Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras
William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is probably the most renowned work in the history of English literature. Four hundred years after it was written, its themes and characters still serve to illuminate aspects of human nature. Perhaps the most important of those aspects is the impulse to seek out vengeance, and the effects different reactions to that impulse can have. Shakespeare accomplishes such an illumination through the actions of the characters of Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras, each of whom seek vengeance for the murder of his father. Though their situations are essentially the same, however, each man reacts in a manner different from the others. In this respect, Laertes and Fortinbras, who react swiftly and decisively at the news of their fathers’ murders, serve as foils to the procrastinating Hamlet.
Historically, Hamlet’s reaction to his father’s murder and his subsequent plan for revenge has been seen in two different ways. There are those who believe Hamlet’s lack of action after learning of his father’s murder is due to his desire to validate the ghost’s assertions, while others see Hamlet’s delayed action as nothing more than procrastination, and believe that this procrastination is caused by his desire to overanalyze his situation. Either way, it cannot be denied that Hamlet’s course of action unfolds slowly and involves a great deal of cunning, yet lacks execution. In fact, Hamlet spends the majority of the play simply trying to determine his uncle’s guilt beyond an arguably unnecessary degree of doubt, and the lengths he goes to in order to convince himself is remarkable. In Act I, scene v, for example, we learn that Hamlet plans to feign madness so he can act in secrecy to determine whether or not the ghost’s claims are true. This feigned madness is apparent in Hamlet’s conversations with other characters, especially Polonius. In Act II, scene ii, Polonius attempts to converse with Hamlet, but Hamlet acts strange and mocks him. When Polonius asks Hamlet if he knows him, Hamlet replies: “Excellent well. You are a fishmonger.” Hamlet continues to feign madness throughout the play as he investigates Claudius’ guilt.
Besides feigning madness, Hamlet goes to even further lengths. When he learns that players have arrived to perform before the court, Hamlet seizes his opportunity and pulls aside one of the players:
HAMLET Dost thou hear me, old friend? Can you play The Murder of Ganzago?
FIRST PLAYER Ay, my lord.
HAMLET We’ll ha‘t tomorrow night. You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which I would set down and insert in’t, could you not?
FIRST PLAYER Ay, my lord. (Act II, scene ii)
Hamlet goes on to say that he plans to “have these players play something like the murder of my father before mine uncle.” In so doing, Hamlet hopes to gauge Claudius’ reaction. When the play is later enacted and Claudius leaves the room, Hamlet has the proof he was looking for (Act III, Scene ii).
Yet, even with this proof, and even when he is provided with an opportunity to kill Claudius when he finds him alone in prayer, he does not act (Act III, scene iii). In fact, Hamlet himself later acknowledges his lack of action when he sees Fortinbras’ army march past:
[…] How stand I, then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
[…] 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
Wherein the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? Oh, from this time forth
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth! (Act IV, scene iv)
When Hamlet finally does enact his revenge in the final scene, he does so only because he knows he will die, and because it is his last chance. Hamlet, who agonizes, deliberates, and then acts at the last minute, is at one end of the spectrum.
Laertes is at the other. While Hamlet takes the length of the play to act, Laertes, upon hearing of his father’s murder, reacts swiftly and recklessly. He returns to Elsinore with a mob, threatening to overthrow Claudius if he does not produce his father and explain his murder (Act IV, scene v). When Claudius tells Laertes that Hamlet is responsible, Laertes swears he will have his revenge. He questions nothing, and immediately agrees to take part in the King’s plan to kill Hamlet. He conspires with the King to challenge Hamlet to a fencing match, where Laertes will kill Hamlet with a poison-tipped rapier. For good measure, Claudius also arranges to have a cup filled with poison ready for Hamlet, should Laertes’ weapon fail to achieve its desired effect. The play comes to a terrible end when the Queen mistakenly drinks from the poison-filled cup, and Laertes, Hamlet, and Claudius are both wounded by the deadly rapier. Hamlets delayed reaction to hearing of his father’s murder, coupled with Laertes’ rash actions after learning of his own father’s death, eventually lead to the downfall of everyone involved.
While Hamlet and Laertes are at opposing ends of the spectrum, however, Fortinbras is in the middle. When Fortinbras’ father is killed by King Hamlet, his reaction was neither delayed nor reckless. In contrast to Hamlet’s procrastination and Laertes’ rashness, Fortinbras reacts rationally. Rather than excessively contemplating his circumstances or acting on impulse, he calmly and deliberately forms a proactive plan to avenge his father’s death and reclaim his lands. He amasses an army, and arranges plans to have that army march to Denmark. He arrives, conveniently, soon after the carnage at Elsinore has unfolded (Act V, scene ii). It is no coincidence that Fortinbras, who acts rationally and decisively, is the only one of the three characters to survive the play. Shakespeare uses Fortinbras to show that acting with rationality rather than on impulse or with excessive contemplation results in the superior end.
Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras are three individuals who were placed in a similar position, but who reacted in drastically different manners. Hamlet, who acts slowly and with much contemplation, and Laertes, who acts with reckless abandon, represent polar opposites. Meanwhile, Fortinbras’ rational, deliberate execution represents the ultimately superior combination of the two. Shakespeare’s masterful use of characterization therefore illuminates that aspect of human nature that gives us an impulse to seek revenge, and shows how different reactions to that impulse can have drastically different results.