Characters in plays can serve many purposes. Their basic function is to represent the various people involved in the story. Often, however, they have other functions, too. Sometimes a character may be there to advance the plot in some way, or be a source of conflict in the drama. Sometimes a character may be there for some particular symbolic or thematic reason. Often, as in Hamlet, a character serves all these purposes simultaneously.
In any character analysis it is also important to remember that characters usually do not exist in isolation. To fully understand a character in a play it is necessary to study the nature of their relationships with other characters. In Hamlet, much can be learnt about individual characters by studying the ways in which they relate to others.
Hamlet is, of course, the central character of the play. He is a young man, prince and heir to the throne of Denmark. His father is King Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude.
At the opening of the play we learn that he has recently returned to Elsinore from Wittenberg, where he is a student, to attend the funeral of his father. Also we learn that his mother has recently married King Hamlet’s brother, Claudius. Hamlet is deeply upset by the marriage of his mother to his uncle and becomes further outraged when, early in the play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears to him and reveals how he was murdered by Claudius. The Ghost also commands Hamlet to take revenge on Claudius for his murder. It is Hamlet’s response to this command which provides much of the internal and external conflict that drives the play.
There are a great many theories regarding Hamlet’s personality with critics and commentators varying greatly in their interpretations of Hamlet’s character. In many respects, an understanding of the whole play rests on which particular interpretation(s) one chooses. Central to any discussion of Hamlet’s character, however, is the question as to why Hamlet so procrastinated in taking his revenge on Claudius.
Some commentators, for example, have interpreted Hamlet’s indecision negatively, as a sign of a man who is too philosophical, too much a thinker and therefore unable to take any action. Others, see the same attributes more positively, as a sign of a man reluctant to take blind revenge, as someone who must first wrestle with himself and his conscience. There are yet others who have taken a more psychological approach in assessing Hamlet’s actions, regarding Hamlet’s behaviour as being similar to the behaviour of a manic depressive. Psychological interpretations have been taken even further, to suggest that Hamlet had an Oedipus Complex, in which he desired to take the place of his father in the affections of his mother. Thus, with the death of King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet became stricken with guilt and remorse over his hostile feelings towards his father; this then drove him to take the actions he did. Whatever the interpretation(s) however, it is Hamlet’s internal conflict produced by his indecision which generates much of the external conflict necessary to make the play work.
The Ghost in Hamlet is supposed to be that of King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father, although other interpretations are possible. Is the Ghost really a ghost, or perhaps a figment of Hamlet’s imagination? Ghosts were a common convention in Elizabethan plays, but Hamlet’s Ghost has more psychological complexity than most. Furthermore, by Hamlet’s questioning of the truthfulness of the Ghost, Shakespeare raises another possibility that the Ghost does not really belong to Hamlet’s father but is some kind of evil spirit assuming the form of King Hamlet in order to cause disorder and destruction. The truthfulness or otherwise of the Ghost provides another level of tension in the play.
Gertrude is the Queen of Denmark and mother of Hamlet. Gertrude married Hamlet’s uncle shortly after the death of her husband. She is an intriguing character.
Some commentators have seen her as warm-hearted and kind, but easily influenced or led, without much will of her own. Others see her as someone who avoids unpleasantness or strife, preferring to live free from conflict and any of the other nasty realities of life. Her character, like Hamlet’s, depends to a large degree on interpretation as Shakespeare keeps many things about her ambiguous and open to supposition. The haste of her marriage to Claudius, for instance, is puzzling in many respects as we do not definitely know her motivation for doing so. Was she, for example, in any way involved in the death of her late husband? We do not know for sure. We also do not know for certain if she was in any way involved with Claudius’ other sinister plots regarding Hamlet. Gertrude appears innocent of any deliberate connivance with Claudius in these matters, but the possibility remains. She also often seems very warm and genuinely caring, particularly towards her son and characters like Ophelia, thus making the task of defining her character in any absolute terms, quite difficult.
At the opening of the play Claudius is the King of Denmark as well as Hamlet’s uncle and step-father. Claudius murdered his brother, King Hamlet, while the latter slept in the orchard. Claudius then married Gertrude, the dead king’s wife. Claudius is one of the driving forces in the play in terms of plot. It is he who initiates much of the action of the play, particularly after the death of Polonius, arranging for the murder of Hamlet in England and eventually conniving with Laertes to have Hamlet killed in a fencing match.
Something is “rotten in the state of Denmark” and King Claudius is at the core of it. Although Claudius appears to be the corrupt, treacherous and scheming evil-doer of the piece, Shakespeare enables us to see other sides of his nature. In one light, for instance, Claudius is shown as a shrewd and able politician, someone who enjoys power and knows how to use it. In another, Claudius seems to be someone who is not beyond redemption, but is capable of being concerned for his soul, as witnessed in his prayer scene. (In this scene he also demonstrates that he is not entirely hypocritical as he recognises that he is not truly repentant for his deeds, although he would like to be.) Again, we are not dealing with simple stereotypes, but more complex characters. Thematically, Claudius is a useful mirror to hold up to Hamlet, whose actions are also at times questionable. As Claudius is no simplistic villain, Hamlet is no simplistic hero.
Horatio appears to be Hamlet’s most trusted friend and confidant. It is he whom Hamlet chooses to watch with him for Claudius’ reaction to the play, The Murder of Gonzago. It is also he whom Hamlet asks to tell his story at the end of the play. Thematically, Horatio is often seen as the character who represents ‘reason’ in the play. Except for the last scene of the play, in which Horatio wishes to commit suicide, Horatio appears to be the embodiment of reason. His measured or balanced responses contrast strongly to Hamlet’s emotionally charged ones.
Polonius is a counsellor to the King. He is often seen as a meddlesome character concerned with his own self-importance, always looking for the advantage in a situation and seeking advancement in his own ingratiating ‘diplomatic’ way. It is he, for example, who is most eager to help the King and Queen discover the cause of Hamlet’s ill-temper, by arranging various plots and schemes to test Hamlet’s reactions. He, for instance, sets up a meeting between his daughter Ophelia and Hamlet to test Hamlet’s feelings for her. He also contrives the meeting between the Queen and Hamlet and offers to spy on them in the Queen’s chamber. This last scheme of his, of course, leads to his death. Like so many characters in Hamlet he becomes “hoist with his own petard”.
Laertes is the son of Polonius. At the beginning of the play Laertes sets off for Paris. Later he returns to Elsinore seeking revenge for the death of his father. Laertes, unlike Hamlet, is more prone to action than to procrastination and his dramatic function, in part, is to provide a contrast to Hamlet’s indecisive nature concerning the central issue of revenge. Laertes justifies his thirst for revenge in terms of his injured honour over the deaths of his father and sister. His means of restoring his honour, however, is anything but honourable and ultimately futile; a point perhaps Shakespeare is trying to make. Laertes is, however, capable of remorse over his actions, which he expresses in the final scene of the play. Again, as with many of Shakespeare’s characters in Hamlet, he cannot be labelled easily as good or bad, but has aspects of both characteristics.
Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius. Ophelia has often been described as beautiful, sweet and gentle, possessing a kind of idealised womanhood which is too ‘innocent’ and unworldly. She also appears to be somewhat weak willed and a person who bends easily to authority as exemplified in her ready acceptance of her father’s advice to curtail her relationship with Hamlet. This, of course, contrasts to Hamlet’s character, who, although obeying the authority of his father’s ghost, does not do so easily.
As with Gertrude, there is a certain level of ambiguity in Ophelia’s character and it is difficult to be definitive. Many interpretations are possible depending upon how her character is judged. We do not know for certain, for example, how to take her death – was it accidental or was it suicide? Much of our understanding of her death depends on our judgement(s) regarding her character.
Fortinbras is the Prince of Norway. By and large Fortinbras is an unseen, but important influence in the play. In the beginning of the play Fortinbras seems a threat to the kingdom of Denmark, which he appears intent on claiming. Driven by honour and the desire for revenge over the loss of territory and the death of his father, who had been killed by Hamlet’s father in combat, Fortinbras prepares for war with Denmark. He is stopped from this adventure, however, through the influence of his uncle, the present King of Norway and Claudius, who have come to a diplomatic pact. As a result of this, Fortinbras sets off to satisfy his desire for conquest and military honour by claiming a worthless, but disputed piece of Polish territory. It is ironic that Fortinbras gains the kingdom of Denmark at the end of the play without conquest or by his own actions.
Fortinbras has often been used as another contrast to the character of Hamlet, since unlike Hamlet, Fortinbras appears to be a man of action, determined to fight over even unimportant things. (His conquest of a worthless piece of Polish territory can be seen in this light.)
ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN:
Childhood and student friends of Hamlet. Claudius and Gertrude arrange for their return from Wittenberg in order to help them discover what is wrong with Hamlet. They are also used in the play to demonstrate another side to Hamlet’s character. We see, for instance, the scheming and callous side to Hamlet’s character in the way he arranges for their deaths.
The players (or actors) perform many important functions in the play. Firstly, they provide the opportunity for both Hamlet and the audience to gauge the guilt of Claudius regarding the murder of Hamlet’s father. Secondly, through their performance of The Murder of Gonzago, a play that in many ways parallels the circumstances surrounding King Hamlet’s death, they dramatically remind the audience of this important offstage, pre-play event. Thirdly, they provide for an entertaining interlude. Finally, they allow Shakespeare the opportunity of giving us an idea of how he regarded actors and the art of acting. This is particularly evident in Hamlet’s friendly attitude towards the players and in the scene where he instructs the actors in the way they should deliver their lines.
The clowns (in Hamlet, the gravedigger and his companion) were often common characters to be found in Elizabethan plays, designed to inject humour and comic business into the proceedings. In Hamlet, however, Shakespeare gives them an added purpose as, along with the characters of Hamlet and Horatio, they provide him with an opportunity to explore issues surrounding death and the meaning of life.
Osrick is a minor character in the play. He is a courtier whose main function is to advance the plot by delivering Claudius’ message proposing Hamlet’s fencing match with Laertes. There are echoes of Polonius in his verbal flourishes and roundabout manner and, like Polonius, he is a source of comedy because of this.
MARCELLUS, BARNARDO AND FRANCISCO:
These three soldiers are also minor characters. They are seen at the beginning of the play and are instrumental, along with Horatio, in alerting Hamlet to the presence of the Ghost. They also provide us with a lot of the background information necessary for an understanding of the events that are to follow.