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Madison Kirby
Mr. Burnett
AP English
16 January 2015
Open-Ended Essay
"This above all: to thine own self be true." This insightful and meaningful
quote from Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, brings to light one of the
many life lessons within the play. The quote emphasizes individuality, which
Shakespeare also displays through his usage of foils. In Hamlet, the protagonist,
Hamlet, passes through a series of misfortunes that then result in a final
catastrophe. What is important, however, is not singularly what these events are,
but how Hamlet chooses to go about dealing with them. His choices are
compared and contrasted with the decisions made by other characters, such as
Laertes, Fortinbras, and ClaudiusHamlets foils. Each character helps to define
who Hamlet is. Claudius shows how Hamlet has certain values and morals that
guide his decisions. Fortinbras accentuates Hamlets desires to seek revenge for
his fathers murder and rightfully regain the throne. Laertes emphasizes Hamlets
natural response to not initiate nor instigate, but instead to react to an event.
To begin, one foil for Hamlet is his step father/uncle, the newly appointed
King Claudius. Not only did Claudius steal Hamlets rightful place on the throne,
but he also seeks to protect his new position by initially attempting to send
Hamlet away, then escalating to plotting Hamlets death. Claudius and Hamlet
differ in many ways, but most significant of these differences are the type of ruler

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they would be, the morals each has that guide their decisions, and the reasoning
behind their choices. At one point in Hamlet, Claudius is faced with Hamlet
becoming a threat to his throne. In order to resolve this issue, he chooses the
route that would least effect his political position. Claudius is aware that if he
were to be viewed as responsible for the death of one of Denmarks favorite
royals, the citizens would begin to demise Claudius and potentially revolt. To
prevent this, Claudius sends Hamlet to England so he can be put to death there
and the people of Denmark would be under the influence that it was Englands
fault and not Claudius. This decision leads to the assumption that Claudius is a
very political and strategic person, which give him adequate qualities of a
sufficient ruler. However, Hamlet opposes this and can be viewed as a potentially
poor ruler since he struggles with making difficult decisions. In one scene,
Hamlet is given a perfect opportunity to end Claudius life now [that he] is apraying and finally [be] revenged. Nevertheless, Hamlet backs away from the
situation and begins to create excuses as to why it is no longer a good idea. He
says, [Claudius has] kill[ed] my father, and, for that, I, his sole son, do this same
villain send to heaven. Hamlet has to choose between taking Claudius life while
he is kneeling only feet away, or allowing him to live. He refuses and formulates
the excuse that it would be a pointless murder. This comparison reveals that
Hamlet would be a poor ruler because he is unable to make important decisions,
whereas Claudius is strategic and decisive. In order to become a sufficient
leader, Hamlet would need to gain these same qualities that Claudius has and be
able to support the more important decision. To demonstrate further, the two

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differ in their morals as well. Claudius has no issue trying to set up Hamlets
death, but Hamlet is unable to take Claudius life. The scene of Claudius praying
not only displays Hamlets indecisiveness, but Hamlet changes his mind because
of the morals that affect his decisions. Hamlet believes in heaven, so he believes
that murdering Claudius while he is asking for forgiveness would set the sin
solely on Hamlet and Claudius would not pay the price for King Hamlets death,
since a murder is still a murder no matter how much reason one has. Claudius,
on the other hand, lacks morals. Every decision he makes is just for his own
good, with no regulations relative to his beliefs. This can be seen in the final
scene of the play where Claudius plans on murdering Hamlet by poisoning his
drink, but the plan backfires and Queen Gertrude drinks the poison instead.
Claudius is unaffected by this, since he does not care very much about who dies,
as long as he is still the King of Denmark. His lack of morals emphasizes how
Hamlet is unable to make sinful decisions because of his morals. This foil is
displayed numerable times throughout the play, since Hamlet and Claudius are
often faced with moral-testing decisions. Along with this, the reasoning behind
their choices contrasts and illuminates qualities of each character. Claudius
reason for sending Hamlet to England to have him killed and for attempting to
poison him are so that he can secure his throne. Hamlet, though, tries to kill
Claudius to seek revenge. These two contrasting reasons help to explain the
different types of people each character portrays. Claudius is selfish and thinks of
only his own future, but Hamlet is doing everything for his father. The foil
between Claudius and Hamlet helps to shed light upon Hamlets morals, his

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inability to be a successful leader, as well as the reasoning behind the plot of the
play. Other foils also elaborate upon Hamlets decision-making skills and
reasoning, as well as other qualities.
Furthermore, another foil of Hamlet is shown through the use of
Fortinbras. Although Fortinbras is not often included in the play, his story is
paralleled with the main plot line. Shakespeare makes use of Fortinbras in order
to accentuate Hamlets loss of the throne, revenging his father, and decisionmaking skills. In the beginning of Hamlet the conversation between a few
characters alludes to a duel between King Hamlet and King FortinbrasHamlet
and Fortinbras fathers. At one point in time, the kings battled over land, but
during the match King Hamlet had slain King Fortinbras, thus becoming the ruler
of the land. Prince Fortinbras uses this episode to fuel his desire for revenge and
is determined to regain the land through war. Fortinbras begins by gathering an
army and heading to Denmark. His approach to revenging his father is by
regaining the land lost in the duel. Similarly, Hamlet is also faced with the
revenge of his fathers death. The inclusion of Fortinbras helps to illuminate the
significance of revenging a death. In current times, if your father were to be
murdered, it is unlikely that you will try to find the person responsible and kill
them. However, during this time period it was an important responsibility to be
handled, which is demonstrated with the foil between Hamlet and Fortinbras. To
revenge ones father would be to reestablish the family name. The comparison
between Hamlet and Fortinbras establishes this idea. Another similarity between
the two characters is that after the deaths of the kings, neither son was awarded

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their rightful throne. This is important because Fortinbras actively seeks regaining
his throne whereas Hamlet does not seem to think of it as an important aspect in
comparison to other recent events. What this foil is able to elaborate upon is
significance of different losses. Fortinbras is set on regaining the land and the
throne, but Hamlets focus is upon only his fathers death. Hamlet is able to
ignore some issues and chooses to only deal with one, but Fortinbras instead is
able to deal with multiple. Furthermore, Fortinbras is able to demonstrate
Hamlets weak choices. In Act IV, Hamlet admires Fortinbras strong decisions
and says that from now on [his] thought be bloody, or be nothing worth!
Fortinbras is a tough individual who makes harsh, yet intelligent, decisions.
Hamlet contrasts this due to the fact that the decisions he has been able to follow
through with have been meaningless, and he has been unable to make important
decisions. This is yet another important comparison between Fortinbras and
Hamlet because it displays how, despite the fact that the two characters are very
similar, they still differ greatly in their decisions and determination. Hamlet does
not seek revenge or the throne with nearly as much gusto and determination as
Fortinbras. The inclusion of this foil is able to elaborate upon the significance of
regaining your familys reputation and Hamlets poor decision-making skills.
Additionally, this is not the only foil that shows Hamlets lack of desire to revenge
his father.
Finally, clearly the most obvious foil in Hamlet is that between Laertes and
Hamlet, who even states, Ill be your foil, Laertes. In this Shakespearean story,
the tragic life of Hamlet revolves around not solely the processes used to seek

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revenge for his father, nor the regulations his mind and heart have on this
revenge, but also Hamlets reaction to events versus initiating them. Laertes life
has similarities to Hamlets, the most important being that they both have
suffered the loss of their father from a murder. In the play, Laertes father was
murdered by Hamlet. Immediately after learning of the devastating episode,
Laertes marches with a large group back to Denmark to fight the murderer, whom
he thinks is Claudius. This opposes Hamlets response in nearly every aspect.
When King Hamlet was murdered, Hamlet finished out his classes in Wittenberg,
and then returned to Denmark. Although Hamlet was not aware of the death
being a murder, when he did find out, Hamlet tested the theory and tried to figure
out who truly was at fault for the death of his father. This contrast in the
characters reactions to the information of their fathers murders exhibits the
ways in which Laertes foils Hamlet and displays Hamlets quality of reacting
rather than initiating the action. Rather than seeking out the assumed murderer
right away, Hamlet takes a step back. Additionally, despite Laertes false
accusations, he pursues Claudius instead of mimicking Hamlet and pondering
the news for a little while. Further on in the story, another scene supports this
idea. Eventually, Laertes discovers Hamlet murdered Polonius. From this
moment, Laertes and Claudius plot an immediate revenge in order to finally kill
Hamlet. Contrasting this, after facing the news of King Hamlets death and
learning that Claudius may be the murderer, Hamlet does not begin to plot, but
tries to discover what truly occurred. Hamlet constructs a play in order to catch
Claudius reaction so that he can prove whether Claudius is guilty or not. Both

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characters plan on their next step, but only Laertes is immediately connected to
revenge. Because of this, Hamlets inability to kill Claudius from the start and
simply react to the news is clearly shown. Hamlet is unable to instigate the
situation, which greatly delays the revenge. Leading to the final catastrophic
scene, Laertes begins to act upon his plan and challenge Hamlet to a duel. This
is significant because Laertes is challenging Hamlet and initiating the fight,
however, Hamlet could have challenged Claudius, yet he does not. Hamlet fails
to cause an event to occur and lacks the ability to find revenge immediately.
Although Laertes and Hamlet are very similar characters, they foil each other in
many ways, the most obvious aspect being their differences of reacting or
initiating. Several scenes show this contrast and assist in emphasizing the foils
between the two characters.
Overall, Hamlets morals and beliefs are shown through the use of
Claudius, his decision-making skills as well as methods of revenging his father
and regaining the throne are displayed with the contrast of Fortinbras, and, lastly,
Hamlets inability to initiate revenge is exhibited by Laertes immediate action.
With the use of foils, Shakespeare is able to use many scenes in Hamlet in order
to create the three-dimensional character of Hamlet. Without the inclusion of
Claudius, Fortinbras, or Laertes, the play would lack reasoning behind the
choices Hamlet makes. Each character brings to light different qualities of Hamlet
all supporting the theme that everyone is an individual, although there may exist
similarities. And, as the few wise words of Polonius state, "this above all: to thine
own self be true."

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