Hamlet vs. Laertes

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With the uncut Branagh Hamlet, we see the contrasts of Hamlet vs. Laertes, and how perfectly Shakespeare defines a new, modern hero compared with a Medieval one (Laertes).

Remember that there were earlier versions of Hamlet extant. In these, Hamlet could be played as maybe Jean Claude VanDamme, a raging revenge guy. In other words, Laertes. In these early versions by other playrights, Hamlet's been off at WAR, returns for a romping revenge fight. Pure melodrama, instead of the true drama Shakespeare gave us.

How ol' Will changed all that. Hamlet has been away at SCHOOL. And not just any school, but Wittenberg, a school famous even then for philosophy and refined learning.

Look at Laertes. He's been "studying" in Paris. And you can imagine his classes: Fencing 430 (upper grad credits), Poetry 103, Wine tasting 200, and Literature (remedial). Of course he had to drop the lit class due to a heavy course load.

Consider how perfectly Shakespeare compares these 2 characters, setting up Laertes as the previous Hamlet type, Hamlet himself as the new age man, a true modern man.

Just after the mousetrap play, when Claudius is praying in the chapel, Hamlet says "Now might I do it" but does not.

Now what does Claudius ask of Laertes? What would you do to a man who killed your father? "Cut his throat in the church!" Laertes says.

This is EXACTLY what Hamlet could have done, but did not.

Look at the very pivotal scene, where Hamlet sees the impending battle and berates himself "How all occasions do inform against me".

The battle will kill more men than could be buried on the disputed land, and Hamlet wishes he was like this. But understand, Shakespeare is decrying that old way and trumpeting Hamlet as the new image of the hero.

Despite his potential for violence (he is after all trained at warfare), Hamlet eschews this, mainly.

Horatio, maybe the smartest character in all of Shakespeare, is Hamlet's buddy, perhaps they are college roommates, and Horatio is totally nonviolent, a philosopher. Hamlet keeps trying to make himself a bloody killer, and he simply is not. Yes, he can kill, but only in a rage or if attacked.

He is a truly modern hero, a departure from the old ways, and he himself does not see this (Horatio does, and fears Hamlet will lose his soul). If you look at the parallels between Hamlet & Laertes you'll see how perfectly Shakespeare presents this.

Thank you, Mr. Branagh, for giving us a wonderfully vivid and lasting Hamlet!

-- Sam W (sam@waas.us), August 07, 2004

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