Hamlet clearly apologizes to Laertes in Act V, Scene II. How does Laertes respond? Given what we know about the plans of Laertes and Claudius, how do you take Laertes' promise? Can we say he has...

Hamlet clearly apologizes to Laertes in Act V, Scene II. How does Laertes respond? Given what we know about the plans of Laertes and Claudius, how do you take Laertes' promise? Can we say he has any honor at all? Has he followed his father's precept in Act I, Scene III?

Asked on by hug22trees

2 Answers

andrewnightingale's profile pic

andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

When Hamlet tells Laertes that he had not acted out of malevolence and that his actions were caused by what he calls his "sore distraction," or that he was mad, Laertes accepts his apology and states:

I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive, in this case, should stir me most
To my revenge:

He means that he would have, otherwise, been driven to revenge for what Hamlet has done to his father and sister. As a man, therefore, he finds Hamlet's excuse acceptable and will not act upon him. His reply clearly creates the impression that he has forgiven Hamlet because the young prince was evidently not responsible for his actions. However, Laertes further says:

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.

As far as the matter of honor is concerned, though, Laertes is not prepared to be as forthcoming. He will seek the advice of elders who are experts in matters of honor and respond to their counsel to keep his name unblemished. He promises that he will, in the meantime, accept Hamlet's offer of love and offer his in response without going against his word and doing Hamlet any harm.

At this point, Laertes has already colluded with Claudius to ensure Hamlet's death during their upcoming duel. Laertes will use a rapier with a sharpened and poisoned tip, and Claudius will make sure that Hamlet slakes his thirst by offering him a drink from a poisoned chalice. 

On this basis, Laertes's promise to Hamlet is a blatant lie. He has, at Claudius's urging and his offer of support, decided to kill the young prince. His offer of love is, therefore, meaningless and a mere condescension. In this regard, Laertes's actions are not honorable. While one can admire his courage and sense of duty for wanting to avenge his father and sister's untimely deaths, his complicity in Claudius's nefarious plot makes him a villain rather than a hero.

Furthermore, he has not heeded Polonius's earlier advice to "reserve thy judgment." The malicious Claudius has convinced Laertes that Hamlet is guilty of murder. Laertes's judgment is not reserved at all, for he has decided to kill Hamlet.

It is ironic that Laertes later feels guilty about what he is about to do during the duel and, after telling Claudius that he is about to score a hit against Hamlet, says, in an aside:

And yet 'tis almost 'gainst my conscience.

Furthermore, when he becomes a victim of his and Claudius's heinous plot, he decides to confess. He is mortally wounded with his rapier during the duel, and he cries out: 

It is here, Hamlet: Hamlet, thou art slain;
No medicine in the world can do thee good;
In thee there is not half an hour of life;
The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,
Unbated and envenom'd: the foul practise
Hath turn'd itself on me lo, here I lie,
Never to rise again: thy mother's poison'd:
I can no more: the king, the king's to blame.

In a final act of contrition before his death, he asks for Hamlet's forgiveness and absolves him of all blame for his, Polonius's and Ophelia's deaths. 

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

When Hamlet apologizes, saying that it was his madness which caused him to insult Laertes and nothing more, Laertes replies that his feelings are satisfied, but what has happened to his father and his sister does not allow his honor to be satisfied. He cannot forgive Hamlet without harming his own reputation--he feels he must receive the opinions of his elders to the contrary before he forgives Hamlet--but until then Laertes does accept Hamlet's offer of love.
....But in my terms of my honor
I stand aloof, and will no reconcilement
Till by some elder masters, of known honor,
I have a voice and precedent of peace
To keep my name ungored (5.2.232-236)
In terms of honor, just as Hamlet has avowed to defend the honor of his father, Laertes rightly seeks to avenge the death of his father and the tragic suicide of his sister. But, while he is right in principle, he is wrong to conspire with Claudius because he has a sharper point on his sword and he has the tip poisoned with every intention, therefore, of making certain that Hamlet is killed. Therefore, he does not follow his father's advice to "Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment" because he has arranged for himself a dishonorable advantage over Hamlet.
Sources: