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Shakespeare’s Hamlet – Laertes

Hamlet’s Laertes

One of the less-discussed characters in the Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet, is Laertes, the son of Polonius and brother to Ophelia. He witnesses the death of all of his immediate family, thus losing his “honorable” approach to living – until the very end of the drama.

Bernice W. Kliman in “A Television Interpretation of Hamlet” (1964 with Christopher Plummer) highlights the actions of Laertes at the climax of the drama:

Close-ups, of course, reveal that Gertrude offers Hamlet the poisoned wine once she has drunk, that Laertes crosses himself as he takes the fatal rapier, that he gives Hamlet a foul blow after impatient urgings from Claudius, that the soldiers restrain Claudius after Laertes’ revelation. Yet the setting allows enough space around the close-ups for Laertes to make his first admission to Osric alone and for the supernumeraries to disappear while Horatio holds the dying Hamlet, the frame widening out for Fortinbras’ stately entry. (157)

Kliman’s description contains some detail which is not within the official text since her description derives from a television version of Hamlet. Based on the stage version, Marvin Rosenberg describes Laertes in his essay, “Laertes: An Impulsive but Earnest Young Aristocrat”:

Laertes is a dashing, romantic figure who excites striking, spectacular moments in the play. Not much attention has been paid to him by scholar-critics and theatre observers; for all his activity in the later acts, he is not much cursed with inward struggle – while being surrounded by others fascinating for their infernos of inwardness. After Laertes’ brief, bright introduction in I,i and I,iii, he disappears from the play – and Denmark – until he returns at the head of a rebellion in IV,v [. . .]. (87)

With Rosenberg’s overview of Laertes’ situation in the play, let us begin a consideration of his interaction with other members of the cast. Laertes makes his appearance in the drama after Marcellus, Barnardo and Horatio have already seen the Ghost and have trifled with it in an effort to prompt it to communicate with them. Horatio and Marcellus exit the ramparts of Elsinore intending to enlist the aid of Hamlet, who is dejected by the “o’erhasty marriage” to Hamlet I’s wife less than two month’s after the funeral of Hamlet’s father (Gordon 128). After this scene, Laertes is one of many in attendance at a post-coronation social gathering of the court at Elsinore.

Importance of the Ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

The Importance of the Ghost in Hamlet

The stage presence of a ghost would have been familiar to an Elizabethan audience and so the appearance of the Ghost in ‘Hamlet’ carries some messages which are general – almost as though the ghost was a familiar symbol which evoked certain thoughts merely by being present. The Ghost in ‘Hamlet’ has a more specific role than that given to ghosts in general, however; it has a crucial part to play in the development of the plot. Thirdly, the interaction between the Ghost and Hamlet raises difficult questions regarding duty and free will, and as the trigger for much of the protagonist’s anguished philosophising the ghost plays a key but problematic role as Hamlet’s true adversary.

There are certain points to be made which are about ghosts in general. To a superstitious Elizabethan audience a ghost would be less improbable than it seems to a sceptical modern audience, but it would signify that something is wrong with the natural order. In Act I scene i the characters indicate that they believe this; the rational Horatio observes that “This bodes some strange eruption to our state”; Marcellus says that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. Even before the arrival of the Ghost the scene is tense – the first words (“Who’s there?”) are terse and nervy and even Francisco (whom we never see again and so perhaps represents the unseen population of Denmark) admits that he is “sick at heart”. The presence of the Ghost, then, adds to this sense that something is deeply wrong – like many such superstitious entities (Horatio refers to other omens that preceded the death of Julius Caesar: the allusion to which makes the audience yet more uncertain of what is to happen) the …

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…cast the Ghost in a terribly negative role – as the burden of (filial) duty that twists and eventually crushes Hamlet’s destiny.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Boklund, Gunnar. “Hamlet.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.

Epstein, Norrie. “One of Destiny’s Casualties.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. of The Friendly Shakespeare: A Thoroughly Painless to the Best of the Bard. New York: Viking Penguin, 1993. p. 332-34.

Gordon, Edward J. Introduction to Tragedy. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden Book Co., Inc., 1973.

Jorgensen, Paul A. “Hamlet.” William Shakespeare: the Tragedies. Boston: Twayne Publ., 1985. N. pag.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. T. J. B. Spencer. New York: Penguin, 1996.

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