, Claudius, who's also helped himself to the Danish crown
-Claudius calls Hamlet a wimp for being sad about his father's death
-A ghost claiming to be Old King Hamlet's spirit shows up, tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Hamlet's uncle/stepfather, and orders Hamlet to take revenge; instead, Hamlet pretends to be a madman, runs around delivering lengthy philosophical speeches, verbally abuses his girlfriend, stabs his girlfriend's father in the guts, and terrorizes his mother; this is what makes Shakespeare's character (and the entire play) so bizarre —and so brilliant --Hamlet's complex psychological response to life and death, his mother's sexuality, and the implications of avenging his father's murder is like taking a psychological roller coaster ride.
-Hamlet has issues with sex and women; is angry with his mother—especially her sex life, as she has moved on less than two months after his father died
-Hamlet says he can hardly stand to "remember" the way his mother couldn't get enough of his father when he was alive —"she would hang on him" with a major sexual "appetite" that she seems to have simply transferred over to her new husband; is he mad that Gertrude is into her new husband, or that Gertrude is into any man at all, including his dead dad?
-Hamlet's attitude toward his mom has generously expanded to include all women, who, according to Hamlet, are "frail," or morally weak, because they're so lustful; this also has major consequences for Hamlet's relationship with his Ophelia—it might even drive her all the way to her death
-Hamlet takes a very long time exacting his revenge, several theories as to why:
-Theory #1: He doesn't believe the ghost.
The political and religious turmoil of the Protestant Reformation were only a few decades in the past when Hamlet was written, and these new Protestants had different views of Christianity than the previous ruling team, the Catholics. From what the ghost says, it sounds like he's coming from Purgatory, a sort of waiting room where souls chilled out before they could get to Heaven.
But Protestants denied the existence of Purgatory. This means the ghost may be a demon from hell, which is why Hamlet wonders if the spirit is a "goblin damned" (1.4.44). So what is Hamlet —Protestant or Catholic?
Protestant. Hamlet's chilling in Denmark, which is definitely Protestant nation, and he goes to the University of Wittenberg (where all the cool kids go), which was Martin Luther's university and also home to the church door he so famously nailed his theses to. This means the ghost could possibly be a devil that has come to tempt him and is, therefore, not telling the truth about Old Hamlet's murder.
-Theory #2: Hamlet has some scruples.
There's a famous passage in the Christian Bible, from Romans, xii, 19: "Avenge not yourselves [...] vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord."
Translation: It's not man's place to take vengeance on anyone, period. That's God's job. Plus, everyone knows that murder is a sin. Shakespeare's inclusion of Christian morality doesn't necessarily square with the basic tenets of revenge tragedy, which calls for bloody vengeance. (See "Genre" for more on this.)
At work in Hamlet is also the notion of the old, pagan revenge code that says when someone kills your father, you have to get your revenge on. Which, of course, means that person's kid will eventually kill you, and so on and so on ad infinitum until everybody dies and entire families are wiped out. What does that mean? Hamlet is a Christian hero with a pagan duty. Pretty confusing, whether you're 13 or 30.
-Theory #3: Hamlet stinks. Shakespeare stinks.
We're not kidding. Some people say that you can't answer the question of why Hamlet delays seeking revenge because there is no answer. Stop trying to preserve the play's integrity and/or psychological accuracy, because there isn't any to be preserved. Who thought this? Oh, just super famous author Voltaire. And super famous poet T. S. Eliot.
According to this school of thought, Hamlet is only "mysterious" to us because he's a poorly drawn dramatic figure. Shakespeare didn't give him enough of a motive to make any sense of his behavior. But remember from your lesson in Historical Context that there's a Renaissance crisis going on at the time: nothing is supposed to make sense. Around 1600, everyone's confused about religion, geography, and the state of the universe. If a play doesn't make sense... maybe it's not supposed to. Hamlet is full of contradictions, inconsistencies, and uncertainties —just like the rest of the world at the time.
-Theory #4: Hamlet suffers from an Oedipus Complex
Some people believe Hamlet is, in some ways, a re-telling of Oedipus the King by Sophocles. Doesn't ring a bell? Oedipus was an ancient Greek king who, according to legend, was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Fast-forward to the late 19th or early 20th century, and you've got Sigmund Freud going around talking about the "Oedipus Complex," which basically says every man wants to do what Oedipus did. Sure, Freud came around a few hundred years after Hamlet —but since Oedipus the King was written in the 400s B.C., it's safe to say that it's an old idea.
Bear with us on this for a minute. Let's say Hamlet does suffer from an Oedipus Complex. If this is true, then Claudius has done what Hamlet wants to do: kill King Hamlet (senior), and sleep with Gertrude. Hamlet can't kill Claudius, because secretly, he wants to be Claudius. If you want to add some weight to this theory, check out all those scenes where Hamlet displays a gnawing obsession with his mother's sexuality, down to the tiny details in his imaginings of her and Claudius getting it on. Also, think about it this way: if Claudius is in a way like Hamlet, then killing Claudius would be like killing himself. Revenge would be like suicide, which is why the two get so mixed-up, and why Hamlet has the same feelings about both.
When you put it like that, it sounds pretty convincing, right?
Regardless of what school of thought you subscribe to, there is no question that Hamlet is one of the most complex, compelling, and fascinating characters in literary history. Shakespeare created a hero whose inner thoughts and quandaries dominate the audience's experience of him... and literature hasn't been the same since.
-Ghosts are a common element in revenge tragedy, so it's not terribly surprising that the specter shows up in the play- what is surprising is that this ghost isn't as straightforward as it seems
-What is the ghost? What does it want? Where has it come from? Is it a "spirit of health or goblin damned" (1.4.44)? And did someone remember to bring the ice?
-This is unclear in the play, but here's what the spirit claims: (1) The ghost says he's Hamlet's father (it sure looks like the guy); (2) The ghost also says that he was murdered by his brother, who happens to be Hamlet's uncle Claudius, the guy who's now married to Gertrude and sitting on the throne of Denmark; (3) The ghost also claims he's "doomed" to suffer in "sulph'rous and tormenting flames" until the "foul crimes done in [his] days of nature / Are burnt and purged away" (1.5.6; 17-18). Hm, sounds a lot like Purgatory, where sins had to be "purged" before a soul could make it to heaven. (That also sounds like a no on the ice.)
-There are a few problems with this: first, purgatorial spirits weren't supposed to ask people to commit murder, since that basically defeats the point of being purged of your sins. Still, that's exactly what the ghost wants. In fact, he says he's doomed to suffer until he gets his revenge.
-Second, Protestants don't officially believe in the doctrine of Purgatory and Hamlet is a Protestant. (He lives in Denmark, a Protestant nation, and goes to school in Wittenberg, where the Protestant Reformation began. Be sure to check out our discussion of "Religion" for more about this.) Pretty suspicious, if you ask us. Hamlet seems to agree, and he's not about to go on a murdering spree until he knows the truth. The ghost's appearance sets the revenge plot into motion, but it also delays the play's action.
-A lot of literary critics notice that the ghost has a whole lot in common with young Hamlet. They talk alike (mostly about Gertrude's "unnatural" and "incestuous" relationship with Claudius) and they also kind of look alike at one point. Remember when Ophelia describes the way Hamlet appeared when he showed up in her room looking all ghostly "pale," almost "as if he had been loosèd out of hell" (2.1.93)? Yeah, sounds a lot like the ghost to us.
-So maybe the ghost-as-dad is just a figment of Hamlet's imagination. Other characters may see the ghost (the castle guards and Horatio, for example), but Hamlet's the only one who has a dialogue with it. He's also the only one who sees or hears the ghost when it shows up in Gertrude's chamber to remind Hamlet to be nice to his mom (3.4.126-131).
-Has Hamlet been imagining his conversations with the ghost the whole time? Does this have anything to do with the fact that Hamlet says to Horatio "My father—methinks I see my father [...] in my mind's eye" (1.2.191; 193) before he even finds out that the ghost has been appearing on the castle walls?
-Regardless of whether or not we believe the ghost is "real," we feel safe saying that the spirit represents the way young Hamlet is haunted by his dad's memory. We get it; the prince has just lost one of the most important figures in his life, a man he idolizes and loves, and everyone is just telling him to move on and forget about his father. Claudius insists Hamlet's excessive grief is "unmanly" and Gertrude tells Hamlet to ditch his mourning clothes and quit moping (1.2.98).
-Maybe he's real and maybe he's not—either way, he sure seems real to Hamlet.
Uneasy lies the Head that Wears the Crown...
Especially if he got it through sibling-cide and quasi-incest. That's our man Claudius, the current king of Denmark. He's married to his dead brother's wife Gertrude, which makes him Hamlet's uncle and stepfather. Make that evil stepfather: Claudius murdered the previous king, Hamlet's father. Is it just us, or did it just get really cold in here?

Claudius is so evil that he's practically a cartoon villain. And we have to ask: what sort of man would murder his brother, basically usurp the throne, and then plot to have his nephew killed?

Claudius and Biblical Allusion
Let's take a look first at how Claudius went about his dastardly deeds. Fact #1: He murdered Old King Hamlet by pouring poison in Old King Hamlet's ear while the guy was sleeping peacefully in his garden. Hm. Brothers killing brothers sounds pretty familiar. Claudius is definitely aligned with Cain, the Biblical figure whose claim to fame is committing the first murder ever, when he offed his brother, Abel. Even Claudius admits his "offence is rank [and] smells to heaven [because] / It hath the primal eldest curse upon't, / A brother's murder (3.3.36-38).

Claudius's murderous deed in the garden also recalls the Biblical story of the Fall. The Ghost (of Old Hamlet) says "[t]he serpent that did sting [Hamlet's] father's life / Now wears his crown. (1.5.46-47) The Ghost also goes on to say "that that incestuous, that adulterate beast, / With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts [...] won to his shameful lust / The will of [Old Hamlet's] most seeming-virtuous queen (1.5.49-53).

In other words, the Ghost is comparing Claudius to the infamous serpent who seduced Eve in the Garden of Eden. (We talk more about gardens in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," so be sure to check that section out.) Our point? Claudius kind of is a cartoon villain. He's a distillation of the most basic, fundamental evil in a Christian worldview: Cain, the original murderer; and the Serpent, who got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden.
The King is Dead; Long Live the King!
Claudius is definitely a bad man: nice guys don't kill their brothers and steal their wives. But he might not be such a bad ruler. William Camden said in 1586 that Richard III—another of Shakespeare's tricky kings—was a "bad man, but a good king" (source). Could we say the same about Claudius?

Well, he did do a pretty spectacular job of assuming the throne. As he says himself, he had to convince the nobles of the court to accept his bizarrely timed and probably sinful marriage to Gertrude, all "discretion fought with nature" and talking about his "wisest sorrow" (1.2.5; 6). In other words, he says, he really didn't want to marry Gertrude, but the kingdom needed him. Convincing? It convinced the entire court, everyone except Hamlet.

Aside from crown-stealing and wife-stealing, Claudius goes on to diplomatically avoid war with Norway. Remember that the trouble between Denmark and Norway began when Old King Hamlet accepted Old Norway's challenge to a duel in which the winner would walk away with some of the other ruler's lands. His willingness to gamble away part of his kingdom suggests he wasn't exactly the terrific king his son remembers. In any case, Claudius cleans up the mess with Norway when his negotiations prevent Old Norway's son (Fortinbras) from attacking Denmark in order to retrieve Norway's lost territory.

Later in the play, Claudius manages to talk his way out of Laertes's rebellion, too. Even at swordpoint, Claudius manages to calm the kid down and convince him that he is innocent of Polonius's death by telling Laertes to "speak, man" and ordering Gertrude to "let him demand his fill" (4.5.143; 147). He gives Laertes a voice and treats him like an equal—well, sort of. He pretends to listen to him, while really he's just manipulating the poor kid. But the point is that Laertes invades the palace with a bunch of "rabble" (4.5.112), and still Claudius comes out on top —and wearing his crown.

Claudius as Machiavellian Ruler
There's a reason Claudius is so good at kingcraft: he seems to be a pretty diligent student of one Niccolò Machivelli, whose Prince (1532) was basically a self-help guide for rulers looking to get and maintain power. According to Machiavelli's theory, being a successful ruler has nothing to do with being a nice person or doing the right thing. Instead, it's about being inventive, charismatic, willful, and manipulative. Controversial, sure—but also super popular in Shakespeare's day.

So it seems that the same characteristics that make Claudius a bad man are those that make him a successful king. He has no qualms about manipulating people, and he is unapologetically selfish. Hypocrisy barely bothers Claudius: he pretends to be a loving stepfather to Hamlet even while sending him off to be killed. Claudius doesn't let his conscience get in the way of the job that needs to be done. He also lets Gertrude drink a goblet of wine he knows is poisoned, since he'd rather see his wife die than risk ruining his plans.

Okay, let's give him a little credit. He does manage a "Gertrude, do not drink"—but opts out of the perhaps more effective, "Gertrude, do not drink, whatever you do, as the wine is poisoned because I'm secretly trying to kill your son, and even though I really would rather have him dead, I'm not willing to let you go down as a casualty of my despicable and unlawful scheming."
Poor Hamlet. All he wants is a mom who bakes cookies for the PTA bake sale and stays true to his dad's memory—but instead, she marries her dead husband's brother, King Claudius. Is this really an act of betrayal to her husband's memory? Or is mom just not ready to be a widow shut up in some corner of the palace?

Ask Me No Questions
Oh, Gertrude. We've got a lot of questions about this lady. She's obviously a central figure in the play —Hamlet spends a whole lot of time dwelling on her incestuous marriage to Claudius —but we know practically nothing about her motivations or feelings. Was she having an affair with Claudius before the death of Old Hamlet? Does Gertrude know that Claudius killed her former husband? Why does she drink the poisoned wine her husband has prepared for her son? Does she know it's poisoned? Or, is she just really thirsty?

Let's take these one at a time.

Big Old Cheater?
First things first: Was Gertrude stepping out with Claudius while Old Hamlet was still alive? The Ghost all but accuses her of adultery and incest when he calls her new husband, Claudius, "that incestuous, that adulterate beast" (1.5.49). Okay, it seems clear Gertrude's guilty of adultery (cheating on one's spouse) right? Well, maybe not. In Shakespeare's day, "adulterate" could refer to any sexual sin (like incest), not just cheating.

But, if you really want to argue that Gertrude's a big old cheater, be sure to check out the ghost's emphasis on the marriage "vow" he made to Gertrude (1.5.56): he says that there was a "falling-off" from him to Claudius, which sure seems to imply that she was cheating on Old Hamlet while he was alive—and just maybe even plotting with Claudius.

Big Old Murderess?
Next question. Did Gertrude know her late husband was murdered by her new man? On the "No way!" side, the Ghost never accuses Gertrude of murder—just adultery. Also, Gertrude seems pretty surprised when Hamlet accuses her of "kill[ing] a king and marry[ing] with his brother" (3.4.35). (Although we might suggest that, if she doesn't know, she might be kind of dumb.)

On the other hand, we could also argue that Gertrude is surprised because, well, she's been caught. Take your pick.

Self-sacrificing Mother?
Finally, does Gertrude know she's chugging poisoned wine in the play's final act?

Surprise! Again, Shakespeare doesn't exactly make things clear. She goes to drink; Claudius tells her not to, and she says: "I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me" (5.2.318). Is she apologizing for drinking when he tells her not to? Does "I will" mean, "I'm going to take to control of my own destiny for once"? Or is she just thirsty?

In Laurence Olivier's film adaptation of Hamlet, Gertrude drinks knowingly, presumably to save her son from certain death. If she drinks on purpose, then she's the self-sacrificing mother Hamlet has always wanted her to be. But we're not convinced that the rest of the play has shown her to be self-sacrificing at all. If nothing else, this moment reminds us that Gertrude is much more complex than Hamlet understands; she's more than just morally "frail" (1.2.150).

Gertrude's Sexuality
Hamlet is unhealthily obsessed with his mother's sex life (which raises the question: is there any healthy way for a son to be obsessed with his mom's sex life?). Early on in the play, we learn that Gertrude's "o'erhasty" and incestuous marriage to Claudius has shaken up Hamlet's world, leaving him with a sense that the world is contaminated, like an "unweeded garden" that's "rank and gross in nature" (1.2.139; 140). In fact, he might even be more disturbed by Gertrude's sexuality than the news of his father's murder.

Even though the ghost warns Hamlet "Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive / Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven" (1.5.92-93), Hamlet just can't seem to leave his mother alone. One final question: does this tell us anything useful about Gertrude? Or does it tell us a whole lot more about Hamlet?
A Danish lord, Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia. And he's exactly the kind of dad who's so embarrassing that you don't even want to bring friends to meet him: he's self-absorbed, long-winded, and dull. (Not to mention that he's totally bugged your car with a GPS tracking device.) So, what's going on with this bad dad?

Comic Relief
Played by the right actor, self-absorbed, long-winded, and dull becomes completely hilarious. Check out the scene where Hamlet's directing the players (actors). Polonius is hilarious. When one of the players delivers a heart-wrenching speech about Priam's death, Polonius interrupts to say (and we are not making this up), "This is too long" (2.2.523) (Admit it: you were thinking it, too.)

He also cuts in at their use of the words "mobled queen" to say "Oh, that's good; 'mobled queen' is good." Basically, this is SNL-type humor: Shakespeare is using Polonius to mock his less sophisticated audience members, whose theatrical tastes are less developed than the ideal playgoer. (Brain Snack: you're not alone in thinking that "mobled" is a bizarre word, even for Shakespeare. Some editors substitute the word "ennobled.")

Check the Source
It's weird, then, that Polonius gets some of the play's most famous lines. Quoted out of context, they even sound like good advice. "Neither a borrower or a lender be"? Sure, we can get behind that. "To thine own self be true"? Yep, that also sounds like pretty solid advice.

But, given that Polonius is the one telling us/ Laertes these little tidbits of wisdom, are we supposed to take it seriously? Is Shakespeare actually making fun of this cheery, cliché, How to Win Friends and Influence People type of early self-help? (You just know Polonius would have written a self-help book.)

Ugh, Dad
As comical and ridiculous as Polonius is, his elaborate attempts to keep tabs on Laertes and Ophelia remind us that fathers can't always be trusted to care for their children. This is especially true when Polonius pays Reynaldo to spread rumors about Laertes so that Laertes will confide in Reynaldo, who can then report back to Polonius (2.1.). Yikes!

Polonius is also all-too willing to use his daughter to get in good with the king —with disastrous consequences. His manipulative tactics leave Ophelia open to Hamlet's abuse and are probably partly to blame for Ophelia's tragic end. Brain Snack: Polonius isn't the only Shakespearean father to use his daughter in order to manage his relationships with other men. The "Comedy" plays are full of fathers who use their daughters as bartering tools. (Check out, for example, Baptista Minola in The Taming of the Shrew.)

Just Deserts
We don't think that anyone deserves to die, particularly not by being stabbed when they're just innocently hiding behind a curtain to eavesdrop on a private convo between a mom and son. But, given Polonius's tone-deaf advice, nasty habit of spying on pretty much everyone, and his obsequious sucking-up to the king—we can't exactly say we're surprised when he meets his end in just that way.
Good Girl Gone Bad
Your parents only wish they had a daughter like Ophelia. When her father orders her to quit seeing Hamlet, she agrees —"I shall obey my Lord" (1.3.145). Later, when Polonius uses her as bait to spy on Hamlet for King Claudius, she does exactly what she's told (3.1). As long as she's unmarried, she lives by her father's rules. (Of course, if she were to marry, she'd then have to live by her husband's rules.) Essentially, Ophelia has no control over her body, her relationships, or her choices.

We'd say she could have used the services of, except that her dad is basically president and CEO of a matchmaking service for one: her marriage is totally in his control.

And eventually, Ophelia snaps—just like a lot of people who spend their lives obeying other people without any sense of personal agency.

Abusive Boyfriend
The problem with being completely obedient and passive is that you can't fight back when you really need to. Hamlet seems to know that Ophelia is helping her dad spy on him, and he accuses her (and all women) of being a "breeder of sinners" and orders Ophelia to a "nunnery" (3.1.131; 132), i.e. a brothel. But she can't call him out on his language, because, as a good girl, she can't admit that she knows what it means.

He keeps going, too. He says that if Ophelia were to marry, she'd turn her husband into a "monster," or a cuckold (cuckolds were thought to have horns like monsters) because she would inevitably cheat on him (3.1.151); and then he follows up these sweet nothings with a little "I loved you not" (3.1.129). Ophelia seems pretty crushed by all this:

And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That sucked the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason, [...]
out of time and harsh; (3.1.169-171; 172).

But what's her recourse? She can't vent about it on Facebook; she can't even go find herself a nice rebound hookup. In fact, her reputation depends on pretending that she never cared about his at all.

Precious Jewels
Hamlet's not the only one who defines Ophelia by her sexuality. Even her brother has something to say about it. In Act I, Laertes dispenses advice to Ophelia on the pitfalls of pre-marital sex (for women, not men) in a lengthy speech that's geared toward instilling a sense of "fear" into his sister. Just what you want to hear from your brother, right? In fact, he tells Ophelia three times that she should "fear" intimacy with Hamlet.

Is Laertes just looking out for his little sister's best interests? Maybe, but his speech is also full of vivid innuendo, as when he compares intercourse to a "canker" worm invading and injuring a delicate flower before its buds, or "buttons" have had time to open (1.3.43; 44). This graphic allusion to the anatomy of female genitalia turns his sister into an erotic object while still insisting on Ophelia's chastity. Laertes takes a typically Elizabethan stance toward female sexuality —a "deflowered" woman was damaged goods that no man would want to marry.

Which brings us to one important question: did Hamlet and Ophelia actually have sex? We don't know for sure. Shmoop is inclined to think not. What's so tragic about Ophelia (in our humble opinion) is that she hasn't done anything wrong, and she gets destroyed by the patriarchal court culture anyway.

But the possibility's there. Some of the flowers Ophelia gives away during her mad scene (like rue and wormwood) were used for centuries in abortion potions. And there's something pretty suggestive about the fact that she's literally being deflowered—giving flowers away. Would it make a difference if they'd actually had sex?

Ophelia and Madness
Whether they've had sex or not, that's a lot of pressure to put on a young woman. And it's too much for Ophelia. When she goes mad, she sings a bawdy song about a maiden who is tricked into losing her virginity with a false promise of marriage (4.5.63-71)—part of the reason why many literary critics see Ophelia's madness as a result of patriarchal pressure and abuse.

In the end, it kills her. Gertrude describes it to us (seems right that it's another woman):

When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And, mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (4.7.199-208)

Notice how her death seems to be passive? Rather than straight-up committing suicide, as Gertrude tells us, she accidentally falls in the water and then simply neglects to save herself from sinking. Ophelia's "garments" "pull" her down, as if they had a mind of their own. This seems to be a metaphor for the way Ophelia lives her life: doing what her father and brother—and boyfriend—tell her to do, rather than making decisions for herself.

Gertrude also suggests that Ophelia's drowning was natural when she describes Ophelia as being like a "native" creature in the water. We also notice that Ophelia is described as being "mermaid-like" with her "clothes spread wide." Even in death, Ophelia is sexy. So, women: natural, sexy ... and dead. It seems that there isn't much place for women in the royal court. Will Fortinbras's reign change that?
Laertes, a young Danish lord, is the son of Polonius and brother of Ophelia. He spends most of his time off at college, but, like a lot of college students, he manages to pack a lot of action into the few times he's home.

Foil to Hamlet
After Hamlet kills Polonius, Laertes faces the same problem that Hamlet does —a murdered father. And that's where the similarities end. While Hamlet lollygags and broods over the murder for much of the play, Laertes takes immediate action. He storms home from France as soon as he hears the news, raises a crowd of followers, and invades the palace, saying "That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard." in other words, not being upset by his father's death would prove that his mother was stepping out on his dad.

It's only after he storms the castle with a band of armed men that he starts asking questions —unlike Hamlet, who asks a whole lot of questions before he finally gets around to avenging his father's death. Here's the funny thing, though: both of them end up dead, in exactly the same way, and at each other's hands. So, is Laertes's method really any better than Hamlet's?

Big Brother: A little more than kin?
Laertes obviously loves his dad. And he loves his little sis, too—maybe even a little too much. He makes a huge deal about Ophelia's "unpolluted flesh" at her funeral, just before he screams at the priest to rot in hell and leaps into Ophelia's grave while shouting "Hold off the earth awhile, / Till I have caught her once more in mine arms" (5.1.261-262). This, of course, happens just before Laertes fights with his dead sister's ex-boyfriend about who loved Ophelia the most.

Yep, we're thinking that there's a little "more than kin" at work here. And that's not too surprising, in a play that revolves around a young man who's consumed with his mother's sexuality and marriage to her brother-in-law. And in the end, Laertes's obsession with his family ends up killing him—just as it kills Hamlet. Is Shakespeare advising us all to chill out a little with the tribal allegiances? Or is death just a part of loving your family?
Horatio is Hamlet's closest friend, and he's the only one who really seems to deserve the title. Unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (also Hamlet's old chums), Horatio's loyalty and common sense are rock-steady throughout the play.

Horatio's Skepticism
In fact, one of the first things we learn about Horatio is his good sense. When we first see Horatio, he's been called to the castle by the guards because he's a "scholar" (he goes to school in Wittenberg with Hamlet). That means he should be able to judge whether or not the apparition that's been appearing on the battlements is actually a ghost. According to Marcellus, Horatio says that the ghost is "but [the guards'] fantasy, / And will not let belief take hold of him" (1.1.28-29).

He's convinced of the spirit's legitimacy soon enough, but his initial skepticism introduces the first note of doubt in the play, one that will haunt his friend Hamlet for several acts.

Dying In Your Arms
Horatio digs Hamlet so much that he offers to commit suicide when his beloved Hamlet is dying (5.2.373-375). But Hamlet won't have it. He insists that Horatio live to tell the tragic story—which fits, since critics often note that Horatio's name recalls the Latin term "orator," or "speaker." And that's just what Horatio does. He promises to put the dead bodies up on a "stage" while he tells Prince Fortinbras and the rest of the world what went down in Elsinore:

And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about. So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventors' heads. All this can I
Truly deliver. (5.2.421-428)

Hm. This is sort of what Shakespeare the playwright does, right? It's almost as though Horatio becomes a kind of playwright, using bodies to tell a story.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem incapable of functioning independently, so they're basically one character, no matter what they might say. They show up in Denmark to serve as paid informants on their friend from college, and they practically fall all over each other in their attempt to suck up to King Claudius. Check out their first lines:

Both your Majesties
Might, by the sovereign power you have of us,
Put your dread pleasures more into command
Than to entreaty.

But we both obey,
And here give up ourselves, in the full bent
To lay our service freely at your feet,
To be commanded. (2.2.27-34)

Uh, you've got a little something on your nose, guys.

Luckily for our amusement, they're as incompetent as they are dishonest; Hamlet sees right through them, and they make good targets for his mockery. It does seem a little harsh for Hamlet to send them off to die, though (as Horatio points out), so they point out Hamlet's weird decision-making process. He hesitates (understatement) to kill Claudius, who arguably deserves it, but doesn't flinch over exterminating his own two friends, who, let's face it, were probably just college students hard up for cash.

Even though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern die before the mass death scene in Act V, Shakespeare works it so that we find out they've been killed at the same time everyone else is dying. A British ambassador shows up in the final scene for the sole purpose of saying, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead" (5.2.411). Contemporary playwright Tom Stoppard liked this line so much that he wrote a play from the perspective of the two characters and titled it Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
We like to think it's no coincidence that Fortinbras's name makes a great chant: "FortinBRAS! FortinBRAS." He's a Norwegian prince with a trigger finger (or a trigger army) who seems to be able to inspire a lot of love and battle lust in his subjects; they follow him all the way to Denmark just to reclaim a little piece of land that his father lost, and they back him as he sweeps into court to take the throne.

So, what's this hero's backstory?

Daddy Issues
Yeah. Like every other young man in this play, Fortinbras has a serious case of daddy issues. His dad Old Fortinbras, former King of Norway, made a bet with Old Hamlet and wound up losing his life and some important Norwegian territory in the process. Naturally, young Fortinbras now has to reclaim the land his father lost.

Sound familiar? Of course. But while Hamlet sits around contemplating life and death, Fortinbras takes immediate action by raising an army to reclaim Norway's lost territories. Though his uncle (the current king of Norway) at first convinces Fortinbras not to attack Denmark, in the end, prince Fortinbras helps himself to the Danish throne.

Behind the stories of both Fortinbras and Hamlet is the question of why their uncles are wearing the crowns that should, in the normal pattern of who-gets-to-be-king, go to them (the sons). Fortinbras deals by going out and conquering other countries; Hamlet, in contrast, only mentions the fact that Claudius has "popped in between the election and [his] hopes" (in other words, his hopes of becoming the King of Denmark). He distracts himself with thinking, not with conquering.

Our prince compares himself explicitly to Fortinbras when he passes Fortinbras's armies in the fields and he sees Fortinbras as a model for how he should behave. "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). In other words, Hamlet realizes that Fortinbras doesn't have very good reasons for leading an army against Poland —but reasons don't really matter. Great men don't need a reason to preserve their family's honor. Fortinbras, like Laertes, is an example of action with little thought —precisely the opposite of Hamlet.

Our question: why is Fortinbras successful while Laertes isn't? (Maybe because he's not in love with his sister? Just saying.)