In Act 5, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet talks with a lord who tells Hamlet that Gertrude wants Hamlet to treat Laertes courteously before the duel. Why does Gertrude make this request?
In Act 5, Scene 2 of William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, a lord appears to see if Hamlet is ready to duel with Laertes. Hamlet replies that he is, and then the following exchange occurs:
Lord. The Queen desires you to use some gentle entertainment to Laertes before you fall to play.
Hamlet. She well instructs me.
The phrase “to use some gentle entertainment” is glossed by Harold Jenkins (the Arden editor) as “to show some mark of courtesy.” G. R. Hibbard, the Oxford editor, omits this exchange from his edition of the play but includes it in an appendix as one of a number of “Passages Peculiar to [that is, only found in] The Second Quarto.” In that appendix, Hibbard glosses the phrase in question as meaning to “behave courteously (as a gentleman should).” Philip Edwards, the Cambridge editor, glosses the words as “give a courteous reception.” Donald J. Richardson, in his edition, offers the paraphrase “greet with gentle courtesy.” The Folger edition says “receive him in a friendly way.”
Why does Gertrude give Hamlet this advice? Several possibilities suggest themselves, including the following:
- She may regret Hamlet’s earlier fighting with Laertes at the grave and may want to prevent a similar fight in the future.
- She may want to try to make peace between the two hot-headed young men.
- She may hope that if Hamlet shows courtesy to Laertes, Laertes will be less likely to try to injure Hamlet severely.
- She may hope that if she can convince Hamlet to show courtesy to Laertes, Hamlet will be less likely to try to injure Laertes severely.
- She may not want Hamlet to behave, in public, in a way that would reflect poorly on his character and manners.
- She may want Hamlet to behave in ways that are appropriate to a royal court and thus not provoke any anger in Claudius.
- She may fear that any public discourtesy to Laertes may provoke Laertes' supporters, especially among the people, even more than they are provoked already.
- She has witnessed Hamlet, with her own eyes, behave with gross discourtesy toward Laertes’ father and may not want a repetition of such behavior.
- She may realize how much Laertes and his family have already suffered and may want Hamlet to try to begin making some small amends.
- She may want Hamlet to treat Laertes as a kind of guest, as in a sense he truly is.
As it happens, Hamlet does indeed treat Laertes with courtesy. His first words to Laertes are the following:
Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong;
But pardon’t as you are a gentleman.
The earlier lines, of the lord, obviously prepare for these lines by Hamlet, so that the later lines come as no surprise to us. Yet Hamlet goes beyond his mother’s expressed wishes; not only does he behave courteously toward Laertes; he behaves with true humility. His exchange with Laertes seems to show how much he has changed since they last met.
Interestingly, although most editors interpret “gentle” as suggesting courtesy, the word clearly had many of the same connotations in Shakespeare’s day that it has today, including “kind,” “mild,” and “tender.” These connotations may seem ironic in describing behavior prior to a duel, but Hamlet does in fact seem to greet Laertes with something more than mere courtesy.
But before the duel Hamlet says:
I'll be your foil, Laertes. In mine ignorance
Your skill shall, like a star i'th'darkest night,
Stick fiery off indeed.
Isn't he making fun of Laertes?