A foil to Hamlet

Laertes and OpheliaLaertes at first comes across as a pleasant young man, fond of his sister, yet suspected by his father of a fairly dissipated life in Paris. It is only on his return to Denmark that he becomes a very significant figure in the drama (see Structure).

In Fortinbras and Laertes, Shakespeare deliberately shows us other young men in similar positions to Hamlet, so that we can compare their reactions.

Laertes, clearly, is a young man who, like Hamlet, has had a father murdered. Indeed, Hamlet acknowledges their similarity in this regard when, in Act V scene ii he says to Horatio:

‘I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For by the image of my cause I see
The portraiture of his.'

However, unlike Hamlet, there is no doubt of Laertes' desire for swift and uncompromising vengeance. By seeing the result of this, the audience can decide whether revenge is, in the end, either moral or desirable.

The avenger

Shakespeare ensures that we have some sympathy for Laertes from the outset, by showing us the madness of Ophelia before we see him arrive at the court, seeking revenge for his father but ignorant of his sister's situation. However, our first impression of him on his return to Elsinore is of a headstrong, fierce young man who has no hesitation in using violence to get what he wants:

‘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!
I dare damnation.'

The same violence is shown:

  • in his assertion that he would be ready to ‘cut (Hamlet's) throat i' th' church'
  • his willingness, not only to take part in the plot about the fencing-match, but to suggest using a poisoned rapier
  • the fact that he has already ‘bought an unction of a mountebank' to which there is no antidote, shows us the depths to which he is prepared to sink.
More on poison: Poison, as we have been made aware of throughout the play, is associated in its imagery with serpents and the most devious evil.
  • Laertes goes through with the plan to poison Hamlet during what is supposed to be an honourable fencing contest
  • He lies to Hamlet after the Prince's heartfelt apology, declaring: ‘I do receive your offer'd love like love,/ And will not wrong it.' yet holding the poisoned and untipped rapier.

A different side

There is a different side to Laertes, which we see in his relationship with Ophelia:

  • It is witnessing her madness which strengthens his desire for vengeance — ‘Hadst thou thy wits, and didst persuade revenge, / It could not move thus.'
  • Her death moves him deeply, and he cannot restrain his tears (a natural response which contrasts with the ‘unnatural' murder committed by Claudius):
‘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.'
  • At her funeral, it is Laertes who pleads for more ‘ceremony' for his dead sister
  • He movingly describes her as having ‘fair and unpolluted flesh'
  • He leaps into Ophelia's grave, and cries to be buried with her (which inspires Hamlet to make a similar response).

Grace in death

Laertes and Hamlet dyingWhen Laertes realises that he has been stabbed with his own poisoned fencing-foil, and is on the point of death, he becomes aware that he has been involved in a ‘treacherous' plan, and that he is being punished for his own ‘foul practice'.

He no longer claims that he ‘dares damnation', but instead seeks heavenly peace. Referring to the words of the Lord's Prayer, which indicates that a desire for God's forgiveness must involve forgiving others, Laertes asks:

‘Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.'

Hamlet's reply — ‘heaven make thee free of it' — shows us that it is the judgement of heaven which will count, rather than that of men. It also allows Horatio to feel certain that, in spite of the deaths in which Hamlet has been involved, ‘Flights of angels' will sing him to his rest. See Big ideas: Judgement

Related material
Scan and go

Scan on your mobile for direct link.