Action v. Inaction: Laertes v. Hamlet

Hamlet and Laertes are in similar circumstances throughout Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Both men of around the same age, Laertes and Hamlet come into conflict during the play because Hamlet (accidentally) murdered Polonius, Laertes’s father. This becomes a distinct similarity between the two men because Hamlet’s father was also murdered. Hamlet has been asked, by his father’s ghost, to avenge his murder but Hamlet fears acting on impulse alone; Laertes does not need to be told to take revenge but instead intends to spring into action immediately after he hears that Hamlet has killed is father.

Hamlet’s most famous speech begins, “To be, or not to be; that is the question:”; while Hamlet is referring to taking his own life in this soliloquy, he is contemplating his ability to act as a whole. Hamlet is so unsure of his ability to murder his uncle that he believes it may be better to take his own life. In killing his uncle, Hamlet is committing treason which means his path to revenge is more or less a suicide mission. Hamlet goes on to say, “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/ The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/ Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And, by opposing, end them,” (3.1.59-62). I interpret these lines as Hamlet asking whether it is worth the worry and suffering to kill his uncle, or if it will be as useless as attempting to fight the ocean only to lose. Hamlet then says says, “To die, to sleep-/ No more, and by a sleep to say we end/ The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to-’tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wished,” (3.1.62-66); he is almost longing for death, asking to sleep for eternity. Hamlet equates the heart’s suffering to the “thousand natural shocks” that humans are handed from generation to generation. By saying death is “consummation”, Hamlet relates dying to having sex after one is married. This metaphor is directly related to the pleasure that he believes dying would bring him.

The speech that Laertes makes about his plans for revenge is completely different from Hamlet’s speech. Laertes proclaims, “I will do’t,” (4.7.112); this bold, blunt and determined statement is evidence enough of the juxtaposition between Laertes and Hamlet: there is nothing wishy-washy about Laertes’s opening line. He then goes on to say, “And for that purpose I’ll anoint my sword./ I bought an unction of a mountebank/ So mortal that, but dip a knife in it, Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,/ Collected from all simples that have virtue/ Under the moon, can save the thing from death/ That is but scratched withal,” (4.7.113-118). Every word that Laertes speaks is in relation to his determination and references the action he is going to perform. Where Hamlet talks of sleeping and wishing he were dead in order to save him from doing what his father’s ghost has asked him to do, Laertes is ready to fight. Before this speech is given, Laertes wanted “To cut his throat i’th’ church”. This powerful and sacrilegious act that Laertes wants to perform juxtaposes Hamlet’s inability to kill his uncle while Claudius is praying. Instead of being frightened that Hamlet will not go to hell, Laertes wants to kill Hamlet in the most unholy and gruesome way he can.

Although the two men want the same thing, Laertes is more interested in taking action and while Hamlet calculates and schemes in order to enact his plan successfully. Both men’s fates are discovered at the end when both end up dead by the other’s hand. I suppose you could argue that both men are successful as they each avenge the deaths of their fathers…

3 thoughts on “Action v. Inaction: Laertes v. Hamlet

  1. Hey Dana,
    It’s definitely easy to see that Hamlet and Laertes are meant to serve as foils for one another, which is likely why Shakespeare wrote them the way that he did. Hamlet is much more methodical and melancholy about his motivations, taking his time to weigh the idea of committing murder, even though he wants to and pondering the different outcomes to the point where he calls himself a coward for his lack of action and passion. Laertes says screw that and is ready to violently seek his vengeance against those who murdered and disrespected his father claiming he would not be his father’s son if he was calm. Granted not all foils are going to be as obvious or stark in differences as these two, but I think it only serves to enlighten readers on the conflicts within the play and to possibly even see some similarities between the two men.

  2. Whereas Hamlet too frequently gets caught up in overthinking (resulting in his melancholy and methodical, drawn out actions, like John mentions), Laertes certainly seems to be the more action prone, motivated character. The theme of ambition seems particularly important to this play, making it an interesting case study on whether or not ambition is represented as a positive or negative characteristic. Having read Julius Caesar before Hamlet makes the importance of this theme in Shakespeare’s plays very clear. I think that identifying juxtaposing, as well as contingent, traits between Hamlet and Laertes, along with Caesar and Brutus (or maybe Antony and Brutus) under the lens of ambition would be a solid essay approach.

  3. The foils of Hamlet and Laertes is one of my favorites in all of literature/theatre. You basically get a complete package with both of them. I often find myself wishing they were one person. Hamlet could definitely use a little decisiveness and emotional power like Laertes. And Laertes could learn a lot from Hamlet’s philosophies and intelligence as well. The need to act and the inability to act could be more dispersed between the two. Both of them have the ability to be like the other, but they decide to act as the opposite, perhaps due to personal resentment. Their actions toward each other seem to me like a resentment that could definitely stem from envy over which traits they have and which they would like to have.

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