A discussion of the main characters in Hamlet must begin with the title character, the play’s protagonist.
Summary: Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is called home on account of his father’s death. Hamlet is suicidal, cynical, introspective, intelligent, and crafty. He struggles to make decisions, yet acts rashly. Despite overwhelming evidence that his father has been murdered by his uncle, the new king, Hamlet hesitates to carry out his revenge, seeking further confirmation of the new king’s guilt. Spurred on by his mother’s death and his own impending death, Hamlet finally kills Claudius.
Hamlet Character Analysis: When a normal person becomes mentally unstable, he harms himself and perhaps those closest to him. When a prince becomes emotionally unstable, he harms an entire kingdom. Hamlet’s reckless behavior causes the death of Polonius in Act III, the suicide of Ophelia in Act IV, and with an assist from Claudius’ murder of Hamlet’s father, the destruction of the royal family in Act V. The turmoil in Denmark is an outward manifestation of Hamlet’s inner conflict and inability to act to restore the sanctity of the throne.
Other Main Characters
These brief discriptions of main characters in Hamlet along with some Hamlet character analysis will help you impress your friends and neighbors with your knowledge of literature.
Claudius: Hamlet’s uncle and murderer of Hamlet’s father–Claudius is a cunning politician whose lust for power and the queen set the play’s tragic acts in motion. We see Claudius’ human side in the love he bears for his wife and his acknowledgment of wrong-doing as he attempts to pray, but his unwillingness to give up those things he gains from his treachery speaks to his rotten character. Hamlet frequently contrasts Claudius, the smooth-talking, corrupt politician to the fierce, honorable, warrior king he unlawfully replaces.
Gertrude: Hamlet’s mother–it is unclear what role Gertrude has in the death of her first husband and whether or not she and Claudius had aldulterous relations before King Hamlet’s death. It is clear, however, that the queen places great importance on social and political status and uses the men in her life to secure it.
Polonius: The father of Laertes and Ophelia–Polonius speaks some of the plays most famous and profound lines. Ironically, he’s a blowhard buffoon who fails to follow his own advice. Hamlet recognizes him for the hypocrite he is and scolds him in his madness. Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius with his sword as Polonius hides behind a curtain in the Queen’s room spying despite Polonius’ warning to his son to stay out of others’ quarrels.
Ophelia: Ophelia is Hamlet’s love interest, whom she spurns on the advice of her father. She becomes her father’s pawn in his efforts to spy on Hamlet and demonstrates no will of her own, allowing herself to be manipulated by her father and brother and both loved and scorned by Hamlet. Like Hamlet, Ophelia goes mad after her father’s death and drowns herself.
More Hamlet Characters
Horatio - Hamlet’s close friend who remains loyal throughout and lives to tell Hamlet’s story.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - Formerly Hamlet’s friends, these two are sent by the king to monitor Hamlet. Hamlet discovers their plot to have him killed upon his arrival in England and has them executed.
Laertes - Polonius’ son spends most of the play in France, returning to avenge his father’s death. His quick actions serve as a foil to Hamlet’s introspection.
Fortinbras - The son of the dead king of Norway attacks Denmark to avenge his father’s death. His troops arrive at Elsinore as the royal family lies dead.
Marcellus and Bernardo - The two guards who first see King Hamlet’s ghost.
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This post is part of the series: Hamlet Study Guide
Review Shakespeare’s greatest play with the Hamlet Study Guide.