Influence on Hamlet?s Character By: Jordan Terner Period B January 15, 2002 ?What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god?and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust,? (2.2.312) states Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. As in this description of man, Hamlet is a multifaceted character. Shakespeare emphasizes this observation casting Hamlet as ?a man? and exposing his strengths and weaknesses through the contrast provided by foils. Several characters including Horatio, Fortinbras, and Laertes are used to enhance the distinctive characteristics of Hamlet.
Horatio, Hamlet?s trusted friend, is the primary characters that serve to emphasize Hamlet?s complex characteristics. His simple obedience at the opening of the play highlights Hamlet?s ability to lead. Their exchange of questions and answers regarding the ghost exposes Hamlet?s intelligence and analytical mind.
However, as Hamlet descends into his feigned madness and falls victim to his confused emotions, Horatio begins to serve to contrast Hamlet?s weaknesses. Horatio serves to anchor Hamlet to reality as the distinction between pretending to be crazy and actually losing control over his emotions begins to blur. Horatio is described as, ?a man that is not passion?s slave? (3.2.74). Clouded by thoughts of revenge and conflicting feelings of anger, Hamlet depends on Horatio to confirm his observations of the king during the play scene As the play progresses, Hamlet loses control over himself as his raw emotions get in the way. Acting as a ?slave? to his emotions, Hamlet kills Polonius behind the curtain, completely unaware of what he was doing. Horatio also looks out for Hamlet?s best interests. In the beginning of the play, he warns Hamlet to be cautious with the ghost at their first meeting, and tries to persuade him to withdraw from the deadly duel in the final scene. Compared to Horatio?s cool-headedness, Hamlet seems to be a madman who falls victim to his lack of control over his emotions.
Another important character that serves to foil Hamlet?s character is the young Norwegian prince, Fortinbras. In the first encounter with Fortinbras, he is portrayed as inferior to Hamlet, as stated, ?His fell to Hamlet. Now, sir, young Fortinbras, of unimproved mettle hoe and full? (1.1.96). However, as the play progresses, Hamlet, described in the beginning as ?sweet and commendable? (1.2.87), becomes the weaker character. Fortinbras? determination towards final revenge for his father?s death contrasts with Hamlet?s intermittent efforts towards the same goal. Fortinbras? first significant appearance, which occurs later in the play, Act 4, Scene 4, takes place as Hamlet is in one of his emotional ?lows.? As Fortinbras triumphantly marches into Denmark with a plan of attack, he is able to circumvent obstacles in his plan as they arise which contrasts sharply with Hamlet?s inability to do so. Hamlet exposes his weakness to act when required when he says, ?Why yet I live to say, ?This things to do,? sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means to do?t? (4.4.44). He knows he must act and yet he fails to do so. His character seems weakened compared to Fortinbras, as he is unable to bring his plans to fruition. By contrast, Fortinbras is very successful in his plans. He plans "to recover of us by strong hand and terms compulsatory those forsaid lands so by his father lost" (1, 1, 102). In the end, he succeeds and states, "I embrace my fortune" (5, 2, 378). Hamlet, however, is easily distracted by his emotions. His intent to avenge his father?s death weakens gradually as he is subjected to the loss of his ?mirth" (2, 2, 298) during the two months from the visitation of the ghost until he finally kills the king. The sorrow Hamlet experiences at Ophelia's death combined with the sight of Fortinbras' approaching army slows his purpose and it is only when Hamlet is filled with anger and hatred that his revenge is finally achieved. Adding to the delay is Hamlet's tendency to overanalyze situations. This can be considered a characteristic of importance in certain cases, but in this situation, it acts to slow his mission. Indeed, it is only when Hamlet is out of character that he finally succeeds in his mission.
Laertes? course of action emphasizes this tragic flaw. As the play progresses, Hamlet?s hesitancy contrasts markedly with Laertes? furious willingness to seek revenge. He acts without thinking much about the consequences, and this constant action gives him the upper hand in his quest to avenge his father?s death. He cares little about what will come to him as he states, ?Let come what comes, only I?ll be revenged most thoroughly for my father? (4.4.138). When asked by Claudius how far he would go to avenge his father, Laertes replies, ?to cut his throat i? th? church? (4.7.127). This statement, indicating his willingness to murder Hamlet even in a sacred place, brings into sharp contrast the moral differences between the two sons as Hamlet declined to kill the King when he was knelt in prayer. Also, the normalcy of Laertes? family in Act 1 contrasts with the fractured state of Hamlet's. Polonius?s speech advising Laertes to behave compassionately in France serves to contrast with Hamlet?s state of loss and estrangement. Hamlet?s conversation with his father?s ghost serves as a distorted recapitulation of Polonius?s ?father-son? speech. Laertes? character does not act solely to point out the negative aspects of Hamlet?s personality, but also to point out some positives. While he gives in to Claudius? conniving plot and essentially becomes nothing more than a puppet in the king?s game, Hamlet is not easily influenced by those around him. Although the actions of others may incite an emotional response which blunts his purpose, he states that, ?all others cannot play upon me? (3.2.366). The fight scene brings these opposites in ?head-to-head? combat. This seems to be a physical manifestation of all of the contrasts they possess, as they are now physical opponents as well. By exposing and emphasizing Hamlet?s many strengths and weaknesses as they appear throughout the play, Horatio, Fortinbras, and Laertes act as foils to this tragic hero. Although they assist in the understanding of the complex character of Hamlet, they do not completely dissect the inner workings of this main character, thus testifying to the complexity of an individual. As stated by Hamlet, ?what a price of work is a man.?