Ultimately, Fortinbras is an important character to the plot of Hamlet,in allowing us to view Hamlet in a different light. Without Fortinbras as afoil to Hamlet, his indecisiveness may not have appeared as excessive as ittruly was. Fortinbras’s importance to the plot is highlighted at the end of theplay, when Hamlet is dying.
Upon hearing of Fortinbras’s return from Poland, hedecrees him to be his royal heir, and asks Horatio to inform him of it; ‘OnFortinbras, he has my dying voice’. Fortinbras’s triumph at the end of the playsuggests that every action that he took lead him to be successful; he wascertain of his actions, and was determined to honour his father, which Hamletalmost failed to do. Hamlet is categorised as a Revenge Tragedy.
This a subgenre of tragedy that was very popular on the English stagefrom the late 1580s, around the time Hamlet was written and performed. (Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ (1586)is believed to have started the trend.) The elements of a revenge tragedyinclude a ghost’s call to avenge his death, artificial insanity, a play withina play, suicide, and a hyperbolic massacre at the end. Hamlet’s soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasantslave am I!” comes after he has just watched the lead actor give a speech aboutthe death of Priam, King of Troy. Hamlet remarks how at the end of speech theactor becomes so overwhelmed that he begins to cry.
Hamlet uses the actor’sability to fake tears to punish himself for having done nothing to revenge hisfather’s death. At the end of this soliloquy, Hamlet states that he needs totest whether what the Ghost has told is true. This is significant becauseHamlet, rather than just simply acting on the Ghost’s information, comes upwith a plan to see if he has been told the truth.
“I will grounds/ morerelative than this”: Hamlet needs to make sure that he is not acting rashly andis murdering someone guilty of his father’s death. This has led many people tobelieve that Hamlet is not a true revenger, as he does not have the correctqualities; he does not revenge the first chance he has, he holds it off and procrastinates.A revenge hero questioning the grounds on which he should enact his revengedoes not seem viable. In contrast, many would argue that Fortinbras qualifiesas a true revenger. Horatio, in Act One, describes him as “Of unimproved mettle hot and full”. This shows thatFortinbras acts quickly on the decisions he makes, ‘hot’ referring to rashdecisions. The word ‘unimproved’ is in reference to Fortinbras’ youth; when youare younger, you think less about your actions.
For Hamlet, the fact that he isa scholar and is a ‘renaissance prince’ is a flaw in this play as it stops him completinghis one objective. Fortinbras is an important character as he holds a mirror upto Hamlet; the audience can recognise Hamlets flaws by witnessing what heshould be doing through the actions of Fortinbras. Another keydifference, which shows Fortinbras’s importance as it highlights Hamlets character,is what it means for Fortinbras’s to be presented as a soldier, as opposed toHamlet as a scholar. This is significant as the Elizabethan audience wouldrecognise the comparison between the medieval beliefs and ideas, compared tothose of the Renaissance.
In Hamlet, Fortinbras isa medieval character. As a character of this era, he is driven by chivalry and theduty of revenge through murder. However, in the medieval world that consists ofthe setting of the play, Hamlet represents a character of a different age.Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as a thinker who questions and examines the worldaround him in his own search of revenge. Hamlet’s Renaissance view on the worlddevelops him both as an Elizabethan-era humanist and a nihilist. TheElizabethan audience watching Hamlet would recognise this difference as many changeshad started to take place; during the end of the 16th century, whenthe play was written, there was a lack of warfare, so arts began to flourish;people could focus on philosophy, painting and so on.
Through Hamlet,Shakespeare illustrates humanity’s struggle with the purpose of life; whetherit be to do with simply taking action, representing the ‘hand’, or taking timeto think, representing the ‘head’ in the three aspects that combined, create aperfect renaissance King. Fortinbras desires to “recover of us, by strongand terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands so by his father lost”, inorder to avenge his father’s death. Therefore, Shakespeare presents Fortinbrasas a medieval character whose belief system lies in chivalry. Furthermore,Fortinbras’ gathering of an army indicates his intention to deliver the revengefor his father’s death through brutality. So, Shakespeare places revenge as themost important aspect of chivalry, because by attempting to conquer the landsthat his father had lost, Fortinbras violates the agreement reached after thefight between his father and King Hamlet.
Therefore, in a court where the codeof chivalry rules, the medieval character of Fortinbras establishes an action-oriented,and brutal revenge at the top of his value system. Fortinbras is an importantcharacter, as he provides the Elizabethan audience with a comparison at pivotalpoints in Hamlet. In Act Four, Scene Four, Hamlet suddenly realises how muchtime he has been wasting in not killing Claudius, as he is inspired by theactions of Fortinbras. He states that the Norwegian army is ‘led by a delicateand tender prince, whose spirit with divine ambition puffed’.
The words ‘tender’and ‘delicate’ imply that Hamlet looks up to and is in awe of Fortinbras. Hecompares Fortinbras to himself in this moment, but instead of procrastinating likeHamlet, Fortinbras’s ambition to honour his father was enough for him to takeimmediate revenge, which wasn’t enough for Hamlet. Fortinbrasand Hamlet have many parallels; both are on the verge of succeeding as the nextheir to the throne in their countries, but their only obstacles are theiruncles, who are the successors to the throne after their fathers. Yet, Hamletsuncle was a usurper; he unrightfully took the throne, as he was not the intendedsuccessor. He admits to the reasons as to why he murdered the King when hestates “‘Forgive me my foul murder?’ That cannot be; since I am stillpossess’d of those effects for which I did the murder -My crown, mine ownambition, and my queen”. “O, my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven; It hath the primal eldestcurse upon’t, A brother’s murder!” (III, iii, 39-41).
O, my offence isrank, it smells to Heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, A brother’smurder!” (III, iii, 39-41). Shakespeare included the unrightful appropriationof the crown, as he wanted to convey the British publics fear and worry for thefuture of the monarchy towards the end of the Elizabethan era, as QueenElizabeth 1st was becoming old and she had not yet named an heir tothe throne. When Shakespeare included the concept of the Body Politic beingbroken (the murder of a King), he wanted to highlight the looming fear ofmonarchy in England (the Body Politic was a medieval concept that a monarchshould act entirely morally and legally). While Hamlet seeks revenge for themurder of his father in cold blood against his uncle, Fortinbras’ father wasmurdered by Old Hamlet, who is already dead, revealing one of the keydifferences between the two characters predispositions. Hamlets motivation throughoutthe play is to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, and every actionthat he does is to achieve that goal.
Whereas Fortinbras’s motivation is not simplyfor the sake of revenge. He feels an obligation to avenge his father, but hedoes not extinguish any other opportunities for revenge, unlike Hamlet. Hamletfirmly decides that the only way in which he can avenge his father is by murderingClaudius. This decision means that he takes much longer to achieve his revengethan Fortinbras does. Fortinbras recognises that he cannot achieve revenge bymurder, as his father’s murderer is already dead, so instead, he restores honourin his father by reclaiming the parcel land in Norway that was seized after OldHamlet killed King Fortinbras.
Fortinbras achieves revenge through taking overland that ‘hath in it no profit but the name’, showing the actual land was worthlessto him, but representing his father’s name and honouring it was a good enoughreason to risk his life.In ‘Hamlet’,Fortinbras’s function is as a foil to Hamlet. By learning about Fortinbras’srole within the play, it provides further understanding of Hamlets characterand the reasoning behind his actions. Although his character does not speakmuch, Fortinbras is frequently referenced, as he provides the reader with keyinformation on which to compare the emotions and actions of Hamlet to, insignificant moments during the play. Though they have similar predispositions;both are princes who’s fathers have been murdered, they have key differences intheir behaviour.
Fortinbras is defined by his certainty and ability to act; hehas a strong desire to honour his father, and will do anything to achieve this.Whereas Hamlet is defined by his procrastination and insanity, which developsthroughout the play. Discussthe importance of Fortinbras in ‘Hamlet’ Lucy Tait U6SRC