Theme in Hamlet

Categories: Hamlet

B.) Through sharp contrast, a character foil enhances certain traits of a central character. Analyze how secondary characters operate as foils and are employed to develop theme in Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, it is proven that secondary characters help develop the understanding of the main character as foils. Foils help the reader make comparisons between the major and minor characters through parallels. During the play we see many of Hamlet’s strengths and weaknesses through characters like Laertes and Fortinbras.

Other minor characters include Ophelia, Polonius, and Gertrude who contributes to Hamlets so called madness, which helps develop the theme of a hero’s fatal flaw of overthinking leading to tragedy.

In this essay I will explain the similarities, differences and relationships between each foil and how their behaviors affect Hamlet personally. Throughout the play Hamlet displays a difficulty in making final decisions due to his overthinking unlike Laertes and Fortinbras who tends to make rash decisions based upon feelings.

Firstly, Hamlet’s inability to kill Claudius is foiled by Fortinbras’ willingness to avenge his father’s lost kingdom over a small piece of land. Secondly, Hamlet and Laertes have different types relationships with their fathers, Hamlet despises Claudius where as Laertes loved Polonius.

These relationships cause both Laertes and Hamlet wanting to avenge the murders of their fathers but for different reasons. While Laertes is determined to instantly retaliate, Hamlet on the other hand prolongs his revenge due to his natural flaw of overanalyzing. Thirdly, both Laertes and Hamlet have similar obsessions towards their women and the preservation of sanctity.

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Hamlet is confused and enraged about his mother’s incestuous marriage to his uncle and Laertes is anxious about his sister’s relationship with Hamlet. The parallels between the secondary foils help the audiences gain a better understanding of Hamlet’s fatal flaw of over-processing throughout the play.

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, Fortinbras the prince of Norway and Hamlet the prince of Denmark share many similarities and differences thus making Fortinbras an important secondary character and a foil to Hamlet. Fortinbras’ father was slain by Hamlet’s father and Hamlet’s father, Hamlet Sr was poisoned his brother Claudius who is now the king of Denmark. Fortinbras wishes to attack Denmark to avenge his father’s honor and Hamlet wishes to someday kill Claudius as revenge for his father. “This is th’impostume of much wealth and peace, that inward breaks and shows no cause without why the man dies” (A.4.s4, 26-28).

Hamlet remarks on Fortinbras invasion and views it as unnecessary but Fortinbras tells the captain to lie to the king assuring him that his only intentions were to travel through Denmark to get to Poland. This is the first time Fortinbras is shown as a real and imminent threat to the state of Denmark. “Why yet I live to say this thing’s to do, Sith I have cause and will and strength and means to do’t.” (A.4.s4, 43-44). Hamlet contemplates his purpose of living and questions why he cannot go through with murdering Claudius. He is coming to a realization that his plan is taking a long time to execute and every single advantage is on his side except the act itself.

“Witness this army of such mass and charge led by a delicate and tender prince, whose spirit divine ambition puffed makes mouths at the invisible event, exposing what is moral and unsure to all that fortune, death, and danger dare, even for an eggshell” (A.4.s4, 46-52). Hamlet shows admiration for the prince’s ambition to fight for no good reason but is aware of the severity of war. In this scene we see Hamlet succumbing to his over analytic thought process while Fortinbras is planning to defeat the king with little judgment.

Fortinbras ability to act foils Hamlet’s inability to act, while Fortinbras is attacking without regard towards himself, his men or his country Hamlet complies with reason to not attack. This reveals Fortinbras hunger for not only revenge but also power like Hamlet both are only crowned as only princes and not kings after the death of their fathers.

Hamlet and Fortinbras share related backgrounds of being raised among the wealthy, both princes had the opportunity of being king and both are seeking revenge for their slain fathers. Although sharing many similarities appearances do not match reality and signifies the contradiction of great minds think alike. Ultimately, Hamlet’s overthinking leads to his downfall and Fortinbras successfully conquers Denmark and becomes king.

Laertes is another important secondary foil to Hamlet also sharing many similarities and differences that highlights Hamlet’s weaknesses. Laertes and Hamlet share the similarity of quick irrational passion. Hamlet stabs Polonius during the heat of an argument and Laertes threatens to kill the king without remorse after the death of Polonius. Hamlet’s father, Hamlet Sr. was secretly poisoned by king Claudius, which was revealed to Hamlet by the ghost of his father. Since, Hamlet has become obsessed with the idea of avenging his father’s death but delays because of his natural flaw of overthinking.

Hamlet hesitates to kill Claudius during his confession because he believed that he would spare him of his crime, he wants to catch Claudius during sin because he would be eternally damned. He wants Claudius to suffer the consequences and decides to wait meanwhile Claudius wants to eliminate Hamlet because of his madness but does not want appear responsible for doing so. “Of impious stubbornness. ‘Tis unmanly grief. It shows a will most incorrect to heaven, a heart unfortified, a mind impatient, an understanding simple and unschooled” (A.1.s2, 94-97). Claudius scolds Hamlet on his incapability to forget about his father, he views it as unmanly and immature.

He also considers Hamlet’s mourning useless and long overdue, if the state of Denmark can get over it so can Hamlet. “Neither a borrower nor lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and a friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night they day, though canst not be false to any man. Farewell. My blessing season this in thee” (A1.s3, 75-81). Before parting ways Polonius offers Laertes a few words of wisdom about friendships, self control, appearance and judgment. Overall he advises his son to remain true to himself as you can see Polonius shows a strong love and bond for his son.

After embarking on his trip to Paris Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes although his intentions are good, he wants to ensure that Laertes remains studying and not misbehaving. “Something have you heard of Hamlet’s transformation- so call it, since nor th’ exterior nor inward man resembles what it was. What it should be, more than his father’s death, that hath put him so much from th’understanding of himself, I cannot dream of” (A.2.s2, 5-10). Claudius discusses his stepson’s madness with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who are longtime friends of Hamlet, during the discussion he asks them to spy on Hamlet and keep a constant eye on his unpredictable behavior.

Claudius and Hamlet’s relationship also depicts an absence of trust between the two. To understand the relationships between the two fathers and sons we must juxtapose the character traits of each individual. Claudius is conniving and scheming; his motive of achieving absolute power is made clear throughout the play. He manipulates the state of Denmark to believing that his disorder of murder and incest within the country is acceptable. Claudius wants everyone to believe that he worries for Hamlet but truly thinks of Hamlet as a threat, so much so he strategizes a plan to do away with him for good. Polonius unlike Claudius has good intentions overall but often wounds up making false conclusions throughout the play.

As the king’s trusted Lord of Chamberlain Polonius cares a great deal about his reputation and like the king views Hamlet as a threat. Throughout the play Polonius helps the king spy on Hamlet and advises his daughter Ophelia to stay away from his madness. Polonius genuinely adores his children and is often showing that through words of wisdom. Laertes models many of Polonius’s traits except the fact that he quick tempered. After hearing about the death his father Laertes immediately assumes Claudius as the murderer.

Laertes makes it very clear to Claudius that he cares less about his reputation and is willing to do anything as long as it means revenge. Hamlet is also quick tempered although he overthinks many little details, he wasn’t thinking at all when he accidentally killed Polonius. During an argument with Gertrude he sensed someone behind the curtain and instantly assumed it was Claudius. Hamlet wants to kill his uncle during sin, throughout the play we see Hamlet trying to prove his uncle’s guilt before planning any type of retaliation.

Both families resemble many distinguishable traits that resulted to their tragic downfalls such as lying, spying and over processing. Both relationships foil each other in a sense because both are different and highlights not only Hamlet’s weakness but Laertes weakness as well. In the end Laertes forgave Hamlet for the death of his father but was killed by Hamlet during fencing duel and Hamlet poisoned Claudius. Hamlet was wounded and killed by Laertes sword that was previously poisoned.

Another example of Laertes being a significant secondary foil to Hamlet is shown through the different obsessions with women. Hamlet’s reacts violently towards Gertrude and Ophelia sexuality as opposed to Laertes who takes a calmer approach. Gertrude is Hamlet’s mother and the widow to Hamlet Sr. after the death of her husband she marries Hamlet’s uncle Claudius. Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius and Laertes younger sister; she is also Hamlets
old lover. Hamlet makes it no secret that he is disgusted with his mother’s marriage to his uncle Claudius. He is angry with his mother Gertrude for reconciling her love for his father and settling for Claudius. Laertes on the other hand is very protective over his sister’s abstinence, like most Elizabethan men he highly values purity and is disgusted with anything less.

“She married- O, most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets” (A.1.s2.156-157). Hamlet believes that his mother’s marriage is incestuous and believes that his mother did not take time to fully mourn the death of the previous king. The thought of Gertrude’s sexual relationship with Claudius consumes Hamlet, comparing it to an unattended garden he says,“tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed.

Things rank and gross in nature merely possesses it” (A.1.s2.135-137) Gertrude’s sexual relationship leaves Hamlet with a sense of a contaminated world, his disgust is so great that he eventually feels this way towards all women including Ophelia. “Get thee to a nunnery! Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than thoughts I put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in” (A.3.s1.121-127).

Hamlet believes that women are the roots of evil; he accuses Ophelia of being promiscuous and insists she is dishonest. Ophelia is distancing herself from Hamlet because her father advises her that he is mad and to not associate herself with him for the sake of a good reputation. Laertes also agrees with Polonius on this matter of a good reputation as he is trying hard to preserve Ophelia’s purity. “Fear it, my dear sister and keep you in the rear of your affection, out of the shot and danger of desire.

The chariest maid is prodigal enough, if she unmask her beauty to the moon. Virtue itself’ scapes not calumnious strokes. The canker galls the infants to the spring, too oft before their buttons be disclosed. And in the morn and liquid dew of youth”(A.1.s3.33-42). In this quote Laertes reinforces his father’s advice to Ophelia to not let her love for Hamlet become a target of lust. He also advises her to guard her good reputation because even worms ruin flowers before they blossom. Laertes does not want Hamlet to interfere with his sister’s good reputation and does not want his false pretenses to interfere with her morals.

In the Elizabethan times a “deflowered” woman was considered to be damaged goods that no man would marry, Laertes fears Hamlet taking advantage of his little sister and he wants to keep her chaste until marriage. Both Hamlet and Laertes struggle to come to terms with their loved ones sexuality but they go about it differently. Hamlet is more aggressive towards Gertrude after murdering Polonius as opposed to Laertes who takes a more understanding approach and offers his advice. This brings out Hamlet’s trait of being more forward and harshly enthusiastic towards his mother’s relationship, which is caused by his flaw of overthinking.

In conclusion in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, secondary foils highlight Hamlet’s flaw of overthinking. Foils help the reader compare and contrast major characters from secondary characters. We see Hamlet strengths and weaknesses through characters like Fortinbras and Laertes; other secondary characters include Polonius, Ophelia and Gertrude. Firstly, Hamlet’s inability to act upon revenge is foiled by Fortinbras ability to conquer.

Secondly, Hamlet’s and Laertes have different relationships with their fathers. Through these relationships we see Hamlet’s struggle of revenge foiled by Laertes rash decision-making. Thirdly, Laertes and Hamlet share a similar obsession towards women but for different reasons. Hamlet is a complex individual who lets his fatal flaw lead to his tragedy.

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Theme in Hamlet. (2017, Feb 20). Retrieved from

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