May 8, 2006

Laertes is best understood for his function in the plot — he is an analogue for Hamlet, and the differences between them highlight something Shakespeare wanted to make clear about the Prince. Like Hamlet, Laertes seeks revenge for a murdered father. And like Hamlet, Laertes is killed in his pursuit of revenge. The chief difference between them is the delay — and the fact of this difference is a big part of what makes me believe the delay is central to Shakespeare's whole purpose with the play.

Shakespeare is careful to introduce Laertes in such a way that the audience will remember him after his absence through Acts 2 and 3. The King repeats his name over and over in that first speech, makes a big point of identifying him as the son of Polonius, and immediately invites us to compare Laertes to Hamlet when he grants Laertes' request and denies Hamlet's when they each want permission to leave Denmark.

We soon see Laertes bidding farewell to Ophelia, and cautioning her about her romantic relationship with Hamlet — there seems to be genuine affection between them. His goodbye to and from his father is much more formal and stilted. The siblings seem to get along; the father seems disconnected.

And then Laertes is gone for more than two full Acts. His return is hugely dramatic — literally breaking down the doors at the head of a mob, in full vengeance mode towards the King over the death of Polonius. This is the very image of what Hamlet can't get himself to be — the headstrong revenger, loyal to his father, hell-bent on avenging his father's murder at any cost. The King skillfully slows Laertes down, and the madness of Ophelia takes the immediate wind out of his sails. Ophelia's suicide strengthens his resolve even further, and Claudius manages to turn him against Hamlet — the true enemy who murdered Laertes' father in cold blood. It is Laertes who suggests the use of poison.

At Ophelia's funeral, Laertes argues with the priest over the reduced ceremonies (suicide being a sin), then jumps in Ophelia's grave and demands to be buried with her. Hamlet reveals himself at that, and the two revengers scuffle and have to be pulled apart.

That very night, the plan that Laertes made with the King is put into action. Laertes has an "unbated" sword — the tip is sharp, not blunted for safe fencing (and it's poisoned as well). Hamlet quickly proves the better fencer, so Laertes cheats, hitting Hamlet between rounds. In the ensuing fight, Hamlet manages to switch swords and wound Laertes. When the Queen dies after drinking the poison intended for Hamlet, the dying Laertes has a change of heart. He reveals himself and the King, then asks Hamlet to exchange forgiveness with him before succumbing to his own poison.

Laertes is energetic, bold, and passionate, and wants to do the right thing. He is somewhat given to making exaggerated or even melodramatic statements; perhaps this is due to his youth. He's clearly not the intellectual and philosophical giant that Hamlet is, but perhaps this has something to do with what allows him to be the man of action that Hamlet is not. The audience should sympathize with Laertes' desire for revenge, and should on some level be aware of the parallel with Hamlet. The way Laertes repents at the end makes him that much more sympathetic.

In some ways, the story of Laertes might be indicative of what Revenge Tragedy was all about before Shakespeare used Hamlet to transcend it.


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