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HAMLET FREE ONLINE STUDY GUIDE
Claudius is the present King of Denmark, Hamlet's paternal uncle, and Gertrude's new husband. By nature, he is coarse and vulgar, a man who enjoys drinking and debauchery. The stark contrast between his vulgarity and his dead brother's goodness is emphasized repeatedly throughout the play. Portrayed as a completely corrupt and power-hungry villain, he murdered the king, his own brother, then took his wife and his crown as his own. Threatened by Hamlet's presence and popularity, he also plans to have him murdered.
Claudius is completely given over to hypocrisy, appearing to be one thing when he is the complete opposite. He pretends to be a doting stepfather, when all he cares about is protecting himself. Suspicious by nature, he is always on guard and immediately perceives a threat in Hamlet's madness and makes plans to do away with him. He effortlessly makes fond references to his late brother with no trace of guilt or shame. In Act IV, when he has issued orders to have Hamlet killed, he hypocritically remarks that he has made arrangements for his "especial safety." Hamlet is perceptive enough to see through the treachery of Claudius and disgustedly says of him "that one may smile and smile, and be a villain." Even when Claudius kneels in prayer after he has shown his guilt at the play, there is no sincerity in his action. Without remorse, he soon plans the death of Hamlet in a fencing match.
Besides being a hypocrite, Claudius is a cunning and unscrupulous schemer who will have his own way at any price. He poisons his own brother in order to satisfy his ambition to become the King of Denmark. This foul murder is so cleverly perpetrated that King Hamlet's death appears to be snakebite. Additionally, in order to secure his own position, Claudius craftily hatches a scheme to eliminate the young Prince by sending him to England. When this attempt fails, he contrives a duel between Hamlet and Laertes with an unscathed foil. He also drops a poisoned pearl into a cup of wine intended for Hamlet. Fortunately, his plan backfires on him, and Hamlet stabs him with the poisoned, unscathed foil and makes him drink the poisoned wine. In the end, therefore, Claudius gets his just reward.
Ophelia is a simply depicted character whose main plot functions are to be Hamlet's long-standing girlfriend and to suffer greatly and eventually die because of the corruption in Denmark. The daughter of Polonius and brother of Laertes, she is a soft-spoken and beautiful female. She is also an obedient and tender-hearted young lady who willingly obeys her father even when it means being separated from Hamlet, her true love. Ophelia is characterized by simplicity, innocence, faithfulness, honesty, and a total lack of deceit. Her purity is symbolized by flowers, especially by the violets, that are so much a part of her being.
Ophelia is portrayed as a weak character. Although her love for Hamlet is genuine and absolute, when her father and brother demand that she separate herself from Hamlet, she does not have the strength of character to stand up to them. In turn, she becomes a helpless pawn, used by her foolish father and the scheming Claudius to test the truthfulness of Hamlet's madness. When Hamlet speaks rudely to her, she dissolves into tears, unable to control her emotion. After her father's death, she breaks down under the strain and becomes truly mad. She dies, probably through intentional suicide, when she falls into the river and drowns. During her funeral, Hamlet and Laertes clash over their love for her, creating the most dramatic graveyard scene ever written. Ophelia is an important character, despite her one-dimensionality; she represents uncompromised goodness in a cast of compromised people.
Although the Queen is a devoted mother to Hamlet, she is a weak-willed woman who seems to walk blindly through life. She marries Claudius too hastily, but has no idea that she is a pawn in his hands or that he has murdered her husband in order to seize the throne. She cannot understand why her son is so upset about her remarriage; she also reprimands Hamlet for his excessive grief over his father. She becomes a key instrument in the tragedy when she begs Hamlet to stay at Elsinore instead of returning to Wittenberg for his studies. Had Hamlet been away at school as planned, many of the deaths that occur in the play could have been prevented.
The weak Gertrude allows herself to be used by both Claudius and Polonius. She arranges a meeting with her son so that the King can spy on him; she even allows Polonius to hide behind her curtain and eavesdrop on the mother/son conversation. When Hamlet bitterly attacks Gertrude for her lustful, incestuous marriage, she cries out in fear, an action that causes Polonius' death. She tells Hamlet that he has "cleft my heart in twain," but she still does not accept the guilt of her husband or realize the heinousness of her own crime.
Throughout the play, Gertrude is a flat character who does not change. She is always depicted as a passive being, never acting on her own. Even as she watches the tragedy of the duel scene, she remains a spectator rather than a participant. It is ironic that she insists on drinking from the poisoned cup intended for Hamlet even though Claudius warns her against it; her only independent action in the play results in her death.
Polonius is the elderly Lord Chamberlain of Denmark and Claudius' loyal accessory and trusted advisor. An outstanding aspect of his character is his ceremonious verbosity; he obviously derives immense pleasure from hearing his own voice. Even the simple-minded Queen cannot bear the tediousness of his speech and at one point sharply asks him to give "more matter with less art."
Hamlet totally derides him for his verbosity and treats him as a doddering old fool. In fact, after realizing that he has killed the Chamberlain and not Claudius, Hamlet dismisses him as "a foolish prating knave."
Polonius is habitually interfering in affairs that do not concern him. Since he is cunning and deceitful himself, he spies on the activities of his own children. He sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes' conduct in Paris and arranges to eavesdrop on Ophelia's meeting with Hamlet. Appropriately, he is killed by Hamlet when hiding in Gertrude's closet to spy on her encounter with her son. After killing him, Hamlet appropriately denounces him as a "wretched, rash, intruding fool."