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Madness And Insanity In Hamlet By William Shakespeare

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Hamlet is a dramatic tragedy written by William Shakespeare around 1600, but the play was first performed in 1609. Hamlet is the son of the King of Denmark, who has passed away. The “ghost” of the King of Denmark visits Hamlet and tells him to avenge his death by killing the new King, Hamlet’s uncle. Hamlet pretends to be mad, contemplates life and death numerous times, and seeks revenge for his father’s death. By the end of the play, Hamlet ends up actually going mad. Hamlet’s uncle catches on to Hamlet’s plan and in return, plots to kill Hamlet. The play ends with a duel in which everyone is ultimately killed.

Fortinbras is the prince of Norway and the son of the late King of Norway Fortinbras. Fortinbras and Hamlet are similar in many ways. One way they are similar in both their fathers were killed and they are seeking revenge. They also both have an uncle ruling the throne. Fortinbras and Hamlet are very loyal, but Hamlet is mostly loyal to his father and himself. Fortinbras’ loyalty stretches across the kingdom to those in a higher power than him.

Although they have many similarities, they have even more differences, which is why Fortinbras is a perfect foil for Hamlet. According to “A foil character is any character in literature that, through his or her actions and words, highlights and directly contrasts the personal traits, qualities, values, and motivations of another character.” (Longley) Foil characters are usually minor characters that give important insights into the main character by contrasting them, often making it easier for the reader to understand why decisions are made. In Hamlet, Fortinbras’ character and decisions provide insight into Hamlet's tragic flaw, which is his inability to take action.

One of their major differences in how they go through with their plans of revenge. Hamlet plots to kill Claudius to avenge his father’s death but takes the entire play to go through with it. Hamlet and Fortinbras’ reasons for revenge are both personal but Fortinbra's actions are mostly driven by honor and loyalty. Fortinbras plots to attack Inverness to avenge his father’s lands that were taken from him, but his loyalty gets in his way when his uncle insists the land was taken in a fair fight. Fortinbras then goes on to risk everything to conquer a different piece of land that is worthless. Hamlet says Fortinbras is foolish for wanting the worthless land.

Hamlet notices how quickly Fortinbras takes action without question. He then contemplates Fortinbras's immediate action with his inaction, he looks at all the reasons he has to kill Claudius and becomes angry with himself for not doing anything. One of the reasons Hamlet has not acted is because his morals are constantly making him contemplate the killing. For example, there is a particular time in the play when Hamlet hesitates to kill King Claudius because he is praying in a chapel. Hamlet believed if he were to kill Claudius in the chapel then he would be granted entry into heaven simply because he was killed in a holy place.

Throughout the play, Hamlet stayed consistent and focused on taking revenge. He also put a lot of thought into his plan and was very secretive about it. He made it a point to himself to make sure he was making the right decisions. Fortinbras, on the other hand, takes immediate action and does not think about how his actions will affect others or how they could go wrong. His choices are often foolish and could’ve landed him in big trouble many times.

Shortly before Hamlet dies, he tells Horatio that he expects Fortinbras to be the new king of Denmark and that he supports him. Throughout the play Hamlet questioned Fortinbras’ actions and thought he was foolish, but in the end, Hamlet admired Fortinbras’ immediate action over his foolish decisions. However, Fortinbras’ foolish decisions came from his ability to quickly act without thought.

Fortinbras expresses his sadness in Hamlet’s death. He says: “For me, with sorrow, I embrace my fortune.” (Hamlet 5. 2. 389) He then declares his right to be King. Fortinbras, then, orders four captains to carry Hamlet like a soldier onto the stage, for the scene looked like a battlefield. Finally, he orders his soldiers to go outside and fire their guns in honor of Hamlet.

Fortinbras’ actions after Hamlet dies to contradict his actions throughout the entire play. In the end, Fortinbras shows signs of being a good king. Hamlet was the son of the man who killed his father and took his lands. Hamlet’s father was the reason Fortinbras was seeking revenge in the first place. In the end, Fortinbras showed respect toward Hamlet even after all the compulsive things he did to avenge his father's failure.

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In the end, Fortinbras’ loyalty continued to drive his decisions, but this time it was his loyalty to Hamlet. He knows Hamlet had a good heart and that made him feel sorry for him. Fortinbras has loyalty to Hamlet because he knows in many ways, they are similar, and his fate could’ve ended the same way. Fortinbras also knew Hamlet had a good heart and thinks he could’ve been a great king.

In the end, the foil stays consistent. Hamlet’s prolonged plan to take action led to his death, while Fortinbras’ plans of action led to him becoming king. Hamlet did so much to try and make sure everything would turn outright, but it didn’t turn out as he planned. Fortinbras didn’t think about any of his decisions before he made them. Fortinbras’ impulsiveness and recklessness led to him taking the throne that was supposed to belong to Hamlet.

The characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also act as foils to Hamlet. The characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are school friends of Hamlet. King Claudius asks them to find out why Hamlet has been acting so strangely.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are difficult to differentiate from each other because they are always together. When they first arrive, Gertrude corrects the King in mistaking “gentle Gertrude” for “gentle Rosencrantz” (Hamlet 2. 2. 36). The characters seem to share the same voice and never speak to each other. In Act 2, Scene 2 they address the King individually, but still as a pair – speaking as an ‘us’ and for ‘we both’ (Hamlet 2. 2. 28,31). This is a huge difference from Hamlet. Hamlet is often alone and acts alone. Hamlet is frequently pondering through his thoughts. He also mostly keeps his thoughts to himself.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are a part of the lower class and uneducated, which really shows when they are speaking. When talking to Hamlet we get an idea of how intelligent Hamlet really is, especially when Hamlet is trying to fool them into thinking he still doesn’t know their true intentions. They also act as puppets; following the King’s every command. They appear as inferior men, which dictates how they act. This shows another foil to Hamlet, for Hamlet acts alone and doesn’t listen to anyone. Their obedience to the king and betrayal to him makes Hamlet even angrier

King Claudius asks Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Hamlet to deliver a message to England. The message instructs the King of England to execute the prince. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are willing to take their “friend” to his death, so he is no longer a threat to the king. Hamlet, being the untrusting person, he’s become, changes the message to instruct the king of England to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Hamlet’s lack of trust had caused him to send his friends to their deaths. Keeping in mind the quick decision Hamlet has just made towards his old friends, it’s odd he has still taken no action toward the king. The king has much more reasons to die than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he is also much more of a threat.

Hamlet witnesses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray him. This hurts him and makes him realize he can trust no one. He knows he has to kill them because they are essentially fighting against him. On the other hand, Hamlet is not positive that King Claudius has killed his father, so he is hesitant on taking action against him. He seems to think very carefully about his decisions.

Throughout the play, Hamlet shows signs that he does not trust them. He acts crazy around them to attempt to trick them. He plays along and acts as if he knows nothing in order to continue his plan for revenge. He also provides extremely clever answers to the questions they ask to keep them in the dark. Another thing he does is act crazy; he thinks by doing this no one will suspect that he’s trying to kill the king. By constantly being distrustful of others and being at war in his own head, he eventually does drive himself crazy.

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Madness And Insanity In Hamlet By William Shakespeare. (2021, August 11). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2023, from
“Madness And Insanity In Hamlet By William Shakespeare.” Edubirdie, 11 Aug. 2021,
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