Minor characters play a very crucial role in Shakespear’s Hamlet. They serve as narrators for events that occurred outside the immediate play: the Dane’s ghost. Distinct contrasts are created through the usage of the play’s minor characters. The reader gains new perspective on Hamlet’s character when he is compared with Laertes. The presence of these minor characters can also have a direct effect on the action of the play. The actors in the play within the play are used to expose the guilt of Claudius; Hamlet then has proof of the King’s crimes. The expertise use of these characters – either to exemplify good and purity, or to spread the vile corruption which permeates Elsinore – is one of the main reasons for Hamlet’s success as one of the greatest plays ever written.
Some events in Hamlet must be narrated to the reader, and to the major characters, through minor characters which have a direct link to the events. Shakespear builds the entire play around information which was narrated to Hamlet by his father’s ghost. The ghost tells Hamlet of events which the reader would otherwise never know about: the murder of the former Dane by Claudius. When Horatio reads the letter that he has received from Hamlet the reader is informed of how Hamlet has evaded Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Also, the events occurring in Norway reach the court by means of an emissary, Voltimand, sent to check on Fortinbras. These events have a strong and direct relevancy to the plot and movement of the play.
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Shakespear uses contrast to highlight the qualities of the characters in Hamlet; this contrast shows up in the minor characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, false friends of Hamlet who succumb to Claudius’ corruptness, serve as a distinct contrast to the loyal friendship that Horatio shares with Hamlet. Voltimand is used to contrast Polonius’ often comic verbosity. While Polonius dresses up all his speeches with the language of the court, Voltimand is able to give his entire report on Fortinbras in a matter of seconds. The most powerful foil in the play is between Laertes and Hamlet. Upon hearing of the death of his father, Laertes becomes enraged, and seeks immediate vengeance; he does not delay, and acts instantaneously. When the ghost tells Hamlet of Claudius’ crimes, Hamlet is unable to act. He procrastinates, missing many opportunities to avenge his father, and acts when it is already too late. This tardiness on Hamlet’s part is also contrasted by the Fortinbras’ quickness to fight for land which has been taken from him.
The roles of these minor characters aren’t always removed from the main story; they can also have a direct connection to the movement of the plot. The actors in Hamlet’s staged play serve as a very effective tool in unearthing the King’s guilt. Without these actors Hamlet wouldn’t have the proof that he needed to verify the identity of the ghost and the sins of Claudius. Since Polonius is slain while eavesdropping on Hamlet and the Queen, a confrontation between Laertes and Hamlet is inevitable; it was the actions of Polonius, with only a reaction from Hamlet, that set this confrontation in motion. Ophelia’s suicide acts as a catalyst for this confrontation between Hamlet and Laertes. This clash is the climax of the play, and with Ophelia’s death looming over it, it becomes a very emotional and powerful scene.
The minor characters in Hamlet not only provide contrast and extras to Shakespear’s work, but they keep the story going, in what would otherwise be a drawn-out play. Without the contributions of the minor characters, the play would lose its flavor. With the added element of the minor characters the play’s high points are made more intense: the corruption seems blacker, the suspense grips tighter, and the love burns longer. The silken threads of the minor characters weave perfectly into the greater web of Hamlet.