Perception of a Tragic Hero: “Hamlet”
Perceptions and understanding of Shakespearean language evolve as time passes. It is reasonable to believe that Laertes is more of a tragic hero than Hamlet. In order for this to be seen effectively, a comparison must be made between Laertes and Hamlet. In the play Hamlet, Laertes is a character who grabs the audience’s attention. His devotion to succeed, despite disadvantages is both motivational and tragic situations, is inspirational to some extent. His portrayal as the antagonist is very effective in conveying the message that, the easy way may not always be the right path to pursue.
In the end, people are accountable for their own actions. To Laertes, the urge to avenge a loved ones death was worth taking, and is understandable in all cultures. One must remember that Laertes is not only after revenge, but also after loyalty to avenge. If Laertes were to take revenge on Hamlet, this would show only that he is interested in satisfying his own needs.
However, by performing these acts in the name of loyalty, Laertes is ensuring that his father Polonius does not die in vain. Laertes can be thought of as more of a tragic hero than Hamlet due to greater loss in his fall, the fact that he is optimistic, his nobility and him showing a tragic flaw.
A tragic hero must show a considerable loss in their fall. Hamlet went through many hardships. He lost everyone close to him, but sustained his legacy. This differs from Laertes who simply died. Unlike Hamlet, who was carried out “like a soldier, to the stage; For he was likely, had he been put on, To have proved most royally,” (V, II, 390-392). Laertes was forgotten. There was no one to remember his legacy, and because of this, Laertes has more to loose in his fall than Hamlet.
Hamlet on the other hand, shows little optimism, although this is crucial characteristic of a tragic hero. The audience understands the mourning of a loved one, but the time must come when people move on. In Hamlets case, the time of mourning must have past since he is the only one that continues this. Gertrude, his mother questions this behaviour. She does so by saying, “cast thy nighted colour off, And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. Do not for ever with thy veiled lids Seek for thy noble father in the dust: Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity,” (I, II, 68-73). On the other hand, Laertes, despite loosing his father by the hands of his friend Hamlet, still shows optimism. He had every reason to mourn, and would have the added feeling of betrayal, but even so, he is not as distraught as Hamlet. This goes to show that his optimism in justice will be served makes him a greater tragic hero than Hamlet.
However, another characteristic possessed by Laertes is that he is noble. He wins the admiration of the audience because of his bravery and non-hesitant behaviour. Not only does the audience admire this man, so do the characters of this play. We see that men follow Laertes to offer assistance where needed, “save yourself, my lord: The ocean, overpeering of his list, Eats not the flats with more impetuous haste Than young Laertes, in a riotous head,” (IV, V, 96-99). The devotion he has towards his cause can be shown with his self-sacrificial statement, “and like the kind life-rendering pelican, Repast them with my blood,” (IV, V, 143-144).
Perhaps, the flaw that leads to Laertes’ detriment is that he is easily manipulated. Claudius, who is Hamlet’s uncle, uses Laertes for his own revenge on Hamlet. This begs the question if the first two blows encountered within the fencing match were intentional. Because of the death of his beloved sister, and the fact that his father was murdered, Laertes may have felt he no longer had anything to live for. His friend Hamlet can be linked to both deaths. Only towards the end is Hamlet able to rationalize his actions by saying, “this presence knows, And you must needs have heard, how I am punish’d with sore distraction. What I have done, that might your nature, honour and exception roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.” (V, II, 217-223).
Another factor which would lead the audience to believe Laertes intentionally let Hamlet hit him, was that Hamlet was not confident in his own fencing skills. In this statement, Hamlet is quoted saying “I will win for him an I can; if not, I will gain nothing but my shame and the odd hits,” (V, II, 171-173). This gives circumstantial evidence that Laertes was better at the sport, and therefore let Hamlet hit him the first two times on purpose. This would go with the plan set by Claudius; the first hit, he would drink to Hamlets health and then put a poisonous gem in the wine. The second hit, Hamlet would drink the poison. Because of this manipulation, and not seizing the appropriate opportunity, Laertes was killed by Hamlet.
The flaws shown in Hamlet are that he is procrastinates and that he is indirect. Hamlet shows his procrastination with the delayed killing of Claudius. An example of when Hamlet was indirect is with his feelings towards Ophelia, Laertes sister. It is clear to see what is going through her mind, when making reference to Hamlet with this song she sings while presumed insane, “by Gis and by Saint Charity, Alack, and fie for shame! Young men will do’t, if they come to’t; By cock, they are to blame. Quoth she, before you tumbled me, You promised me to wed. So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun, An thou hadst not come to my bed,” (IV, V, 57-62).
The irony in this is that Laertes warned Ophelia earlier to be cautious of Hamlet by saying:Perhaps he loves you now, And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch The virtue of his will: but you must fear, His greatness weigh’d, his will is not his own; For he himself is subject to his birth… Then if he says he loves you, It fits your wisdom so far to believe it As he in his particular act and place May give his saying deed; which is no further Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal. Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain, If with too credent ear you list his songs, Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open To his unmaster’d importunity. Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister, And keep you in the rear of your affection, Out of the shot and danger of desire (I, III, 14-35).
In this statement, Laertes is warning Ophelia about Hamlet, he is telling her to watch out because of Hamlets status. He claims that Hamlet will never truly love her.
Common characteristics of both Laertes and Hamlet are that they are obligated to commit murder. What is unique about this situation is that they both are compelled for the same reason, the murder of their father. Depending on the perspective of the audience, one of these two men can be looked at as a tragic hero. They both demonstrate the characteristics needed to be a tragic hero, but what separates Laertes from Hamlet is that he was optimistic from the beginning and shows more ambition. He ventured into a journey in which he knew that he would never be successful. This did not stop him from attempting to achieve his objective. Laertes made it clear to Claudius that he would do anything in order to reach where he was going, he says:To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil! Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit! I dare damnation. To this point I stand, That both the worlds I give to negligence, Let come what comes; only I’ll be revenged Most thoroughly for my father. (IV, V, 129-134).
Hamlet on the other hand is contradictory to himself. In one scene, he talks about how he does not want to commit suicide because it is a sin, this is shown by saying, “to be, or not to be: that is the question: 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? To die: to sleep; No more,” (III, I, 57-62). Yet in another scene he comes up with a scheme to get Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed, and plots the same as Claudius.
What divides our society on a literary level is the understanding of meanings and perspective on which we see them in. Because of our culture, the audience has the ability to analyze in a way impossible in Shakespearian time. It is understandable now that Laertes is an inspirational character that was destined on a path of failure. Despite all obstacles, he accomplished his task, which represents the ambition and virtue within all people. This inspiring struggle symbolizes similar hardships known to many. Due to this, Laertes can signify the life of a realistic character. He meets the criteria of a tragic hero and represents the eternal struggle. Laertes looses more in his fall, he showed optimism and nobility, while demonstrating a tragic flaw, and by understanding the information given above, one may conclude that the memory of Laertes will no longer be forgotten.
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