Laertes

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Last Updated on September 11, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 525

Extended Character Analysis

Laertes is Polonius’s son and Ophelia’s brother. He returns briefly to Elsinore for Claudius’s coronation before returning to France, where he allegedly indulges in unsavory behaviors. In contrast to Hamlet, who spends much of the play attempting to rationalize his revenge, Laertes establishes himself as a man who prefers brash action over careful planning. He is also shown to be corruptible, going along with Claudius’s underhanded plot to kill Hamlet. However, his actions clearly grate on his conscience, and as he dies, he reveals his account to Hamlet and petitions for a mutual reconciliation. 

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When talking to his sister Ophelia, Laertes plays the part of the concerned older brother, offering advice and discouraging her from pursuing a romance with Prince Hamlet. However, his own character is revealed to be less than virtuous when Ophelia tells him not to be hypocritical; he warns her away from Hamlet and yet indulges his own vices in France. Polonius seems aware of Laertes’s unsavory indulgences and lectures him about proper conduct before he departs, advising him about money, conversation, and proper attire. 

As his father’s heir apparent, Laertes is tasked with maintaining appearances so as to not shame his family. In order to keep tabs on Laertes’s behavior, Polonius sends Reynaldo to spread false rumors about Laertes in order to discover his true conduct. However, despite his apparent inclination towards vice, Laertes proves to be a dutiful son and brother, returning immediately to avenge his father and support his sister. He is overwhelmed by grief upon seeing Ophelia’s madness, marking him as someone who genuinely cares about his family. 

Laertes serves as a foil for Hamlet in that they are both faced with the murder of their respective fathers, but whereas Hamlet broods and plots, Laertes immediately begins to exact vengeance. However, their fates are ultimately similar, with each falling dead by the other’s hand due to Claudius and Laertes’s poisoning scheme. Hamlet grants absolution to Laertes for his death, recognizing a kindred spirit spurred to passionate action by the same circumstance that tormented Hamlet himself. Though Laertes is taken in by his passions and agrees to participate in Claudius’s underhanded plot, he is described as a “noble youth,” and his apparent hesitation during the fencing match aligns him more with Hamlet than Claudius. 

The fact that both Laertes’s action and Hamlet’s inaction produce the same outcome suggests that rather than being a traditional revenge play, Hamlet is actually a critique of the concept of revenge. Laertes’s action is intentionally contrasted with Hamlet’s inaction in order to call into question whether the method matters when the goal is misguided. Laertes is cast in the role of the villain in Hamlet’s narrative, killing the protagonist of the play through underhanded means. However, Hamlet recognizes his own purpose within Laertes and realizes that he has played the villain in Laertes’s narrative. Revenge is rendered futile in that Hamlet’s quest results in the ruin of two otherwise “noble youths,” showcasing the cyclical nature of violence and vengeance. 

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Ophelia

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The Ghost of King Hamlet