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Laertes and Fortinbras as Foils to Hamlet Play: Hamlet Playwrite: William Shakespeare

By dimi19 Dec 07, 2003 1931 Words
Oftentimes, the minor characters in a play can be vital and, among other things, function to further the action of the play or to reveal and illuminate the personalities of other characters. To help the reader understand a character with greater depth, writers sometimes use a literary device called a foil. A foil is a character that contrasts strongly with another. In Shakespeare's great tragedy Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras, and Hamlet find themselves in similar situations. While Hamlet waits for the right time to avenge his father's death, Laertes learns of his father's death and immediately wants vengeance, and Fortinbras awaits his chance to recapture land that used to belong to his father. Although Laertes and Fortinbras are minor characters, "Shakespeare molds them in order to contrast with Hamlet" ("Foils in Hamlet"). Fortinbras and, to a greater extent, Laertes act as foils to Hamlet with respect to their motives for revenge, execution of their plans, and behavior while carrying out their plans.

Fortinbras, who schemes to rebuild his father's kingdom, leads thousands of men into battle, attempting to capture a small and worthless piece of Poland, after his uncle warned him against attacking Denmark. The added land will do little to benefit Norway's prosperity, but this campaign may cost "two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats" (IV.iv.26). This shows that "pride is a driving factor behind Fortinbras' plan" (Wilson 34) because he is willing to put the lives of his compatriots at risk for a minimal gain. Laertes, on the other hand, is compelled to seek revenge because he loses his father and eventually his sister. "The root of Laertes' revenge appears to be the love for his family" (Prosser 52) because he proclaims that he will "be revenged / Most throughly for [his] father" (IV.v.153-154). This shows that Laertes will either avenge his father's death or die trying. While Fortinbras and Laertes are driven by pride and love, Hamlet seems to act out of desperation. His uncle, Claudius, has killed his father, taken the throne, and married his mother. This leaves Hamlet "feeling as if his world has been crushed" (Eliot 97). By killing Claudius, Hamlet would not only avenge his father's death, but also dethrone a murderer and restore some order to his world.

In addition to each character's motive, Shakespeare uses imagery and allusion to illuminate differences in character traits. Shakespeare hints about the nature of Fortinbras simply by choosing this name. The name "Fortinbras is very similar to fortitude" (Clemen 231), which is firmness of the mind. Fortinbras fulfills this description when he persists in trying to reclaim land by attacking Poland. Instead of giving up on reclaiming his father's land, when his uncle tells him not to attack Denmark, he sticks to his plan by taking a piece of Poland. The name Laertes is also significant because in Greek mythology, "Laertes was the father of Odysseus and helped his son reclaim the throne" (Eagleson 68). This implies that Laertes will take action if necessary. Shakespeare also compares Laertes to the image of a tidal wave when he returns from France in order to show that Laertes is unfaltering in his decisions as is a tidal wave in its course. In contrast to Fortinbras and Laertes, Hamlet feels overpowered by his task, which makes him indecisive. Shakespeare extends the symbol of water; however, in Hamlet's case, "it accentuates his feeling of helplessness" (Lavender 87). When Hamlet is considering taking action against Claudius, he mentions that this would be "[taking] arms against a sea of troubles" (III.i.67). This demonstrates the overwhelming futility Hamlet feels about his task.

Since Fortinbras and Laertes are committed to achieving their objectives, they allow others to influence their decisions whereas Hamlet acts alone once he commits himself to killing Claudius. Initially, Fortinbras wants to attack Denmark in order to regain his father's land. The prince of Norway, however, "makes vow before his uncle never more / To give th' assay of arms against [Denmark]" (II.ii.74-75). In his attempt to regain his father's land, Fortinbras allows himself to be manipulated by his uncle. Laertes also allows himself to be manipulated by Claudius when he returns from France. Claudius stirs Laertes' anger by asking him "what [he would] undertake / To show [himself] indeed [his] father's son / More than in words?" (IV.vii.141-143). Laertes becomes so determined to seek revenge on Hamlet that he listens to Claudius and, consequently, "becomes his pawn" ("The Male Leads"). Hamlet, on the other hand, is in control of his situation. Although he acts crazy at points, Hamlet is aware of the events occurring around him. This "awareness causes him to analyze every aspect of killing Claudius" ("The Hamlet Site"), which keeps him from taking action sooner. When Hamlet is talking with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he admits that "there is / nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it / so" (II.ii.268-270). This illustrates that Hamlet realizes the main reason he is having reservations about killing Claudius is due to his ongoing thought on the subject. In one of his soliloquies, Hamlet realizes this again and remarks, "conscience does make cowards (of us all)" (III.i.91). This shows that Hamlet knows he over analyzes each situation and that he cannot act in a moment, which causes him to put off killing Claudius until the very end of the play. "Hamlet hopes that by putting off his task it will go away" (Weitz 39), and he reveals this after he talks with the captain in Fortinbras' army: "How all occasions inform against me / And spur my dull revenge!" (IV.iv.34-35). By stating this, Hamlet hints that he has thought about his revenge so much that he just wishes the issue would go away, yet he knows he must follow through.

Another area in which Fortinbras and Laertes contrast Hamlet is in the way they treat the aggressors of their fathers. Fortinbras alerts the Danes of his intentions before the play because, in the first act, the Danes know he is preparing an attack. "Fortinbras is also very open about his plans when he and Hamlet converse" (Wilson 73) as Hamlet leaves for England. Laertes, who is very straightforward with Hamlet, informs Hamlet that he wants revenge just before they duel, stating that he is "satisfied in nature, / Whose motive in this case should stir [him] most / To [his] revenge" (V.ii.259-261). Laertes claims he will put off his revenge for the time being, yet he will still seek it nonetheless. Fortinbras and Laertes are in contrast to Hamlet in these instances because they both "declare their revenge, whereas Hamlet is much more secretive about his plans" (Prosser 164). Instead of declaring his revenge to Claudius, Hamlet uses a series of puns to show his frustration and anger with the king. When Hamlet feels that Claudius is getting too close to him, Hamlet uses his wit as self defense to keep Claudius in check and tells him that he is "more than kin, and less than kind" (I.ii.67). Hamlet uses many other puns to convey his "antic disposition" (I.v.192) as well as to keep his plans of killing Claudius secret.

Just as Fortinbras and Hamlet contrast in many other respects, "they are opposites with respect to their values and morals" ("Foils in Hamlet"). In this case, however, Laertes exhibits some morals that are similar to Hamlet's. Shakespeare portrays Fortinbras as being concerned with material possession in the play. The Norwegian prince seems determined to build up his kingdom no matter what the cost. Fortinbras also displays that "he has no regard for the tragedy" (Lavender 91) that just unfolded before his arrival in the last scene of the play. He immediately asserts his power, claiming he "[has] some rights of memory in [the] kingdom, / Which now to claim [his] vantage doth invite [him]" (V.ii.432-433). In this scene, Fortinbras claims the throne in front of Horatio, who has just seen his friend and many others die, which shows that he has no respect for the recent deaths.

Laertes on the other hand, displays a few more morals than Fortinbras, but he, too, acts maliciously at times. Once Laertes realizes he is wounded and poisoned, he forgives Hamlet and asks Hamlet for forgiveness: "Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet / Mine and my father's death come not upon thee, / Nor thine on me" (V.ii.361-333). Once Laertes sees how Claudius manipulated him and recognizes he will die from the poison, Laertes shows his morals by forgiving Hamlet and asking for his forgiveness. Laertes also harbors a dark side, which he displays when he wishes to "cut [Hamlet's] throat i' th' church" (IV. vii. 144). This brings into question Laertes' morals because "a murder in a church would be one of the most profane acts possible" (Levi 49).

Hamlet is the character that the audience wants to like and sympathize with in the beginning of the play; however, they find it hard because he lacks some morals and values, just as Laertes and Fortinbras do. Shakespeare opens the play with events "swirling like a maelstrom" ("Much Ado about Hamlet: A Study in Shakespeare") around Hamlet in order to create sympathy for the Danish prince. Hamlet, however, shows a lack of values when he slanders Ophelia in the play scene. He continues this behavior when he delays killing Claudius, who appeared to be praying, because that would send his soul to Heaven. Although this sounds insignificant, Hamlet is "playing God" (Eliot 98) because he is determining the destination of Claudius' soul. Perhaps the most blatant display of Hamlet lacking morals comes when he returns from England and informs Horatio that he switched the letters so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be put to death upon arriving in England. These men used to be Hamlet's friends, yet he seals their fate within a letter without a second thought.

In the tragedy Hamlet, William Shakespeare uses the characters of Fortinbras and Laertes to contrast with Hamlet throughout the play. "Laertes and Fortinbras are by no means identical to Hamlet, but their situations are enough parallel to Hamlet's that the reader is caught by the contrast in their responses to their problems" ("Foils in Hamlet"). While Hamlet takes his time, carefully planning his moves, Laertes and Fortinbras act in haste. This leads Laertes and Fortinbras to be manipulated by others, but since Hamlet is secretive about his plans and thinks everything through, he does not become a pawn. By having Laertes and Fortinbras contrast with Hamlet so much, Shakespeare is able to highlight Hamlet's weaknesses and strengths. The reader understands Hamlet, the royal hero of the play, better when reminded what the prince might have done had he been less concerned about behaving honorably and reasonably in a world that according to the play is absurd.

Works Cited

Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. New York:

Meridian Books, 1955.

Clemen, W.H. "The Imagery of Hamlet." Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. New York:

Oxford University Press, 1957: 222-236.

Eagleson, Robert D., ed. A Shakespeare Glossary. New York: Oxford University Press,

1986.

Eliot, Thomas Stearns. "Hamlet and His Problems." The Sacred Wood. London: Methuen, 1920:

95-103.

"Foils in Hamlet." 12 May 2000.

http://www.geocities.com/vince_escanlar/hamlet.html> (28 Oct. 2001).

"The Hamlet Site." 25 April 1999.

http://vccslitonline.cc.va.us/TheHamletSite/sitemap.html> (1 Jan. 2000).

Lavender, Andy. Hamlet in Pieces. London: Nick Hern Books, 2001.

Levi, Peter. The Life and Times of William Shakespeare. New York: Henry Holt and

Company, 1988.

"The Male Leads." 7 Nov. 1999.

http://www.mtsn.org.uk/staff/staffpages/cer/hamlet/Horatio_etc.html> (8 Oct. 2001).

"Much Ado about Hamlet: A Study in Shakespeare." 2 Feb. 1999.

http://copper.ucs.indiana.edu/~ammckee/shake-0.html> (27 Dec. 2000).

Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. London and Stanford: Oxford UP, 1967.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Washington Square Press,

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Weitz, Morris. Hamlet and the Philosophy of Criticism. London: Faber & Faber, 1972.

Wilson, John Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. New York: Macmillan, 1936.

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