Identify and describe the protagonist and the antagonist in the play, "Hamlet."
Shakespeare’s Hamlet makes better sense when Claudius is taken as the protagonist rather than Hamlet. A protagonist must be a character who not only starts the conflict but is strongly motivated to continue. Hamlet makes a poor protagonist. In fact, he is not even a good antagonist because everyone agrees that he is indecisive. He rejects people. He retreats into his own thoughts and rarely takes positive action.
It is Claudius who starts the conflict by murdering his brother. It is Claudius who persuades Gertrude to marry him. Hamlet returns to Elsinore only to attend his father’s funeral. He finds he has been blindsided by his uncle, but his only motive is to return to Wittenberg and resume his interminable studies. Claudius, however, keeps him at home where he can watch him. If Hamlet had returned to the Wittenberg he might never have encountered his father’s ghost.
Then it is Claudius who sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hoping these schoolfellows can find out why Hamlet is acting so strangely. It is Claudius who encourages Polonius to spy on Hamlet, and it is in Claudius’ service that Polonius has Ophelia attempt to sound Hamlet out. Even Gertrude is acting as her husband’s agent when she provokes that violent confrontation with her son.
Claudius does not believe that Hamlet is mad. He tells Polonius:
Love? His affections do not that way tend,
Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger . . .
When Hamlet finds out that Claudius murdered his father he decides to pretend to be mad. He knows the King is going to continue prying into his soul, and he is afraid that, through facial expressions, body language, or slips of the tongue, he might betray his heavy secrets—that his father’s ghost is haunting the castle, that he knows Claudius is a murderer and a usurper, that he is pledged to assassinate the King, and that he suspects his mother at least had foreknowledge of Claudius’ intentions. Hamlet hopes to create a false persona which Claudius cannot penetrate.
Then it is Claudius who sends Hamlet off to England. When Hamlet manages to escape getting beheaded and returns to Denmark, it is Claudius who conspires with Laertes to have Hamlet killed with a poisoned foil, and it is Claudius who prepares a lethal drink for his stepson in case Laertes’ foil doesn’t do the job.
About the only positive action Hamlet ever takes against his wicked uncle is to produce a play called “The Mousetrap.” Characteristically, this only comes about accidentally because the traveling players just happen to show up. Everything that happens to Hamlet is an accident, including the killing of Polonius, the discovery of Claudius’ letters to the English, his capture by pirates, the death of Ophelia, the duel with Laertes, and the accidental death of his mother. How can Hamlet be said to be the protagonist in the play when he does so little while Claudius is actively involved in everything from beginning to end?
If Claudius hadn’t killed his brother, he couldn’t have married Gertrude, Hamlet would have stayed in school, and there would have been no story.
Hamlet is the protagonist and tragic hero of the play. According to the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, the term protagonist comes from the Greek word for "first combatant," and Hamlet certainly is such as he battles his own inner demons and also tries to avenge his father's murder.
The antagonist and villain who is pitted against Hamlet is King Claudius, the uncle who kills Hamlet's father and marries his mother. Hamlet does come into conflict with others in the course of the play, such as Gertrude and Laertes, but Claudius is his primary enemy.