By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Previously, we have offered a short introduction to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one of his most popular tragedies. But there is plenty to explore in this, one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, so in this post we’re going to focus on the interesting side of the key characters in Hamlet, offering a mini-analysis of the role of these major characters.
There are some surprising things to draw attention to – such as the misconception around whether Hamlet technically ‘delays’ his revenge – so let’s take a closer look at a list of the most prominent characters in Hamlet, starting with … Hamlet himself.
Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark and the son of the murdered King Hamlet and the Queen, Gertrude. The conversation with the gravedigger suggests that Hamlet is 30 years old, although he is still a student, at the University of Wittenberg.
He is often characterised as ‘a man who cannot make up his mind’. The words that tend to come up when people try to analyse the character or personality of Hamlet are indecisive, delaying, and uncertain, with ‘inaction’ being the key defining feature of what Hamlet actually does during the play.
Certainly, the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge thought Hamlet’s main fault was his indecision: he detected ‘an almost enormous intellectual activity and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it’ – i.e., Hamlet is better at thinking about doing things than actually doing them.
But is this fair? We have analysed Hamlet’s character – and his tendency to delay – in more detail in our more detailed character study here.
Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle, and the brother of the murdered King Hamlet. He has married Gertrude, King Hamlet’s widow, and become King of Denmark. Clearly, he had a lot to gain from King Hamlet’s death, so he had the motive to murder his brother, and both the Ghost of King Hamlet, and Claudius himself when he is overheard trying to pray, confirm that Claudius is guilty of killing his brother.
The question of whether Claudius is a better king than the old King Hamlet is one that critics have often encouraged us to ask.
He shows some skill in diplomacy and dealing with court business in a timely and efficient fashion: in the scenes where he holds court, he gives every indication that he is a decisive and pragmatic king and an effective politician: perhaps more than Prince Hamlet would have proved to be, and perhaps even better than Old Hamlet, who whiled away his afternoons, on a regular basis, asleep in his orchard.
But, like Macbeth, he has only attained the crown through being ruthless, immoral, and murderous. Claudius shows himself to be a politician-king, delegating his dirty work to other characters, such as when he sends Hamlet to England and asks the English to kill his nephew upon arrival.
But as Act 5 Scene 2 reveals, this was a mistake, for Claudius’ clandestine behaviour proves his own undoing: Hamlet is able to forge a letter from Claudius, using the royal seal which he has in his possession, ordering the killing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather than Hamlet.
We have analysed his character in more detail here.
Gertrude is Hamlet’s mother and the wife of Claudius; before that, she was the wife of King Hamlet, making her Queen of Denmark.
Hamlet resents his mother having remarried so quickly after his father’s death, even before he learns that the man she has remarried appears to have been responsible for King Hamlet’s demise.
He casts her as lustful and wanton in having married Claudius so soon after she was widowed. It’s possible that she was involved with Claudius even while King Hamlet was still alive, though this is never confirmed in the text.
Gertrude is a fairly passive and submissive character, who lets Hamlet attack her character at numerous points, and who readily submits to Claudius’ schemes. Perhaps her most famous line in the play, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’, provides further insight into her character.
Although it isn’t openly stated, it is implied that Ophelia is Hamlet’s ‘girlfriend’: his betrothed, the woman he will marry. Like Hamlet, she is part of the royal court, and her father, Polonius, is a lord – so although she isn’t royalty like Hamlet, she would be a suitable match for him in Danish society.
Ophelia is used by two men in the play – her father and Hamlet – as a pawn for them to enact their deceptions. Polonius uses Ophelia to try to determine what the cause of Hamlet’s madness is (although Polonius, arrogantly, already assumes he knows that Hamlet is ‘mad for [her] love’).
When Hamlet kills Polonius, stabbing him when Polonius is hiding behind the arras in Gertrude’s chamber, Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself. Ophelia thus became one of Shakespeare’s most famous female tragic figures, along with Cleopatra, Cordelia, Desdemona, and, of course, Juliet.
But unlike Cleopatra or Juliet, we cannot exactly call her a tragic heroine, for her rapid mental decline and suicide aren’t placed centre-stage for long. The flower-strewing scene (IV.5) is her most famous scene, and it obviously echoes Hamlet’s own ‘madness’ in one sense (it confuses Gertrude and the rest of the court) but unlike Hamlet’s, is (we assume) entirely genuine.
Whereas Hamlet is ‘but mad north-north-west’, Ophelia is truly insane by this point. However, like Hamlet she has been severely affected by the murder of her father.
We have analysed Ophelia’s character in more detail here.
Polonius is the father of Ophelia and Laertes. He’s also a fool and a windbag. He will never use one word when ten can be used instead. But he’s also a schemer and an important member of the royal court of Elsinore.
In these two sentences, we have the key to the character of Polonius. Like Hamlet with his feigned madness (and his very real mental and emotional affliction, occasioned by his father’s death – which he later finds out was murder – and his mother’s remarriage to his uncle, Claudius), Polonius is playing a part. We cannot be entirely sure how much of his long-windedness is affection to conceal his more cunning plotting behind the scenes.
We have analysed his character in more detail here.
The brother of Ophelia and son of Polonius, Laertes’ character and trajectory mirror Hamlet’s in some key respects: he, too, seeks to avenge his father’s murder (Hamlet’s killing of Polonius behind the arras), although he also blames Hamlet for driving Ophelia to madness and suicide.
He is more hot-headed and impulsive than Hamlet, who is thoughtful, contemplative, and intellectual where Laertes is driven by instinct and passion alone. In some ways, he might be regarded as a type of ‘false hero’, in Vladimir Propp’s categorisation of character types.
The Ghost appears in the first act of the play, and takes the form of Hamlet’s dead father. He tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, while he was sleeping in his orchard one afternoon.
Hamlet’s delay is occasioned by the fact that Hamlet cannot be entirely sure that the Ghost is genuine: it could be a demon that has assumed the form of his father in order to persuade him to kill an innocent man (Claudius), and so much of the play revolves around Hamlet’s detective work, trying to ascertain whether what the Ghost says is true and Hamlet’s father really was murdered by Claudius.
Assuming the Ghost is really Hamlet’s father, he is speaking from Purgatory, as he reveals in his famous speech.
Hamlet’s closest friend and confidant in the play, Horatio is a friend of his from Wittenberg. He is called a ‘scholar’ because of his university education, and is present when the castle guards report the sighting of the Ghost of King Hamlet.
Horatio is the one person Hamlet can truly rely upon in the play; he is also one of the few characters who survive until the end.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:
The contemporary playwright Tom Stoppard considered these two friends of Hamlet to be so significant as to warrant a play of their own: one of his first major successes in theatre in the 1960s was with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, a play named after a line from Hamlet.
They are old university friends of Hamlet, and are courtiers at the Danish court. They are sent for by Claudius – something Hamlet teases out of them – when Hamlet starts behaving strangely, because Claudius and Gertrude think that his old friends may be able to find out what is up with the young prince.
Fortinbras, like Laertes, reflects Hamlet’s position: he, too, is out to avenge his father’s death (at the hands of Hamlet’s father), and he is named after his father (who was known as Old Fortinbras). He now wishes to attack Denmark to avenge his father. Like Hamlet, he is a young prince – in his case, a prince of Norway.