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The foils of Hamlet
In Hamlet, the main character tries to get revenge on his father’s death by plotting the murder of Claudius, but it is his indecisiveness that leads to many problems. He is supported or opposed by characters who are considered foils to him. A foil is used by playwrights so that the audience can better understand the main character by comparing to a minor character. The characteristics of the main character are better revealed, as well as his intentions and motivations. The foils in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are Fortinbras and Laertes.
To start off, Laertes is a foil to Hamlet. They both want revenge for their father’s death, though their method of revenge are different. Laertes is a man of action and wants to get revenge right away after learning that his father Polonius has been killed. However, Laertes is very shallow and Hamlet is a genius in comparison. Hamlet thinks of ways to plan his revenge against Claudius, though it is his tendency to overthink that leads him to his tragic flaw. For example, when Hamlet wants to kill Claudius, he decides not to when he sees Claudius praying for God, and does not want him to end up in heaven.
Rage is another emotion the characters have in common when it comes to the act of revenge. When Laertes learns of his father’s death, he wants to get revenge instantly. “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.” (Act 4 Scene 5 lines 128-134). Laertes says to Claudius that he will honor his father when he says that he was “in deed his father’s son more than in words” and that he will kill Hamlet. “ I will cut his throat i’ th’ church.” Similarly, while talking to Gertrude, Hamlet thinks that the man hiding behind the arras was Claudius. Without thinking, Hamlet thrusts his dagger into the person he thinks is Claudius and kills Polonius instead.
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Fortinbras is another foil of Hamlet. Fortinbras’ and Hamlet’s fathers have both been killed. They both want to avenge their father’s death, but they act upon it in entirely different ways. Hamlet’s weakness can be seen when he is compared to Fortinbras. While Hamlet wants to kill Claudius, Fortinbras “works in the name of Norway and of honor”. Hamlet’s revenge is personal and is “bound with personal morals”, such as when he denies killing Claudius while he’s praying. Fortinbras’ mission is not that of revenge, and so he is not busy with plotting and planning schemes like Hamlet who wants to kill Claudius. Unlike Hamlet, he is in a healthy state of mind and has more liberty and marches his troops freely. He also is not thrust into a dilemma like Hamlet. Fortinbras gets hold of lands he lost, just so that he can honor his father, and his family. In this, we see that Fortinbras fights for something that is not important, but that Hamlet cannot even fight for a good cause. Fortinbras takes action while Hamlet has no initiative and is in a state of “madness”. Hamlet does not even make public knowledge that he knows about his father’s murder, which is one of his weaknesses.
Moreover, another foil to Hamlet is Ophelia. Ophelia can be considered a foil when it once again comes to revenge. When she learns her father has been killed, she becomes crazy and starts singing songs. It is thought that she commits suicide, and only someone as weak as she is could do that to herself instead of taking revenge. In Act 3, Scene 1, Hamlet too wants to commit suicide, but fights the urge towards his goal of revenge.
In conclusion, Hamlet’s tragic flaw and indecisiveness are clearly seen when compared to other characters. It is the 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 foils that we can truly see who Hamlet is.