Ultimately, Fortinbras is an important character to the plot of Hamlet,
in allowing us to view Hamlet in a different light. Without Fortinbras as a
foil to Hamlet, his indecisiveness may not have appeared as excessive as it
truly was. Fortinbras’s importance to the plot is highlighted at the end of the
play, when Hamlet is dying. Upon hearing of Fortinbras’s return from Poland, he
decrees him to be his royal heir, and asks Horatio to inform him of it; ‘On
Fortinbras, he has my dying voice’. Fortinbras’s triumph at the end of the play
suggests that every action that he took lead him to be successful; he was
certain of his actions, and was determined to honour his father, which Hamlet
almost failed to do.

Hamlet is categorised as a Revenge Tragedy. This a subgenre of tragedy that was very popular on the English stage
from the late 1580s, around the time Hamlet was written and performed. (Kyd’s ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ (1586)
is believed to have started the trend.) The elements of a revenge tragedy
include a ghost’s call to avenge his death, artificial insanity, a play within
a play, suicide, and a hyperbolic massacre at the end.  Hamlet’s soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant
slave am I!” comes after he has just watched the lead actor give a speech about
the death of Priam, King of Troy. Hamlet remarks how at the end of speech the
actor becomes so overwhelmed that he begins to cry. Hamlet uses the actor’s
ability to fake tears to punish himself for having done nothing to revenge his
father’s death. At the end of this soliloquy, Hamlet states that he needs to
test whether what the Ghost has told is true. This is significant because
Hamlet, rather than just simply acting on the Ghost’s information, comes up
with a plan to see if he has been told the truth. “I will grounds/ more
relative than this”: Hamlet needs to make sure that he is not acting rashly and
is murdering someone guilty of his father’s death. This has led many people to
believe that Hamlet is not a true revenger, as he does not have the correct
qualities; he does not revenge the first chance he has, he holds it off and procrastinates.
A revenge hero questioning the grounds on which he should enact his revenge
does not seem viable. In contrast, many would argue that Fortinbras qualifies
as a true revenger. Horatio, in Act One, describes him as “Of unimproved mettle hot and full”. This shows that
Fortinbras acts quickly on the decisions he makes, ‘hot’ referring to rash
decisions. The word ‘unimproved’ is in reference to Fortinbras’ youth; when you
are younger, you think less about your actions. For Hamlet, the fact that he is
a scholar and is a ‘renaissance prince’ is a flaw in this play as it stops him completing
his one objective. Fortinbras is an important character as he holds a mirror up
to Hamlet; the audience can recognise Hamlets flaws by witnessing what he
should be doing through the actions of Fortinbras.

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Another key
difference, which shows Fortinbras’s importance as it highlights Hamlets character,
is what it means for Fortinbras’s to be presented as a soldier, as opposed to
Hamlet as a scholar. This is significant as the Elizabethan audience would
recognise the comparison between the medieval beliefs and ideas, compared to
those of the Renaissance. In Hamlet, Fortinbras is
a medieval character. As a character of this era, he is driven by chivalry and the
duty of revenge through murder. However, in the medieval world that consists of
the setting of the play, Hamlet represents a character of a different age.
Shakespeare portrays Hamlet as a thinker who questions and examines the world
around him in his own search of revenge. Hamlet’s Renaissance view on the world
develops him both as an Elizabethan-era humanist and a nihilist. The
Elizabethan audience watching Hamlet would recognise this difference as many changes
had started to take place; during the end of the 16th century, when
the play was written, there was a lack of warfare, so arts began to flourish;
people could focus on philosophy, painting and so on. Through Hamlet,
Shakespeare illustrates humanity’s struggle with the purpose of life; whether
it be to do with simply taking action, representing the ‘hand’, or taking time
to think, representing the ‘head’ in the three aspects that combined, create a
perfect renaissance King. Fortinbras desires to “recover of us, by strong
and terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands so by his father lost”, in
order to avenge his father’s death. Therefore, Shakespeare presents Fortinbras
as a medieval character whose belief system lies in chivalry. Furthermore,
Fortinbras’ gathering of an army indicates his intention to deliver the revenge
for his father’s death through brutality. So, Shakespeare places revenge as the
most important aspect of chivalry, because by attempting to conquer the lands
that his father had lost, Fortinbras violates the agreement reached after the
fight between his father and King Hamlet. Therefore, in a court where the code
of chivalry rules, the medieval character of Fortinbras establishes an action-oriented,
and brutal revenge at the top of his value system. Fortinbras is an important
character, as he provides the Elizabethan audience with a comparison at pivotal
points in Hamlet. In Act Four, Scene Four, Hamlet suddenly realises how much
time he has been wasting in not killing Claudius, as he is inspired by the
actions of Fortinbras. He states that the Norwegian army is ‘led by a delicate
and tender prince, whose spirit with divine ambition puffed’. The words ‘tender’
and ‘delicate’ imply that Hamlet looks up to and is in awe of Fortinbras. He
compares Fortinbras to himself in this moment, but instead of procrastinating like
Hamlet, Fortinbras’s ambition to honour his father was enough for him to take
immediate revenge, which wasn’t enough for Hamlet.

and Hamlet have many parallels; both are on the verge of succeeding as the next
heir to the throne in their countries, but their only obstacles are their
uncles, who are the successors to the throne after their fathers. Yet, Hamlets
uncle was a usurper; he unrightfully took the throne, as he was not the intended
successor. He admits to the reasons as to why he murdered the King when he
states “‘Forgive me my foul murder?’ That cannot be; since I am still
possess’d of those effects for which I did the murder -My crown, mine own
ambition, and my queen”. “O, my offence is rank, it smells to Heaven; It hath the primal eldest
curse upon’t, A brother’s murder!” (III, iii, 39-41).O, my offence is
rank, it smells to Heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, A brother’s
murder!” (III, iii, 39-41). Shakespeare included the unrightful appropriation
of the crown, as he wanted to convey the British publics fear and worry for the
future of the monarchy towards the end of the Elizabethan era, as Queen
Elizabeth 1st was becoming old and she had not yet named an heir to
the throne. When Shakespeare included the concept of the Body Politic being
broken (the murder of a King), he wanted to highlight the looming fear of
monarchy in England (the Body Politic was a medieval concept that a monarch
should act entirely morally and legally). While Hamlet seeks revenge for the
murder of his father in cold blood against his uncle, Fortinbras’ father was
murdered by Old Hamlet, who is already dead, revealing one of the key
differences between the two characters predispositions. Hamlets motivation throughout
the play is to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, and every action
that he does is to achieve that goal. Whereas Fortinbras’s motivation is not simply
for the sake of revenge. He feels an obligation to avenge his father, but he
does not extinguish any other opportunities for revenge, unlike Hamlet. Hamlet
firmly decides that the only way in which he can avenge his father is by murdering
Claudius. This decision means that he takes much longer to achieve his revenge
than Fortinbras does. Fortinbras recognises that he cannot achieve revenge by
murder, as his father’s murderer is already dead, so instead, he restores honour
in his father by reclaiming the parcel land in Norway that was seized after Old
Hamlet killed King Fortinbras. Fortinbras achieves revenge through taking over
land that ‘hath in it no profit but the name’, showing the actual land was worthless
to him, but representing his father’s name and honouring it was a good enough
reason to risk his life.

In ‘Hamlet’,
Fortinbras’s function is as a foil to Hamlet. By learning about Fortinbras’s
role within the play, it provides further understanding of Hamlets character
and the reasoning behind his actions. Although his character does not speak
much, Fortinbras is frequently referenced, as he provides the reader with key
information on which to compare the emotions and actions of Hamlet to, in
significant moments during the play. Though they have similar predispositions;
both are princes who’s fathers have been murdered, they have key differences in
their behaviour. Fortinbras is defined by his certainty and ability to act; he
has a strong desire to honour his father, and will do anything to achieve this.
Whereas Hamlet is defined by his procrastination and insanity, which develops
throughout the play.


the importance of Fortinbras in ‘Hamlet’   Lucy Tait U6SRC