Shakespeare includes characters in Hamlet who
are obvious foils for Hamlet, including, most obviously, Horatio,
Fortinbras, Claudius, and Laertes. Compare and contrast Hamlet with
each of these characters. How are they alike? How are they different?
How does each respond to the crises with which he is faced?
Horatio’s steadfastness and loyalty contrasts
with Hamlet’s variability and excitability, though both share a
love of learning, reason, and thought. Claudius’s willingness to
disregard all moral law and act decisively to fulfill his appetites
and lust for power contrasts powerfully with Hamlet’s concern for
morality and indecisive inability to act. Fortinbras’s willingness
to go to great lengths to avenge his father’s death, even to the
point of waging war, contrasts sharply with Hamlet’s inactivity,
even though both of them are concerned with avenging their fathers.
Laertes’ single-minded, furious desire to avenge Polonius stands
in stark opposition to Hamlet’s inactivity with regard to his own
father’s death. Finally, Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras are all
in a position to seek revenge for the murders of their fathers,
and their situations are deeply intertwined. Hamlet’s father killed
Fortinbras’s father, and Hamlet killed Laertes’ father, meaning
that Hamlet occupies the same role for Laertes as Claudius does
Many critics take a deterministic
view of Hamlet’s plot, arguing that the prince’s
inability to act and tendency toward melancholy reflection is a
“tragic flaw” that leads inevitably to his demise. Is this an accurate
way of understanding the play? Why or why not? Given Hamlet’s character
and situation, would another outcome of the play have been possible?
The idea of the “tragic flaw” is a problematic
one in Hamlet. It is true that Hamlet possesses
definable characteristics that, by shaping his behavior, contribute
to his tragic fate. But to argue that his tragedy is inevitable
because he possesses these characteristics is difficult to prove.
Given a scenario and a description of the characters involved, it
is highly unlikely that anyone who had not read or seen Hamlet would
be able to predict its ending based solely on the character of its
hero. In fact, the play’s chaotic train of events suggests that
human beings are forced to make choices whose consequences are unforeseeable
as well as unavoidable. To argue that the play’s outcome is intended
to appear inevitable seems incompatible with the thematic claims
made by the play itself.
Throughout the play, Hamlet claims
to be feigning madness, but his portrayal of a madman is so intense and
so convincing that many readers believe that Hamlet actually slips
into insanity at certain moments in the play. Do you think this
is true, or is Hamlet merely play-acting insanity? What evidence
can you cite for either claim?
At any given moment during the play, the
most accurate assessment of Hamlet’s state of mind probably lies
somewhere between sanity and insanity. Hamlet certainly displays
a high degree of mania and instability throughout much of the play,
but his “madness” is perhaps too purposeful and pointed for us to
conclude that he actually loses his mind. His language is erratic
and wild, but beneath his mad-sounding words often lie acute observations
that show the sane mind working bitterly beneath the surface. Most
likely, Hamlet’s decision to feign madness is a sane one, taken
to confuse his enemies and hide his intentions.
On the other hand, Hamlet finds himself in a unique and
traumatic situation, one which calls into question the basic truths
and ideals of his life. He can no longer believe in religion, which
has failed his father and doomed him to life amid miserable experience. He
can no longer trust society, which is full of hypocrisy and violence,
nor love, which has been poisoned by his mother’s betrayal of his
father’s memory. And, finally, he cannot turn to philosophy, which
cannot explain ghosts or answer his moral questions and lead him
With this much discord in his mind, and already under
the extraordinary pressure of grief from his father’s death, his
mother’s marriage, and the responsibility bequeathed to him by the
ghost, Hamlet is understandably distraught. He may not be mad, but
he likely is close to the edge of sanity during many of the most
intense moments in the play, such as during the performance of the
play-within-a-play (III.ii), his confrontation with Ophelia (III.i),
and his long confrontation with his mother (III.iv).