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In Hamlet, the passionate and hasty Laertes and the vengeful Fortinbras are foils for Hamlet's introspective personality and provide a basis for comparison of the hero's course of action. Laertes and Hamlet share a common goal of revenge for the murder of their father. Though their situation and the circumstances of their father's death coincide, their individual responses to the fatalities differ greatly, and serve to highlight Hamlet's tragic flaw. Upon hearing of his father's death, Laertes becomes totally preoccupied with thoughts of revenge. While Hamlet scrutinizes and evaluates the consequences of his actions, Laertes acts without forethought, saying, "Let come what comes only I'll be revenged / Most thoroughly for my father" (IV.v.138). However, his hastiness allows him to fall victim to Claudius' manipulative nature and he becomes a puppet in Claudius' plot to dispose of Hamlet. This accentuates one of Hamlets strengths, one that he reveals when he states, "Call me what instrument you will you cannot play upon me." (III.ii.380) he is not easily influenced by the people around him.
Laertes further highlights Hamlet's strengths when he states that he would "cut [Hamlet's] throat i' the church" (IV.vii.126). Hamlet on the other hand, constantly seeks to be honourable, as seen in his soliloquy, in which he questions "[w]hether tis nobler in the mind to suffer " (III.i.37) and when he refuses to kill Claudius while he is praying. Nor does he use poison and treachery to achieve his goals, as Laertes did.
Though both are of princely status, in Fortinbras' introduction, he is portrayed as inferior to Hamlet, being "of unimproved metal, hot and full" (I.i.96) and having "[s]harked up a band of lawless resolutes" (I.i.98), contrasting greatly with Hamlet, who is described as "sweet and commendable" (I.ii.87). However, as the play proceeds, Hamlet's weaknesses are emphasized as Fortinbras works towards achieving his goal and as Fortinbras' strong-willed character is developed.
Fortinbras' single-minded determination towards the revenge of his father's death differs markedly from the sporadic effort put forth by Hamlet. Though he is not present in person for most of the play, his grand entrance, complete with an army, before Hamlet's exile, demonstrating his ability to plot, to overcome obstacles, and to execute his plan in order to further his goal of revenge contrasts greatly with Hamlets lack of action towards his own revenge. Fortinbras entrance spurs Hamlet to disclose his tragic flaw his inability to act when required in a self-criticizing soliloquy, in which he resolves to make his "thoughts be bloody" (IV.
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Evidently, the similarities between Laertes' and Fortinbras' circumstance with Hamlet's allow the audience to compare their respective courses of action. Conversely, by analyzing their differences, the audience gains insight regarding Hamlet's character, his strengths and weaknesses, without needing them stated explicitly. Through the use of foils, Shakespeare develops Hamlet's character to a much greater extent, and firmly entrenches him as one of the most complex character of all time.