Plop Laertes into the 21st centuryLet's imagine the revenge tragedy in modern times. Claudius is a psychopath who kills his way to the top and then kills his way out of his problems -- maybe like a...
Let's imagine the revenge tragedy in modern times. Claudius is a psychopath who kills his way to the top and then kills his way out of his problems -- maybe like a mafia don.
But Laertes? Who is his modern counterpart? Would this generic youth be manipulated to so cold and bold a deed as murdering Hamlet right before his mother's eyes, in the Danish court? Or do we have to rely for his participation in Claudius's plot on the conventions of the day (or of the play)?
Shakespeare depicts a world in which:
- Men walk around with deadly weapons on them all the time with the intent to do business -- Hamlet draws his rapier twice in the play for such purposes, once to threaten his friends against stopping him from conferring with the ghost, and once to ram it through an arras into an unseen victim.
- It is assumed that if Hamlet kills your father, you will kill Hamlet, even if your father was a tiresome windbag and you couldn't wait to get away from him and party in France (I don't see direct evidence in the text that Laertes was studying). You don't go to the authorities and demand an investigation, you don't go to the streets and scream "Hamlet did it!"
Obviously, I'm struggling with Laertes' psychology! Is he a creature of his time? Or can you envision him getting entangled in a murder plot nowadays, a dupe with little self-awareness? He lists plenty of reasons for Ophelia to "fear" things, yet he is the hot-headed foil to Hamlet.
This is a very interesting question. I can clearly understand what happens to Laertes in the course of the play, as Shakespeare wrote his character, but I am not sure there is a modern-day equivalent except to say he is a man who is emotional about the deaths of his family members and wants vengeance. In the play he is manipulated by Claudius because he is in a highly emotional state and ready to get revenge at any cost. Perhaps there could be a connection to gang-life in today's world. There is a lot of retaliation violence done for "honor" in that world.
You are right in identifying him as the foil to Hamlet. In particular, he acts whereas Hamlet does not, therefore representing another character who does not prevaricate and whom Hamlet feels judged by. It is particularly important to be aware of the ways in which Hamlet is implicitly or explicitly compared to other characters throughout the play, and sometimes he does this to himself unfavourably.
Laertes is enraged by the death of his father as well as his sister, and he understandably blames Hamlet for both. He is thus susceptible to being caught up in Claudius's scheme, which of course, results in his own death. I actually read him as a fairly sympathetic figure, caught up in the tragedy.
Picking up on the allusion to The Godfather, Laertes is like Sonny, who is choleric in nature, reacting spontaneously without forethought. The Mafia theme certainly is pertinent as family is of paramount importance and the character of the father matters not as much as the blood tie.
I think the Mafia scenario seems to work. In the mob, it is supposedly common for young men to make displays of violence in order to win favor. They also seem to threaten each other with guns all of time. Displays of violence in front of others would also be acceptable in some cases.
Laertes, like Michael Corleone from The Godfather, might be a soldier returned from war. He carries a weapon too, but has learned to be disciplined with it. Only after being thoroughly enraged at the death of his innocent sister, will Laertes be moved to let go of his restraint.