I’m reading the new translation of The Odyssey (which is great, by the way) and it has reminded me of something I must have known before but somehow forgot: that Laertes is the name of Odysseus’ father. This is something that Shakespeare was surely aware of – given his education. It is also likely the reason he had the name Laertes at hand to give to Laertes.
It does make me wonder why Shakespeare gave an old man’s name to a young man. Laertes, in the Odyssey, meets his son in the underworld. He is the father of a hero. But not an uncomplicated one. Wilson has translated the first line of The Odyssey as “Tell me about a complicated man.”
What is Odysseus’ father’s story?
What might Shakespeare trying to evoke by naming Laertes thus?
Is it this sort of moment? This direct telling of difficult truths?
Laertes – our Laertes of Elsinore – has to tell it like it is. He has to say it this directly, because he’s already told Hamlet once and he clearly did not get it. Hamlet is running around searching for treachery and such. Laertes has to directly lay it out – all the treachery – not just Gertrude’s murder.
No need for a treachery detector if one of the perpetrators has a conscience.
Laertes has just enough conscience to own up to his misdeeds but not enough to not do them.
There he stood – the murder “almost” against his conscience – but he went ahead and committed it. He has the kind of conscience that leads to regrets but not to prevention.
I wish this satisfying karma happened more often. Like, if murderers, planning their next kill got killed with their plans somehow.
Or, if like, rapists, got their dicks cut off while trying to rape someone.
Like – and then they realized – they got it while it was happening, the way Laertes does – where they look down at their severed member and go, “Yep. I guess I deserved that. Seems about right.”
Like, what if Brett Kavanagh got his dick caught in his zipper while he was trying to rape Christine Blasey Ford and what if, instead of being how we saw him being (defensive, furious, whiny, petty, pathetic) he just suddenly GOT it. He’d scream in pain and then go, “I am justly mutilated by my own treachery!” That would be a heroic Brett.
In real life, though, I’m 99% – sure that if he’d actually gotten his peen caught in his zipper he’d have blamed his victim and it would probably not have gone well for anyone.
But – that is why if more villains more like Laertes, we’d have a higher quality of villain. The noble villain who owns up to his treachery.
The previous person to use this metaphor in this play was Laertes’s father. It is clearly a family metaphor. Both woodcock and springe appear in other plays from other characters – but only this father and son team use them together in this manner.
I imagine Polonius often cautioned Laertes not to be a woodcock and taught him how to set a springe. And here is Laertes, at the very end of his life, drawing on his father’s language and caught in his own trap.
I have seen many a Laertes who is playing this line throughout the whole scene – or the whole play, even. He’s fiery and ready to burst most of the time. But – a more interesting Laertes gets himself to this moment with lots of ups and downs. He may be fighting with himself for a good long while before he’s pushed to behaving this badly.
As much as we see Laertes break the rules (by staging a coup, breaking down doors, leaping into graves, etc) – he seems to have a strong sense of honor and this move is well outside the bounds of that. I think he’d need to feel pushed well past his own tolerance to make a move like this.
He probably has had to silence his conscience in a number of ways to step outside of the confines of the game this way.
And I feel like the crowd should know it, too. They need to have a response that suggests that Laertes has broken through rules and honor and codes to go after Hamlet in an aggressive out of bounds move.
I can’t recall whether it was Mary Chapin Carpenter or Rosanne Cash – I think it was MCC – But she had this super sexy but also sad lulling song that went “Come on, come on.”
I don’t remember anything about it except the repeated refrain of “Come on, come on.” And some whispering.
“Come on” is an incredibly popular phrase for pop songs. If there were a theme for most pop songs it is, “Come on.” They should rename it Come On Music.
It’s the almost that gets him.
It is ALMOST against his conscience.
If it were ACTUALLY against his conscience, he’d switch out his poisoned bated sword and forget the whole plan.
But it is only ALMOST against his conscience. He’s hedging. He’s close to making the switch. But he’s also not listening. Claudius has said “I do not think’t.” He has an out. His king is (possibly) expressing a hesitation which would give him leave to extract himself, from this mess. But instead he has this ALMOST moment, ALMOST a conscience, ALMOST a moral question.
Has Laertes realized that the shit is about to hit the fan? Did he clock that Gertrude has just drunk poison? Does he know what’s about to happen to her or was he somehow busy with between round adjustments? He knows Claudius was going to poison Hamlet’s drink so theoretically he knows that chaos is about to break out. If he wants to kill Hamlet, it has to happen quickly. He needs to get it done before he loses the chance. It explains why he steps out of the bounds of the game to do it. Perhaps questioning his conscience makes him all the fiercer and more determined.
Laertes is not a man used to losing.
There are those who think he’s letting Hamlet get those first two points. They think maybe it’s a way to get that poison Claudius has into him. But I really don’t think Laertes wants to let Claudius kill Hamlet – not because he doesn’t want Hamlet dead, he does – but because he wants to do it himself. I think Laertes is losing because he is distracted by his own ulterior motives, and the complex situation and also by his need to win. I think he is genuinely surprised to be losing here. I think he has to concede the point but he really doesn’t want to. And it’s probably fuel for the fire that leads him to jump out of line a bit and let the formality of the game go out the window. He’s losing. The only way to get his sword into Hamlet is to go a little loose cannon and attack.
Of course it could be played other ways. But this way makes the most sense to me and certainly has the most layers.
Well is such a deliciously flexible word. Laertes could be meaning any number of things in using it. It could be a way to say all is well – the ancient Danish way to say, “It’s all good.” Or it could be a way to say “fine” – both the sarcastic and the sincere versions of that flexible word.
It could also express a kind of resignation – a sense of “whatever.” Or it could just be a placeholder – a non-response response to just get back to fighting.