After Jesus Christ, Napoleon and Shakespeare himself, Hamlet is the most written about personality of all time. A student at the university in Wittenberg, Germany, Hamlet is typically thought to be between 23 and 30 years old. He is the Prince of Denmark, son to the former King named Hamlet Senior and his wife, Gertrude. Hamlet does not automatically become King upon his father's death because Denmark was an elective (not hereditary) monarchy; his uncle, Claudius, assumes the throne (although apparently there was never a vote on the matter), perhaps in Hamlet's absence. From the very beginning of the play Hamlet is troubled by his mother's decision to marry Claudius - he thinks it is a bit too hasty, not to mention incestuous - but soon he learns even more troubling news: a ghost informs him, in the guise of his father, that the former King was murdered by Claudius. The ghost charges Hamlet to revenge his father. Thus begins the greatest revenge story of all time, as Hamlet first must seek confirmation of the ghost's tale, and then as he tries - now certain of Claudius' guilt - to find the perfect timing to commit murder. Hamlet struggles at times with suicidal thoughts, but in the end he decides it is more honorable to live a difficult life and see his father avenged than to give up. Throughout much of the play, Hamlet plays the madman - putting on an "antic disposition" - so that he can work out his plan for revenge undetected. He is quite often ruthless and suffers from a severe case of "paralysis of analysis" - the inability to act because he spends so much time thinking about how and when to act. Nonetheless, the reader or playgoer has a difficult time resisting Hamlet's charisma, for he is no less courageous than committed and contemplative. We enthusiastically cheer Hamlet on when he murders Polonius, Laertes and Claudius, and we weep uncontrollably when he meets his own end. The famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, in his The Birth of Tragedy, had this to say about Hamlet's character in 1872: "Dionysiac man might be said to resemble Hamlet; both have looked into the true nature of things; they have understood and are now loathe to act. They realize that no action of theirs can work any change in the eternal condition of things, and they regard the imputation as ludicrous or debasing that they should set right the time which is now out of joint."
The ghost appears in four scenes throughout the play (I.i, I.iv, I.v and III.iv), only speaking with Hamlet. At first it is not known whether the ghost is from heaven or hell, and thus Hamlet and his friends are uncertain if they should trust what it says. In the course of the play, it becomes clear that the ghost is indeed that of Hamlet Senior, who during the night manages to escape what are most likely purgatorial fires in order to communicate with Hamlet. He relates to his son the story of his murder at the hands of his own brother, Claudius. The ghost is rather explicit in his demands to Hamlet: his son is to revenge his "foul and most unnatural murder," and he is to leave Gertrude alone, ultimately to be handled by heaven.
Like Hamlet, Horatio is a student at the university in Wittenberg. He is Hamlet's confidant, his closest friend; in fact, Horatio is the only person Hamlet trusts throughout the entire play. Hamlet admires him for his stoicism, for his indifference to things good and bad - he is not a slave to passion, as Hamlet fears he himself might be. Horatio is not one to believe in ghosts or providence, though he learns a thing or two in the play: namely, that there is more between heaven and earth than he suspects, as Hamlet quite bluntly informs him. In the end, Horatio is the one hand-picked by Hamlet to tell the story of Denmark's rottenness, for he is the only survivor among the major characters at the play's end. Horatio would much prefer to commit suicide, as Roman servants routinely did when their masters were killed, but Hamlet convinces him to live on and act as witness to the world.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
They are two (former) friends of Hamlet brought in from abroad by Claudius and Gertrude, in the hopes that they can play the informer on Hamlet for Claudius and Gertrude. Neither one has a distinct personality and it is nearly impossible to tell the two apart, an effect no doubt intended by Shakespeare. Claudius has the pair accompany Hamlet to England, bearing letters (unbeknownst to them) to the King of England sanctioning Hamlet's execution. Ever clever, Hamlet escapes from their custody, but not before changing the death warrant: the not-so-dynamic-duo thus meet their deaths in England, as the King thinks he is doing Denmark a favor. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern owe much of their modern-day fame to Tom Stoppard, a famous British playwright who co-authored the screenplay for Shakespeare in Love. He penned a highly-acclaimed drama entitled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967) in which these two ill-fated Shakespearean figures come to life and assume center-stage.
Ophelia is daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes, most likely a teenager. Her biggest claim to fame, however, is that she is the beloved of Hamlet. Until, of course, he advises her to hurry herself along to a nunnery. She becomes melancholic and mad as the play progresses, eventually drowning in a stream. It is not entirely clear whether she was committing suicide or not - the text suggests that it wasn't a mere accident. Some critics, desperate in their search for the cause of Ophelia's demise, have hypothesized that she was pregnant (by Hamlet) and thus took her own life. The textual support for this theory is, however, scant and unpersuasive at best.
Fortinbras is the nephew of the old and ailing ruler of Norway, also called Fortinbras. Fortinbras Senior was defeated in battle by Hamlet Senior, thereby losing significant lands to Denmark. The young and ambitious nephew thus sets out to recover the territories, only to be redirected to Poland by his uncle. He wins Hamlet's awe and respect because of his ability to act so decisively - and to defend his family's and nation's honor at any price - qualities Hamlet certainly envies. Hamlet is so impressed, in fact, that he recommends Fortinbras as next King of Denmark shortly before breathing his last. Though the play doesn't explicitly say so, it seems fair enough to assume Fortinbras becomes the next ruler of the Danish kingdom.
The son of Polonius, Laertes is roughly Hamlet's age and studies at a university in France. He is intended to be a character foil to Hamlet, so their personalities and actions are almost always diametrically opposed. While Hamlet is slow to act and contemplative, Laertes is instead hot-headed, impulsive and anything but pensive. He is, among other things, a good fencer and an even better carouser: we have reason enough to suspect he is a regular at both brothels and bars. From his father Laertes has inherited a bad case of hypocrisy, always ready to give sound advice but never to follow it. Outraged at the deaths of his father and sister, Laertes sets himself on a collision-course with Hamlet. The two end up killing each other in the final act, but not before reconciling and redirecting their hatred at Claudius.
Father to Laertes and Ophelia, Polonius is also Lord Chamberlain (a high-ranking counselor) to the King of Denmark. Despite his praise of brevity, Polonius' mouth runs uncontrollably. His speech, moreover, is little more than an uninteresting collection of trite phrases - be true to yourself and others, don't borrow or lend money and so forth. Unfortunately Polonius is neither as bright nor as witty as he fancies himself, but he does make a good butt for many of Hamlet's jokes. He proves himself a wonderful hypocrite, especially in his proclivity for espionage despite his advocacy of candor. Spying on his son, his daughter, Hamlet and the Queen, Polonius ultimately pays with his own life for this depthless deviousness.
The Queen of Denmark, Gertrude is first married to Hamlet Senior and then to his brother, Claudius. She doesn't see much wrong with marrying again so shortly after her husband's death, nor does she apparently think twice about the dubiousness of tying the knot with her former brother-in-law. All of this, of course, terribly irks her son, Hamlet. While Gertrude no doubt loves her son, she also has desires - sexual, emotional and otherwise - which she thinks will best be fulfilled in marrying Claudius. She is unaware of his crime and thus repeatedly sides with him against Hamlet for most of the play, even agreeing to send her son off to England (though oblivious to Claudius' intentions). When Hamlet finally informs her of Claudius' wrongs, Gertrude is no longer in a position to be of much help to him, for Claudius increasingly keeps his schemes from her. Unsurprisingly, the Queen herself eventually falls victim to Claudius' concoctions, as she accidentally imbibes the poisonous drink designed to kill Hamlet.
Claudius is the present King of Denmark who, not long before the play begins, commits fratricide by killing his older brother, the former King Hamlet (Senior). He is amazingly ambitious and conniving, no less talented than Hamlet at studying to seem the thing he is not. In the spirit of Machiavelli, Claudius is a genius at spinning words and managing the public's sentiments. Having gained the crown and the Queen by murdering his brother, Claudius is quite content with himself, though the precariousness of his position is never far from his mind. Once he realizes Hamlet is hot on his trail, directly after the play-within-the-play, Claudius must take any and all steps to protect himself from possible exposure. He deceives everyone - his wife foremost of all - and it soon becomes only a matter of time before the center can no longer hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon Denmark. His brilliant plan to rid himself of Hamlet - with the unsuspecting Laertes as his personal pawn - backfires in the final scene and brings about his own death.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7