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In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Shakespeare uses foil characters in order to enhance not only the complex, insoluble, divided and introspective character of Hamlet but also to juxtapose his philosophically driven course of action. Ophelia, Laertes and Fortinbras have a curious situational parallelism to Hamlet’s as they share a similar kind of loss- the unanticipated deaths of their individual fathers. However it is the manner in which they counter and approach their individual revelation that separates their distinctive personalities, each illuminating a vital aspect of Hamlet’s character.
Both Laertes and Fortinbras posses in abundance the very quality that Hamlet seems to lack. The character of Fortinbras brings forth significantly Hamlets inability to act and Laertes’s detemination to seek revenge shows that he is more governed by passion, where Hamlet is governed by moral and rational considerations. On the other hand Ophelia’s genuine madness due her fathers death is in stark contrast to Hamlets feigning madness.
Therefore evidently the purpose of Shakespeare’s utilization of foil characters is through juxtaposition exposing the attributes of the protagonist, enabling the audience to gain a more insightful understanding of the main character.
Hamlets inability to take reasonable, effective action is illuminated by Fortinbras’s character. Due to the sake of honor Fortinbras prepares his “lawless resolutes” (IV,iiii, 45)in order to attack Denmark, avenge his fathers death and regain the land that was previously owned by Norway.
Evidently Fortinbras is motivated and passionately driven, as he is willing to sacrifice the lives of hundreds of people to regain a small piece of land for honors sake.
Hamlet is enthralled by Fortinbras’s determination, he compares and criticizes himself towards Fortinbras’s forcefulness and fortitude to avenge his father and realizes that he should be far more motivated towards his duty of revenge compared to Fortinbras’s situation.
Hamlet criticizes himself at a severe level as he reflects his character to be “one part wisdom and three parts coward” (IV,iiii, 60). Hamlet realizes the stupidity and the moral uncertainty of Fortinbras’s action, as he wastes the lives of hundreds of people to reclaim a worthless piece of land. However Hamlet still focuses mainly on Fortinbras’s determination and utilizes it to criticize his inability to act; evidently as a way to motivate himself; as he resolves to “bloody thoughts.
” (IV,iiii, 69) It is apparent that Shakespeare uses the character of Fortinbras in order to enhance, enlighten and elucidate Hamlets inactiveness. Hamlets inactiveness is emphasized mainly on his incapability of avenging his father, which is brought to light by Laertes’s preparedness to avenge his father by any means necessary. Indisputably, seeking revenge is probably the most essential theme in the development of Hamlet. Revenge is a dreadful, decadent and a bloodthirsty emotion and is the driving force behind two of the main characters in the play- Hamlet and Laertes.
However their perceptions of pursuing revenge is completely different from each other. Laertes does well in illuminating Hamlets incapability of taking revenge. Laertes’s ability to take drastic action towards avenging his father shows his complete lack of thought and logical understanding behind the consequences that could arise from this immoral act. Whereas Hamlets illustration of revenge delves more into the physiological and moral aspects of it; as he understands the immorality and the consequence of murder.
Laertes sears with indignation and motivation, condemns “conscience and grace to the profoundest pit” (IV,7,120) as he believes that “revenge should have no bounds”, and will even go to the extent of slashing Hamlets throat within church walls. Evidently this elucidates Laetrtes’s desire to take revenge regardless of the consequences or the immorality involved, proving his irrationality and lack of conscience. However in contrast with Laerte’s overpowering ambition to seek revenge, Hamlet is quite the opposite.
When he had the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius whilst he was praying, Hamlet failed to perform. Hamlet states “Now he is praying… a villain kills my father and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven”( III,iii). It is evident that Hamlet is a man with “too much reason” (III. ii) and not enough action. One could argue that it is as if he develops excuses for not completing the deed, mainly because he is human and that the deed is immoral. Therefore he is incapable of performing such action immediately.
This proves that Hamlet believes that every action; even revenge is affected by rational considerations, which include moral, physiological and emotional factors. Inevitably through Laertes’s irrepressible, illogical, and vicious perception of revenge brings light to Hamlet’s logical intellect, complexity and his morally driven being. His introspective, intellect and ambiguity is further illuminated by Ophelia’s madness in contrast with Hamlets feign madness. It is evident throughout the play that Ophelia’s genuine madness gives prominence to Hamlets pretence insanity.
Hamlet utilizes his antic disposition in order to mislead the king and complete his duty of avenging his father; eloquently Hamlets madness has a motive. However Ophelia’s genuine madness has occurred due her fragility and her inability to accept the sudden revelation of her father’s death. There is a clear distinction between the ambiguity of Hamlets madness compared to Ophelia’s actual madness. Hamlet is essentially “not in madness/But mad in craft. ” (III,ii,20). Hamlet cleverly utilizes his antic disposition to clear out any suspicions, towards his revenge.
He feigns madness in the ‘nunnery scene’ when he suspects someone is overhearing the conversation between him and Ophelia. Thus proving Hamlet’s intellect and utilization of Hamlets madness as a tool. Whereas Ophelia’s madness is instigated from her inability to handle the pressure of losing her father, thus her world is completely shattered and descends to madness; leading to her inevitable death. Through juxtaposing Hamlet’s feign madness to Ophelia’s actual insanity, Shakespeare is able to show prominence on Hamlet’s intellectual and complex characteristics.
Shakespeare eloquently portrays and brings to light Hamlets attributes through contrasting minor characters. His use of foil characters enables the audience to emphasize more on the protagonist’s circumstance and characteristics in contrast to the minor characters. Shakespeare has dealt with his characters not in the conventional sense but in a more reality based fashion, which has evidently helped his audience to understand the parallelism and differences between each minor character to the protagonist.
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