Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On Hamlet's and Laertes' contrasting attitudes to revenge in Hamlet (1599)

Shakespeare presents Hamlet and Laertes as having many similarities: both are young noblemen in the court of Denmark, both are scholars, both are swordsmen, both are capable of rash actions, both make plans to kill others, and both are forced to revenge the murders of their fathers. In the 2008-9 RSC production, Hamlet and Laertes (David Tennant and Edward Bennett) had deliberately similar appearances and clothing. The similarities are even noted by Hamlet himself (“for by the image of my cause I see the portraiture of his [Laertes’]”, Act 5 Scene 2).

Above I mention that both these characters are capable of rash and impulsive actions, which is a key part in studying their attitudes to revenge. Upon hearing that their fathers have died at respective points in the play, Hamlet and Laertes react in very similar ways: Laertes storms back from France, demanding of Claudius “give me my father!” and furiously stating that “that drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard”. In turn, Hamlet too is almost fiercely excitable and stirred in Act 1 Scene 5, where he delivers his first soliloquy – and, addressing the ghost, he claims that “thy commandment alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter”. One interpretation of this scene was that of John Simm, who played Hamlet in 2010 at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, who particularly emphasised this concept and brought out Hamlet’s galvanisation in the scene very strikingly, spitting out “I have sworn’t!” Newcomers to the play might well have been convinced as to his dedication.

This is the kind of reaction Elizabethan audiences would have thought typical of a revenge hero – Hamlet had run in theatres for decades before 1602 when Shakespeare’s version is recorded as being first performed. Audiences would have been fully aware of the mentality that revenge heroes felt – that of sudden, rousing anger before they embarked on their quest for vengeance. It is in this initial reaction that Hamlet and Laertes are most similar, both being young men who are quite capable of allowing their strong feelings to overwhelm them.

However, as time goes on, Shakespeare steers Hamlet more and more from Laertes’ – and the traditional revenger’s – path. This is perhaps most accurately reflected in Hamlet’s Act 3 Scene 3 soliloquy, where he mentions that the situation “would be scanned”. It is a reflection of his nature, almost his unconscious nature, that he must consider things carefully before taking action. In sharp contrast, when Laertes arrives from France in Act 4 Scene 5, he cries “to hell, allegiance!” and “conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!” as if he simply refuses to think the situation through at such a time. An explanation for this is that Laertes is stirred on by a “rabble” whilst in Act 3 Scene 3 Hamlet is alone and left to think to himself. In fact, it is quite obviously the biggest opportunity he ever receives to commit the act. In the 1996 Kenneth Branagh version, Hamlet’s dagger advances through the grille of a confessional agonisingly close to Claudius’ temple as he says “and so I’ll be revenged”, before he retracts it again and loses the chance.

One of the most striking contrasts between Hamlet and Laertes comes in the way their attitudes to themselves are presented – and these are of course closely connected to their attitudes to revenge. Laertes states categorically in Act 4 Scene 7: “but my revenge will come”. He says this with surety, as if he is very confident in himself and is strongly aware of both his own abilities and intentions.

But Hamlet is thoroughly confused about himself. In one of his most famous soliloquies, in Act 4 Scene 4, Hamlet wails “I do not know why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do’, sith I have cause and will and strength and means to do’t.” It is as if he is confused about his purpose, about his moral stance – for example, here he describes “thinking too precisely on th’event” as “some craven scruple”, whereas earlier he was unequivocal that the situation “would be scanned”.

Most importantly in discussing Hamlet and Laertes’ attitudes towards revenge is to look at the way in which they address it from a moral point of view. From the very beginning of his rage Laertes is clear that he has no care for “conscience and grace”, although it seems that he does not know himself quite as well as he thinks. In Act 5 Scene 2 Laertes says to himself that the act of injuring his oblivious opponent appals him: it is “almost ‘gainst [his] conscience”. It is an indication that he feels a human reluctance to take his revenge. And yet he nevertheless does so.

On the other hand, in Act 3 Scene 2 Shakespeare gives Hamlet the line “conscience doth make cowards of us all”. Even when he can see that something is morally wrong and that his “conscience” tells him not to do it, Laertes does the deed; Hamlet, in his “thinking too precisely on th’event”, stops himself from doing what he sees is morally wrong. When he kills Polonius, it is a rash action full of rage at his failure in killing Claudius in the previous scene – he does not stop to think. If he had “scanned” the occasion, and had come to the conclusion that the act was wrong, he would not have gone through with his actions.

Neither Laertes nor Hamlet is portrayed quite like any Elizabethan revenge hero had been before. Although he does not differ too much from the main concept, Laertes is slightly different, in his total lack of chivalry and prudence. He is willing to invade the palace, and ask questions later, unlike Hamlet who spends his entire time asking questions before he finally takes action. It is perhaps due to his hasty nature (characterised by his sudden impulse to catch “[Ophelia] once more in [his] arms” at her graveside, Act 5 Scene 1) that it is not too difficult a task for Claudius to manipulate him. Like Hotspur in Henry IV, the fact that he is a man of the determined fighting mentality does not make him a great man but is ironically his greatest weakness and the reason he would not be a good king himself. Ultimately his belligerence, his willingness to cheat, and his possession of poison make him not more powerful and domineering but merely more malleable in the King’s hands. Laertes’ temptation and subservience thus represents a slight divergence from the mentality of most revenge heroes.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet deviates even more from tradition. Elizabethan revenge tragedies usually ended with their central characters seeking revenge privately and being avenged, following the failure of seeking justice in the public sector. In this sense the hero’s dilemma (and hence the reason for such plays being as long as five acts) is the numerous obstacles placed in his way – such as the murderer’s schemes, other villains, love interests and so on. Unlike most other such heroes, Hamlet seems to actively delay matters himself. He consciously ponders the moral repercussions of any act he might take (with the exception of his enraged murder of Polonius): and it is this which brings the action of the revenge tragedy to a halt.

A different interpretation is not that he is trying to avoid the task of revenge, but that he is genuinely more concerned with major life issues. He finds himself experiencing situations which remind him he has a job to do: with first the Player King’s speech and then the meeting with Fortinbras’ Captain, he is galvanised into soliloquizing about why his reaction to his father’s murder has not been swift and just. It is as if he does not think about the task unless reminded. Eventually, only minutes before his duel in Act 5 Scene 2, Hamlet says “the readiness is all”, which is in a sense the climax of all his moralizing if not the climax of his actions. Here he resigns himself to accepting what fate may bring rather than taking the matter into his own hands like the traditional revenge hero.

Thus Laertes’ attitude to revenge is that it must be carried out, with a grim and steely determination: “my revenge will surely come”. Hamlet’s, in contrast, is quite different to other Elizabethan revenge heroes. He discovers that revenge is not foremost in his mind, despite being placed in the position of someone who almost has an expected role to play, as if he is somehow aware he is in a play – and this is expressed in his soliloquies, in his innermost thoughts. It is as if it is something he feels he is expected to carry out, but that there are things, for him, far more important – he says in Act 3 Scene 2 that “the question” is whether one should continue living or not.

So Hamlet skirts around the issue of revenge by prioritising other things more highly; this is where he is most different to Laertes, and very different to those other revenge heroes in other plays. His preoccupation is with wider questions, and not especially concerned with his immediate task; for contemporary Elizabethan audiences, and indeed for us, that is what makes him and the play as interesting as it is.

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