How does Shakespeare invite us to compare and contrast Hamlet with Laertes and Fortinbras?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

When Hamlet speaks with the captain about young Fortinbras, on his way to fight for some scrawny piece of land that has no real merit, he cannot help compare himself to the young Norwegian. Fortinbras is busy working to restore his own and his father's honor, while Hamlet remains...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

When Hamlet speaks with the captain about young Fortinbras, on his way to fight for some scrawny piece of land that has no real merit, he cannot help compare himself to the young Norwegian. Fortinbras is busy working to restore his own and his father's honor, while Hamlet remains relatively inactive and has not yet achieved any real measure of revenge on his uncle. He says,

Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
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, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? Oh, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (4.4.53-66)
Hamlet has compared himself to Fortinbras and found himself lacking. In other words, being great does not mean that one only fights when one has a big reason but, rather, even when there's only a small reason and honor is at stake. (And think, Hamlet has both a BIG reason as well as his and his father's honor to consider!) He reflects on his murdered father, his defiled mother—both things that should make him bold—and yet he seems, outwardly, to be unbothered by them. Now, he sees this massive army going to fight over some trifle of land that isn't even big enough in which to bury all their bodies, and it shames him. From now on, he finishes, his thoughts will be violent (and to the point: revenge), or he will consider them to be worthless.
In the final scene of the play, Hamlet speaks to Horatio about Laertes, saying,
But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself,
For by the image of my cause I see
The portraiture of his. I’ll court his favors.
But sure the bravery of his grief did put me
Into a towering passion. (5.2.80-85)
He feels badly that he lost his temper with Laertes because, as he says, their situations are so similar. Hamlet, thus, intends to make up with Polonius's son, saying that it was just Laertes's show of grief that made Hamlet so mad. Again, Hamlet compares himself to Laertes, as he did with Fortinbras. Though, why should Laertes's grief make him so mad? Perhaps it is because Laertes has shown more mettle and grief than Hamlet has? Thus, Shakespeare invites us to compare and contrast Hamlet with these other injured sons because Hamlet does so himself.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

If you consider the characters of Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras they have remarkable similarities, thus inviting comparison.  First, they are all sons of murdered fathers.  Hamlet's father, like Fortinbras's, was a king and military leader.  Both were killed by men wanting power.  Interestingly, Hamlet and Fortinbras were both denied the throne after their fathers' murders.  Uncle Claudius kept Hamlet from the throne of Denmark, while Fortinbras's uncle usurped his throne. 

Considering Laertes, he is remarkably similar, as well.  Both Hamlet and Laertes have murdered fathers, though Polonius isn't a king.  Laertes and Hamlet are both tragically affected by Claudius.  Both Laertes and Hamlet are killed by the poison rapier that Claudius chose as a lethal weapon.  They were both killed in the pursuit of revenge, which Hamlet's V.ii apology to Laertes proves could have been avoided.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Laertes and Fortinbras both experience something similar to Hamlet, in that they are driven to seek revenge. Unlike Hamlet, they actually act on their feelings and do not suffer from the paralyzing doubt that Hamlet feels.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team