How does Hamlet address the theme of masculinity?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The theme of masculinity is presented through the character of Hamlet and the way that the characters of Fortinbras and Laertes are used as foils to present Hamlet, and more particularly his inaction, in a negative light. Note for example the presentation of man that Hamlet gives in his soliloquy in Act IV scene 4, after Hamlet has just seen the army of Fortinbras crossing over to Poland to fight for an area of land that is small and of very little consequence:

What is a man

If his chief good and market of his time

Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.

Sure he that made us with such large discourse,

Looking before and after, gave us not

That capability and godlike reason

To fust in us unus'd.

Hamlet himself recognises that what distinguishes man from beast is the capacity for reason, and that God gave man reason for him to use it rather than to "fust in us unus'd," or to grow mouldy through lack of use. As the soliloquy goes on to argue, Hamlet is shown up through the example of Fortinbras and his army, who have such little cause for revenge and yet are willing to act on it and give their lives to gaining this piece of land they are fighting for. Hamlet, by contrast, has so much more cause for revenge, and yet he is not willing to act on it. In the same way, Laertes, from the moment he re-enters the play after his father's death, is used as a foil to Hamlet. Laertes has lost his father to a murderer as well, but he, unlike Hamlet, is determined to avenge himself quickly and swiftly, without procrastination. Masculinity is therefore assocatied with not only the capacity for reason but also the determination to act on the basis of that reason and to avenge.