Discussion Topic

The foils for Hamlet and their significance

Summary:

Foils for Hamlet include Laertes, Fortinbras, and Horatio. Laertes' impulsiveness contrasts with Hamlet's indecision, highlighting Hamlet's contemplative nature. Fortinbras' decisive action underscores Hamlet's hesitation, while Horatio's rationality and loyalty emphasize Hamlet's emotional and erratic behavior. These foils enhance our understanding of Hamlet's character and his internal struggles.

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Who are the foils for Hamlet in Shakespeare's play, and why are they important?

Understanding the term “foil” more fully will help you apply it here in Hamlet as well as other texts in the future.  The Oxford English Dictionary is a good place to find out the range of meanings of any word, and with these in hand, the word  is easier to use Here are a few definitions the OED provides for “foil”:   

  • Metal hammered or rolled into a thin sheet . . .;
  • A sheet of the same  . . . placed behind the glass of a mirror, to produce a reflexion;
  • Anything that serves by contrast of colour or quality to adorn another thing or set it off to advantage.

Taking these meanings seriously we understand that in literature, a foil serves through contrast to reflect (think aluminum foil) or underscore or in someway call attention to the traits, often subtle, of another character—to set the character off (as a gemstone in a ring) so that we see his/her distinctive characteritiscs better—more clearly.

I do not know if you have access to the OED, but I provide the URL in case you do.

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Who are the foils for Hamlet in Shakespeare's play, and why are they important?

Of course, the most major foil is Claudius.  His power hungry ways and lack of respect and leadership are contrasted with the dead King Hamlet, who was strong and just, and his son, Prince Hamlet, who is thoughtful and also wants justice. 

Another "foil" is Ophelia.  Ophelia and Hamlet love one another, yet in his decision to pretend madness, he has to treat her harshly.  She, of course, does not understand how he could turn so hateful.  Hamlet must weigh his decision of revenge against her love.

Another foil is Polonius.  When Hamlet acts out his revenge, he accidentally kills Ophelia's father.  Polonius, therefore, messes up Hamlet's plans and causes heartache and disruption.

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Who is the foil for Hamlet?

Fortinbras is often stated as the 'foil' for Hamlet: he too is revenging the death of his father (who was killed by Hamlet's father in an ice battle) and, unlike Hamlet, who is constantly hesitating, he decisively acts, conquering Denmark at the end of the play to become king.

Another revenger to whom it might be useful to compare Hamlet as a 'foil' is Laertes: who, unlike Hamlet, is galvanized immediately into action upon hearing that his father has been murdered, and who, rather like Fortinbras, plans and executes a swift revenge. Both Fortinbras and Laertes are men of action when Hamlet might be considered only to be a man of meditation and thought.

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Who is the foil for Hamlet?

According to the Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (ed. Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray), a foil is "a character who, by his contrast with the main character (protagonist), serves to accentuate that character's distinctive qualities or characteristics" (131).

The example that this book gives as a foil for Hamlet is Fortinbras, since "he takes decisive action while Hamlet vacillates." Another example is Laertes, who is "rash and bold" while Hamlet is slow to action.

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Who are Hamlet's foils and how do they illuminate his character?

A foil is a character that highlights qualities present in a character by having or showing contrasting qualities and characteristics. A foil is a useful way to show what a character is by showing what that character most definitely is not. In Hamlet, a standard foil discussion usually involves discussing Fortinbras and Laertes. The main gist of that discussion is that both of those men need to avenge their fathers, and both take big, definitive, action-oriented steps to make that happen. This is contrasted to Hamlet, who also is also pressured to avenge his father but vacillates excessively throughout the play in his resolve.

Another possible angle to go with this question is to say that Hamlet and Claudius are foils. For example, Claudius is wonderful at manipulating people. It's what makes him such an effective politician: he knows how to manage people. (Granted, his methods leave much to be desired.) He's quite good at deception and fakery. Claudius is also good at handling pressure and making decisions.

Hamlet is Claudius's opposite in many ways. He is often overly hesitant; however, he also has instances where he reacts far too impulsively. Hamlet also isn't good at managing people. As much as it pains people to admit, Claudius is probably the better person to be governing an entire kingdom, despite his duplicity.

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Who are Hamlet's foils and how do they illuminate his character?

The two main foils to Hamlet are Laertes and Fortinbras, young men of about Hamlet's age who also are faced with avenging the death of a father.

When Hamlet accidentally kills Laertes's father, Polonius, thinking he is Claudius, Laertes comes roaring in from France, hot for vengeance. He is also angry because he holds Hamlet responsible for Ophelia's suicide. If Hamlet is too slow and hesitant to avenge his father's death, Laertes is too quick and unthinking. This allows him to be manipulated by Claudius, who plays on his emotions.

Fortinbras's father, also a king and also named Fortinbras, is killed by Hamlet's father, the late King Hamlet. Fortinbras goes so far as to raise an army to invade Denmark to avenge his father's death. In Act IV, Hamlet compares his own inability to kill Claudius, just one person, to Fortinbras's raising an army and being willing to waste the lives of thousands of people to avenge one death. In this soliloquy, Hamlet sees himself as a coward in comparison to Fortinbras and tries to use Fortinbras as a role model, but also employs language that is critical of Fortinbras's excessive response.

Both men illuminate Hamlet's hesitancy and introspection.

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Who are Hamlet's foils and how do they illuminate his character?

Another obvious foil to Hamlet is young Fortinbras.  He too has lost his father and it is revealed in Act 1 that is trying to regain the lands his father lost to King Hamlet in a battle they had years ago.  The time is right for this action because King Hamlet is dead and the kingdom is in a time of mourning and transition to the new king, Claudius.  He is driven to accomplish his goals.  This is revealed by the fact that he didn't gather a formal army, but he "sharked up a list of lawless resolutes" to be his enforcers.  While it is reported in Act 2 that he will back down if he is allowed safe passage through Denmark to fight for lands further east, it is not the last Hamlet hears of Fortinbras.  In Act 4, Hamlet has a chance to talk to one of Fortinbras' soldiers and he learns that Fortinbras is leading his men to fight over a piece of worthless land in Poland.  The land is not worth anything, but the honor of restoring it to the control of Fortinbras is the worth the effort and loss of men.  Hamlet is struck by this determination and it spurs him be more determined in his own mission for revenge against Claudius.

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Who are Hamlet's foils and how do they illuminate his character?

One of the foils to Hamlet is Laertes, they are similar in age and situation though of course Hamlet has more of a direct path to the throne, etc.  Laertes is also interested in being off at college, he really cares for Ophelia as does Hamlet, and he is an accomplished swordsman.

But Laertes is also a man of action, he responds immediately to situations.  He leaps into Ophelia's grave, he is desperate to find a way to avenge his father's death and Claudius actually has to slow him down and get him to consider things a bit more.  On the other hand, Hamlet is always considering everything at incredible length rather than just acting.  Laertes serves to bring out this incredible inaction on Hamlet's part.

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Who are Hamlet's foils and how do they illuminate his character?

Hamlet's only conspicuous foil is Laertes, the son of Polonius. Laertes is impetuous and headstrong. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes acts without considering the possible consequences. In this respect he is the exact opposite of Hamlet, who procrastinates and meditates until forced to take action against King Claudius in the very last scene of the play. The sharpest contrast between Laertes and Hamlet is to be seen in Act 4, Scene 5, where Laertes impulsively and without adequate preparation leads a mob against Claudius seeking revenge for his father's murder. Laertes is doing what Hamlet should have done. However, the ease with which Claudius pacifies the headstrong Laertes, and actually turns him into a co-conspirator against his stepson, suggests that Hamlet might be the more intelligent and judicious of the two men, and that patience and caution might be understandable in such a delicate undertaking as assassinating a king and establishing a new monarchy.

Horatio is the only other young male who might be considered a foil to Hamlet, but he seems to exist as a character mainly as a friend with whom Hamlet can share his thoughts, feelings and especially his secrets. Rather than being a foil, Horatio is more like Hamlet's alter-ego. Without Horatio to confide in, Hamlet might be forced to talk to himself in additional soliloquies. There are already almost too many of these in the play; more of them might become tiresome and annoying. No doubt Shakespeare had to wrestle with the problem of portraying a man whose conflict was mainly internal and created Horatio in order to dramatize some of that conflict with dialogue.

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What are some examples of character foils in Hamlet?

The character foil is a very useful technique for presenting two opposing characters so that they might highlight each other’s differences in temperament, behavior, values, relationships, motives, and so on. Shakespeare employed this literary technique quite adeptly in his dramas, demonstrating how intuitive he was was concerning human nature.

In Hamlet, nearly every character has a foil or two (or three). King Claudius is frequently and openly compared to his predecessor, the brother he murdered. King Hamlet loved his country, his wife, and his son, and he showed that love through protective actions. Even in death, he comes back to warn Hamlet to protect the kingdom and Queen Gertrude from Claudius’s evil behaviors. Claudius, however, has no qualms about killing anyone who gets in his way of having the crown and the queen. Hamlet attempts to show Gertrude the differences between the two men as he holds up a picture of each to her in act 3, scene 4. He says that Claudius is "like a mildewed ear blasting his wholesome brother.” We see the difference clearly, even if Gertrude cannot.

Although most protagonists have a foil, Hamlet actually has several. While the prince’s nature is melancholy and filled with emotional highs and lows, his close friend Horatio is very level-headed and emotionally stable. For example, after Claudius storms guiltily out of the play in act 3, scene 2, Hamlet is erratically happy and energetic, excitedly asking Horatio if he observed Claudius’s guilty response. Horatio calmly replies, “I did very well note him.” We get the sense that Horatio is a little nonplussed by his friend’s inappropriate response. Later, in the graveyard, in act 5, scene 1, Hamlet morosely contemplates the course of Alexander the Great’s body through the earth and into the loam used to stop a beer barrel. Horatio tries to halt the morbid direction of his friend’s thoughts by saying, “Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.” Shakespeare places calm, logical Horatio next to Hamlet to not only act as a leveling presence in the prince’s life, but to highlight Hamlet’s brooding, overly emotional nature.

Another character foil for Hamlet is Laertes. On the surface, they have similar circumstances—a father murdered. Hamlet acknowledges this in act 5, scene 2, when he tells Horatio, “by the image of my cause I see the portraiture of his.” While Hamlet suffers from an inability to act upon his desire for revenge, he contemplates every related thought and opportunity, Laertes is overly rash in his decision-making. Unlike Hamlet, he is willing to damn his own soul to hell for his revenge; he storms the castle in an attempt to kill King Claudius but then succumbs to the king's suggestion to murder Hamlet.

Even Prince Fortinbras of Norway acts as a foil to Hamlet, although though we see little of him in the play. He takes action to expand his future kingdom, bravely commanding an army to fight for land in Poland. Hamlet compares himself to the prince and his army, admiring how they would bravely "go to their graves like beds,” simply because "honor’s at the stake." He admits that he, whose father was murdered and mother ruined, has done nothing, and he uses Fortinbras’s example to spur his own revenge (or at least he contemplates it).

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is rich with other foils, as well, so by the end of the play, he has revealed the psyche of each tragic character.

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What is an example of a stock character and character foil in Hamlet?

Shakespeare's longest play is replete with different types of characters. Shakespeare includes stock characters and foils in his tragedies for different purposes, but they often add comic relief 

  • Polonius as stock character

Polonius is the older man who is adviser to King Claudius. Once a brilliant man, Polonius now becomes entangled in his thoughts and confused in their direction. Thus, the humor of Polonius arises not from what he says, which is often wise advice, but from the order of his thoughts and his loquaciousness, as well as his timing. For example, in Act II, when Hamlet directs the players to perform a drama that similar to what has happened to his father so that he can watch Claudius and the queen, Polonius interrupts a player who says, "The mobled queen---'" with "that's good" (2.2.465) or other comments such as "This is too long." In this scene, critics feel that Shakespeare pokes fun of his less sophisticated of the audience whose tastes are less developed than what he desires. Polonius is also ridiculous as he exploits his own daughter to learn more about Hamlet so that he can ingratiate himself with the King. 

Providing comic relief, Polonius is a stock character because he represents a type, the older man of former wisdom who, in his failures of not recognizing his debility becomes comical as a meddler and, like other stock character fathers, he exploits his daughter to assist him in his social gain.

  • Fortinbras as a foil

In contrast to Hamlet, who has moved only from soliloquy to soliloquy in his deliberation about avenging the death of his beloved father, the young prince Fortinbras of Norway is readily preparing to risk his life for the honor of his father. In Act IV, Hamlet observes of Fortinbras,

Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit, with divine ambition puffed,
Makes mouths at the invisible event
Exposing what is amoral and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. (4.4.47-53)

It is after this reflection of Hamlet that he delares, "This is I/Hamlet the Dane" (5.1.227),and, inspiried by Fortinbras, takes action to avenge his murdered father.

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