These literary experiments are called foils. In Hamlet, Shakespeare gives us many foils for Hamlet, the main character. One major foil is Ophelia. Hamlet and Ophelia have both lost their fathers. In the beginning of the play it seems that Hamlet is mourning too much and over reacting, but when Ophelia loses her father it makes Hamlet’s mourning seem subtle. Ophelia is very affected by her father’s death and it eventually leads to a factor in her insanity and death.
This changes the way we look at Hamlet and Ophelia. Another foil for Hamlet is Polonius, Laertes’ and Ophelia’s father. Hamlet and Polonius are both very quick to speak or and lash out in excitement. Both of them have made major mistakes because of this unwanted trait. Hamlet has, on many occasions, spoken too quickly or acted out of rage or ignorance and hurt himself and others.
When Polonius spies on Hamlet and the Queen, Hamlet thinks that it is the king who is spying behind the curtain, and without knowing who it really is he stabs Polonius and kills him. Polonius also has the same problem, but with much tamer results. Polonius usually ends up just making himself sound like a babbling fool by not thinking things out first. He never really hurt anyone and his slaying by Hamlet’s sword makes Hamlet seem more the fool. This foil gives Hamlet the image of a violent person that doesn’t know how to control his emotions, and in this instance he almost becomes the antagonist.
Hamlet also has foils that aren’t as close to him. Like the young Fortinbras, the nephew to the king of Norway. Fortinbras’ father, the king was killed, and his uncle, the king’s brother took over the crown. The exact same thing happened to Hamlet. Both countries also have a prince who feels that they were robbed from the crown.
Fortinbras, in contrast to Hamlet, takes an active role in Norway’s leadership. In act IV scene 4, he leads an army on to Poland. He also does this because he want’s to avenge his father’s death by taking what he believes to be rightfully his. Hamlet spends most of his time sulking or complaining, and it makes him seem a little spoiled and cowardly, as if he doesn’t want to face the world.
He keeps his plot for revenge a secret. In somewhat the same manner Laertes is a foil to Hamlet. He too seeks revenge for his father’s death, and does it very openly. He goes as far as getting a mob together supporting him to be king.
It seems radical but it probably would have been better for Hamlet to go about things this way. If he hadn’t kept it in the castle a lot of bad things wouldn’t have happened. Hamlet could have saved a lot of trouble if he went about things the way Laertes did, but then we would have a boring play. Another thing for Hamlet and Laertes is their love for Ophelia.
Obviously they are completely different kinds of love, but both are extremely strong. Laertes cares greatly for his sister and gives her strong advice concerning her and Hamlet. He warns her against keeping a relation with him, showing that he doesn’t like Hamlet. After Ophelia rejects Hamlet, his love dies off and he gets pale and sickly, showing how much he cared for her.
It is strange that both these characters care so much for Ophelia but hate each other to death. When Ophelia dies, both are shocked and enraged. In the end at her burial they both end up jumping into Ophelia’s grave and fighting each other over her dead body. Their extreme love for her and profound hate for each other is almost a mystery. Laertes also, like his father, has the same rashness and spontaneity as Hamlet.
There are many, many foils throughout this play, some completely obvious, and some scarcely noticeable. In “Hamlet”, Hamlet has a foil with almost ever other character in it. Foils greatly enrich all literature and tell us much more than meets the eye about a specific character and the decisions they make. Literary Phenomena like this make great stories masterpieces.