I have spent a lot of time focusing on the main character of the story: Hamlet himself. Although there is a lot more I could say about Hamlet, another interesting and insightful view of the play can also come through other side-characters. People like King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Laertes and Horatio can all give a different perspective on how we view the prince and the rest of the story. I want to touch briefly on how their thoughts and inner workings add dramatically to the depth and richness of the play.
King Claudius: We know that Claudius is the bad guy of the story. He murdered his brother to become King and married his wife Gertrude. An interesting characteristic of the king is his working Conscience. If left along long enough, he would most certainly succumb to his feelings and repent. In fact he almost does at one point in the play:
“O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; it hath the primal eldest curse upon it, – A brother’s murder!…………Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow?”
He continues a long prayer of repentance, but when he comes to the end and seems to change his mind:
“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”
The one thing that keeps Claudius from repenting is his determination to see things through to the end. Throughout the play he seems repeatedly sorry for what he did; “How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!………………O heavy burden!” However, he decides he would rather live with what he did and continue on.
Queen Gertrude: Gertrude too, it seems, has an active conscience. She married her husband’s brother not long after he died and seemed perfectly content with that decision; until Hamlet confronts her. Gertrude really does love Hamlet and so I think hearing words of rebuke from her only son really had a profound affect on her:
“O Hamlet, speak no more: thou turnest mine eyes into my very soul; and there I see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct………………..These words, like daggers, enter mine ears; No more sweet Hamlet!”
The difference between her and Claudius is her reaction; I would like to think that she changed. Not dramatically, but if you look closely at her last lines of the play; you can see a little bit of rebellion in them. She does what she can to be a little obstinate and undermine Claudius’ authority. Claudius tells Gertrude not to drink out of the cup, yet she does; “I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me.” Ultimately though, this decision leads to her death.
Laertes: Laertes is the son of Polonius, who was accidentally killed by Hamlet. He desires revenge from Hamlet and is very direct about it. At first, Laertes thought Claudius was to blame; so he came home from abroad in a passion; bursting into the room and holding the king by sword point. An interesting comparison to Hamlet and Laertes is that Laertes is passionate enough to go and act immediately; but Hamlet takes awhile (roughly IV Acts) to get his revenge.
So, Laertes is passionate, but also virtuous. He says he wants to kill Hamlet and avenge his father, but can he? Everyone knows that Laertes is a better swordsman than Hamlet, yet during the duel he loses ground. Why? I believe that he lacks the gumption to actually kill another person; it goes against his character. At one point he works up the will to strike at Hamlet and wounds him with the poisoned sword. However here is what he says: “My lord I will hit him now………..Ant yet tis almost against my conscience.” In the scuffle that follows, Laertes is wounded by the poisoned sword as well and in his last words makes peace with Hamlet:
“Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet: Mine nor my father’s death come not on thee. Nor thine on me!”
Laertes is very passionate; but perhaps the most honest with himself. He knows what is right and wrong is honestly assesses his own works and those of others and makes peace.
Horatio: Horatio is perhaps the wisest person in the play. He is full of good advice and is a good match for Hamlet’s rashness. The only problem is, Hamlet never lets him speak! Hamlet is constantly asking for Horatio’s opinion and advice, but never gives him a chance to answer. Horatio is perhaps a pitiable character; he is caught in the middle of all this action and watches everyone around him die. He is the lone survivor of the play and is left to tell Hamlet’s story to the rest of the world. An ironic twist I think; he now has no one to stop him from speaking his opinion and he is perhaps the best person who could accurately portray the prince and the other characters of the story. His ending lines are absolutely fantastic:
“And let me speak to the yet unknowing world how these things came about: so shall you hear of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts; of accidental judgements, casual slaughters; of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause; And, in this upshot, purposes mistook fallen on inventors’ heads: all this I can truly deliver.”