Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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Compare and contrast Hamlet and Fortinbras in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. How are the two figures alike? How are they different?

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The tense atmosphere at the beginning of the play is explained by Horatio as being due principally to the Danish fear of young Fortinbras "Of unimproved mettle hot and full" attacking to recover the lands his father lost. He is therefore quickly established as a contrast and a foil to Hamlet, in a similar position but of a very different temperament: hot-headed yet determined.

Hamlet himself contrasts the two of them when he sees Fortinbras making ready "to go gain a little patch of ground." He describes Fortinbras satirically:

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 egg-shell.

But there is some admiration in his satire, and the contrast is ultimately to Fortinbras's advantage. If it is faintly ridiculous that the Norwegian prince will do all this "for an egg-shell," it is worse than ridiculous that the Danish prince will not do nearly so much to revenge his father. Moreover, the words "delicate and tender" seem to apply just as well to Hamlet himself as they do to Fortinbras, establishing some connection between the two even if intended ironically.

Hamlet's last words testify to his respect for his rival:

I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.

Hamlet does not attempt to find another Dane to rule Denmark upon his death. He realizes that Fortinbras is the best king available, since he has the qualities of decision and determination that Hamlet himself lacks. Fortinbras shows himself worthy of this trust by the grave and statesmanlike manner in which he restores order and pays tribute to Hamlet at the end of the play.

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Fortinbras is in many ways a double or mirror image of Hamlet. He too is a prince, and he has the same name as his father, King Fortinbras, just as Hamlet is named for his father, King Hamlet. Both men have lost their fathers to the ambitions of other men: King Fortinbras has been killed by King Hamlet, and King Hamlet by Claudius. Both the younger Fortinbras and the younger Hamlet live in a kingdom in which their uncle rules. Both carry the weight of avenging their fathers's deaths. 

In contrast, however, Fortinbras is a warrior to Hamlet's scholar. Hamlet is contemplative; Fortinbras is a man of action, hastening to move against Denmark militarily to avenge his father's death. Fortinbras is discontented unless he can engage in an enterprise that "hath a stomach in it," meaning one that requires courage. Horatio describes Fortinbras as "unimproved metal, hot and full," meaning he is young and untested, but on fire for war.

Unlike Hamlet, Fortinbras gets along with his uncle, who supports and underwrites his plan to invade Denmark. At the end of the play, Fortinbras shows his nobility of spirit in honoring Hamlet, his enemy, as a fellow warrior, though we may suspect he overstates the warrior qualities in his foe. All the same, it is generous of him to cast Hamlet in a positive light:

Let four captains 
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage; 
For he was likely, had he been put on, 
To have prov'd most royally; and for his passage 
The soldiers' music and the rites of war 
Speak loudly for him.

Further Reading:

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Even though Fortinbras is a character who remains unseen for most of the play and only enters after Hamlet's death in the very final scene, it is clear that Shakespeare draws many comparisons between these two characters, and clearly indicating the way in which Fortinbras acts as a foil for Hamlet in the same way that Laertes acts as another foil.

Let us first focus on the similarities between them. Both have lost fathers at the hand of somebody else, as Hamlet lost his father thanks to the murderous intentions of Claudius, and Fortinbras lost his father thanks to Hamlet's father, who killed him in war. Both therefore are in the position of being sole heirs or princes to a kingdom and also needing to revenge the death of their father.

However, this is where the similarities end, because, throughout the play, even though he only appears in the final scene, Fortinbras is shown to be a constant rebuke to Hamlet in the way that he actively pursues his revenge and conducts himself as a prince. Note how he is refered to in Act I scene 2:

He hath not fail'd to pester us with message,
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bonds of law,
To our most valiant brother.

Even though he is not King of Norway, he is actively doing everything he can to revenge his father and to gain back the land that was lost to Denmark. This is of course very different from Hamlet's prevarication and procrastination to the situation that he faces, where he seems to deliberately spend as long as possible trying to decide whether Claudius is guilty or not before finally moving on to do anything about it. In addition, note that when the final showdown happens, it is instigated by Claudius and Laertes rather than Hamlet himself. He appears to be a rather passive character in so many ways, especially when compared to Fortinbras, who is shown to be active throughout the play and committed to regaining his lost lands and revenging his father.

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