Hamlet – the Character Laertes
In the Bard of Avon’s famous tragedy Hamlet the character of Laertes is less clearly presented than others. He is the chamberlain’s son, and yet he commands popular respect and support for a bid for the kingship. How does one piece together all the evidence in his life?
In “The World of Hamlet
” Maynard Mack describes the interference of a possessive Polonius in the life of his son, Laertes:
“The apparel of proclaims the man,” Polonius assures Laertes, cataloging maxims in the young man’s ear as he is about to leave for Paris. Oft, but not always. And so he sends his man Reynaldo to look into Laertes’ life there – even, if need be, to put a false dress of accusation upon his son (“What forgeries you please”), the better by indirections to find directions out. (250)
Laertes makes his appearance in the drama after Marcellus, Barnardo and Horatio have already seen the Ghost and have trifled with it in an effort to prompt it to communicate with them. Laertes is in attendance at a social gathering of the court at Elsinore. Laertes, like Fortinbras a rival of Hamlet (Kermode 1138), appears with his father, Polonius, who is later shown to manipulate both him and his sister (Boklund 122). Laertes respectfully approaches the king, who asks, “And now, Laertes, what's the news with you? / You told us of some suit; what is't, Laertes?” Laertes responds in a manner befitting the son of the lord chamberlain
My dread lord,
Your leave and favour to return to France;
From whence though willingly I came to Denmark,
To show my duty in your coronation [. . .] . (1.2)
After Claudius wishes Laertes a farewell for his trip back to France, the young man departs to pack his things on board the ship. Then he returns to tell Ophelia goodbye. Marchette Chute in “The Story Told in Hamlet” describes Laertes’ last words
to his sister:
The son of the lord chamberlain, a young man named Laertes, makes his final preparations to leave for France and gives his sister a few last-minute instructions before he goes. Her name is Ophelia, and Hamlet has been paying court to her. In Laertes’ opinion, she should not pay too much attention to the prince’s talk of love for he is heir to the throne of Denmark and not free to marry where he pleases. Ophelia is a gentle girl, very strictly brought up, and she promises to conduct herself carefully at home if he will do the same in Paris (36).
Laertes’ instructions to Ophelia regarding Hamlet are detailed and strict; he seems to possess his father’s ability to insinuate himself deeply into the lives of family members:
Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain,
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster'd importunity. [. . .](1.3)
Ironically, this so honorable brother will later team up with the king in planning the cold-blooded murder of the prince. Marvin Rosenberg describes Laertes in his essay, “Laertes: An Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat”:
Laertes is a dashing, romantic figure who excites striking, spectacular moments in the play. Not much attention has been paid to him by scholar-critics and theatre observers; for all his activity in the later acts, he is not much cursed with inward struggle – while being surrounded by others fascinating for their infernos of inwardness. (87)
Laertes receives as much advice from his father as he has given to his sister. The reader/viewer perhaps suspects that this family possesses the trait or characteristic of giving generous advice. Laertes is well-heeled, his father being the lord chamberlain, so that the son does not have to indulge the more menial aspects of the trip to France: “The time invites you; go; your servants tend.” Laertes is away in France for most of the duration of Hamlet. While he is absent, the ghost makes his pivotal revelation to the protagonist. Laertes’ sister is unfortunately the first to experience the hero’s new “madness”; she is terrorized by Hamlet’s disheveled appearance during his unannounced visit. Laertes’ father diagnoses Hamlet’s condition as madness resulting from unrequited love.
With Horatio and Hamlet observing the king’s reaction to The Mousetrap, Claudius shows himself to be guilty of the murder. Later, the very emotional Hamlet detects a spy (Laertes’ father) behind the arras in his mother’s room and kills him with his rapier. This act, plus the king’s suspicion of the prince, cause Hamlet to be sent to England where he will be put to death.
Laertes, when he learns of his father’s death, returns from France at the head of a crowd who want him made king: “Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!” And Laertes is in no mood to be trifled with by the royal court:
How came he dead? I'll not be juggled with:
To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit! (4.5)
The Cambridge History states regarding the king’s reaction here: “Few who have paid any attention to it have denied the combined courage and skill with which he meets the émeute headed by Laertes” (Ward and Trent vol.5, pt.1, ch.8, sec.16, no.54). Before Laertes has received an explanation for his father’s death, his sister, Ophelia, walks into the court obviously mentally disturbed. Laertes’ reaction is emotional:
O heat, dry up my brains! tears seven times salt,
Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!
By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight,
Till our scale turn the beam. O rose of May! (4.5)
The king is sympathetic with Laertes in his grief, “Laertes, I must commune with your grief. . . .” and wins his allegiance, so that when news arrives that Hamlet is returning to Elsinore (having been kidnapped by pirates), Laertes helps to devise plans for the death of Hamlet. Rosenberg comments on this development:
Laertes, with his over-dedication to “honor,” must inevitably feel guilty about the treacherous murder he undertakes – though that he has even considered it disgraces him, as he knows. His first, instinctive reaction had been like Hamlet’s: immediate revenge! (Rosenberg 91-92)
The Queen announces to Laertes the sad news that his sister has drowned in a stream. To which news Laertes responds sadly:
Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears: but yet
It is our trick; nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will: when these are gone,
The woman will be out. (4.7)
At the burial of Ophelia, Laertes is very much filled with emotion. He confronts the priest because there is no Requiem Mass accompanying her funeral. Additionally, he asks that no dirt be thrown on Ophelia’s remains until he once more hugs her; so he jumps into her grave and does this. When Hamlet shortly joins him, Laertes yells out, “The devil take thy soul!” And in anger he grapples with Hamlet until attendants separate the two. Once back in the royal castle, Osric delivers to Hamlet a wager from Claudius, that “in a dozen passes between yourself and him [Laertes], he shall not exceed you three hits.” When Hamlet agrees, and the King places Laertes’ hand together with the Prince’s hand, Hamlet apologizes: “Give me your pardon, sir: I've done you wrong; / But pardon't, as you are a gentleman.” From Laertes’ response, it would seem that the Prince’s words have just about convinced him to forego the poisoned rapier and the poisoned wine destined for Hamlet:
I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive, in this case, should stir me most
To my revenge: but in my terms of honour
I stand aloof; and will no reconcilement,
Till by some elder masters, of known honour,
I have a voice and precedent of peace,
To keep my name ungored. But till that time,
I do receive your offer'd love like love,
And will not wrong it. (5.2)
Helen Gardner, by way of overview, compares Laertes to Hamlet and King Claudius in “Hamlet and the Tragedy of Revenge”:
Hamlet’s agony of mind and indecision are precisely the things which differentiate him from the smooth, swift plotter Claudius, and from the coarse, unthinking Laertes, ready to “dare damnation” and cut his enemy’s throat in a churchyard (222).
After two hits by Hamlet to zero hits by Laertes, the latter has just about changed his mind regarding killing the prince, “And yet 'tis almost 'gainst my conscience.” Hamlet, in addressing Laertes, displays a feeling of superiority (Brown 31): ". . . Laertes. You do but dally. I pray you pass with your best violence." In reaction, Laertes reverts to his former angry mental state and stealthily wounds Hamlet with the poisoned foil. In turn, the prince takes possession of the poisoned rapier and wounds Laertes. So both are doomed. Laertes in his dying moments converts, explains the truth to Hamlet, and denounces the king: “I can no more: the king, the king's to blame.” Laertes’ final words are so touching, both pleading and forgiving at the same time:
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me. (5.2)
Bernice W. Kliman in “A Television Interpretation of Hamlet” (1964 with Christopher Plummer) highlights the actions of Laertes at the climax of the drama:
Close-ups, of course, reveal that Gertrude offers Hamlet the poisoned wine once she has drunk, that Laertes crosses himself as he takes the fatal rapier, that he gives Hamlet a foul blow after impatient urgings from Claudius, that the soldiers restrain Claudius after Laertes’ revelation. Yet the setting allows enough space around the close-ups for Laertes to make his first admission to Osric alone and for the supernumeraries to disappear while Horatio holds the dying Hamlet, the frame widening out for Fortinbras’ stately entry. (157)
Boklund, Gunnar. “Hamlet.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Brown, John Russell. “Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet .” Connotations 2.1 (1992): 16-33. http://www.anglistik.uni-muenster.de/Connotations/brown21.htm
Chute, Marchette. “The Story Told in Hamlet.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Excerpted from Stories from Shakespeare. N. p.: E. P. Dutton, 1956.
Gardner, Helen. “Hamlet and the Tragedy of Revenge.” Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Rev. ed. Ed. Leonard F. Dean. New York: Oxford University P., 1967.
Kliman, Bernice W.. “A Television Interpretation of Hamlet.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from Hamlet: Film, Television and Audio Performance. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. P., 1988.
Kermode, Frank. “Hamlet.” The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974.
Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet.” Yale Review. vol. 41 (1952) p. 502-23. Rpt. in Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Rev. ed. Ed. Leonard F. Dean. New York: Oxford University P., 1967.
Rosenberg, Marvin. “Laertes: An Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Masks of Hamlet. Newark, NJ: Univ. of Delaware P., 1992.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html No line nos.
Ward & Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21; New York: Bartleby.com, 2000 http://www.bartleby.com/215/0816.html