In Secret Conference: The Meeting Between Claudius and Laertes
From The Riddles of Hamlet by Simon Augustine Blackmore. Boston, Stratford & Co.
We now come to a remarkable and vivid portrayal of the king 's ingenious villainy. With crafty skill he forms and fashions Laertes to his nefarious will, as clay in a potter's hands. If in a former brief appearance, Laertes left a good
impression, he now destroys it by actions which disclose his
real character. Naturally impetuous, fiery of temperament,
and ruled by passion rather than by reason, he reveals himself, on returning from his libertine life in Paris, as indifferent to noble ideals of honor and of justice, and willingly
agrees to become the base tool of a crafty criminal. If, of
the two conspirators, Claudius is the master villain, Laertes
by his own suggestion of the use of poison, proves himself no
mean adept in the ways of infamy.
By forcing upon our notice the deep contrast between
Hamlet and Laertes, the Poet in the present scene seems
intent upon a further glorification of his hero. If the one is
characterized by a love of truth, sincerity, virtue, justice,
and of all that is honorable; the latter in contempt of them
all, enters ignobly into an alliance with falsehood, treachery,
and crime. The whole scene is a strong sketch in black and
white, in which the evil traits of Laertes, serve to illuminate
all the more the nobility of Hamlet's nature.
The curtain rises on the two conspirators in secret conference. The King is supposed to have narrated to Laertes
what the audience knows well already: namely, that in an
attempt at his life, Hamlet had in mistake slain Polonius. In consequence, Claudius claims the friendship and alliance of
Laertes; since both are animated by the same purpose of revenge. Laertes, however, cannot understand why the
King, even when impelled by his own safety, did not vindicate the law against so capital an offence. Claudius assigns
two reasons: the one on the part of Hamlet's mother, and the
other on the part of the people. "The Queen lives almost by
his looks," and, as a star can move only within its sphere,
so was he held in check by her. On the other hand, "the
general gender," or common people love him so highly that
his faults seem graces in their eyes; and any attempt to punish or restrain him, would appear as so many injuries perpetrated against his innocence and good qualities: to put gyves upon him was only to endear him to the people.
Laertes in smothered feelings of disgust at the fears and
weakness of the King, recounts his dual loss as motives for
insisting on revenge, and in reference to his sister's perfections, makes a beautiful allusion to an olden ceremony at the
coronation of the Kings of Hungary. It was customary for the newly-crowned monarch to stand on the Mount of Defiance at Pressburg, and unsheathing the sword of State, to
extend it towards the four quarters of the globe, challenging
the world the while to dispute his claim.
Claudius in reply,
protests that he is not a dull weakling to be branded with
fear in face of danger; and when, in the hope of speedy news
from the ambassadors, he proceeds to offer proof, he is interrupted by the sudden entrance of a messenger with letters
for the King and Queen from the lord Hamlet.
In a refinement of irony, the letter to Claudius shatters
his dream at the moment when he is gloating over the prospect of soon communicating to Laertes the news of Hamlet's
execution. The letter, formal and diplomatic, informs him
that Hamlet has returned alone to Denmark, and promises
to recount to him on the morrow the occasion of his sudden
and strange return. The King, surprised and startled, is
scarcely able to believe his eyes, and in sheer bewilderment
turns to consult Laertes. He, though equally lost in surprise, rejoices at the news; the prospect of challenging on the
morrow the slayer of his father causes his heart to glow still
more with its mad sickness for revenge.
How to cite this article:
Blackmore, Simon Augustine. The Riddles of Hamlet. Boston: Stratford & company, 1917. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/claudiuslaertes.html >.
Did You Know? ... Shakespeare's complex sentence structures and use of now obsolete words lead many students to think they are reading Old or Middle English. In fact, Shakespeare's works are written in Early Modern English. Once you see a text of Old or Middle English you'll really appreciate how easy Shakespeare is to understand (well, relatively speaking). Read on...