In order to complement the exposition of a main character in a literary work, Playwrights have had a long standing history of utilizing foils. The Foils are minor characters that may or may not have similarities with a major character. Sometimes the role of a minor character is merely restricted as someone for the protagonist of the play to converse with. The foil and the central character may belong to the same gender, social class, or may even be reacting to a similar situation. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we find Prince Hamlet foiled by many characters.
Foils in Hamlet
In his statement “What a piece of work is a man!” (II, 2). Prince Hamlet, the protagonist in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, recognizes the complexity of man; as “infinite in faculties… express and admirable… like an angel [or] like a god… and yet… [a] quintessence of dust” (II, 2, 307). The observation is accentuated by casting Hamlet as “a man,” revealing his strengths and weaknesses through the contrast provided by, Fortinbras, Laertes and Horatio, as foils to the tragic hero.
Laertes acts without forethought: “Let come what comes,” he cries, “only I’ll be revenged / Most thoroughly for my father” (IV, 5, 138). His surrender to Claudius’ conniving plot and becoming nothing more than a puppet in the king’s game, however, highlights one of Hamlet’s strengths that he cannot be easily influenced by those around him. While the actions of others may initiate an emotional response from him, they “cannot play upon [him]” (III, 2, 366).
The course of action that Laertes’ takes highlights the tragic fault, of his inability to think on his own, highlighting on the other hand the virtue of Hamlet’s strong character. Laertes, seeks instantaneous almost thoughtless vengeance, Hamlet is cautious and wants further substantiation. Both Hamlet and Laertes have a different association with Claudius, one is deceived by him and the other sees right through his deception. The duo returns to Denmark after the passing of King Hamlet, which is the first indication that Laertes will act as a major foil to Hamlet.
With the decease of King Hamlet and the unplanned murder of Polonius, both Hamlet and Laertes seek revenge. Hamlet is told by the Ghost that Claudius is accountable for King Hamlet’s death. As if it were his noble duty, Hamlet conspires to take revenge for his father’s death by plotting to kill Claudius. Once word gets to Laertes that Hamlet has killed Polonius, he too wants to avenge his Fathers death. Hamlet being the more precautious of the two and sits back and waits for further proof prior to hasty action. Hamlet strategically waits for the appropriate moment until he is convinced of his uncle’s role in his father’s death.
In contrast, Laertes seeks instant revenge of his father’s death and he is used by the scheming Claudius to put Hamlet to death. Laertes’ operates on impulse and is motivated by anger, which eventually leads to his and Hamlets’ destruction.
Amongst all the foils in Shakespear[e]’s “Hamlet,” [Titles] Laertes has major impact on Hamlet’s disposition. Whilst Hamlet upheld his status as prince, it was Laertes that symbolized the well bred young man of the majestic family and the conventional revenge hero.
At his foremost appearance, immature Fortinbras is shown to be inferior to Hamlet; being “of unimproved metal, hot and full” (I, 1, 96) unreasonably “[sharking] up a list of landless resolutes” (I, 1, 98), he is in sharp contrast to the “sweet and commendable” (I, 2, 87) Hamlet introduced in the next scene. As the play develops, however, Hamlet’s flaw are highlighted as Fortinbras works to earn his popularity, “which seems to symbolize the strong arm of the soldier” (xxvii).
Being a ruthless youthful prince was a parallel in Fortinbras and Hamlet. They are equally on a mission of retribution. Moreover, both Fortinbras and Hamlet lost their fathers’. Paradoxically Denmark is a connection since it was primarily controlled by Fortinbras’ father, then Hamlets’ father, then Hamlet, and finally returning to Fortinbras. Fortinbras had an ancestral bind with Hamlet’s love Ophelia.
Nevertheless, Fortinbras is at variance from Hamlet, in his apparent impatience to substantiate his courage. Fortinbras exploits his antagonism and distress by attacking Denmark and retrieving the terrain his father lost, while Hamlet is action less. Fortinbras has no difficulty massacre the innocent whereas Hamlet faces a dilemma with slaying the culpable. Fortinbras’ unsophisticated, simple-minded resolve in avenging his father’s death contrasts with Hamlet’s erratic labors towards the identical objective. The Norwegian’s first appearance in the play, which does not occur until act IV, scene 4, is suitably placed as Hamlet is on another of his “lows.”
Fortinbras’ victorious and magnificent entry into Denmark confirms his ability to plan and act, circumventing difficulty in his plan as they occur, which contrasts with Hamlet’s incapability to do the same. Hamlet criticizes himself and exposes one of his weaknesses — his inability to act when required or possible — by questioning “Why yet [he] live[s] to say ‘this thing’s to do,’ / Sith [he] [has] cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do’t” (IV, 4, 44): why does he continually acknowledge he must act, and yet fail to do so? Fortinbras’ control of the Norwegian armed forces further weakens Hamlet’s character in the play, as he is incapable of leading himself to bring his plan to realization.
Polonius characterizes the cautious side of Hamlet. Both are conscious of people’s intention. Polonius and Hamlet think the worst from their loved ones; Polonius instructs Reynaldo to set off to Paris to spy on Laertes (Act II scene I). This conduct contrastingly relates to Hamlet as he remains restrained.
Polonius has been depicted as a weak character all through the play. Hamlet operates as a crazy being in order to accomplish in his intent to execute the king. Polonius would go to any extreme to confirm his faithfulness to the king, much before the ghost discloses that Claudius is accountable for King Hamlet’s decease.
The differing plans of action, (or inaction), implemented by Fortinbras and Laertes, however leading to the same goal, furthermore accentuate Hamlet’s strengths and flaws. Of the three, Fortinbras is the chief triumphant: he plans “to recover… by strong of hand… those lands / So by his father lost” (I, 1, 102), acts by “[sharking] up a list of landless resolutes” (I, 1, 98) and raising an army, is “suppress[ed]… [and] Receives rebuke from [old] Norway” (II, 2, 61), re-plans with his “three thousand crowns in annual fee / And his commission to employ [the] soldiers” (II, 2, 73), “march[es] over [the Danish] kingdom” (IV, 4, 3) and finally succeeds to “embrace [his] fortune” (V, 2, 378).
Hamlet, conversely, is simply unfocused: his intent to “set [the injustice of his father’s murder] right” (II, 1, 188) fades steadily as he is subjected to the “[loss of] all [his] mirth” (II, 2, 298) through the two months from the visit of the ghost until he finally operates with his “Mouse-trap” (III, 2, 235) “wherein [he] catch[es] the conscience of the king” (II, 2, 607). The abrupt hilarity and an additional low, after he “speak[s] daggers to [Gertrude]” (III, 3, 389) cause further hindrance in Hamlet’s “plan.”
The grief Hamlet experiences at Ophelia’s bereavement negate the reanimation of his rationale upon the prospect of Fortinbras’ approaching army, and it is only when Hamlet is intoxicated with a blend of resentment, disgust and treachery that his vengeance is finally accomplished. Accumulating to the impediment is Hamlet’s inexplicable inclination to over examine, possibly a trait of consequence in certain cases. Nevertheless in this state of affairs dependence on a primal need for revenge rather than coherent reflection, the trait operates as a retardant. Undeniably, it is only when Hamlet is out of character that he conclusively accomplishes in his undertaking.
Horatio serves primarily to emphasize Hamlet’s weaknesses. Hamlet’s dependable associate, his easy obedience at the opening of the play focuses Hamlet’s capability to guide; their exchange of matter concerning the ghost depicts Hamlet’s astute and investigative psyche. Nonetheless, as Hamlet descends into his contrived lunacy he falls victim to his own dominant sentiments, As Hamlet’s adventure temperament develops into an increasingly real situation, Horatio is his solitary anchor to reality, as a “man that is not passion’s slave” (III, 2, 74).
Being “e’en as just a man / As e’er [Hamlet’s] conversation cop’d withal” (III, 2, 56), Hamlet relies progressively more on Horatio, depending on him to authenticate Hamlet’s interpretation of the king through the play scene, fogged up by thoughts of vengeance and contradictory feelings of anger, revulsion and hesitation. Horatio serves as Hamlet’s somber second reflection when Hamlet can no longer be concerned for himself: he advocates Hamlet to be precautious with the ghost at their first meeting, and tries to convince him to withdraw from the lethal combat in the concluding scene.
The scholar’s strong code of honor and ethics, which pushes him to commit suicide at Hamlet’s death, contrasts with Hamlet’s lack of morals, sending his old acquaintances Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England and mercilessly “wringing [his mother’s] heart” (III, 4, 35) during the closet scene.
By exposing and emphasizing Hamlet’s many strengths and weaknesses as they appear throughout the play, Fortinbras, Laertes and Horatio act as foils to the tragic hero and support the perception of the disposition of Hamlet.