Hamlet - The Importance of Laertes and Fortinbras in Hamlet


The Shakespearean play, Hamlet, is a story of revenge and the way the characters in the play respond to grief and the demands of loyalty. The importance of Fortinbras and Laertes in the play is an issue much discussed, analysed and critiqued. Fortinbras and Laertes are parallel characters to Hamlet, and they provide pivotal points on which to compare the actions and emotions of Hamlet throughout the play. They are also important in Hamlet as they are imperative to the plot of the play and the final resolution. Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras are three young men who are placed in similar circumstances, that is, to avenge their father's deaths. The way the each comes to terms with their grief and how they rise to the call of vengeance is one of main contrasts between the three.

Laertes is a mirror to Hamlet. Shakespeare has made them similar in many aspects to provide a greater base for comparison when avenging their respective father's deaths. Hamlet and Laertes love Ophelia. Hamlet wishes Ophelia to be his wife, Laertes loves Ophelia as a sister. Hamlet is a scholar at Wittenberg, and Laertes at France. Both are admired for their swordsmenship. Both men loved and respected their fathers, and display deviousness when plotting to avenge their father's deaths.

Hamlet's response to grief is a trait starkly contrasted by Laertes. Laertes response to the death of his father is immediate. He is publicly angry, and he leads the public riot occuring outside Castle Elsinore, which Polonius' death and quick burial served as a catalyst. He is suspicious, as is evident in his speech to Claudius. "How came he dead? I'll not be juggled with. / To hell, allegiance!"(Act 4, 5:130). Hamlet, however is very private with his grief. His mourning for King Hamlet is long and drawn out, two months after his father's death, he is still observed to be wearing "...suits of solemn black."[(Act1, 2:78) Claudius and Gertrude comment on his unhappiness, however it is not until Hamlet's first soliloquy that the audience is made aware of the depth of his suffering. Although dismayed at his mother's quick remarriage to his uncle, Hamlet suspects nothing of his father's murder until the ghost discloses this to him.

When brought to the call of avenging their father's deaths, Laertes is fast to act, he is wants revenge and he wants it immediately. His actions are rash, being based in anger, and Laertes is easily drawn into Denmark's corruption by Claudius. Claudius manipulates Laertes into becoming an ally to kill Hamlet. Laertes is confident of his abilities to regain honour through vengeance: "...my revenge will come."(Act1, 2:78) Contrasting to Laertes' quick response, Hamlet procrastinates. Although Hamlet wants to regain honour by avenging his father's death, Hamlet is dubious of his ability to complete what he promised to the ghost. For two months he procrastinates, and he chides himself for doing so. Hamlet agonizes over what he is to do, and how he is to avenge the murder of his father. Whilst Laertes acts on impulse, and on a tryst with Claudius arising from the emotions of anger and revenge, Hamlet mulls over how he is going to act and defers action until his own procrastination disgusts him into acting. This does not mean, however that Hamlet is unable to act on impulse. Indeed in Act 5, when Laertes and Hamlet jump into Ophelia's grave it shows just how much Hamlet can act impulsively.

However despite the insidious actions of Laertes in proposing the challenge of a duel with Hamlet, Laertes is without the cruelty and vindictiveness of Hamlet. Hamlet not only wants to avenge his King Hamlet's death, he wants Claudius to be eternally punished, therefore Hamlet does not slay Claudius in the scene where Claudius is praying, as there is a chance Claudius might have had a chance to confess. Laertes wants revenge, he is not concerned with punishment. Laertes is concerned with the physical and the present, "That both the worlds I give to negligence,"(Act4, 5:134) he declares. Hamlet however, philosophises about the afterlife, and whether "...in that sleep of death what dreams may come."(Act 3, 1:66)

Hamlet and Laertes represent the two extremities of the act of revenge: perpetual contemplation over circumstances leading to procrastination; and acting on impulsion and without reasoning. Revenge was the driving force behind these character's actions and