My words fly up, my thoughts remain below
Who is Hamlet? Enigmatic, philosophical, contemplative, obsessive, rash, impulsive, melancholy, discontented, the Prince of Denmark has returned home from his studies in lieu of his father’s death and his mother’s swift marriage to his uncle. Here he encounters the ghost of his father, learns the depth of his uncle’s treachery, and resolves to exact revenge. Hamlet plays out his acts under the guise of madness, spurred on to end the lives of others who have wronged him and his father, while being singularly focused on self-preservation. Yet Hamlet is obsessed with his own problems only in personal and philosophical terms, musing over the meaning of life but ignoring the forces of Norway fast approaching Denmark.
Hamlet’s response to his father’s death follows a wandering path of musings and questions that ultimately concludes in action at the end of the play. This is contrasted by Laertes’s reaction to the death of his father Polonius. Laertes takes immediate action, storming home from France as soon as he hears the news, gathering a crowd of followers, and invading the palace before he asks any questions. And while Hamlet shows contempt for women (stemming from the hasty marriage of his mother) Laertes shows excessive care and emotion for women, his sister in particular. Hamlet even compares himself to Laertes and the close of the play, noting that “by the image of my cause I see / the portraiture of his” (5.2.77-78). Here, both Laertes and Hamlet show hesitation in the ultimate revenge: the taking of a life.
The Norwegian prince Fortinbras similarly seeks revenge for his father's death, a death resulting from a bet with the late King Hamlet. Fortinbras takes concise and immediate action, raising an army to reclaim Norway's lost territories from Denmark. When Hamlet sees Fortinbras leading his troops to Poland he recognizes that while Fortinbras does not have an explicit reason for such action, reasons hold little ground against the question of honor, and that "To be great / is not to stir without great argument / but greatly to find quarrel in a straw / when honor's at the stake" (4.4.52-55).
So why does Shakespeare give us Laertes and Fortinbras, two secondary characters who seem to share such a connection with Hamlet? Laertes and Fortinbras are, in fact, foil characters. In literature, foil characters are used to highlight certain traits in a primary character, often through opposition. The term foil refers to the practice of putting a piece of dark, polished metal (a foil) underneath a gemstone to make it shine more brightly, but Hamlet may well have popularized the term when he says, "I'll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance / Your skill shall, like a star i' the darkest night, Stick fiery off indeed" (5.2.40-42). Foil characters (as well as foil plots, often seen with the use of a story within a story) tend to show what could have happened to the main character had they made different choices. These characters create something of a parallel or subplot, highlighting critical values, choices, or motivations that might seal a fate.
While Shakespeare may be a prime example of the use of character foils, their use still persists today. Batman and Superman are reciprocal foils, Han Solo as Luke Skywalker’s foil, Gollum serves as a foil to Frodo. In The Plague by Camus, both Rambert and Rieux suffer from questions of love and duty. Rambert’s hesitation to stay in the town highlights the immediacy of Rieux’s actions, and while both ultimately stay to fight the plague they have differences in motivation. I would also argue that Thassadit Amzwar and Russell Stone in Generosity are reciprocal foils, highlighting the different possible responses to situations by showing two opposite ends of a spectrum of emotion. Charlie and Donald Kaufman in the film Adaptation similarly oppose each other, clearly shedding light into the gaps that each twin has in themselves, gaps that are in turn filled by the other.
The question is, how are foils an aspect of the evolution of literary stories? One of the problems that our class identified in the characters of the book Generosity by Powers and the film Adaptation directed by Spike Jonze was that the characters did not make the transformation that we wanted them too. Sure the plot continued, and the characters were carried along with its ebb and flow, but where was the dramatic, life changing “lesson” that would neatly tie the plot up in a bow? Perhaps what we were all missing was the significance of the foil. After examining the duality of foil characters and the fates of each, do we still need that big bow? By examining the foil character of Kaufman, Thassa, and Stone, can’t we see where that character is headed? After all, these foil characters give us a glimpse into what might have happened to a character should they have made different life choices. Foil characters can drive a store just as much as plot does.
Evolution is our ghost orchid. In nature, in the wild, undisturbed by humans it is not rare. What makes it rare is our obsession with having, with multiplying, with poaching, with cloning its existence. We all want evolution for our stories, whether fictional or lived, and we all this evolution to be generated from inspiration. We are not satisfied with evolution as set into motion by another or by another’s idea. Evolution by definition is not innate, it stems from something before, which stemmed from something before even that. It is about actions, reactions, adaptations, and mutations. We seem to want our mutations to be unrelated to the whole, but that is never the case. Life is balance, and foil characters offset each other and push each other to progression as much in literature as happens in real life. But still we hunt on, against all odds, to possess something that makes us stand out. We don’t want our flaws highlighted through foil characters, we want that ghost orchid. This want is what foil characters highlight for us. They show us what might have been, but was lost. And this reeks of tragedy, a cautionary tale of what not to do to achieve innate evolution. And this, in its warning of fate, is indeed evolution.