Last Updated on September 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1326
The title character of the play is riddled with conflict. This conflict begins in act 1, scene 5, when the ghost of his father shows up to demand that Hamlet avenge his death. Hamlet spends much of the play in inaction, trying at first to decide whether the ghost truly represents his father or if it is some act of the devil trying to force him to commit murder—and regicide, at that. Hamlet is finally convinced that Claudius, his uncle, has killed his father, but he still finds ways to delay actually avenging his father's death.
As he is plotting Claudius's death, Hamlet feigns madness to keep those who wish him harm (such as Polonius and King Claudius) off his trail—though some consider that the events of the play have truly driven him mad, which is a highly debated aspect of Hamlet's character. Hamlet's relationship with the women in his life deteriorates quickly; he drives Ophelia to suicide and tortures his mother with what he refers to as her "sinful" deeds, begging her to "confess [herself] to heaven; / Repent what's past; avoid what is to come"—which warns her of his impending plans toward her "incestuous" relationship.
Hamlet is intelligent and witty, often making remarks that amaze even long-winded Polonius, who cannot reconcile the image of the Hamlet who appears insane with the Hamlet who masterfully plays with words.
Ultimately, Hamlet doesn't strike King Claudius in revenge for his father but in revenge for Claudius's actions against Hamlet himself. After realizing that Claudius has poisoned the swords used in the fight and that he will die, Hamlet is finally moved to direct action against Claudius and stabs him with the same poisoned sword. Throughout the play, Hamlet is faced with various levels of emotional desertion from people he trusted previously: his mother, Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, Ophelia, and even his father. He dies nearly alone in the world, save for the lasting friendship of Horatio, and with the knowledge that he will never be king.
The ghost of King Hamlet appears to Hamlet in act 1, scene 5 to say that Claudius, his brother, has murdered him—thus stealing his life, his crown, and his wife. He begs young Hamlet to avenge this deed by killing Claudius, but he commands that Gertrude not be harmed. This sets in motion the primary conflict of the play, throwing young Hamlet on a course toward murder and his own death.
Some believe that the ghost of King Hamlet is only a projection of Hamlet's grief and that he doesn't really exist at all. Though others claim to see him, it is only Hamlet who speaks to the ghost, and when Hamlet is passionately arguing with his mother in her room, only Hamlet can see this ghost. Whether real or imagined, Hamlet's life is forever changed by the interactions he has with the ghost of King Hamlet early in the play.
Claudius has allegedly murdered his own brother by pouring poison in his ear; he then takes King Hamlet's crown, as well as his wife. Claudius is power-hungry and manipulative, exerting his influence on all around him to secure his spot on the throne. He is cunning enough to use the "unfortunate" loss of his brother as a point of unification for the Danish people, telling them that it is tragic that they "bear [their] hearts in grief and [their] whole kingdom / To be contracted in one brow of woe" and are thus solidified by the death of the king. Claudius plays Hamlet's former friends against him, further alienating his nephew (and now stepson), and uses Ophelia as a pawn in his match against Hamlet until she crumbles. Claudius shows no remorse for the damage his actions inflict, and even when Hamlet catches him in prayer, he acknowledges to himself that his prayers aren't sincere. Claudius is self-serving and self-protecting, not even making an effort to save Gertrude from drinking from the poisoned cup in the play's final scene.
Gertrude is Hamlet's mother and the queen of Denmark. She remains something of a mystery throughout the play, but she isn't portrayed as a woman of strength. She seems to follow the will of her husband, even when it's in direct conflict with the well-being of her own son. It isn't clear whether Gertrude was involved with Claudius before King Hamlet's death, and it isn't clear how much she knows (if anything) about the murder. When Hamlet comes to her chamber in anger, she tells him that he "has cleft [her] heart in twain." She is willing to use Ophelia as a spy of sorts against Hamlet, but then she appears at Ophelia's grave with flowers and declaring that she "hoped [Ophelia] shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife." Some stagings of the play have Gertrude emerge as a dynamic character in the final scene, drinking the poisoned cup in a clear effort to save her young son. In others, Gertrude remains vapid and shallow until the final drink.
Ophelia's desire to obey and please people is her undoing. She tries to trap Hamlet for the purposes of Polonius (her father) and Claudius. She listens to Hamlet's fickle proclamations of love and near hatred, even suffering through the speech in which he tells her that she should go live in a nunnery. She doesn't have any meaningful relationships with any other characters in the play who have her best interests in mind or her happiness as a concern. Ophelia's isolation and desperation to find peace lead her to suicide.
Polonius is the father of Ophelia and Laertes, and he has more advice than seems possible, which he frequently shares (and at great length). He associates with Claudius in an effort to better his own station. Polonius is willing to sacrifice his own daughter's happiness and mental stability by asking her to spy on Hamlet and report back to him and Claudius; further, he makes no efforts to shield her from Hamlet's subsequent verbal lashings. Polonius doesn't generate any sympathy in the audience when Hamlet accidentally murders him—he is another self-serving character who hangs on Claudius's robes in order to find success.
Laertes is often analyzed as one of Hamlet's foils. While young Hamlet stalls for several acts trying to decide whether or not to avenge his father's death, Laertes jumps into action. It is Hamlet who kills Laertes's father, and this sets in motion the events that will bring nearly everyone on the stage to his or her death. Laertes is passionate and quick to move, but he dies trying to avenge his father's death, too. It seems that no matter which path the characters take (waiting and thinking or jumping straight to revenge), the outcome of revenge is fatal for all.
Horatio is the only true friend Hamlet has in the play, and he supports Hamlet through each tragic turn. Hamlet trusts Horatio, confiding in him things that he confides to no one else. Horatio is there when Hamlet dies and is so upset that he wants to die, too. But Hamlet asks him to live and tell his story. It is Horatio who delivers the much-quoted line, uttered to Hamlet's body just after his death: "Good night, sweet prince, / And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!" He goes on to meet with Fortinbras to explain the carnage that Fortinbras finds at the castle.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's personalities are difficult to separate, and the two function almost as one character. Claudius summons them to spy on their (former) good friend Hamlet, and they seem all too happy to comply. In a plot twist, Hamlet forges a letter for the pair to deliver; it actually instructs that both Rosencrantz and Gildenstern be killed immediately without even a chance to pray for penance. The two prove to be unfaithful friends, and this elicits little sympathy in most audiences, though some do question whether they deserve to die for their incompetencies.
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