Bernardo is a guard at Elsinore. During his watch on the ramparts, along with his partner Marcellus, Bernardo sees the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, the old King Hamlet, and reports the event to Hamlet’s friend Horatio, who joins the two guards on the night watch.
Claudius is the old King Hamlet’s brother and Prince Hamlet’s uncle. At the play’s opening, he has secretly murdered his brother, married his brother’s widow, and ascended the throne of Denmark. Claudius soon becomes wary that Hamlet has discovered his crime and is planning to avenge King Hamlet’s murder by killing him. Consequently, he arranges for the murder of Hamlet. Although Claudius is unrepentant and unwilling to forfeit the advantages he has gained through his crime, he is plagued by a guilty conscience.
As he digs Ophelia’s grave, the First Clown sings and makes grim jokes about death. Hamlet encounters him thus and is surprised at his merriness; Hamlet inquires as to whose grave is being dug and contemplates mortality as he holds what the First Clown declares to be the skull of Yorick, Hamlet’s father’s jester.
The Second Clown essentially plays the role of straight man to the comedic First Clown as they dig a grave for Ophelia.
Fortinbras is the prince of Norway. His father was killed by King Hamlet in combat years before, and he is determined to go to war against Denmark in order to recapture the territories his father lost in that battle. After Claudius persuades Fortinbras’s uncle, the king of Norway, to restrain Fortinbras with respect to Denmark, Claudius, in return, allows Fortinbras to lead his troops through Denmark to conduct war against Poland. At the end of the play, when Hamlet and Claudius are dead, Fortinbras becomes king of Denmark. Francisco Francisco appears in the first scene as one of the guards who nightly stand watch on the battlements at Elsinore.
The queen of Denmark, Gertrude is the old King Hamlet’s widow and Hamlet’s mother. Claudius marries Gertrude two months after her first husband’s death. She dies during the fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes when she insists on drinking from a cup intended for Hamlet, not knowing the wine is poisoned.
The Ghost is King Hamlet’s spirit. King Hamlet is ‘‘doomed … to walk the night’’ for a certain period of time because he died without having the opportunity to repent of his sins, having been murdered in his sleep. He tells his son Hamlet that Claudius, his brother, killed him and commands Hamlet to avenge his murder by killing Claudius. He instructs Hamlet to spare Gertrude, to ‘‘leave her to heaven / and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / To prick and sting her.’’
Guildenstern is an old school friend of Hamlet’s. Along with his friend Rosencrantz, he is summoned by Claudius to Denmark to spy on Hamlet in order to discover what is troubling him and report back to the king. Hamlet suspects their duplicity. When they are sent by Claudius to escort Hamlet to England, bearing instructions to the English monarch to have Hamlet killed, Hamlet gets hold of the order and substitutes their names for his, and they are later executed.
Hamlet, the prince of Denmark, is King Hamlet’s son and Claudius’s nephew. After King Hamlet’s Ghost tells his son that he was killed by Claudius and that he wishes Hamlet to avenge his murder, Hamlet becomes determined to discover whether he saw an honest ghost or a diabolical spirit summoning him to a sinful act. To accomplish this, he decides to feign madness and also to present a play mirroring his father’s murder, called The Murder of Gonzago, before Claudius and watch his reaction. In response to his dead father’s charge, Hamlet is set on a course of meditation on life, death, responsibility, and fate. Far from being an action hero, Hamlet is a protagonist of reflection and philosophical contemplation. He is mortally wounded during a rigged fencing match with Laertes that Claudius has arranged, but not before he kills Laertes with the poisoned sword surreptitiously prepared for him. He stabs Claudius, as well, with that sword and also forces him to drink from the poisoned cup Claudius had prepared for him. As Hamlet and Laertes are dying, Hamlet forgives Laertes for plotting against him, and Laertes forgives Hamlet for the accidental murder of his father, Polonius. Hamlet then forbids his friend Horatio to commit suicide as a gesture of loyalty and friendship; rather, Hamlet charges Horatio to live and tell the prince’s story so that his name will survive in honor after his death.
Horatio is a stoic scholar and Hamlet’s true and loyal friend. Hamlet notes that Horatio meets good and bad fortune alike with equanimity. When Marcellus and Bernardo invite him to keep the watch with them and the Ghost appears, Horatio tries to speak to it, but without success. He tells Hamlet of the Ghost’s appearance and joins him the following night on the battlements; when the Ghost beckons Hamlet to follow, Horatio tries to prevent Hamlet from going off alone with the spirit. He also advises Hamlet not to accept the king’s challenge to compete against Laertes in a duel. At his death, Hamlet forbids Horatio to commit suicide, asking his friend to tell his story, explain his erratic behavior, and clear his name.
Laertes, Polonius’s son, returns from his studies in Paris after Hamlet kills Polonius. Laertes’ mission to avenge his father’s murder thus mirrors Hamlet’s mission to avenge the murder of his own father. Claudius mollifies Laertes, who is angry over both his father’s death and his sister Ophelia’s madness, and conspires with Laertes, arranging for him to kill Hamlet in a fencing match.
Ophelia is Polonius’s daughter and Laertes’ sister. When Polonius learns that Hamlet has been courting Ophelia, he warns his daughter that Hamlet may only be toying with her—that, being royalty, his choices in matters like matrimony may not be his own to make. After Ophelia breaks with Hamlet, following her father’s instructions, Polonius suggests that the thwarting of Hamlet’s love for her is what has maddened him; in effect, Polonius uses Ophelia in order to discover the root of Hamlet’s malady. After Hamlet kills Polonius, Ophelia goes mad and eventually drowns. Whether her death is accidental or a suicide is unclear.
Osric is a courtier who conveys Laertes’ challenge to a duel to Hamlet, who mocks Osric without mercy for his affected courtly mannerisms.
The Players are a troupe of traveling actors who visit Elsinore. At Hamlet’s request, the principal player recites a speech depicting the fall of Troy and the fate of the king and queen of Troy, Priam and Hecuba. Later, the Players perform The Mousetrap, Hamlet’s revision of a play called The Murder of Gonzago, before Claudius and the entire court. The play presents a situation similar to the murder of King Hamlet and the seduction of his widow. Hamlet hopes to see if Claudius reacts to the play in a way confirming his guilt and the Ghost’s assertions—and indeed, Claudius does so.
Polonius is Claudius’s Lord Chamberlain—one of his closest advisers—and is the father of Laertes and Ophelia. He is verbose and sententious and seems to love to hear himself talk and to make what he considers wise formulations. Hamlet mocks him with contempt. When Polonius is hidden behind a curtain (an arras) in Gertrude’s closet, seeking to overhear the interview between Gertrude and Hamlet that he has arranged, Hamlet stabs him, thinking Claudius is hidden there.
The Priest presides over Ophelia’s funeral and defines the limits of the religious rites allowed to her, since her death is considered a suicide.
Polonius sends Reynaldo to Paris to make inquiries regarding Laertes’ behavior.
Rosencrantz, along with Guildenstern, is a school friend of Hamlet’s whom the king summons to Elsinore to help discover the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior.
When Hamlet is being conveyed to England, the boat he is on is overtaken by pirates who return Hamlet to Denmark. Among others, the First Sailor delivers letters to Horatio and Claudius from him.
Voltimand, along with Cornelius, is an ambassador Claudius sends to Norway to negotiate with the king to prevent Fortinbras’s invasion of Denmark.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007