List of Characters
Barnardo, Francisco, Mercellus—sentinels; officers in King of Denmark’s army
Horatio—Prince Hamlet’s friend and confidante; fellow student at Wittenberg
Ghost—of dead King of Denmark, Prince Hamlet’s father; brother of new King, husband of Gertrude
Claudius—brother of dead King of Denmark; now King, and new husband of Queen Gertrude, Prince Hamlet’s mother
Gertrude—Prince Hamlet’s mother, widow of former King, now wife to Claudius, new King
Polonius—King Claudius’s advisor; father to Laertes and Ophelia
Reynaldo—Polonius’s servant, sent to Paris to spy on Laertes
Laertes—son to Polonius, brother to Ophelia; friend to Hamlet
Prince Hamlet—son of the late King, and of Queen Gertrude; nephew-stepson to King Claudius
Voltemand and Cornelius—messengers to King of Norway from Claudius
Ophelia—daughter to Polonius, sister to Laertes, beloved of Hamlet
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—fellow students of Hamlet at Wittenberg; sent with Hamlet to England by Claudius to murder Hamlet
Osric—messenger who summons Hamlet to duel with Laertes
The Players—actors (adults) who formerly performed in the city, and who are now traveling because of the rising popularity of companies of child actors
Grave diggers—two clowns (rustics) who are disinterring an old grave in order to make...
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Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, generally agreed to be William Shakespeare’s most fascinating hero. No brief sketch can satisfy his host of admirers or take into account more than a minute fraction of the commentary now in print. The character is a mysterious combination of a series of literary sources and the phenomenal genius of the playwright. Orestes in Greek tragedy is probably his ultimate progenitor, not Oedipus, as some critics have suggested. The Greek original has been altered and augmented by medieval saga and Renaissance romance. Perhaps an earlier Hamlet, written by Thomas Kyd, furnished important material; however, the existence of such a play has been disputed. Hamlet is a mixture of tenderness and violence, a scholar, lover, friend, athlete, philosopher, satirist, and deadly enemy; he is larger than life. Torn by grief for his dead father and disappointment in the conduct of his beloved mother, Hamlet desires a revenge so complete that it will reach the soul as well as the body of his villainous uncle. His attempt to usurp God’s prerogative of judgment leads to all the deaths in the play. Before his death, he reaches a state of resignation and acceptance of God’s will. He gains his revenge but loses his life.
Claudius (KLOH-dee-uhs), the king of Denmark and husband of his brother’s widow; he is Hamlet’s uncle. A shrewd and capable...
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Hamlet (Character Analysis)
The character of Hamlet dominates Shakespeare's tragedy of the same name, yet Hamlet at the start of the play is not a commanding figure. Indeed, when we first see the Prince, his posture is defensive, Hamlet taking a passive, if resentful, stance toward the events that have befallen him. Slow to the conviction that the ghost is his dead father and that Claudius is guilty of regicide, Hamlet does not go straight to the task at hand. Hamlet's delay or procrastination is something about which critics have wondered and that the character himself agonizes, his self-reproach reaching an apex in Act IV, scene iv, which concludes with the words "O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!" (lines 65-66). The question remains: Why doesn't Hamlet act?
One response to this question stresses Hamlet as a man of thought and words, as opposed to deeds. Shakespeare's Danish prince is one of the most intelligent protagonists in tragic drama. Unlike many other Elizabethan revenge tragedy heroes, Hamlet is given to philosophy and abstraction. At times, it seems that the play is less about Hamlet taking action in the external world, than it is about his grappling with the key existential problems of human existence. From this standpoint, Hamlet does not act immediately because he is too preoccupied with analyzing his situation and himself in the broadest terms imaginable.
Hamlet is also a melancholy figure, given to depression, who is...
(The entire section is 871 words.)
Claudius (Character Analysis)
Claudius is the king of Denmark and brother of the dead king, which makes him Hamlet's uncle. Claudius has killed his brother to gain the throne and has married his brother's wife, Gertrude. Throughout the play, the nature of Claudius's kingship is displayed. Because Claudius is shrewd and able, though not always ethical or moral, Hamlet describes the contest of intelligence and will between them as that of ''mighty opposites'' (V.ii.62).
Claudius is clearly the source of the rottenness that pervades Denmark. He is a clever "monster," who is able to devise plots and plans that conceal his intentions and to manipulate others into furthering them. On the other hand, as in the "confession" scene of Act III, Claudius has a conscience, realizing full well that his crime "is rank" and "smells to heaven" (III.iii). Claudius deserves his fate; killed by the very instruments that he (and Laertes) have devised; still, in his remorse and his affection toward Gertrude, Claudius is not completely beyond redemption.
Additionally, Claudius's character provides perhaps the best illustration of the theme of appearance versus reality in Hamlet. Initially, Shakespeare depicts Hamlet's uncle as the consummate monarch who justifies his ascent to the throne and his marriage to Gertrude with confident eloquence and who competently handles Fortinbras's threat to Denmark. But as the play progresses, Claudius's villainy becomes more apparent, revealing that he...
(The entire section is 1010 words.)
Gertrude (Character Analysis)
Gertrude, queen of Denmark, is the widow of the late King Hamlet and the mother of Prince Hamlet, who is the title character of the play. Gertrude has recently married her brother-in-law. Claudius, the new king, is the brother of the late king and thus Prince Hamlet's uncle.
Gertrude is central to the action of the play, despite the fact that she has relatively few lines. Hamlet's disgust with his mother's marrying less than two months after his father's death and marrying Claudius is one of the main subjects of his agonized reflections in the course of the play. Not only does Hamlet consider Claudius inferior to his father in every respect, but in Shakespeare's time, it was considered a form of incest for a widow to marry her brother-in-law.
Just how deeply Gertrude is involved in her second husband's plot to kill Old Hamlet is unclear; by the final scene, it seems that the Queen was ignorant of the crime. Nevertheless, she marries her brother-in-law only a few months after her husband's death. Clearly, while he is directed by the Ghost to refrain from harming his mother, Hamlet views her (and women at large) with contempt. Far more so than her consort, Gertrude has "redeeming" qualities; she appears to be truly concerned by her son's depression and madness, and she displays a deep (if ill-placed) love toward Claudius.
In addition, critics generally regard Gertrude as highly dependent on and easily manipulated by Claudius; her...
(The entire section is 782 words.)
Ghost (Character Analysis)
Of the other major characters in Hamlet, the Ghost is important because his demand for revenge sets the plot into motion. The apparition's ambiguous role in the drama reflects the general confusion about spirits in Shakespeare's day. Throughout the tragedy, the Ghost is alternately viewed as an illusion, a portent foreshadowing danger to Denmark, a spirit returning from the grave because of a task left undone, a spirit from purgatory sent with divine permission, and a devil who assumes the form of a dead person to lure mortals to doom. While Hamlet is chiefly concerned with this last possibility, each of these perspectives are put to the test at some point in the play.
Before the play begins, King Hamlet of Denmark has been found dead. His brother Claudius has become king and has married the widowed queen, Gertrude. Prince Hamlet, grieving the loss of his father and his mother's hasty and incestuous (by Elizabethan standards) remarriage, has descended into a deep melancholy. Moreover, on two consecutive nights the ghost has appeared in armor to palace guards on the battlements of the castle. The two guards have told no one about the ghost except Hamlet's friend Horatio, who has agreed to stand guard with them to see if the ghost appears again.
In I.i, the ghost appears to the two guards and Horatio. Horatio commands the ghost to speak, but it does not. It then reappears and seems about to speak to Horatio, but when a cock crows,...
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Horatio (Character Analysis)
Horatio is Hamlet's closest friend, a former fellow-student at Wittenberg. Horatio has come to Elsinore from Wittenberg for the funeral of old King Hamlet. He is described by Marcellus as a "scholar" (I.i.42).
Horatio enjoys the absolute trust of those who know him: it is Horatio whom the guards ask to witness the appearance of the ghost, it is Horatio with whom Hamlet trusts his suspicions regarding Claudius, and even Claudius trusts Horatio to look after and further restrain Hamlet after Hamlet attacks Laertes at Ophelia's funeral. In III.ii.54-87 Hamlet professes his faith in Horatio and praises his qualities of judiciousness, patience, and equanimity.
Horatio is initially skeptical about the ghost. He believes it is a ''fantasy'' (I.i.23) of the watch. After seeing and attempting to communicate with the ghost, Horatio speculates that its appearance might be related to possible impending war with Norway. In speaking to the ghost, Horatio implores it to tell him if he can do anything to help it, or to avoid trouble befalling his country. Noting that the ghost looks like the dead King Hamlet and seemed about to speak when it vanished with the dawn, Horatio resolves to tell Hamlet about the apparition.
Horatio worries that the ghost may lead Hamlet to suicide or madness, so he and Marcellus try unsuccessfully to prevent Hamlet from meeting with the ghost. After Hamlet's private conference with the ghost, Horatio tells Hamlet that...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
Laertes (Character Analysis)
Laertes is Polonius's son and Ophelia's brother. He has come to Denmark for King Claudius's coronation. In his first appearance in I.ii, he seeks permission to return to France.
When he appears again in I.iii, Laertes bids his sister Ophelia farewell and warns her about Hamlet. He advises her that Hamlet can't choose a mate for himself alone, but, being the prince, must think of the state. Thus, he cautions Ophelia to protect her virtue. Polonius then enters and advises his son on how to conduct himself while in France. When his father is finished, Laertes leaves for France.
Laertes returns to Denmark after Polonius's death, bursting into the room with a group of followers and addressing Claudius, "O thou vile king" (IV.v.116), and vowing revenge for his father's death. Claudius assures Laertes that he played no role in the death of Polonius and asks him if he is prepared to know the truth, if in his desire for vengeance he will look to both "friend and foe" (Iv.v.143). Ophelia then enters, and Laertes realizes that his sister has gone mad. The king then tells Laertes that he will give up the kingdom, his crown and his life if Laertes and his followers find that he was involved in Polonius's death. Later, Claudius explains to Laertes that there was no formal inquiry into Polonius's death due to the queen's love for Hamlet and due to the high regard the people have for the prince. During this scene (IV.vii) a messenger arrives bearing a letter...
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Ophelia (Character Analysis)
Ophelia is the sister of Laertes and the daughter of the king's councillor, Polonius. As I.iii opens, Ophelia has apparently confided to her brother that Prince Hamlet has declared his love for her. Laertes, who is saying goodbye to his sister as he leaves for France, warns Ophelia not to take Hamlet's professions of love seriously. Pointing out that the weddings of princes are usually arranged for reasons of state rather than for love, he cautions her to guard her virginity. Ophelia promises to take his words to heart but also urges her brother to follow his own advice and to avoid "the primrose path of dalliance" (I.iii.50). Polonius enters and adds his warnings to those of Laertes. He orders Ophelia not to spend time with Hamlet or even to talk to him. Ophelia promises to obey.
Ophelia next appears in II.i, when she tells Polonius that Hamlet has frightened her by entering her room and behaving in a bizarre manner. Convinced that Ophelia's refusal to speak to Hamlet has caused the prince to lose his mind, Polonius hurries to Claudius and Gertrude, who have also noted Hamlet's odd behavior and are in the process of instructing Hamlet's old friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find out the reason for it. Polonius and Claudius arrange to spy on a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia so that they can determine if love for Ophelia is really the cause of his apparent madness. This meeting occurs in III.i, and follows Hamlet's "To be or noto be" soliloquy....
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Other Characters (Descriptions)
Attendants: The king appears in state accompanied by attendants, and attendants wait on various members of Danish court and visitors to the court. Attendants follow the king when he enters or exits a scene. They are sent by the king to look for the body of Polonius. Attendants separate Hamlet and Laertes when they fight at Ophelia's funeral.
Barnardo: Barnardo, with Francisco and Marcellus, is one of the guards of the Danish ruler's castle, Elsinore. He and Marcellus have seen the ghost twice before the opening of the play, and have chosen to tell Prince Hamlet's scholarly friend Horatio about the occurrence. Barnardo speaks the play's first, ominous words: "Who's there?" (I.i.1).
Clowns: See Gravediggers
Cornelius: Cornelius and Voltemand are Danish ambassadors, sent by King Claudius in I.ii.26-38 to the king of Norway, the uncle of young Fortinbras, to urge him to squelch his nephew's threats against Danish land. They return in II.ii.40 to report that their mission was successful.
Council: The Council is a governing body present with the king at official meetings. The Council is said by the king to have approved of his marriage to Gertrude and his succession to the Danish throne.
Doctor of Divinity: The doctor of divinity is a clergyman who reluctantly officiates at the funeral and burial of Ophelia. When Laertes calls for more elaborate religious ceremony, the doctor states that it is a profanation to bury a probable suicide in sanctified grounds with holy rites. Laertes replies in anger: ''I tell thee, churlish priest / A minist'ring angel shall my sister be / When thou liest howling" (V.i.240- 42).
English Embassadors: The embassadors (or ambassadors) enter the Danish court at the end of the play. They report the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Fortinbras: Fortinbras is the heir to the throne of Norway. His situation resembles that of Hamlet: his father was king, and his uncle is currently ruling. Prior to the play, the old Norwegian King Fortinbras lost both his life and Norwegian lands in the battle with King Hamlet. Early in the play, young Fortinbras is described as seeking to regain the lost Norwegian land during the period of uncertainty following King Hamlet's death. Negotiations between King Claudius and the current king of Norway, however, result in Fortinbras agreeing to cease...
(The entire section is 1754 words.)