As you know, Laertes and Fortinbras are two characters in Shakespeare’s play that serve as foils for Hamlet. How does each figure expose or highlight certain traits in Hamlet’s character, and how does each character’s behavior in the play relate to the themes of advice and duty, action versus inaction, and sanity versus madness?

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Hamlet and Laertes share some significant commonalities. Both of their fathers are murdered. Both seek revenge for that murder, and both are dead by the end of the play. The most significant difference is the speed of reaction to their father's murders. Laertes is a man of action; he wastes...

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Hamlet and Laertes share some significant commonalities. Both of their fathers are murdered. Both seek revenge for that murder, and both are dead by the end of the play. The most significant difference is the speed of reaction to their father's murders. Laertes is a man of action; he wastes no time after the death of Polonius in making his own plans clear. In fact, Laertes believes that if he fails to act with speed, he is casting a shadow against his mother's virtue:

That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries “Cuckold!” to my father, brands the “harlot”
Even here between the chaste unsmirchèd brow
Of my true mother. (IV.v.130-134)

Laertes sees it as his duty to refrain from a calm response and therefore prove that his mother has been a devoted wife. He moves quickly in a sense of honor to his entire family. This contrasts with Hamlet's delayed response, of course, as he considers carefully the requests of the ghost. He approaches the murder of Claudius with caution, avoiding revenge at one point because be believes that Claudius's soul might benefit from the timing. Laertes therefore acts more from a sense of duty to immediately bring to justice the man responsible for his father's murder. I would argue that both men are sane; Hamlet feigns madness in order to accomplish his plans of determining the guilt of Claudius, but his manipulative word play and his treatment of his mother and Ophelia are arguably all part of the ultimate plan.

Fortinbras is a man of honor; he seeks to reclaim what his father lost to Hamlet's father. He stirs men to loyalty and action himself, and Hamlet marvels that Fortinbras is able to fight for "a little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name" (IV.iv.19-20). Hamlet sees their contrasts in this way:

Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep (IV.iv.49-61)

Hamlet realizes that the ambition of Fortinbras propels his sense of honor, and Hamlet considers that his own father has been killed while he simply "stands" and allows the issue to "sleep." Fortinbras needs no one to advise him on his next steps; his sense of duty both to his country and to his father guide his path. Fortinbras's honor and duty (and clearly sanity) win him the eventual respect of Hamlet himself, who votes for Fortinbras to wear his own crown in his dying breaths. Fortinbras avoids the insanity surrounding Claudius's schemes and arrives just in time to claim victory.

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This is an interesting question and allows one to map out some of the patterns in this complex play. Fortinbras, Hamlet, and Laertes seem to occupy three corners of the options for young men of court. Each loses his father, and each has reason to seek revenge. How they go about seeking revenge tells us about them not just as characters but also as intellectual or political options.

With Fortinbras, we seem to have an older version of the Germanic hero, occupied by questions of honor: his father was killed and his land was lost; he will fight to restore that land. In act 4, scene 4, Hamlet sees him crossing to battle for a piece of land of little worth:

Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake.

Fortinbras's honor and his willingness to defend it, seemingly without thought or reflection, end in him gaining Denmark's crown. We can even look at this play as the comedy of Fortinbras—yet he is a man who lacks all the brilliant consciousness and self-awareness Hamlet demonstrates. He is a man of revenge, of action, and of blissful sanity. It is hard to imagine Fortinbras having any thought deep or complex enough to drive him mad.

Laertes is a more modern man. Like his father, he speaks in polished truisms taken from commonplace books. He seems to follow his father's advice to turn himself into a socially acceptable ornament, offending no one and standing for nothing. When his father and sister die, he feels bound by duty to seek redress, and he is willing to take the Machiavellian way to it. Before he left Paris for Denmark, he prepared himself for subtle revenge:

I bought an unction of a mountebank,
So mortal that, but dip a knife in it,
Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from all simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death

He has cause for grief and revenge, but something in his character makes his actions feel more performative than deeply felt. This is also why Hamlet jumps into Ophelia's grave, offended at Laertes' seemingly artificial forms of grief. Laertes may seem mad with grief at various moments, but he easily slides back into conventional behavior when he sees an opportunity to serve his purpose.

Hamlet, by contrast, resists the advice his mother and uncle offer early in the play, fails to follow his duty to office and family, delays acting on his grief and his duty as the son of a murdered father, and perhaps even gives in to his "antic disposition." Yet Hamlet is the character who, despite his many failures to perform his duty, to "take action in a sea of troubles," and even to channel his thoughts into a linear path, commands our awe and terror.

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