Hamlet: Laertes An Important Character In Play
Though seeming to simply be a minor character, Laertes is of great
importance in the play, Hamlet, and much more than one would initially believe,
due to his extensive inner conflict. He is good, loyal, and honourable, seeming
to possess the greatest virtue of all the characters, yet he still is doomed to
die along with the other characters, precisely because of his great virtue.
As Scene Two begins, in the first lines which Laertes speaks in the play,
he requests that King Claudius allow him to return to his duties in France. This
is important from the viewpoint that it demonstrates his dislike for the King
and his wish to be away from the questionable circumstances of his marriage and
subsequent ascension to the throne, a wise decision, and an attempt to remain
apart and above the world, as the Greek superman is seen to gain immortality
by doing, though Laertes does have personal feelings in the matter, unlike the
true Stoic, thus his attempt is a failure, though a noble one.
As Scene Three begins, Laertes is speaking with his sister, Ophelia,
about her relationship with Hamlet, and warning her to Weigh what loss your
honour may sustain,/ If with too credent ear you list his songs, (1.3.29) else
she lose her virtue to Prince Hamlet. This exemplifies his loyalty and love for
his family, and especially his sister, though she replies to his warnings and
advice with the sarcastic reply to do not Show me the steep and thorny way to
heaven,/ Whilst, like a puffed and reckless libertine,/ Himself the primrose
path of dalliance treads/ And recks not his own rede. (1.3.47) Following this,
Ophelia and Laertes father, Polonius, enters, and Laertes departs with a final
warning to Ophelia.
Soon after Laertes departs, Polonius meets with Reynaldo, and instructs
him to bring money for Laertes, but first to spy on him and to make sure that he
stays out of trouble. It seems that it would be difficult for Laertes to not
know of this messengers second duty as spy, as it is mentioned in the text You
must not put another scandal on him, (2.1.29), implying that this has happened
before, somehow. From this, one could feel that Laertes expects this from his
scheming, plotting, underhanded father, he still goes along with it, and
harbours great love for the old man, as is shown on Laertes return to England.
While Laertes is off in France, however, Polonius is killed by Hamlet,
the Queen recalling that he Whips out his rapier, cries A rat, a rat!
(4.1.10), implying that Polonius is indeed a rat, in the most underhanded and
demeaning sense of the word. Then, Ophelia goes mad the same night as Laertes
returns to Denmark, with an armed mob shouting for him to take the throne,
though he finds it against his honour to take the throne from Claudius by force,
and only wishes to find what has become of his father.
Though Polonius was spying on him, and Laertes most likely was aware of
his fathers ways, he still feels great love for the old man, and desires only
revenge for the wrongful death of his kin. He declares that he will repay his
friends, and have vengeance on those who are his enemies. To this, King Claudius
replies Why, now you speak/ Like a good child(4.5.143), and though he finishes
the statement with and a gentleman, the implication is left that Laertes is
like a child, rushing headlong into the unknown, the first implication of
Laertes own tragic flaw. Directly after this is said, Ophelia enters, and
Laertes, further incensed at the fate of his remaining family, cries out By
heaven, thy madness shall be paid with weight,/ Till our scale turn the beam.
(4.5.152), this line being an implication of the scales being thrown out of
balance, and further attesting to Laertes impending doom.
At this point in the story, Laertes has followed his loyalty, love, and
honour to the decisive point, and the scales have tipped off balance. He has
tried the Stoic way, similar to Horatio, of staying totally apart, but has
failed in this attempt, and he now tries to take the other end of the spectrum,
to balance his previous inaction with the action of vengeance, and revenge. He
makes a plan with Claudius to poison Hamlet during a fencing match, and even
brings his own poison with which to anoint his swords blade, another stone on
the scales, tipping them too far to the other end of the spectrum, and thus
unbalancing them again. Seemingly to drive this unbalancing in, Ophelia suddenly
drowns for no discernible reason, and Laertes forces down his grief, and after
Laertes leaves, King Claudius says How much I had to do to calm his rage!/ Now
I fear it will start again; (4.7.193), showing that even the other characters
are realizing that Laertes has become unbalanced, so to speak.
In the following scene, during the burying of Ophelia, Laertes has
become so inflamed that he threatens that the priest will go to hell while his
beloved sister is in heaven, and then he nearly strangles Hamlet while they are
both standing virtually on top of Ophelias corpse, in the grave! If there was
still any question of Laertes flaw, it has again been shown that his virtues
have driven him past the edge.
When the final half begins of Act Five, Scene Two, Hamlet and Laertes
are ready for the fencing match, and Hamlet begs forgiveness for all
transgressions against his foe. Laertes, knowing fully that Hamlet is doomed to
die because of Laertes deal with Polonius, forgives Hamlet and has the perfect
way out, and the perfect chance to balance the scales, but, due to his great
desire for vengeance he goes on with the match, and the plan to kill Hamlet,
effectively closing all routes of retreat.
Once Laertes has poisoned Hamlet, Hamlet Laertes, and Queen Gertrude has
drunk from the poisoned cup, however, Laertes honour finally takes control, and
he admits his guilt, and tells all of the kings plot to kill Hamlet, even
though it does no good. The scales are broken.
Laertes enhances the message of consistency in the play, through the
extremes of his own actions. He shows that all the qualities of the characters
are akin to standing on a ball, and the more one leans to one extreme or the
other, without totally jumping off the ball, the more momentum is gained, and
the more force is needed to offset the rolling of the ball, which is just as
likely to send on spinning at a greater speed in the other direction! The only
two examples of characters who have gotten off the ball are Horatio and
Fortinbras. Horatio being the extreme neutrality of Stoicism, his inaction
leading to his not becoming caught up in the events, since he is merely an
observer, and Fortinbras is action taken to just as far of an extreme, he has no
indecision or change of heart, and he is able to pass by and over all that
stands in his way. Laertes tries both ways, but since he cannot decide which
path to take, he exemplifies the metaphor to its fullest, only getting off the
ball after it has passed over the cliff. Seeing his error and the path to
success, he cannot go back, and is doomed, learning-as do all other characters
who cannot stay with their path-that indecision is the true enemy.