William Shakespeare’s 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, analyzed and critiqued. Fortinbras and Laertes are parallel characters to Hamlet, and they provide pivotal points on which to compare and contrast 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 that each comes to terms with his grief and how he 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. Both 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 men 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 anger. He is publicly angry, and he leads the public riot occurring 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! (4. 5. 130). On the other hand, Hamlet is very private and solemn 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(1. 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 foul play in his father’s murder but has no prove until the ghost discloses this information to him. When brought to the call of avenging his father’s death, Laertes is fast to act, he wants revenge and he wants it immediately.
His actions are rash, being based in anger, and Claudius easily draws him into Denmark’s corruption. Claudius manipulates Laertes into becoming an ally to kill Hamlet. Laertes is confident of his abilities to regain honor through vengeance: … my revenge will come(1. 2. 78). Contrasting to Laertes’ quick response, Hamlet procrastinates. Although Hamlet wants to regain honor 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. Despite the insidious actions of Laertes in proposing the challenge of a duel with Hamlet, Laertes is without the ability to think rationally (and vindictively) on the same level as Hamlet.
Hamlet not only wants to avenge his father’s death; he wants Claudius to be eternally punished. “Now might I do it [pat], now ‘a goes to heaven, And so am I [reveng’d]. That would be scann’d: A villain kills my father, and for that I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven” (3. 2. 73-78). In this scene Hamlet refuses to kill Claudius while he is praying because he will go to heaven, and by killing him during the act of prayer, Hamlet is giving him the chance to repent, therefore doing him an eternal favor. Laertes wants revenge; he is not concerned with punishment. He does not think rationally, he just want immediate retaliation.
Laertes is concerned with the physical and the present, That both the worlds I give to negligence” (4. 5. 134), he declares. Hamlet however, philosophizes about the afterlife, and whether … in that sleep of death what dreams may come(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 characters’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(1. 1. 89), the lands of Old Fortinbras are forfeited to Denmark. As a mark of honor 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; he is most often 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? (4. 4. 6), 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(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 honor 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 Castle Elsinore, analyzes the scene, then acts upon it. His action to avenge his father’s death was carefully analyzed 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(1. 5. 90) is complemented by various other observations. … Tis an unweeded garden(1. 2. 134), and our state to be disjoint and out of frame(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 well, 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. Laertes and Fortinbras are both very essential in understanding the character of Hamlet. Both give insight into analyzing Hamlet. Laertes and Fortinbras can be seen as two endpoints of the characterization of Hamlet. Laertes is the extreme irrational while Fortinbras represents the logical more thoughtful man of action. Hamlet lies in the middle of this spectrum. Understanding these two characters is essential in understanding Hamlet.