In William Shakespeare’s works, there are often many instances of the protagonist’s key traits being highlighted in the behavior of another character. However, there is no play where these foils are more obvious than in the famed Hamlet. While nearly every character is a foil to Hamlet in some way, three men stand out amongst the crowd. Fortinbras, Laertes and Claudius are all faced with crises similar to situations that Hamlet faces, and yet the reaction of each man in their personal situation varies from Hamlet’s own methods of dealing with the same issues.
The character of Fortinbras is the foil that is most similar to Hamlet in regards to circumstance. Hamlet’s father has died, murdered by the hand of his own brother, and Hamlet has been discarded as heir. Similarly, Fortinbras is the prince of Norway, Hamlet’s father has murdered his father, and his uncle has unjustly stolen the throne from him. Hamlet is spending time merely contemplating revenge, while Fortinbras is leading an army in an attempt to reclaim the land that is his. Fortinbras’ desire for action with which to avenge his father is the catalyst that Hamlet needs to catapult himself out of inaction, as he says, “Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honour’s at the stake" (IV.iv.56-68). These lines show that Hamlet has decided that strong action is better than rational debate, and his foil provides him with the ambition to move ahead with his plans.
Another foil that influences Hamlet’s decisions is Laertes. Hamlet has mistakenly killed Polonius, Laertes’ father, while mistaking him for someone else, and this turn of events places Hamlet in the same role as Claudius. However, while Hamlet is full of self-doubt and conflicting emotions, Laertes is quick to attempt to revenge his father. It is no coincidence that in the final scene of the play, Hamlet says to him, “I’ll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance your skill shall, like a star i’ the darkest night, Stick fiery off indeed” (V.ii.5-7). Even Hamlet himself realizes how closely aligned his situation is with Laertes and he knows that in the future they will be compared to one another, although Laertes will be found to be greater for his courage in action.
The final foil is the one that is the most painful to Hamlet. His uncle, Claudius, has murdered his father and taken his position as rightful heir, and yet, Hamlet finds himself in a simliar situation with the accidental murder of Polonius. However, as Claudius revels in his immorality and ability to achieve his goals no matter what the cost, Hamlet is plagued by the choices that he must make. This is the only case in which someone acts as a true foil to Hamlet, with Claudius’ negative characteristics highlighting Hamlet’s rationale and regret.
In conclusion, while Laertes, Claudius and Fortinbras all have something in common with Hamlet, the way in which they react to the common element sets them apart. The addition of these characters makes it easy for the readers to see the areas in which Hamlet is succeeding, and subsequently, failing, on his journey to avenge his father’s death.
only �lm�؋� mortality and the brevity and fragility of human life, though, that Andrew could learn this lesson and prepare himself to apply it. It seems significant that the lesson is so powerful that Andrew does not even notice when the infamous Napoleon walks past him as he lies on the ground trying to grasp the fullness of his new awareness.
In Tolstoy’s War and Peace, conflict and stability do not complement each other so much as they do reflect one another. War and peace, Tolstoy argues through the circumstances that afflict and liberate his characters, are not as different as they might appear with just a superficial glance. Rather, the dramatic tensions that exist between the two constructs that have marked every epoch of human history affect and inform one another. In times of war, even those places and people who seem the safest are unlikely to be free of divisive conflict. The chaos, uncertainty, and scope of violence that characterize periods of war spill over into every other aspect of society, including the domestic sphere, creating instability for everyone, irrespective of whether this fact is acknowledged.
It is not until after the war between the Russians and Napoleon’s forces has ended that families and relationships finally begin to stabilize and assume a semblance of functionality and normalcy, much like society itself. Pierre and Natasha enter into a phase of domestic bliss and mutual appreciation. Mary and Nicholas get married and their union brings peace of various kinds—economic and domestic—to both of their families. The message that Tolstoy wants to deliver seems to be clear. Social peace, Tolstoy says through his characters and their conditions at the novel’s conclusion, is a precondition for domestic stability. Without being overly moralizing, Tolstoy’s War and Peace does become a morality tale, cautioning the reader against the varied kinds of violence that human beings inflict upon one another.
Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Trans. George Gibian. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.