The Foils in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Most playwrights utilize foils to help the audience in understanding the meaning of a play or the different motivations of the characters. Foils are minor characters that have similarities or differences with a major character and serve to highlight major characteristics of that character. Sometime the minor character is in the play so the major character has someone to speak with. The foils in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet are the Fortinbras, Laertes, and Ophelia.
Laertes is a major foil of Hamlet. Laertes was in the play so Hamlet would have someone to fight at the end of the play. Both Hamlet and Laertes want revenge for their fathers’ deaths. But Laertes wants revenge on Hamlet. Hamlet killed Polonius by accident when he was in his mother’s bedroom because he thought it was the king. Hamlet and Laertes loved Laertes sister Ophelia. When Laertes found out, he was mad and really wanted to kill Hamlet. Laertes blamed Hamlet for the death. To see Laertes as a foil for Hamlet, you must first examine the similarities. Hamlet and Laertes are both of the relative same age, and they are both males. Their fathers are both dead. Laertes’ father’s murder was committed by Hamlet. While speaking with his mother, Hamlet “Makes a pass through the arras” (3-4-29). Hamlet’s father is also murdered. The ghost tells his son to, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1-5-29). This causes Hamlet to become revenge oriented. Laertes is also driven to revenge due to his father’s death.
Some other similarities in Laertes and Hamlet were that they were both students. Laertes and Hamlet were loyal sons who were outraged and felt personally wronged by their fathers’ deaths. Laertes briefly and Hamlet both blamed Claudius for the deaths of their fathers’. Also, Hamlet and Laertes posed a threat to Claudius because of their potential for becoming king.
After King Hamlet’s death, he, along with Prince Hamlet, return to Denmark for the funeral services. That is the first sign that Laertes will become a foil to Hamlet in the play. Both Laertes and Hamlet are very fond of Laertes’ sister, Ophelia, which is the second similarity of the two. Another similarity of Laertes and Hamlet is the father figure of each, Polonius to Laertes and Claudius to Hamlet, has someone to watch them to see if they are acting accordingly. In Act two, Scene two, Claudius instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out why Hamlet is acting so strangely. The next similarity of Laertes and Hamlet is that they both grieve over a death in the play. Laertes grieves the death of Ophelia, while Hamlet grieves over his father, King Hamlet’s death. Laertes wishes to kill Hamlet after Hamlet murders Polonius and Hamlet wants to kill Claudius for the murder of King Hamlet. Both succeed in their quest for revenge.
A major difference between Laertes and Hamlet is that Laertes didn’t procrastinate in his attempt at revenge. One of the differences in Laertes and Hamlet was that Laertes allowed his anger and grievance of his father’s death to be known. Whereas when Hamlet’s father died, he secretively avoided everyone and was deemed crazy. Laertes goes to school and indulged in a Parisian lifestyle, as Hamlet chose to study at Wittenberg in a more subdued environment. Laertes has a lot of passion whereas Hamlet has very little. His father mostly raised Laertes whereas Hamlet had a mother and father to raise him. Also, Laertes was portrayed as the well-bred son of the counselor of a royal family and Hamlet portrayed the role of a royal prince.
Another foil to Hamlet is Prince Fortinbras of Norway. The reason he is included, as a foil of Hamlet, is he also seeks revenge for the death of his father, the king. Fortinbras goes about his revenge is a different way than Laertes and Hamlet though. Fortinbras goes to war over a useless piece of territory simply to uphold the honor of his father. The honor of his family is as important to him as it is to Hamlet. The single difference about the revenge of both is that Fortinbras doesn’t procrastinate like Hamlet did. Again, this shows the reader Hamlet’s careful approach to decision making. There are also differences in Fortinbras and Hamlet. Fortinbras seemed to be more eager to prove his courage than Hamlet. Fortinbras uses his anger and sorrow by attacking Denmark and reclaiming the land his father lost, while Hamlet has no actions. Fortinbras had no trouble slaying the innocent whereas Hamlet had a problem with slaying the guilty.
Ophelia can be considered a foil to Hamlet because she helps us see the different attitudes Hamlet has toward certain things. Hamlet, after finding out that his father was murdered, starts acting crazy and giving Ophelia mixed signals about his love for her. Ophelia believes Hamlet loves her but, because of her father’s wishes, constantly turns him down and denies that she feels the same way. Ophelia finally denounces denies that she loves him but Hamlet states “I did love you once”(3-1-121). I loved you not”(3-1-124). Not only does the scene, “Get thee to a nunnery”(3-1-127), show how Hamlet feels about Ophelia, but it also shows how Hamlet feels about marriage and women. Hamlet does not want any more marriage because that would mean more children and according to Hamlet the only children born to marriage are sinners. Another reason why Ophelia is considered a foil for Hamlet because of the difference in the way each grieved for their father’s deaths. The difference between the way Hamlet and Ophelia grieved is that Ophelia’s grief was actually for her father, whereas Hamlet’s grief was for his mother. Hamlet grieved for his father but he was more upset with the fact that his mother married his uncle only days after his father had died. Ophelia grieved for her father to the point that she killed herself. The differences are just as important to the foil as similarities. Once Hamlet found out who murdered his father he started to act very strangely. There are many reasons why Ophelia is a foil for Hamlet. If Ophelia were not in the play Hamlet would not have a love and there really wouldn’t be a love story in the play. Even though Hamlet is a prince, Ophelia is close to him in social class because she is the daughter of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain to the king. Also Hamlet is a little more on the crazy side than Ophelia. The importance of Ophelia in the story is to have a love for Hamlet and to have Hamlet talk to someone lovingly.
The foils in the play all helped the main characters in some way. Laertes, Fortinbras, and Ophelia helped Hamlet with outcome of the play. All were in the play so Hamlet would have had someone to interact with. All of the foils worked together with the major characters to add more to the outcome of the play.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet Portable Literature. 6th Ed. Ed. Laurie G. Kirszner & Stephen R. Mandell. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007.