To completely understand how someone is, the reasoning behind their person, you have to take into account the people around them. In William Shakespeare’s play “The Tragedy of Hamlet”, Ophelia and Laertes represent different aspects of prince Hamlets traits that further the understanding of his behaviour, thoughts, and over-all character.
Laertes and Ophelia, like Hamlet, are children of murdered fathers. This connection helps create a link between the three that sends them passionately to their end. Ophelia has an important relationship and entangling affair with the prince.
Hamlets and Ophelia’s actions in time lead the young women into a deep grief, and eventually an even deeper lunacy. Her burning emotions and truly mad mind compares to and intensifies the look on Hamlets selfish nature and veil of thought-out deception. Laertes parallels Hamlets similarities as far as age, sex and vengeful functions. Driven by revenge for his father, Laertes also creates a difference between himself and the prince as he takes impulsive actions while Hamlet does not.
The two characters that are juxtaposed against Hamlet expand his stance. They give further depth into the thoughts that his character springs from without physically showing them. The book Poison, Play and Duel discusses this; “Hamlet is subject to exactly the same passions of Ophelia and Laertes. Grief, hate, madness, revenge, and self-destruction …” (Alexander 121). These themes experienced by Ophelia and Laertes to the degree that they face them, some lesser and some more so than Hamlet, reflects on and gives background to the being Hamlet is. Affected early on by grief and mourning due to the deaths of their father, Ophelia and Laertes continue on by taking parallel paths that compliment Hamlet’s and establish them as foils for him.
They are also representations of specific parts of Hamlets character. “Ophelia and Laertes actually pursue the courses of actions considered by Hamlet in soliloquy. Laertes chooses to be a violent avenger of blood. Ophelia follows a different course which leads her ‘not to be’” (Alexander 121). By acting as they do, Ophelia and Laertes create a mirror to put Hamlet up against. By looking into their nature, Hamlet’s can be easier accessed by contrast. “The way in which Laertes and Ophelia plunge passionately to murder and self-destruction allows the audience to measure the force of the passions which Hamlet is struggling to control.” (Alexander 121).
Laertes is Hamlet’s anger and action more quickly expressed. Where Hamlet is a thinker, Laertes is the opposite, taking little time to act. “There is in Hamlet a secret envy of… Laertes, who [goes] to action straightforwardly, without ‘thinking too precisely on th’event’” (De Madariaga 25). Hamlet swears to avenge his father by killing his uncle, his father’s murderer. He spends most of the play contemplating his plan, creating and constructing a well thought-out course of action while collecting evidence. Laertes, on the other hand, does not take time.
In the beginning of this soliloquy after he learns of Fortinbras’ invasion, Hamlet announces: “How all occasions do inform against me/ and spur my dull revenge!” (IV.iv.34-35). Hamlet takes into account his hesitation. By the end he states, “… from this time forth/ My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” (IV.iv.67-68), and finally after the bulk of the play moves himself to pursue his revenge. Laertes creates the opposite image by quickly becoming an angry pawn of the King when he finds out about his own father’s death. He blames and then sets out to fight Hamlet almost immediately. This emphasizes Hamlets over-thoughtful nature, bringing attention to his concrete need for order, precision and logic.
Both characters also share an acute anger; Laertes for his father’s murder and Hamlet for the same reason, along with his mother’s betraying and sinful act of marrying his uncle. “…Hamlet harbours some sympathy towards Laertes because he realises the parallel between their two ‘causes’, i.e. both are sons of murdered fathers.” (De Madariaga 25). Created by grief, their frustrations are the same in form and also the cause of their larger purposes. Again, how they deal with their anger, Hamlet paced and Laertes brash, shows Hamlet’s need for reason behind action. Their similarities, though brought through different views are what lead to their end. Both furious young men want revenge for their father’s murders, which in turn leads to the duel that leaves them and the bulk of the main characters dead.
Ophelia creates an even greater and concentrated being to explore Hamlet’s true self. His egotistical actions, misleading madness, grief caused by and anger towards women can all be connected through Ophelia and the importance of her role as his lover. “Both [Hamlet and Ophelia] are active centers of consciousness which mirror, and help interpret, the events of the play for the audience” (Alexander 128).
The major root of Ophelia’s grief, like Laertes’, is her father’s death. From this grows a madness that reflects Hamlet’s mask. “After the death of her father, Ophelia suffers from what the King calls ‘the poison of deep grief’… This drives her to madness and the despair which so poisons her memory, understanding, and will that it leads to her death. This death may be accidental or suicidal. In both cases it has strong themes of self-destruction” (Alexander 121). Ophelia’s insanity was genuine, while Hamlet’s was not. Overwhelmed by her father’s death, Ophelia succumbed to the weakness that was her mind. This against Hamlet’s fake madness caused by grief, more so from his mother’s marriage to his uncle than his father’s death, accentuates Hamlet’s developed and perceivably higher intelligence.
Hamlets treatment of Ophelia reflects his feelings for women. “Hamlet views Ophelia as he considers his mother- a passionate voluptuary whose fragrant sexuality is a poisonous and destroying force. The image of poison which … Laertes sees in Hamlet, [Hamlet] sees in … Ophelia.” (Alexander 136). Because Hamlet feels betrayed by the woman he called mother, who married so quickly after his father’s death, he paints all women as pictures of distractive feebleness, stupidity and bawdiness. “Hamlet therefore sees Ophelia as a threat to his memory, his dedication, to the task of revenge, and to his whole existence” (Alexander 129). Hamlets resentment toward women is also directed at himself. In his only soliloquy before learning of his father’s murder, Hamlet shows what he thinks of his grief and his mother’s actions: “Frailty, thy name is woman” (I.ii.148).