The Tragedy of Laertes

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.

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3 thoughts on “The Tragedy of Laertes

  1. Marie

    It was so enjoyable to read your words because you shared a juicy circle of ideas from Laertes’ sense of justice to Hamlet’s annihilation of an entire family back through to Laertes and the conviction he feels as his strength in contrast to Hamlet… and also his weakness because it is what kills him.

    I am so curious you phrased Laertes’ conviction as a fatal flaw because someone else said Ophelia had a fatal flaw that killed her and the fatal flaw was her love. Both siblings have fatal flaw highlighted after their father’s death and creates their death.

    Laertes is Hamlet’s foil in contrast and in a sense of mirroring Hamlet’s own life. They contrast in the point that Hamlet needs to create an entire production to test King Claudius’s reaction of guilt; Laertes gets together an army of ruffians to take immediate action against Polonius’ death.
    Each contrast in how they believe in what they are doing… if they believe if what they are doing is right. I agree that Laertes has a stronger conviction of justice because as proof he claims to be able to kill Hamlet in a battle or in the church. Hamlet has a vengeful revenge — he cannot kill King Claudius in the church because he is afraid that King Claudius will go to Heaven. Hamlet does not believe in what he is doing. But following through with the conviction of Laertes — his conviction is his fatal flaw and he dies by his own doing.

    Also I enjoyed the specification of “allegedly performed” madness because Hamlet’s madness is a convenience he utilizes. I wonder what clues we have as the audience to understand when and if Hamlet is truly mad and/or acting mad…

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  2. caitgee7

    I wouldn’t say that Hamlet is a tyrant, per say. I think that his motivation, revenge (possibly justice) due to the murder of his father. In a sense, Laertes is not too different from Hamlet. He wants to avenge his father’s death, who was also murdered. However, we have different motivations between the murders. Hamlet’s father is killed so that Claudius can take over as king, a position of power. In contrast, (essentially) Hamlet kills Polonius accidentally. Hamlet thinks he is actually killing Claudius, and justifies his actions when he discovers it is Polonius. Fast forward to the end of the play, Laertes is (possibly) a better person in comparison to Hamlet. Laertes is the bigger person and forgives Hamlet for his bloody actions. Laertes realizes (I’d say before Hamlet) that revenge is a fool’s errand because in the end, nothing good truly comes of it. Laertes must learn a better method to the grief and death of his father. However, Laertes does become a truly tragic figure. He looses his sister (apparent suicide) and his father in a short period of time. Yes, Hamlet is a major player in the death of people within his family but the underlying reasons do go beyond JUST Hamlet. Claudius, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and of course Hamlet himself are to blame. Every action has an equal reaction. If Claudius hadn’t murdered King Hamlet, we wouldn’t have this play or the initial plot of revenge. Also, if Polonius didn’t have the nagging idea of spying then he might also be alive as well. There are alway multiple contributing factors to any situation, and all must be considered because Hamlet alone is not only to blame. (Although he can be considered mostly to blame). Hamlet could have taken revenge in a different manner as well, creating less death and tragedy in this play. However, what is done is done. Laertes’ suffering ends, with his death.

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  3. melissav92

    Wow this was an interesting post to read and rather enlightening because now I am thinking about Laertes in a whole new way. I had not thought negatively of him before but it is so true that Hamlet is inevitably the cause for his despair. By the way he deals with the tragedy in his life, we do in fact see that he is probably the most noble and honorable character in the play.

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