Laertes is the son of Polonius, the brother of Ophelia, and ultimately, the killer of Hamlet.
Laertes is young, a little older than Hamlet. We know this because Laertes is allowed to travel abroad on his own. He may be as young as 18, or perhaps 20 or 21, but no older.
He is a skirt chaser, but at the same time a sexist. He has a low opinion of women's intellectual ability and judgment, as we see in his speech to Ophelia in Scene 3.
He is an outstanding fencer, and he has a violent temper when something gets him going.
He is not very bright, as we see in the way he becomes involved with Claudius. He was quite spoiled by Polonius, and by his wealthy upbringing, so he is dependent on an older man for guidance. He is superficial and impulsive, he lacks maturity, and he lacks a solid grounding in morality.
By occupation, he is some kind of King's servant. We know that because he requires King Claudius's permission to leave. It's easy to guess that his father, the King's chief council, has gotten him a government job, (with a government paycheck,) perhaps as an aide to Polonius, himself. Nepotism is fine as long as you keep it in the family, as the old saying goes.
A point to note is that Laertes is not returning to Paris to attend school. In those days, and probably still for all I know, young aristocrats were sent abroad to further their educations by immersion in other cultures. Laertes is immersing himself in things French (more than his father suspects is desirable.)
His social status is "sir" at the beginning, a gentleman. Later, he should inherit Polonius's title of "Lord." However, he continues to be called "sir," so it may be one of those cases where the King has to ratify the inheritance of title. I doubt Shakespeare missed this point, about "sir to lord" inheritance for Laertes. As far as I can tell, Shakespeare missed nothing in the play. It would be an additional inducement for Laertes to ally with Claudius if he needs the King's ratification for the title.
- Casting - Ideally, according to type, Laertes should look older than Hamlet, but not by too much. He should look athletic, in a slender way (he's a fencer, not a weightlifter.) He can be slightly taller than Hamlet, by an inch perhaps, to go along with him being older.
- Costume - There is reference to beards in the play, so if he wears a beard it should be in the style an audience could see as French. He will have adopted French styles, from living there. An English audience could see a goatee as French, and a goatee is the stereotypical beard style of both the god Pan, and Satan. Laertes is both oversexed (as Pan is understood to be) and also satanic (in that he conspires to commit the murder of the play's hero, and does so.) It points to the goatee as the correct beard style for Laertes. It must not be too full a beard, since he's young.
His costuming should be in the French manner, and loud, too flamboyant for his father at least. We know that from express statements in the dialogue, in Scene 3, where Polonius tells Laertes he should dress more conservatively. So, his costuming should be flashy in Scene 3, but more subdued later in the play. In the Graveyard Scene, Scene 19, he should, of course, be dressed in mourning clothes.
The name, Laertes, is not Danish. It's Greek, the name of Odysseus's father, as found in Homer's Odyssey and in Ovid's Metamorphoses.
Shakespeare may have used the name because of certain conceptual elements that are in common between Hamlet and the ancient Greek story of Odysseus and Laertes. Now, Hamlet and the Odyssey are not at all the same story, but neverthess, certain elements can be seen to correspond.
- A father and son relationship. Obviously a common element.
- Homecoming, involving father and son. In the Greek story the father is still alive, but be that as it may.
- Grief. The Greek Laertes is grief stricken; grief is prominent in Hamlet.
- Orchard. The Greek story Odysseus finds his father Laertes working in an orchard, or garden. "Orchard" is expressly mentioned in Hamlet with an underlying "garden" idea, and the orchard is a setting in both the Dumb Show and the 'Mousetrap' play.
- Revenge. There is a revenge element that arises in the Greek story of Odysseus and Laertes.
- Troy. For the Odyssey certainly, and we see the Player's Recital about Troy in Hamlet.
- There is delving in both stories, and a point about welcoming a stranger in both stories.
That's rather a lot, when one lists it. More time devoted to this point might turn up even more. Troy, grief, and revenge are probably primary.
So, I suggest Shakespeare may have used the name Laertes for this character because of certain story elements that have conceptual significance. It's beyond doubt that Shakespeare was highly attuned to the conceptual significance of story elements, in Hamlet, as he worked the Themes and Motifs into the play. I hypothesize that Shakespeare researched, or reviewed, material about Troy in connection with composing the Player's Recital, observed certain elements, as above, and not wanting to use the name Odysseus, or Ulysses, for such a character, used the more obscure name Laertes.
To me, this consideration of the name, although theoretical of course, gives a decidedly Shakespearean feel about it, so I am inclined to think that if a corresponding character existed in an earlier, simpler Hamlet by somebody else, the postulated Ur-Hamlet, the character had a different name. It just "feels" that way to me. I don't think Shakespeare inherited this character name, I think he originated it, in Hamlet.
Significant lines spoken by Laertes:
Scene 2#052 Your leave and favor to return to France, - His departure for France, and later return, are key events in the flow of the story.
Scene 16#138 Let come what comes, only I'll be revenged - His desire for revenge gives the major push toward the play's conclusion.
Scene 18#152 Laertes: I will do it, - He agrees to participate in Claudius's murder plot, and unknowingly seals his own fate.
Scene 20#319 I can no more; the King, the King's to blame! - He provides direct testimony against Claudius for the death of the Queen.
Themes and Motifs
Those most immediately relevant to Laertes's character and dialogue:
Laertes seeks revenge for the death of his father, in a way that proves to be madness when he puts on a show to disguise a murder plot as a fencing match, and ends up dead, himself.
© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan
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