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Minor characters in stories provide a very important role in many works of literature. In tragedies, these characters are almost always used for the sole purpose to alleviate the tension through comedy. Although this is typically true, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet this idea plays a different role. Some may claim that Osric, Polonius, and the gravediggers only input to the story was to provide comedic relief, however this is not true. In addition to providing humour, Osric, Polonius, and the gravediggers help to reinforce many vital themes throughout the play. Shakespeare uses these minor characters to emphasize and support key themes such as loyalty, appearances vs. reality, nemesis, and death and the afterlife. It can be seen with a deeper analysis of the play that Osric, Polonius, and the gravediggers are not only used to relieve tension; they also reinforce some of the play’s most important themes.
Some may believe that Osric is a character that his sole purpose in the novel comic relief after an intense scene. Near the end of the play, Horatio and Hamlet are discussing what has occurred since they have last seen each other. Osric then enters the room with his hat in his hand with the sole intention to deliver news to Hamlet about the fight with Laertes. Right before Osric announces Laertes’ proposal, Hamlet tells Osric puts his hat back on. Osric replies that it is far too hot to wear a hat, but Hamlet insists that it is cold due to the wind. Osric immediately agrees with the prince “It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed” (V.2.97). Hamlet insists that it is now hot out and Osric agrees with Hamlet once again that it is “Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry, as ‘twere, – I cannot tell how” (V.2.100-101). Osric represents everything Hamlet hates about the Danish court. Hamlet hates Danish courtiers because he feels as if they have no purpose other than to gain social status, which they achieve by sucking up to the royal court. Osric is the epitome of the courtiers who suck up to royalty. Hamlet uses his disgust with the power-hungry courtiers to make fun of Osric by mocking him. Osric agrees with everything Hamlet says in order to please the prince because he is someone of higher noble class. This scene seemingly demonstrates that Osric does not serve any real importance to the play as he is solely used for humour. However, with further analysis it can be seen to reinforce Shakespeare’s theme of loyalty. Although Osric does agree with everything Hamlet says, it is not just for humour, it proves how loyal he is to Hamlet. His responses to Hamlet are both extremely polite despite Hamlet contradicting what he has previously said twice. Most people would have become annoyed but Osric continues to agree without questioning why Hamlet has changed his mind. Hamlet sways the topic of the conversation to the weather while Osric has come to discuss the duel. Osric tries to get the conversation back on topic “Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me, – an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences, – of very soft society and great showing.”, but Hamlet begins to interrupt Osric. Anybody else would have lost his or her patience with Hamlet for being so impolite as well as distracting but Osric manages to remain calm and polite. Osric’s patience and politeness proves how loyal he is to Hamlet for he would never argue with him nor disobey him nor lose his temper. It is quite evident that although Osric is used for humour, he is also used as one of many representations of loyalty in the play.
In addition, Polonuis’s character is one of the many used to convey the theme of appearances versus reality, this is the idea that things are not always what they seem. Polonius is seen at the beginning of the play giving fatherly advice to his son Laertes before he goes back to his school in France. Polonius gives Laertes many respectable pieces of advice, the most prominent one being “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man” (I.3.78-80). Polonius is stating how Laertes should be true to himself. In his speech, Polonius appears to be a caring father that genuinely trusts Laertes to be a good man. However, in reality, he plans to send Reynaldo, a servant, to spy on Laertes in France. Once Laertes has returned to France to pursue his studies, Polonius sends Reynaldo to France to send Laertes money. He also instructs Reynaldo to “Before you visit him, to make inquire – Of his behavior” (2.1.4-5). He teaches Reynaldo numerous techniques to subtly spy on Laertes. Although previously appearing to trust his son, Polonius clearly does not. He sends a servant to spy on Laertes to uncover what Laertes has really been up to in France. He does not trust that Laertes has taken his previous advice and he believes that Laertes may be partying or gambling or participating in other activities deeming inappropriate. Through his spying on Laertes, it is obvious that Polonius does not trust his son in spite of acting as if he does. These two scenes show that despite being a minor character used for comic relief, Polonius is also used to show the theme that not everything is what it appears to be.
Furthermore, Polonius also serves as a representation of Shakespeare’s theme of nemesis, the idea that one will get what they deserve. Polonius hides in Gertrude’s room in hopes of finding the reason behind Hamlet’s madness. He plans on doing this by eavesdropping on their conversation from behind her tapestry. Hamlet and Gertrude begin to argue; this induces Hamlet to become angry which leads Gertrude to scream for help. Polonuis cannot see what is happening and as a result cries out for help. Hamlet, thinking it is Claudius spying on them, stabs Polonuis through the tapestry. After lifting the tapestry, he discovers that it is Polonius. Hamlet is disgusted with Polonius and says indignantly “Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! – I took thee for thy better; take thy fortune. – thou find’st to be too busy is some danger” (III.4.34-36). Hamlet is so outraged over Polonius spying on him that he does not feel any guilt for killing him. He states that he thought Polonius was better than that and he has gotten what he deserves. He perceives Polonius as a nobleman and does not think that he would stoop so low to get on the King’s good side. Hamlet justifies that since Polonius spies on a private conversation, he deserves being killed. Hamlet mentions that being an eavesdropper is a dangerous job and Polonius has discovered firsthand the consequences of being so nosy and impertinent. Despite being a minor character, Polonius’ death is one of the most prominent examples of the idea that one will get what they deserve.
Most prominently, the grave diggers are used in Hamlet to reinforce the theme of death and the afterlife. After he returns from England, Hamlet meets up with Horatio and they walk nearby the graveyard. From a distance, they come across two grave diggers who are digging a grave for Ophelia, of which Hamlet is unaware. Hamlet and Horatio stay back and observe the grave diggers as they sing and tell jokes. One of the grave diggers leaves and the remaining one continues to dig the grave and has now begun to throw bones and skulls out of the grave. Hamlet observes the tossing of the bones out of the grave as if they are worthless pieces of garbage and he is disgusted by this, therefore he approaches the grave digger and confronts him. After a brief conversation about the grave he is digging, the grave digger pulls out a skull and informs Hamlet “…This same skull sir, was Yorick’s skull, the King’s – jester.” (5.1.177-179). Hamlet then remembered something of the grave digger, Hamlet knew Yorick for he was once responsible for entertaining Hamlet. Hamlet picks up the skull and begins to examine it. Hamlet reminisces about his time spent with Yorick and how he was a funny guy with an amazing imagination. He states how sick it makes him feel to know that this is all that is left of Yorick. He makes an allusion to Alexander the Great stating that no matter who one is, a court jester or an ancient Greek King, both end up with the same fate “Impurious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, – Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.” (V.1.209-210). Yorick and Alexander the Great are now both nothing but a pile of bones. No matter what one has accomplished in their life they end up the same as everyone else, a meaningless rotting corpse. Yorick’s skull represents death and how it is the equalizer of all men in the afterlife. It is apparent that even though the grave diggers provide humour, they also present the most prominent symbol of death and the afterlife in the entire play.
In conclusion, while some believe that the roles of Polonius, Osric, and the gravediggers are used exclusively to provide humour, this idea is untrue. Despite providing comic relief, these characters also aid in revealing multiple important themes seen throughout the play. Whilst they are contributing humour to their scenes, these characters highlight the play’s most important themes such as loyalty, appearances vs. reality, nemesis, and death and the afterlife. When analyzed, it can be seen that minor characters tend to improve and reinforce messages in stories. Without them, stories would be dull and less meaningful.
- Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New Folger’s Ed. New York: Washington Square Press/Pocket Books, 1992
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