Cornelius is one of a pair of diplomats dispatched by Claudius to Norway, to try to negotiate the potential threat from Fortinbrasse. (The other diplomat is Voltemand.)
The part is just barely a speaking part, since Cornelius has only one line, and he speaks that in unison with Voltemand. In the line, in Scene 2, Cornelius pledges to "show his duty." He is with Voltemand when they return in Scene 7, but he is silent at that time.
Since the part is negligible, in terms of speech, it is an obvious target for cutting from stage productions. However, Shakespeare probably included a companion for Voltemand to symbolize the importance of the mission, that is, Claudius considers the mission so important, he is sending two men to help insure a successful negotiation. Indeed it is important, there is war in prospect. With two diplomats, if one man became ill, the other could carry on. Omitting Cornelius will diminish the "show" of the mission's importance.
- Costume - As with his fellow diplomat Voltemand, Cornelius must look ambassadorial, that is, his costume must be elegant looking and expensive looking. He must look like a person of high status.
The name, Cornelius, comes from a Roman gens (a gens being a paternal clan.) It goes along with the other Italianate and Roman names in Hamlet, and along with those other names, implies an older source play set in Italy, which supplied some names that Shakespeare did not bother to change.
Also, the word "cornelian" is a spelling variant of "carnelian," a word that means a red or orange-red color. So, Cornelius can be seen as a name compatible with the allusions to red in the play, as in Hamlet's Scene 2 question to Horatio, "pale, or red?" Even further along that line, since red or orange-red is the color of fire, the name, with knowledge of the spelling variant, is compatible with the Fire motif in the play. Those considerations, in relation to play motifs, probably mitigated any need for Shakespeare to change the name, if the name did indeed predate Shakespeare's writing. Throughout the play, Shakespeare preferred names, and nouns in general, that were harmonius with his play concepts.
Cornelius has no solo lines.
Themes and Motifs
Those most relevant to his character:
His only line is an acknowledgment of his duty, and the diplomatic mission on which he is sent is intended to prevent war.
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