What Makes a Son

by Danielle Tralongo (Circle 6)

When discussing Hamlet, one must note the parallels between the fathers and sons of the play. The two that must most notably be taken into account are those of King Hamlet and Prince Hamlet, as well as Polonius and Laertes. Both father-son dynamics are relatively similar, in both personality and relativity to the plot of the play. The most important parallel between these two dynamics is not presented until the end of Act 3, when Prince Hamlet kills Polonius. At this point, however, it is clear to the reader (or the viewer) that there is a comparison to be made between Prince Hamlet’s actions and Laertes’s actions.

Before encountering his father’s ghost, Hamlet merely grieves for his father; any other emotions about his father’s passing seem to be outweighed by his grief. In no way does he appear angry until he speaks to the ghost of King Hamlet. This is a rather importatn point: once Prince Hamlet finds out that his father was murdered, rather than merely passing, he begins to crave some sort of revenge on the king’s killer. In Laertes’s case, it is immediately known that Polonius was murdered, and therefore his emotions are immediately those of anger, a desire for vengance driving Laertes’s actions.

Another important parallel to note between the characters of Prince Hamlet and Laertes is the ability to commit to the action of avenging their fathers. Hamlet, though he promises his father’s ghost that he will take action against King Claudius and avenge his father’s death, has not yet done so in the first four acts of the play. He laments on this in Act 2, Scene 2, saying

“Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn’d defeat was made. Am I a coward?”

Hamlet recognizes that he may not have the courage to take revenge, seeing as the proper way to do so for his father’s sake would be to murder King Claudius. Hamlet, in this moment, questions whether or not that is something he would be capable of doing. There is another moment in Act 3 where Hamlet has the oppurtunity to kill Claudius, but does not due to the fact that he is praying and would be sent to heaven rather than purgatory, where King Hamlet requested he be sent so the two brothers would suffer the same fate. The reader/viewer questions in this moment whether Hamlet would have been able to go through with this if Claudius had not been praying.

Laertes, on the other hand, seems to have no problem with his desire to eliminate his father’s killer. When Claudius asks what he would like to have done to his father’s killer, Laertes simply responds that he would like “To cut his throat i’ th’ church.” Considering this prompting, it is essential to note Claudius’s role in increasing Laertes’s desire for revenge. Claudius encourages Laertes, giving him suggestions such as challenging Hamlet to a duel. Considering that Claudius’s initial goal was to eliminate Hamlet, it would only make sense that he would help Laertes plan his death.

Both sons were very loyal to their fathers, and swear vengance on the man that killed him. The question that now remains is who of the two sons will make good on his promise.

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11 thoughts on “What Makes a Son

  1. Danielle

    I like that you looked at the father and son relationships going on in Hamlet because I think that they are definitely significant to the play. Both Hamlet and Laertes seek revenge against their father’s murderers. They seek this revenge because they want to prove that they are in fact their father’s sons. It is interesting to look at the differences between Hamlet and Laertes as you pointed out. Hamlet hesitates when given the opportunity to kill Claudius, while Laertes basically has no problem doing so. The fact that Claudius wants to help Laertes carry out his vengeance by giving him ideas just shows how evil Claudius is. Hamlet and Laertes are both definitely devoted to seeking revenge for their slain fathers.

  2. Alyssa Merritt

    I found your post very interesting. I liked that you focused on a comparison between Hamlet and Laertes. They both are in similar situations with wanted to take revenge for their fathers death. However, they both go about it in a very different way. I thought it was interesting that you mentioned Hamlet had time to grieve the death of his father before he found out he was murdered, whereas, Laertes knew from the start that his father was murdered. I hadn’t thought of that and it now changes my perspective of the play.

  3. Jackie

    Hi Danielle,
    While I was reading your post I thought to myself all the comparisons between Hamlet and Laertes. I found that they do have similar situations that make it easy for these two characters to share the goals. I think it’s crazy how they both go crazy over Ophelia’s body and the actions they take to make such a big scene. I think it’s important that you mentioned how both of their father’s are dead and how they died in different situations and circumstances. They both seek revenge for their father’s and both want to prove to their father’s they can follow through with their wishes.

  4. Brianna Aldrich

    I’m so glad that you focused on these two relationships because it brought a lot of points to the surface that I had not thought too deeply about before. I find it so interesting that in both of these similar situations between each father and son, that each Hamlet and Laertes find different approaches in seeking revenge for their fathers. I often wonder what would happen of Hamlet were to take Laertes approach from the beginning of the play, there would definitely be a shorter storyline and a whole lot less blood! However, I do respect that Hamlet is cautious in his revenge approach, he does not try to rush anything and makes a brilliant plan, however we see that work against him as more people die than they should have. Although Laertes was more direct and to the point, I think it just shows their qualities as character in the different ways they approach their situations. I genuinely admire Hamlet for his heart in helping his father but as well respect Laertes for letting nothing get in his way to defend his father as well. I find it so interesting seeing such different characters approach the same conflict. Great points!

  5. Timothy S


    I think you make some great comparisons between the two sons and outlining the differences in observing how Hamlet completely stalls and how Laertes jumps right into action. One of my favorite parts of analyzing Shakespeare’s plays have been by looking at the parallel relationships between the different groups of characters within all of the plays, and this is definitely one of the more interesting ones we have studied.

    “The reader/viewer questions in this moment whether Hamlet would have been able to go through with this if Claudius had not been praying.”

    I found this the most interesting part of your post! I didn’t consider this idea before. After all of Hamlet’s stalling and finally being presented with the opportunity for murder, is his motivation for leaving off the murder for a time when he’s not praying, or is it just another excuse that actions of procrastination are so good at finding?

    In my blog post for the same week, I mentioned that a turning point for Hamlet’s passivity is when he sees the troops heading to Poland under Fortinbras. After they pass by, Hamlet laments about how he has done nothing to avenge his father’s murder while thousands of troops are sent to take over a trivial plot of land. I noticed this as the turning point for his lack of action in the earlier parts of the play, and from there he seems to take an active role in revenge instead of passively observing those around him.

  6. Jordana Jampel

    in my blog post, I also compared Hamlet’s vengeance to Laertes vengeance so I appreciate that you noted the same parallels I had! Maybe there is something to the fact that Hamlet was told by his father’s ghost to kill Claudius while Laertes took it upon himself to avenge his father’s death–Polonius hadn’t come back to him in a ghost form. Laertes’ desire for revenge, in my opinion, seems a bit more genuine than Hamlet’s because he didn’t need Polonius to urge him to avenge. What is especially interesting though, is that although Laertes’ notion of revenge was more for himself than Hamlet’s for his father, is that Laertes does not end up killing Hamlet, but instead accepts Hamlet’s apologies. Hamlet on the other hand, in the last few moments of his life, stabs Claudius with the sword Laertes used to kill Hamlet and inevitably himself. Each of these men die from the same revenge seeking sword.. some serious Shakespearean irony.

  7. Sam Jacklitsch

    Great analysis on the father-son dynamics regarding Hamlet and Laertes. The agonizing hesitation that Hamlet possess definitely drags on and makes the audience extremely anxious and curious to see if and when he will finally makes his move and kill Claudius. Comparing Laertes and Hamlet as sons, Laertes definitely seemed to have more drive, motivation, and desire than Hamlet did throughout the entire play. The hesitation that Hamlet possessed made me think at some points he was not going to kill Claudius. I did pity Hamlet because I feel as though it wasn’t his “fight.” His father’s ghost was constantly encouraging him to kill his uncle but there were many instances he didn’t. Laertes on the other hand was determined and wanted revenge instantly, as any son or daughter would. The play did take a huge turn when Laertes seeks revenge for the man who killed his father because it shows the audiences the same situation with very different circumstances. Hamlet’s inner battles he faces with this decision compared to Laertes’ quick actions are very different but are crucial to view in comparison to one another.

  8. Orr Klein

    I really liked your analysis and interpretation of the relationship between both fathers and sons in the play. Prince Hamlet is going to sacrifice himself in order to avenge his father, as well as Laertes for Polonius. I have a feeling that not many people today would act in the same was as Prince Hamlet and Laertes. It’s almost crazy to see how people are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to restore some honor in their fathers. I also think the delay between both Laertes and Prince hamlet show two very different sides of humanity. Laertes just wants to kill Prince Hamlet as soon as possible and has no hesitation. While Hamlet is always contemplating and debating on what he should do or when he should kill. It’s very interesting to see the two different views in the play and it makes the two characters very compelling to read.

  9. Joe


    You have some interesting points here on the fathers/sons parallels throughout the plays. The first point I’m drawn to particularly is when you mention the similar motive that drives both Prince Hamlet and Laertes: the avenging of their respective fathers. Noting that King Hamlet and Polonius were both murdered draws the connection that both Hamlet and Laertes are driven by revenge. As you distinguish, however, Hamlet and Laertes display notably different approaches in fulfilling their tasks. Hamlet nearly fails to approach his goal at all, being concerned with his own thoughts and cowardice. Juxtaposing this, Laertes shows an immediacy in his actions that, if Hamlet were to have acted with the same haste, the play would have been ended by act III. It’s also interesting to consider, as you point out Claudius’ encouragement for Laertes actions, that Claudius wants Hamlet murdered because Hamlet murdered Polonius (and is “mad”), even though Claudius murdered the former King Hamlet. Claudius, in short, is supporting murder as an equal punishment to murder. By doing this, Claudius is actually supporting Hamlet’s desire: to murder Claudius.

  10. John

    Other than madness, it’s pretty easy to argue that one of the biggest themes in the play is the idea of what makes a man a true son of his father. Based on what we’ve seen in the play, it’s rather obvious that a son is truly a son when he rights the wrongs done against his father. We see this in all three of the sons that are depicted in the play from the Hamlets, Laertes and Polonius, and Fortinbras Sr. and Jr. Based on the sentiments of the play, Fortinbras and Laertes do their fathers justice by actively seeking justice against the people who wronged their fathers, while actively using force and being driven by passion. Hamlet Jr. on the other hand spends more time speaking to himself trying to understand the merits of murdering his uncle to avenge his father, and if he even has the courage to do it. Compare this to Fortinbras and Laertes who are very quick to seek some type of violent retribution, it leaves Hamlet looking meek in comparison.

  11. Antonia

    While your comparison between Hamlet and Laertes is very solid, it’s quite important that Fortinbras is included in this subset as well. His motivation is similar to both Laertes and Hamlet: he wants to take back the land lost by his father to King Hamlet thirty years ago. While he is persuaded off this point, he later is going to march on Poland, to take some small scrap of land. In 4.4, in the Q2 version, Hamlet laments that he cannot do this great revenge for his father, when Fortinbras is up in arms and ready to lead a battle for a pittance of land. The resolve that Fortinbras shows marks him as his father’s son and Hamlet sees that his is inferior in this quality, having still not taken apt revenge. It inspires his resolve to carry out this bloody deed.

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