aysFoils in Hamlet
A foil is a minor character that helps the audience better understand a major character. A foil may exist as a comparison character, with similarities between the two, as well as differences that bring to light an important contrast between the foil and the main character. A foil may also just be someone for the main character to talk to, so we can know and understand their thoughts and feelings. Foils help us understand the obvious as well as the arcane. In the classic tragedy Hamlet, we see William Shakespeare employ foils to illustrate both examples. They become important literary tools that help the reader rationalize the concurrent theme of the play – deceit.
Of the four young men who occupy a place in the life of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear, at least initially, to be his closest friends. They are schoolmates at Wittenburg, and Hamlet greets them both amicably, remarking, ” My excellent good friends! How dost thou,…..” Queen Gertrude affirms the status of their relationship when she says, “And sure I am two men there is not living to whom he more adheres.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are unaware, however, of the real story behind the death of Hamlets Father. They do not have the benefit of seeing his ghost, as Hamlet has. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very loyal to the new King. Unlike Hamlet, they initially have no reason not to trust Claudius. But they become unwitting and unknowing pawns for both factions. Their relationship with Hamlet begins to sour. Hamlet realizes what the King is up to, and he becomes distrustful of the two. “Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?”, Hamlet remarks in disgust. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never address Hamlet in such a disrespectful tone, despite the change in their relationship. In the end, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are naively loyal to Hamlet, and this becomes their downfall. They know that Hamlet has killed Polonius, and yet, they take no precautions as they accompany Hamlet to England. Their trust in both Claudius and Hamlet gets them killed. Hamlets reveals his mistrust of his schoolmates in a conversation with his mother, and refers to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as, “…my two-school fellows, whom I will trust as adders fanged…”
Hamlets friendship with his third colleague from this group is much different compared to that of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Horatio, also a classmate at Wittenburg, does not appear initially to occupy the same social status as did the former two. He addresses Hamlet and says, “The same, my lord, and your poor servant ever.” So Horatio may be from a lower social-economic class. Like Hamlet, he sees a ghost, but is not sure that the ghost was the king, as he admits to only seeing the king once before, another argument for Horatios unfamiliarity with the royal family.
Horatios most important role as a foil does not become evident until the end of the play. His conversation with Hamlet just before the fatal duel with Laertes provides us with an insight into Hamlets state of mind. Horatio advises Hamlet to back down if he does not like the circumstances, and Horatio will attest to Hamlets not being fit. Hamlet will not allow this, and in fact expects that he will lose his life in this battle with Laertes. It is Horatio for whom Hamlet cries out when he realizes that he has been poisoned. Horatio attempts to drink from the cup also, but Hamlet prevents him from doing so. His final request to Horatio is that he tell this story to all. Horatio has become Hamlets strongest friend and closest ally. It is no coincidence then, that Horatios fate becomes the exact opposite of the ultimatum that fell to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
No other foil provides a starker contrast in character to Hamlet than does Laertes. It would appear that one of their few common threads lies in the fact that both of their fathers have been murdered. Both seek to avenge these deaths, but it is Laertes who needs no additional motivation. Hamlet does not act until his mother is poisoned accidentally. Laertes is also away at school, but in Paris instead of Wittenburg. Hamlet procrastinates after seeing his fathers ghost. His inability to take immediate action shapes the plot of the story. Indeed, if Hamlet acts quickly, there would be only one act of Hamlet. Laertes, upon hearing of his fathers demise wants swift and fervent justice. Although he is the more impassioned of the two, it is this incisiveness that leads to Laertes demise. He allows himself to be manipulated, enamored by the kings rhetoric. Laertes, suddenly realizing the plot at hand, repents for his killing of Hamlet, true to his character even in the face of death. Hamlet seeks to blame his “madness” for the death of Polonius, and never admits fault for the fate of his schoolmates.
The deaths of Laertes and Hamlet in the final act are a juxtaposition of their respective characters. Throughout the play we are reminded of Hamlets egocentricism, but it is not until this final scene that we can reach this conclusion unequivocally.
aysFoils in Hamlet