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 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, 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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (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 (roh-ZEHN-kranz) and
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, 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 (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 (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, 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, a stupid straight man for the wit of the first clown.
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 (mahr-SEHL-uhs) and
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, 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, 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, who officiates at Ophelia’s abbreviated funeral. He refuses Laertes’ request for more ceremony because he believes Ophelia has committed suicide.
Voltimand (VOL-tih-mahnd) and
Cornelius (kohr-NEEL-yuhs), ambassadors sent to Norway by Claudius.