Characters in Hamlet
Overview of main characters
- Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark; he is son to the late King Hamlet; and nephew to the present king Claudius.
- Claudius is the King of Denmark, elected to the throne after the death of his brother, King Hamlet. Claudius has married Gertrude, his brother’s widow.
- Gertrude is the Queen of Denmark, and King Hamlet’s widow, now married to Claudius, and mother to Hamlet.
- The Ghost appears in the image of Hamlet’s father, the late King Hamlet (Old Hamlet).
- Polonius (“Corambis” in “Q1”) is Claudius’s chief counsellor, and the father of Ophelia and Laertes.
- Laertes is the son of Polonius, and has returned to Elsinore from Paris.
- Ophelia is the daughter of Polonius, and Laertes’s sister, who lives with her father at Elsinore. She is in love with Hamlet.
- Horatio is a good friend of Hamlet, from the university at Wittenberg, who came to Elsinore Castle to attend King Hamlet’s funeral.
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are childhood friends and schoolmates of Hamlet, who were summoned to Elsinore by Claudius and Gertrude.
- Fortinbras is the nephew of old King Norway. He is also the son of Fortinbras senior, who was killed in single combat by Hamlet’s father.
In Hamlet, Elsinore Castle is the royal palace of Denmark. The real Elsinore would have been familiar to Elizabethan England, as a new castle, Kronborg Slot, had recently been built there.
Barnardo, Francisco and Marcellus
Marcellus, Barnardo and Francisco are sentries at Elsinore. Francisco gives up his watch to Barnardo in the opening lines of the play, and it is Barnardo and Marcellus, who first alert Horatio to the appearance of King Hamlet’s Ghost. Marcellus is the most prominent of the three.  Alec Guinness is credited with “discovering” the role in the 1937 Tyrone Guthrie production at the Old Vic Theatre, London. The role was played by Barnard Hughes in Richard Burton’s Hamlet, by Anthony Quayle in Olivier’s cinema version and by Jack Lemmon in Branagh’s.
Voltemand and Cornelius
Voltemand and Cornelius are ambassadors sent by the King of Denmark Claudius to old King Norway.
He is a servant to Polonius. (In the “Q1” text, Reynaldo is called “Montano” and Polonius is called “Corambis.”) Polonius sends Reynaldo to Paris to check up on what Laertes is doing. Gérard Depardieu took the role in Branagh’s Hamlet.
He informs Gertrude of Ophelia’s strange change in behaviour, before Ophelia’s first “mad” appearance.
He is the courtier sent by Claudius to invite Hamlet to participate in the duel with Laertes. (This character is called “Ostricke” in the Second Quarto.) Osric, as well as Polonius, engages with Hamlet in the elaborate, witty discourse, fully consistent with Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 work, The Courtier. This work outlines several courtly rules, specifically advising royal retainers to amuse their masters with inventive language. He was played by Peter Cushing in Olivier’s Hamlet and by Robin Williams in Branagh’s Hamlet.
In Olivier’s film version, it is strongly implied (from the look on his face) that Osric knows of the plan to kill Hamlet and does nothing to prevent it, but Shakespeare never actually tells us this.
In Branagh’s film version, he is stabbed by one of Fortinbras’ invading soldiers, but lives to give the report of Fortinbras’ salute upon the arrival of the British ambassador. Branagh’s version is the only major film of Hamlet in which Osric is stabbed.
The Players are a company of actors who arrive at Elsinore Castle. Friends of Hamlet, they had earlier performed in “the city” (presumably Copenhagen,) but faced stiff competition from boy performers, so they have traveled to Elsinore to offer Hamlet their services. At Elsinore, they perform a version—which Hamlet has modified and called The Mousetrap—of the play The Murder of Gonzago in the “play within a play”.
First Player or Player King
He is the leader of the troupe of touring actors. In the “play within a play”, he takes the part of the king who is murdered.
Second Player or Player Queen
This role was traditionally performed by a lad, as were all the female parts in “Hamlet,” since women did not appear on stage in Elizabethan times.
He is also called Lucianus in the “play within a play”. The name may be a reference to Lucius in the Brutus legend, a source for Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum, itself a candidate source for Hamlet.
The ‘Mousetrap’ play-within-a-play has a very brief Prologue recited by one of the Players. The First Player may do the Prologue, but if not, a Fourth Player, with a speaking part, is probably required to do it.
Two Clowns (a sexton gravedigger, and a bailiff)
The bailiff informs the sexton that Ophelia’s death was not suicide, but the sexton argues the point. Later, the sexton unearths Yorick’s skull, which leads to Hamlet’s famous “Alas, poor Yorick” speech. During the Interregnum, all theatres were closed down by the puritan government. However, even during this time playlets known as drolls were often performed illegally, including one based on the two clowns, called The Grave-Makers, based on Act 5, Scene 1 of Hamlet. Stanley Holloway played the role in Olivier’s Hamlet and Billy Crystal in Branagh’s.
A Priest, or Doctor of Divinity
He officiates at Orphelia’s funeral, and does not give her full Christian burial rites, since the church suspects her death was suicide. Called a “Priest” in the First Folio edition of “Hamlet,” his speech prefix in the Second Quarto is “Doct” for Doctor of Divinity, a Protestant clergyman. Thus, the two original “good” printings of the play are in disagreement whether the clergyman is Protestant or Catholic. Michael Bryant played the clergyman in Branagh’s Hamlet.
He is a commander in Fortinbras’ invading army, and is assigned by Fortinbras to get the license from Claudius for Fortinbras’s army to be in Denmark.
The sailors are two pirates who deliver a letter from Hamlet to Horatio, informing Horatio that Hamlet has returned to Denmark.
They appear in the final scene to report that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. The role was played singly by Richard Attenborough in Branagh’s Hamlet.