Honour and certainty are two values that many humans seek, obtain, and lose just to begin seeking for them again. To be honourable is to be virtuous or morally sound. Having honour is to act with dignity and the loss of one’s honour is often a cause for a personal struggle, as well. Certainty is being confident in the future; it is knowing what one is going to do. Shakespeare explores both of these values and the struggle an individual has when attempting to restore these values to their life within the play Hamlet. Shakespeare explores this theme within the individual story arcs of most of the characters, but one of the more prominent story arcs is that of Laertes, the son of the King’s right hand man. Laertes goes through the cycle of vengeance in an attempt to restore his honour and certainty. In the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare, the playwright explores the idea that when an individual previously unconcerned with honour and certainty finds himself in a situation where he has lost both of those values, he will be pushed to struggle to restore them through the violent act of revenge. In his need for revenge an individual will be blinded to his real purpose and will end up losing even more of his honour and certainty. Inevitably he will end up not restoring these values through his revenge, but he will restore honour and certainty through merciful means.
Initially the character of Laertes is that of a worry free youth, a young man with no cares in the world save for his younger sister’s honour. In Laertes’ mind his own honour and certainty are secure, concrete, and unchanging. This can be scene in Act I Scene III lines 55-81, when Laertes is listening to the advice of his father. Laertes is about to head off to France to go back to school, and his father is giving him advice for how to take care of his honour. Laertes seems unconcerned with the advice he is being given, and in the lines previous to the conversation Laertes almost seems annoyed that his father is coming to talk to him before he leaves. This exchange, and the way Laertes reacts to it helps to solidify the audience’s view of Laertes. He is firm in his confidence that his honour and certainty will stay intact, and he is unconcerned with the advice that his father gives him. Laertes’ confidence in his own honour and certainty lets him keep an eye on his sister’s honour and certainty. He is much more concerned about her’s then he is about his own. Due to his confidence in them, he seems almost cocky when it comes to his honour and certainty. In the text it is implied that Laertes is somewhat of a womanizer or a playboy. He parties and goes out, firm in his conviction that his honour and certainty are unbreakable.
Then when Laertes loses his honour and certainty his initial reaction is to react violently, he leaves France to seek revenge. When Laertes hears of his father’s death he initially assumes it was King Claudius who committed the crime and he rushes back to Denmark in order to confront the King. The rage and raw emotion that is coursing through Laertes because of this loss can be seen in Act IV, Scene V, lines 128-133. These lines are some of the things that Laertes says to the king when he confronts him. Laertes demands answers and swears to take revenge for his father’s death. For Laertes the death of his father isn’t just about the death itself. With the death of his father comes the loss of his honour and certainty as well. As seen throughout the play the death of a father is often viewed as a cause of dishonour, especially when the father was killed by another man. In the struggle to restore honour, the characters, and especially Laertes, view vengence as the only way to go about it. This death also allows for uncertainty to creep into Laertes’ life as he is now uncertain of where his future lays after his revenge and he is uncertain how to go about dealing with his younger sister, Ophelia, who since their father’s demise had gone mad. Laertes is also uncertain as he is now the head of his family, adding much more responsibility to his shoulders, especially since he was used to just partying with no real consequences. Choosing to enact revenge upon his father’s murderer is Laertes’ attempt at restoring his honour and certainty. By killing his father’s murderer he will be gaining his honour back, and by focusing on this revenge it gives Laertes some semblance of certainty in that now he has something to focus on. Finding out that the murderer was Hamlet also helps to bring some certainty back to Hamlet as he now has an answer, a concrete purpose. Instead of confronting the king based on rumours and speculations Laertes now has a real, solid cause for the loss of his honour and certainty.
Then, as Laertes is struggling to restore his honour and certainty through revenge he is drawn away from the real purpose of his revenge and ends up participating in acts that would lend to the further deterioration of his honour. In Act V Scene I, Laertes and King Claudius are planning to have Laertes challenge Hamlet to a duel in order to get rid of Hamlet once and for all. This situation would seem normal for an individual like Laertes’ where his plan for revenge is fairly well known, but they conspire to add poison to Laertes’ sword as well as to the goblet that Hamlet’s drink will be in. By participating in this plan it causes a further deterioration of Laertes’ honour as using something like poison in what should be a fair duel is very dishonourable. This fact is later proven by the spectators’ reaction to Laertes’ confession during the duel itself. By acting in a dishonourable way, Laertes made it much more difficult for him to restore his honour as now he had two grievances against his honour to contend with. His decision to use the poison and follow Claudius’ plan was immoral and would lend itself to much grief for many of those around him as well.
Finally, Laertes inevitably restores his honour and certainty, but not through his attempt at revenge. Laertes restores his honour and certainty through the merciful act of forgiving Hamlet. In Act V Scene II line 306-313, Laertes tells Hamlet about the poison on the blade that he was using, as well as informing Hamlet that it was the King’s idea to use such a technique. This act of being truthful and no longer playing along with the King’s facade of peacefulness helps to restore Laertes’ honour. Laertes does the honourable thing in telling Hamlet about the poison, seeing as how much it was affecting both of them. Then in Act V Scene II lines 320-324, Laertes asks Hamlet for forgiveness and forgives Hamlet for the death of himself and his family. As he lays on the ground, dying of the poison, Laertes offers up his forgiveness as a last act to regain his certainty. With a clear conscious and with his hands free of blood upon being forgiven by Hamlet he can go to heaven, bringing certainty into his life just as he is about to die. Even the fact that he does die could be seen as a struggle to restore certainty, as based off of the graveyard scene in Act IV Shakespeare establishes that the only certainty in life is that everyone dies.
In the play Hamlet Shakespeare explores the themes of honour and certainty through all of his major characters. With the character of Laertes he explores the idea that when an individual who was previously confident in his honour and certainty loses that honour and certainty, he will react with violence and anger. Due to his quest for revenge he will experience the further deterioration of his honour before finally gaining his honour and certainty back through morally sound means. Shakespeare portrays the struggle to restore honour and certainty through several different viewpoints, all of them insightful and complex. The struggle to restore and then maintain honour and certainty is part of the human condition. Every individual will deal with the struggle at some point in their life as honour and certainty are both very important values that humans revere.