Characterization within the Drama Hamlet
The purpose of this essay is to enlighten the reader regarding the characters in Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet – whether they are three-dimensional or two-dimensional, dynamic or static, etc.
The genius of the Bard is revealed in his characterization. Brian Wilkie and James Hurt in Literature of the Western World examine the universal appeal of Shakespeare resulting from his “sharply etched characters”:
Every age from Shakespeare’s time to the present has found something different in him to admire. All ages, however, have recognized his supreme skill in inventing sharply etched characters; it frequently happens that long after one has forgotten the exact story of a play one remembers its people with absolute vividness. (2155-56)
Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar in “Hamlet: A Man Who Thinks Before He Acts” comment on the propensity of the Bard for well-rounded characters in Hamlet: “We feel that they are living beings with problems that are perennially human” (62).
Hamlet has over 20 characters with speaking roles; in occupations from king to grave-digger; and in 20 different scenes; and with a differentiation in speech, actions, etc. between every single individual character. Where else can such great variety in characterization be found? This aspect of the dramatist is emphasized by Robert B. Heilman in “The Role We Give Shakespeare”; he says that this variety is “graspable and possessable to many men at odds with each other, because of the innumerableness of the parts” (10).
The play begins with the changing of the sentinels on a guard platform of the castle of Elsinore in Denmark. Recently the spectral likeness of dead King Hamlet has appeared to the sentinels. Tonight the ghost appears again to Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio, a very close friend of Hamlet. Horatio and Marcellus exit the ramparts of Elsinore intending to enlist the aid of Hamlet, who is home from school, dejected by the “o’erhasty marriage” of his mother to his uncle less than two months after the funeral of Hamlet’s father. There is a social gathering of the court, where Claudius pays tribute to the memory of his deceased brother, the former king, and then, along with Queen Gertrude, conducts some items of business, for example dispatching Cornelius and Voltemand to Norway to settle the Fortinbras affair, and addressing Polonius and Laertes on the subject of the latter’s return to school abroad. Hamlet is there dressed in black, the color of mourning, for his deceased father. His first words say that Claudius is "A little more than kin and less than kind," indicating a dissimilarity in values between the new king and himself. Already in the first two scenes the reader sees not only the protagonist and antagonist developing into rounded characters, but also lesser characters like Horatio, Barnardo, Gertrude, Polonius and Laertes. The abundance of dialogue involving...