Though seeming to simply be a minor character, Laertes is of great importance in the play, Hamlet, and much more than one would initially believe, due to his extensive inner conflict. He is good, loyal, and honourable, seeming to possess the greatest virtue of all the characters, yet he still is doomed to die along with the other characters, precisely because of his great virtue.
As Scene Two begins, in the first lines which Laertes speaks in the play, he requests that King Claudius allow him to return to his duties in France. This is important from the viewpoint that it demonstrates his dislike for the King and his wish to be away from the questionable circumstances of his marriage and subsequent ascension to the throne, a wise decision, and an attempt to remain apart and above the world, as the Greek “superman” is seen to gain immortality by doing, though Laertes does have personal feelings in the matter, unlike the true Stoic, thus his attempt is a failure, though a noble one.
As Scene Three begins, Laertes is speaking with his sister, Ophelia, about her relationship with Hamlet, and warning her to “Weigh what loss your honour may sustain,/ If with too credent ear you list his songs,” (1.3.29) else she lose her virtue to Prince Hamlet. This exemplifies his loyalty and love for his family, and especially his sister, though she replies to his warnings and advice with the sarcastic reply to do not “Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,/ Whilst, like a puffed and reckless libertine,/ Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads/ And recks not his own rede.” (1.3.47) Following this, Ophelia and Laertes’ father, Polonius, enters, and Laertes departs with a final warning to Ophelia.
Soon after Laertes departs, Polonius meets with Reynaldo, and instructs him to bring money for Laertes, but first to spy on him and to make sure that he stays out of trouble. It seems that it would be difficult for Laertes to not know of this messenger’s second duty as spy, as it is mentioned in the text “You must not put another scandal on him,” (2.1.29), implying that this has happened before, somehow. From this, one could feel that Laertes expects this from his scheming, plotting, underhanded father, he still goes along with it, and harbours great love for the old man, as is shown on Laertes’ return to England.
While Laertes is off in France, however, Polonius is killed by Hamlet, the Queen recalling that he “Whips out his rapier, cries ÔA rat, a rat!’” (4.1.10), implying that Polonius is indeed a “rat”, in the most underhanded and demeaning sense of the word. Then, Ophelia goes mad the same night as Laertes returns to Denmark, with an armed mob shouting for him to take the throne, though he finds it against his honour to take the throne from Claudius by force, and only wishes to find what has become of his father.
Though Polonius was spying on him, and Laertes most likely was aware of his father’s ways, he still feels great love for the old man, and desires only revenge for the wrongful death of his kin. He declares that he will repay his friends, and have vengeance on those who are his enemies. To this, King Claudius replies “Why, now you speak/ Like a good child”(4.5.143), and though he finishes the statement with “and a gentleman”, the implication is left that Laertes is like a child, rushing headlong into the unknown, the first implication of Laertes’ own tragic flaw. Directly after this is said, Ophelia enters, and Laertes, further incensed at the fate of his remaining family, cries out “By heaven, thy madness shall be paid with weight,/ Till our scale turn the beam.” (4.5.152), this line being an implication of the scales being thrown out of balance, and further attesting to Laertes’ impending doom.
At this point in the story, Laertes has followed his loyalty, love, and honour to the decisive point, and the scales have tipped off balance. He has tried the Stoic way, similar to Horatio, of staying totally apart, but has failed in this attempt, and he now tries to take the other end of the spectrum, to balance his previous inaction with the action of vengeance, and revenge. He makes a plan with Claudius to poison Hamlet during a fencing match, and even brings his own poison with which to anoint his sword’s blade, another stone on the scales, tipping them too far to the other end of the spectrum, and thus unbalancing them again. Seemingly to drive this unbalancing in, Ophelia suddenly drowns for no discernible reason, and Laertes forces down his grief, and after Laertes leaves, King Claudius says “How much I had to do to calm his rage!/ Now I fear it will start again;” (4.7.193), showing that even the other characters are realizing that Laertes has become unbalanced, so to speak.
In the following scene, during the burying of Ophelia, Laertes has become so inflamed that he threatens that the priest will go to hell while his beloved sister is in heaven, and then he nearly strangles Hamlet while they are both standing virtually on top of Ophelia’s corpse, in the grave! If there was still any question of Laertes’ flaw, it has again been shown that his virtues have driven him past the edge.
When the final half begins of Act Five, Scene Two, Hamlet and Laertes are ready for the fencing match, and Hamlet begs forgiveness for all transgressions against his foe. Laertes, knowing fully that Hamlet is doomed to die because of Laertes’ deal with Polonius, forgives Hamlet and has the perfect way out, and the perfect chance to balance the scales, but, due to his great desire for vengeance he goes on with the match, and the plan to kill Hamlet, effectively closing all routes of retreat.
Once Laertes has poisoned Hamlet, Hamlet Laertes, and Queen Gertrude has drunk from the poisoned cup, however, Laertes’ honour finally takes control, and he admits his guilt, and tells all of the king’s plot to kill Hamlet, even though it does no good. The scales are broken.
Laertes enhances the message of consistency in the play, through the extremes of his own actions. He shows that all the qualities of the characters are akin to standing on a ball, and the more one leans to one extreme or the other, without totally jumping off the ball, the more momentum is gained, and the more force is needed to offset the rolling of the ball, which is just as likely to send on spinning at a greater speed in the other direction! The only two examples of characters who have gotten off the ball are Horatio and Fortinbras. Horatio being the extreme neutrality of Stoicism, his inaction leading to his not becoming caught up in the events, since he is merely an observer, and Fortinbras is action taken to just as far of an extreme, he has no indecision or change of heart, and he is able to pass by and over all that stands in his way. Laertes tries both ways, but since he cannot decide which path to take, he exemplifies the metaphor to its fullest, only getting off the ball after it has passed over the cliff. Seeing his error and the path to success, he cannot go back, and is doomed, learning-as do all other characters who cannot stay with their path-that indecision is the true enemy.