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 AVENGER
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.
FORTINBRAS AS AVENGER
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 AS AVENGER
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 AS A FOIL TO HAMLET
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 AS FOIL TO HAMLET
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!