How did Old Hamlet tackle foreign policy with Norway, and how does this contrast with Claudius?

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D. Reynolds eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Old Hamlet, Prince Hamlet's father, agrees with the late King Fortinbras to tackle foreign policy in a personal way. Rather than have Norway go to war with Denmark over their territorial disputes, Fortinbras recommends that he and King Hamlet have a fight to settle their country's differences. Old King Hamlet concurs. Legal documents are drawn up to the effect that the loser of the fight will give up his life and forfeit the territories the two kingdoms are arguing over. During the fight, Old Hamlet kills Fortinbras—we later find out this is on the same day young Hamlet is born—and Denmark gains the disputed lands.

The young Fortinbras and Claudius have far different ideas about how to settle foreign policy conflicts than Old Hamlet. Fortinbras has raised an army to march on Denmark, and Claudius, in turn, is building ships and defenses to meet Fortinbras's threat. Claudius is willing to drag the whole country into war.

It offers some possible insights into Hamlet's character that he was raised by a father who preferred a personal battle—putting his own life on the line—to going to war over disputed territory. Growing up with such a man, Hamlet may have learned the value of avoiding bloodshed whenever possible. What if all national leaders decided to settle disputes through personal combat, without putting thousands of soldiers' lives on the line, not to mention the lives of civilians?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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The elder Hamlet acts ethically in all things, even in war. As evidence, see Act 1.1.95-100. Horatio is reminding Marcellus of this fact after the mute appearance of the ghost of the King. The king, "who by a sealed compact/Well ratified by law and heraldry,/Did forfeit, with all his life, all (those) his lands/Which he stood seized of, to the conquerer." Horatio tells him that he would have acted in accordance with justice no matter who was the victor "Had he been vanquisher" (105).

Claudius, however, knows no rule of ethics at home or abroad. He will do whatever it takes to gain and keep power, including murdering his own brother for the throne. He is a "hyperion to a satyr," that is, the Sun God, full of light, compared to the demonic half-horse, half-man, who was known to be full of lust and cowardice.

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