Social screen that allows Hamlet to test Claudius

Social relationships are a necessity regardless of whether those interactions convey through love or hatred. In the play Hamlet, Hamlet displays and experiences various attitudes toward characters such as Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Horatio, and Fortinbras. These characters, although some may not reappear as frequently as others play pivotal roles in the development of Hamlet, especially by setting him up to question himself, his relationship with others and the world around him. Hamlet comes to face challenges in understanding what is certain about his world: is the ghost telling the truth by claiming Claudius as the murderer of King Hamlet? He also has to recognize who are his allies and who are the puppets of Claudius. In terms of practicality, Shakespeare utilizes some of these characters to increase tension in the play, especially Laertes and Fortinbras who brings in a method of carrying out revenge. Moreover, other characters like Horatio, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz provide a window for the audience to observe a different side of Hamlet to better understand him as a character as well as the play as a whole.  Unlike the other characters, Horatio marks the pivotal moments of the play; he attempts to converse with the ghost, relays the ghost’s appearance to Hamlet, helps Hamlet decipher Claudius’s expressions during The Mousetrap, receives the letter about Hamlet’s kidnap and return, and he is a mindful lookout for Hamlet’s wellbeing. Moreover, Horatio is the main medium through which we, as an audience, can understand Hamlet’s actions and make sense of the play. After speaking with the Ghost, Hamlet relays to Horatio that he will put on “an antic disposition” (68) which then becomes a screen that allows Hamlet to test Claudius and the ghost about the murder of his father. Without the prior notice of Hamlet’s changing behavior, we would fall into the trap of believing that Hamlet is truly mad when the Mousetrap play takes place and lose trust in his words for the rest of the play. In the letter to Horatio detailing his return to Denmark, Hamlet explains his kidnap by the pirates and how he switched the letter going to England. When they meet, Horatio investigates into what happened to Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. With this, Horatio fills in the gaps that the main characters have not answered, and as a play, it allows Shakespeare to voice Hamlet’s thoughts and actions that the actor cannot physically act out. Horatio, thematically, is also the only sign of truth Hamlet believes in throughout the entire the play. When Hamlet desires to test the ghost’s words at the play-within-play, Hamlet entrusts Horatio with observing Claudius’s facial expressions. The relay of this responsibility not only acts in favor of Hamlet but also the audience. Observing Hamlet in his madness and revenge-seeking mindset, we might question if his judgment followed a preconceived notion that Claudius was the murderer. However, with a confirmation coming from Horatio, someone not under “passion’s slave” (141), we can come to accept that Hamlet’s following actions are justified. On the other hand, Shakespeare uses Guildenstern and Rosencrantz as foils to Horatio, especially in terms of their relationship with Hamlet. Within Hamlet’s continual struggle in recognizing who is an ally and an enemy, Horatio stands as the true friend who is ” not a pipe for Fortune’s finger To sound what stop she please…and a man That is not passion’s slave”(141). Hamlet reveals that Horatio lives in poverty when he mentions “That no revenue hast but thy good spirits To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered”(140)? Even though Horatio is unequal in status, he maintains a fair and positive relationship with Hamlet as his well-wisher. However, this supporting nature is in stark contrast with that of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz whose “candied tongue lick absurd pomp” (140). Guildenstern and Rosencrantz abuse their closeness with Hamlet by attempting to flatter and trick him into revealing the cause of his madness. Instead of assisting Hamlet as his school friends, they instead turn into puppets for Claudius who as Hamlet claims ” soaks up the King’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities” (193). With this dark turning from friends to enemies, Horatio shines more brightly for his loyalty, especially when everyone else in Elsinore seems to turn against Hamlet. In fact, Hamlet saves Horatio and entrusts him with carrying on his legacy. Rather than developing Hamlet, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are situated to bring out a side of Hamlet that we have not seen already. On Hamlet’s trip to England, Hamlet nonchalantly changes the letter so that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are sent to their deaths. Although they may have been Hamlet’s school friends, he unconcernedly sends them to their deaths, somewhat making us question Hamlet’s ethical nature. However, as an audience, we come to accept Hamlet’s actions—although we might not completely forgive him for it— because Guildenstern and Rosencrantz were assisting Claudius in sending Hamlet to his death. But this fate was less than unexpected. When Rosencrantz questions Hamlet about Polonius’s body, Hamlet rebukes that Rosencrantz is merely a sponge that “When Claudius needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again” (196). It is as if Rosencrantz is lifeless until Claudius has some use of him, and once the need is resolved, Rosencrantz must once again return to his lifeless state, where this time, Hamlet releases him forever. Meanwhile, Fortinbras and Hamlet have an exquisite relationship, one that is not typical of a familial competition. In fact, they are more similar to each other than Laertes or Horatio are to Hamlet; Prince Fortinbras is in the command of his uncle, the current King of Norway, as Hamlet is under his Uncle Claudius. Both are also in the process of avenging the deaths of their fathers. More importantly, the root of this similarity is far from coincidence and actually more for Shakespeare to end the play with Denmark’s throne succeeded by a prince like Hamlet. Hamlet was loved by the Denizens that when Hamlet killed Polonius, they scorned the punishment given to Hamlet more than his crime (195). For this city to willingly accept another King, it would have to be one who is similar to Hamlet, leaving only Fortinbras to accept the throne. In addition, the audience can leave the play knowing that Denmark is safe under a Prince who is neither insane nor has hands that murdered his own family. The play, in the end, comes full circle as King Fortinbras was first defeated, but now Prince Fortinbras is once again on the throne. Fortinbras is also the external conflict that helps spur Hamlet’s emotions of revenge. Even as the “delicate and tender prince” (203), Fortinbras musters up two thousand souls to fight and even die for a cause that is not as important to them. In this moment of comparison and admiration, Hamlet develops a bloodthirsty nature and fixates on having his “thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (205)! Thus, by witnessing Fortinbras’s massive army, Hamlet changes from a man of words into a word of actions, leading into the last act of the play where Hamlet takes up the sword to fight with Laertes. Laertes, unlike the other characters, is more of a tool for Shakespeare to break the parallel streams of mindset between Claudius and Hamlet. Claudius, in a city where “offender’s scourge is weighed, But never the offense” (195) and a house in which his wife dearly loves her son, is unable to kill Hamlet. On the other hand, Hamlet, in his quest to gain certainty about the murderer of his father and an auspicious time to kill Claudius, is unable to take that next step in carrying out his revenge. These two characters have such distinct motives to delay acting upon their desires. However, Shakespeare brings in Laertes, who is more than a foil to Hamlet, both in character and history, to break these two parallel pathways. Laertes and Hamlet are to avenge the deaths of their father, but after the death of Polonius, Laertes posses a hasty nature which upon his arrival in Denmark seeks the blood of his father’s murderer. He requests to be “the organ” through which Claudius and Laertes can kill Hamlet. This clears up Claudius’s obstacles, as now he can kill Hamlet without having to take complete responsibility for it. With the sudden progression of events, even Hamlet gains a state of readiness that he never possessed before. Although Horatio suggests Hamlet to default on the duel, Hamlet insists “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ‘t to leave betimes? Let be” (273). The competitive attitude between the Laertes and Hamlet— which is displayed even at Ophelia’s funeral— develops Hamlet’s character to possess a state of certainty. For the majority of the play, Hamlet has been comparing the scale of his emotions with the emotions of others around him; after the First Player presents Aeneas’s tale to him, he questions, “That I, the son of a dear father murdered, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words And fall a-cursing like a very drab”(119).  Hamlet is in this uncertain and insecure state for a considerable amount of time, but this competition he develops with Laertes allows him to gain some confidence. Although one might consider these characters as minor aspects of the play, they are indispensable in building a strong mental foundation for Hamlet to kill Claudius. The challenges in his relationships along the way develop him to better understand who he can trust and to analyze his emotions and understand how he can materialize his desires. Moreover, these characters help us shape our view of Hamlet from various perspectives and ultimately, guide Hamlet in completing his Hero’s Journey.


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