Full Analysis of the Character of Fortinbras in Shakespeare’s Hamlet
by M. Zayed
First of all, young Fortinbras is the prince of Norway and the son of the late King of Norway Fortinbras. His father was defeated to Hamlet's father in the wars between the two kingdoms of Denmark and Norway led by Old Hamlet on the one hand and Old Fortinbras on the other hand with the result that King Hamlet had defeated and killed King Fortinbras in the battlefield and conquered his lands. The name of Fortinbras is mentioned in five occasions throughout the play.
The first remark about Fortinbras is made in act one by King Claudius. Shortly after Claudius becomes the new king after the murder of his brother, King Hamlet, Claudius has to deal with the problem of young Fortinbras. Young Fortinbras wants to avenge the killing of his father and to restore his father’s lost lands which he had lost to Old Hamlet.
Fortinbras is a flat, static character since he has no defining traits and no complexity of character unlike Hamlet. Fortinbras remains the same from the very beginning till the end: a rebellious man and commander who wants to avenge his father’s death and to get his father’s lost lands.
Through Claudius’ speech concerning Fortinbras, we are given insights into the character of young Fortinbras. We learn that Fortinbras had sent a message to Claudius asking to surrender and to give up the lands that were taken from his father. It is such a bold demand on the behalf of the young, rebellious commander such as Fortinbras especially being on his own and without his uncle knowledge.
The second occasion the name of Fortinbras is mentioned is in act two. By now, the messengers whom Claudius had sent to Norway, to tell Fortinbras’ uncle of his nephew’s bold attempt, had come back to Denmark with news. Voltemand, the messenger, is now talking to Queen Gertrude briefing her of what happened in Norway as soon as the king knew of the intention of his nephew, young Fortinbras. Voltemand tells the queen that as soon as the messengers raised the matter, the king sent out messengers to stop his nephew’s war preparations, which he originally thought were directed against Poland but learned on closer examination were directed against the kingdom of Denmark.
The King was very upset that Fortinbras had taken advantage of his being old and sick to deceive him, and he ordered Fortinbras’ arrest. Fortinbras swore before the king never to threaten Denmark again.
The third occasion the name of Fortinbras is mentioned is in act four when Fortinbras sends one of his captains to take permission from the king of Denmark to pass through his land in order to conquer a Polish land. On his way, the captain meets with Hamlet and he has a conversation with him. Through this conversation, we know that Fortinbras is leading an army to invade a land that belongs to Poland. The soldier describes it as useless land that will not benefit or add anything to Norway. Still, they are going to conquer it. Hamlet comments aside that this is unneeded or unworthy war. He states that this is what happens when countries have too much money and peace. Fortinbras goes to war over a useless piece of territory simply to uphold the honor of his father. The honor of his family is as important to him as it is to Hamlet. In other words, Hamlet realizes that Fortinbras doesn't have very good reasons for leading an army against Poland —but reasons don't really matter. Great men don't need a reason to preserve their family's honor. Fortinbras, like Laertes, is an example of action with little thought —precisely the opposite or the foil of Hamlet.
The fourth occasion where the name of Fortinbras is mentioned is in act five through the conversation between Hamlet and the gravedigger. Hamlet asks the gravedigger for how long has he been a gravedigger. The gravedigger replies that he started the day that the late King Hamlet defeated Fortinbras.
So far Fortinbras appeared in flesh but once. The second and last time he appears comes at the end of the play shortly after Hamlet achieves his revenge and dies. Also, he does not appear till the whole royal family is dead on the ground. He is mentioned before he appears. Shortly before Hamlet takes his last breath of life, he tells Horatio that he expects Fortinbras to win the election and to be the new king of Denmark. Hamlet tells Horatio that he support Fortinbras as a king and that he has got Hamlet’s vote as he dies. Finally, Hamlet tells Horatio to tell and inform Fortinbras of that which happened from the beginning till the end leading to this scene of bloodbath.
Then, shortly after Hamlet’s death, Fortinbras enters. Fortinbras begins to inquire about the bloody sight which he sees before him. Horatio begins to explain what happened in details to Fortinbras after his request for the proper burial of Hamlet. Fortinbras asks Horatio to hear the matter right away and he invites all the noblemen to attend. Fortinbras expresses his sadness at what happened. He calls it fortune mixed with sorrow. He says: “For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune.” He then declares his right to rule the kingdom.
Fortinbras, then, orders four captains to carry Hamlet like a soldier onto the stage. He states that Hamlet would have been a great king if he had had a chance. He continues stating that military music and military rites will speak for Hamlet’s heroic qualities. He then orders his soldiers to pick up the corpses commenting that a bloody sight like this suits a battlefield, but here at court it shows that much went wrong. Finally, he orders his soldiers to go outside and tell the other soldiers to fire their guns in honor of Hamlet.
By doing so, he is not only a fair man but also this is an early sign of his being a good, proper king for the kingdom. Hamlet has been the son of the man who killed his own father and seized his lands, still he felt sorry for Hamlet as both a good-hearted man and prince who was deprived of his right to the throne. He praises Hamlet as a man who would have been a great king if he was given a chance. In this way, Fortinbras proves to be a man of honesty, honour and justice.
We could establish a comparison and contrast between Hamlet and Fortinbras. Both the fathers of Hamlet and Fortinbras were killed, though the first on his brother’s hand and the latter in a battlefield on the hands of the first. Both Norway and Denmark are ruled by Fortinbras’ and Hamlet’s uncles. Both Hamlet and Fortinbras want to avenge the killing of their fathers. The major difference and contrast between the two is that Hamlet has been determined, consistent, rational, and persistent and driven by reason in his revenge.
On the other hand, Fortinbras is rash, and blinded by revenge. He sought to fight a war against a well-established kingdom such as Denmark on his own. Also, once he was discovered and arrested by his uncle, he gave up on his revenge and was made to swear an oath before the king not to ever attack Denmark again. Hamlet is all the time focusing on his goal no matter how much time it takes to achieve his goal. Hamlet was expected to be killed in many occasions; still, he managed to survive and to achieve his revenge despite his uncle’s repeated plots to kill him and despite being a man fighting a king with all power and authorities behind him. When faced with a similar decision, Fortinbras simply avenges his father and moves on, without any of the soul-searching such as that which plagues Hamlet. In this way, we could say that Fortinbras has been a foil character to Hamlet.
Still, both Hamlet and Fortinbras achieve their goals at the end thanks to Hamlet’s persistence and determination. Thanks to Hamlet, not only is the murderer killed but also the country has been delivered to a good-hearted, noble king such as Fortinbras.