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Is Fortinbras's role in Shakespeare's Hamlet very important? 

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fiacomaf | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted June 5, 2012 at 4:36 PM via web

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Is Fortinbras's role in Shakespeare's Hamlet very important? 

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted June 6, 2012 at 5:04 AM (Answer #1)

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In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Fortinbras' role is especially important for several reasons. Hamlet and Fortinbras have a great deal in common. In fact, they are considered "foils" to one another. 

In drama, a foil is a...

...character who sets off another character by contrast.

This "contrast" gives the reader or audience additional insight into Hamlet's character, as well as a better understanding of Hamlet's lack of action (which is seen as his tragic flaw: indecision). 

Fortinbras is the heir to the throne of Norway. His situation resembles that of Hamlet: his father was king, and his uncle is currently ruling. 

The first similarities are found in that both Hamlet and Fortinbras have lost their fathers. Both now have their uncle ruling the throne. Each son is faced with the desire to avenge his father's death. Hamlet (secretly) knows that his uncle murdered Old Hamlet. He promises his father's ghost that he will avenge his father's death. However, it takes the entire play for Hamlet to eventually take action, and by then Claudius is so threatened by Hamlet that almost everyone dies.

In Fortinbras' situation, this prince also wants to avenge his father's death. He takes action immediately. He decides to attack Inverness to take back land that used to belong to Norway. However, Fortinbras' uncle calls him back and explains that his father lost his land and his life in a fair fight with Old Hamlet. There is no need to avenge the old king's death. Immediately, Fortinbras goes about other state business—this time, risking all for a worthless piece of land that Poland has taken. Fortinbras has direction and honor. Hamlet sees this and is mortified at his own inaction. Fortinbras has little honor at stake in fighting for this small section of land in the hands of the Polish, but he dedicates all he has to fulfill the task. Hamlet compares the land to an egg shell, but this only demonstrates how dedicated Fortinbras is:

Witness this army, of such mass and charge,

Led by a delicate and tender prince,

Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd,

Makes mouths at the invisible event,

Exposing what is mortal and unsure

To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,

Even for an eggshell. (IV.iv.49-55)

Meanwhile, Hamlet is aware of his "almost blunted purpose." He looks at himself with numerous reasons to take actions and kill Claudius—the greatest of these reasons is his father's murder, but he also resents that Claudius has pulled his mother into an incestuous marriage, and caused Hamlet so much pain. He wonders why he still hesitates when he has so much more than Fortinbras—which should demand Hamlet's immediate response. In the meantime, Fortinbras and his men prepare for battle as quietly as if they were preparing for bed:

How stand I then,

That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,

Excitements of my reason and my blood,

And let all sleep, 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... (58-64)

By the end of the play, everyone in the royal court of Denmark is dead. Fortinbras arrives in Act Five, scene two, and Horatio (as charged by Hamlet) shares the circumstances of the slaughter and death that lies before Norway's prince. It is at Hamlet's request that the throne and lands of Denmark go to Fortinbras.

Fortinbras is a very important character in the play.

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