Hamlet is the unquestioned center of the play. If he is not onstage he is almost always the subject of
discussion in virtually every scene. Nevertheless, Shakespeare has taken pains to give the other
characters as strong and independent an existence as possible. They are not mere foils for Hamlet, but
distinct individuals who coexist and conflict with him, though their stories are told in a more fragmentary
Hamlet's mother, the queen of Denmark, is a touching and mysterious figure.
You never learn explicitly how much Gertrude knows about her husband King
Hamlet's death, or how deeply she is attached to her new husband, Claudius.
She never expresses her feelings, either, about the morality of marrying
her brother-in-law, though this was considered incestuous at the time. But
she expresses her concern for her son and her affection for Ophelia, plus
(in the Closet Scene) a vague sense of guilt that only adds to the mystery
about her. The ambiguity of Gertrude's position reaches its height in the
final scene, when she drinks from the poisoned cup. Whether she knows it's
poisoned is something you will have to decide for yourself.
The king of Denmark, Hamlet's uncle and later his stepfather, is shaped
from a stock type familiar to Elizabethan theatergoers- the neglected younger
brother who seeks to take over his older brother's title by unscrupulous
means. Claudius, however, is a complex figure about whom Shakespeare gives
you a good deal of information. You learn how the public attitude toward
him has changed in Denmark (and changes again after Polonius' death); you
learn about his drinking habits and his personal appearance as compared
with his late brother's. Above all, you see him in action politically- manipulating,
placating, and making pronouncements- and you see how his tactics in dealing
with Norway or Poland link up to the conduct of his personal affairs. There
is no question about his political ability, which is tied in with his talent
for manipulating people and converting them to his point of view, as he
does with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Some interpretations of the play
suggest that we are meant to see him as more suited to the role of king
than Hamlet is. His constant hypocritical smiling makes him easy to dislike,
yet his genuine remorse in the Prayer Scene makes him more sympathetic,
and hence more difficult for Hamlet to kill. Note that nowhere in the play
does he directly express his feelings for Gertrude.
- THE GHOST
Barnardo's remarks in the first scene make clear that the ghost is identical
in appearance to the late King Hamlet. Hamlet's worry over whether it is
"an honest ghost" is unusual for the time, an aspect of his intellectually
probing nature. Ghosts were common figures in Elizabethan plays- an inventory
of costumes for one theater included a cloak "for to go invisible."
Belief in ghosts and omens was prevalent in England, and in the theater
it was assumed that they could be trusted. Another long-standing but unverifiable
tradition, incidentally, says the role of the ghost was played by Shakespeare
himself, and was his greatest performance.
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