What is the significance of Fortinbras having the last line in Hamlet?
Shakespeare wanted to establish that Hamlet had not been insane or culpable in any way in the deaths of Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius that had just taken place, or in the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern which had occurred before. There were only two characters left alive who could speak the last lines, Horatio and Fortinbras. Horatio was the only one who knew all the facts from the time the ghost appeared in the first act right up until the final scene, and he promised that he would tell the whole story in good time. But it would have been inappropriate for him to try to do that at the very end of the play because there would have been far too much to tell--and anyway, the audience already knows these facts after sitting through an exceptionally long and complicated play. So Fortinbras was used to verify that Hamlet died with honor and dignity, leaving the audience with the assurance that Hamlet's reputation would be unblemished and a feeling of closure. It was also appropriate that Fortinbras should speak the closing words, since it was probable that, with Hamlet's nomination, he was likely to become King of Denmark. His words, therefore, would carry the most weight with those in attendance. His closing words are:
Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royal; and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.
Horatio could not close the play with such authority, since he is not of royal blood, is really only a poor student, and was just a friend and confidant of the dead Prince. Shakespeare does something very similar in Julius Caesar. Mark Antony ia a far more important character than Octavius, but Shakespeare has Octavius speak the closing lines about Brutus because Octavius, as Julius Caesar's nephew and heir, is the more distinguished character and is destined to become Emperor. Antony praises the dead Brutus as the only truly honorable member of the conspirators, and then Octavius speaks the closing lines of the play:
According to his virtue let us use him
With all respect and rites of burial.
Within my tent his bones tonight shall lie,
Most like a soldier, order'd honorably.
So call the field to rest, and let's away,
To part the glories of this happy day.
The character of Fortinbras in Hamlet is a Prince who shows courage in the face of his adversary. Shakespeare designed this character in direct opposition to Hamlet. Hamlet admires Fortinbras’s willingness to act, however is never able to apply the same concept to his own situation which is similar.
Hamlet and Fortinbras are both Princes entitled to their respective thrones. Both must face obstacles to gain what is rightfully theirs. Both characters carry their father’s names as the rightful heirs to the throne, but both characters must decide how they will approach the circumstances they are placed in. The difference in approach is clear. While Hamlet hesitates to act, Fortinbras charges forward with determination. Fortinbras’s culminating lines show honor for Hamlet. He commands that Hamlet should have a soldier’s burial, showing respect for his character foil.
The significance of Fortinbras having the last lines serves to make the audience reflect on our title character. Would Hamlet’s destiny have been much different had he forged forward as Fortinbras did? Should those in the position of power be required to show their authority through action?
This leaves us comparing the two characters, Hamlet and Fortinbras. We, the audience, are left with the ideas of choosing action versus inaction and the impact of our decisions on those around us.
Throughout the play, Fortinbras, although a playing minor role, serves as a distorted mirror of Hamlet. Like the Danish prince, his father was king, and his uncle is currently ruling. Prior to the play, the old Norwegian King Fortinbras lost both his life and Norwegian lands in the battle with King Hamlet. Unlike Hamlet however, Fortinbras acts to avenge his father and regain the lost Norwegian land during the period of uncertainty following King Hamlet's death.
So his taking of the crown is significant: like Hamlet, he was seeking to avenge his dead father, a king; but unlike Hamlet, he did not delay and sought to act almost at once. Only the wise counsel and constructive interference of his uncle prevented war with Denmark. Thus he benefited from his family, unlike Hamlet, who suffers at the hands of both his uncle and his mother. Fortinbras’ entrance at the finale of the sword fight is perfectly timed, and he has both revenge and royalty at the play’s conclusion. In speaking the last line, he signifies that Denmark will enter a new era of completeness: no longer rotten.