11 Characters

There’s ne’er a villain dwelling in all Denmark. But he’s an arrant knave.
(Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5, lines 137-38)

In Hamlet Shakespeare explores through his characters the tragedy of human nature, which usually aspires to the good but always falls short.

Figure 46. The Play scene in Hamlet (1897) by Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911). Public domain


‘O villain, villain, smiling damnèd villain!’
(Act 1, scene 5, line 113)

Hamlet’s uncle is perhaps Shakespeare’s most detestable character. Shakespeare does not tell us that Claudius hated his brother, though Hamlet insists that his father was immeasurably superior as a man and as a king.  Ambition alone drove Claudius to commit fratricide, in cold blood and by stealth. Compared with poetic, ingenious and courageous murderers like Richard III, Macbeth, and Edmund in King Lear, all of whom die like warriors, Claudius is so bland, so much a passive drinker, sedentary schemer and man of the court, that he makes evil look boring. Knowing that they are beyond redemption, Shakespeare’s rugged, imaginative evil-doers face death and damnation bravely, usually on the battlefield. Such a gesture is beyond Claudius, who dies at home calling out for help.

Explore the Text

  1. What lie did Claudius tell to explain his brother’s sudden demise? (Act 1, scene 5, lines 41-43)
  2. Beginning with the Biblical ‘serpent’ (lines 46-47), what other condemnatory epithets does the Ghost apply to Claudius?

The Ghost is the first to condemn him. Yet Shakespeare knew that no human being is entirely evil. That Claudius can be moved by conscience is shown by his response to a pious sententia (stylised moral sentiment) spoken by Polonius.

Explore the Text

  1. What action and words of Polonius’ inspire in Claudius a sudden realisation of the wrong he has done? (Act 3, scene 1, lines 49-62)
  2. Write a paraphrase of Claudius’ exclamations.
  3. What metaphors and analogies does he apply to his crime?
  4. How happy is he, now that he has committed his crime? (line 62)

Following the revelation of his crime in ‘The Mousetrap,’ Claudius decides to pray for forgiveness (Act 3, scene 3, lines 40-76). He does this out of cowardice (fear of hell fire), not from an over-burdened conscience or sincere repentance. Theologically educated, Hamlet refrains from killing Claudius, fearing that prayer at the moment of death will redeem him. Yet Claudius realises that however vigorously he labours to gloss his evil deed with piety, he is trapped by the gains that his crime has brought him, and which he is not strong enough to surrender:

But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder:
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. (lines 55-59)

Explore the Text

How true is the following statement: ‘Claudius is most despicable when at prayer?’

Initially, Claudius’s motives in arranging for Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet were probably neutral—he was just being cautious. However, after his self-betrayal at ‘The Mousetrap,’ followed by his futile prayer and the death of Polonius, his moral deterioration accelerates, and he despatches Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with a letter commissioning Hamlet’s murder (Act 4, scene 4, lines 67-77). The arrival three scenes later of Hamlet’s contrary letter announcing his safe return to Denmark (Act 4, scene 7, lines 39-59) tells Claudius that his plot has failed. Sinking even further into evil, he draws Laertes, who wants revenge on Hamlet, into a second murder plot. As before, Claudius is the manipulator while Laertes replaces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his willing tool. Like Edmund a disciple of Machiavelli, whose book The Prince (1532) is an instruction manual on how to get power and keep it, Claudius uses others as his instruments and operates behind the scenes. Claudius’s one genuine redemptive quality seems to be his love for Gertrude, which he confides to Laertes and compares with Gertrude’s love for Hamlet:

The Queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks, and for myself
(My virtue or my plague, be it either which),
She is so conjunctive to my life and soul
That as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her…. (Act 4, scene 7, lines 13-18)

Kenneth Branagh’s film, Hamlet (1996), hints at sex between Claudius and Gertrude. Justice descends when Gertrude drinks the poisoned draft that Claudius prepared for Hamlet. Claudius’s death is atypical of Shakespeare’s evil-doers in its close-up brutality. Seeking retributive justice, Hamlet wounds him with the poisoned foil and forces him to drink from the poisoned cup. Where Richard III on the battlefield calls for a horse, Claudius cries out to his servants: ‘O, yet defend me, friends, I am but hurt’ (Act 5, scene 2, line 355). Macbeth redeems his humanity by fighting on, but Claudius succumbs to fear.

Explore the Text

How true is the following statement: ‘Claudius is most despicable when dying?’


‘O most pernicious woman!’
(Act 1, scene 5, line 112)

Figure 47. Hamlet and his Mother, The Closet Scene (1846) by Richard Dadd (1817-1886). Oil on canvas. Public domain

A leading trait of major characters in Hamlet is change. Claudius, as we have seen, changes for the worse, but Gertrude changes for the better. Early in the play, the question regarding her is, ‘How complicit was Gertrude in her husband’s murder?’
No definite answer seems to be given:

  • The Ghost condemns Gertrude for lust and a betrayal of his faithful love, yet excludes her from Hamlet’s revenge (Act 1, scene 5, lines 89-95).
  • When Hamlet questions his mother about her response to the Player Queen’s promise to the Player King before his murder, never to remarry if the King should die, Gertrude replies with a now-famous evasion: ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks’ (Act 3, scene 2, line 254).
  • In Act 3, scene 4, after he has killed Polonius, and in response to Gertrude’s revulsion at the death, Hamlet accuses her of complicity in his father’s murder:

QUEEN: O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!
HAMLET: A bloody deed—almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother.
(Act 3, scene 4, lines 33-35)

Hamlet then calls on Gertrude to repent, not however for King Hamlet’s murder, but for her marriage to Claudius. He allots her a zero grade in masculine aesthetics—which husband, he asks, is better looking?—and swamps her with religious language, words such as ‘grace,’ ‘soul,’ ‘confess,’ ‘ heaven,’ ‘repent’ (Act 3, scene 4, lines 165-176). Gertrude responds accordingly, in a line that expresses repentance and inner agony: ‘O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain’ (line 177); and asks him what she should do (line 202).

Whatever her involvement in King Hamlet’s death, Gertrude’s interview with her son is her turning point. Before Act 3, scene 4, she behaves like a bride, committed to her new husband. She joins Claudius in commissioning Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet, and in questioning them about their discoveries. All these are probably innocent decisions, based on concern. At Claudius’ request, Gertrude does not join him and Polonius in eavesdropping on Hamlet’s conversation with Ophelia (Act 3, scene 1). After Hamlet has spelled out, and Gertrude has acknowledged, her sin of lust, she continues to treat Claudius with respect. However, her report of the killing of Polonius emphasises Hamlet’s madness, as he requested (Act 4, scene 1, lines 4-28). Act 4, scene 5 introduces the madness of Ophelia, and Shakespeare reassures the audience as to Gertrude’s reformed motivation in a rhyming quatrain:

GERTRUDE: [Aside] To my sick soul (as sin’s true nature is),
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.
So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt. (lines 22-25)

From here to Ophelia’s burial in Act 5, scene 2, Gertrude’s function is to mediate to the audience the tragic sequence of Ophelia’s suicide and burial. Her status as reformed sinner is sealed in the climactic fencing match by her concern for her son (‘Come let me wipe thy face’), and by the love that she expresses at her moment of death (‘O, my dear Hamlet’). In Laurence Olivier’s movie (1948) Gertrude drinks the poisoned cup in full knowledge of its contents; she thereby commits suicide as an act of expiation.[1]

The Ghost

No reckoning made, but sent to my account. With all my imperfections on my head.
(Act 1, scene 5, lines 85-86)

Hamlet and the Ghost [3:20 mins]:

A Filmic Ghost

An aspect common to Hamlet movies is the Ghost’s otherworldliness, an uncanny and extra-dimensional quality. Beyond this, producer-directors vary in their portrayals. Blogging on Branagh’s film, which he rightly admires, Writus Andronicus argues that a good actor can inject human complexity into the disembodied spirit of Hamlet’s father:

This film offers the most complete and nuanced take on Old Hamlet and his Ghost that I’ve ever seen. Over the course of the film Branagh presents the Ghost, played by Brian Blessed, from a range of different perspectives: we see him as a king; we fear him as a demon; we pity him as a man; we mourn him as a father. In other words, this production puts flesh on the bones of a role that most motion picture adaptations have, for various reasons, portrayed less comprehensively. 

Branagh/Blessed’s superior Ghost is therefore nuanced, a shifting merger of competing characteristics. Andronicus finds portrayals by other Hamlet film-makers comparatively simple: Zeffirelli presents ‘an idealised paternal archetype’; while Olivier’s Ghost is ‘a terrifying creature whose armoured form dissolves into dark fog’ and who is ‘as much a product of the prince’s tormented psyche as a supernatural phenomenon’.

Figure 48. William Powell as Hamlet encountering the Ghost (c.1768-1769) by Benjamin Wilson (1721-1788). Oil on canvas. Folger Shakespeare used under CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

The Ghost on the page

One can only admire the filmic and dramatic skills that have aroused sympathy for the Ghost of King Hamlet. However, closer consideration of the Ghost’s words raises doubts about its love for its son. Based on their relationship, the Ghost imposes a heavy burden on Hamlet.

How fair, do you think, are the following criticisms of the Ghost as a character?

  1. The Ghost is self-centred. It regrets the ‘O, horrible! O horrible! Most horrible!’ punishment that its many ‘imperfections’ have brought it, but does not repent these ‘imperfections’ as evil or misguided (Act 1, scene 5, lines 85-87).
  2. The Ghost knows only too well the suffering that retributive justice in Purgatory imposes. It nevertheless seeks to visit an even more horrible retribution—hell—on Claudius. Apparently, souls in Purgatory forget Christ’s admonition to forgive one’s enemies.
  3. Elizabethans accorded deep respect to fathers, but the Ghost’s demand oversteps the rights and privileges of fatherhood in any era.[2]
  4. Although revenge on Claudius is all that the Ghost seeks from Hamlet, that, and the proliferation of suffering that it entails, is not a demand that a loving father would make.
  5. The Ghost never professes fatherly love for Hamlet. Instead, it reduces him to a revenge tool. It addresses him as ‘noble youth’ (Act 1, scene 5, line 45), but doesn’t respect his complex being. Philosophy and ethics, natural to Hamlet, are outside the Ghost’s purview.
  6. Finally, the following may be the worst example in literature of emotional blackmail:

GHOST: If ever thou didst thy dear father love-
GHOST: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder! (Act 1, scene 5, lines 29-31)

Far from giving fatherly support, the Ghost’s visitations intensify Hamlet’s isolation and inner turmoil. With a son who was less of an idealist, and had less love for his father and less filial piety than Hamlet, the visitations would not have achieved their purpose. Even so, after the Ghost vanishes Hamlet faces a dilemma, and in Acts 2 and 3 he devises a method for testing the Ghost’s truthfulness.

Explore the Text

Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost raises yet further questions:

  1. What does this event reveal about a God who authorises a release (a temporary Get Out of Jail card), so that a saved soul in Purgatory can pursue murderous revenge against his living brother?
  2. The Ghost’s demands raise doubts about the privileges accruing to divine and human fatherhood. Does raising these doubts delve too deeply into what is, after all, dramatic entertainment—not theology or sociology?
  3. The Ghost wants Hamlet to take revenge by killing Claudius. Supposing Hamlet succeeds, who will benefit?
  • The Ghost?
  • Hamlet?
  • Gertrude?
  • Ophelia?
  • Horatio?
  • Denmark?
  • Norway?

Shakespeare seems unconcerned about ideological weaknesses in the gripping dramatic situation he has created, and perhaps we as the audience should join him in ignoring them. As theatre, the Ghost is a great success. As a father, moral being and seeker after justice, its status is questionable.

Figure 49. This painting in the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1412-16, folio 113v) shows purified souls in Purgatory trapped in water, fire, and on rocky and grassy land. Some are being rescued by angels. The beasts near a soul stretched on the turf  (bottom right) are probably demons. Public domain


‘These tedious old fools!’
(Act 2, scene 2, line 237)

Polonius is an over-cautious schemer whose natural home is behind the arras.[3] Not clever and never genuine, he has lived too long in courts. His spouting of proverbs is a sign that he rarely has an original thought. He knows what virtue looks like from the outside, but his cowardice, like that of his controller Claudius, is despicable. As ‘counsellor’ which (disregarding the additions of some later editors) is the only title given him in Q1, Q2 and F, Polonius is a chameleon whose only constancy is change: he shifts his personality and words as needed to ingratiate himself with those in power, or to trick their enemies. When Hamlet says that a cloud is shaped like a camel, Polonius agrees; when he says it is like a weasel, he agrees; a whale, and he agrees (Act 3, scene 2, lines 406-12).

Polonius’s treatment of his son and daughter is deeply sexist. In advising Laertes he dodders ineptly with sententiae, but his relationship with Ophelia is one of master and slave. He flatters and serves Claudius, and to a lesser extent Gertrude. Once convinced on little evidence that Hamlet is mad, he adheres stubbornly to this idea. Meanwhile, he cringes and avoids quarrelling openly with Hamlet, who after all is prince of Denmark. There is no limit to the insults from Hamlet that Polonius is prepared to swallow, even if he doesn’t always understand them. Let’s analyse the following exchange, which occurs when Polonius bursts in to tell Hamlet what he already knows—that the players have arrived in Elsinore:

POLONIUS: My lord, I have news to tell you.
HAMLET: My lord, I have news to tell you: when Roscius was an actor in Rome–
POLONIUS: The actors are come hither, my lord.
HAMLET: Buzz, buzz.
POLONIUS: Upon my honour—
HAMLET: Then came each actor on his ass.
POLONIUS: The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene indivisible, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.
HAMLET: O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
POLONIUS: What a treasure had he, my lord?
One fair daughter, and no more
The which he lovèd passing well.
POLONIUS: [Aside] Still on my daughter.
HAMLET: Am I not in the right, old Jephthah?
POLONIUS: If you call me ‘Jephthah,’ my lord: I have a daughter that I love passing well.
HAMLET: Nay, that follows not. (Act 2, scene 2, lines 413-38)

Figure 50. Polonius behind the Curtain (1868) by Jehan Georges Vibert (1840-1902). Oil on panel. Public domain

Hamlet constantly speaks across Polonius. He runs on with his own, seemingly insane, train of thought, while Polonius fails spectacularly to keep up.

  • Hamlet’s reference to the Roman actor Roscius, a personage well known to the classically educated, passes over Polonius’s head and spoils his ‘news.’
  • ‘Buzz, buzz’ is a contemptuous response to Polonius’s old ‘news,’ which Polonius does not outwardly resent. ‘Then came each actor on his ass’ identifies Polonius’ ‘honour’ (previous line) with an ass and an arse.
  • Polonius’ admiration for the ‘best actors in the world’ and crazy list of dramatic genres (a parody of complex Elizabethan play titles) betray his ignorance of theatre. He praises the actors for contradictory qualities—for adhering to the script (‘the law of writ’) and for adlibbing (‘the liberty’).
  • Hamlet’s reference to ‘Jephthah, judge of Israel’ and his ‘treasure,’ the daughter he sacrificed, presumably in the form of ‘a burnt offering’! (Judges 11:31), to fulfil a vow, deepens his condemnation of Polonius.
  • Ignorant of the Bible story, Polonius asks Hamlet to explain: ‘What a treasure had he, my lord?’ When, partly informed, Polonius insists that if he is Jephthah, he loves his daughter ‘passing well’—a statement that, given his domineering treatment of Ophelia, is open to doubt.
  • Seemingly a madman’s non sequitur, Hamlet’s response to Polonius’ avowal of fatherly love: ‘Nay, that follows not,’ amounts to a final condemnation.


To cut his throat i’ th’ church.
(Act 4, scene 7, line 144)

In Act 1, scene 3 Laertes admonishes Ophelia for forty-odd lines to stay away from Hamlet. His advice is an example of realpolitik.[4] Laertes is not, like Hamlet, a philosophy student in search of truth. On the contrary, his advice is worldly, befitting one who lives in France as a courtier. He judges other people’s motives on this basis.

Figure 51. Ophelia and Laertes (c. 1880) by William Gorman Wills. Oil on canvas. Public domain

Laertes doesn’t question Ophelia about her feelings for Hamlet, he sees them as irrelevant to his determination to protect her and his family’s honour. Brotherly love and a conviction that it is his responsibility to guide his sister are his motives for warning her to protect her reputation. Laertes is more intelligent than his father, his approach to Ophelia, unlike Polonius’s, is affectionate. But when Ophelia tries to repay what she implies is his preaching (she uses the loaded word, ‘pastors’), by warning that he likewise should not tread ‘the primrose path of dalliance,’ he dismisses the idea in half a line: ‘O, fear me not’ (lines 54-56). The double standard is obvious.

Polonius’ death in Act 3 and Ophelia’s madness in Act 4 lead Laertes to join Claudius in plotting Hamlet’s murder-by-stealth. Claudius guides Laertes to choose ‘a sword unbated,’ i.e. not blunted, but the idea to anoint the tip with a ‘contagion’ so mortal that, ‘if I gall him slightly / It may be death’ (lines 159-68) is Laertes’s own. Ophelia’s suicide, announced immediately after Claudius and Laertes have agreed on their murder plot, deepens Laertes’ grief and his determination to be revenged. Like Fortinbras, Laertes provides a contrast to Hamlet. All three are motivated wholly or in part by a father’s death. Fortinbras leads a Norwegian army against Denmark; Laertes leads a group of angry Danes against Claudius; but Hamlet demands proof of guilt before taking action.

Mortally wounded in the play’s last scene, Laertes understands the evil to which his anger has brought him. He seeks to ‘exchange forgiveness’ with Hamlet. Edmund’s path in King Lear is similar. Laertes and Edmund contributed to a pattern of bad-guy repentance that persisted in English romance through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Visit the Royal Shakespeare Company to see modern versions of Laertes here and here.


I shall obey my lord
(Act 1, scene 3, lines 145)

Figure 52. Ophelia (1898) by Frances MacDonald (1873-1921). Watercolour. Public domain

When sane, Ophelia is constantly browbeaten by the men in her life.

  1. She tries to turn back Laertes’ patronising advice to beware of Hamlet by warning that he himself should not tread ‘the primrose path of dalliance’ (Act 1, scene 3, line 55). However, as he departs she promises that this advice is locked in her memory, ‘And you yourself will keep the key of it’ (Act 1, scene 3, line 93).
  2. Ophelia similarly offers little resistance to her father’s bullying, which paints Hamlet as a seducer and Polonius’s own reputation as paramount:

Tender yourself more dearly,
Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus) you’ll tender me a fool. (lines 116-18)

This is Polonius at his worst! Yet the scene ends with Ophelia’s heartbroken consent.

When Ophelia is not being bullied by her family, she is being rejected and abused by Hamlet. She has every reason to believe that Hamlet loves her, he has declared his love in the letter that she surrendered to Polonius and he passed on to Claudius and Gertrude (Act 2, scene 2, lines 117-132).

Yet in their onstage encounters, Hamlet is her enemy:

  • In ‘the prayer-book scene’ (Act 3, scene 1, lines 96-162), spied on, as Ophelia knows and Hamlet probably suspects, by Claudius and Polonius, he denies both his gifts to her and his love. He uses degrading analogies to suggest that Ophelia is unchaste, even a prostitute.
  • During the acting of ‘The Mousetrap,’ Ophelia has some lines that repel Hamlet’s attacks.

Explore the Text

Act 3, scene 2, lines 116-75; 269-76

  1. How does Hamlet deploy sexual references as a weapon in these exchanges?
  2. Find some of Ophelia’s resistant answers. How is the (off-stage) audience likely to respond?
  3. Who wins this ‘war of words’ between Hamlet and Ophelia?
  4. Overall, how might an (off-stage) audience respond to Hamlet’s attacks?
  • With disgust at their cruelty?
  • With understanding of the grief and sense of betrayal that motivates them?
  • With appreciation of their sexual humour?

Despite her moments of resistance in these encounters with Hamlet, in a masculinist society, Ophelia is undoubtedly a victim. The men she loves are her chief oppressors. Yet the question of her own culpability remains. Ophelia not only reveals to her father private aspects of her relationship with Hamlet, but also consents to being a vehicle for his plots. She doesn’t perceive the depths of Claudius’s malevolence, but surely her performance as Claudius’s and her father’s puppet in ‘the prayerbook scene’ is a betrayal? Hamlet does not forgive Ophelia for what he judges to be her betrayal of their love.  Is Ophelia’s conformity with family and social demands truly a betrayal?  How do we, as viewers and readers, respond?

Given Ophelia’s resistance to Hamlet’s attacks during ‘The Mousetrap,’ it’s devastating to Gertrude and the audience when we find, the next time we meet her, that, combined with Hamlet’s rejection, Polonius’ death has made Ophelia mad. Following ‘the prayer-book scene,’ Ophelia was excusably wrong when she concurred in a soliloquy with the general opinion that Hamlet was mad: ‘O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!’ (line 163-75). In this context the irony of her own madness is unmistakable. Yet her madness enables Ophelia at last to express her losses, oppression and resistance.[5]

Commentators often discuss Ophelia’s madness in feminist terms. Throughout Hamlet, she is talked at. She is allowed little space to express her true feelings, Laertes’ controlling advice before his departure for Paris is an example. Although outwardly an expression and even a heightening of victimhood, women’s madness can also be a form of resistance, especially when, because of political and social silencing, madness is the only form resistance can take.

Accordingly, Ophelia’s mad songs and speeches are a protest, one that encodes her unbearable losses. This is evident in her first sung verses where she first laments the loss of Hamlet’s love. Like a pilgrim, he has gone far away:

How should I know your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff
And his sandal shoon.

In the next stanza Ophelia laments Polonius’s death.

He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf.
At his heels a stone. (Act 4, scene 5, lines 28-37)

However accidental, Hamlet’s killing of Polonius has ended any hope of happiness that Ophelia might still cherish. Hamlet and Ophelia are equally the victims of Fate.

Explore the Text

Is Ophelia’s flowery death tragic or merely pathetic?

Reaching a peak of popularity in the Pre-Raphaelite era, Ophelia’s suicide has been a favourite subject for visual artists. Most follow Gertrude’s narrative by emphasising her youth and victimhood. The representation by Waterhouse (1910) may grant Ophelia somewhat more agency:

Figure 53. Ophelia (1910) by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917). Oil on canvas. Public domain

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

…..my two schoolfellows, Whom I will trust as I do adders fanged’
(Act 3, scene 4, lines 225-26)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were ‘of so young days brought up’ with Hamlet. Since then they have been his friends and close companions (Act 2, scene 2, lines 11-12). Yet whoever wields the power owns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They grovel to Claudius and Gertrude and agree at their first meeting to ‘draw [Hamlet] on to pleasures,’ to spy on him, and to report back. All four participants in this scheme (Act 2, scene 2, lines 1-42) seem to seek Hamlet’s good, but only Gertrude is sincere.

First staged professionally in 1967, Tom Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a highly inventive Shakespearean riff that modernises themes prominent in Hamlet. Death is central to both plays. Struggling with a reality that makes no sense, Stoppard’s title figures occasionally swap identities: without noticing, each calls the other by his own name. This fluidity makes a joke of their near interchangeability in Hamlet. Stoppard may have taken his cue from Claudius’ and Gertrude’s apparent confusion over their identities in Act 2, scene 2:

KING: Thanks Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.
QUEEN: Thanks Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz’.(lines 35-36)

Indeed, like the Danish ambassadors to Norway, Voltemand and Cornelius, who speak their single line, ‘In that and all things will we show our duty’, in one voice (Act 1, scene 2, line 40), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are difficult to distinguish from each other. Rosencrantz is enthusiastic and better informed about the Players’ arrival in Elsinore and about the boy actors who have displaced them in the city (Act 2, scene 2, lines 335-385). When following the success of ‘The Mousetrap,’ the pair bring to Hamlet the Queen’s request for a meeting. Rosencrantz seems sincere, at least for a few lines:

ROSENCRANTZ: My lord, you once did love me.
HAMLET: And still do, by these pickers and stealers. [i.e. hands]
ROSENCRANTZ: Good my Lord, what is your cause of distemper? You do surely bar the door upon your own liberty if you deny your griefs to your friend.
HAMLET: Sir, I lack advancement.
ROSENCRANTZ: How can that be, when you have the voice of the King himself for your succession in Denmark? (lines 363-70)

However at their next appearance, when Claudius commissions them to escort Hamlet to England, they are indistinguishable as they compete with each other in windy grovelling (Act 3, scene 3, lines 8-24). Shakespeare may be preparing the audience to accept Hamlet’s execution by proxy of this pair of flatterers.

The Gravediggers

What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright or the carpenter?
(Act 5, scene 1, lines 42-43)

Figure 54. Hamlet and the Gravediggers (1883) by Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret (1852-1929). Oil on canvas. Public domain

The Gravediggers’ roles are classic: the First Gravedigger is the comedian and the Second Gravedigger is his stooge. Familiarity has desensitized the First Gravedigger to imaginative or emotional responses to his grim work. Macabre parodies, jokes and riddles about death and bodily decay occupy his talk. While he digs he drinks and sings.

Explore the Text

Before the arrival of Ophelia’s funeral procession at line 224, the Grave Scene in Hamlet (Act 5, scene 1) falls into two parts, divided by the arrival of Hamlet and Horatio coinciding with the Second Grave-digger’s exit to fetch liquor for the First (lines 56 and line 62). Between lines 1 and 62, find examples of the First Gravediggers’ iconoclastic jokes  or songs about:

  1. The Bible
  2. The Law
  3. Social Rank
  4. Old Age and Death.

On arrival, Hamlet extends the First Gravedigger’s appreciation of death as the leveller of social distinctions. Politicians, courtiers, lords, lawyers (especially), men and women—all, he points out, are indistinguishable in death. The Gravedigger’s specialty is ‘equivocation’: he poses riddles and tells jokes with double meanings. Hamlet’s responses in kind lead him into a deeper meditation on these themes in dialogue with Horatio, over the skull of Yorick the jester.


Dost know this waterfly?
(Act 5, scene 2, line 95)

Osric’s predecessor, the courtier Le Beau in As You Like It (1598-1600), is Shakespeare’s first try at a comical, wealthy, courtly character who delivers a message. Le Beau and Osric are also alike in that they act as referees or enablers in fights disguised as sport. In As You Like It the fight ends with the opponent borne away unconscious. In Hamlet, it ends in four deaths.

In As You Like It Le Beau transforms into a character with a conscience who warns Orlando, the hero, of a murderous plot against him. Osric likewise is appalled by the bloody outcome of the challenge that he delivered.


A delicate and tender prince.’
(Act 4, scene 4, line 51)

Introduced by Horatio in Act 1, scene 1, Fortinbras—forte braccio, ‘the man of the strong arm’, is a fiery warrior whose aim is to recover, indeed ‘by strong hand’ (line 114), the lands that his father, the King of Norway, lost in war to Hamlet’s father. To this end, Fortinbras ‘Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there / Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes’ (lines 109-110) for attacking Denmark.

When Claudius and Fortinbras’s uncle, the aged and frail king of Norway, temporarily deflect Fortinbras from this purpose (Act 2, scene 2, lines 62-91), he and his army attack Poland instead. ‘To gain a little patch of ground’ worth at most ‘five ducats,’ Norway and Poland will put at risk ‘Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats’ (Act 4, scene 4, lines 18-30). Always the philosopher, Hamlet attributes the Norwegian-Polish war to an abscess, ‘th‘ impostume of much wealth and peace’ (lines 28-30), that breaks internally without outward show. In other words, thousands will die to relieve the boredom of a few. Yet Hamlet’s second thoughts admire Fortinbras’s uncomplicated courage, and, in what some critics regard as a turning point, he decides to follow the example Fortinbras has set:

Examples gross as Earth exhort me:
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 mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. (Act 4, scene 4, lines 49-56)

As a son who has lost his father, a royal avenger, and a brigand who acts without forethought in the interests of his country and his own glory, Fortinbras is a foil to the philosophical and considerate Hamlet. If some people perhaps reflect too much, others, often more successful, probably reflect too little. Fortinbras marches in at the end to round off Shakespeare’s play with Norway’s annexation of Denmark.

Explore the Text

1. The Polish scholar Jan Kott asks:
Who is this young Norwegian prince? We do not know. Shakespeare does not tell us. What does he represent? Blind fate, the absurdity of the world, or the victory of justice? [6]

What answers to these questions can you suggest?

2. Dying, Hamlet votes for Fortinbras as Denmark’s next king. Which in your view is preferable in a ruler—thoughtfulness (Hamlet) or activity (Fortinbras)?
Which of these two would have your vote?

3. After Hamlet’s death Fortinbras allots him full military honours:

Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier from the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal; and for his passage,
The soldier’s music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him. (Act 5, scene 2, lines 441-446)

Yet Hamlet, though an excellent swordsman, is a scholar, not a soldier. Can you find any irony in his martial funeral? What soldierly qualities might Fortinbras, himself a soldier, have found in Hamlet?



Give me that man,
That is not Fortune’s slave, and I will wear him

In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart’
(Act 3, scene 2, lines 76-78)

Horatio is the single exception to the contention that heads this overview of Hamlet’s characters, that human nature always falls short of its aspiration to the good. That Shakespeare intended Horatio to be seen in this light is evident from both his actions and the respect and trust that other characters offer to him. As well as a moral reference point, Horatio is a staging necessity, as an enabler of the plot, and as a confidant to whom Hamlet reports events and displays his feelings.

A long list of incidents confirms Horatio’s integrity and practical value in the play:

  • Bernardo and Marcellus call on him when they need confirmation that they have seen the Ghost.
  • Only Horatio is brave enough to address the Ghost directly (Act 1, scene 1, lines 54-57).
  • Horatio explicates the background to Denmark’s war with Norway.
  • Hamlet welcomes Horatio to Elsinore: ‘Sir, my good friend. I’ll change that name with you’ (Act 1, scene 2, line 169); and trusts the reason Horatio gives for his visit—to attend King Hamlet’s funeral: ‘I know you are no truant’ (Act 1, scene 2, line 180).
  • Horatio tries to protect Hamlet by preventing him from following the Ghost (Act 1, scene 4, lines 63-96).
  • In Act 4, scene 5, lines 19-20, Horatio advises Gertrude to allow Ophelia to talk with her; otherwise Ophelia ‘may strew / Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.’
  • Horatio organises Hamlet’s release from the pirates (Act 4, scene 6).
  • In Act Five he is Hamlet’s companion at the graveside, and once again the protector and peacemaker when he helps to separate the enraged Hamlet and Laertes (Act 5, scene 1, lines 272-282).
  • The audience’s proxy, Horatio listens while Hamlet narrates his adventures at sea (Act 5, scene 2, lines 1-91). He supports Hamlet in his late settled decision to take revenge on Claudius (lines 70-81). He also points out the urgency, since news of Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s execution will soon reach Claudius (lines 81-82).
  • Horatio seconds Hamlet in making fun of Osric (Act 5, scene 2, lines 143-44, etc.)
  • He offers to make an excuse for deferring the fencing match with Laertes (lines 231-32).
  • Finally, as Hamlet is dying, Horatio wants to join him in death (Act 5, scene 2, lines 370-384): ‘I am more an antique Roman than a Dane./ Here’s yet some liquor left’ (lines 374-75). Famously, Hamlet wrestles the cup from him and persuades him to live on:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story. (lines 381-84

Explore the Text

Do these lines mean that death (‘felicity’) is preferable to living (‘in this harsh world’)?

Is that the conclusion that Hamlet invites an audience to draw?

If so, how does it affect your evaluation of the play?

Horatio’s steady loyalty and courage underline by contrast the moral weaknesses of Hamlet’s false friends and family members, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Gertrude, Laertes and Claudius. Immediately before the performance of ‘The Mousetrap,’ Hamlet is moved to praise Horatio in the speech that for centuries has set a standard for manhood and disinterested friendship:

HAMLET: Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man
As e’er my conversation coped withal.
HORATIO: O, my dear lord.
HAMLET: Nay, do not think I flatter,
For what advancement may I hope from thee
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath sealed thee for herself. For thou hast been
As one in suffering all that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks; and blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not Fortune’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.—Something too much of this.
(Act 3, scene 2, lines 56-79)

Explore the Text

  1. Find references in this extract to the following qualities that Hamlet perceives in Horatio:
  • fairness
  • sincerity
  • disinterest
  • stoic strength
  • indifference to Fortune
  • balance.
  1. ‘The friendship between Hamlet and Horatio is the single positive that lightens the generally tragic vision of human nature and experience put forward in Hamlet.’ Discuss.



In chapter 5 of Shakespearean Tragedy (2021), Kiernan Ryan summarises Hamlet’s tragedy as follows:

It’s the conflict, to put it simply, between the man Hamlet could be and the prince he must be: between the radically different human being struggling for life within him and the socially conditioned self in which history has trapped him. What’s tragic is not that some fatal defect in his character prevents him from avenging his father as readily as Laertes or Fortinbras would in his place; it’s being forced to live and die on the terms of such a society at all, repelled by everything it stands for and demands of him, yet having to think, speak and feel as if he still felt part of it, and castigate himself for failing to. (101)

Ryan’s argument is more specific and more wide-ranging than a single quote can represent. We’ll therefore consider Hamlet in relation to the following thesis, which is aligned with Ryan’s position:

Hamlet is a good man and an idealist who is divided from his true self by his vocations as a son and a prince in a world where almost everyone else is morally mediocre or downright evil.

Explore the Text

Questions less often considered that I would also like to raise are:

  1. Hamlet sometimes reads on stage, for example during his exchange with Polonius in Act 2, scene 2, lines 169-219. He is the best-educated, most widely-read character in the play. He knows the Bible, classics and contemporary drama better than anyone else, and his worldview is unique. His ideas have engaged audiences for centuries. How much, then, do Hamlet’s problems stem from the fact that he is intellectually superior to everyone else in the play?
  2. And how likely is the following: Through Hamlet, Shakespeare explores consequences that may arise from possessing a unique and therefore isolating intelligence, consequences that probably figured in his own lived experience?

What actions of Hamlet demonstrate that he is a good man?

  1. Hamlet’s resistance in Act 1 to Claudius’s overtures demonstrates his loyalty to his father. There is never a sign that ambition to be king himself motivates this resistance; neither does he seek to capitalise on his popularity with the Danish people, which is the reality that forces Claudius to plot in secret (Act 4, scene 7, lines 18-26).
  2. Hamlet’s aspiration to the good, central to his character, is complicated and potentially compromised by the mission that his dead father imposes on him. His moral sense tells him that this mission has the appearance of justice, but isn’t really just. In a world of sinners, where everyone deserves a whipping (Act 2, scene 2, lines 555-57) and ‘We are arrant knaves all’ (Act 3, scene 1, lines 139-40), even Claudius’ evil is not an absolute. Hamlet loves his father and consents on impulse to the Ghost’s demand but realises almost at once the moral dubiousness of his mission. His disturbance is evident as early as his swearing of his friends to silence, in macabre jokes about ‘A worthy pioneer!’ etc.
  3. Hamlet is gracious and friendly to inferiors and to those who are loyal (e.g. Horatio, the Players).
  4. For all his being by nature a student and a thinker, when called on Hamlet is active and heroic: he fights off his appalled friends and ‘goes apart’ with the Ghost; he boards the pirate ship alone; he has ‘been in continual practice’ with the rapier; he takes on Laertes at Ophelia’s grave and later in the climax. Fortinbras allots Hamlet’s body full military honours. Hamlet can claim the praise, still admitting human weaknesses, that he accords to his father, ‘He was a man. Take him for all in all’ (Act 1, scene 2, line 195). At the end of Julius Caesar the victor Octavius delivers the same praise to the noble but flawed hero Brutus: ‘This was a man’ (Act Five, Scene 5, lines 76-77).
  5. Despite his own wounding Hamlet in the final scene shows concern for Gertrude: ‘How does the Queen?’ (Act 5, scene 2, line 338).
  6. Above all, Hamlet’s commitment to philosophy, his honest quest for the truths of human life and death, indicate his goodness. His essentially tragic vision of life emerges in his first soliloquy, in which his first wish is for ‘self-slaughter’: ‘How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world!’ (Act 1, scene 2, lines 137-38).

Hamlet’s commitment to truth at any cost is again apparent in his need to confirm Claudius’s guilt. By the end of Act Three, Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the play has provided this confirmation; and aboard ship Hamlet discovers, again beyond any doubt, that Claudius has also plotted to murder himself. By the end of the play, the audience or reader must in logic approve Hamlet’s killing of Claudius, as being not only revenge but also justice.

Until this consummation is achieved, Hamlet lives on a knife’s edge. Those who should be closest to him, his mother and the woman he loves, have proven weak or disloyal; his step-father is a murderer; most of his servants and friends are spies; only Horatio is loyal. Hamlet is caught in a web of contradictory demands and desires that he cannot escape.

Given his parlous situation, what actions of Hamlet cast doubt on his goodness?

  1. By accident, by proxy, or intentionally, Hamlet kills five people: Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes and Claudius. Think about how much, if at all, you blame Hamlet for each of these killings?
  2. Hamlet repeatedly makes Polonius a butt for brutal jokes and innuendoes. Yet he warns the Players not to do the same: ‘Follow that lord—and look you mock him not’ (Act 2, scene 2, lines 571-72). What are we to make of this apparent contradiction? Perhaps Shakespeare expected his audiences to enjoy Hamlet’s cruelty, and we are dealing with a shift in moral sensibility between Shakespeare’s era and our own? If you’re a prince you can make savage fun of someone, but if you’re a mere actor you can’t? Hamlet killed the eavesdropping Polonius in mistake for Claudius. If the eavesdropper had been Claudius, would Hamlet have been justified in killing him? (In the two scenes preceding, Claudius’s reaction to ‘The Mousetrap’ and attempt at prayerful repentance have confirmed his guilt.)
  3.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are more formidable enemies than Polonius. As betrayers of friendship and Claudius’s tools, they are morally compromised. Hamlet explains, ‘Why, man, they did make love to this employment’ (Act 5, scene 2, line 64). Should we therefore also accept Hamlet’s plotting of the deaths of this pair as just? Is Hamlet’s substitution of Claudius’s letter with his own forged version to be condemned as Machiavellian; or do we accept this as poetic justice—Machiavelli defeats Machiavelli?
  4. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia is cruel: a) Does Ophelia’s obedience to her brother and father, which is the cause of her failure to be loyal to Hamlet, justify his brutal comments to her in private and in public?
    b) In other words, do we pardon his words because they stem from heartbreak?
    c) Perhaps Hamlet’s attacks on Ophelia give women credit for being as capable of integrity as men, but only if (like men) they choose to be?
  5. Given Shakespeare’s dependency on, and cultivation of, noble and royal patronage (Shapiro) it’s not surprising that Hamlet is no revolutionary when it comes to class. For example, he remarks to the Gravedigger, whom he refers to condescendingly as ‘this fellow,’ and ‘the knave’: ‘the age is grown so picked [affected], that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe [chafes his sore heel]’ (Act 5, scene 1, lines 143-45).
  6. If Hamlet is a class snob, he is also an intellectual snob, as seen for example in his baiting of Polonius and in his parodying of Osric:

Osric: I know you are not ignorant.
Hamlet: I would you did, sir. Yet in faith, if you did, it
would not much approve me. Well, sir? (Act 5, scene 2, lines 146-48)

We’re forced once again to negotiate a shift in sensibilities across the centuries.

Explore the Text

Hamlet’s condescension to Polonius and Osric impinges on the issues raised above: how far does Shakespeare identify himself with Hamlet’s intellectual superiority? And does he as a result induce the audience to look leniently on other failings that his hero may possess?

Hamlet’s Debatable Goodness: Conclusion

The above lists of points in favour of and points against Hamlet’s moral goodness, demonstrate, if nothing else, the complexity of his character, a complexity that is true of most humans.  Yet it is surely significant that each of the six doubts raised about Hamlet’s goodness is conditional, but the six points made in favour of his goodness are indisputable.

Figure 55. Portrait of Hamlet (c. 1864) by William Morris Hunt (1824-1879). Oil on canvas. Public domain

Hamlet’s Age:

Hamlet’s age is a textual crux that affects the assessment of his character. Hamlet is a student, and according to Sinfield,[7], ‘the initial impression is of a young man around eighteen.’ This is supported by the fact that most students in Shakespeare’s era entered university in their teens. For example, the poet George Herbert (born 3 April 1593) enrolled at Trinity College Cambridge on 5 May 1609, when he had just turned seventeen.

Evidence to the contrary is as follows: in Act Five, the Gravedigger retrieves the skull of Yorick the jester, buried, he says, for twenty-three years  (scene 1, lines 178-79). Hamlet reminisces that Yorick ‘hath borne me on his back a thousand times’ (line 192-99), presumably when he was a young child. This sets Hamlet’s age at about thirty. This is corroborated when the Gravedigger, who has been digging graves for thirty years, recalls that King Hamlet defeated King Fortinbras the elder on his first day on the job, which was the day that young Hamlet was born (lines 166-67).

Over the centuries the textual discrepancies relating to the protagonist’s age have given more choices to casting directors. They have been less helpful, however, in attempts to assess Hamlet’s character.

Explore the Text

How would portraying Hamlet as a student in his late teens or early twenties affect our approval or disapproval of his words and actions?

For example, how might a youthful Hamlet encourage the audience to accept as justified his treatment of Ophelia or his killing-by-proxy of Rosencranz and Guildenstern?

A plausible simple interpretation of Hamlet the character is as follows:

Young, isolated and betrayed by those who should be most loving and most loyal, Hamlet retaliates. His story is one of heroic resistance to the mediocrity of evil, not only in others but also in himself.

  1. expiation means to "make amends" or atone for wrongdoing
  2. Shakespeare’s relationship with his father may be relevant—see ‘Hamlet Context’
  3. an arras is a heavy tapestry used as a wall hanging—in draughty old castles, they would be used to make the space a little more "snug" and warm by blocking off alcoves (making them a good hiding place)
  4. politics based on practical objectives rather than on ideals
  5. Juliet’s sane, brave and forceful responses are a contrast—see Romeo and Juliet
  6. see Shakespeare Our Contemporary. London: Methuen, 1967: page 59
  7. in Spencer, T. J. B., ed. Hamlet. UK: Penguin Random House, 2005, p. xxxix


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Shakespeare's Major Plays Copyright © 2024 by Cheryl Taylor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.