Laertes\' Role in Hamlet


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 ÒsupermanÓ 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 ÒWeigh what loss your honour may sustain,/ If with too credent ear you list his songs,Ó (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 ÒShow 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.Ó (1.3.47) Following this, Ophelia and LaertesÕ 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 messengerÕs second duty as spy, as it is mentioned in the text ÒYou must not put another scandal on him,Ó (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 LaertesÕ return to England.

While Laertes is off in France, however, Polonius is killed by Hamlet, the Queen recalling that he ÒWhips out his rapier, cries ÔA rat, a rat!ÕÓ (4.1.10), implying that Polonius is indeed a ÒratÓ, 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 fatherÕs 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 ÒWhy, now you speak/ Like a good childÓ(4.5.143), and though he finishes the statement with Òand a gentlemanÓ, the implication is left that Laertes is like a child, rushing headlong into the unknown, the first implication of LaertesÕ own tragic flaw. Directly after this is said, Ophelia enters, and Laertes, further incensed at the fate of his remaining family, cries out ÒBy heaven, thy madness shall be paid with weight,/ Till our scale turn the beam.Ó (4.5.152), this line being an implication of the scales being thrown out of balance, and further attesting to LaertesÕ 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