In literature, a foil is a secondary character whose traits and behaviors contrast with those of a primary character (often the protagonist), thereby making the primary character’s qualities clearer to the audience. Such utilization of foils is particularly clear in the play Hamlet.
Laertes is used as foil to emphasize key attributes seen within Hamlet and to further develop his characterization and tragic flaws. Consequently, Laertes’ rashness brings out Hamlet’s inability to seek revenge as a result of his overthinking. Hamlet and Laertes share a common ambition for revenge; however, they seek this revenge in contrasting ways. Hamlet accidentally murders Polonius who is hiding behind the arras as Hamlet speaks to his mother. As soon as Laertes discovers that his Father has been murdered he immediately leaves France for Denmark. Laertes plans to murder Claudius, assuming that he is responsible for his Father’s death. His intention to kill Claudius without verifying if he is the perpetrator indicates a lack of thought and planning. Laertes is not concerned with the details of the murder; his only thought is to avenge his Father’s death and restore honour to his family name. This, in turn, brings out Hamlet’s tragic flaw; his tendency to overthink. Hamlet dwells on his plan to avenge his Father’s death and constantly doubts himself. His overthinking is so drastic that before he even attempts to murder his Uncle, he feigns madness to ensure there will be no repercussions. As a result, Hamlet delays carrying out his revenge several times throughout the play.
Although Hamlet is also impulsive, he does not use this trait against his Uncle to seek revenge, whereas Laertes does and it proves effective. In addition, Laertes’ willingness to murder illuminates Hamlet’s concern with his conscience and morals. Laertes is hot-headed and therefore killing is not an issue if it ensures he will bring honour back to his family. As a result, when Laertes discovers that Hamlet killed his Father, Claudius and Laertes plot to murder Hamlet. Laertes boasts about killing Hamlet in the church. Although the reference of killing in the church is sinful, Laertes will do whatever it takes to ensure his revenge. He does not worry about the afterlife, and there are no concerns about conscience; Hamlet has killed Polonius and therefore must die at his hands, regardless of the circumstances. This dramatically contrasts Hamlet, who overthinks every detail of what may occur if he murders Claudius. Hamlet is given many opportunities to kill his Uncle but fails to do so since he is lost in thought about the minor details of the offence he wishes to commit. Hamlet finds it difficult to murder people especially if it goes against his conscience and morals. Hamlet can kill his Uncle while he is praying in the church but stops himself in fear that it will send him to heaven. Hamlet is unaware that Claudius is insincere in his prayers and that he will not be sent to heaven if he is killed. As a result of Hamlet’s overthinking he misses the countless opportunities to avenge his Father’s death, unlike Laertes, who’s impulse allows him to seize every opportunity for revenge.
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