Why does Hamlet appoint Fortinbras successor to his throne in act 5?

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It seems clear that the crown in Denmark did not automatically descend as it did in some other countries; if it had, Hamlet would have become King when his father was murdered. Even if there was some relative the audience doesn't know about, the King seems to have been able...

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It seems clear that the crown in Denmark did not automatically descend as it did in some other countries; if it had, Hamlet would have become King when his father was murdered. Even if there was some relative the audience doesn't know about, the King seems to have been able to choose his successor. Once Claudius and Gertrude are dead, Hamlet, as the apparent sole survivor (albeit briefly) with a claim to the throne, has the power to endorse anyone, though it is clear throughout the play that the King has to be approved, or "elected," by unnamed people.

Fortinbras's father, who shares his name, was killed in combat by Hamlet's father, and his lands reverted to the Danish king. We learn in the first scene that Denmark is preparing for war, as it is believed that young Fortinbras will invade the kingdom to regain his father's lands (a consequence of King Hamlet's death and, more importantly, of his desire for revenge). Like Hamlet, young Fortinbras's uncle has taken the throne, and he prevails on his nephew to attack Poland instead of Denmark. The parallels between Hamlet and Fortinbras should be clear: Hamlet admires the young prince's resolve, which actually motivates him to finish his plot for revenge against Claudius. Fortinbras is marching through Denmark when the final scene takes place, and Hamlet gives him his blessing as his successor, telling Horatio with that "the election" of Fortinbras has his "dying voice." As mentioned above, there is no natural heir to the throne, and Hamlet clearly admires the young man. In addition, Fortinbras mentions after Hamlet's death that he has "some rights of memory in this kingdom/Which now, to claim my vantage doth invite me." In other words, he has a legitimate claim on the throne of Denmark which he intends to make. This, along with his affinity for the young prince, is probably why Hamlet endorsed Fortinbras as his successor.

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The answer to this question has its origins back in Act 4 when Hamlet sees Fortinbras and his army marching toward their battle in Poland.  Hamlet asks several questions about this battle and learns that Fortinbras is heading into a fight over a piece of worthless land, and Hamlet seems to question why so many men would so willing go to their deaths for that, but realizes that there must be something rather inspirational about Fortinbras that he can convince his army to do it.  In that scene he calls Fortinbras a "delicate and tender prince" and while I don't know if that is really true, (remember that he was originally planning an attack on Denmark with a bunch of mercenaries!) Hamlet's perception is what matters and what influences his decision in Act 5.  He respects that Fortinbras is taking strong action for something more about the honor than actual physical or monetary gain.  Hamlet has been acutely aware of his inability to act for the honor of his father and clearly sees what a foil Fortinbras is to himself. 

In Act 5, after Claudius's death, Hamlet is technically King for about 5 minutes and in those 5 minutes he does what he thinks is best for Denmark.  He leaves Denmark in the strong and determined hands of a noble man who is able to form a plan and carry it out; who seems fearless; who acts for honor's sake; and who Hamlet thought was fine prince.  While it is not ideal to leave the kingdom in the hands of a foreigner, what other viable options are left?  Horatio is not noble and not Danish.  The kingdom of Denmark with the loss of its entire noble family would be thrown in political and social chaos if strong leadership doesn't take the reigns, and Hamlet ensures that that is what happens.

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