Hamlet: Character Profile ¡V Laertes



Basic Facts:

The first impression of Laertes, as a character, is of a sincere and well-spoken young man. He is about the same age as Hamlet but his cheekiness and more cheerful outlook on life contrasts largely with Hamlet¡¦s darker mood. Laertes is Ophelia¡¦s brother and Polonius¡¦s son. Laertes¡¦ reaction to the death of his father Polonius and especially the way he speaks to Claudius also indicates to the audience that unlike Hamlet, Laertes is a character that is driven by his raw emotions. He holds nothing back and fears nothing in his quest to avenge his father, and as seen in Act IV Scene V, not even the king and the consequence of execution is enough to hold him back.



Quotations and Analysis:





For Hamlet, and the trifling of his favor,

Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,

A violet in the youth of primy nature,

Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,

The perfume and suppliance of a minute¡V

No more.

The use of descriptions from nature shows his eloquence and intelligence but they also shows his youthfulness compared to Polonius who uses very practical language while Laertes¡¦s descriptions are more romantic.



Perhaps he loves you now,

And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch

The virtue of his will, but you must fear,

His greatness weigh¡¦d, his will is not his own,

For he himself is subject to his birth:

He may not, as unvalued persons do,

Carve for himself, for on his choice depends

The safety and health of this whole state,

And therefore must his choice be circumscri¡¦d

Unto the voice and yielding of that body

Whereof he is the head.

Laertes has a lighter and more positive opinion of Hamlet compared to Polonius. He understands that Hamlet has many responsibilities placed upon him and may not be able to act as freely as other people. In addition, this line comes after Laertes realizes that he has hurt Ophelia by cautioning her against loving Hamlet. As such this section also shows us that he is a sensitive and caring brother who can temper his advice to minimize the pain caused to the hearer, a skill that Polonius does not seem to posses.



Laertes: Be wary than, best safety lies in fear: Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.


Ophelia: I shall the effect of this good lesson Keep as watchman to my heart. 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


The witty and intimate banter between Laertes and Ophelia here suggests the closeness of their relationship and although Ophelia agrees to heed her brother¡¦s advice she teases him at the same time ¡V asserting that he should follow this advice too if he is going to give it. This closeness and intimacy contrasts markedly with Ophelia¡¦s relationship with her father to whom she says almost nothing when he admonishes her about her relationship with Hamlet.



Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord.

Laertes¡¦ response to Polonius shows that that he does not have as close a relationship with his father. He refers to him as ¡§my lord¡¨ and there is no stichomythia between them. The words ¡§my lord¡¨ and ¡§humbly¡¨ create a distance between them because of respect which in turn suggests Laertes adherence to social structures and rules.



O thou vile king, Give me my father!

This is the first line that Laertes says to Claudius as he returns to Denmark and has the effect of portraying him as an honourable but also somewhat reckless character. The desire for vengeance against his father¡¦s killer suggests a concern for honour but the way in which he insults the King by calling him ¡§vile¡¨ and accusing him of killing his father creates a sense of rashness. This enhances the impression created that Laertes is driven by emotion and thus heightens his contrast with Hamlet.



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. To this point I stand,

That both the worlds I give to negligence,

Let come what comes, only I¡¦ll be reveng¡¦d

Most thoroughly for my father.

Once again, Laertes is portrayed as a character that is fueled by his emotions. He repeatedly insults the king and proclaims that he will seek revenge for his father no matter the consequences. Indicating to the audience that of Laertes¡¦s strong sense of family honor.


However, it may also be possible to read an element of performance and posturing into Laertes¡¦ words here. In some ways it seems as if the hyperbole when he pledges allegiance to ¡¥hell¡¦ and ¡¥the blackest devil¡¦ suggests an emptiness to his words. It may also be contended that the very explicitness of his statements, that he will ¡¥be reveng¡¦d most thoroughly for [his] father¡¦ suggests that he is saying things that he knows he should say / that he wants others to hear.



Hads¡¦t thou they wits and didst persuade revenge, It could not move thus.

This line comes from Laertes when he realizes that Ophelia is mad and his claim that her madness motivates him to take revenge even more than any reasonable argument she could make if she were sane not only paints Laertes as a caring and compassionate brother but also further underscores his susceptibility to emotional rather than rational justification. Clearly, Laertes is extremely angered having witnessed the suffering of Ophelia and is emotionally charged to take action immediately to avenge his family and to punish Hamlet for Polonius¡¦s death and Ophelia¡¦s madness. Thus, Laertes is depicted as a very ardent character and acts on his emotions, which contrasts with Hamlet who having been presented a multitude of opportunities to kill Claudius, is unable to deliver.



The devil take thy soul!

Unlike Hamlet, who is not willing to curse people because he overthinks everything and is uncertain about religion, Laertes immediately blames Hamlet for his father and sister¡¦s death and curses him. This is a short direct statement without much thought compared to Hamlet¡¦s long soliloquies suggesting that Laertes is quick to follow his emotions to determine his actions.



I am satisfied in nature,

Whose motive in this case should stir me most

To my revenge, but in my terms of honor

I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement

Till by some elder masters of known honor

I have a voice and president of peace

To keep my name ungor¡¦d. But till that time

I do receive your offer¡¦d love like love,

And will not wrong it.

This quotation suggests the existence of an interesting distinction between what is ¡¥natural¡¦ and what is ¡¥honourable¡¦ ¡K here Laertes seems to be suggesting that while he may feel forgiveness for Hamlet, this feeling is not by itself enough to justify actual forgiveness. Indeed, it seems almost as if reconcilement in terms of honour can only be justified by an external source (in this case ¡¥some elder masters¡¦) which creates the impression that the rules of honourable behaviour are an external set of expectations that are imposed on individuals from without and (at least to a modern audience) this suggests something of an emptiness or artificiality to these rules and codes and in turn creates the impression that Laertes is easily influenced by external forces.


There is also a sense of hypocrisy created here as we as readers know that while Laertes speaks of recering Hamlet¡¦s ¡¥love like love¡¦ and ¡¥not wrong[ing] it¡¦ he is at the same planning to murder Hamlet with a poison-tipped sword in the duel.



Laertes: My lord, I¡¦ll hit him now.

King: I do not think¡¦t.

Laertes: [Aside] And yet it is almost against my conscience.

This line goes some way towards redeeming Laertes¡¦ character as we sense a degree of internal tension when he wrestles with his decision to murder Hamlet in the line ¡¥And yet it is almost against my conscience¡¦. In this way Laertes also seems subject to some of the same moral qualms as Hamlet although it is clear that Hamlet is prevented from acting by his thoughts and moral conscience while Laertes, clearly, is not.



Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric

I am justly kill¡¦d with mine own treachery.

Hamlet tends to sticks to his beliefs quite strongly and it seems harder for him to accept situations. Dissimilarly however, once Laertes has realized his wrongdoing, he seems to quickly accept his death and the justice that he feels he has been served. His straightforward approach to morality also appears to be emphasized by the quickness of his death, which compares markedly with the long and drawn out time that it takes Hamlet to die.



He is justly served,

It is a poison temper¡¦d by himself.

Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.

Mine and my father¡¦s death come not upon thee,

Nor thine on me!

Laertes doesn¡¦t hesitate to blame the King for his death and the Queen¡¦s death. Without thinking much about how Hamlet may have contributed to the current tragedy, he immediately forgives him and once again the simplicity with which Laertes reaches moral judgments contrasts with Hamlet¡¦s intellectual paralysis. Ultimately, however, it is up to the audience to decide whether this supports the idea that there are clear and firm moral boundaries in the world or challenges their existence as overly simplistic.




Role in the Play:

Laertes, as a character, acts as a foil for Hamlet. By exploiting the contrasts between Laertes and Hamlet, Shakespeare gives the audience a better understanding of Hamlet¡¦s isolation from and difference to the other characters. This enables Shakespeare to explore issues about morality and the role of rational thought and honour and to ask questions about whether clear cut moral rules actually exist (as suggested by Laertes) or not.