Use of Foils to Illustrate Deceit in Shakespeare's Hamlet

Use of Foils to Illustrate Deceit in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Use of Foils to Illustrate Deceit in Hamlet

 
    In his play, Hamlet, William Shakespeare uses a variety of characters from different social backgrounds to paint an elaborate picture of deception. From the opening line of "Who's there?" the reader gets the impression that people are not what they seem in this play. The interrelationships between the royalty and people of the court are developed to illustrate the similarities and differences between the characters. Shakespeare skillfully reveals the deceptive nature of man and the ruin it causes through his use of foils.

 

     Foils are integral to this play, because many of the devious plots are revealed to the reader through them. A foil is a secondary character that illuminates certain things about a primary character to the audience. The major character may reveal secrets, such as murderous plots or traps, or feelings, for example, a perspective on death or the love of another character. This can happen if the minor character is primarily a listener on stage. Another scenario is if two characters, major and minor, share similarities, but have distinct differences. These variations in personality will reveal something important about the main character. The "something important" could be a fatal flaw or a good point of their personality. Many foils are used in this play, but there are two important ones which happen to be for the same character.

 

     Laertes is a foil for Hamlet and their deceptions are quite painful to all involved. Laertes and Hamlet are the same sex and approximately the same age.  They also both live abroad, France and Germany, respectively. Laertes and Hamlet both deeply love in different ways a maiden named Ophelia. Ophelia is Laertes' sister and receives advice from him about Hamlet. Hamlet proclaims his love and lust for Ophelia many times throughout the play. [Where in the play does he proclaim his lust for her?] For example, on page 659, [Citation] Polonius reads to the king and queen a love letter from Hamlet which states, "Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love." [This says "love," not "lust"; shame on you.] Laertes tells Ophelia that Hamlet does not love her, that she is just a passing fancy to the prince. Hamlet and Laertes both have meddling parents. Polonius, Laertes' father, sends his servant, Reynaldo, to spy on his son.

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Besides spying, Reynaldo is to spread rumors to obtain truths about Laertes. Hamlet's parents, Queen Gertrude and King Claudius, have servants spy on him, trick him to determine the cause of supposed madness, and badger him in his time of mourning. Instead of just asking Hamlet, they use Ophelia as bait to see if he really loves her.

     But the major similarity between these two is their own deceptiveness. Hamlet pretends to be mad and acts despicably towards Ophelia. He also sets up a fake play to see the king's reaction instead of confronting him as soon as he knew the truth. Hamlet also writes letters under the king's name to put to death two soldiers, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern. Laertes, when learning that Hamlet was the murderer of his father, agrees to trick Hamlet into a duel. Laertes and King Claudius sabotage the sword by removing the button which would prevent the sword from cutting through the skin and by poisoning the tip. Laertes also knew about the poisoned wine Hamlet was to drink. Hamlet's deceit caused Ophelia's death and complications in his plan of revenge. Laertes' deceptive tricks killed Hamlet, the queen, and himself.

 

     Laertes and Hamlet have differences as well as similarities. Laertes is the king's servant's son, whereas Hamlet is the next in succession to be king. A major differing aspect is their treatment of the new king. Laertes obeys and collaborates with King Claudius. Hamlet disdains and ridicules the king on behalf of his wronged mother and murdered father. Also Laertes immediately called for blood when learning of his father's murder, yet after Hamlet talks to the ghost of his dead father, he delays revenge. Even though given many opportunities to slay Claudius, Hamlet refrains. Yet when Laertes sees Hamlet, the murderer of Polonius, he starts a brawl at his sister's funeral. Hamlet's obsession with tricking Claudius results in the unnecessary deaths of Polonius and Ophelia. Laertes' deceit causes the Queen and Hamlet to die, as well as himself. [The last part of this paragraph repeats the preceding paragraph.]

     As a listener on stage, Laertes learns of other's deceptions and consents to his own. Polonius gives words of wisdom to his son, even though he does not follow his own advice. The hypocrisy of Polonius is quite evident in this speech, which includes the ever popular line, ". . . to thine own self be true." Laertes also is taken into the king's confidence and agrees to plot against Hamlet. He is crucial to the plan because the final tragedy illustrates how the deviant nature of man causes destruction to people's lives.

 

     Hamlet, being the main character in this play, has more than one foil to illustrate the devious nature of man. Horatio is the only character who knows of the plots and traps and does not interfere. He knows of the lies and secrets of Denmark, yet remains in the background to let "Heaven direct it." He is the same age and sex as Hamlet, and they both attend the same university in Germany. Horatio is the only one that Hamlet trusts. This is very important to Horatio's role as a listener. Hamlet tells Horatio of the ghost's secret, his own devious act of pretending to be mad, the plot of the king to have Hamlet killed, and Hamlet's retaliation against the king. Hamlet's confiding to Horatio lets the audience hear the secrets of the court.

     Hamlet uses his intelligence to deceive every person in Elsinore, except Horatio. Horatio acts as the straight and narrow of the palace. He is the only character the audience trusts and his loyalty is quite evident. In the final scene, Hamlet is dying and Horatio attempts to take his own life, but Hamlet stops him. Horatio is the noble and non-devious character who is spared, so he may tell the story. He, the only one who did not enter into devious plans, survives because he is good. Horatio is ever-important as a listener on stage. As Hamlet's best friend, he tells him of the ghost. Hamlet makes him swear to not divulge the details of his father's death. Through Hamlet and Horatio's conversations, the audience learns of the assassination attempt on Hamlet and how he eludes his captors. The audience also learns of Hamlet's death order on Rosencrantz and Guildernstern. Horatio is with whom Hamlet ponders death while they are in the graveyard. Their conversation reveals Hamlet's sensitive side. Horatio also witnesses the final scene and will tell the people of Denmark the deception and murder which occurred in Elsinore. [Paragraphs 7 and 8 are somewhat repetitive and could have been better organized.]

 

     Shakespeare is an expert at manipulating language to allow readers to observe the different sides of man. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the deception and betrayal between characters is made very clear. Foils in plays are an adept way to show variations of personality. Horatio, Laertes, and Hamlet are adequate [?] examples of different personalities. Shakespeare used Horatio and Laertes to reveal plots of the play and the devious ways of the other characters. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a play that can be used to examine the effects of deceit. Man's tendency towards deceiving others is a flaw which causes emotional and, in this play, physical pain. This play reflects the destruction of innocent lives because of the lack of honesty.

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Nigel. Foils in Hamlet. London: Routledge. 1971.

Barber, C. L., and Wheeler, Richard P. The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. 1986.

Danson, Lawrence. The Origin of Deceit in Tragic Drama. Trans. John Osborne. London: New Left Books. 1977.

Goldman, Michael. "Hamlet and Our Problems." Critical Essays on Shakespeare's Hamlet. Ed. David Scott Kaston. New York City: Prentice Hall International. 1995. 43-55

Lanham, Richard. "Superposed Plays." Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York City: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 87-98

Rose, Mark. "Reforming the Role." Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York City: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 117-128

 
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