Character Analysis Of Laertes in Hamlet by Shakespeare

Laertes would be a Polonius but more sagacious and shrewder if he were to grow old. Polonius might have been like Laertes in his younger days. At any rate we see that Laertes, like his father, lectures Ophelia and seems to be a little more concerned that the father at the risk she is running by listening readily to Hamlet’s vows of love:

“Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain.

If with two credent ears you list his songs;

Or lose your heart.”

He makes an eloquent sermon on beauty and chastity, and the risks to which they are exposed. There is a single instance of retort even from Ophelia to his preaching:

“But, good my brother,

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,

Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,

And recks not his own reed.”

Perhaps unconsciously Ophelia pictures the life Laertes is living in Paris. We may guess that the life of “reckless libertine” that Laertes is living in Paris in pretty well-known to the court in Denmark. So when Polonius is sending him again to Paris, like a good father, worldly-wise, he gives him sound advice in every detail of behaviour; so when he sends Reynaldo with money and letters for Laertes, he gives Reynaldo elaborate instructions how to find out everything about his son in Paris :

“And thus do we of wisdom of reach,

With windlasses and assays of bias,

By indirections find directions out,

So by my former lecture and advice,

Shall you my son.”

Laertes returns from Paris on hearing of the reported death of his father. The death of Polonius seems to be rather a tough job for the King. He confides to Gertrude :

“Her brother is in secret comes from France,

Feeds on his wonder, keeps, himself in clouds,

And wants not buzzers to infect his ear

With pestilent speeches of his father’s death.”

Then he bursts into the King’s presence, while the Danes who have rallied round him, wait outside. He is a little theatrical here:

“To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil!

Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!


Let come what comes; only I’ll be revenged

Most thoroughly for my father.”

The king rises equal to the occasion, and disarms, Laertes’s wrath with a little tact. Then they enter into a pact; they will have a fencing match for which Laertes will choose “a sword unabated,” which Hamlet being “most generous and free from all contriving,” will neither notice nor suspect. Laertes proposes to have is sword tipped with a deadly poison. The King caps it with a promise to have a poisoned drink read for Hamlet when he is ‘hot and dry’ after the bout. Each outbids the other in villainy. The upshot of this plot is that the Queen drinks the poisoned cup, intended for Hamlet, that Hamlet wounds Laertes with the tatter’s venom sword and with the same sword stabs in King. Laertes confesses, “I am justly killed with my own treachery,” Laertes with his easy morality, while he can preach so well to his sister, becomes a ready instrument of the King’s villainy but he has the grace to confess his crime, but the King has gone.

There is one point which needs to be discussed. Laertes is pointed out by critics as a man of action, as contrasted with Hamlet. “A nature such as this would have been little shocked by a mother’s infidelity. Had Laertes been in Hamlet’s place the King would not have lived another hour after the discovery of his guilt.” That the position is different in the case of Hamlet is not recognized by these critics. The difference in temperament and outlook between Hamlet and Laertes is also a factor to reckon with revenge of his father’s death is not a more private matter with Hamlet; Claudius has killed his father and seized the crown with the support of the people (who of course do not know that he is the murderer of his predecessor) and the revenge thus becomes the demand of public justice. Hamlet is a man of nice scruples; he can not merely trust the words of the ghost-he must satisfy himself of the guilt of Claudius, the confirmation of which comes from the play-scene. For Laertes matter is simpler, Hamlet has killed his father, and the duty of Laertes is to revenge it, he sooner the better. How ‘the man of action’ accomplishes it-that is to be seen. We reproduce here H. Granville-Barker’s analysis of the case. “And when the true culprit (i.e., Hamlet) known and reported to be again within reach-he is ready straightway:

“To cut the throat I’ the church.”

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Even that pleasant contrast with Hamlet’s late refusal to kill the praying Claudius lest he should spare him hell-fire. Yet the next moment this ‘very noble youth’ is bettering an already scoundrels play to assure him his revenge with a secretly sharpened sword by proposing to position it too. Conventional virtue stragedly belied; our edifying young counsellor of the earlier scene with his sister turned the wrong side out indeed!”

Then he points out the difference between Hamlet and Laertes when Hamlet is accused of failing to act unlike Laertes: “It looks very much as if-lest misled by his self-depreciation, we misinterpret Hamlet’s failing-he (i.e., Shakespeare) now wished to show us what moral instability may be, and to what sort of nature it properly belongs. Morally unstable Hamlet is not. His “thinking too precisely on the event…..” may say his resolution, but it sharpens, not blunts his sense of right and wrong. Laertes-swayed by every passion and rash in action, suspicious as all unreasoning people are, but the more blind to flattery-proves wax in the clever fingers of the King. He is too ignorant of himself to be, by that banal precept, true to himself, and he can be cajoled and provoked into the ignoble crime.”



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