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The Character of Laertes

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Laertes, son of Polonius, is introduced in 1.2. He is immediately established as a favourite with the King. Clouds refers to the young man five times by name and immediately grants him permission to return to his studies in Paris, if he has his father's permission. Thus we are prepared for their later treacherous alliance. In this scene too Laertes' relationship with his father is visually established by both appearing on stage together, although they do not address each other. A contrast is also established in this scene between Laertes and Prince Hamlet. One enjoys the King's favour and is readily given permission to resume his studies in Paris; the other does not and is not allowed to resume his studies in Wittenberg. This situational contrast will later be developed into a moral one.

On his second, and final, appearance before he departs, Laertes offers his sister Ophelia moral advice about her relationship with Hamlet. He speaks cynically about the 'trifling of his favour', something that will not last 'A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute,
No more.'
He also suggests that even if Hamlet does really love her, as heir to the throne of Denmark he is not free to choose his own wife. Finally he warns her not to surrender her virginity to his 'unmaster'd importunity'. Laertes' concern here seems to be not with his sister's feelings but with her honour (reputation) and by implication, that of the family. Ophelia's spirited response '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 rede.' shows that she is not impressed by her brother taking the high moral ground with her and that she feels he will not follow his own advice. Polonius now appears and imparts some moral 'precepts' to his son. His final piece of advice 'This above all: to thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day Thou canst not then be false to any man' is ironic in view of Laertes' subsequent treacherous alliance with the villainous Claudius and hints at the young man's moral weakness. Polonius' subsequent dispatch of his servant Reynolds to spy on Laertes suggests the father suspects that his son will abandon the path of virtue in Paris.

Now that he has been clearly identified in the audience's mind and established in four relationships that will be developed later (with Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia and Hamlet), Laertes is dispatched to Paris and does not reappear until 4.5. His presence is dramatically unnecessary as he has no role to play in the plot while his father lives. However, Shakespeare could not introduce a new character so late in the play as the end of Act 4. When Laertes does reappear (wearing the same dress?), the audience will immediately recognise him as the son of the dead Polonius and will understand why he has returned.

Following his father's death, Laertes does have a role in the plot. His return triggers off a second revenge plot in which he assumes Hamlet's avenger role and Hamlet ironically assumes the role of Claudius. The son of Polonius forces his way into the palace at the head of a rabble, demanding immediate satisfaction from Claudius whom he initially holds responsible for his father's death. 'Where is this king?
O thou vile king,
Give me my father.'
Laertes is prepared to 'sweep' to his revenge without first clearly establishing who is responsible for his father's suspicious death. His lack of moral scruples places him in sharp contrast with Hamlet. 'To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation.'
For the Prince, 'conscience' is a vital consideration. He is not prepared to act against Claudius until he has clearly established his uncle's guilt. Ironically Hamlet himself draws attention to the similarity in their physical situations 'by the image of my cause I see the portraiture of his.' and he also inadvertently draws attention to the difference in their moral natures 'I'll be your foil, Laertes.' Ominously we see already in this scene how easily the headstrong Laertes is manipulated by the cunning, devious Claudius 'Make choice of whom your wisest friends you will,
And they shall hear and judge 'twixt you and me.
If by direct or by collateral hand
They find us touch'd, we will our kingdom give
Our crown, our life, and all that we call ours
To you in satisfaction; but if not,
Be you content to lend your patience to us,
And we shall jointly labour with your soul
To give it due content.'
Shakespeare, however, is careful to return a measure of sympathy for Laertes. He is devastated by the sight of Ophelia in madness '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 with weight
Till our scale turn the beam. O rose of May!
Dear maid - kind sister - sweet Ophelia -
O heavens, is't possible a young maid's wits
Should be as mortal as an old man's life?'
Ophelia's madness also provides him with a second revenge motive 'Hadst thou thy wits and didst persuade revenge,
It could not move thus'
When they next appear, Claudius has convinced Laertes that Hamlet was responsible for his father's death King: 'Now must your conscience my acquittance seal,
And you must put me in your heart for friend,
Sith you have heard, and with a knowing ear,
That he which hath your noble father slain
Pursu'd my life.'

Laertes: 'It well appears.'
The news of Hamlet's unexpected return temporarily stuns Claudius. But he quickly recovers and sets about devising a second plot against his nephew's life, cynically using the grieving Laertes as his cat's paw. The King flatters the young man by praising his skill at sword-play and suggesting that Hamlet is jealous of him. He then proposes to arrange a fencing-match between the pair during which Laertes will treacherously kill the unsuspecting prince with an unblunted rapier. The son of Polonius further suggests poisoning the tip of the sword with a deadly poison which he is carrying on his person, a telling comment on his moral depravity.

The king heartlessly exploits the grieving son's emotional vulnerability by questioning his dead father 'Laertes, was your father dear to you?
Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart?
What would you undertake
To show yourself in deed your fathers' son
More than in words?'
Thus Laertes is emotionally blackmailed into a treacherous alliance which sets the catastrophe of the play in motion and precipitates his own and Claudius' deaths.

However, Shakespeare once more uses Ophelia to prevent the total alienation of Laertes from the audiences' sympathy. When Gertrude announces his sister's death, Laertes is distraught and rushes away to deal with his grief alone. '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. [Weeps] When these are gone,
The woman will be out. Adieu, my lord.'
Laertes is again portrayed sympathetically in the graveyard scene. The grieving brother rebukes the 'churlish priest' over his sister's 'maimed rites' and pays her a final, eloquent tribute 'Lay her i'th' earth,
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring.'
His scuffle with Hamlet at the graveside ominously foreshadows their later, deadly engagement. It also elicits from the Prince a belated admission of the depth of his love for Ophelia.

During the fencing match Laertes does feel a pang of remorse before he makes his treacherous attempt on Hamlet's life 'And yet it is almost among my conscience' Tragically he ignores his nobler instinct. Nevertheless Shakespeare gives him a good death. After he stabs the unprepared Hamlet, Laertes is in turn fatally wounded by the Prince. However, as he lies dying, he achieves his moment of anagnorisis acknowledging that he deserves his fate 'I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.
Unbated and envenom'd. The foul practice
Hath turned itself on me.'
Ironically Laertes also exposes the guilt of the man who had so cynically manipulated him 'The King - the King's to blame' Laertes dies in a spirit of peace and reconciliation, forgiving Hamlet for both his and his father's death 'Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.'
and being in turn forgiven by the Prince 'Heaven make thee free of it.' Thus in his death Laertes shows that Hamlet's generous tribute to him in the graveyard was not completely mistaken 'That is Laertes, a very noble youth.' Appropriately it is the morally redeemed Laertes who speaks the unredeemed Claudius' epitaph 'He is justly serv'd
It is a poison temper'd by himself.'
Thus the double-revenge plot which Shakespeare had carefully orchestrated from the very beginning of the play has been worked out in the final scene. The hero, who is both avenger and avenged, finally kills the man (Claudius) who killed his father (Old Hamlet) only after he himself has been fatally wounded by the man (Laertes) whose father (Polonius) he has killed. And Laertes' reference to 'my father's death' at the very moment when Hamlet has avenged his own father's death highlights this double revenge.

In 'Hamlet' Shakespeare depicts Laertes as a prototype of the primitive revenge hero who embarks upon his task with unscrupulous savagery and villainy, paradoxically in the name of honour. By nature Hamlet is incapable of being this type of avenger. And while we may rebuke the hero because he does not 'sweep' to his revenge 'with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love'
neither do we wish him to duplicate the attitudes of Laertes whose moral depravity throws Hamlet's moral scrupulousness into welcome relief.

Hamlet and Laertes differ sharply in their concept of honour. For Hamlet it equates with conscience, with doing what is morally right. Thus he cannot in honour kill Claudius until he has clearly established his uncle's guilt. By contrast honour for Laertes means no more than reputation. His concern for Ophelia is that she will compromise her honour (and by association his) if she allows Hamlet to seduce her. The circumstances surrounding his father's death also involve honour 'His means of death, his obscure funeral-
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o'er his bones,
No noble rite, nor formal ostentation-
Cry to be heard, as 'twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call't in question.'
The 'maimed rites' of the dead Ophelia also involve family honour. And finally while he accepts Hamlet's apology on a personal level, he declares '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 ungor'd.'

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