Hamlet Characters – List & Descriptions

April 10, 2024

hamlet characters

Whether you’ve read the play or not, you’re probably familiar with the plot of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark—moody Prince Hamlet mopes around wondering how to avenge his father’s death. (Maybe you remember Mel Gibson talking to a skull?) If you need a summary, here’s a link. At the same time, a summary can only take you so far. Hamlet is Shakespeare’s longest play, so while you might remember the events, you might need a review of the characters and their motivations. Below, I’ve tried to provide a list of most of the main characters in Hamlet as well as the drama and tension that each of them deals with.

If you’re looking for a closer reading of specific quotes from the text, check out this link — and, if you want a good analysis of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not” soliloquy, look no further than here.

HAMLET, Prince of Denmark

Hamlet: Character-Specific Overview

When the play opens, Hamlet is having a rough time. His dad (the former king) died two months previous and his mom (Gertrude) promptly married his uncle Claudius (now the current king). Hamlet is also dealing with girl problems. He’s been courting Ophelia, who, on the advice of her father Polonius, has been giving Hamlet the cold shoulder. Accordingly, Polonius thinks Hamlet’s melancholy is caused by this unrequited love.

If all this weren’t hard enough, Hamlet encounters the ghost of his dead father while on the castle ramparts. The ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius killed him (poison in the ear) and asks him to avenge his death. While Hamlet considers the ghost’s demand, Claudius and Gertrude have summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s university buddies, to try to suss out what ails the prince of Denmark. It doesn’t take Hamlet long to figure out what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are up to, so he doesn’t give up any information. What’s more, Hamlet doesn’t take kindly to what he perceives as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s allegiance to the king. (Hamlet will directly cause their death by the end of the play.)

Hamlet might be bent on revenge, but he hasn’t lost all his critical faculties. That is, he’s not completely convinced that the ghost he saw wasn’t some sort of devil trying to trick him. To see if the ghost is telling the truth, Hamlet gets a traveling troupe of actors to put on a play in which a king is murdered with poison in his ear. Claudius freaks out and stops the play – Hamlet knows the ghost has spoken the truth.

Hamlet: Character-Specific Overview (con’t) 

With his guilt confirmed, Hamlet goes to kill Claudius but finds him praying. Not wanting to kill someone with a freshly-laundered conscience, Hamlet holds off on killing him and goes to speak with his mother. What Hamlet doesn’t know is that Polonius is hiding behind a curtain to listen to their conversation. Hamlet hears something and, thinking it’s Claudius, stabs and kills Polonius by mistake. Before leaving, he tells his mother not to go back to bed with Claudius.

Claudius is understandably miffed. He summons Hamlet and convinces him to go to England. Claudius reveals (to the audience) that he’s signed Hamlet’s death warrant. On the boat to England, Hamlet looks through the papers the king has sent and sees that he’s to be killed. He rewrites the letters, asking that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed instead. Pirates attack. Hamlet makes it back to Denmark in time for Ophelia’s funeral and converses with gravediggers about the profundities of death.

At this point, Claudius and Laertes both want Hamlet dead. They decide to set up a duel between Hamlet and Laertes during which the latter will try to stab Hamlet with a poisoned blade. If this fails, Claudius also prepares a poisoned cup of wine. Upon his return to Elsinore, Hamlet agrees to the duel – disaster ensues. Laertes is accidentally cut with his own (poisoned) blade and dies, the Queen drinks from the poisoned chalice and dies, Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sword and makes him drink the poisoned wine – he dies. Hamlet, who has also been nicked with the poisoned blade, dies.

What’s Hamlet’s deal with Ophelia? 

Now that we understand the complexities of Hamlet’s situation, we can better understand the tension at the heart of his character. As I see it, Hamlet is torn between personal and structural commitments. On the one hand, he’s a person with individual thoughts and desires – on the other, he’s the future king of Denmark and responsible to its citizens. We can sort Hamlet’s relationships according to these two categories and understand how conflicted he feels.

Nowhere is this tension clearer than in Hamlet’s interaction with Ophelia in the “nunnery scene” (Act III, Scene I). Recall that Hamlet has just given his famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, in which he considers the relative value of suicide. (Check out an analysis of this soliloquy here.) When he sees Ophelia, he pauses and says “The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons / Be all my sins remember’d.” On first read, this line seems tender, which makes Hamlet’s subsequent rudeness to Ophelia hard to understand.

Hamlet Characters (Continued)

The famous Shakespeare scholar John Dover Wilson offers a reading of this scene that makes Hamlet’s subsequent remarks to Ophelia more than mere “madness.” Wilson argues that Hamlet realizes that Claudius and Polonius are observing him. Wilson argues that Ophelia’s words and actions tip Hamlet off that he’s being duped (he points to Hamlet’s “Ha, ha!” as the moment of recognition). In effect, Wilson posits that most of Hamlet’s words in the “nunnery scene” are addressed to Polonius and Claudius.

This allows us to read Hamlet’s behavior as a strategic – a conscious performance of the “antic disposition” he mentions to Horatio in Act I, Scene 5. What’s more, we can now understand this scene as animated by the tension between the personal (his erstwhile love for Ophelia) and the structural (Polonius and Claudius). In effect, this scene marks the moment when Hamlet’s personal life is dragged into the political sphere.

What’s up with Hamlet and his mom? 

Like Ophelia, Gertrude stands at the intersection of the personal and political. On the one hand, she is his mother, on the other, she is the once and current queen of Denmark. Hamlet’s disappointment with his mother is clear. Recall his words in Act I, Scene 2: “Why, she would hang on him / As if increase of appetite had grown / By what it fed on; and yet, within a month…married with mine uncle.” The love and loyalty Hamlet imagined between his mother and father seems now an illusion.

At the same time, Gertrude’s actions make political sense. In a time of political instability, Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius gives his rule the imprimatur of the previous regime. While her marriage is traumatic from Hamlet’s (personal) point of view, it makes good political sense. Hamlet’s angst stems from his inability to see Gertrude as anything but a mother. What Hamlet fails to realize is that Gertrude has political responsibilities beyond Hamlet.


There’s no doubt that the women in Hamlet get the short end of the stick. Both Ophelia and Gertrude die as a result of political machinations beyond their control. Ophelia goes crazy at the death of her father and drowns herself, Gertrude accidentally drinks the poisoned chalice that Claudius prepared for Hamlet.

What is striking is that regardless of their position in society, neither woman has any real agency over their personal affairs. Recall the scene where Ophelia talks to her brother and father about Hamlet. Before leaving for England, Laertes warns Ophelia that Hamlet “is subject to his birth: / He may not, as unvalu’d persons do, / Carve for himself.” In other words, whatever Hamlet’s romantic intentions toward (the lower born) Ophelia, as the future king of Denmark, he will have to marry someone of much higher political stature.

Hamlet Characters (Continued)

Indeed, there may be grave consequences should Ophelia give in to Hamlet’s affections. Laertes warns Ophelia to think of the “loss your honour may sustain / If with too credent ear you list his songs, / Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open [wink] / To his unmaster’d importunity.” In other words, Hamlet’s feelings (at the moment) may be real, but Ophelia could damage herself (and her future marital prospects) should she forget the structural limitations on Hamlet’s choices. Ultimately, Ophelia chooses to side with her family rather than act on her own feelings toward Hamlet.

I think that we can see a similar dynamic at work in Gertrude’s choices. There’s little doubt as to what Hamlet thinks about Gertrude’s choice to marry his uncle – recall his declaration that “Frailty, thy name is woman!” Indeed, after he kills Polonius, Hamlet berates his mother and begs her not to return to Claudius’ bed. Hamlet is particularly descriptive when he describes Gertrude “honeying and making love / Over the nasty sty.” (For a more detailed discussion of Gertrude’s sexuality, I recommend Richard Levin’s “Gertrude’s Elusive Libido and Shakespeare’s Unreliable Narrators.”) However, as pointed out in Manuel Aguirre’s “Life, Crown, and Queen: Getrude and the Theme of Sovereignty,” Gertrude’s actions show a definite political calculus. While Hamlet may claim that her actions are purely as a result of lust, her choice shows a commitment to the stability of the Danish state.


In many ways, Claudius is the least interesting character of the play. Compared to the interior churn of Hamlet, Ophelia, and Gertrude, Claudius’s actions and motivations, though unscrupulous, lack dramatic depth. Throughout the play, Claudius functions mostly as a motor for the plot. For example, once Claudius admits that he killed Hamlet’s father, the focus shifts to how Hamlet will get his revenge. Similarly, when Claudius mentions his plot to have Hamlet killed, the audience wonders at Hamlet’s Houdini-like escape. And when Claudius schemes with Laertes, the audience anxiously awaits Hamlet’s response.


Ophelia and Laertes’ father, Polonius mostly as a plot engine. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, Polonius remains convinced that Hamlet’s mood results from his unrequited love for Ophelia. While eavesdropping behind some curtains, he is killed by Hamlet. Polonius’s most famous line is “To thine own self be true,” which even made its way into Clueless.


The Ghost of the late King

The ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears to Barnardo, Marcellus, and Horatio in the first scene of the play. Hamlet then comes to see the ghost for himself. The ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius killed him and asks him to avenge him. The ghost reappears during Hamlet’s conversation with his mother to “whet thy [Hamlet’s] almost blunted purpose.” 


Polonius’s son, Laertes goes to France, though not before he tells his sister that she shouldn’t believe Hamlet’s loving words, lest he sully her “chaste treasure.” Upon his father’s death, he returns, seeking revenge. He duels with Hamlet and is killed by his own poisoned blade. 


Horatio is Hamlet’s bestie and the sole survivor of the bloodbath at the end of the play (Hamlet stops him from drinking the last of the poisoned wine). When Fortinbras arrives at the end of the play, it is Horatio who tells the story of Hamlet, “lest more mischance / On plots and errors happen.”

Hamlet Characters (Continued)


Prince of Norway and erstwhile enemy of Denmark, Fortinbras arrives at the end of the play to absolute carnage. Before he dies, Hamlet endorses Fortinbras to become the king of Denmark. Earlier in the play, the sight of Fortinbras’s courage inspired Hamlet to exclaim, “O, from this time forth, / My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth.”


Besides being the inspiration for the famous Tom Stoppard play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet’s friends from the University of Wittenberg. While Hamlet initially welcomes them, he grows increasingly distrustful as it becomes clear that they are doing Claudius’s bidding. 


These soldiers are on duty when the ghost first appears in the first scene of the play, though Francisco leaves before seeing the ghost. Hamlet swears them to secrecy and warns them to say nothing if they notice in him an “antic disposition.” 

Hamlet Characters (Continued)


Portrayed as slightly dull, Osric comes to Hamlet in the last scene to explain the terms of the proposed duel with Laertes. Reynaldo is Polonius’s servant and is sent by the latter to keep tabs on Laertes while he in France. 

Hamlet Characters – Wrapping Up

Ultimately, all the characters in Hamlet are torn between their individual desires and their political commitments. Some may dismiss Hamlet as moody, but the tension that animates him is the same tension that animates all of the characters in the text. In some ways, Hamlet teaches us how to live. The play asks how one should balance the competing demands of individual feelings and the requirements of political or familial commitments.