Hamlet, in Hamlet by William Shakespeare, is a fascinating character. He has a quiet and subtle need for vengeance. In a story full of murder and revenge, Hamlet is the outlier. He desires retaliation for his father’s killing but can’t bring himself to avenge King Hamlet’s death through the majority of the play. Hamlet seeks the perfect situation to strike back against his uncle, but cannot find it in him to actually act. To help the reader better understand Hamlet, Laertes is used to contrast his character and his inability to exact his revenge by acting purposefully, logically, and impulsively to take the revenge that Hamlet so desires.
In act one, the ghost of Hamlet’s father demands that he kill Claudius so the former king can leave his “prison house,” (1.5.14) and go to heaven. In Hamlet’s extreme grief, he promises to “remember his father” (1.5.111), and kill Claudius to sanctify King Hamlet’s name. It becomes clear through the next few scenes that Hamlet, filled with desire for revenge, cannot actually do it. In a soliloquy, Hamlet is able to admit that he can only, “unpack his heart with words and fall a-cursing like a very drab…” (2.2.549). While he senses the importance of his mission, he can only sulk “and say nothing” like a “coward,” (2.2.529) while not even being bothering with revenge.
In act three, Hamlet comes across Claudius praying and has the clear opportunity to kill him but overthinks and rationalizes the situation. He declares that killing his uncle on his knees before God would only “send this villain to heaven” (3.3.82), is exactly what Claudius wants. Hamlet could have ignored this possibility and exacted his revenge right there, but his hesitation costed him his desired satisfaction. Later in the act, while speaking to his mother, he finally gains the courage to stab the person behind the curtain, however, this turns out to be Polonius, and not Claudius. Now, Hamlet has gained his needed courage, but has killed the wrong man. Again, his angered ghost father returns to remind his son that “this vision is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose” (3.4.127). Hamlet’s ghost father has become restless waiting for Hamlet to go through with his revenge. Hamlet is seen as being selfish because his indecisiveness is causing his father pain as he sits in purgatory.
In complete contrast to Hamlet, Laertes acts on raw emotion and passion, traits that Hamlet envies. Laertes is confident and needs no convincing to be “reveng’d
most thoroughly for his father” (4.5.3002). When he hears of his father’s death, and later Ophelia’s, Laertes jumps into action immediately to avenge their deaths, in similar manner to Hamlet. The differentiating factor is that Laertes immediately enacts a plan, and soon proclaims: “Hamlet, thou art slain” (5.2.344), unlike Hamlet, who is unable to avenge Claudius’s death until the end. Laertes is a reactionary character, which is what Hamlet should be. As the prince, he is supposed to be strong, decisive and tough, “for on his choice depends the safety and health of this whole state” (1.3.20). However, he is reluctant and afraid when he should be conclusive and take action. This contrast that Laertes makes clear, causes the question of Hamlet’s ability to be king. Without a character to contrast to him, Hamlet would seem less hesitant, for a character that should be decisive.
In what seems to be a jab at Hamlet, Laertes proclaims, “I have a speech o’fire…but that this folly drowns it” (4.7.217). This quote displays the contrast that is evident between Hamlet and Laertes. Hamlet is strong in his word, but weak in his sword, the opposite of what he should be. Laertes’ character is used throughout the play to represent the type of personality a vengeful prince should have. Laertes’, as a contrasting character, helps to demonstrate the hesitation and reluctance Hamlet takes throughout the story. Thus, we are able to better understand Hamlet as a character who is too weak and not fit to be prince, as he is not a strong enough leader and is not able to avenge his father, the king’s death.