Opposites attract. Nothing is truer than this old adage in regard to Hamlet and his relationship with his best friend Horatio and his best enemy Fortinbras. Hamlet is diametrically opposed to both Horatio and Fortinbras; the strengths of Horatio and Fortinbras, which highlight Hamlet’s weaknesses, are so profound that even Hamlet himself acknowledges the dissimilarities. William Shakespeare’s body of work is particularly unique for his time because, unlike Shakespeare, few sixteenth century authors explore the human spirit. In his play Hamlet, William Shakespeare adeptly utilizes the calm, sensible, and grounded Horatio and the decisive Fortinbras, both polar opposites to the passionate, emotionally labile, and indecisive Hamlet, to serve as foils by their characters, actions, and behaviors, while revealing Hamlet’s tragic flaws.
First of all, despite his intellect, Hamlet is flawed with an overly emotional sensitivity; and Horatio, Hamlet’s trusted friend, with his genuine sanity, is the perfect foil to expose Hamlet’s disturbed emotional state since he is Hamlet’s confidant, is loved and admired by Hamlet himself, and is consistent and loyal throughout the entire play. Shakespeare contrasts Horatio’s stability with Hamlet’s instability largely through the point of view and actions of Hamlet and the reactions and behavior of Horatio. After encountering the ghost early in the play, Hamlet confides in Horatio; the audience suspects that Hamlet may be starting to unravel emotionally when he informs Horatio that he may need to feign madness stating, “perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” (Act 1. Scene 5. Lines 172-173). Horatio in his steadfast manner agrees to keep Hamlet’s confidence; with Horatio’s calm and loyal response to Hamlet, Shakespeare offers Hamlet a trustworthy character to bring to light Hamlet’s darkest and emotionally disturbed secrets and thoughts. Furthermore, through Hamlet’s outward litany of praise for Horatio and appreciation for their friendship, Hamlet self-reveals his own tragic flaw of emotional lability, as he admires Horatio’s unwavering manner; in his tribute to Horatio, Hamlet proclaims,
“Blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger –
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee” (Act 3. Scene 2. Lines 61-67).
As the play draws to the conclusion, while dying with great drama, Hamlet urges Horatio to live on and to tell the truth of his story; although Horatio fleetingly lapses from his sensibleness and considers drinking the poison himself, he remains otherwise constant, and his calm behavior highlights, with striking contrast, Hamlet’s lability. The polarity in the characters, actions, and behaviors of the two close friends, Hamlet and Horatio, emphasizes the fact that Hamlet tragically is a slave to passion; similarly, Shakespeare, further reveals how Hamlet’s erratic emotions leads to his indecision by comparison with Fortinbras, Hamlet’s other foil.
Secondly, Shakespeare spotlights Hamlet’s additional tragic flaw of indecision by illuminating Fortinbras, Hamlet’s enemy; although Fortinbras and Hamlet have virtually no personal interaction throughout the play, Shakespeare’s powerful, descriptive character development of Fortinbras, a strong-minded and resolute leader, allows Fortinbras to serve as a formidable foil and affirms Hamlet’s irresolute behavior. Shakespeare wittingly has Hamlet compare his own actions and behaviors to those of Fortinbras; Hamlet points out that he, himself, is not a man of action but rather one of excessive contemplation. When Fortinbras asks for permission to cross over Denmark, on his way to Poland to fight for a small, worthless patch of land, Hamlet readily acknowledges that Fortinbras is a force to be reckoned with due to his ability to take action. Hamlet depicts his own tragic flaw of indecision as he describes,
“How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed?” (Act 4. Scene 4. Lines 32-35).
Hamlet, moreover, recognizes that Fortinbras is willing to put his life at risk for an inconsequential piece of land, which amplifies the shame Hamlet feels for himself, as he states, “I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men, that for a fantasy and trick of fame go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, which is not tomb enough and continent to hide the slain” (Act 4. Scene 4. Lines 58 -64). Hamlet, in his own mind, fails to live up to Fortinbras even though he believes that he too has the “cause and will and strength and means” to be resolute and complete his revenge (Act 4. Scene 4. Line 44).Shakespeare has Hamlet verbalize the attributes he respects in Fortinbras; consequently, regardless of the interaction between the two characters, Hamlet is able to comprehend his own indecision when he holds a mirror up to Fortinbras.
Subsequently, both Fortinbras and Horatio, acting as Hamlet’s foils, are clearly the opposite of him; they provide a mirror image for Hamlet to observe and to recognize his tragic flaws on his own terms. In his own words, Hamlet expresses his appreciation for the emotional stability that Horatio offers him, as he obviously lacks this quality; likewise, Hamlet realizes that he does not possess the resoluteness of Fortinbras. The revelation of Hamlet’s flaws, with the help of the foils, throughout the play satisfy Shakespeare’s desire to explain and comprehend the human spirit. Hamlet, although a sixteenth century fictional character, possesses the flaws which many modern-day figures hold, whether they are tragic or not. Some people today are still racked with labile emotions and indecision. Shakespeare’s plays, especially Hamlet, have the uncanny ability to be as pertinent today as they were more than 400 years ago; as long as the human spirit survives, Hamlet will also.