The Roles of Laertes and Ophelia as Character Foils in Hamlet

Topics: Characters in Hamlet, Gertrude, Hamlet Pages: 5 (1742 words) Published: December 1, 2014

"The spirit that I have seen May be the devil: and the devil hath power To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps Out of my weakness and my melancholy, As he is very potent with such spirits, Abuses to damn me:" (2.2.58)

In William Shakespeare's classic drama, 'Hamlet', the titular protagonist, Hamlet, is a dynamic, round character with constantly evolving traits. The character Hamlet, himself, interestingly, is not noted for what he does, but rather, is noted for his indecisiveness and lack of taking action throughout the play. Despite Hamlet having a ulterior motive throughout the play, he is constantly seen to be deliberating as to whether or not he should act on his actions. Through his numerous soliloquys, Hamlet's innermost reflections are seen, many of them contemplating existence, and the nature of the task which he has taken upon himself to carry out: the task of killing his uncle, the current King of Denmark.

In 'Hamlet', there are numerous characters, many of whom belong to either one of two families focused upon in the play: there is the royal family, consisting of Hamlet, his mother Gertrude, the Queen, and his stepfather Claudius, the current King of Denmark; and there is the family of the King's chief counselor, Polonius, which includes his daughter, Ophelia, and his son, Laertes. In both families, the parent-child relationship is heavily focused upon. Compared to the other 'children' of the play - Laertes and Ophelia - Hamlet's slow, deliberate thinking is brought to the forefront, with both Laertes and Ophelia acting as character foils to Hamlet.

Hamlet and Laertes may both be defined by their fathers, and how they react to them, as well as the way they are viewed by the public. Hamlet and Laertes are seen to be in similar situations: both of them are sons, and students who were studying abroad at the time of old King Hamlet's death. Both of them appeared to have shared a relatively close relationship with their fathers. After his father's death, Hamlet dressed in black, in grief and mourning. When the Queen asked why Hamlet seemed to be so affected by his father's death, he replied, '"Seems," madam? Nay, it is.' (1.2) Polonius, meanwhile, had been hesitant to let Laertes return to France, stating that Laertes had "wrung upon me my slow leave by laborsome petition, and at last upon his will I sealed my hard consent." (1.2)

Both Hamlet and Laertes are juxtaposed when their respective fathers are murdered, contrasting them - while both feel wronged by their fathers' deaths, the means with which they take action are different. Hamlet did not consider revenge until the Ghost told him to "revenge this most foul and unnatural murder". (1.5) Even then, Hamlet took action slowly, carefully and deliberately planning out the steps of his plan with which to get revenge. Laertes, however, upon hearing of his father's death, returned to Denmark, smashing the doors to the Elsinore castle open, demanding that the "vile king" should "give (him his) father". (4.5) Their moral compasses, too, are exceedingly different. Hamlet had had the opportunity to murder Claudius while Claudius was praying, but chose not to, thinking that if he killed Claudius then, he would "this same villain send to heaven", showing that he still believes in a higher power, and demands that justice be paid. (3.3) Conversely, Laertes, when asked by Claudius what he would do to prove that he was "in deed (his) father's son more than in words", Laertes stated that he would "cut his throat i' th' church". (4.7) Through this comparison, it may be seen that while Hamlet is uncertain about committing murder to avenge another murder, Laertes has no hesitation about it.

How Hamlet and Laertes are viewed by other characters, too, shows the similarities between both of them, despite the differences in how they act. Both of them are loved by the public, and are competitors for the...
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