I really like Hamlet, and I am often driven to thought by a side-character in the play whose name is Fortinbras. The play, one of Shakespeare’s best (and his longest) is about a prince who is affected by accidie – who has a duty to do, knows he must do it, but cannot bring himself to do it. The whole story, in a manner of speaking, is about his struggles to build up courage to do what he must, and the collateral impact this internal struggle has on other people in his life. One way by which Shakespeare highlights Hamlet’s weaknesses is by contrasting him to three other characters in the play who are defined, almost, by their confident ability to work for their ambitions – Laertes, Claudius and Fortinbras. Fortinbras is the least prominent of these characters but also (for me) the most fascinating.
The back-story of Fortinbras is that he is the son of the previous king of Norway, who was defeated and killed in a war by Hamlet’s father, the previous king of Denmark. Thereafter, a peace treaty was signed by the new king of Norway, Fortinbras’ uncle, and Denmark, guaranteeing that Norway will not attack Denmark but that Denmark will provide passage to Norway’s army to attack other countries. Under his uncle’s reign, Fortinbras nevertheless nurses deep ambitions to re-establish Norway’s fortunes (and his own). He commandeers an army of 20,000 men and marches towards Denmark. The king of Denmark, Claudius, gets alarmed and asks the king of Norway for an explanation, and the latter clarifies that Fortinbras’ army is not marching against Denmark but a part of Poland. Denmark gives Fortinbras permission to go through the country to Poland, and Hamlet sees this army while he is on his way to exile in England.
Hamlet asks a commander of the army where they are marching, and the commander says they are going to lay seige to a piece of land in Poland, but which is so barren and unattractive that even for a subsidy he would not farm it. Nevertheless, the Poles have garrisoned it and war is imminent. Hamlet compares Fortinbras – who, to reestablish his country’s honor, will wage war for this useless land – to himself, who has every motive to kill the king who has assassinated his father and married his mother, but still hesitates to act.
This is my favorite speech in Hamlet:
How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge!
What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused.
Now, whether it be bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event, a thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward, I do not know why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’ sith I have cause and will and strength and means to do’t.
Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge led by a delicate and tender prince, whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d makes mouths at the invisible event, exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death and danger dare, even for an egg-shell.
Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honour’s at the stake.
How stand I then, that have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d, excitements of my reason and my blood, and let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men, that, for a fantasy and trick of fame, go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot whereon the numbers cannot try the cause, which is not tomb enough and continent to hide the slain?
O, from this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
Finally Hamlet resolves to act, motivating himself with Fortinbras as an example.
And finally, when everyone in the Danish court is dead – Hamlet, Claudius, the queen, Laertes – Fortinbras passes through the Danish court, sees the carnage – and crowns himself king.
To the victor belong the spoils. Fortinbras, diametrically opposite to Hamlet in character, ends up the sole winner in the dark and despondent play.