Shakespeare`s Characters A character that might parallel yet contrast another is said to be a foil. A foil is used to clarify character traits as well as issues in stories and plays. An example of this would be Iago and Othello from the Shakespeare play Othello. Othello is a trustworthy and upstanding individual who has a slight problem as far as spontaneity is concerned. Iago, on the other hand, is deceptive and manipulative, but Iago thinks things out thoroughly.
Shakespeare uses these two characters against each other to further bring out their good and bad traits. This idea of a foil seems to be a recurring tool that Shakespeare uses in his plays. Shakespeare clarifies character traits in Hamlet by the use of foils. One of the best examples of foils in the play is Hamlet against Laertes. At the beginning of the play, we all know that Hamlets father was killed.
He has this trait in common with Laertes later on in the play when his father Polonius is killed by Hamlet. At this point, both me are seeking vengeance for a fathers death. This shows perhaps, Hamlets “fatal” or “tragic” flaw. Hamlet hesitates at every opportunity he has to kill Claudius with Laertes is willing to seek vengeance immediately. Laertes says: “How came he dead? Ill jot be juggled with: To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil! Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit That both the worlds I give to negligence, Let come what comes; only Ill be revenged Most thoroughly for my father.” At this point, we really see that Laertes is ready to die and that he does not care about what will happen to him in the next life.
Hamlet is plagued by this idea of what will happen next and thus cannot fulfill his task. Another thing these two men have in common is Ophelia. Both men love her only in different ways. Hamlet loves her as a man would love a wife and a Laertes loves her as a brother would love his sister. When she dies, both men mourn her death.
Another thing that perhaps works to Hamlets credit is that Laertes is fooled by the duplicity of Claudius and the “retardation” of his father Polonius whereas Hamlet can see the treachery in Claudius and mocks Polonius whenever he talks to him. Another pair of people Shakespeare uses, as foils are Hamlet and Horatio. Horatio is Hamlets best friend and pretty much the only person throughout the play that is not “two-faced.” Hamlet praises Horatio as a just and temperate man, who “is not passions slave,” who suffers lifes ups and downs with a clear and sound mind. The fact the Hamlet praises and admires Horatio suggests that he admires something that which he does not have. Hamlet is not capable of acting in the same way as Horatio. Whenever Horatio speaks, he is calm, cool, and collected. On the other hand, after Hamlet has decided to put on his”antic disposition,” he appears to be insane.
He talks in riddles and does not make any sense. Hamlet even catches himself “loosing himself” after he has seen the players and is talking to himself. He sees that he cannot show the same coolness and emotion that Horatio can and this upsets him. “Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall To make oppression bitter, or ere this I should have fatted all the region kites With this slaves offal: bloody, bawdy, kindless villian! O, vengaence! Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave..” From this quote we see that Hamlet does not like himself for not being able to deal with his problem accordingly. This also implies that had the same circumstances been given to Horatio, he would have handled the situation better than Hamlet.
Yet another pair that Shakespeare puts in the play as foils are Queen Gertrude and Ophelia. A common trait that they both share is that the are both loyal and obedient to their men. (By this I am in no way being sexist) Gertrude pretty much does whatever Claudius tells her to do as does Ophelia when Polonius talks to her. Another thing they share is that they are both knowing participants in the plots to deceive Hamlet as they are also both one of the contributing factors to Hamlets degrading mental state. Yet another similarity in their characters is that they both seem unaware of the evil guiding them. Although it is ambiguous as to who murdered King Hamlet, nowhere does it say that Gertrude murdered King Hamlet or knew that Claudius was the murderer.
We can therefore say that she is unaware of this and that Gertrude is unaware of the actions and plans of Claudius. The same is also true with Ophelia. Although Polonius doesnt really do anything as bad as killing anyone, he does have his pompous motives and uses Ophelia at some points to help him while she is unaware of what she is actually doing. An example of this is when Polonius uses Ophelia to spy on Hamlet. A difference that these two characters have with one another is the issue of sexuality vs. chastiy.
In Gertrudes character there is always and underlying thought of her sexuality. The idea of dirty bed-sheets has been said in the play many times. Gertrudes character is also a very sexual one. This is exemplified in Act III, scene iv entitled “The Queens Closet.” The name of the scene alone has a sexual connotation. Ophelias character on the other hand is concerned with her chastity.
Ophelia has lost her virginity to Hamlet and wants to marry him but she is unable because she is not of noble birth. This drives her insane because in those times, the person who took your virginity was supposed to end up being your husband. This eventually drives her mad and to her death. (Although it is uncertain whether or not Ophelia committed suicide or not, the fact remains that she did not try to help herself from drowning.) The contrast and similarities in these two characters help to show Gertrudes concern with who is actually in her bed. (King Hamlet, Claudius, or possibly Hamlet?) This also brings out the chastity and innocence of Ophelia. The use of foils in Shakespeare plays is used to bring out good or bad character traits. Foils help us to see different possibilities for character. It also helps us to see what they are capable and incapable of doing and feeling.
After doing an analysis of these 5 characters, I can see now that Hamlet wishes that he had the “intestinal fortitude” of Laertes and the calmness and collectivity of Horatio. Had Hamlet and Horatios characters been switched in this play, I believe that it would have gone much differently. In the end though, Hamlet is foiled.