Comparisons and Contrasts in Hamlet




Hamlet (2)

Those who have commented on the structure of Hamlet have all made the point that it is a play of contrasting situations, rather like a system of mirrors, in which the same problem is in turn reflected from different points of view.  We are meant to examine the differing approaches of individual characters and Shakespeare assumes we can distinguish which one acts honourably and which one is immoral!  In this play three sons have lost their fathers; Hamlet and Ophelia are afflicted with differing kinds of madness, feigned and real.  The idea of vengeance is seen from several angles; Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras have similar missions which they fulfil in differing ways.  Claudius and Polonius conduct parallel investigations into the cause of Hamlet’s behaviour; there are several variations on the son-father theme.  Characters move towards their objects by various kinds of indirection (and ‘by indirection find direction out’).  So, therefore, Polonius uses Reynaldo to find the truth about Laertes; Claudius acts through such intermediaries as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Polonius uses Ophelia to sound out Hamlet.


It can easily be forgotten that Hamlet is not the only avenger in this revenge tragedy.  Laertes, Fortinbras and Pyrrhus all have wrongs to avenge: Laertes the deaths of his father and sister; Fortinbras the death of his father at the hand’s of Hamlet’s father and the loss of Norwegian territory to Denmark, and Pyrrhus the death of his father at the hands of Priam.   The common theme, as Claudius says in another context, is ‘death of fathers’.  Shakespeare presents all three avengers in sharp contrast to Hamlet, and their predicaments echo his.  The Dido play reminds him of his own situation.  Hecuba weeping profoundly for her slain husband Priam must inevitably invite comparison and contrast with Gertrude, who, ‘all tears’, followed King Hamlet’s body, but dried her tears all too soon and married Claudius.


Pyrrhus, the ‘hellish’ avenger who slays Priam, is presented as an evil man, ‘dread and black’, steeped ‘in the blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons’.  He is ‘a painted tyrant’, who enjoys ‘mincing with his sword’ the limbs of Priam.  Pyrrhus kills an old man, the ‘reverend Priam’, in a dubious act of vengeance.  The contrast between him and Hamlet is plain.  Hamlet finds it difficult to kill the man who has secretly murdered his father and destroyed his mother’s honour.  There is even a circumstantial parallel between Pyrrhus as avenger and Hamlet as would-be-avenger.  Pyrrhus suspends his sword momentarily over his victim, and ‘like a neutral to his will and matter’, does nothing, but soon, ‘aroused vengeance sets him new awork’.  Hamlet stands behind the kneeling Claudius in the Prayer Scene, but unlike Pyrrhus, leaves his sword unused.  Morally, Hamlet emerges with credit from this contrast with Pyrrhus.


The contrast between Hamlet and the other avenger, Fortinbras, is not as sharp, at least on the surface.  Hamlet praises Fortinbras as ‘a delicate and tender prince’, and even names him as his successor.  In one of his soliloquies, he invokes the decisive action of Fortinbras as a reproach to his own inaction, and uses his activities to illustrate a general principle of which he approves, and which he himself would like to embody:

                        Rightly to be great

                        Is not to stir without great argument

                        But greatly to find quarrel in a straw

                        When honour’s at the stake

(IV, iv, 53)

The Hamlet-Fortinbras contrast is, however, an ambivalent one.  In the earliest references to him, Fortinbras appears as a reckless adventurer at the head of a band of brigands, having ‘shark’d up a list of lawless resolutes’  (I, i, 98).  His war with Poland is one of aggression, Hamlet’s comments to the captain show his disgust at the adventure; he sees the Polish was as a disease, ‘the imposthume of much wealth and peace / That inward breaks’ (IV, iv, 26).   In the light of this, the praise he accords Fortinbras in the soliloquy (a ‘spirit with divine ambition puff’d’) is, to say the least, ambiguous.  Fortinbras, to judge from his activities, may be puffed up with ambition and dreams of honour, but unlike Hamlet, he pays very little attention to the injustice or otherwise of his cause.  What Hamlet clearly admires in Fortinbras is his absolute dedication to his role.  His motives for action, and the nature of the action itself, are another matter.  In these, he cannot stand comparison with Hamlet, whose developed awareness of ethical issues is a major feature of his character.


Laertes is the most obvious foil to Hamlet, and this is made explicit by hamlet himself when he tells Horatio that ‘by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his’, and again, just before the fencing match, ‘I’ll be your foil, Laertes’ (V, ii, 247).  Like hamlet, Laertes has every motive for revenge.  But there the resemblance ends.  When Laertes hears of this father’s death, he quickly raises a rebellion against Claudius.  Moral considerations do not trouble him, as they do Hamlet; he is prepared to cast the moral law aside: ‘To hell, allegiance!  Vows to the blackest devil / Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit’ (IV, v, 117).  When Claudius asks him how far he would go to show himself a true son  of his father, he answers ‘To cut his throat in the church’ (IV, vii, 127), which is Shakespeare’s comment on Hamlet’s failure to do the same to Claudius when he finds him at prayer.  The King points to another contrast between  Hamlet and Laertes when, proposing the use of an unbated foil, he feels that Hamlet, being ‘Most generous and free from all contriving / Will not peruse the foils’ (IV, vii, 136)  the full force of Laertes’ moral degeneracy becomes evident in his plan to kill Hamlet by stealth, and in his revelation that he has procured poison in case he might find use for it: ‘And for that purpose, I’ll anoint my sword / I bought an unction of a mountebank’ (IV, vii, 141).

The function of Laertes in the play seems clear from all of this.  Shakespeare uses him to show the character of the classic avenger of primitive revenge tragedy, an avenger of the kind that Hamlet, by nature, is unable to be.  The audience must be glad that Hamlet is strongly differentiated from the coarse-grained, unreflective, shallow Laertes.  When critics castigate Hamlet for not proceeding more quickly against Claudius, they can scarcely wish him to duplicate the attitudes and proceedings of Laertes, whose moral depravity throws Hamlet’s scrupulousness into welcome relief.


The three avengers then, Pyrrhus, Fortinbras and Laertes, are all foils to Hamlet.  All have lost their fathers, all of them have motives for revenge, though none as powerful as Hamlet has.  In spite of this, all three proceed with their task undeterred by moral qualms.  Hamlet is constantly troubled by doubts and hesitations.  Hamlet pays generous tribute to Fortinbras and the ‘very noble youth’ Laertes, tributes which are not really deserved; and which highlight Hamlet’s own generous nature.



Horatio is also used as a foil to Hamlet.  The most interesting thing about Horatio is not his character as we observe it in the play (he is a vague, shadowy, contradictory figure for much of it) but the noble tribute paid to him by Hamlet.  In this tribute he is the stoical man par excellence, ‘a man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards / Hast taken with equal thanks’ (III, ii, 65).  The part of the tribute most relevant to Hamlet’s own situation seems to be the following lines:

                                    and blest are those

                        Whose blood and judgement are so well comeddled

                        That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger

                        To sound what stop she please.  Give me that man

                        That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him

                        In my heart’s core…..                                                   (III, ii, 66)

This, presumably, is to be read as a comment on Hamlet’s own unstable temperament and conduct, his intense frustration, melancholy, despair and liability to sudden anger and rash action.  He is, what Horatio is not, ‘passion’s slave’.  The contrast between Horatio, who can bear the buffets and rewards of fortune with equal thanks and self-control, and Hamlet, who is shaken to the core by circumstances and by the new career as avenger which is thrust on him, is extreme.


Claudius is also part of the large pattern of contrasts and oppositions involving hamlet and other characters in the play.  Hamlet recognises his uncle as a formidable antagonist, finding satisfaction in the thought of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being caught in the great conflict between Claudius and himself:

                                    Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes

                                    Between the pass and fell incensed points

                                    Of mighty opposites…. (V, ii, 60).

The contrast between Hamlet’s agonised indecision and the efficient, swift plotting of Claudius scarcely needs underlining.  Hamlet is, as the king recognises, ‘most generous, and free from all contriving’  (IV, vii, 135).  Claudius himself is an expert contriver.  But in Hamlet, the hidden forces shaping the course of things do not ultimately favour the shrewd contrivers.  Instead these contrivers (Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes) are themselves victims of their own contrivances, their ‘purposes mistook, fallen on the inventors’ heads’ (V, ii, 388).  And Hamlet, who contrives nothing against Claudius except the Play Within The Play, has the opportunity for vengeance unwittingly provided for him by Claudius, whose deep plots overreach themselves!



Polonius and his family in Hamlet




There must be a strong temptation for actors to play Polonius as a foolish old man, the comic victim of Hamlet’s sharp wit, even as a buffoon.  Samuel Johnson’s account of the character is worth repeating for its emphasis on some important features:

‘Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with observation, confident in his knowledge, proud of his eloquence, and declining into dotage.  His mode of oratory is truly represented as designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest is natural.  Such a man is positive and confident, because be knows that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it is become weak.  Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the particular application… while he depends upon his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel; but as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to sudden dereliction of his faculties, he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading principle, and falls again into his former train.  The, idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom, will solve all the phenomena of the character of Polonius’.

There is no doubt that the aspects of the character to which Johnson draws attention can be illustrated from the play.  Hamlet sees him as Johnson does, as one of ‘those tedious old fools’, and ‘that great baby……not yet out of his swaddling clothes’.  There are, too, the longwindedness, the impressive openings that meander into fatuity, and sometimes jolt into embarrassing frankness, as in the business of communicating his diagnosis of Hamlet’s madness’ (11,ii,92-165).  He wins easy laughs, sees himself as something of a sage, if an absentminded one.  He himself reminds us of another of his powers, that of detection: ‘I will find where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed / within the centre’ (11,ii,158).  He gets three character testimonials in the course of the play.  One is solicited, and is from Claudius, who describes him as ‘a man faithful and honourable’.  Two are unsolicited.  Claudius declares that the throne of Denmark is at his command, and Gertrude calls him ‘the unseen good old man’ after his death.  This epitaph contrasts oddly with Hamlets reference to the ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool’, who was in life ‘a foolish prating knave’.

Johnson’s account is accurate enough as far as it goes, but neither his nor many of the other popular interpretations of the character do justice to the darker and more sinister sides of his personality.  What is attractive about Polonius belongs to the outward man, who can claim a certain indulgence for his foibles.  But beneath the mask lurks a treacherous plotter, with a gravely retarded moral sense.  He trusts his children so little that he sets spies on them, and he dies as a spy in the Queen’s bedroom.  He cannot see his fellow-human beings as other than puppets, and has no respect for privacy.  He forces Ophelia against her better interests to act in his nasty drama involving Hamlet, and manipulates her like a doll: ‘Ophelia, walk you here…read on the book’.  He pries into other people’s lives without apology or embarrassment.  He can sacrifice his daughter’s feelings and her reputation to his own limited, self-centred concerns, and his choice of words to describe his procedures underlines their, and his, nastiness: ‘At such a time. I’ll loose my daughter to him’ (11,ii, 165).  He cynically misunderstands Hamlet’s attention to Ophelia, and debases the office of Chancellor by converting it to a spying agency.  His insensitive intrusion into the Hamlet-Gertrude relationship shows his blindness to the intense feeling that many underline such relationships, as well as his lack of respect for the privacy that should surround them. He will have Gertrude provoke Hamlet to a violent outburst: ‘Let his Queen-mother all alone entreat him / To show his grief; let her be round with him’.  He even takes a perverse delight in anticipating what he feels will be almost an entertaining spectacle for him, but his final instructions to Gertrude, in which he urges her to be ‘round’ with Hamlet, shows no understanding of the kind of response such behaviour on her part will arouse.  It is ironical that he should meet his death in a production staged by himself, and with himself as director.  We remember his earlier lines:

I did enact Julius Caesar.  I was killed i ‘the Capitol.

Brutus kill’d me…(111,ii,101)



Laertes functions as a foil to Hamlet. He is a conventional revenge hero, and consequently represents a standard of measurement for Hamlet.  Like his father, he is given to conventional moralising, giving Ophelia some serious and misleading advice on her relationship with Hamlet, just as Polonius will do.  Her quiet response anticipates the course his life will take. He is one of those who can show others the right way, but who will not follow it himself, who ‘recks not his own rede’. On his return to Denmark after his father’s death, his decisive action contrasts with Hamlet’s indecision.  He has enough courage to face Claudius alone, but his words are those of a melodramatic villain rather than of a wronged son and brother:

 To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil!

 Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!

 I dare damnation…(IV,v,117))

Worse is to follow.  Laertes forgets all the edifying moral principles he so freely shared with Ophelia when he expresses a willingness to cut Hamlet’s throat ‘in the church’.  Even more damaging is the fact that he has come to Denmark with the means of practising treachery on an enemy (‘I bought an unction of a mountebank).  He is able to add a poisoned weapon to Claudius’ plan to use an unbated foil.  Hamlet can be emotionally unstable, but is not morally unstable; Laertes is emotionally stable enough, but morally quite unstable.  His interview with Claudius brings one’s mind back to the advice tendered to him by Polonius:

This above all – to thine own self be true

And it must follow, as the night the day

 Thou canst not then be false to any man…1,iii,77).

In the event, he proves totally untrue to any decent conception he may have of himself.  The king has little difficulty in exploiting his weak moral sense.  He employs flattery, a false show of sympathy, a clever challenge to pride, ‘what  would you undertake / To show yourself in deed your father’s son / More than in words’.  Laertes is blackmailed into a treacherous partnership with Claudius, which he lacks the moral strength to break.  His shallowness is underlined when, before the fencing-match, he repents too late and only when his own life is ebbing away.  He does, however, make sure that Claudius is trapped (‘The king, the king’s to blame’).



Character-studies of Ophelia are liable to sound rather tame, and can easily lapse into sentimentality.  There is a pathetic beauty about her death, and a charming innocence about her activities during life.  She is, as her father says, ‘a green girl’, childlike, inexperienced, frightened by Hamlet’s odd behaviour, totally obedient to her father.  She is, of course, one of the classic examples of the innocent sufferer in tragedy, the pathetic victim of a process set in motion by forces beyond her control and over whose course she has no influence.  She pays the penalty for the crimes of others.  In many tragedies there is an appalling disproportion between the offences committed by the participants and the sufferings they endure.  In Ophelia’s case one might go even further, since she is the guiltless victim of the evil that surrounds her, and must endure bereavement and die in madness as a consequence.  In the case of Polonius and Laertes there is at least the satisfaction of being able to rationalise their deaths as the outcome of crime or rashness. Laertes sees some justice in his fate, and Hamlet finds an absurd appropriateness in that of Polonius.  But no such ‘meaning’ can be extracted from what happens to Ophelia.

For a long time critics could find little enough meaning in Hamlet’s treatment of her in the ‘nunnery scene’ (111,I,90-150).  There is, of course, the obvious general point that Gertrude’s sin has had a profound effect on Hamlet’s attitude to all women (‘Frailty thy name is woman’) and that his disgust at his mother taints his mind against even the innocent Ophelia.  Elements of this are present in the scene (‘I say we will have no more marriage; those that are married already, all but one shall live…’).  In one of the most influential observations on the play, Dover Wilson, the renowned Shakespearean scholar, argued that at 11,ii,160, Hamlet overhears the King and Polonius as they plan the encounter between Ophelia and himself, and that his anger against Ophelia is largely inspired by his view of her in the role of fellow-conspirator with Claudius and Polonius against him.  This suggestion would also help to make some sense of Hamlet’s odd and insulting exchanges with Polonius in 11,ii 174 beginning ‘Excellent well, you are a fishmonger’ (a slang term for our word pimp) which otherwise seems inexplicable, at least in this contest.  If Shakespeare did not really arrange matters as Dover Wilson thinks he did, then perhaps he ought to have!

However, as we have discussed in class, an alternative theory is that yes he is aware that she is being used by ‘the lawful espials’ in the court and he wants to save her further hurt and so pushes her away for her own safety.  However, like many other of his plans, this one does not work either!

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Sample Answer:

 ‘Ophelia is the guiltless victim of the evil that surrounds her, and must endure bereavement and die in madness as a consequence’  Discuss.

Ophelia is isolated in a man’s world.  She is used in many conspiracies against Hamlet.  She is not cherished for herself, except when she is grieved over:

I lov’d Ophelia.  Forty thousand brothers could not make up my sum.

Laertes and Polonius forbid her to develop a relationship with Hamlet because of their resentment towards him.  Laertes suggests to his sister that her marriage to Hamlet would endanger the Danish state:

For on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state.

What is a sensitive young woman to make of this?  Yet Gertrude declares at Ophelia’s funeral:

            I hop’d thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife.

Laertes gets it wrong.  But what effect does this interference have on the emotional state of a young woman who ‘sucked the honey of his music vows’?  After all it turns out that Hamlet has treated her sweetly and showered gifts on her with ‘words of so sweet breath compos’d, as made the things more rich.’

Laertes imputes motives of lust to Hamlet even though he is just back from his studies at the famous reformation university of Wittenberg and has shown a profound sincerity of grief for his father:

A toy in blood; a violet in the youth of primy nature, forward, not permanent.

Her brother teaches her to distrust Hamlet’s advances and fear love:

 Your chaste treasure open to his unmaster’d importunity.

 Fear it, Ophelia, fear it.

Polonius forcefully dismisses her as ‘a green girl’.  Hamlet is portrayed as a seductive opportunist, using his charm as ‘springs to catch woodcocks!’  She obediently denies herself her one means of happiness.

In the Nunnery Scene she is exploited in a game of espionage against Hamlet.  The Queen is looking for an explanation of Hamlet’s ‘wildness’:

I do wish that your good beauties be the happy cause of Hamlet’s wildness.

She is, therefore, a pawn in a fatal game of intrigue, believing as the Queen does that in the accidental meeting, ‘her virtues’ may bring back Hamlet’s ‘wonted ways’ or sanity.  But in truth this is only a pretext to ‘sugar o’er the devil’ and assist Hamlet’s two enemies.  Suspecting the worst, Hamlet abuses Ophelia terribly in order to intimidate the King:

Get thee to a nunnery!  Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

Hamlet ironically echoes Claudius’ guilty remark about the ‘harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art’ – as if he had overheard their plans to uncover his mask of madness:

  I have heard of your paintings too.

She is devastated for both of them: ‘Oh help him you sweet heavens’ and she refers to ‘sweet bells jangled’.  Her despair for herself follows swiftly:

‘Ands I, of ladies most deject and wretched’

When Hamlet leaves, she seems to break down in her speech, ending with:

‘Oh woe is me / to have seen what I have seen, see what I see’.

Ophelia’s world is beginning to collapse.  So far in her life, she has been under the continual direction of three men: her father, her brother and her lover.  Her brother has gone to Paris.  Her lover is insane and abuses her.  When her father dies at the hands of the man she loves, there is no one to direct her.  In Act I, Scene iii, Polonius told her to ‘think yourself a baby’, and tells her to stop believing what Hamlet has said and believe what he says instead.  She succumbed to this and is now, therefore, totally isolated.  Ophelia has never had to make her own mind up and has been dissuaded from doing so.  It might be fair to say that she does not have a mind of her own.  What happens when that infant mind is left to fend with the loss of everyone who is important to her?

This impression of Ophelia is strengthened, I think, in the Play Scene.  Hamlet embarrasses and confuses her publicly.  She is almost completely incapable of responding.  She has never been spoken to like this before and does not have the personality to cope:

That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs.

It is important to consider what Ophelia’s songs can tell us about her state of mind and what Ophelia’s madness adds to our understanding of madness in the play.  At the beginning of Act IV, Scene v, the unnamed gentleman tells us that Ophelia is mad.  At this point the Queen, full of her own troubles refuses to see Ophelia.  Her isolation is complete.  The gentleman says she speaks much of her father and that much of her speech is meaningless, but its chaotic state makes those who hear it try to make sense of it.  They are amazed by her speech and make the words fit their own interpretation. (Very little has changed over the intervening four hundred years!).  This statement seems to be crucial to understanding how madness is presented in this play.  When Hamlet and Ophelia are thought to be insane, their observers try to interpret the reasons for their insanity.  The reasons they come up with always reflect the preoccupations of the observers.

In the case of Hamlet, Claudius thinks he has a deep hidden secret since he himself has a hidden secret:

There’s something in his soul o’er which his melancholy sits on brood.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern think that Hamlet’s ambition is the cause of his madness since they themselves are ambitious.  Similarly with Ophelia, Laertes thinks she is trying to tell him to take revenge for her father because this is a course he has already decided on:

By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight.

Therefore, it can be said that in Hamlet, madness is a mirror.

A close analysis of the songs Ophelia sings can also be enlightening.  She sings three songs to the Queen in Act IV, Scene v, and two more later in the scene after Laertes arrives.  Her first song is about an absent lover, the second is probably a lament for her father, while the third song, ‘Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day’, is a story of how a young girl is duped into sleeping with a man who promises to marry her and doesn’t.  The first two don’t create much of a problem: after all, she has an absent lover and a dead dad!  The third song, more bawdy, is a little trickier.  Hamlet has not been unfaithful to Ophelia; in fact the opposite is true.  He has, however, been very unpleasant towards her and this has obviously disturbed her.  She may be mourning the loss of her virginity, for she may have made love to Hamlet but the bottom line is that we don’t know enough to make a definite judgement.

It is plausible, going on the evidence of these five songs, to assume that Ophelia’s madness was caused by the death of her father, the loss of Hamlet and her confusion at his sarcastic remarks to her.  She probably feels a deep sense of loss for his love and companionship.  It is clear that by the end of Act IV that Ophelia had attained two dark finalities that Hamlet had either faked or at least meditated on: madness and suicide.  One bizarre aspect of this story is that the Queen seems to be aware of Ophelia’s mental state yet she does nothing to save her.

Ophelia dies near the ‘weeping willow’, which suggests that she died of grief.  The brook is also described as a ‘weeping brook’.  Another thing to note are the other plants that are mentioned.  She has been associated with flowers throughout the play.  She’s an ‘infant of the spring’ in Act I, Scene ii and in Act IV, Scene v, Laertes describes her as a ‘rose of May’, where she also hands out flowers to the Court.  At her funeral, Laertes imagines violets springing from her grave and the Queen strews her grave with flowers, which may signify her innocence, beauty, youth and fragility.

In Act IV though the flowers are weeds: crow-flowers, nettles, long-purples and daisies.  Perhaps these are a symbol of Ophelia’s decline, madness, or her disillusionment with the Danish Court.  Indeed, it has been suggested that it was in fact this Court that killed her.  She was, in effect, ‘a guiltless victim of the evil that surrounds her’.