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Characters

Themes

Key Quotes

Quiz

by

Lily Rockefeller

Updated February 27, 2019

Table of Contents

Most of the characters in Hamlet are citizens of Denmark and members of the royal court, reeling after
the death of their king. The characters are deeply suspicious of one another, as it becomes clear that the
king may have been murdered—and by his brother Claudius no less. As Hamlet is a tragedy, each
character carries within themselves a tragic characteristic that contributes to their own downfall. But it is
in particular the unstable atmosphere of the new court of Claudius that brings about much of the action
of the play.

Hamlet

The protagonist of the tragedy, Hamlet is a beloved prince and a thoughtful, melancholy young man.
Distraught by his father’s death, Hamlet is only made more depressed by his uncle Claudius’ succession
to the throne and his subsequent marriage to his mother. When the ghost of the king, Hamlet’s father,
tells him that he was murdered by his brother Claudius and that Hamlet must avenge him, Hamlet
becomes almost suicidal and obsessed with revenge. He is slowly driven mad by his inability to act on
this instruction.

Very intelligent, Hamlet decides to fake madness in order to fool his uncle and those loyal to him while
he uncovers whether Claudius is guilty for his father’s death—although often his mental health is
genuinely in question. Worried about his own guilt, Hamlet also becomes hateful, despising his uncle,
voicing anger at his mother, frustrated with his traitorous friends, and alienating Ophelia (whom he once
courted). His anger borders on ruthlessness, and he is responsible for numerous deaths throughout the
play, but he never loses his reflective and melancholy traits.
Claudius

Claudius, the play's antagonist, is the king of Denmark and Hamlet’s uncle. According to the ghost of
Hamlet’s father, Claudius is his killer. When we are first introduced to Claudius, he scolds Hamlet for still
being so glum about his father’s death and forbids him to return to his university studies in Wittenberg.

Claudius is a conniving strategist who poisoned his own brother in cold blood. He remains calculating
and unloving throughout the play, driven by his ambition and lust. When he realizes that Hamlet is not
mad as he originally believed, and in fact poses a threat to his crown, Claudius quickly begins to plot
Hamlet's death. This plan ultimately leads to Claudius’s death at Hamlet’s hands at the end of the play.

However, Claudius also has an honorable side. When Hamlet has a traveling troupe put on a play for the
court that emulates the murder of a king, Claudius reveals his sense of guilt. He also decides to have
Ophelia buried with ceremony, rather than as a suicide. His love for Gertrude also seems sincere.

Polonius

Polonius is the main advisor to the king, also known as the Lord Chamberlain. Pompous and arrogant,
Polonius is also the overbearing father of Ophelia and Laertes. As Laertes sets off for France to continue
his studies, Polonius gives him paradoxical advice, including the famous quotation, "to thine own self be
true”—an ironic line from a man who cannot keep his advice consistent. When Hamlet goes to his
mother’s bedchamber, attempting to confront her about his father’s murder, he kills Polonius, who is
hiding behind a tapestry and whom Hamlet mistakes for the king.

Ophelia

Ophelia is Polonius’s daughter and Hamlet’s lover. She is obedient, agreeing not to see Hamlet anymore
at her father's suggestion and spying on Hamlet when asked by Claudius. She believes that Hamlet loves
her, despite his inconsistent courtship, and is devastated during a conversation in which he seems not to
love her at all. When Hamlet kills her father, Ophelia goes mad and drowns in the river. Whether this is a
suicide is left ambiguous. Ophelia is feminine and almost maidenly throughout the play, though she is
able to counter Hamlet’s wit.
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Gertrude

Gertrude is the queen of Denmark and Hamlet’s mother. She was originally married to Hamlet’s father,
the dead king, but has now married the new king Claudius, her former brother-in-law. Gertrude's son
Hamlet regards her with suspicion, wondering whether she had a hand in his father’s murder. Gertrude
is rather weak and unable to match wits in an argument, but her love for her son remains strong. She
also enjoys the physical aspects of her marriage to Claudius—a point that disturbs Hamlet. After the
sword fight between Hamlet and Laertes, Gertrude drinks the poisoned goblet meant for Hamlet and
dies.

Horatio

Horatio is Hamlet’s best friend and confidant. He is cautious, scholarly, and a good man, known for giving
sound advice. As Hamlet lies dying at the end of the play, Horatio considers suicide, but Hamlet
convinces him to live on to tell the story.

Laertes

Laertes is Polonius’s son and Ophelia’s brother, as well as a clear foil to Hamlet. Where Hamlet is
contemplative and frozen by emotions, Laertes is reactive and quick to action. When he hears of his
father’s death, Laertes is ready to raise a rebellion against Claudius, but his sister’s madness allows
Claudius to convince him Hamlet is at fault. Unlike Hamlet, Laertes will stop at nothing for revenge. At
the end of the play, Hamlet kills Laertes; as he lays dying, Laertes admits to Claudius’s plot to kill Hamlet.

Fortinbras

Fortinbras is the prince of neighboring Norway. His father was killed by Hamlet’s father, and Fortinbras is
looking for revenge. Fortinbras arrives in Denmark just as the climax is reached. At Hamlet’s
recommendation and due to a distant connection, Fortinbras becomes the next king of Denmark.

The Ghost
The ghost claims to be Hamlet’s dead father, the former king of Denmark (also named Hamlet). He
appears as a ghost in the first scenes of the play, informing Hamlet and others that he was murdered by
his brother Claudius, who poured poison into his ear while he slept. The Ghost is responsible for the
action of the play, but its origins are unclear. Hamlet worries that this specter might be sent by the devil
to incite him to murder, but the mystery is never solved.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two acquaintances of Hamlet who are asked to spy on the young
prince in order to figure out the cause of his madness. Both are rather spineless and obedient—
Rosencrantz moreso than Guildenstern—and neither is intelligent enough to really fool Hamlet. After
Hamlet kills Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern accompany him to England. They have secret orders
from the king of England to behead Hamlet on arrival, but the ship is attacked by pirates, and when
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive in England, their heads are chopped off instead.

Hamlet

Hamlet Character List

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Hamlet

The son of Old Hamlet and Gertrude, thus Prince of Denmark. The ghost of Old Hamlet charges him with
the task of killing his uncle, Claudius, for killing him and usurping the throne of Denmark. Hamlet is a
moody, theatrical, witty, brilliant young man, perpetually fascinated and tormented by doubts and
introspection. It is famously difficult to pin down his true thoughts and feelings -- does he love Ophelia,
and does he really intend to kill Claudius? In fact, it often seems as though Hamlet pursues lines of
thought and emotion merely for their experimental value, testing this or that idea without any interest in
applying his resolutions in the practical world. The variety of his moods, from manic to somber, seems to
cover much of the range of human possibility.

Old Hamlet

The former King of Denmark. Old Hamlet appears as a ghost and exhorts his son to kill Claudius, whom
he claims has killed him in order to secure the throne and the queen of Denmark. Hamlet fears (or at
least says he fears) that the ghost is an imposter, an evil spirit sent to lure him to hell. Old Hamlet's ghost
reappears in Act Three of the play when Hamlet goes too far in berating his mother. After this second
appearance, we hear and see no more of him.

Claudius

Old Hamlet's brother, Hamlet's uncle, and Gertrude's newlywed husband. He murdered his brother in
order to seize the throne and subsequently married Gertrude, his erstwhile sister-in-law. Claudius
appears to be a rather dull man who is fond of the pleasures of the flesh, sex and drinking. Only as the
play goes on do we become certain that he is indeed guilty of murder and usurpation. Claudius is the
only character aside from Hamlet to have a soliloquy in the play. When he is convinced that Hamlet has
found him out, Claudius eventually schemes to have his nephew-cum-son murdered.

Gertrude

Old Hamlet's widow and Claudius' wife. She seems unaware that Claudius killed her former husband.
Gertrude loves Hamlet tremendously, while Hamlet has very mixed feelings about her for marrying the
(in his eyes) inferior Claudius after her first husband's death. Hamlet attributes this need for a husband
to her lustiness. Gertrude figures prominently in many of the major scenes in the play, including the
killing of Polonius and the death of Ophelia.

Horatio

Hamlet's closest friend. They know each other from the University of Wittenberg, where they are both
students. Horatio is presented as a studious, skeptical young man, perhaps more serious and less
ingenious than Hamlet but more than capable of trading witticisms with his good friend. In a moving
tribute just before the play-within-the-play begins, in Act Two scene two, Hamlet praises Horatio as his
soul's choice and declares that he loves Horatio because he is "not passion's slave" but is rather good-
humored and philosophical through all of life's buffets. At the end of the play, Hamlet charges Horatio
with the task of explaining the pile of bodies to the confused onlookers in court.

Polonius

The father of Ophelia and Laertes and the chief adviser to the throne of Denmark. Polonius is a windy,
pedantic, interfering, suspicious, silly old man, a "rash, intruding fool," in Hamlet's phrase. Polonius is
forever fomenting intrigue and hiding behind tapestries to spy. He hatches the theory that Ophelia
caused Hamlet to go mad by rejecting him. Polonius' demise is fitting to his flaws. Hamlet accidentally
kills the old man while he eavesdrops behind an arras in Gertrude's bedroom. Polonius' death causes his
daughter to go mad.

Ophelia

The daughter of Polonius and sister of Laertes. Ophelia has received several tributes of love from Hamlet
but rejects him after her father orders her to do so. In general, Ophelia is controlled by the men in her
life, moved around like a pawn in their scheme to discover Hamlet's distemper. Moreover, Ophelia is
regularly mocked by Hamlet and lectured by her father and brother about her sexuality. She goes mad
after Hamlet murders Polonius. She later drowns.

Laertes

Polonius' son and Ophelia's brother. Laertes is an impetuous young man who lives primarily in Paris,
France. We see him at the beginning of the play at the celebration of Claudius and Gertrude's wedding.
He then returns to Paris, only to return in Act Four with an angry entourage after his father's death at
Hamlet's hands. He and Claudius conspire to kill Hamlet in the course of a duel between Laertes and the
prince.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Friends of Hamlet's from the University of Wittenberg. Claudius invites them to court in order to spy on
Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are often treated as comic relief; they are sycophantic, vaguely
absurd fellows. After Hamlet kills Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are assigned to accompany
Hamlet to England. They carry a letter from Claudius asking the English king to kill Hamlet upon his
arrival. Hamlet discovers this plot and alters the letter so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are put to
death instead. We learn that they have indeed been executed at the very close of the play.

Fortinbras

The Prince of Norway. In many ways his story is parallel to Hamlet's: he too has lost his father by violence
(Old Hamlet killed Old Fortinbras in single combat); he too is impeded from ascending the throne by an
interfering uncle. But despite their biographical similarities, Fortinbras and Hamlet are constitutional
opposites. Where Hamlet is pensive and mercurial, Fortinbras is all action. He leads an army through
Denmark in order to attack disputed territory in Poland. At the end of the play, and with Hamlet's dying
assent, Fortinbras assumes the crown of Denmark.
Osric

The ludicrous, flowery, stupid courtier who invites Hamlet to fence with Laertes, then serves as referee
during the contest.

The gravediggers

Two "clowns" (roles played by comic actors), a principal gravedigger and his assistant. They figure only in
one scene -- Act Five scene one -- yet never fail to make a big impression on readers and audience
members. The primary gravedigger is a very witty man, macabre and intelligent, who is the only
character in the play capable of trading barbs with Hamlet. They are the only speaking representatives of
the lower classes in the play and their perspective is a remarkable contrast to that of the nobles.

The players

A group of (presumably English) actors who arrive in Denmark. Hamlet knows this company well and
listens, enraptured, while the chief player recites a long speech about the death of Priam and the wrath
of Hecuba. Hamlet uses the players to stage an adaptation of "The Death of Gonzago" which he calls
"The Mousetrap" -- a play that reprises almost perfectly the account of Old Hamlet's death as told by the
ghost -- in order to be sure of Claudius' guilt.

A Priest

Charged with performing the rites at Ophelia's funeral. Because of the doubtful circumstances of
Ophelia's death, the priest refuses to do more than the bare minimum as she is interred.

Reynaldo

Polonius' servant, sent to check on Laertes in Paris. He receives absurdly detailed instructions in
espionage from his master.

Bernardo

A soldier who is among the first to see the ghost of Old Hamlet.

Marcellus
A soldier who is among the first to see the ghost of Old Hamlet.

Francisco

A soldier.

Voltemand

A courtier.

Cornelius

A courtier.

A Captain

A captain in Fortinbras' army who speaks briefly with Hamlet.

Ambassadors

Ambassadors from England who arrive at the play's close to announce that Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern are dead.