Points to Ponder
Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras are all very distinct characters in this play - Hamlet is given to deep thoughts, Laertes is haughty and hot-tempered, Fortinbras is obsessed with waging war and winning respect. Yet they also share certain attributes, not the least of which is their similar situation: each finds himself the offspring of a wronged party, and each must figure out for himself how to go about revenge. Hamlet has lost his father (to death), his mother (to Claudius) and his crown (to Claudius as well). Furthermore, he has lost his love, Ophelia, in no small part because Polonius and Laertes convincingly counseled her to spurn him. Laertes, in turn, loses his father and sister. Fortinbras, though bereft of no relatives, cannot bear his uncle's loss of land to Denmark. It seems clear enough that of the three Hamlet has suffered the most grievous wrongs, and yet in the end it is Fortinbras who triumphs and (presumably) gains the Danish crown. To what extent, then, can Hamlet's quest for revenge be considered successful? And what exactly is Shakespeare up to with the inclusion of such foils to Hamlet as Laertes and Fortinbras?
Is Hamlet a hero or villain? Both? Neither? By all accounts he is neither perfect nor innocent: he treats Ophelia cruelly, he happily sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, and he decides not to kill the King at one point because he wants to secure the King's eternal damnation. Finally, he is guilty of shedding Polonius' blood. And yet it is incredibly difficult not to cheer Hamlet on in this play. Why is this so? For one thing, we share his sense of outrage at his murdered father, and we are likewise pained that he doesn't wear the crown. Hamlet certainly has grounds for revenge, we admit, and we even catch ourselves desperately desiring that he finish off Claudius. Hamlet sums up his situation well with the seemingly paradoxical remark "I must be cruel only to be kind." Can one be cruel and kind simultaneously? Critics have labeled Hamlet a villain no less frequently than a hero. How are we to account for such wildly conflicting opinions of Hamlet's nature?
While Hamlet is unquestionably the center of this most famous Shakespearean drama, there are at least ten other characters who figure prominently in this play, an unusually large number. Several of them - most notably Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - fall prey to Hamlet's "antic disposition" and his tendency to toy with their minds. He often cracks elaborate linguistic jokes at their expense, all of which sail straight over their heads. Some of these scenes can seem needlessly long, even downright dull at times. Why, then, does Shakespeare bother to include so many extra characters - especially when they are just mere playthings of Hamlet - not strictly necessary for the main plot?
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.3 and 1.4
Scenes 4.1, 4.2, and 4.3
Scenes 4.4 and 4.5
Scenes 4.6 and 4.7