Hamlet is often seen as one of the greatest tragic figures in all of literature. He is very much motivated by love and revenge and they both play an enormous part in his tale. The love of his father, the shock upon discovering how he was murdered, and the need for justice is what fuels Hamlet. Not only does these elements drive him to act but they drive him over the edge as well. While Hamlet is certainly a pitiable figure, one could make the argument that Laertes, his rival, is even more so. Hamlet and Laertes have a lot of common, perhaps more than they would ever admit, especially when it comes to their motivations. One could almost say they’re two sides of the same coin but ultimately, their choices are what really set them apart.
To understand where Hamlet and Laertes are coming from, one has to explore their backgrounds, their personalities, their relationship with their families, and how they all tie into their actions in the end. Hamlet is the prince of Denmark, nephew of the current king Claudius, who took the throne after his father “passed away.” Hamlet is about as privileged as the main character can get without being the king himself but he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that. While he doesn’t let the idea of royalty get to his head, he isn’t particularly grateful for what he has, either. That’s not to say he’s greedy but all in all, he’s pretty much indifferent towards his status or how much better off he is than other people.
Laertes is the son of Polonius, the king’s counselor, and while he doesn’t have it bad by any means, he’s still considered lower than Hamlet, at least in terms of class. It’s also implied that Polonius is not of noble birth but somebody who crawled their way to the top and managed to gain the favor of the king. Laertes, however, seems to appreciate what he has, and family means more to him than wealth.
Not that family doesn’t matter to Hamlet but after he learns of his father’s murder, he decides that he was the only member that ever meant anything. He is so distraught by the news, describing it as, “Murder most foul, as in the best it is/But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.” (1.5.27-28) Everyone else is pushed away at best, such as his lover Ophelia, or loathed and eventually killed at worst, such as his mother Gertrude. Laertes might not be as well off as Hamlet but he has more in terms of family and in turn, love. As corny as it sounds, wealth is no substitute for love and aside from his father’s spirit and his own memories, Hamlet has nobody to turn to, nor does he let anybody in.
Having cut himself off from so many people, Hamlet is trapped in his own mind, and little by little, he slips into madness. Even in the beginning of the play, he is shown to be a withdrawn figure, still in the process of mourning his father. He is even still wearing black, much to the confusion of his mother. As he says, “Seems, madam! Nay, it is; I know not “seems.”/‘Tis not alone, my inky cloak, good mother/nor customary suits of solemn black.” (1.2.76-78) Gertrude tries to get through to him, believing that he has spent too much time lamenting for his father, despite the fact that he has only been gone for a short while. She pretty much tells Hamlet to move on, to not let his emotions get the best of him but it’s already too late for that.
Much of Hamlet’s personality is shaped by his pain and despair and the fact that he has no outlet and never makes an attempt to find one. He simply can’t, knowing what has happened to his father, what he could have done to prevent it, and how nonchalant his mother and uncle are towards the whole loss. Hamlet is a perfect example of untreated depression and how it can tear somebody apart. According to the article “Depressive Illness Delayed Hamlet’s Revenge,” Hamlet’s actions could have been the result of his depression or it could have been the catalyst for his choices.
As Dr. A.B. Shaw puts it, “I suggest that the explanation most consistent with the evidence is that Shakespeare has depicted a man with an acute depressive illness with obsessional features, unable to cope with a heavy responsibility. At the time, there was no concept of depressive illness and Shakespeare would have seen Hamlet’s melancholy as a character defect.” (A.B. Shaw, Medical Humanities) What’s striking about this passage is how it delves into the idea of mental illness during Shakespeare’s time, how it wasn’t seen as legitimate diagnosis, and how it probably wasn’t intentional on his part. This adds another layer to Hamlet’s tragedy because maybe there could have been another path for him. Maybe he could have found another solution besides murder.
Hamlet spends a great deal of the play basking in misery and hate, so much so that it becomes commonplace for him. In fact, the only thing that gives him any joy is when he finally kills his uncle. Even then, one can argue whether it’s joy or mere satisfaction, something to fill the void after all that grieving. Not to mention, he kills his mother as well, which is just as horrible as the previous murder. Just like his uncle, there is plenty of blood on his hands, and knowing it’s his own mother’s, that makes it even worse.
Laertes, while just as complicated as Hamlet, is more fierce and fast in terms of his personality. He has a tendency to act on impulse, often jumping to conclusions, a trait he inherited from Polonius. That said, he is not as full of himself as Polonius and he has shown to be deeply loyal to him as well as his sister Ophelia, his protectiveness coming out in full force whenever they interact with each other. It can said that Laertes is a bit too protective, to the point where it may be read as clingy, but it’s evident that he loves his sister and would do anything for her and wants to make sure she’s safe. While Hamlet is cold to her and shoves Ophelia away, Laertes is caring and devoted to her, showing that he has more of a heart.
Neither men are saints by any stretch of the imagination but the heart is what separates them as well as their personalities. Throughout the play, Hamlet’s heart gets more and more frigid and he only has room in it for his father and Laertes’s heart is shattered by the deaths of his father and sister. Both of them are broken but in their own way, riddled with anger and sorrow and the need for justice, but the damage is more apparent on Laertes’ end. Laertes never did anything to Hamlet or his family, he just happened to be the son of the king’s counselor and their relationship, prior to the king’s murder, was fairly decent. They were not the best of friends or anything like that but they got along well enough.
That is, until they gradually drifted apart and Hamlet treated Ophelia like garbage. Just because Hamlet was having issues with his own family and unable to cope with his father’s death didn’t justify his treatment of Ophelia and Laertes tried to talk her out of that relationship. Clearly, it was getting toxic and, feeling complied to help his sister, he tried to get her to dump Hamlet. Though he could have been better with his wording, he had good intentions but it all came crashing down by the final act. Hamlet and Laertes both like to think they have their best interests in mind, they like to think they’re doing the right thing, but they’re usually prone to terrible choices and planning. When it comes to Laertes, sometimes planning isn’t even an option. He’ll just rush right into the problem, believing he can fix it, only to find out it was much more complicated than he realized.
If there’s one thing Hamlet has over Laertes, it’s mulling everything over, basically weighing the options before he springs into action. Hamlet’s most famous monologue deals with the subject of death and murder, what he wants to do and what he needs to do. To him, revenge is a need and he’s the only one can deliver it. Of course, this makes him wonder if he can really go through with it. It begs the question, will it all be worth it in the end? Considering how much Hamlet dwells on this, one might say that he’s a procrastinator and if Laertes were in his position, he would have taken the sword and gutted the murderer by now. According to the article “Hamlet and Revenge,” even Hamlet doesn’t know what’s taking him so long and why he can’t just up and avenge his father right away.
As Kiernan Ryan writes, “There’s no point asking Hamlet why, because Hamlet himself is baffled by his inability to act promptly. He rebukes himself bitterly in Act 2 after watching an actor weep, convulsed with simulated sorrow for an imaginary character, who means nothing to him.” (Kiernan Ryan, Discovering Literature: Shakespeare) One might also say that Hamlet is more talk than walk and he spends more time bemoaning his issues than solving them. It all comes down to interpretation but it can’t be denied that Hamlet takes his time and considers the possibilities.
For as impulsive as Laertes is, he is much more action-oriented, somebody who’s willing to throw himself into anything all in the name of loyalty and family. There is something to be admired about that, despite it being his greatest flaw. Laertes is not as quick to think as he is to act and this comes back to bite him in his last encounter with Hamlet. After using the poisoned sword on Hamlet, the latter wounds him with it and he too dies from the impact. His last words are, “He is justly served/It is a poison tempered by himself/Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet/Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee/Nor thine on me!” (5.2.299-303) This is an intriguing moment because even though Laertes is killed by his own sword, he doesn’t curse Hamlet out but rather, asks for his forgiveness.
Laertes’s humanity shines through in this scene, and he realizes that at the end of it all, he and Hamlet are both fatherless victims. Not that that excuses Hamlet for killing Polonius or causing Ophelia to drown herself but Laertes can see it from his perspective and why he had to kill Claudius. In fact, Laertes even praises him on the task, knowing that Claudius deserved it. In that moment, they’re not rivals but two men who have been broken by the circumstances, that needed to get back at the person who destroyed their lives, even if that person was Hamlet from Laertes’ angle. Laertes, for all his flaws, does have a sense of compassion and it’s pretty impressive he’s willing to forgive Hamlet, especially as he’s dying right in front of him.
Much of Laertes’ compassion is shown with his family, particularly his relationship with Ophelia and in a way, their story is much sadder than anyone else’s. There is no mention of their mother or what happened to her so it can be assumed that she died a while ago. Their father Polonius is also rather pompous and absent-minded and occasionally, Laertes feels more like a father figure to Ophelia than him. He is much more responsible than Polonius and he wants to keep his sister safe and happy but doesn’t always express it in the best way. He even refers to her speech as “a document in madness,” not knowing how to react to her downward spiral. (4.5.173) He’s been taking care of her for so long, he knows her better than their own father, but there’s nothing he can do to snap her out of it. What makes this even more tragic is all he can really do is watch. It’s reminiscent of somebody seeing their loved one in an asylum, knowing who they were before and realizing that, no matter how much they wish or hope, they will never be the same again. Like Hamlet and Laertes, Ophelia is damaged mentally and emotionally and her death takes an immense toll on him.
Admittedly, Laertes does come off a bit patronizing at times, as if Ophelia can’t do anything by herself, and he treats her more like a child than a grown woman. Although this was the norm during Shakespeare’s time, it can be extremely awkward to a modern reader. In any case, Laertes still loves his sister and is determined to help her out but like Hamlet, she is a lost soul, finally drowning herself in the fourth act. Ophelia’s death is what throws Laertes over the edge as well as her lack of a proper burial. It’s definitely his most vulnerable moment and that’s when Claudius appeals to him, insisting that Hamlet is the one who caused all this and he will be at peace when he kills him. As the king puts it, “But to the quick o’th’ ulcer, Hamlet comes back.” (4.7.124-125) It’s his love of Ophelia and his loathing of Hamlet that fuels Laertes from now on. Having lost his whole family because of Hamlet, Laertes becomes the more sympathetic of the two, his desire for revenge becoming more personal.
Not to dismiss the loss of Hamlet’s father but it’s not the same when Laertes lost a father and a sister and Hamlet had a hand in each of those. Not only did he slay Polonius, he took advantaged of Ophelia’s emotions, telling her to forget their courtship and become a nun. As Hamlet puts it, “What should such fellows as I do crawling be-/tween earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves all;/believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery.” (3.1.128-130) This scene is significant because Ophelia is the only woman (besides his mother) that Hamlet interacts with and he’s willing to throw their relationship out the window because his obsession with revenge is too great. On the whole, Hamlet doesn’t value her feelings or the idea of family, save for when it involves his dead father.
Hamlet’s relationship with Claudius and Gertrude is also complicated because initially, he still cares for his mother and doesn’t want her to marry him but as soon as she goes through with it, she’s all but dead to him. He even goes as far as to question her love for his father and shames her for sleeping with Claudius. Another incredibly awkward scene, in which he says, “Good night—but go not to mine uncle’s bed/Assume a virtue if you have it not… Refrain tonight, and that shall lend a kind of easiness to the next abstinence, the next more easy.” (3.4.161-169) In short, Hamlet basically tells his own mother to keep her legs closed. As strict as Laertes could be, everything he did was to protect Ophelia, to keep her from getting hurt, and there was never a scene that matched this one in terms of its awkwardness.
While the relationship between Laertes and Ophelia can and has been interpreted as something incestuous, especially with how protective he is, one can’t ignore the creepy vibes from Hamlet and Gertrude either. There’s a sense that he’s jealous of her being with Claudius and there is a big emphasis on his disgust. “She married. O, most wicked speed, to post/With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!/It is not, nor it cannot come to good./But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” (160-164) As revolted as Hamlet is, it makes one wonder why he is so focused on the physical aspect of the relationship? In fact, why is he thinking of his mother sleeping with his uncle in the first place? She is still the queen and it is part of the task but he can’t deal with the idea that she’s his mother and his aunt now.
Claudius doesn’t make the situation any better, wanting to marry Gertrude as soon as possible, believing it would be best for all of them to move on. In Nicholas Bonnet’s article “The Manipulative Nature of Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet,” it touches upon the relationship between Hamlet and Claudius and how the latter played a great part in their downfall. Although Hamlet makes a lot of questionable choices, most can be traced back to the reveal of his uncle as the murderer.
As Bonnet writes, “Despite his rise to power seeming to have been carefully planned and executed, he nevertheless encountered certain things that he did not expect, such as the appearance of the ghost of his victim that ignited Hamlet‘s thirst for revenge.” (Bonnet, Inquiries Journal) That’s not to say Hamlet wasn’t responsible for his actions, he certainly was, but Claudius was the spark that caused the fire. He was able to manipulate Hamlet as well as Laertes, tapping into their emotions, and in Laertes’ case, the need for payback. In a way, Hamlet inherits Claudius’ skill for murder and as a result, he destroys his own family as well as Laertes’. Laertes, on the other hand, was only trying to look out for his father and sister and later, avenge them. This makes him the more sympathetic character and, if Hamlet wasn’t the title character, the true protagonist.
Shaw, A. B. “Depressive Illness Delayed Hamlet’s Revenge.” Medical Humanities. 2002. Web. <http://mh.bmj.com/content/28/2/92.full>
Ryan, Kiernan. “Hamlet and Revenge.” The British Library. 16 Nov. 2015. Web. <http://www.bl.uk/shakespeare/articles/hamlet-and-revenge>.
Bonnet, Nicholas. “The Manipulative Nature of Claudius in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” Inquiries Journal., 2010. Web. <http://www.inquiriesjournal.com/articles/150/the-manipulative-nature-of-claudius-in-shakespeares-hamlet>.
Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Puchner, Martin. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 2014. Print.