Ever wanted to know what makes the characters in Hamlet tick? Well, here you go, but also make sure to check out tropes applying to the plot, setting, and writing of the tragedy here.
Oh, and since the play is Older Than Steam, we're not hiding any spoilers. Watch a performance or read the thing.
Prince HamletThe prince of Denmark, nephew of the reigning king . . . and son of the reigning king, since he married Hamlet's mother only two months after his blood father's death. That incestuous mess would be hard enough for Ham, but before he can even decide whether to be or not, the ghost of his dad pops up and convinces him that Uncle-Dad killed Hamlet's real father to take the throne. Filled with rage and urgency, Hamlet must kill the king. . . . But should he? Can he? What would it mean if he did? Is this task worth it?
Is anything in life really worth it?
Hamlet struggles with these issues indecisively for five acts, soliloquizing, soliciting players, practicing his fencing technique (apparently), insulting his elders, talking to gravediggers, smelling skulls, boarding pirate vessels, and getting into fights with everyone not named Horatio.
- Accentuate the Negative: Over and over and over again. Makes sense as he's very prone to depressive episodes.Hamlet: What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.
- Ambiguous Disorder: Whole plays and college courses have been written based on Hamlet's apparent bipolar disorder—Hair-Trigger Temper and over-talkativeness during his manic episodes, anguished soliloquies during his depressed ones.
- Anti-Hero: He acts rudely to many who (may) mean him no harm, mistakenly kills a relatively innocent old man, and has Guildenstern and Rosencrantz—his college buddies!—sent to their deaths (they were spying for Claudius, so this has some justification, to varying degrees).
- Attention Whore: Is prone to these during his manic episodes. His show-down with Laertes at Ophelia's grave is an example. Played for all it's worth in the Kenneth Brannagh version in which he narrates The Mousetrap at the top of his voice and eventually jumps onto the stage.
- Audience Monologue: Soliloquy is Hamlet's only means of expressing his overwhelming grief and confusion.
- Bastard Angst: Given that Claudius and Gertrude's affair could well have been going on long before King Hamlet's death and that King Hamlet seems to have spent much of his time as king away at war, there is some real question as to the identity of Hamlet's father. His first line reveals his awareness of this fact.Hamlet: A little more than kin, and less than kind.
- Beneath the Mask: We are shown more of Hamlet's true personality than anyone else, even Horatio, through his soliloquies. But one gets the impression that even we never see the full extent of it.
- Broken Bird: We don't meet Hamlet until after he has been broken, but according to his friends he used to be a generous, loving, and level-headed man. His familial upheaval has broken his ability to trust or show compassion.
- Byronic Hero: Angsty, thoughtful, cynical, lonely, weary of the world, arrogant, loved by many yet alienated from his own family, overly dramatic and emotional in some interpretations, filled with self-hatred . . . check.
- The Cynic:Hamlet: How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on t, ah fie! Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
- It is unclear whether this has always been his worldview or whether it is a side effect of depression brought on by his father's death and mother's remarriage.
- Cynicism Catalyst: Hamlet's was his father's death and mother's "o'erhasty marriage".
- Dare to Be Badass: He attempts to talk himself into this in nearly every one of his soliloquies, flip-flopping between ambivalent inaction and "my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!"
- Deadpan Snarker: Immensely so. He rather enjoys running circles round Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are too dense to realize that he's mocking them.
- Deconstruction: Of the Avenging Hero archetype.
- Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: Obsessively.Hamlet: What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.
- The Ditherer: His Fatal Flaw, according to many critics. The deaths of many could have been avoided if he had just made up his mind to do something.
- Double Entendre: His weapon of choice. Extremely fond of using word play to mock others, especially using sexual double entendres around Ophelia.
- Emotionally Tongue-Tied: Hamlet's inability to adequately articulate his emotion is a recurring theme and the source of much angst.
- Emotions vs. Stoicism: One of the many inner conflicts he embodies.Hamlet: But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.
- Establishing Character Moment: Hamlet's first line:Claudius: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,—
Hamlet: [Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind.
- What does this tell us? 1) It's an aside, so he's introspective and mildly audience-aware. 2) Deadpan Snarker and Pungeon Master. 3) Cynical and fraternally troubled.
- His "I know not 'seems'" monologue a few lines later is even more of an ECM.
- Excessive Mourning: It certainly isn't, his father having died only a few months ago, but Claudius treats him as though it is.Claudius: 'Tis unmanly grief.
- Famous Last Words: "The rest is silence."
- Fatal Flaw: It's widely agreed that Hamlet has one.note There's rather less agreement on what, specifically, it is. Most frequently it's said to be his indecisiveness (and indeed if someone is called a "Hamlet" in Real Life, it means they're indecisivenote ), but on several occasions in the play he acts impulsively, and always to his detriment.
- The Fatalist: Shows signs of this in Act V.Hamlet: We defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.
- Final Speech: repeatedly interrupted, but gets the job done.
- Foil: Most of the characters in the play, to some extent. Fortinbras and Laertes, who both represent what Hamlet could have been if he were a decisive Action Hero instead of a philosopher. Horatio, the First Player, and possibly Rosencrantz/Guildenstern as well.
- Genre Savvy: Hamlet is well-versed in theatre and theatrical conceits and, if the allusions he makes are any indication, familiar with revenge tragedies. It's not unreasonable to read his famous reluctance to act as extremely reasonable, given that rushing in blindly almost always leads to a Tragic Mistake in his genre. Unfortunately, You Can't Fight Fate, and when he finally does make a move, he makes the rash mistake of killing Polonius behind the curtain thinking he was Claudius, setting off the chain of events that leads to the deaths of almost all the major characters, including Hamlet.
- Guilt Complex: Hamlet obsessively castigates himself for his failure to do something . . . and still fails to actually do something. This can be seen as one of his major flaws.
- Hair-Trigger Temper. While his indecisiveness is often cited as his Fatal Flaw, Hamlet has a surprising proclivity toward lashing out with violence. Most notoriously, he kills Polonius when he mistakes him for the king, hiding behind the arras without first checking who it was.
- Hates Everyone Equally: Or claims to.Hamlet: Man delights not me. No, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.
- The Hero Dies: But that's okay, because We All Die Someday, and thousands of actors will take their turns bringing the Melancholy Dane to life once again.
- Heroic Vow: If only he'd sworn to obey the ghost instead of just to remember it.
- Hidden Depths: Most of them still hidden to this day, in fact.Hamlet: 'Tis not alone my inky cloak ...
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
- His Own Worst Enemy: Hamlet is far more of a threat to Hamlet than Claudius could ever hope to be.
- Honor Before Reason: Another of the conflicts he embodies. For example, when he has a chance to kill Claudius, he does not do so because he fears sending him to heaven—something his father was cruelly barred from. Some critics have identified the additional conflict of pagan values (e.g. family honour, avenging ones father's death) vs. Christian ones (not committing murder, the Divine Right of Kings, etc.).
- Hot-Blooded: Hamlet himself averts this, but discusses it often. He seems to hold a contradictory position on whether it is an admirable trait, castigating himself for own his lack of motivation ("I am pidgeon-livered and lack gall") but praising Horatio for his equanimity ("Give me the man who is not passion's slave / And I will wear him in my heart's core").
- Hypocrite: He despises Claudius for murdering his father, but whereas Claudius only commits one murder for personal advancement and spends the remainder of the play feeling guilty about it, Hamlet kills or ensures the death of several people who are only tangentially involved in what's going on, although he expresses remorse for the deaths of Polonius and Ophelia.
- I Am Not My Father: Hamlet has no desire or capability to be a warrior-king like his father. Doesn't stop him from beating himself up for it, though.
- I Cannot Self-Terminate: A meta reading of his early-on death wish. Is he referring to God's laws prohibiting suicide . . . or the everlasting writer having fixed the canon of his work against his protagonist killing himself?Hamlet: O ... that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter!
- Iconic Item: Tis skull of Yorick.
- Iconic Outfit: Hamlet won't be casting his nighted colour off anytime soon, thank you very much.
- Inadequate Inheritor: Considers himself this, saying that Claudius is as much like his father as he himself is like Hercules, the implication being that he puts his father on such a literally god-like pedestal that he could never live up to the unrealistic image he has of him.
- Insanity Defense: Uses this before the duel. Whether or not he believes it himself is up for debate.
- I Reject Your Reality: Defied. Hamlet firmly rejects obfuscations of reality.Hamlet: Seems, Madam? Nay, it is; I know not 'seems'.
- I Just Want to Be Normal: Not happy about being chosen to lead a revenge plot.Hamlet: The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite
That ever I was born to set it right!
- Indy Ploy: He pretty much seems to be making things up on the fly.
- Informed Flaw:Hamlet: I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.
- . . . Are you, though? It's difficult to call him proud as he clearly has a very low opinion of himself but at the same time, he is prone to snobbish arrogance and definitely considers himself Surrounded by Idiots. He doesn't seem particularly ambitious, only mentioning the fact that technically he should be king instead of Claudius twice and still being at university at the age of thirty. One could call him revengeful as his mind is consumed with thoughts of vengeance throughout the play although it's worth noting that he only acts on them at the end when he's in the grip of a deadly poison.
- It's All About Me: When Hamlet comes across Laertes burying Ophelia, his beloved sister, how does he react? He jumps out of the bushes and announces that he loved Ophelia far more than her brother did, and no woe can possibly equal his. This is despite the fact it was ''his'' actions that lead to Ophelia's death beginning when he kills her father by mistake.
- Jerkass: At his worst, he can be quite terrible to the people he interacts with, and his words are always cutting. Case in point: his mocking of Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern and his tirades towards Ophelia and Gertrude.
- Karma Houdini: He dies, yes, but he never receives any direct comeuppance for his hand in the deaths of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Ophelia, and Laertes forgives him for murdering his father.
- Kill Him Already!: The driving conflict of the plot is Hamlet's uncertainty and hesitance in avenging his father's death. This can easily be read as a more general metaphor for man's uncertainty of his moral duty and place in the universe.
- Large Ham: His maybe-sarcastic, maybe-not bragging contest with Laertes over their love for Ophelia—Hamlet's surpasses the love of "five thousand brothers" in its intensity. Furthermore, all the bits where he's feigning madness give actors plenty of opportunities to have Hamlet live up to his name with some outrageous overacting.
- Last Request: For Horatio (and us) to clear his name and tell his story.Hamlet: O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: The tendency to do this is one of his defining character traits.
- Lonely Rich Kid: Hamlet might have more meaningful connections at school in Wittenberg, but at home in Elsinore he is profoundly lonely—somewhat justified, given his extraordinary but isolating intelligence and the fact that almost everyone around him is a lying, manipulable bastard.
- Lost in Character: One interpretation of his ambiguously-fake insanity.
- Madness Makeover: He gives himself one when he starts faking insanity. Ophelia describes it in great detail.Ophelia: ... his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings fouled,
Ungartered, and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors.
- Manchild: If he is indeed 30, Hamlet very much qualifies.
- Master of the Mixed Message: He alternates between claiming tempestuous love for Ophelia and hurling abuse at her.
- Military Brat: Hamlet seems to have had a rather isolated childhood, with his royal father off at war much of the time. He found a Parental Substitute in Yorick, the court jester.
- Minored in Ass-Kicking: Hamlet is an introspective, nonconfrontational scholar, but he ends up beating Master Swordsman Laertes fairly easily when it comes down to it (although the difficulty of the duel depends mostly on the staging).
- Mood-Swinger: He oscillates between abject melancholy and manic frenziedness constantly. This may be a part of his feigned madness, or may simply be one of his many genuine eccentricities.
- Moral Myopia: Yes and yes.
- Multilayer Façade: Is he sane, faking insanity? Or is he insane faking sanity faking insanity?
- Never My Fault: Hamlet never expresses any regret for the five relatively innocent lives his is responsible for ending. The fact that Hamlet embodies this and Guilt Complex at the same time is a testament to his ability to span dualities.
- Nietzsche WannabeHamlet: What a piece of work is man ... and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.
- Not So Different: From young Fortinbras. Hamlet respects his Hot-Blooded, decisive, passionate nature, and this, coupled with their similarities in situation and circumstance, is a large part of the reason Hamlet leaves the Danish crown to him when the entire royal line has been extinguished. Hamlet sees Fortinbras as the man and ruler he wishes he himself could be.
- Obfuscating Insanity: Many in the court (particularly Polonius) perceive Hamlet's eccentric speech and behaviour as signs of madness. It is up to the director's and audience's interpretation as to how much is feigned (to put Claudius in a false sense of security) and how much is real.
- Oedipus Complex: Hamlet's relationship to his parents is sometimes interpreted as this. Notably, Sigmund Freud himself thought so, saying that Hamlet is, "rooted in the same soil as Oedipus Rex." This is despite the fact that part of why he's disgusted by his mother marrying his uncle is because, at the time, it'd be considered incest, and a good chunk of his motivation is avenging his father. Granted, Oedipus did gouge his own eyes out when he found out he had unknowingly killed his biological father and married his biological mother...
- Paralysis by Analysis: The core of his character. He's so caught up analyzing the implications of his revenge—paralyzed by the sheer expansiveness of his own consciousness—that he can't bring himself to actually carry it out.
- The Philosopher: The defining example in the western canon, Hamlet is far more at home in the territory of the intellectual and abstract than the materialistic, action-oriented court he is meant to be at the helm of.
- Politically Incorrect Hero: Hamlet is inescapably sexist, something poor Ophelia pays the price for.
- Pungeon Master: Every other word out of his mouth is a Double Entendre, a Stealth Insult, or just wordplay for the sake of wordplay.
- Renaissance Man: At least according to Ophelia.Ophelia: O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
- Ridiculous Procrastinator: You had ONE job.
- Royal Brat: An uncharitable reading of Hamlet, who has been raised in luxury and would probably spend less time agonizing over being vs not being if he spent some time with the serfs his family governs.
- Shout-Out: Constantly comparing himself and everyone around him to mythological figures.
- Sociopathic Hero: His commitment to correcting Claudius's injustice, a noble and moral goal on its own, is marred by the fact that he ruins his loved ones' lives without much concern in the process.
- Suddenly Always Knew That: His proficiency as a duelist comes rather out of left field.
- Sword over Head: Hamlet exists perpetually in this metaphorical pose.
- Talkative Loon: Hamlet talks nonsense and antagonizes those around him so they think he has gone mad and don't suspect him of plotting against the king. However, at certain points it's unclear how much of Hamlet's madness is feigned and how much of might be authentic.
- Tomato Surprise: During the duel with Laertes, Gertrude casually mentions that Hamlet is "fat and scant of breath". This fact seemingly justifies the whole deal with everyone assuming fight will immediately make him thirsty. Authenticity of this line is fiercely challenged by many Shakespearean scholars, who argue it's supposed to read "hot", not "fat"; or that "fat" is Shakespeare using an archaic regional term for "sweaty". Or, of course, she could just be teasing him.note
- Tragic Hero: Hamlet's story is, superficially, a classic revenge tragedy, a very popular genre at the time. In more general terms, Hamlet may be seen as the tragic representation of the soul as an individual, torn between a search for truth and an immediate duty, between fate and free will, between one moral code and another, whose uncertainty and hesitation lead to his downfall.
- Tragic Mistake: Hamlet's downfall can be traced back to the moment when he sees Claudius at prayer but decides to wait until later to strike the killing blow, which later leads him to accidentally kill Polonius.
- Used to Be More Social: Before his father's death and mother's remarriage, according to his friends.
- Vague Age: Piecing together several of the gravedigger's lines seems to reveal that Hamlet is 30, and Hamlet himself claims to remember Yorick, who died twenty-three years prior. However, he is unmarried, frequently referred to as "young," and revealed at the start of the play to be attending university, which would have been nearly unheard of for someone past his early twenties. Besides, his emotional and mental states hardly seem congruent with a mature adult. Since no more than a few weeks can have passed since Act IV, some scholars believe Shakespeare wished to impose a new maturity on the very much changed Hamlet of Act V. Some other scholars have suggested that the Gravedigger's line was thrown in at the insistence of Richard Burbage, the 45-year-old actor who originally played the lead role and was probably unwilling to play a teenager (though that argument holds little water, considering Burbage was more than willing to enact Romeo. Or, alternatively, it could be an example of Writers Cannot Do Math. Or Shakespeare could do maths just fine, but the gravedigger can't. Alternatively, the gravedigger had it right, but later translations got it wrong: in the original spelling of the Folio text, one of the two authoritative texts for the play, the Gravedigger's answer to how long he has "been a grave-maker" reads "Why heere in Denmarke: I haue bin sixeteene heere, man and Boy thirty yeares." "Sixteene" is usually rendered as "sexton" (a modernization of the second quarto's "sexten"), even in modern texts that take F1 as their "copy text." But modernizing the punctuation—a normal practice in modernized texts—renders it "Why heere in Denmarke: I haue bin sixeteene heereman and Boy thirty yeares." In other words, this reading suggests that he has been a grave-digger for sixteen years, but that he has lived in Denmark for thirty. According to this logic, then, it is the Grave-digger who is thirty, whereas Hamlet is only sixteen. It is also possible that the gravedigger is simply mocking him.
These theories still don't explain how Hamlet can remember Yorick, who he says died twenty-three years ago.
- What You Are in the Dark: The pivotal moment when Hamlet doesn't kill Claudius can be seen as this. What's less clear is what effect his decision should have on our opinion of him.
- Widow's Weeds: Hamlet wears his signature black outfits in mourning for his father.
- The Wise Prince: Played with. How effective and benevolent a ruler he would actually have been is up for debate, but he is beloved of the common people. And he is most definitely troubled.
- Writers Cannot Do Math: A possible explanation for his Tomato Surprise age.
- You Killed My Father: Hamlet's main motivation is to avenge his dead father—or at least it should be. Hamlet slowly comes to terms with the fact that his chronic delaying might be symptomatic of his own unwillingness to follow through with the deed.
King ClaudiusThe new King of Denmark, charismatic, competent and liked and respected by his subjects. But Claudius has a dark secret. He got his throne by murdering his brother, the previous king. He isn't proud of murdering his brother, Hamlet Sr., but he's not remorseful enough to give up his throne either, so he's more than willing to get whoever he can to silence Hamlet before the prince can bring him to justice..
- Affably Evil: A fairly common treatment in productions more sympathetic to him. This is backed up by some textual evidence.
- The Alcoholic: According to Hamlet and indeed, Claudius seems to be a big drinker, proposing numerous toasts and presiding over a bawdy court. Whether it's something that's always been there or something that came about as a result of the guilt of killing his brother is difficult to say.
- All There in the Script: In the play itself he is never named, everyone calling him "the King", "your uncle," or "my husband".
- Arch-Enemy: Hamlet refers to himself and Claudius as "mighty opposites" which is fitting because in addition to being king, Claudius is a smart guy and a smooth operator.
- Beard of Evil: Very often portrayed with one, though there are productions that forego one. Considering the traditional setting is, to quote the Royal Shakespeare Company's chronology of the tragedies, "nine-tenth century" and the culture he would belong to it is not unlikely he would have had one.
- Big Bad: It's thanks to him that the whole mess happened.
- Boisterous Bruiser: Sometimes played this way.
- Cain and Abel: Claudius murdered his brother for his throne and queen prior to continuity.
- Comforting the Widow: Claudius "comforted" Gertrude. It helped win him the throne. On the other hand, he does seem to genuinely love her. It is not an unpopular Alternative Character Interpretation that the throne was an afterthought and Claudius killed the king solely for Gertrude.
- Dirty Coward: From Hamlet's point of view, for killing Old Hamlet with poison. This perception may or may not be backed up by his repeated schemes to kill Hamlet in the most roundabout ways possible.
- Dirty Old Man: How Hamlet sees him for marrying his mother.
- The Evil Prince: He murdered his brother to take the Danish throne.
- Evil Uncle: He tries to have Hamlet, his own nephew, killed twice. Also counts as Wicked Stepfather due to marrying Hamlet's mother.
- Gentle Touch vs. Firm Hand: He's generally the firm hand to Gertrude's gentle hand but he can be the gentle hand when he needs to be. Due to his skill with words, he's a lot more tactful than Gertrude even if she is more personally sensitive.
- Happily Married: Seems to be this with Gertrude.
- HeelFaith Turn: Subverted. In his confession soliloquy, he expresses consuming guilt over the murder of his brother and stoops to pray, crying, "Help, angels!" but is unwilling to give up all that he gained through that murder and therefore knows that he won't be forgiven.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Stabbed with the deadly foil he prepared and forced to drink the wine he poisoned.
- Hollywood Atheist: One possible interpretation. He describes "a fault to reason" as more "absurd" than "a fault to Heaven", suggesting that he puts rationality before religious faith. The Elizabethans saw being too invested in rationality to be a path away from God and into Sin and materialism and Claudius is clearly a worldly man who prizes material gain. This may explain why he's unable to repent: he can't really believe.
- Ignored Epiphany: Actually comes close to repenting at one point, but he can't make himself give up the kingdom. Instead he abandons any thought of atoning and just concentrates on being King.
- Manipulative Bastard: A smooth PR man and spin-doctor, he's extremely adept at playing people off against one another. We don't see him truly shine until Act IV, when Laertes storms the castle to avenge his father on Claudius, and Claudius manages to talk him out of it by manipulating his grief and anger to point at Hamlet instead.
- My God, What Have I Done?: A plot point—Prince Hamlet intends to use his increasing guilt over murdering his brother against him by adding a fictionalized version of it to a play and prompting a guilty response from Claudius.
- Named After Somebody Famous: He's named after the Roman emperor Claudius I.
- No Historical Figures Were Harmed: He's based on the Roman emperor Claudius, who was considered the archetypal Evil Emperor in Elizabethan England, and who was poisoned by his niece (with whom he had an incestuous marriage).
- Non-Action Big Bad: Relies on others to do the fighty bits for him. Though it seems he's pretty good at pouring poison in people's ears.
- Out, Damned Spot!: Is repeatedly shown to be consumed with guilt over the murder of his brother.Claudius: What if this cursèd hand
Were thicker than itself with brothers blood?
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?
- Permanent Elected Official: If Denmark is in fact an Elective Monarchy, then Claudius is this. Well, permanent until someone revenges the last king on him, that is.
- Pet the Dog: His interactions with Queen Gertrude. Early on, he seems to genuinely care about his nephew too,note but he's also quite willing to have the prince killed.
- Poison Is Evil: Perfect Poison is his weapon of choice, highlighting his cowardice as poison was considered a woman's weapon by the Danes who thought that a real man would face his rival with a sword.
- Rerouted from Heaven: Inverted, discussed. Hamlet worries that if he murders Claudius while the king is at prayer, his soul will be rerouted to Heaven.
- Royal "We": As king, Claudius alternates between "I" and "we" based on the tone and subject matter of his speech. It's quite telling, if you know to look for it.
- Sibling Triangle: Claudius murdered his brother and married his brother's wife. Interpretations vary as to how complicit Gertrude is in the plot and how long the affair had been going on for.
- Sketchy Successor: Subverted. Hamlet makes it out that Claudius is absolutely nothing compared to his late father, Claudius' brother but Claudius seems genuinely well-liked and respected by his courtiers. It seems that King Hamlet was more of a stern military man whereas Claudius is more of a politician and man of the people. Given how decadent Claudius's court is and the fact that he's remarried, it's possible to see him as a Catholic in contrast to the straitlaced Protestantism of Hamlet and his father, particularly given that Shakespeare's patron was Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant monarch.
- Sleazy Politician: Murder seems to be the one political tool in his repertoire.
- Snakes Are Sinister: Irreversibly associates himself with snake imagery when publicizes that King Hamlet was killed by a snake in his orchard.
- Ghost: The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.
- Strong Empire, Shriveled Emperor: Subverted if one interprets that Claudius is actually a better King than his dead brother, capable of making peace with Denmarks enemies and not doing anything especially evil other than the crime itself and attempts to cover it up.
- The Usurper: One of the most iconic in fiction. He killed King of Denemark, his older brother, and took the throne despite the fact that the King had a son who should have inherited the throne and ruled over the country.
- Villain with Good Publicity: Claudius is an authorative and PR savvy individual who knows that Hamlet is "loved of the distracted masses" and therefore refuses to simply execute him for treason. He's good at quickly taking control of situations and calming everyone down and seems generally beloved by the court and populous, all of whom are unaware that he usurped the crown by killing his brother.
Hamlet's devoted and constant companion, Horatio is a skeptical college student who doubts the existence of ghosts—at first. This only makes it all the more shocking when Horatio comes to Hamlet with news that the ghost of the King is haunting Denmark. From there, if Hamlet needs to talk to anyone about ghosts or regicide, Horatio is right there to hear him out.
- Action Survivor: Arguably the Supporting Protagonist—oddly, when Hamlet's standing right there beside him.
- Audience Surrogate: The reason Horatio is in the play. Watch carefully—he's onstage before Hamlet, remains behind when he has gone (either to England or into the undiscovered country), is present in many key scenes where he really shouldn't be, reacts to Hamlet exactly as his enraptured audience would, and eventually resolves to go on and tell the story he has just witnessed. Who but the audience could love Hamlet with such honest, heartfelt devotion?
- Clear Their Name: Horatio goes into the final portion of the play—and, presumably, the rest of his life—with the mission to clear Hamlet's name, or at least make known the circumstances of his questionable actions.
- The Confidant: The only person (other than the audience) with whom Hamlet is more or less completely honest about his issues. It helps that Horatio takes his oath of silence to Hamlet quite seriously and never schemes behind his back.
- The Consigliere: Played with. Hamlet often asks Horatio for his advice or opinion, but unfailingly disregards it.
- Foil: Where Hamlet can be said to encompass every color of human spirit, Horatio is colorless and has no character save what we project onto him--rightfully so.
- Ham and Deadpan Duo: With Hamlet.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: He and Hamlet seem quite close, to the point of Horatio attempting suicide upon Hamlet's death (effectively forsaking his own salvation). Horatio is the only person Hamlet truly trusts enough to share his plans with, and the only one who doesn't betray him in some fashion. Some productions do add a homoerotic element to their relationship (or, in some sissy cases, they cast Horatio as a woman in love with Hamlet).
- Honest Advisor: Hamlet can count on Horatio to speak his mind, unlike the fawning Yes-Men Hamlet is usually attended by.Horatio: 'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.
- Incorruptible Pure Pureness: His Undying Loyalty to Hamlet and status as an outsider at court protect him from Claudius's influence.note
- Informed Ability: Horatio is called in to confirm or deny the apparition of King Hamlet supposedly because he is a scholar. However, he never demonstrates that he's any smarter or more educated than Hamlet or Laertes.
- Interclass Friendship: Hamlet, prince of Denmark, and Horatio, university student and only commoner at Elsinore. Horatio's humble station is part of the reason Hamlet trusts him so implicitly; as a prince, he's used to being surrounded by Professional Butt Kissers who flatter to gain favor and advancement, whereas . . . that's kind of off the table for Horatio. He also makes it clear that this is why Horatio can trust him:Hamlet: Nay, do not think I flatter;
For what advancement may I hope from thee
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits,
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flattered?
- I Should Write a Book About This: Hamlet implores him to keep his memory alive after he is dead, and it is implied that Horatio becomes the narrator of the story.
- Morality Pet: The only person Hamlet is consistently nice to, or sees as worth being nice to.
- Omnidisciplinary Scientist: Horatio is a scholar, so of course he knows how to speak to a ghost. Except it doesn't work because Horatio is Wrong Genre Savvy.
- The Only One I Trust: The only one privy to Hamlet's revenge plot (besides us, of course).
- Only Sane Man: Horatio is pretty much the only character not wrapped up in all the drama around Hamlet, Ophelia, and Claudius (and the only one that Hamlet isn't playing like a fiddle), which is probably why he's the only main character alive at the end.
- The Quiet One: His screentime far excels his number of lines.
- Secret Keeper: Swore an oath with Hamlet concerning the Ghost.
- Skeptic No Longer: Goes from "tush, 'twill not appear" to "I might not this believe / Without the sensible and true avouch of mine own eyes" after encountering the ghost himself.
- The Stoic: Hamlet praises him for this quality.Hamlet: ... thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commettled,
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.
- Straight Man: To Hamlet being a wise person.
- Supporting Protagonist: As the Audience Surrogate, onstage before and after Hamlet, it's easy to read him this way.
- Together in Death: Attempted at the end, but a dying Hamlet stops him.
- Undying Loyalty: To Hamlet.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Horatio's failure to communicate with the Ghost is not for lack of trying: he demands that it tell him if 1) some good deed may be done to quiet it, 2) it comes to warn the country of some terrible fate, or 3) it comes to tell where it buried the treasure in its life—which were all common tropes and would be perfectly plausible if we were in a more lighthearted genre.
- Yes-Man: Horatio is so honestly devoted to his prince that he's able to play both Yes-Man and Honest Advisor.Hamlet: [examining a skull] Dost thou think Alexander looked o' this fashion i'the earth?
Horatio: E'en so.
Hamlet: And smelt so? pah!
Horatio: E'en so, my lord.
PoloniusPolonius gave us the wisdom that "Brevity is Wit", but we should give it back, because he will never, ever stop talking. It doesn't matter if he has anything to say or if he'll actively make the situation worse; he'll yap on until whoever he's talking to gets sick of it and shuts him up. Problem is, a daughter can't shut up her father, so Ophelia has to take Polonius's advice and live by it. Not the best at romantic maneuvering, Polonius meets his end at the sword of his daughter's ex-sweetheart, our boy Hamlet.
- Abusive Parents: Certain interpretations of Polonius show him as this towards Ophelia, manipulating her and keeping her emotionally stunted.
- Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Polonius reads one of Hamlet's love letters to Ophelia out loud to the King and Queen—sometimes with Ophelia onstage.
- Bread, Eggs, Breaded Eggs: Prone to this.
- Captain Obvious: Polonius is the master of this trope. Appropriately enough, his last words are, "O! I am slain!" It has been assumed he says that due to the difficulty the audience would have had confirming the death of a character behind a curtain, but still . . .
- The Consigliere: Certain interpretations, like the Royal National Theatre's 2001 production, see him even as The Man Behind the Man regarding Claudius.
- Dishonored Dead: Polonius is reportedly given very quick and shoddy funeral rites, what with the king and queen trying to brush their heir's new homicidal tendencies under the rug and all.
- Double Standard: He holds his children's sex lives to a pretty era-typical double standard.
- Famous Last Words: "O, I am slain!"
- Hurricane of Aphorisms: He delivers one to Laertes as his final advice before he sends him off to school. It sounds like good advice (that's where we get "to thine own self be true"), until you remember that Polonius is the source.
- Hypocritical Humor: He claims that brevity is the soul of wit . . . while being one of the most talkative and least witty characters in the play.
- Idiot Ball: For a man who claims to be so wise, every single one of his decisions ends badly for him. Driving a wedge between Ophelia and Hamlet drives the former insane and the latter off the deep end, the advice he gives to Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet's madness sets everyone on the wrong track for two acts, and his final attempt to spy on Hamlet gets him killed.
- Irony: Many of Polonius's kernels of wisdom—such as 'brevity is the soul of wit' and "Neither a borrower nor a lender be"—have become widely known and are often Wrongfully Attributed to Shakespeare himself—despite belonging to a comic buffoon whom no one is meant to take seriously.
- Lack of Empathy: He may try to give the appearance of empathy, but would anyone with empathy use his own daughter as bait to find out whether her ex-lover is mad?
- Last Disrespects: Gets a really lovely eulogy from Hamlet:Hamlet: Indeed this counsellor
Is now most still, most secret and most grave,
Who was in life a foolish prating knave.
- Love Makes You Crazy: Abides by this philosophy regarding Hamlet and Ophelia.
- Meddling Parents: WILL NOT get his nose out of his children's business.
- Obfuscating Stupidity: One interpretation of his character is that he's much smarter than he appears, but plays the part of the fool in order to stay in the good graces of the king and hide his devious social climbing.
- Old Windbag: He'll go on and onnote in sententious displays of his "wisdom" to anyone who will listen. Hamlet calls him a "tedious old fool."
- Overprotective Dad: To both of his children. He sends a spy to monitor Laertes while he studies in Paris, and drives himself between Ophelia and her love Hamlet.
- Purple Prose: His standard manner of speaking,note played for laughs with the advice he offers his son, as well as the scene where he claims that "brevity is the soul of wit" and then fails to explain briefly what he's on about.
- Shipping Torpedo: He so is not on board with the Ophelia/Hamlet ship, mainly because he figures Hamlet will have to marry royalty.
- Shoo Out the Clowns: Naturally, as the closest thing to a comic-relief role in the play, he dies in Act III.
- Sleazy Politician: Ostensibly, he's the King's chief counselor, but he's really just a sycophant willing to scheme and connive to maintain his status.
- Too Dumb to Live: Because curtains are definitely swordproof.
- Upper-Class Twit: One interpretation is that he's a parody of the Renaissance novus homus: an over-educated commoner living the good life because he's impressed enough nobles.
- Windbag Politician: As noted, Polonius is prone to being long-winded. Everyone around him lampshades this.
- Wrong Genre Savvy: Seems to think he's in a Star-Crossed Lovers play rather than a revenge tragedy.
LaertesThe brother of Ophelia, who comes back from his studies in France for King Hamlet's funeral, only to leave soon after advising his sister to be careful with her wooer. When his father is killed and his sister is driven to madness, he returns to Denmark, raises a mob, and leads a coup against Claudius. Being the Manipulative Bastard that he is, however, Claudius manages to talk Laertes down and redirect his anger toward Hamlet.
- Anti-Villain: While he sides with Claudius in conspiring to poison Hamlet, his motivations in doing so are thoroughly understandable. His desire to avenge his father and sister is no different from Hamlet's goal of avenging the dead king.
- Big Brother Instinct: Before leaving for France, Laertes warns his sister Ophelia from getting involved with Hamlet.
- Chekhov's Gunman: He is introduced in the first act and appears briefly in two scenes before spending most of the play in France. He returns to play a major role in the final act.
- Chewing the Scenery: His protestations of grief at Ophelia's funeral get . . . dramatic.
- The Corruptible: His grief and anger over his father's death make him an easy target for Claudius.
- Death Equals Redemption: Only when he knows he is dying does Laertes reconcile with Hamlet, absolving him of his and his father's deaths and urging Hamlet to kill Claudius.
- Defeat Means Friendship: Or rather, Mutual Kill Means Friendship. When it is clear that they are both dying, he and Hamlet reconcile and he reveals all of Claudius's plot.
- Foil: To Hamlet. They are both out to avenge their fathers, but whereas Hamlet vacillates for five acts and keeps his entire plot to himself and the audience, Laertes raises a mob and leads a coup against Claudius.
- Hamlet lampshades this in the final duel, punning on being Laertes's "foil" (the rapiers they are dueling with are called foils).
- The Dragon: Becomes the final obstacle between Hamlet and Claudius.
- Establishing Character Moment: His request to return to school after attending the funeral/wedding, with Claudius treating him like a second son, establishes him as a Foil to Hamlet.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Killed by the same poisoned blade he uses to kill Hamlet.Laertes: I am justly killed with mine own treachery.
- Hot-Blooded: Not to the extent of Hotspur or Tybalt, but has a similar proclivity toward action. Compared to Hamlet he's positively feverous.
- Leeroy Jenkins: Foils Claudius's master plan when he loses patience and his temper and cuts Hamlet between bouts in their deadly fencing match.
- Master Swordsman: At least according to Claudius and Osric. Given that the ambiguously experienced Hamlet bests him fairly easily in their fencing match, this may or may not be an accurate description.
- My Sister Is Off-Limits!: Laertes does not want Hamlet seeing Ophelia. As it turns out, he was right to worry.
- Not So Different: From Hamlet, as Hamlet lampshades:Hamlet: ... for in my cause I see
The portraiture of his.
- Rabble Rouser: Is apparently charismatic enough to inspire a mob of angry citizens to ransack Elsinore with him.
- Rival Turned Evil: It's unclear how close Hamlet and Laertes have been, but Claudius's blatant preferential treatment of Laertesnote over his own nephew (and purported adopted son) clearly casts the two as rivals. Justifiedly, after Hamlet inadvertently kills Laertes's father, the two become enemies, with Laertes promoted to Claudius's Dragon.
- Shipping Torpedo: Like his dad, he doesn't approve of Ophelia's romance with Hamlet, though it's less for political reasons and more because he thinks Hamlet will eventually ruin her. Which, you know, he does.
- Why Are You Not My Son?: Claudius makes it abundantly clear that he favors Laertesnote over Hamlet.
- You Killed My Father: His reaction to his father's death stands in stark contrast to Hamlet's behaviour. While Hamlet's hesitation to seek revenge proves to be his undoing, Laertes is quite the opposite. After hearing that Polonius has been killed, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that Claudius is responsible. He returns to Denmark with an army of supporters, bent on committing regicide.
OpheliaA noblewoman and the sometime target of Hamlet's affections—though that is soon put to an end by disapproval of her overprotective brother and her pretentious father. On top of that, Hamlet has become withdrawn and consumed with sorrow after his own familial turmoil and now begins to take out his anger against his mother on Ophelia, assaulting her with cruel innuendos and accusations of infidelity. And then her father dies, murdered by Hamlet, which pushes her over the edge and into madness. It's unclear whether she was even stable enough to keep herself breathing, which becomes important when Gertrude finds her drowned body. Gertrude chooses to call it an accident, but if gravediggers and priests know anything about death, Ophelia may just have killed herself.
- Barefoot Loon: In many adaptations, including paintings, Ophelia is barefoot during her mad scenes.
- Break the Cutie: The Trauma Conga Line of her brother leaving, her lover rejecting her, her father dying at her lover's hands, and her lover's banishment hits her hard.
- Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl: Hamlet and Ophelia could be seen as a deconstruction. Ophelia is gentle, sweet, and fragile, whereas Hamlet is brooding and angst-ridden, yet both of them are given much more complexity than the simplicity of this trope entails. They are alike in many ways; they both have fragile mental states and eventually react to their fathers' deaths by (ostensibly) going mad.
- Butt-Monkey: She ends up getting the worst of the scheming of Hamlet, Polonius, and Claudius.
- The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: For once, it actually was suicide. (Probably.)
- Did They or Didn't They?: Whether Ophelia has actually her "chaste treasure opened / To his unmastered importunity" is open to interpretation.
- Dishonored Dead: As her death was likely a suicide, Ophelia's burial is rather low-key. When Laertes complains about this, the priest replies that she's only getting a cemetery plot at all on the orders of the king.
- Driven to Suicide: Queen Gertrude reports Ophelia's death to have been an accident, but the man who digs her grave says she shouldn't be buried in holy ground because she drowned herself.
- Ethereal White Dress: Many adaptations depict her wearing a flowing white gown after she loses her mind from grief, highlighting both her innocence and how she's mentally 'checked out' of the world following her Trauma Conga Line, including her father being accidentally murdered by the man she loves. She wanders around the countryside, singing and gathering flowers, and eventually drowns; it's strongly implied it may have been deliberate.
- Expository Hairstyle Change: Some productions have her start out with her hair up (as typical for women of her time) and let it get more and more unkempt throughout the play until it's completely loose, to parallel her becoming more unhinged.
- Flower Motifs: As part of her trope-naming Ophelia-sequence, she distributes real or imaginary flowers to the assembled court. The meaning behind each of the flowers remains open to interpretation.
- Go Mad from the Revelation: To become The Ophelia.
- Hidden Depths: Her "noble mind" soliloquy displays an elegance and depth of thought she has not previously been shown to possess—probably because this is the first (and only) time she's onstage alone without a man trampling all over her lines.
- Honey Trap: Used as a downplayed example against Hamlet.
- Kill the Cutie: Ophelia, a sweet, perceptive girl with no enemies, is found drowned in a river at the end of Act IV, possibly in an act of insanity and/or suicide.
- Kind Restraints: Sometimes placed in a straitjacket and/or padded cell.
- Love Hurts: Her love for Hamlet causes her a great deal of grief. A combination of her father's meddling and Hamlet's callous rejection drives her insane.
- Love Martyr: Ophelia is utterly devoted to Hamlet, despite his cold rejection and abusive treatment of her. This, among several other tragic circumstances eventually leads her to make the ultimate sacrifice: her life.
- Madness Makeover: She gets a fairly drastic one, though its details vary from production to production.
- Mad Oracle: Possibly in her mad scene, if the flowers reveal she has somehow gained insight into the secret desires of the court.
- Neutral Female: She shows very little independence and simply acts as a pawn to her father, and then as the impetus for Laertes's revenge after her death.
- The Ophelia: Ophelia becomes the Ophelia after going mad in Act IV—after her sometime sweetheart stabs her dad through a curtain, her sanity quickly decays. Her brother, Laertes, returns to Elsinore in a rush, but by the time he gets there, Ophelia doesn't even recognize him. Her famous "mad scenes" consist of singing filthy, bawdy songs that are out of place with her demure mien, strewing imaginary flowers, and sobbing over her father's death. The Queen later reports Ophelia drowned, saying she was hanging a wreath of flowers in a willow tree over a river and was so distracted she didn't even recognize the danger when she fell in, but kept singing. Her gravedigger darkly asserts she was Driven to Suicide and is now damned.
- Sanity Slippage Song: She sings snippets of several songs during her mad scenes. Analysis can provide some insight into the reasons for her madness—as if they weren't obvious already.
- Secret Relationship: Hamlet has been courting her in secret—though, as Gertrude's graveside admission, "I hoped thou should'st have been my Hamlet's wife", reveals, it's possible Everybody Knew Already.
- Speech-Impeded Love Interest: In certain interpretations of the play, she has a lisp, which gives Hamlet's line "You jig and amble, and you lisp" a literal meaning. Besides, her version from the Stanislavski-Craig Moscow Art Theatre production lisped in her mad scenes.
- Spurned into Suicide: One of the motives for her probable suicide (besides her father's murder by the man she loves) is being brutally rejected by Hamlet. This is even more justified if one considers the gravitas of his rejection within the setting; if Ophelia and Hamlet had slept together out of wedlock (which is left ambiguous), or even if people believed they had (several people note Hamlet's interest in her borders on inappropriate), her reputation would be ruined and it's highly unlikely any other man would marry her. After going mad, Ophelia sings about a woman having sex with a man after he promised to marry her, which could hint something similar happened between her and Hamlet.
- Star-Crossed Lovers: At least as far as her father is concerned.Polonius: Hamlet is a prince out of thy star.
- Suicide by Sea: Drowns herself (if it wasn't accidental) after everything in her life goes to hell.
- Talkative Loon: In her final scenes, she is reduced to rambling vaguely prophetic-sounding nonsense.
- Talking to Themself: It's unclear if she's talking to herself, the characters onstage, or absent characters.
- Temporary Love Interest: Likely a case of an Unbuilt Trope. Her relationship with Hamlet fits the requirements, but her departure from the story is very significant.
- Too Good for This Sinful Earth: A White character in a world of Black-and-Gray Morality. Yeah, she wasn't gonna last.
- Tuneless Song of Madness: Driven insane following the collapse of her relationship with the title character and the murder of her father; true to form, her very first lines in Act IV are the lyrics of a love song. In fact, almost all of her lines from hereon until her suicide consist of insane singing.
- Uptown Girl: Hamlet is a prince, heir to the throne of Denmark; Ophelia is daughter to the king's chief counsellor. Polonius discourages their relationship partly because Hamlet is royalty, and thus "on his choice depends / The safety and the health of this whole state." However, Gertrude later reveals that she hoped the two would marry, so maybe there wouldn't have been a problem after all.
Queen GertrudeThe Queen of Denmark is bound to love the King 'til death do them apart, but it's also polite to delay re-marriage after death, to not marry the King's brother, and to make sure that brother didn't murder the King. Gertrude only knows about the first half of that sentence (probably) and that turns all the love her son Hamlet has to her into hatred. He doesn't want to kill her, but that doesn't stop him from chewing her out.
- Driven to Suicide: Some interpretations hold that she knowingly drinks the poisoned drink intended to kill her son. If it was supposed to be a Heroic Sacrifice, she did a cruddy job: there's enough left over to kill Claudius and almost Horatio.
- Establishing Character Moment:Gertrude: Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:
I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.
- Caring, motherly, charismatic—and totally willing to use it.
- Evil Matriarch: Hamlet sees her as this. Whether or not she is one depends on interpretation.
- A Family Affair: Some adaptations imply she was having an affair with her brother-in-law when the king was still alive.
- Gentle Touch vs. Firm Hand: When the power couple wants one of their subjects to do X, Claudius generally leads off with a stern half-command, all too aware that it's being issued by a king, while Gertrude tries a softer, more empathetic approach. Especially evident when the two convince Hamlet not to return to school (he responds to Gertrude) and when they convince Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet (they respond to Claudius).
- Guess Who I'm Marrying?: Hamlet is deeply shocked that she marries her former brother-in-law so soon after her husband's death.
- Mama Bear: In productions where she drinks the poison to protect Hamlet — doubly so if those same productions imply she knows what Claudius did to her husband. Kill her husband and take his crown? She'll get over it. Try and kill her son? Hell no.
- Parents as People: Gertrude has her own life, motivations, and desires beyond Hamlet. He's having a hard time accepting that, but it's clear she does love him.
- Parent with New Paramour: She marries Claudius after the elder Hamlet's death. Whether or not she was complicit in the murder varies depending on interpretation.
- Playing Gertrude: Almost universal among adaptations, hence the trope name.
- Pushover Parents: Shows signs of this in the closet scene.
- Remarried to the Mistress: Some adaptations imply she was involved with Claudius before her husband's death.
- Shaming the Mob: Her shining moment in many productions.Gertude: How cheerfully on the false trail they cry!
O, this is counter, you false Danish dogs!
- Shipper on Deck: At Ophelia's funeral, she admits she hoped Ophelia would marry Hamlet, apparently thinking she was good for him.
- Silk Hiding Steel: As the above shows, Gertrude is more than the Proper Lady she appears to be.
- Stepford Smiler: In most productions.
- Taking the Bullet: Many (if not most) productions imply that she knows the cup is poisoned (some even having her see Claudius put the poison in), and is drinking it so Hamlet won't.
Rosencrantz and GuildensternTwo old friends of Hamlet who care more for humor and not getting their heads chopped off than loyalty to the Danish prince, as evidenced when they agree to spy on him for Hamlet's father's murderer.
- All Men Are Perverts: Hamlet has to repeatedly ask them to Get Your Mind Out of the Gutter.
- Ambiguously Gay: Especially in Franco Zeffirelli's version.
- Bad Liar: Hamlet sees through them almost immediately.
- Conflicting Loyalty: To Claudius, the king, and to Hamlet, their prince and dear friend who may or may not be sane.
- The Corruptible: Claudius wins them over fairly easily.
- The Dividual: They go everywhere together, finish each other's lines, and eventually die together. Even Claudius gets them confused, with Gertrude having to correct him.
- Et Tu, Brute?: Hamlet is considerably shaken after discovering that even his "excellent good friends" have become Claudius's spies.
- For Your Own Good: They only agree to spy on Hamlet because they are genuinely concerned for his mental stability. And because, y'know, the king will execute them if they don't.
- Heterosexual Life-Partners: Sure.
- Innocent Bystander:Hamlet: 'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensèd points
Of mighty opposites.
- Karmic Death: Subverted. The play never gives any indication whatsoever that Claudius made them aware of his plan for them to become complicit in their old friend Hamlet's execution (and to be perfectly honest, it doesn't really make sense for him to have done so, either.) But Hamlet doesn't know this, and he switches the missive they are transporting to England for the king to one commanding for the bearers' executions, then rather callously leaves them to die.
- The Mole: Brought to Elsinore to spy on Hamlet for Claudius.
- Off with His Head!: The reason Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
- Please Shoot the Messenger: The other reason Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
- Shoo Out the Clowns: Gotten rid of by the end of Act IV to make way for the seriousness to come. Hamlet being what it is, this in naturally done by killing them both off.
- Straight Man: Play this to Hamlet being a wise person for most of II.3.
- Unwitting Pawn: They agreed to try to figure out the cause of Hamlet's madness. They did not agree to bear a letter to England commanding his execution.
- We Used to Be Friends: Their betrayal irreparably damages their close friendship with Hamlet.
King HamletThe last king of Denmark. A just and admirable ruler (at least according to his son), his reign tragically cut short when his little brother decided he'd rather have the throne and queen to himself. But surprise! Hammie the elder is still very much around, and he's out for revenge big-time.
- The Bus Came Back: He apparently gets a second parole-from-Hell (or possibly Purgatory) to whet Hamlet's almost-blunted purpose in Act III.
- Cain and Abel: The Abel half, obviously.
- Chewing the Scenery: On top of being, y'know, a spirit or goblin damn'd, he has some of the most dramatic dialogue in the play, which is saying a lot.Ghost: The hour is almost come
When I to sulf'rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself.
- Creator Cameo: Almost certainly played by the little-known actor Will Shakespeare. This has some very interesting implications when you consider that Hamlet was written shortly after Shakespeare's only son, Hamnet, died—it's almost as though the play is an inversion of reality where the father is a ghost to the son.
- Dad the Veteran: Assuming he wasn't off fighting military campaigns right up until his death.
- Dead Person Impersonation: Hamlet does not seem to truly doubt this, despite using it as an excuse to get further proof (i.e. delay), but considering the Ghost alludes to enduring fiery punishment for his sins, implores Hamlet to take revenge, and ultimately sets off the events that kill most of the cast, it's a possibility that must be examined.
- Deceased Parents Are the Best: Hamlet remembers his father with much fondness, perhaps more than is warranted.
- Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The script refers to him only as "The Ghost," further complicating the question of his identity.
- Hamlet, who already believes, subverts this early on:Hamlet: I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, Father, Royal Dane. O, answer me!
- Hamlet, who already believes, subverts this early on:
- Frontline General: Spent most of his life on the front lines, leading Denmark to victory.
- Helpful Hallucination: Seems impossible, since Hamlet was not even the first to see him, but the scene when he appears to Hamlet but not to Gertrude almost calls this into question . . . Claudius very much did kill his brother, though.
- Old Soldier: Was one before the whole regicide thing. He still acts like this when he comes back.
- Old Windbag: For someone with a limited amount of time to set his kingdom to rights, he sure takes a long time to get to the point.Ghost: [in a perfect world] Hamlet! You know how you suspect your uncle of killing me for the throne? He did! You need to take revenge and claim your place on the throne. But don't do anything dumb like pretending to be crazy or dragging Gertrude into this. Go! [disappears in a puff of plot resolution]
- Posthumous Character: He does make it onscreen as a ghost in this case.
- Rerouted from Heaven: Justified. Since Claudius offed him in his sleep, he was unable to confess his sins and be absolved before death and so was sent on to the afterlife with all his sins on his head.
- Slain in Their Sleep: Was murdered while napping in the garden.
- Unfinished Business: Well, he didn't rise from the grave for a friendly chat about the weather.
First GravediggerThe Gravedigger, or First Clown, as the Folio refers to him, is perhaps Hamlet's only true intellectual equal in the play. No, seriously: Hamlet's conversation with the sexton he comes across digging a grave for Ophelia in the castle churchyard is the only one in the play in which he does not maintain the definitive upper hand he whole time and instead finds himself playing Straight Man to an even more accomplished wise person. But before Hamlet enters the scene, the Gravedigger and his subordinate discuss the implications and definition of suicide with more earnest practicality than anyone else in the play has displayed.
There are no illusions shrouding death here.
- Black Comedy: Identified as a "clown," the Gravedigger is the closest thing the play has to a Shakespearean Fool (unless you count the alleged skull of Yorick). He jokes about graves and suicide and coerces the audience to laugh with him.
- Establishing Character Moment:Hamlet: Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?
- Jerkass Has a Point: He's rather dismissive of Ophelia getting a Christian burial since he believes she committed suicide, but he's not wrong to say it's unfair that nobility often bend or even break laws to suit themselves. Ophelia gets a official burial because of her rank and Claudius putting his foot down, basically buying her way into consecrated ground.
- The Jester: Speaking truth to power for thirty years.
- It Gets Easier: He is understandably matter-of-fact about death after having been sexton at Castle Elsinore his whole life.Hamlet: Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at grave-making?
Horatio: Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.
- Large Ham: Usually.
- Last Disrespects: His treatment of Ophelia while digging her grave is anything but reverent, though this is more from desensitization to death after his long years as a "grave-maker" than from actual malice.
- Literalist Snarking: Mocks Hamlet by answering his question in the most uselessly literal way possible:Hamlet: How came he mad?
Gravedigger: Very strangely, they say.
Hamlet: How strangely?
Gravedigger: Faith, e'en with losing his wits.
Hamlet: Upon what ground?
Gravedigger: Why, here in Denmark.note
- Malaproper: Very much so. Unfortunately, his slips (like saying "argal" when he means "ergo") can be very easy to miss given all the archaic language surrounding them.
- One-Shot Character: With infinite potential to be a One-Scene Wonder.
- Only Sane Man: Significantly placed outside the castle, where Claudius's coruption has not managed to reach.
- Plucky Comic Relief: A breath of ironic fresh air in the midst of the play's very dark second half.
- Servile Snarker: Unparalleled as a Deadpan Snarker.
Prince FortinbrasThe crown prince of Norway doesn't play much of a part in Hamlet, since he's supposedly only marching through Denmark to conquer a small piece of land of little importance to anyone. He shows up briefly in Act IV, but only enters the action in the last scene of the play, when he strolls into Denmark after everyone dies and prepares to put the kingdom back together.
- The Ace: Young Fortinbras is both an accomplished student and a successful military commander. His arrival to take the throne of Denmark is usually shown in a very positive light, as there's every indication that he will be a superior king to either Claudius or Hamlet.
- Foil: To . . . (wait for it) . . . Hamlet! Wow, surprise. In the play's backstory, Fortinbras's father, the other Fortinbras, was killed in combat by King Hamlet, giving Fortinbras the same motivation as Hamlet. Unlike Hamlet, he is perfectly content to be a war king and commands his rightfully obedient troops with decisive mettle.
- Glory Seeker: Goes to war for the glory of it.
- Hero of Another Story: He has his own revenge plot (directed against Hamlet's father/the Danes), and his movements are referenced throughout the play, although he only appears in person at the end, wherein his revenge completely succeeds and he conquers Denmark (aided by almost everyone else being dead).
- Karma Houdini: Arguably. Some readings of the text and some adaptations have him attempting to conquer Denmark underhandedly rather than just passing through with his army as he claims, and the ending for him is Hamlet supporting him to be the next king. If this was his plan, then he's not only exculpated for his treacherous actions; he ends up being rewarded for it.
- Not So Different: From Hamlet, which Hamlet of course points out. Despite Fortinbras's desire to avenge his father, on old King Hamlet, he and Hamlet seem to conceive a mutual respect for one another. Hamlet even bequeaths him the Danish crown in the final act to avoid a Succession Crisis after the royal line has been wiped out, which also ties Denmark and Norway closely together and will end a great deal of potential conflict between the two kingdoms. Fortinbras also proclaims that he will honor Hamlet with a full military funeral and says he would have made an excellent king, in his opinion.
- Red Herring: All that talk of Fortinbras's invasion and time devoted building up is his character? He ends up being a tertiary character at best and just ends up invading Poland, instead. He has nothing to do with the tragedy of the play.
- War for Fun and Profit: Seems to be his modus operandi. Hamlet muses on this:Hamlet: Rightly, to be great
Is greatly to find quarrel in a straw.
- Wins by Doing Absolutely Nothing: For all the worrying about him possibly invading and trying to conquer Denmark by force, in the end he takes over simply by showing up to find all of the Danish royal family dead or dying, and is then simply handed the crown by the dying Hamlet.
- You Killed My Father: He planned to attack Denmark (probably) because Hamlet's father killed his in battle.
OsricA courtier at Elsinore who shows up in Act V to fill the void left by Polonius's death and act as some Comic Relief. He informs Hamlet that the king has decided to pit him against Laertes in a duel—all for fun, of course!—and later acts as arbiter of said duel. He is one of the very few characters left alive at the end of the play.
- Ambiguously Gay: He is described as lavishly dressed and flamboyant, and Hamlet refers to him as a "waterfly"—a term used only once elsewhere in Shakespeare's canon, as an insult to Patroclus in Troilus and Cressida. Yes, that Patroclus.note He seems to have a close relationship with Laertes and praises him to Hamlet in absolutely glowing terms.
- Butt-Monkey: He spends his entire sub-scene in V.2 being mocked and insulted behind his back by Hamlet and Horatio, seemingly undeservedly.
- Captain Obvious: Hamlet forces him into this role repeatedly, much to his embarrassment.
- The Dandy: Hamlet and Horatio mock him mercilessly for it.
- Foil: To Horatio, interestingly. He embodies the exact qualities Hamlet praises Horatio for not possessing—flattery, capriciousness, and pretentiousness—and he and Horatio are the only two named characters alive onstage when Fortinbras sweeps in. His position during the duel as Laertes's right-hand man puts him in explicit contrast with Horatio, who is Hamlet's:Horatio: They bleed on both sides.How is it, my lord?
Osric: How is 't, Laertes?
- Professional Butt-Kisser: One justification for Hamlet's vitriol toward him is that he is one of the flattering courtiers Hamlet makes no secret of hating and repeatedly denounces throughout the play. Osric is sent to inform Hamlet of his oncoming duel specifically because Claudius could count on him to praise Laertes extravagantly and make Hamlet jealous.
- Purple Prose: His default manner of speaking. Hamlet comments on this at mocks it at several points.Osric: Shall I re-deliver you e'en so?
Hamlet: To this effect, sir; after what flourish your nature will.
- Secret Keeper: Implied to be this for Laertes. He judges the duel and doesn't seem too shocked when it goes off the rails. In some productions he hands Laertes the right foil, knowing it to be unblunted and poisoned.
- Straight Man: Unwillingly plays this to Hamlet in their scene together.
- Upper-Class Twit: According to Hamlet, he bought his title.Hamlet: He hath much land, and fertile. Let a beast be lord of beasts and his crib shall stand at the kings mess. Tis a chough, but, as I say, spacious in the possession of dirt.
- Yes-Man: Hamlet takes advantage of this.Hamlet: Put your bonnet to his right use; 'tis for the head.
Oscric: I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
Hamlet: No, believe me, 'tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
Oscric: It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
Hamlet: But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.
Oscric: Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry,—as 'twere,—I cannot tell how. But, my lord, his majesty bade me signify to you that he has laid a great wager on your head: sir, this is the matter,—
Hamlet: I beseech you, remember—[Hamlet moves him to put on his hat]
Oscric: Nay, good my lord; for mine ease, in good faith.
- Bit Character: Special mention goes to Francisco, who starts the first scene off with Barnardo, makes an ominous, cryptic remark, and then promptly leaves as his shift ends, neatly missing the entire play.
- Creator Cameo: Shakespeare as the First Player.
- Deus ex Machina: The pirates who rescue Hamlet on the way to England.
- The Dividual: The oft-neglected ambassadors Voltemand and Corneliusnote even share a couple line attributions.
- Elite Mooks: Claudius's "Switzers".
- Hero of Another Story: Reynaldo, the servant Polonius sends to spy on Laertes at school, seems well poised to protagonize a Shakespearean comedy.
- Loyal to the Position: The Danish watchmen, as the play's third line reveals, are loyal to the king. Doesn't much matter which one.Francisco: Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself!
Barnardo: Long live the king!
- Mr. Exposition: Marcellus, the Danish guard who disappears after Act I, often plays this role.
- No Celebrities Were Harmed: The Players are clearly supposed to be William Shakespeare's own troupe.
- Parental Substitute: Yorick seems to have been a surrogate for Hamlet's unavailable royal progenitors.
- Posthumous Character: Yorick, the twenty-three-years-dead court jester, who makes it onstage as a skull . . . even though he clearly doesn't. The Gravedigger is excavating a mass grave full of random skulls and would have no way of knowing whose this actually was.
- The Power of Acting: The First Player is an accomplished thespian and manages to turn a Stylistic Suck of a speech into a wrenching soliloquy-catalyst.
- Professional Butt-Kisser: There are reportedly many of these at Elsinore, although Osric is the only one we meet. Hamlet hates these guys.Hamlet: [This might be the skull] of a courtier; which could say 'Good morrow, sweet lord! How dost thou, good lord?' This might be my lord such-a-one, that praised my lord such-a-one's horse, when he meant to beg it.
- Secret Keeper: Marcellus, like Horatio, swears an oath never to tell anyone about the Ghost or Hamlet's interactions with it.
- Straight Man: The Gravedigger's companion plays this to him.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Neither Marcellus nor Reynaldo is seen again after II.1. Reynaldo is sent into France, but he is hardly important enough to be Put on a Bus in the first place.