Rithwik Ediga LakhamsaniMr. CarrollAP English Literature – 5th period22 December 2017First is the Worst, Second(ary character) is the Best There are tens of thousands of books, TV shows, and movies out there with each medium showcasing vivid tales about kings, heroes, legends, and monsters. With so many great stories out there, what truly distinguishes the good and the mediocre? What factor separates the tales that will be read for ages to come and the books that disappear within days of creation? Obviously, there are many factors at play, but one of the biggest is arguably the emphasis on secondary characters. Great story-makers use these secondary characters to to drive their plot and add a significant amount of depth to their stories. In fact, a big reason for why Spongebob is so popular is because of how much characters like Plankton and Sandy Cheeks the squirrel add to the plot. Harry Potter wouldn’t have been the same without Ron Weasley or Hermione Granger and what would Breaking Bad be like without Jesse Pinkman? William Shakespeare is one of these writers who is able to use his secondary characters effectively. In his piece, Hamlet, he uses people like Fortinbras, Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern to develop the plot, distinguish Hamlet’s personality and his evolution from a wordsmith to a fighter, and also show the theme of loyalty and its sparsity in Denmark. Although briefly mentioned, Fortinbras is an integral secondary character that Shakespeare uses to further the plot and Hamlet’s development.
At first glance, we see that Fortinbras shares a multitude of similarities with Hamlet. They both have a desire to avenge their dead father (whose name they also share); they both have an uncle who took the throne; and they both are trying to get back what they believe is rightfully theirs. In these ways, Fortinbras could be considered a parallel of Hamlet, and this parallelism accentuates the differences between these two princes. Hamlet is a man of words.
He makes witty statements often, such as the notorious “a little more than kin, and less than kind” to his uncle-father, and his mastery of words is strong enough to remove the figurative veil his mother, Gertrude, used to hide her incenstuous faults (Shakespeare 1.2.67). The only time Hamlet actually puts aside his words and takes up arms is in the last scene of the play. On the other hand, Fortinbras appears to us as a man of action from the get-go.
In the first scene, we see that he had “sharked up a list of lawless resolutes” to get back the land that his father had lost, and in the end, he succeeds in his battle against Poland (1.1.110). Even his name could be considered a testament for his title as a “man of action” as “Fortinbras” loosely translates to “strong-arms” in English.
Further differences are present in how these two characters act. Hamlet could be considered a man who is both impulsive and overly-logical. He spends a considerable amount of time carefully thinking on how he is going to exact his revenge while also acting on impulses when he stabs the arras and kills Polonius. Fortinbras, on the other hand, seems to have full control over his actions.
When he was was caught in “a preparation ‘gainst” Denmark, he didn’t let his emotions take control of him and defy his uncle to attack Denmark with his unready army (2.2.67). He chose to play the waiting-game and it is arguable that he chose to attack Poland just to get a passageway through Denmark and attack it from the inside when their guard is lowered. Furthermore, in Act 5, when Fortinbras appears in the castle and witnesses the dead royalty, he doesn’t consider himself a superior to the dead aristocrats when he becomes king of Denmark. He respects the fallen royals and even gives Hamlet, his rival, a proper soldier’s funeral.
He doesn’t let hubris or ambition control him enough to corrupt his mind, and he acts logically in this last scene to make sure that he is known as the man who respects the fallen rather than a man who parties at his victories. In fact, Fortinbras doesn’t seem to have any faults in this play and with traits that we likely won’t find in an average human, he is arguably an idealistic character. On the other hand, we can see ourselves in Hamlet because there are times that we let emotion cloud our judgements and become impulsive. Shakespeare might have used the foil-like relationship between Hamlet and Fortinbras to enhance the theme of impulse and make us relate more with the Hamlet and his faults, become more engaged in the play, and consequently drive up sales. Furthermore, while taking the role of the external conflict, Fortinbras is also a driving force in Hamlet’s development and eventual defeat of Claudius. The entire play is plagued with Hamlet’s soliloquies in which he oftentimes reprimands himself for not being able to follow through on his plans to kill Claudius. These well-crafted soliloquies showcase that Hamlet is a man of words, but it surprises the audience when Hamlet doesn’t enter into a soliloquy in the final act even though there is one in all the other acts. In Act 5, Hamlet instead chooses to follow through with his thoughts and actually become a man of action.
This means that something in his recent past changed his outlook, and this event could be traced back to when he comes across Fortinbras’s army. He notes that if Fortinbras and his “army of such mass and charge” are able to fight “even for an eggshell,” he must take his revenge and remove all doubts that he previously had (4.4.50-56). This idea can be summarized when Hamlet states “my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (4.
4.69). Since there is no soliloquy after, this one is where Hamlet’s mind actually changes, and we may even be seeing the consequences of this when Hamlet reaches self-actualization and asserts that he is “Hamlet the Dane” in the following Act (5.1.271).
In this case, since it is Fortinbras’s army that likely changes Hamlet’s mind, it is Fortinbras who had a tremendous impact on furthering the plot and making Hamlet follow through with his plans and eventually develop into a man of action. Laertes is another person that showcases Hamlet’s character and his developments. Like Fortinbras, Laertes shares many similarities with Hamlet: they both love Ophelia, they both respect their fathers, they both are excellent swordsmen, and they both are university-educated scholars. Nevertheless, Laertes, like Fortinbras, is a man of action while Hamlet is a man of words, but he is a different kind of “man of action.” If we consider Hamlet impulsive, Laertes is even more reliant on emotions. He even goes as far as to create an army for himself to confront Claudius because he suspected the wicked king of killing his father.
When he finds out that it was actually Hamlet’s fault, he asserts that he would “cut Hamlet’s throat i’ th’ church” (4.7.144). He is so angry that he would be okay with suffering God’s rage just to satisfy his thirst for revenge.
Laertes is man of immediate action. He doesn’t want to wait or to procrastinate. If his mind is set on a goal, he will go as far as he can to execute it. Hamlet, on the other hand, is a master of procrastination as he made excuse after excuse for not being able to avenge his father’s murder.
In fact, his procrastination methodology is rather similar to the method of most average humans. We first assert that we will stop at nothing to finish the required job, and Hamlet does the same when he exclaims “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within… my brain” (1.5.110). Later on, some of us reprimand ourselves until we achieve our goal because we didn’t do what we desired and Hamlet follows this guideline as he scolds himself by saying “what an ass am I… 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” (2.2.614).
Although procrastinating the revenge for a dead father is a much more pressing matter than writing an essay right before the deadline or studying for a test the day before, this mutual habit allows the audience to develop a connection with Hamlet. While Hamlet’s procrastination is visible even without Laertes, when Shakespeare places this foil into the mix, Hamlet’s procrastination is much more defined and distinguishable. In fact, it is arguable that while Fortinbras is on the reason end of the spectrum, Laertes is on the extreme emotion side. Like us, Hamlet is in the middle of the spectrum as he is not fully controlled by the id like Laertes or by the superego like Fortinbras. This allows Shakespeare to develop a character that his audience members are likely to connect with, therefore driving up his sales. In addition, while Laertes acts as a form of conflict and plays a role in establishing Hamlet as a person with the faults of an everyday man, he is vital in addressing the concerns of the plot and furthering Hamlet’s development. It was Laertes who claims that “The king, the king’s to blame” for the murder of Gertrude and the attempted murder of Hamlet (5.
2.351). Without this statement, we may have a Hamlet who continually postpones the murder of Claudius. Laertes’s words allow Hamlet to cast aside all doubts, cross the border of inaction into action, conclude the play with Claudius’s murder, and evolve from a wordsmith into a man of action. While Hamlet’s foils play vital roles in this play, Hamlet’s dear friend, Horatio, is arguably one of the most important characters in this piece. In the beginning, it may seem as if he is useless as he doesn’t change the outcome of the story.
Sure, he was on the lookout to see the evils of Claudius during the play within the play and he might be the person to tell Hamlet about his the ghost of his dead father, but he mainly seems to be a confidante for Hamlet. In a play with soliloquy after soliloquy, it is believable that the 1600’s audience would be upset with a play in which the main character just talks to himself over and over again. With the addition of a confidant, Shakespeare would be able to create more dynamic conversations and an exchange of ideas and opinions between Horatio and Hamlet, which would remove the lengthiness of some of Hamlet’s soliloquies and still address the concerns of the play.
Furthermore, Horatio serves as another character that Hamlet strives to become. In Act 2, Hamlet says “thou art e’en as just a man, as e’er my conversation coped withal” to Horatio, and then goes back to assert that “nay, do not think I flatter. For what advancement may I hope from thee that no revenue hast but thy good spirits, to feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered?” (3.2.56-62). Hamlet goes onto say that he loves Horatio because he is a man whose “blood (emotion) and judgement are so well commingled” that they are unlikely to be swayed by Fortune (3.
2.73). In fact, Hamlet seems to desire this equality of emotion and rationality for himself, and that is why he may be flattering Horatio, not to improve his tangible, social standing, but to mentally improve himself. While Hamlet is a mixture of reason and emotion as he holds the rationality of Fortinbras and the emotion of Laertes, those attributes are present at the wrong times. He acted irrationally when stabbing the arras to kill Polonius when he should’ve been acting with reason and he was acting too rationally when he was contemplating how to kill Claudius.
These emotions control Hamlet, while Horatio controls his own emotions. In this way, Horatio could be considered another character that Hamlet aspires to be. In fact, Hamlet actually develops into this kind of a person in the end when he becomes emotional enough to kill Claudius but rational enough to see that Fortinbras is a good successor to the throne.
Most importantly though, Horatio is a vital addition to this play because he is a symbol of loyalty. The theme of loyalty is a huge constituent of Hamlet, as nearly all the characters in this play could be deemed unloyal. With Claudius killing his own dear brother, Gertrude incestuously marrying her husband’s sibling, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern turning against Hamlet for Claudius, there is next to zero trust in this play. The only person that breaks this plague of undependability is Horatio.
He constantly listens to Hamlet and follows his friend’s plans to the word. He would even kill himself as he says he is “more an Antique Roman than a Dane” as he wants to follow Hamlet into the afterlife rather than lose him (5.2.374). Nevertheless Hamlet stops Horatio because this friend is the only person left he can trust enough to set the story straight about the royal family of Denmark. Not only is Horatio the symbol of loyalty, he is also Hamlet’s savior. Fortinbras may be the deus ex machina for the country, leading Denmark into a new era as a man untainted with the blood of Hamlet’s lineage, but the man who makes sure Hamlet’s name is untainted is Horatio.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the main outlet for comedic relief in a play chock-filled with incest and fratricide. Furthermore, they act as symbols of disloyalty for Shakespeare to toy around with and they are also the characters who allow us to better understand how perceptive Hamlet is. In Act 2, scene 2, Hamlet was literally able to decipher the reason for why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are in Elsinore and goes on to give a speech about how the king and queen sent them to because Hamlet has “lost all mirth and forgone all custom of exercises” and that it is their duty to find out what is wrong with Hamlet (2.
2.319). This encounter emphasizes their cluelessness, and later on, they are further considered fools who do not know that they are sponges that “soak up the king’s countenance, his rewards, his authorities” (4.2.15). Although the audience likely understands what Hamlet means, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s foolishness allows the audience to escape the monotony and laugh.
By adding these periodic comic relief moments, Shakespeare is able to create a distinction between the more serious events of the play. Furthermore, they continue the trend of spying in this play, with Claudius and Polonius spying on Hamlet’s interactions with Ophelia, Polonius spying on Hamlet during the bedroom scene, Hamlet spying on Claudius during the play, and Hamlet spying on Ophelia’s procession. When they spy on Hamlet, they add onto the theme of disloyalty to this play and establish themselves on the wrong side of (Horatio’s) history. In the end, these characters seem to be here to showcase Hamlet’s intelligence, the disloyalty that plagues Denmark, and act as figures of comedic relief so that Shakespeare could strategically use them to make sure that the more important parts of the piece are emphasized. Secondary characters play a tremendously large role in any medium of entertainment and with his well-developed cast of secondary characters, Shakespeare is able to showcase the foil-like-relationships in the play with the Hamlet-Laertes and Hamlet-Fortinbras rivalries to not only develop Hamlet as a character but also to make Hamlet as human as possible. Through the use of Horatio, Shakespeare is able to showcase the rarity of true loyalty and through the use of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he is able to create comic relief to make the play less monotonous and put emphasis on certain concerns of the plot.
In the end, all of these characters come together to not only make Hamlet one of the greatest humans in literature, but also to make Hamlet one of the greatest pieces in existence.