How do the foils to the character of Hamlet help in the development of plot and theme in the play?

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Laertes and Fortinbras both serve as foils to Hamlet. When Laertes's father dies under suspicious circumstances, Laertes comes rushing back to Denmark to learn the truth and to avenge Polonius's death. When Fortinbras's father dies in battle with the old king, Hamlet , he likewise wastes no time...

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Laertes and Fortinbras both serve as foils to Hamlet. When Laertes's father dies under suspicious circumstances, Laertes comes rushing back to Denmark to learn the truth and to avenge Polonius's death. When Fortinbras's father dies in battle with the old king, Hamlet, he likewise wastes no time in seeking to avenge his father's death and reclaiming the lands that Norway lost in the war with Denmark.

These two sons's swift actions draw attention to how slowly Hamlet himself moves, even though he knows his father was murdered and that it was certainly unlawful. Learning of these other men's responses to their fathers's deaths seems to compel Hamlet to question himself and his own character, allowing even more tragic deaths to occur before he actually makes up his mind to do something to avenge his father.

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An obvious foil for Hamlet would be Fortinbras. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is a young prince whose father met his end through a violent death. Unlike Hamlet, he shows a great sense of purpose and resolve in taking revenge. Old Fortinbras was killed over a land dispute by Hamlet's father, and ever since, the young Norwegian whipper-snapper has been itching to avenge his death.

It is his determination to have his revenge that keeps the kingdom of Denmark in a state of tension and uncertainty. It also serves to highlight Hamlet's chronic indecision in terms of avenging his own father's death. Fortinbras puts Hamlet to shame with his penchant for action. Observe how the young Norwegian prince puts together an invasion force to grab a worthless plot of land in Poland while Hamlet is still brooding over the best course of action to take. Again, it is Fortinbras who drives the plot, as Hamlet, ashamed of his chronic inertia, resolves to settle accounts with Claudius once and for all.

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A foil or a foil character differs from one character (in this case, Hamlet) and those differences highlight Hamlet's traits. So, we don't have to look far until we come to Claudius who serves as a foil to Hamlet. Claudius's crime highlights (and causes) Hamlet's need for vengeance. Claudius is the main villain/antagonist in this play and this contrasts with Hamlet's role as the main protagonist. Claudius continues to try to hide his crime, while suppressing Hamlet's role and importance (by sending him away). This is contrasted by Hamlet's desire to expose Claudius for the criminal that he is. These characters are actively working against one another, but they do not communicate this to each other until the very end. This unspoken but active duel fuels the plot and contributes to many themes of the play: murder, secrecy, revenge, madness, and justice. 

An interesting side note to this "duel" is that both Claudius and Hamlet are similar in that they both conspire and plot in secret. Each man has an agenda and the best way to achieve his goal is to keep the agenda hidden from others. Hamlet and Claudius do not trust one another, but they hide this suspicion from one another. It is like a chess game. Little by little, Claudius grows more suspicious of Hamlet. Even Polonius shows some suspicion and proclaims it in the famous line, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." (II.ii.216) Hamlet tries to hide his plot for revenge under a guise of madness. 

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