Hamlet the play is about revenge. It is about a man sent by his father’s ghost to avenge his father’s death. Two characters in the play seem peripheral to it but in reality they are deep inside the heart of the play. These two characters are Laertes, son of the Prime Minister to Denmark, and Fortinbras, Prince of Norway. The role of these two characters is to highlight the basic themes Shakespeare has infused his play with. Hamlet is very lazy and slow in his mission. To highlight this point Shakespeare needed these two characters, who are a perfect contrast with Hamlet.
Hamlet, when the audience first see him, is severely depressed, and with good reason- his father had, not very long ago, died. If Hamlet is to be trusted during his passionate, ranting soliloquy beginning ‘O that this too too solid flesh’, we start the play just two months after the King’s death. (Hamlet changes his mind several times during this soliloquy to make it look worse to himself for the Queen, his mother, but the maximum time he says the King had lain dead was two months.) Another thing we missed was the remarriage of the Queen. This seemingly insensitive act burns a million fires inside of Hamlet. Claudius, the brother of Hamlet I, married Gertrude very soon after burying his brother. In Elizabethan English society there was a certain time for mourning, and a marriage or any sort of joyous occasion within this time would be shocking to the audience, and Hamlet, understandably, has hate for his uncle. We can see his hate in the first act, where he either ignores what his Uncle says to him, or if he does reply to his uncle, replies with cutting sarcastic remarks such as ’Not so, my lord; I am too much i' the sun’ (I.ii).
Hamlet refers to his father in his first soliloquy as an excellent King and generally a nice man- ‘So excellent a king; that was, to this/Hyperion to a satyr’. By these lines he means to say, that (Hamlet I) was to this (Claudius, the former king) as Hyperion, a god, was to a monster, a beast which came about as a result of Pan raping a goat. The present King is incompetent and no state leader- in stead of protecting his country from the inevitable attack from Norway (explained a little later), he is drinking and making merry. Hamlet believes other countries ‘clepe (them) drunkards’. He says this as noises, fanfare and shouting and laughing are heard from within the castle.
Hamlet is so depressed that he contemplates suicide. But two scenes after the soliloquy in which he almost kills himself, he is visited by his dear dead father, who gave him a mission of avenging him. Hamlet I tells him how he did not die of an adder’s venom, but from poison poured into his ear by his brother Claudius, who had the throne in his sight. But Hamlet is unsure and nervous. In Elizabethan England, judgement was for God alone and revenge was a terrible sin because it was raising oneself to the level of God, and this would be violating the Great Chain of Being. Blasphemy like this was a sin bad enough to be rewarded with an eternity in Hell.
Elizabethan England also had mixed feelings about ghosts. People either simply did not believe in ghosts, or saw them as restless spirits out of purgatory, like Hamlet I.
Hamlet does not know whether the ghost is actually his father, or whether he is a demon who for some reason may be trying to get Hamlet to murder an innocent man. It is for this reason that Hamlet procrastinates- he really does not know what killed his father, and does not want eternal damnation because of an error in judgement on his part.
Fortinbras and Laertes have similar missions of revenge. Fortinbras is the son of Fortinbras I, former King of Norway. Prior to the death of Hamlet I, Fortinbras I and Hamlet I made a wager. They wagered their lands in a duel- the winner would take the loser’s lands. Hamlet won and so consequently owned lands from both Norway and Denmark. This left young Fortinbras bitter, hence the oncoming attack from Norway.
The play is set against a backdrop of an oncoming attack from Norway. Throughout the play at various points we hear of Fortinbras’ progress towards Denmark. The play begins with a setting of scene, and we are told of Fortinbras’ setting up of an army (‘why such daily cast of brazen cannon,/And foreign mart for implements of war’). Fortinbras’ situation is rather similar to Hamlet’s. Hamlet’s father was murdered, and Fortinbras’ father was also murdered, or, rather, killed in battle, a duel.
The difference is, Fortinbras is very willing to avenge his father. He would deceive his uncle for some money for an army to come in to Denmark through a side door, Poland, to take back what he feels rightfully belongs to him, the lands which once belonged to his father. He is brash and willing to fight. For such a small prize he is willing to start a war. In contrast, we have Hamlet, who is the polar opposite of this, and is much too scared to kill Claudius- even for something as imperative as avenging his father, he is still too scared to confront the wrongdoer.
Laertes is the son of Polonius, the Prime Minister of Denmark, and brother of Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover. Naturally there is rivalry between Hamlet and Laertes, as he is the older brother of Ophelia. For a long time both had fought over her. This is the main reason Laertes always seems to dislike Hamlet- because he does not believe Hamlet truly loves Ophelia, he only lusts after her and he thinks it is only a passing infatuation which could leave the very young and very naive Ophelia hurt. As well as not believing Hamlet truly loves Ophelia, he realises Hamlet will not be able to marry her, because he will be expected to marry another princess, some member of somebody’s royal family, or high nobility, somebody who could be a good future Queen to Denmark. Ophelia is a commoner. She may be the daughter of the Prime Minister, but she is still a commoner, and Laertes knows Hamlet will never marry her because he has no choice as to who he shall marry. It is for his mother to choose, or maybe the people. By keeping Hamlet as far from his baby sister as possible, by giving Hamlet hate and animosity, he is protecting his sister.
Like Hamlet, Laertes’s father also was murdered, and like Hamlet, he is also fighting for the affection of a significant woman in his family against the man who murdered his father (Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is now even more strongly attached to Claudius, Hamlet I’s murderer, than she was to Hamlet I, and thus has even less of an attachment to Hamlet, so Claudius and Hamlet are fighting for the affections of Gertrude; Laertes’ father Polonius was killed by Hamlet, and Hamlet and Laertes are fighting for Ophelia, Laertes’ sister). Hamlet murdered Polonius because he thought Polonius was Claudius. It was a spontaneous act, spur-of-the-moment, an unthinking act. Polonius was hiding behind a curtain as the spy he thinks he is, and Hamlet stabbed through the curtain not knowing who he was stabbing at.
The death of her father causes Ophelia to lose her mind and to later drown herself.
In almost the exact same situation, the way Laertes acts is very different from Hamlet. He, too, is ready to kill Hamlet. There is a whole scene where we see Laertes and Claudius plotting Hamlet’s death. Laertes is very ready to avenge two deaths in his family. He loved his sister so much he was ready to leap into the grave with her, to be buried with her. He has his dagger tipped with poison. He will duel Hamlet. Hamlet can’t bring himself to try to kill his uncle. The one time he had gathered enough courage to kill him, Claudius is kneeling at prayer and appears to be confessing (only he’s not confessing, not really, because the point of a confession is to confess your sins to God in the hope of forgiveness of those sins, and then completely end with those sins, but since Claudius’ whole life is one big sin, to end his sins would be ending his life). So Hamlet decides to kill him at a more suitable time, where Claudius is sinning and not praying, so he can die and die yet never die in Hell. Conversely, Laertes actually says, if necessary he will ‘cut his throat i’ the church’, so unyielding he was, such disregard for the sanctuary of a church he had. Laertes had been away for a while in France, in University. In Act I scene iii we see him leave for France. He only returns from his studies when he is informed of the death of his father. When he returns he is ready to kill his father’s murderer and bring his own flavour of justice to the Universe. This is in total contrast to Hamlet, who is afraid of doing that which he feels is God’s right only, to punish the sinners.
To conclude, Laertes’ and Fortinbras’ sole purpose in the play is to show the audience just how cowardly and asinine Hamlet’s procrastinating is. They have no difficulty in the act of revenge. Indeed, Laertes actually was ready to kill Hamlet wherever he would be, even if he took refuge in a church he would disregard the rules of a church being a sanctuary and kill him there. Laertes and Fortinbras are two devices used by Shakespeare to highlight to the world how easy revenge can be for some people, and how cowardly Hamlet is to delay his mission so much. Of course, it would be a strange world if everybody was the same. Laertes and Fortinbras are examples of one kind of soul- vengeful, and Hamlet is an example of another kind of soul- the kind that delays his mission until the final second of his own life.