Though Hamlet views the great army and knows it is commanded by Fortinbras, the two do not in fact meet. Though Hamlet may in fact sense some coming change as he is prompted to make a great speech intoning his decision to follow through on the revenge he has thought about for so long, he does not in fact have a conversation with Fortinbras or get any explicit idea that the army is in fact headed for Denmark.
He is impressed by the massive army and the prince who leads it, who can bring such power to bear on what is described as a worthless piece of land. If he can do this, then why cannot Hamlet seek revenge for something real and dear and bring his force to bear on it?
Hamlet and Fortinbras do not meet in this scene – Fortinbras is commanding a Norwegian outfit on its way to Poland to fight for what his captain describes as “a little patch of ground/That hath in it no profit but the name.” Fortinbras has sent this captain to the king of Denmark to ask for permission to march through his realm on their way to battle; on his way, the captain meets Hamlet.
Hamlet is very moved by the captain’s story, and sees Fortinbras’s actions as noble, proud, and courageous – to send troops to fight for a worthless trophy, and for the Polish to construct a garrison to defend it, appears to Hamlet as the worthiest of causes. “Rightly to be great/Is not to stir without great argument,” he soliloquizes, “But greatly to find quarrel with a straw/When honor’s at the stake.” He is embarrassed and angry at himself for his indecisive philosophizing, and this campaign of Fortinbras’s spurs him to action. He sees the march of the Norwegian army as a sign, chiding him for
Thinking too precisely on th’ event –
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward,
and ends his reflection upon the actions of himself and those of Fortinbras with his ultimate resolution: “O, from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!”
Fortinbras serves as a foil to Hamlet throughout the play, a king’s son who answers slight with arms and takes action to avail his country and his honor. Hamlet, on the other hand, also a king’s son, is driven half to madness with uncertainty and prevarication, and the resulting inaction is nothing but another source of agony for him. What’s more, Fortinbras and Hamlet never meet while they both live, and yet the former will finish by assuming the Danish throne, that position which rightly should have been Hamlet’s. The fact that they do not meet in this scene is significant in that it plays into this trend – the one is forever offstage, taking part in his own subplots, while the other is forever in the spotlight, waging his own wars within his own head. Fortinbras plays only a minor part in the physical action of the play, and it is never necessary that he and Hamlet meet; and yet he plays a major part in setting things into motion, although for this to be true, as most things for Hamlet, he need only be the seed of an idea. Fortinbras, though absent, could be regarded as the fire under Hamlet’s feet – the inspiration for his actions – and the one who reaps the most benefit from those actions. So, even though he is unaware of it, the Norwegian prince plays a large part in the bloody action of the play from which he will ultimately reap the greatest benefit. For Hamlet admires the man – he dubs him a “delicate and tender prince,” who leads uncertain men to fear and death, “even for an eggshell.” This is rash behavior, and yet there is an element of devotion and principle in the act; thus Hamlet ceases to think, and begins to act himself, for these same elements at home.