Why is Hamlet given a military funeral?
At the end of the play, with Hamlet’s corpse on stage, the character of Fortinbras, the heroic young prince of Norway, appears for the first time. He instructs his men, ‘‘Let four captains / Bear Hamlet, like a soldier to the stage; / For he was likely, had he been put on, / To have prov’d most royally….’’ (V.ii.395-98). Hamlet is given a full state funeral with ‘‘soldier’s music’’ and ‘‘rites of war’’ customarily reserved for military heroes. The problem, of course, is that Hamlet is not a military hero, but only ‘‘like’’ a soldier. By bringing Fortinbras into the play at the eleventh hour, Shakespeare highlights Hamlet’s redemption through action. Fortinbras has been previously mentioned in Act I, scene ii, and even at this early juncture, there is an opposition implied between the active Norwegian regent and a Danish prince unable to act. Hamlet himself finds meaning in the parallel between himself and Fortinbras in Act IV, scene iv, when the sight of the young Norwegian general’s troops on the march informs Hamlet of his paralysis. That the active Fortinbras praises Hamlet and takes him as a peer underscores the Danish prince’s emergence into a man who can act in the face of uncertainty. Yet at the same time, Hamlet persuades Horatio to remain alive so that he can tell his friend’s story and mend Hamlet’s ‘‘wounded name.’’ A military funeral does not accurately reflect Hamlet’s end. Instead, it reminds us of the complexity of the events at hand and of Hamlet himself, both of which are so complicated that no conventional symbolic ceremony can mark their conclusion.