Student Question

Are Laertes and Polonius mere pawns in the play Hamlet despite their intelligence?

Quick answer:

Polonius and Laertes are used as pawns by Claudius. Hamlet doesn't use them to further his plans, but he does abuse Polonius.

Expert Answers

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I don't know how intelligent Polonius and Laertes are in Shakespeare's Hamlet, but they certainly serve as pawns.

Both men are used as pawns by King Claudius.  Polonius is so intent on sucking up to Claudius and getting his approval that he happily does whatever Claudius wants him to.  Polonius comes up with the idea that Hamlet is acting as if he has lost control of himself because he has been rejected by Ophelia.  The king sends him on a mission to see if this is actually the case.  Polonius doesn't know it, but Claudius only cares about Hamlet's madness because he feels threatened by Hamlet.  Claudius is afraid Hamlet is going to rebel and attempt to take the throne back.  He gets Polonius to spy on Hamlet so he can keep an eye on Hamlet and figure out if he's planning anything subversive.

Claudius uses Laertes even more blatantly.  He gets Laertes to plan an underhanded murder of Hamlet.  Laertes thinks Claudius is helping him because Hamlet killed Laertes's father, Polonius.  In actuality, of course, Claudius is getting Laertes to help him eliminate a threat to the throne.  Laertes is a dupe who plays right into Claudius's hands.

Hamlet doesn't use Laertes as a pawn as Claudius does, but he certainly abuses Polonius.  Sent to spy on Hamlet, Polonius is played by Hamlet, taking the message back to Claudius that Hamlet is, indeed, suffering madness because he's obsessed with Ophelia.  This is what Hamlet wants Polonius and Claudius to conclude.  Hamlet is putting on an "antic disposition," pretending to be mad so Claudius won't suspect that he is actually planning revenge. 

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So, I'm making the assumption that this is a thesis statement around which you want to frame a paper. First: 'intelligent' is the correct spelling. Now, before I can go anywhere with this, I would need to know whose pawns these men are. Are they Hamlet's? Are you suggesting that he is engaged in some carefully plotted game of chess wherein Ophelia's brother and father are expendable pieces?  Do you think Hamlet is thinking that clearly? Wasn't Polonius's death at Hamlet's hand an accident? Or are you referring to the way he feigns madness and tweaks them with his crazy talk just because he can? You have to decide on a clearer approach before you can turn this into a 5 page paper. My first suggestion is that you go back through the play and find concrete examples in the text where you see Hamlet playing Laertes and Polonius like pawns. That will be the basis for making your case. Then, do your research. Look for criticism that supports your idea. You will give your argument more credibility while giving your paper the required length.

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