In William Shakespeare's Hamlet, many characters learn something at the price of losing something. What does Laertes sacrifice? What does he learn?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, many characters learn something at the price of losing something. This is true of Laertes as of so many other persons in the play. Laertes’ two greatest losses, obviously, involve the deaths of his father and sister.  He learns a number of lessons from these losses, including the following:

  • That life is mutable.
  • That the mind is mutable (as he sees when he witnesses his sister driven into madness).
  • That the rules of the church are strict, since his sister cannot be buried as he thinks proper. Laertes thus rebukes the offending priest by saying,

Lay her i' th' earth; 
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh 
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest, 
A minist'ring angel shall my sister be 
When thou liest howling.

  • That Hamlet is a skillful swordsman.
  • That his attempt to kill Hamlet has resulted in a mortal wound for himself:

I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.

  • That, as the preceding quotation suggests, he realizes that his preceding actions have been morally wrong.
  • That Claudius is treacherous and untrustworthy.
  • That Hamlet is someone from whom he desires forgiveness:

Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.

Laertes makes relatively few speeches in the final part of the play, and none of them is especially long. The focus of the play, then, is much more on what Hamlet learns than on what Laertes learns.  The fact that Laertes is not given to long speeches and to deep introspection makes him a good foil to Hamlet. Laertes is a man of action much more than Hamlet is, and the fact that he acts so precipitously and is so easily manipulated by a corrupt figure suggests that Hamlet himself may have been wise to delay as he did.



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