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Foil Characters in Hamlet

Instructor: Clayton Tarr

Clayton has taught college English and has a PhD in literature.

In this lesson, we will discuss foils in ''Hamlet'' by defining what role foils play in stories and then examining examples of them in William Shakespeare's play.

What is a Foil?

A foil is present in literature to contrast the protagonist, or the hero of the story. Foils do not necessarily have to be antagonists, or villains; rather, they are often secondary characters who bring out something hidden in the protagonist. In other words, foils help readers understand something new about the main character in a story because they possess opposing qualities. Whereas the hero might be charitable, the foil might be greedy, which serves to highlight the hero's qualities. Often, however, foils can unearth negative traits in principal characters, showing that the hero is not necessarily heroic, or at least that he has faults. At the very least, foils function as roadblocks on the protagonist's journey. They make the path to truth or justice harder on the protagonist.

Foils in Hamlet

In some sense, William Shakespeare's Hamlet is a detective story. The protagonist, Prince Hamlet of Denmark, must find out who killed his father and bring the culprit to justice. In the background of the play, there has been a long feud between Denmark and Norway, so the latter could be the murderers. Fortinbras, the new king of Norway, is especially suspicious. However, the ghost of Hamlet's father appears and tells his son that he has been murdered by Claudius, Hamlet's uncle. Claudius had hastily married Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, following the death, and had thereby ascended the throne.

Armed with the truth, Hamlet seeks his revenge. Yet his path for vengeance is waylaid, time after time, by foils. These characters not only create conflict in Hamlet's journey but also serve to highlight Hamlet's weaknesses, the negative personality traits that lead to his demise.

Fortinbras

Although Fortinbras is barely in the play, he is referred to throughout. He is the new king of Norway after his father was killed by Hamlet's father. The kingdom of Denmark is under constant threat from Norwegian forces. When Fortinbras finally shows up in the play, nearly every character (including Hamlet) is dead. With no heir to the throne, Fortinbras becomes king of both Norway and Denmark. Fortinbras is thus a foil because the constant threat of his attack gives Hamlet great anxiety.

Claudius

Claudius is Hamlet's uncle and serves as an immediate foil to the prince. Hamlet wants to be king following his father's death, but Claudius marries Hamlet's mother and assumes the throne. Once Hamlet learns that Claudius killed his father, he begins his journey of revenge. Claudius's presence in the play allows us to learn of Hamlet's rage and his elaborate, though sometimes hasty, schemes for revenge.

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