"What a piece of work is a man!" (II, 2, 305). In his statement Prince Hamlet, in his role as the star character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, acknowledges the complexity of man; as "infinite in faculties. . . express and admirable. . . like an angel [or] like a god. . . and yet. . . [a] quintessence of dust" (II, 2, 307) is man described. Shakespeare emphasizes the observation by casting Hamlet as "a man," exposing his strengths and weaknesses through the contrast provided by Fortinbras, Laertes and Horatio, as foils to the tragic hero.
At his first appearance, young Fortinbras is shown to be inferior to Hamlet; being "of unimproved metal, hot and full" (I, 1, 96) unreasonably "[sharking] up a list of landless resolutes" (I, 1, 98), he is in sharp contrast to the "sweet and commendable" (I, 2, 87) Hamlet introduced in the next scene. As the play develops, however, Hamlet's weakness are highlighted as Fortinbras works to earn his name, "which seems to symbolize the strong arm of the soldier" (xxvii).
Fortinbras' uncomplicated, simple-minded determination towards final revenge of this father's death contrasts with Hamlet's intermittent efforts towards the same goal. The Norwegian's first appearance in the play, which does not occur until act IV, scene 4, is conveniently placed as Hamlet is on another of his "lows." Fortinbras' triumphant and majestic entry into Denmark evidences his ability to plan and act, circumventing obstacles in his plan as they arise, which contrasts with Hamlet's inability to do the same. Hamlet condemns himself and exposes one of his weaknesses -- his inability to act when required or possible -- by questioning "Wh...
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... the deadly duel in the final scene. The scholar's strong code of honour and ethics, which pushes him to commit suicide at Hamlet's death, contrasts with Hamlet's lack of morals, sending his old acquaintances Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths in England and mercilessly "wringing [his mother's] heart" (III, 4, 35) during the closet scene.
By exposing and emphasizing Hamlet's many strengths and weaknesses as they appear throughout the play, Fortinbras, Laertes and Horatio act as foils to the tragic hero. Although they assist in the understanding of Hamlet, they do not completely dissect the inner workings of the main character, thus testifying to the complexity of an individual. Indeed, what a piece of work is a man!
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Betty Bealy. Toronto: Canadian School Book Exchange, 1996.
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