Study Guide

Hamlet

by William Shakespeare

Hamlet Characters

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 way for a new burial, Ophelia

Priest—Doctor of Divinity (church official) presiding at Ophelia’s funeral

Fortinbras—Prince of Norway whose father was killed by Hamlet’s father; assumes throne of Denmark at play’s end

Ambassador—from England, reporting to Claudius

Hamlet Characters Discussed (Great Characters in Literature)

Hamlet

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

Claudius (KLOH-dee-uhs), the king of Denmark and husband of his brother’s widow; he is Hamlet’s uncle. A shrewd and capable politician and administrator, he is courageous and self-confident, but he is tainted by mortal sin: He murdered his brother and married his queen very soon there-after. Although his conscience torments him with remorse, he is unable to repent or to give up the throne or the woman that his murderous act brought him. He has unusual self-knowledge and recognizes his unrepentant state. He is a worthy and mighty antagonist for Hamlet, and they destroy each other.

Gertrude

Gertrude, the queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother. Warmhearted but weak, she shows deep affection for Hamlet and tenderness for Ophelia. There are strong indications that she and Claudius were engaged in an adulterous affair before the death of the older Hamlet. She loves Claudius, but she respects Hamlet’s confidence and does not betray him to his uncle when he tells her of the murder, of which she has been obviously innocent and ignorant. Her death occurs after she drinks the poison prepared by Claudius for Hamlet.

Polonius

Polonius (peh-LOH-nee-uhs), the lord chamberlain under Claudius, whom he has apparently helped to the throne. An affectionate but meddlesome father to Laertes and Ophelia, he tries to control their lives. He is garrulous and self-important, always seeking the devious rather than the direct method in politics or family relationships. Hamlet jestingly baits him but apparently has some affection for the officious old man and shows real regret at killing him. Polonius’ deviousness and eavesdropping bring on his death; Hamlet stabs him through the tapestry in the mistaken belief that Claudius is concealed there.

Ophelia

Ophelia (oh-FEE-lee-ah), Polonius’ daughter and Hamlet’s love. A sweet, docile girl, she is easily dominated by her father. She loves Hamlet but never seems to realize that she is imperiling his life by helping her father spy on him. Her gentle nature being unable to stand the shock of her father’s death at her lover’s hands, she loses her mind and is drowned.

Laertes

Laertes (lay-UR-teez), Polonius’ son. He is in many ways a foil to Hamlet. He also hungers for revenge for a slain father. Loving his dead father and sister, he succumbs to Claudius’ temptation to use fraud in gaining his revenge. This plotting brings about his own death but also destroys Hamlet.

Horatio

Horatio (hoh-RAY-shee-oh), Hamlet’s former schoolmate and loyal friend. Well balanced and with a quiet sense of humor, he is also thoroughly reliable. Hamlet trusts him implicitly and confides in him freely. At Hamlet’s death, he wishes to play the antique Roman and die by his own hand, but he yields to Hamlet’s entreaty and consents to remain alive to tell Hamlet’s story and to clear his name.

The ghost of King Hamlet

The ghost of King Hamlet, who appears first to the watch, then to Horatio and to Hamlet. He leads Hamlet away from the others and tells him of Claudius’ foul crime. His second appearance to Hamlet occurs during the interview with the queen, to whom he remains invisible, causing her to think that Hamlet is having hallucinations. In spite of Gertrude’s betrayal of him, the ghost of murdered Hamlet shows great tenderness for her in both of his appearances.

Fortinbras

Fortinbras (FOHR-tihn-bras), the prince of Norway, the son of old Fortinbras, who was the former king of Norway. Fortinbras is the nephew of the present regent. Another foil to Hamlet, he is resentful of his father’s death at old Hamlet’s hands and the consequent loss of territory. He plans an attack on Denmark, which is averted by his uncle after diplomatic negotiations between him and Claudius. He is much more a man of action than a man of thought. Hamlet chooses him as the next king of Denmark and expresses the hope and belief that he will be chosen. Fortinbras delivers a brief but emphatic eulogy over Hamlet’s body.

Rosencrantz

Rosencrantz (roh-ZEHN-kranz) and

Guildenstern

Guildenstern (GIHL-dehn-sturn), the schoolmates of Hamlet summoned to Denmark by Claudius to act as spies on Hamlet. Although they are hypocritical and treacherous, they are no match for him, and in trying to betray him they go to their own deaths.

Old Norway

Old Norway, Fortinbras’ uncle. Although he never appears on the stage, he is important in that he diverts young Fortinbras from his planned attack on Denmark.

Yorick

Yorick (YOHR-ihk), King Hamlet’s jester. Dead some years before the action of the play begins, he makes his brief appearance in the final act when his skull is thrown up by a sexton digging Ophelia’s grave. Prince Hamlet reminisces and moralizes while holding the skull in his hands. At the time, he is ignorant of whose grave the sexton is digging.

Reynaldo

Reynaldo (ray-NOL-doh), Polonius’ servant. Polonius sends him to Paris on business, incidentally to spy on Laertes. He illustrates Polonius’ deviousness and unwillingness to make a direct approach to anything.

First clown

First clown, a gravedigger. Having been sexton for many years, he knows personally the skulls of those he has buried. He greets with particular affection the skull of Yorick, which he identifies for Hamlet. He is an earthy humorist, quick with a witty reply.

Second clown

Second clown, a stupid straight man for the wit of the first clown.

Osric

Osric, a mincing courtier. Hamlet baits him in much the same manner as he does Polonius, but without the concealed affection he has for the old man. Osric brings Hamlet word of the fencing match arranged between him and Laertes and serves as a referee of the match.

Marcellus

Marcellus (mahr-SEHL-uhs) and

Bernardo

Bernardo, officers of the watch who first see the ghost of King Hamlet and report it to Horatio, who shares a watch with them. After the appearance of the ghost to them and Horatio, they all agree to report the matter to Prince Hamlet, who then shares a watch with the three.

Francisco

Francisco, a soldier on watch at the play’s opening. He sets the tone of the play by imparting a feeling of suspense and heartsickness.

First player

First player, the leader of a troop of actors. He produces The Murder of Gonzago with certain alterations furnished by Hamlet to trap King Claudius into displaying his guilty conscience.

A priest

A priest, who officiates at Ophelia’s abbreviated funeral. He refuses Laertes’ request for more ceremony because he believes Ophelia has committed suicide.

Voltimand

Voltimand (VOL-tih-mahnd) and

Cornelius

Cornelius (kohr-NEEL-yuhs), ambassadors sent to Norway by Claudius.

Hamlet Character Analysis

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....

(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...

(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....

(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...

(The entire section is 647 words.)

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...

(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...

(The entire section is 535 words.)

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...

(The entire section is 833 words.)

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).

...

(The entire section is 1754 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear, Michael Foster