The Shakespearean play, Hamlet, is a story of revenge and the way the characters in the play respond to grief and the demands of loyalty. The importance of Fortinbras and Laertes in the play is an issue much discussed, analysed and critiqued.
Fortinbras and Laertes are parallel characters to Hamlet, and they provide pivotal points on which to compare the actions and emotions of Hamlet throughout the play. They are also important in Hamlet as they are imperative to the plot of the play and the final resolution. Hamlet, Laertes and Fortinbras are three young men who are placed in similar circumstances, that is, to avenge their father’s deaths. The way the each comes to terms with their grief and how they rise to the call of vengeance is one of main contrasts between the three.Laertes is a mirror to Hamlet.
Shakespeare has made them similar in many aspects to provide a greater base for comparison when avenging their respective father’s deaths. Hamlet and Laertes love Ophelia. Hamlet wishes Ophelia to be his wife, Laertes loves Ophelia as a sister. Hamlet is a scholar at Wittenberg, and Laertes at France.
Both are admired for their swordsmenship. Both men loved and respected their fathers, and display deviousness when plotting to avenge their father’s deaths. Hamlet’s response to grief is a trait starkly contrasted by Laertes. Laertes response to the death of his father is immediate. He is publicly angry, and he leads the public riot occuring outside Castle Elsinore, which Polonius’ death and quick burial served as a catalyst.
He is suspicious, as is evident in his speech to Claudius. “How came he dead? I’ll not be juggled with. / To hell, allegiance!”(Act 4, 5:130). Hamlet, however is very private with his grief. His mourning for King Hamlet is long and drawn out, two months after his father’s death, he is still observed to be wearing “…suits of solemn black.”(Act1, 2:78) Claudius and Gertrude comment on his unhappiness, however it is not until Hamlet’s first soliloquy that the audience is made aware of the depth of his suffering. Although dismayed at his mother’s quick remarriage to his uncle, Hamlet suspects nothing of his father’s murder until the ghost discloses this to him.When brought to the call of avenging their father’s deaths, Laertes is fast to act, he is wants revenge and he wants it immediately.
His actions are rash, being based in anger, and Laertes is easily drawn into Denmark’s corruption by Claudius. Claudius manipulates Laertes into becoming an ally to kill Hamlet. Laertes is confident of his abilities to regain honour through vengeance: “…my revenge will come.”(Act1, 2:78) Contrasting to Laertes’ quick response, Hamlet procrastinates. Although Hamlet wants to regain honour by avenging his father’s death, Hamlet is dubious of his ability to complete what he promised to the ghost. For two months he procrastinates, and he chides himself for doing so.
Hamlet agonizes over what he is to do, and how he is to avenge the murder of his father. Whilst Laertes acts on impulse, and on a tryst with Claudius arising from the emotions of anger and revenge, Hamlet mulls over how he is going to act and defers action until his own procrastination disgusts him into acting. This does not mean, however that Hamlet is unable to act on impulse. Indeed in Act 5, when Laertes and Hamlet jump into Ophelia’s grave it shows just how much Hamlet can act impulsively.However despite the insidious actions of Laertes in proposing the challenge of a duel with Hamlet, Laertes is without the cruelty and vindictiveness of Hamlet. Hamlet not only wants to avenge his King Hamlet’s death, he wants Claudius to be eternally punished, therefore Hamlet does not slay Claudius in the scene where Claudius is praying, as there is a chance Claudius might have had a chance to confess. Laertes wants revenge, he is not concerned with punishment.
Laertes is concerned with the physical and the present, “That both the worlds I give to negligence,”(Act4, 5:134) he declares. Hamlet however, philosophises about the afterlife, and whether “…in that sleep of death what dreams may come.”(Act 3, 1:66)Hamlet and Laertes represent the two extremities of the act of revenge: perpetual contemplation over circumstances leading to procrastination; and acting on impulsion and without reasoning. Revenge was the driving force behind these character’s actions and this led to their eventual downfall.Fortinbras is the son of Old Fortinbras, King of Norway, slain during battle by King Hamlet. Through a “seal’d compact,”(Act 1, 1:89) the lands of Old Fortinbras are forfeited to Denmark.
As a mark of honour as was the style, Fortinbras vows to avenge his father’s death and reclaim the territory lost. Fortinbras tends not to be active in the play, more often, he is spoken of. Fortinbras is the converse of character to Hamlet: the scholar and the soldier, the man of procrastination and the man of reason and action.When Fortinbras’ forces pass through Denmark, Hamlet chances to speak with one of the soldiers of the Norwegian army. Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras, “…How stand I then?”(Act 4, 4: 56) and reproaches himself for procrastinating whilst admiring the action- orientated intelligence of Fortinbras. “Witness this army of such mass and charge, / Led by a delicate and tender prince.”(Act 4, 4:47) It can be seen from the way Fortinbras quickly gathers his army and his intent to attack Poland that Fortinbras is an energetic, vigorous leader with clear ambitions.
Although Hamlet is referred to as a soldier not only by Fortinbras but also by Ophelia, this aspect of Hamlet is not seen by the audience, and it would seem that Hamlet is more eager to return to his studies at Wittenberg than regain honour for his father. Indeed, it seems his thoughts that are revealed throughout the play are those of a scholar rather than soldier. The last scene of the play demonstrates more then any the true character of Fortinbras. He arrives at Caslte Elsinore, and analyses the scene, then acts upon it. His action to avenge his father’s death was carefully analysed and his plan executed, unlike Hamlet’s continual pensiveness and illogical steps towards vengeance.
Fortinbras’ ability to act upon reason, and not emotion is one the most contrasting attribute Fortinbras has with Hamlet. As aforesaid, Hamlet and Laertes represent extremes of action. Fortinbras is the midpoint of these two polarities, his ability to reason and then act upon the reason has resulted in his assumption to the lands he sought to attain, and the throne he ironically set out to avenge. As is hinted throughout the play, the state of Denmark has become corrupt. Marcellus’ famous quote “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark”(Act 1, 5:90) is complemented by various other observations.
“…tis an unweeded garden,”(Act 1, 2:134) and “our state to be disjoint and out of frame,”(Act 1, 2:20). In Elizabethan times it was generally thought that a monarch had to have rightful claim to the throne, lest the state descend into chaos. Fortinbras is essential to this overlying story line, as he is fundamental to the resolution of the corruption. The overlying story line is to make what was bad become good, and thus a complete resolution is needed. Fortinbras is instrumental in this resolution: as the only nobleman left to claim the throne rightfully, Hamlet bequeaths not only the land that Old Fortinbras lost, but also the state of Denmark. Hence Fortinbras attains what he had vowed to avenge, and the play comes full circle.
All that made the state of Denmark rotten, all those involved with the corruption, are now dead hence the overlying story plot is fully resolved.