11 April 2004
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. Revenge causes one to act blindly through anger, rather than through reason. Hamlet, Fortinbras and Leartes are all very different people with different lives, but as these men interact in the play we learn that there are many circumstances surrounding them that connect them. Young Fortinbras, Laertes, and Hamlet were all looking to avenge the deaths of their fathers, but they all had a very different way of conquering the object of their hatred. 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.
There were three main families in the Tragedy of Hamlet. These were the family of King Fortinbras, the family of Polonius, and the family of King Hamlet. The heads of each of these families are all slaughtered within the play.
Fortinbras, King of Norway, was killed by King Hamlet; slain by sword during a man to man battle. “Our valiant Hamlet-for so this side of our known world esteem’d him-did slay this Fortinbras.” Fortinbras is the son of Old Fortinbras, King of Norway. Through a “seal’d compact,”(Act 1, 1:89) the lands of Old Fortinbras are forfeited to Denmark. As a mark of honor, Fortinbras vows to avenge his father’s death and reclaim the territory lost. As a result Fortinbras levied an army to attack and conquer Denmark.
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.
Laertes is a young man whose good instincts have been somewhat obscured by the concern with superficial appearances which he has imbibed from his father, Polonius. Polonius was an advisor to the King, and father to Laertes and Ophelia. He was nosy and arrogant, and he did not trust his children. He was killed by Young Hamlet while he was eves dropping on a conversation between Hamlet and his mother. “How now! A rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!” Laertes response to the death of his father is immediate. He is publicly angry, and he leads the public riot occurring outside Castle Ellsinore, 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). He confronted the King and accused him of the murder of his father. Claudius told Laertes that Hamlet was responsible for his father’s death. He then decides to kill Hamlet to avenge the death of his father. He and Claudius concoct a plot to kill Hamlet. Laertes was fast to act, he wanted revenge and he wanted it immediately; 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 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. Hamlet was deeply sorrowed by his father’s death. He spoke to the ghost, and this ghost stated that his father’s death was a murder, by the hand of his uncle, Claudius. “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown.” Hamlet was astonished, and then swore vengeance for his fathers death.
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. 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. He then proceeded to try and prove his uncle’s guilt, and then finally kills him while he himself is dying of poisoned wounds inflicted by Laertes during their duel. “The point envenomed too! Then venom, to thy work where, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, drink of this potion,-is thy union here? Follow my mother.”
Hamlet and Laertes represent extremes of action. 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. 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 instrumental in the storys 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.
Hamlet, Leartes and Fortinbras all had some huge issues to work out in their lives. The way they worked out these problems is how we see the action behind the men and are able to recognize the traits that influenced all characters in the play, not just the ones discussed here. All three of these men avenge in very different ways. Hamlet, with his blinding rage, cannot see the forest from the trees. Fortinbras does not care what he fights for as long as it brings him honor. Leartes chases after false honor and is not able to detect something really worth fighting for. As these men interact in this play, you can see how these differences tug at the very root of the play, distinguishing it from all others.