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Laertes (Hamlet)

Laertes is a character in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. His name is apparently taken from the father of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey. Laertes is the son of Polonius and the brother of Ophelia. In the final scene, he kills Hamlet with a poisoned foil to avenge the deaths of his father and sister, for which he blamed Hamlet. The Laertes character is original from Shakespeare, since there is no equivalent character in any of the known sources for the play.

Role in the play

In the first Act, Laertes is seen warning Ophelia against Hamlet's romantic pursuit of her, saying he will soon lose his desire for her, and that it is not his choice, but the king's as to whom he will marry. Before Laertes returns to France (he had returned to attend the coronation of King Claudius,) his father, Polonius, gives him advice to behave himself in France.

During Laertes's absence, Hamlet kills Polonius in Gertrude's parlor. Laertes, informed of his father's death, returns to Denmark, and leads a mob to storm and take the castle. Laertes confronts the King, thinking he was responsible for Polonius' death. The King explains to him who the real killer was, and incites Laertes to kill Hamlet and avenge Polonius' death.

When Ophelia appears in her mad condition, Laertes laments, saying that if she had her wits she could not persuade him more to revenge. Later, Laertes is informed of her death. She had climbed into a willow tree that hung over a brook, and then fell into the water when a branch broke. Too insane to save herself, she drowned. His sister's death strengthens Laertes' resolve to kill Hamlet. At her funeral, Laertes asks why the normal Christian burial cermony is not being carried out for his sister, and rebukes the priest for questioning her innocence. He leaps into her grave and begs the attendants to bury him with her, only to have Hamlet suddenly leap in with him. The two have to be held back in order to avoid a fight.

"I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the world, I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I'll be reveng'd
Most throughly for my father."
— Laertes
In the next scene, King Claudius arranges a fencing match between Hamlet and Laertes. Laertes uses his sharp, poisoned sword instead of a bated (dull) sword. The King provides a poisoned drink as a backup measure. Before the match begins, Hamlet apologises publicly to Laertes for the wrongs he has dealt him. Laertes accepts the apology, so he says, but he proceeds with the scheme to kill Hamlet. Hamlet is eventually wounded with the poisoned sword. Then, in a scuffle, the swords are switched. Hamlet wounds Laertes with his own poisoned blade, and Laertes then falls as well. As he lies dying, Laertes confesses to the treachery and reveals that it was Claudius's plot. Hamlet and Laertes exchange forgiveness, before they both die.

Other characters' views of Laertes vary widely. Polonius, feels a need to send a servant to France to spy on his son's behaviour. Ophelia tells him not to be a hypocrite, telling her to behave herself with Hamlet, but then being immoral himself in France. Hamlet is at first puzzled by Laertes hatred for him, but later admits that he sees his own cause displayed in Laertes actions.

Interpretations

"I'll be your foil, Laertes. In mine ignorance
Your skill shall, like a star i' th' darkest night,
Stick fiery off indeed."
— Hamlet
Laertes has often been called the foil for Hamlet because it is through the rash actions of Laertes that the intellectual battles and delay which Hamlet deals with are given true light. For example: Whereas Hamlet takes the entire play to avenge the death of his father upon Claudius, Laertes storms in ready for regicide in Act IV after hearing of his father's death.

Portrayal

Laertes is often portrayed by seemingly humble actors of the screen, to give a loyal, wholesome appeal to the character. He has been played by Terence Morgan (1948), Nathaniel Parker (1990), Michael Maloney (1996), Liev Schreiber(2000) , and Tanner Spear (2008).

References

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