Fortinbras, frequently referred to in the play, Hamlet, as “young” Fortinbras, is one of Shakespeare’s most minor characters. He has no dramatic relevance and hardly appears in the play at all. However, he is an important idea in the play and has a major function in the meaning of it.
He is a man of action and a soldier which, in the first place, is the opposite of Hamlet in those respects. He is the nephew of “old” Fortinbras, the king of Norway. Like Hamlet, he has recently lost his father in a conflict between Norway and Denmark, in which his father was killed by Hamlet’s father, “old’ Hamlet. A small piece of land was lost to the Danes and the young prince has gathered a large following and marched on Denmark to recover the land and get revenge for his father’s death. This expedition is a backdrop to the action of the play.
By creating the background story of that incident Shakespeare sets up multiple mirror images throughout the text, made more complex by the involvement of Laertes – son of Polonius, killed by Hamlet – who is also bent on avenging his father’s death. The parallels and images that emerge from those three strands enrich and deepen the play thematically, poetically and dramatically as the echoes they create reverberate through the text.
Hamlet and Fortinbras are in some way related as Fortinbras is in line to the Danish throne. Hamlet was the heir to the throne but his uncle, Claudius, has managed to usurp him. At the end of the play, both Claudius and Hamlet die and Fortinbras enters to a scene of carnage and claims the throne.
The characterisation of Fortinbras is done mainly as hearsay, with other characters talking about him – an unusual way for Shakespeare, the greatest master of characterisation in the English theatre, to develop character. His characters usually emerge by displaying their characteristics in what they say and do. We learn from others that Fortinbras is a loyal member of a close family, unlike Hamlet who struggles in a dysfunctional family. We learn also, that he is such a man of action that he is liable to be reckless and has to be reigned in by his uncle. He makes decisions quickly and springs into action. That is the complete opposite of Hamlet. He is a man of few words, whereas Hamlet dwells on thoughts and ideas at length.
Fortinbras is a mature young man. He is a soldier, immersed in the way of the military, where discipline is required in the midst of chaos. When he arrives at the Danish court after the chaos of the principal characters’ lives has brought about their deaths he takes immediate control and restores order. He shows himself to be more than just a military fighter. He is clearly a leader who will become a good king. His appearance at the very end of the drama shows him to be even-handed, and statesmanlike. He acts with dignity and calm and issues instructions. Hamlet has carried the burden of the action throughout the play but Fortinbras has survived to restore the broken realm to order.
Shakespeare also had a practical reason for bringing Fortinbras on to the stage at the end of the play. The stage is strewn with dead bodies. If they had just got up and walked away at the end it would have spoilt the audience’s suspension of disbelief. Fortinbras instructs his officers to take the bodies away and the play ends with that solemn parade.
Top Fortinbras Quotes
This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck? (act 5, scene 2)
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally. And, for his passage,
The soldiers’ music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss. (act 5, scene 2))