Key Characters

Quick revise

Hamlet

  • He is introspective, thinking a lot about his actions.
  • He seeks the truth so that he can be certain that what he does is the right thing, especially when carrying out the revenge wished for by the ghost of his death father.
  • He is indecisive and fails to decide what to do throughout, until the tragic ending.
  • It seems he has a duty to perform, but does not know how to go about it.  He is angry with himself for not being able to kill Claudius.
  • He wants to do the right thing and does have ambition to be the next king.
  • He wants to see Claudius damned and so does not kill him when he has the chance, as he has just been praying to god.
  • He has strong religious beliefs.
  • He would rather kill Claudius when he is doing something sinful, like sleeping with his mother in ‘incestuous sheets’.
  • Many of the characters have opinions of Hamlet and he seems to try and be the character they think he is, which is part of the play’s theme of ‘seeming’ to be something that you are not.
  • Who the real Hamlet is, is something that has been debated since the play was written. There is no definitive answer.
  • Ophelia is in love with Hamlet, but he shows little sign of affection for her.
  • Hamlet is described as mad by many characters, but is the madness real or just pretend? It seems from Hamlet’s many soliloquies that he is of basically sound mind, but is confused. He pretends to be mad to help enhance his plans.
  • Here Kenneth Branagh performs the definitve Hamlet speech from Act 3: 'To be or not to be'

Gertrude

  • Her relationship with Hamlet (her son) is unusual.
  • She loves him, but he hates her because she has quickly married Claudius. Hamlet feels she should have more respect for her dead husband and should have mourned for him longer.
  • She married Claudius because she loved him and didn’t want to be alone.
  • The role of women at this time was to be subservient and it would have been a lonely place for her if she wasn’t Queen.
  • It is speculated as to whether she was involved in the murder of her previous husband, although nothing is proved, Hamlet feels it could be the case.
  • It is Gertrude’s behaviour that destroys Hamlet’s faith in the fidelity of women, which he later takes out on Ophelia.
  • She accidentally drinks the poisoned wine in Act 5, ironically killed by her new husband’s treachery.
  • There are views that there is a strange, incestuous relationship between Hamlet and his mother. There is a closeness about some of their meetings which may suggest this.

King Claudius

  • On the surface he seems to be a good King capable of dealing with the politic issues of war.
  • He has clearly killed King Hamlet to get the throne for himself and gradually his guilt becomes more obvious to the audience.
  • He covers up his true actions.
  • He must love Gertrude to have married her.
  • He genuinely seems to want Hamlet to get over the death of his father and has his best interests at heart.
  • He spies on Hamlet and plans to murder him to cover up his own evil actions.
  • He confesses his sins in the chapel so we are sure of his guilt.
  • He seems to have a conscience and seems sorry for what he has done, but this does not stop him from trying to kill Hamlet and keeping the throne.
  • Claudius’s plot to kill Hamlet fails and he dies at the hands of his own poison.

Polonius

  • He is seen as foolish by Hamlet and seems to be a rambling old man, but he can be seen as evil and cunning.
  • He is loyal to Claudius, acting out his spying plans for him, but is this largely so that he can keep his revered position?
  • Father of Ophelia and Laertes.
  • He spends a lot of the play talking at length on a number of issues.
  • He can be made fun of and is seen as a comic figure by Hamlet.
  • Killed whilst spying on Hamlet, he meets a suitable end for his treachery, although Hamlet thinks he is killing Claudius.
  • He even asks Reynaldo to spy on his own son and to tempt him, showing his lack of trust; ironic for someone who is working for a traitor.
  • Reputation is important to him and he thinks Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia could damage it.
  • Polonius’ death causes Ophelia to go mad and makes Claudius worried he may die next.

The Ghost

  • The play opens in the middle of night.
  • The appearance of the ghost was relevant contextually to the audience then as it would be something that the vast majority believed in and would take seriously.
  • To a modern audience this may be less convincing.
  • The play’s action comes as a result of what the ghost tells Hamlet and it has been argued that without the visit from the ghost Hamlet would not have behaved the way he does, looking for a good moment to gain his revenge, for his father, on Claudius.
  • The fact that others see the ghost means that it is not merely a figment of Hamlet’s imagination, although at this point it is only Horatio and the others who see it, not Hamlet himself.
  • When Hamlet sees the ghost later on, he is alone and this could throw into doubt all of what Hamlet claims he sees and hears although we, as an audience, also hear what the ghost tells him.

Horatio

  • Hamlet’s friend.
  • He acts as a sounding board for Hamlet.
  • By actually seeing the ghost he proves it is not a figment of Hamlet’s imagination.
  • He is loyal, supportive and rational.

Laertes

  • Son of Polonius.
  • He kills Hamlet in the final scene.
  • He is a loyal son and an honourable man.
  • He returns from France to avenge his father’s death and Claudius points the finger at Hamlet.
  • Laertes is much more rash than Hamlet and acts quickly without thinking about the consequences of his actions.
  • He shows what can happen when you act too quickly.

Ophelia

  • Young and in love with Hamlet.
  • She holds hope that Hamlet will show her some affection, but he never really does.
  • She is loyal to her father.
  • An innocent character, her madness is genuine, unlike Hamlet’s pretence.