Laertes is a character in Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. He is the son of Polonius, chief aide and counsellor to the King. He’s the brother of Ophelia, with whom Hamlet has been having some kind of romantic relationship.

The three grew up in Elsinore, the royal castle, and know each other well. Laertes and Hamlet have been friends since childhood and as the play opens they are in their twenties. However, the tensions among the three become very strained during the action of the play. The death of Hamlet’s father has brought him back from university, only to find that his mother has married his father’s brother, Claudius. Both events have left Hamlet in a state of confusion and despair. To make things worse, Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears and tells him that he has been murdered by his brother, who has gone over Hamlet’s head and taken possession of the throne.

Laertes played by Edward Bennet

Laertes played by Edward Bennet for the BBC

While this is happening Laertes is embarking on his own new life, at university in Paris.

Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost sets the scene for the theme of revenge that runs through the play. Hamlet vows to avenge his father’s death, as sons in the world-view in which the play is rooted are expected to do. In the course of the action Hamlet kills Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius, and Laertes comes rushing back to avenge his father’s death.

Shakespeare has set up a structural and dramatic dynamic with these two young men on the same journey – revenge for the deaths of their fathers. By doing that he is able to make comparisons between the way they differ in their personalities and the way they go about the process of taking revenge. That is important as one of the reasons that Hamlet is often regarded as the best and most profound play ever written is the depth that Shakespeare achieves in his exploration of Hamlet’s mind as he grapples with this predicament. By giving Laertes the same problem, to which he makes the exact opposite response, Shakespeare is able to make comparisons, and thus highlight the response of Hamlet in even greater depth. A character used in that way is a device known as a foil, so in literary terms, we say that Laertes is a foil to Hamlet. Shakespeare intensifies this further by introducing another character – another foil – young Fortinbras, a prince of Norway, who is also on a quest to avenge his father’s defeat in a military conflict, and his death. Although he’s a very minor character he lurks in the background, while constant references to him provide further comparisons.

Laertes’ character is the key to the contrast Shakespeare wishes to make. It is the complete opposite of Hamlet’s. He is impulsive, bordering on recklessness; he is a swift actor, rushing back as soon as he hears about his father’s death, raising a crowd of followers in the process, and invading the castle, shouting and demanding revenge. Hamlet does none of the above: he quietly reflects and agonises, examines the dilemma from every angle, and becomes paralysed and unable to do anything about it.

The questions that Laertes should ask before jumping in should be done before the action but he acts first and asks questions later. Hamlet asks endless questions and fails to act until the dilemma resolves itself without Hamlet having to make any decisions.

In spite of the two different personalities and approaches, ironically, both young men end up dead, killed by each other’s hands. However, apart from the use of Laertes as a foil, his presence in the play provides great theatrical moments filled with violence, passion and action – all things that audiences love.

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