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Of the various parallels between Hamlet and Laertes is one of the most telling. From the beginning of the play we see the two in comparable situations, each young men of the court, each seeking university, each spied on by Polonius, each (it would appear) loving Ophelia, in different ways. Therefore, when Laertes finds himself in Hamlet’s position of having a father murdered, the audience watches with interest to see how he will react, and how this will compare with Hamlet’s behaviour in the same situation.
In fact, although Hamlet points out that: ‘by the image of my cause I can see The portraiture of his’ Laertes reaction to murder of his father is very different from hamlet’s, and indeed he is everything which Hamlet rebukes himself for failing to b. He forms the very epitome of a traditional avenger, and almost everything he does forms a contrast with what Hamlet does not do. Immediately as he returns to the court ‘in a riotous head’, having recruited ‘a rabble’, to aid him in his revenge.
Thus we see that he finds both opportunity and means to destroy his father’s supposed murderer as soon as he possibly can. It is sometimes argued that Hamlet has little opportunity, doing the first two acts of the play, at least, to confront Claudius and exact his revenge. However, it is clear that – particularly since he is ‘loved by the distracted multitude’ – Hamlet might have actively created such an opportunity for himself, just as Laertes does. Furthermore Laertes is determined that he will ‘dare damnation’ in order to revenge his father.
This is very important when soliloquy beginning, ‘To be or not to be’, in which he confesses that ‘the dread of something after death’ is, in part, what makes him ‘lose the name of action’, for again we see hamlet’s attitude to his task differs radically from that of a traditional avenger. This is also apparent when Laertes says that he would ‘cut (Hamlet’s) throat I’ th’ church ! ‘, since we are immediately reminded that Hamlet refused to kill Claudius, when given the perfect opportunity, because he was in prayer.
Hamlet’s refusal to kill Claudius at this time (because his prayers make him ‘fit and seasoned’ to go to heaven – which is hardly a fitting revenge for a man who has sent his brother to be judged with ‘his crimes broad blown’) may – if we decide that they are more than just another rationalization (an entirely debatable point in itself) – prove that Hamlet reflects more carefully than Laertes on the business of revenge and that he is more caught up in the need for a perfect and fitting revenge.
Nevertheless Laertes’ clear opinion that ‘Revenge should have no bounds’, and his immediate and unhesitating action, in comparison with Hamlet’s continual prevarication, persuade us that he is the more effective avenger. Laertes falls into the same category as Fortinbras, who with his ‘unimproved mettle hot and full’ seeks revenge on Denmark for winning and taking control of what had been his father’s lands, and Pyrrhus, who brutally kills an old and defenceless man in the name of revenge.
All these characters’ unhesitating and decisive action, and what seems to be their lack of fear at the consequences, throw Hamlet’s indecisiveness very much into relief, for whilst he can only ‘unpack (his) heart with words’, they can ‘sweep… to revenge’ as he longs to.
However, it is \Claudius, not Laertes, who actually states that ‘Revenge should have no bounds’, which is not only ironic, since it is Hamlet’s hesitation alone which has saved him so far, but – I feel – also has sinister undertones, since one would hardly have put such words into the mouth of the clearest villain of the play without implying that this sentiment is also, somehow, villainous.
Of course, as Claudius is here manipulating Laertes’ strong desire for revenge, it would be unwise to attach too much importance to this point, but it is nevertheless interesting to examine our attitude to Laertes’ attitude towards revenge as opposed to Hamlet’s. After all, the impetuous approach of the former allows him to believe: ; The people muddied, Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers. ‘ Thus he promptly accuses the wrong man (Claudius, rather than Hamlet) of killing his father.
Compare this with Hamlet – well aware that all is not necessarily what it seems in Denmark – who creates an elaborate plan to ‘catch the conscience of the king’ before he proceeds. It might also appear to the audience that Laertes’ defiance of damnation is more to do with a lack of reflection on ‘the undiscovered country’ than courage in facing it. After all, as hamlet points out: ‘the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’ Laertes is all ‘resolution’, untroubled by the words and thoughts, which impede hamlet’s action.
(We never see Laertes in soliloquy, of course, because he is morally certain of what he must do, and does not explore the subject further. ) However, we possibly feel some sympathy with the view that: ‘blest are those Whose blood and judgement are so well co meddled That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger. ‘ Ironically, these words, spoken by Hamlet in praise of Horatio, actually describe the former in some respects, and particularly when we see him in comparison with Laertes.
After all, whilst his endless reflection might appear to serve, at times, only to exacerbate and rationalize his delay, at least he can only rarely be accused of being rash. Laertes believes that, ‘That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard. ‘ However, this rage, this refusal to reason calmly and to reflect on what has happened, allows the slippery Claudius to manipulate Laertes for his own ends, leading to the treachery which destroys Claudius and Laertes themselves, and Gertrude, as well Hamlet.
Ultimately, there is a certain nobility t be found in the exchange of forgiveness between hamlet and Laertes (the final link the latter’s assurance that: ‘Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, Nor thine on me! ‘ Which is greater than Laertes’ revengeful triumph over Hamlet. This is not to say that Shakespeare’s presentation of Laertes serves entirely as an indictment of the process of revenge. Both hamlet and Laertes speak of the ‘honour’ of revenge, and finally does kill Claudius, that he is ‘justly served.
‘ However, I can feel that considering Laertes’ contribution to the theme of revenge is only useful when seen alongside hamlet’s reaction to the same theme, and perhaps this portrayal of a traditional avenger who is only useful when seen alongside hamlet’s reaction to the same theme, and perhaps this portrayal of a traditional avenger who is rash, manipulative and finally self-destructive, allows us to see hamlet in a more favourable light when he is unable to assume the same role as traditional avenger.