Analysis of the Main Characters in Hamlet

The main characters that are analysed here are Hamlet, Ophelia, Horatio, Gertrude and Claudius. The rest of the characters will be analysed in a separate mindmap!

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  • Key Characters in Hamlet
    • HAMLET
      • Introspective. Thinks a lot about his actions.
      • A man of radical contradictions
        • Reckless yet cautious
        • Courteous yet uncivil
        • Tender yet ferocious
        • Meets his father's death with outrage yet shows no compunction when he is responsible for the deaths of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius.
      • HARMATIA:
        • Procrastination
        • Inability to act
        • Introspective. Thinks a lot about his actions.
      • Displays all the forms, moods and shapes of grief.
        • Makes it clear that his overt signs of grief do not reflect his inner sorrow
          • "For they are the actions that a man might play, / But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe." i.ii.
        • His intense grief is intensified by the lack of feeling by those around him
      • Emotionally disorientated
        • Cannot balance hatred for Claudius, grief and the evil required to carry out revenge
        • Leads him into a moral paradox: he must commit murder to avenge murder.
      • Perhaps the most famous example of Shakespeare updating the simplistic, 2D writing style of pre-Renaissance drama.
        • Focused on creating characters with psychological complexity.
        • Hamlet's psychological subtlety emerged in a time before the concept of psychology had been invented.
      • ACT 5 onwards
        • Emotional turmoil replaced by perspective
        • Anxiety replaced by cool rationality
    • CLAUDIUS
      • Antagonist
      • A morally weak villain
        • Values power & material things more than he values other people.
      • Cunning, lacks morals, is manipulative.
        • Differs from the rest of the male characters in this respect
      • Wants to stay in power by any means necessary
        • Keeps H at home so he can't go to Wittenburg and create an army.
      • Primary roles
        • Create anger and confusion in H's mind
        • impact H's discovery of truth and meaning
      • Initially seems to be a capable ruler
        • Aims to bring peace to the country and to neighbouring countries
          • Afraid of unrest within the country due to OH's death
        • Soon revealed that C may have murdered OH - CORRUPT
        • A very different person in private.
          • Ghost refers to him as "that incestious, adulterous beast" (1.5)
          • His crime is what is "rotten in the state of Denmark".
            • Committed fratricide, regicide, and bedded the Queen
              • Does this with the "witchcraft of his wit" (1.5)
      • TRAITS
        • Greed
        • Corruption
        • Lust
      • NOT A STATIC CHARACTER
        • We are intended to see him as a multi-faceted villain
        • "We have in Claudius the makings of the central figure of a tragedy" Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare
      • Not a complete sociopath; his actions occasionally bother him
        • Aside 3.1: "O, 'tis true!"....
      • Can also be sensitive and gentle
        • Genuinely sorry for P's death
        • Truly loves G
          • Must kill H but refuses to do so himself for G's sake.
        • Despite this, all those who he loves cannot come before his ambition and desires
          • Uses Laetres and his grief to whatever ends necessary
          • Denies Rose + Guild the knowledge of the letter's contnts: would have possibly saved their lives
          • Does not stop G from drinking from the poisoned goblet as it would implicate him in the plot.
    • GERTRUDE
      • The antithesis of her son
        • H = scholar and philosopher, looking for life's most elusive answers.
        • G = shallow, only cares for her body and external pleasures.
      • Longs to be delighted, almost like a child.
        • She is the child-like victim rather than the villainess.
          • If G was an adulteress, she would no doubt be involved in C's plot, yet she isn't
            • C would see her as an accomplice and confide in her but he doesn't.
      • Little is seen of her in daily activity
        • Likely that she would be a woman enraptured by luxuries.
      • A very sexual being
        • This is what turns H so violently against her & later Ophelia.
          • Gertrude stays faithful to Hamlet despite this
        • Many critics read "adulterate beast" as proof that G and C were already sexually involved with each other before the death of OH.
          • Argued that this would make G a much more loathsome character than Shakespeare intended, noted that this is not mentioned at any other point in the play.
          • By definition "adulterate" means to contaminate with base matter, to change to a worse state by mixing.
            • C has, according to the Ghost, contaminated G
              • No proof that this was before his death, however.
          • If G was an adulteress, she would no doubt be involved in C's plot, yet she isn't
            • C would see her as an accomplice and confide in her but he doesn't.
      • She has a definite aversion to the truth.
        • Lies to herself and to those around her
          • Lies to protect.
          • Her lies are not cruel and wicked falsehoods
            • They are white lies designed to keep those her around her safe, both physically and emotionally.
              • .e.g she tries to protect Hamlet by telling Claudius that he "weeps for what is done" when he clearly does not.
      • It is her underlying propensity for love that redeems her.
    • OPHELIA
      • Static and 1D character.
      • Has the potential to become a tragic heroine but instead crumbles into insanity.
      • Ophelia herself is not as important as her representation of the dual nature of women in the play
        • Hamlet's feelings of betrayal by Gertrude are much more apparent because of Ophelia's presence.
        • Hamlet's feelings of rage against his mother can be directed toward Ophelia
      • Through Ophelia we witness Hamlet's evolution, or de-evolution into a man convinced that:
        • All women are whores
          • Gertrude has been made a whore by Claudius, and Ophelia has been made a whore by her father
            • Act 2: Polonius uses Ophelia to discover why Hamlet is behaving in a certain way.
              • Hamlet sees this to be Polonius prostituting his daughter, calls him a "fishmonger"
                • AO5: Kay Stanton in "Hamlet's Whores":
                  • "What makes a woman a whore in the Hamlet's estimation is her sexual use by not one man but by more than one man..."
                    • "...What seems to enrage [Hamlet] in the nunnery interlude is that Ophelia has put her sense of love and duty for another man above her sense of love and duty for him..."
                      • "...Gertrude chose a brother over a dead Hamlet; Ophelia chooses a father over a living Hamlet: both choices can be read as additionally sexually perverse in being, to Hamlet, 'incestuous'"
        • The women who seem most pure are inside black with corruption and sexual desire
      • To outside observers, she is the epitome of goodness.
        • Childlike and naive like G, but she has good reason to be unaware of harsh realities of life:
          • Young
          • Sheltered by Polonius and Laertes who love her a great deal
            • Returns this love, couples it with complete and unwavering loyalty
              • AO5: Bradley: "Her whole character is that of simple unselfish affection"
          • Not involved with matters of state
      • Incapable of defending herself, but through timid responses her intense suffering is clearly shown
        • O: Indeed, my, lord, you made me believe so.
          • O: I was the more deceived.
      • Her frailty and innocence work against her
        • Even in insanity she symbolises in-corruption and virtue (except to Hamlet)
          • AO5: Bradley: "We hear from time to time an undertone of the deepest sorrow, but never the agonised cry of fear or horror which makes madness dreadful or shocking. And the picture of her death, if our eyes grow dim in watching it, is still purely beautiful."
        • The songs she sings are sombre reminders that the corrupt world has taken its toll on the pure Ophelia.
    • HORATIO
      • Most critics agree that he is not developed beyond a character foil for the great Prince.
      • Serves 2 purposes central to the drama
        • Harbinger of truth
          • It is through him that the actions taken by H and others gain credibility.
          • Outside observer to madness: Hamlet's conversations with Horatio ground the play in reality.
          • He sees the ghost, so we can believe that H has also seen the ghost.
        • Hamlet's 1 true confidant.
          • Other than soliloquies, Hamlet's conversations with him are the only insight available into what H is really feeling/thinking.
      • Hamlet admires Horatio for the qualities that he does not possess himself.
        • H longs for the peace of mind that such stoicism must bring to Horatio
        • Praises Horatio for his virtue and self-control: "Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man/ As e'er my conversation cop'd withal" (3.2)
      • When H lies dying, Horatio is prepared to commit suicide so that he will not have to live without his beloved friend, but even in this he is level headed
        • It is an act of honour and duty rather than uncontrollable emotion.
          • Refers to himself as "more an antique Roman than a Dane" (5.2)
            • His virtue is even more vivid in light of Macbeth's cowardice: "Why should I play the Roman fool, and die/On mine own sword?" (5.3)
  • OPHELIA
    • Static and 1D character.
    • Has the potential to become a tragic heroine but instead crumbles into insanity.
    • Ophelia herself is not as important as her representation of the dual nature of women in the play
      • Hamlet's feelings of betrayal by Gertrude are much more apparent because of Ophelia's presence.
      • Hamlet's feelings of rage against his mother can be directed toward Ophelia
    • Through Ophelia we witness Hamlet's evolution, or de-evolution into a man convinced that:
      • All women are whores
        • Gertrude has been made a whore by Claudius, and Ophelia has been made a whore by her father
          • Act 2: Polonius uses Ophelia to discover why Hamlet is behaving in a certain way.
            • Hamlet sees this to be Polonius prostituting his daughter, calls him a "fishmonger"
              • AO5: Kay Stanton in "Hamlet's Whores":
                • "What makes a woman a whore in the Hamlet's estimation is her sexual use by not one man but by more than one man..."
                  • "...What seems to enrage [Hamlet] in the nunnery interlude is that Ophelia has put her sense of love and duty for another man above her sense of love and duty for him..."
                    • "...Gertrude chose a brother over a dead Hamlet; Ophelia chooses a father over a living Hamlet: both choices can be read as additionally sexually perverse in being, to Hamlet, 'incestuous'"
      • The women who seem most pure are inside black with corruption and sexual desire
    • To outside observers, she is the epitome of goodness.
      • Childlike and naive like G, but she has good reason to be unaware of harsh realities of life:
        • Young
        • Sheltered by Polonius and Laertes who love her a great deal
          • Returns this love, couples it with complete and unwavering loyalty
            • AO5: Bradley: "Her whole character is that of simple unselfish affection"
        • Not involved with matters of state
    • Incapable of defending herself, but through timid responses her intense suffering is clearly shown
      • O: Indeed, my, lord, you made me believe so.
        • O: I was the more deceived.
    • Her frailty and innocence work against her
      • Even in insanity she symbolises in-corruption and virtue (except to Hamlet)
        • AO5: Bradley: "We hear from time to time an undertone of the deepest sorrow, but never the agonised cry of fear or horror which makes madness dreadful or shocking. And the picture of her death, if our eyes grow dim in watching it, is still purely beautiful."
      • The songs she sings are sombre reminders that the corrupt world has taken its toll on the pure Ophelia.

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