The character of Hamlet is a mix of great intellect and courage and great lack. It is possible to argue that this lack is shown by comparison the play forces between Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras. In particular, it is possible to show this by focusing on the two spheres, the private and the political, with which the play in concerned. By taking such a focus, this paper will demonstrate how Laertes and Fortinbras can be seen as foils for Hamlet’s character by acting where he cannot.
Throughout the play, Hamlet is entirely unable to act in both of the spheres in which he is engaged; the personal and the political. In act one, his action in the former is framed with reluctance: ‘The time is out of joint; O cursed spite! / That ever I was born to put it right.’ (I.V.188-89) A universal condemnation of action sits alongside a particular need for revenge. This contradiction maintains itself throughout the play as Hamlet attempts and fails to enact his revenge. This search for revenge is shown by a need for more and more evidence. Even when certainty is finally achieved in Act III through the use of the play ‘The Mouse Trap,’ however it does prove to be enough. Rather Hamlet seeks more knowledge. He seeks verifiable certainty that his uncle will be damned when he kills him. He misses the opportunity to enact revenge stating: ‘Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent; / When he is drunk, asleep or in his rage, / Or in the incestuous pleasures of his bed / At gaming, swearing or about some act / That has no relish of salvation in’t. (III.III.88-92).’ Hamlet is unable to act in the personal realm because he is forever deferring the certainty of judgement needed for action.
In contrast to this, Laertes is presented from the start of the play as someone who remains in control of the facts and is able to make his way consistently and effectively through the world. When he is first introduced he speaks to Claudius of his desire to return to university as soon as possible: ‘Dread my Lord, / Your leave and favour to return to France / From whence though willingly I came to Denmark / To show my duty to your coronation, / Yet now, I must confess, that duty done, / My thoughts and wishes bend again toward France’ (I.II.51-57). When he returns to Elsinore, upon hearing of Polonius’s death at the hands of Hamlet, Laertes immediately resolve upon a course of revenge and of justice. He exclaims to Claudius: ‘To hell allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil! / Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit! / I dare damnation. To this point I stand, / That both worlds I give to negligence. / Let come what comes; only I’ll be revenge’d / Most throughly for my father’ (IV.V.130-36). Laerte’s claim that he would risk damnation stands in direct contrast to Hamlet who is pre-occupied throughout with the uncertainty of what lies after death and what dreams may come were he to commit suicide. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes is not acting against the world itself. In his show of certainty he demonstrates the lack of action in Hamlet himself.
Fortinbras comes, we hear, to claim a right that was denied to his father. Although he appears once, as a resolute figure marching over land in Act IV, it is not until the end of the play that he enters fully and claims the kingdom for his own. He is able to do this as all others with a claim to it lie dead at his feet. The plot of ‘ Hamlet’ centres on deception and disputed claims to sovereignty, and Hamlet’s incapacity to ascend to the throne that is rightfully his. Fortinbras is able to reestablish order after the corrupt state of Denmark has destroyed itself and therefore acts in the political sphere in a way in which Hamlet is incapable of doing. It is he who demands that Hamlet be born ‘like a soldier, to the stage’ (V.II.409) and it is in him that order returns to Elsinoire. Like Laertes, Fortinbras is shown as someone capable of taking direct action and fulfilling his own ambition.
In conclusion, it is by manifesting action in the personal and later in the political realm that that both Laertes and Fortinbras can be taken as foils for Hamlet’s character. Hamlet is a character who can be seen to be both competent and lacking. By comparing him with his peers, it is clear that this lack revolve around an incapacity for action in both realms where action is required of him. Ultimately, this inability is the tragic motor of the play itself.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Edited by Ann Thompson. London: Arden, 2005. Print.