Hamlet Character Summaries
by William Shakespeare

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Character Summaries

Hamlet

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.

King Hamlet

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

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

Gertrude is Hamlet's mother and the queen of Denmark. She remains something of a mystery throughout the play,...

(The entire section is 1,326 words.)