What do flat characters like Polonius contribute to the plot of Hamlet?

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First, I'm not sure that I would classify Polonius as a flat character. After all, he is of key importance to Claudius, and he attempts to manipulate Hamlet by using his own daughter. We learn of Polonius's motives, his propensity to be long-winded, and his seeming concern for the...

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First, I'm not sure that I would classify Polonius as a flat character. After all, he is of key importance to Claudius, and he attempts to manipulate Hamlet by using his own daughter. We learn of Polonius's motives, his propensity to be long-winded, and his seeming concern for the well-being of his children (though his methods lack clear direction).

If you compare Polonius to the Ghost of Hamlet's father, you can see a contrast. The ghost appears and disappears fairly quickly. Besides his claim to be Hamlet's father and his desire for revenge, we don't have much greater insight into this character. Also compare Polonius to Horatio. We know that Horatio is Hamlet's lone confidant, but that's about it. His background, his own passions, and even his own musings about the conflict that surrounds him are unknown to us.

So why are characters needed who are so thinly developed? In short, the plot depends on them. The focus of the conflict is on Hamlet, the protagonist. But because there is conflict, other characters are needed to fulfill certain points of purpose. It is the Ghost of King Hamlet who lights the fuse of inner turmoil within Hamlet. This conversation early in the play causes Hamlet to propel himself into an investigation to determine the truth of his father's death—and eventually leads him to his own.

As he follows this journey, he faces conflict and disloyalty at every turn. Therefore, the plot needs at least one character whom Hamlet can bounce ideas off of. If Hamlet's only true internal voice was provided via soliloquies, audience attention could certainly wane. (Imagine a character who keeps retreating to a corner of the stage to supply commentary that he can share with no one else.) Horatio allows a receptive outlet for Hamlet's innermost fears and desires.

Thus, flat characters are necessary to the plot of Hamlet because they more fully develop Hamlet's characterization and conflict.

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It is true that we do not get a sense of Polonius's interior self the way we do with Hamlet, so he is not a fully rounded character; but he fulfills important functions in the play. Most importantly, he is a plot device. When Hamlet accidentally kills him in a frenzy, mistaking him for Claudius hiding behind the arras, this action sets the entire second part of the play into motion.

In a parallel plot, Laertes now comes rushing home to avenge his own father's death, just as Hamlet is supposed to be avenging his father's death. Polonius' death allows Shakespeare to make Laertes a foil to Hamlet—if Hamlet is too hesitant in avenging his father, Laertes is too hot-blooded and, therefore, too easily manipulated by Claudius.

While alive, Polonius also has an important function. The consummate courtier and loyalist to Claudius, Polonius is two-faced, spies on Hamlet, flatters him, attempts to manipulate him, and in many ways proves that Hamlet is hardly crazy to believe the royal court is not a safe and trustworthy place for him to live.

Polonius provides comic relief as well: for all his efforts to help Claudius and Gertrude get to the bottom of what is troubling Hamlet, he has no idea, and the more knowledgeable audience (which knows about the ghost) can laugh at his fumbling attempts to, for example, show that Hamlet is lovesick.

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Flat characters are simpler than round characters, which are more complex; one might be able to sum up a flat character in one or two sentences, but it would take a good deal more time to be able to accurately describe a round character. In addition, round characters tend to be dynamic, changing throughout the text, while flat characters often do not change, remaining static (this is not a rule but is a tendency). This is not a judgment on these characters—it's not as though flat characters are stupid; they are just defined by fewer qualities.

Flat characters like Polonius, Laertes, and Horatio can be reduced to just a few sentences or a couple of qualities but play pivotal roles in the play: if Polonius were not hiding behind the arras in Gertrude's room, Hamlet would not have slain him, and this action actually forces other necessary events to take place (Ophelia goes mad, and Laertes comes back to challenge his father's killer, which leads to the final duel in which he, Hamlet, Gertrude, and Claudius all die). If Laertes did not come back to Denmark and duel with Hamlet, the final excising of all that is rotten in the court could not occur. If Horatio were not there to be a sounding board for Hamlet, we would get many fewer indications of Hamlet's thoughts and feelings, he would lack an ally when he returns to Denmark, and there would be no one to tell the prince's story in the end.

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It is somewhat of a misconception that fully rounded or developed characters are somehow better than flat characters. Actually, both have different purposes. A rounded character is important for literary works that are essentially psychological and where the main interest of the audience is the internal development or nature of a small group of characters. For other literary genres or emphases, such as moral conflict, plot development, and entertainment, flatter characterization can be as or more important.

Polonius is almostr a stock comic character who serves two purposes, plot development and comic relief. His character is that of a flatterer, who gravitates to power and who is constantly seen as currying favour. His death advances the plot of the play. In dialogue, he advances the discussion concerning Hamlet's madness:

 

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief. Your noble son is mad.

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