Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Analysis of Act I, Scene 3

In his active, headstrong, and affectionate qualities, Laertes contrasts sharply with the passive, uncertain, and contemplative Hamlet. In this way, he serves as a “foil,” or a character who by contrast with another character emphasizes the quality of that second character. Later in the play, Hamlet’s hesitancy to avenge his own father’s death will contrast sharply with Laertes’ furious quest to avenge Polonius.

When compared to the last scene, in which the uncertainty and barely-concealed strife of Hamlet’s household is made clear, the bustling normality of Polonius’s household also presents a foil. Polonius’s fatherly advice to Laertes is almost smothering in its concern, contrasting sharply with the loss and estrangement Hamlet feels. This father-son speech is recreated in Act 1, Scene IV, with much darker content.

The contrast in family advice is further developed as Laertes and then Polonius advise Ophelia in turn. While Laertes and Polonius seem to have an affectionate father-son relationship, neither one of them seems to get along as well with Ophelia. Both men treat Ophelia like a child they have unquestioned power and duty to instruct, even though she is an adult woman. In addition, Laertes’ speech to Ophelia is heavy with sexual imagery, creating an undertone of incest that parallels the incestuous nature of Claudius’s marriage to his brother’s wife. This theme of incest continues to develop throughout the play.