One thing that struck me when reading Hamlet was how much more likeable Laertes was to me. Throughout the course of events of the play, he suffers just as much, if not more, than Hamlet, and nearly all the tragedy that befalls Laertes are from the direct actions of Hamlet. Laertes in many ways is a much nobler character than Hamlet, being more decisive and his grief and his quest for vengeance for the death of his father, and it is this conviction that proves to be his fatal flaw which undoes him.
Throughout the course of the play, it is clear that Hamlet is the worst thing that ever happened to Laertes’ family. In the first four acts, Hamlet (according to some readings) takes Ophelia’s virtue knowing he can’t marry her, treats her cruelly and crudely, and eventually drives her to suicide by murdering their father, Polonious, in a fit of (allegedly performed) madness. Hamlet essentially kills Laertes’ entire family, and does so with seeming impunity because he is royalty. In this way, from Laertes’ perspective, Hamlet is a tyrant and monster.
Laertes’ responds to these injustices far more nobly than Hamlet, immediately raising an army and confronting his father’s murder, assumed to be Claudius at the time, whereas Hamlet spends the entire play hemming and hawing about what he should do. There is also an interesting mirroring between Hamlet and Laertes in dialogue. In the third scene of the second act, Hamlet contemplates murdering Claudius while he prays in the church, but decides not to because he doesn’t want Claudius to be absolved of his sins, explicitly wanting his stepfather to burn in Hell, illustrating Hamlet’s malice. In contrast, in the seventh scene of the fourth act, Laertes boldly tells Claudius that he will prove his devotion to his father’s memory by cutting Hamlet’s throat in the church. This resolution to kill his father’s killer, regardless of theological implications, displays a much stronger conviction in Laertes than Hamlet for justice, rather than vengeance.
Like any great tragic character, its is this conviction that destroys Laertes. Blinded by his desire for justice and manipulated by Claudius, he literally dies by his own sword, but not before forgiving Hamlet for his sins, and accepting his fate as justice for his own crimes. For these reasons I see Laertes as the true tragic figure of this play, the character who did in one act what took Hamlet five, a figure who lived and died nobly.