Examining Laertes Hamlets Most Complex Character English Literature Essay

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In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Laertes is one of the most complex characters. While he is the son of Polonius, chamberlain, he shows support and loyalty to the king. In Maynard Mack's "The World of Hamlet" he describes the relationship between Laertes and his father: 

"'The apparel oft proclaims the man,' Polonius assures Laertes, cataloging maxims in the young man's ear as he is about to leave for Paris. Oft, but not always. And so he sends his man Reynaldo to look into Laertes's life there - even, if need be, to put a false dress of accusation upon his son ("What forgeries you please"), the better by indirections to find directions out," (Mack 250).

Laertes first appears after Marcellus, Barnardo, and Horatio have seen the ghost and have attempted to communicate with him. Laertes has returned to Elsinore for a social gathering of the court. Laertes, foil of Hamlet, appears with his father, Polonius, who is later shown to manipulate both him and his sister (Boklund 122; Kermode 1138). Laertes approaches King Claudius, who asks, "And now, Laertes, what's the news with you? / You told us of some suit; what is't, Laertes?" (Shakespeare 1.2.42 - 43). Laertes answers: 

"My dread lord, 

Your leave and favour to return to France; 

From whence though willingly I came to Denmark, 

To show my duty in your coronation," (Shakespeare 1.2.50 - 53).

After the King bids him a farewell, Laertes leaves to pack his things for his trip back to Paris. After, he returns to tell his sister, Ophelia, goodbye. In "The Story Told in Hamlet" Marchette Chute describes Laertes's farewell to her: 

"The son of the lord chamberlain, a young man named Laertes, makes his final preparations to leave for France and gives his sister a few last-minute instructions before he goes. Her name is Ophelia, and Hamlet has been paying court to her. In Laertes' opinion, she should not pay too much attention to the prince's talk of love for he is heir to the throne of Denmark and not free to marry where he pleases. Ophelia is a gentle girl, very strictly brought up, and she promises to conduct herself carefully at home if he will do the same in Paris," (Chute 36). 

Laertes's give fatherly advice to Ophelia detailing Hamlet, expressing similar qualities to Polonius: 

"Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain, 

If with too credent ear you list his songs, 

Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open 

To his unmaster'd importunity," (Shakespeare 1.3.29 - 32). Laertes, the same caring and compassionate brother, later teams up with King Claudius to seek out cold-hearted revenge on Hamlet. In Marvin Rosenberg's essay, "Laertes: An Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat" he gives a detailed description of the character's personality: 

"Laertes is a dashing, romantic figure who excites striking, spectacular moments in the play. Not much attention has been paid to him by scholar-critics and theatre observers; for all his activity in the later acts, he is not much cursed with inward struggle - while being surrounded by others fascinating for their infernos of inwardness," (Rosenberg 87). Like father like son, Laertes receives generous advice from his father just as he has given advice to Ophelia. Laertes is prosperous, his father Polonius, the lord chamberlain, and so able to avoid the strenuous parts of his trip to France: "The time invites you; go; your servants tend," (Shakespeare 1.3.83). Laertes remains in France almost the rest of Hamlet. In Laertes's absence, the ghost of Old Hamlet makes his crucial disclosure to Hamlet, protagonist. Unfortunately Ophelia, sister of Laertes, is the first to encounter the "madness" of Hamlet; she is overwhelmed by the Prince's unkempt appearance during his unannounced visit. Polonius diagnoses the young man's condition as the result of unrequited love. 

After the detection of Claudius's guilt by Horatio and Hamlet, Hamlet becomes very emotional and wishes to seek his revenge. At a later point, Hamlet acts quickly rather than logically and kills Polonius, who was hiding behind the curtains in his mother's room, mistaking him for Claudius. At this point, Claudius becomes anxious and sends Hamlet off to certain death in England to avoid any complications.

After learning of his father's death, Laertes returns from France with a crowd of supporters wishing to make him King: "Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!" (Shakespeare 4.5.109). At which point, Laertes is past reconciliation: 

"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!" (Shakespeare 4.5.131 - 133).

King Claudius's reaction according to The Cambridge History of English and American Literature: "Few who have paid any attention to it have denied the combined courage and skill with which he meets the émeute headed by Laertes," (Ward and Trent Ophelia enters the court mentally distressed before Laertes receives the reasoning behind his father's death. Laertes's reacts emotionally: 

"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 by weight, 

Till our scale turn the beam. O rose of May!" (Shakespeare 4.5.155 - 158). The King sympathizes with Laertes, "Laertes, I must commune with your grief…" (Shakespeare 4.5.203) and therefore gains loyalty. And when news arrives that Hamlet is returning to Elsinore, having escaped death, Laertes willingly contributes to the demise of Hamlet. Rosenberg's opinion on the current situation: 

"Laertes, with his over-dedication to 'honor,' must inevitably feel guilty about the treacherous murder he undertakes - though that he has even considered it disgraces him, as he knows. His first, instinctive reaction had been like Hamlet's: immediate revenge!" (Rosenberg 91-92). 

Queen Gertrude reveals to Laertes the tragic news of his sister's drowning. To which Laertes replies: 

"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: when these are gone, 

The woman will be out," (Shakespeare 4.7.185 - 189).

At Ophelia's burial, Laertes, teeming with emotion, confronts the priest due to the lack of a Requiem Mass. After which, he exclaims that he must hug her once and jumps into her grave. Shorty thereafter, Hamlet joins him, and Laertes cries out, "The devil take thy soul!" spurring a fight between the two (Shakespeare 5.1.259). After returning to the castle, Osric, messenger, delivers news of a challenge from Claudius, that "in a dozen passes between yourself and him, he shall not exceed you three hits," (Shakespeare 5.2.165 - 167). Once Hamlet agrees to the duel, he apologizes to Laertes:

"Give me your pardon, sir: I've done you wrong;

But pardon't, as you are a gentleman," (Shakespeare 5.2.226 - 227). It would seem from Laertes's response, that Prince Hamlet's words have soothed his wounds: 

"I am satisfied in nature, 

Whose motive, in this case, should stir me most 

To my revenge: but 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 ungored. But till that time, 

I do receive your offer'd love like love, 

And will not wrong it," (Shakespeare 5.2.244 - 252).

In "Hamlet and the Tragedy of Revenge", Helen Gardner compares Laertes to both Claudius and Hamlet: 

"Hamlet's agony of mind and indecision are precisely the things which differentiate him from the smooth, swift plotter Claudius, and from the coarse, unthinking Laertes, ready to 'dare damnation' and cut his enemy's throat in a churchyard," (Gardner 222). 

After multiple hits by Hamlet, Laertes has almost decided against killing the Prince, "And yet 'tis almost 'gainst my conscience," (Shakespeare 5.2.296). However, Hamlet expresses a feeling of superiority to Laertes (Brown 31): "Laertes. You do but dally. I pray you pass with your best violence," (Shakespeare 5.2.297-298). At which point, Laertes regresses to his previous rage and cuts Hamlet with the poisoned sword. After an accidental swapping of foils, Hamlet wounds Laertes with the poisoned foil. In dying breaths, Laertes reveals the truth to Hamlet, and condemns King Claudius: "I can no more: the king, the king's to blame," (Shakespeare 5.2.320). His summation is moving, both persuasive and merciful: 

"Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet: 

Mine and my father's death come not upon thee, 

Nor thine on me," (Shakespeare 5.2.329 - 331).

"Works Cited"

Boklund, Gunnar. "Hamlet." Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965. 

Brown, John Russell. "Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet ." Connotations 2.1 (1992): 16-33. http://www.anglistik.uni-muenster.de/Connotations/brown21.htm 

Chute, Marchette. "The Story Told in Hamlet." Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Excerpted from Stories from Shakespeare. N. p.: E. P. Dutton, 1956. 

Gardner, Helen. "Hamlet and the Tragedy of Revenge." Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Rev. ed. Ed. Leonard F. Dean. New York: Oxford University P., 1967. 

Kennedy, X. J., and Dana Gioia. "Hamlet." Literature: an Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. 11th ed. New York: Longman, 2010. Print.

Kermode, Frank. "Hamlet." The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1974. 

Mack, Maynard. "The World of Hamlet." Yale Review. vol. 41 (1952) p. 502-23. Rpt. in Shakespeare: Modern Essays in Criticism. Rev. ed. Ed. Leonard F. Dean. New York: Oxford University P., 1967. 

Rosenberg, Marvin. "Laertes: An Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat." Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. from The Masks of Hamlet. Newark, NJ: Univ. of Delaware P., 1992. 

Ward & Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1907-21; New York: Bartleby.com, 2000 http://www.bartleby.com/215/0816.html