What is the purpose of Fortinbras in Hamlet?
July 30, 2008 11:42 AM   Subscribe

I've never really known what to make of Fortinbras in Hamlet. Do you know of any good explanations of his purpose in the play?

I read Eric Rauchway's Blessed Among Nations and found a reference to the article "Hamlet and Fortinbras" by William Witherle Lawrence which, according to Rauchway, went a long way towards explaining the problem of Fortinbras. So I went to the local library, dug out the right PMLA volume and read the article. While it traced the origins of the Fortinbras character in previous incarnations of the Hamlet tale it didn't provide a satisfying answer as to what purpose Fortinbras serves in the play. Are there any good articles or books out there about Fortinbras and his role in the play?

My only idea is that it's a reference to James coming from Scotland, England's northern neighbor, to assume the throne of England. The royal line dies out in Hamlet and the same happened in England with the death of Queen Elizabeth. Fortinbras, being from Norway, Denmark's northern neighbor, ascends to the throne of Denmark. It seems to fit in with other such Jacobean ass-kissing in Shakespeare's corpus, e.g. Macbeth.
posted by Kattullus to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like I should mention that I once saw a particularly bad staging of Hamlet (by an otherwise very good director) where, at the end, Fortinbras comes in at the end of Hamlet with stormtroopers and machineguns everyone on stage, including the dead bodies.
posted by Kattullus at 11:43 AM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

David Ball's book, "Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays" (which will greatly enrich your reading of plays/Shakespeare and, despite the dry-sounding title, is lots of fun to read) uses Hamlet as an example throughout.

I recall that he demonstrated how Fortinbras should be essential to the story but seems irrelevant when the artists have made certain mistakes in reading/interpreting the script. But it's been 15 years since I read the book and I forget the details.
posted by winston at 11:57 AM on July 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

Well, for starters he's a parallel/contrast to the character of Hamlet (along with Laertes), sets H off on a famous soliloquy (4.4: "How all occasions do inform against me..."), and he's a source of closure for the State-level politics of the play (with or without stormtroopers).
posted by Mngo at 12:08 PM on July 30, 2008

I had a friend who suggested that Fortinbras staged the ghost of Hamlet's father (via some old school special effects) so that he could bring down the monarchy and take over at the end.

A preposterous, entertaining, and clever idea.
posted by dontoine at 12:10 PM on July 30, 2008

I always viewed Fortinbras as a foil to Hamlet. Over the course of the whole play, Hamlet whines about what he should do to avenge his father's murder. His only real actions are in a duel that was set up to trick him. On the other hand, Fortinbras spends his time in the background of the play approaching Denmark to claim what he views as the rights his family that were lost to older Hamlet. In the end, he is the one to take the crown because he has taken action.
posted by Macduff at 12:20 PM on July 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

I always saw him as a remote yet similar character against which to compare/contrast Hamlet. This seems intended in that both have fathers with the same name, and both are avenging the father's death. We hear small references to Fortinbras' progress throughout, and that in the end he reaches his goal seems to point to the fact that his gradual, steady effort was better than Hamlet's bouts of impotence or sporadic rash action. (I also have a theory that this appearance of a another prince as comparison, with Hamlet's apparent unfitness as a member of a royal family, points to the fact that Prince Hamlet is not actually King Hamlet's son; he is the son of the gravedigger [first clown], with whom he shares a talent and love for wordplay, and who started his job as gravedigger the day Hamlet was born, I'm guessing to get him away from the big house before the resemblance was noticed.)
posted by troybob at 12:25 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

As I read it, Fortinbras is impending responsibility.

He is something/someone that the King of Denmark will have to face sooner or later, regardless of who holds the crown. Because for all the talk of kings and kingdoms, nobody does anything particularly kingly. Nobody rules. If the state of Denmark were an automobile, it would be off the road and in a ditch by the third act because nobody is at the wheel.

Claudius has been enjoying the fruits of the late Elder Hamlet's estate, wife and kingdom and all. There are no counselors* wringing their hands at court, anxious that the King take up any issues of the day (contrast that with the opening scenes of Henry V, for instance).

And dear Hamlet is too distracted by either his own grief or the inherited rage of his ghostly Father to give a moment's thought to what he would do should he ever manage to attain the crown.

* - Polonius, you say? That poor doomed man is concerned only with assessing Hamlet's madness and sending Laertes off.
posted by grabbingsand at 12:34 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Fortinbras' approach is a ticking bomb adding tension from the beginning of the story. Without the threat of Fortinbras, so what if Denmark is off the road in a ditch, as grabbingsand has it? Fortinbras gives an immediacy to Denmark's need to get its house in order.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:49 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fortinbras secretly uses his quest for Polish territory (“a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name”) to gain passage to Denmark to take back the land that he believes is rightfully his. Like Hamlet, Fortinbras is haunted by the death of his father, but I think it's telling that Shakespeare never shows Hamlet and Fortinbras together, he is indeed a foil furthering the revenge theme.
posted by mattbucher at 12:59 PM on July 30, 2008

I think of Fortinbras as an example for Hamlet of what he's supposed to be like - a Prince of Action, so to speak.
Like Macduff and troybob said.
posted by Sprout the Vulgarian at 1:03 PM on July 30, 2008

I quite like the James thesis, but the problem is that James didn't assume the English throne until 1603 and Hamlet was written sometime between 1598 and 1601. James wasn't confirmed as Elizabeth's heir until after her death, I believe, though there had been speculation that he would be king. Possibly Shakespeare was responding to those rumours but he wasn't reacting to actual events that had taken place.
posted by pised at 2:09 PM on July 30, 2008

Thanks, pised, for setting me straight. In retrospect my theory's pisspoor. I suppose I could save it with some tortured arguments (Fortinbras was added later, or some such guff) but consider me back on square one as what the hell Fortinbras' purpose is.
posted by Kattullus at 2:14 PM on July 30, 2008

The interpretation I've always run with is that Fortinbras exists in the play as someone for Horatio to tell the story to at the end. Because really, at the end, it's just Horatio and a pile of dead bodies. And if there's no one for him to tell about it, it's kind of a... well, buzzkill.

That's what I've been told anyway. By my mom. And I wouldn't question the woman where Hamlet is concerned.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 3:36 PM on July 30, 2008

I think Zed_Lopez has it - Hamlet is easier to grasp if you remember that it was a thriller, and that many elements - Polonius behind the arras, the dumbshow before The Mousetrap, Hamlet's escape from England - are present or structured to add dramatic tension.
posted by nicwolff at 4:09 PM on July 30, 2008

I'm with Macduff & Sprout. He's there because he's a man of action (Fortinbras = Armstrong/Strongarm) direct contrast to Hamlet's deliberation.
posted by juv3nal at 4:26 PM on July 30, 2008

Katullus, I was doing research on something else today and wandered across an article that might be helpful for your James idea. Check out "Hamlet and the Scottish Succession?", by Stuart M. Kurland in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34.2 (1994), pp. 279-300, to give some more background. I haven't read it through yet, but it doesn't seem like your idea is so far off! (If you need a PDF, let me know.)
posted by pised at 5:14 PM on July 30, 2008

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