Last Updated November 23, 2023.
Zbigniew Herbert published “Elegy of Fortinbras” in 1961. Originally written in Polish, the poem reflects on Shakespeare’s play Hamlet while also subtly yet forcefully meditating on the political situation of Poland and its effects on the country’s people. The poem transports readers to the end of Hamlet when Hamlet and others lie dead on the throne room floor. In the wake of the chaos, the Norwegian prince, Fortinbras, enters the room, takes charge of the situation, and claims the Danish throne for himself. This poem follows this final moment, allowing Fortinbras time to stare down at the dead Hamlet and deliver an elegy—a lament—for him.
In the throne room, Fortinbras stands alone with Hamlet, staring down at him and wishing to talk to him “man to man”—even though Hamlet can “see no more than a dead ant.” The dead prince is “nothing but black sun with broken rays.” His light has gone out. His rays, his ability to give light to other people, are shattered.
The speaker remembers Hamlet’s hands. They have always made him smile, but now they are fallen, useless, and no longer able to work and act. The end has arrived for Hamlet, and his sword has fallen to the ground. His head and feet are still, isolated in death; the spark of life has departed, and for this, Fortinbras elegizes him.
Fortinbras promises Hamlet he will give him a “soldier's funeral.” Hamlet, of course, was never a soldier, but the Norwegian prince knows no other ritual other than “cannon-fuses and bursts,” military parades, and drums.
The military maneuvers will honor Hamlet, but they also serve a secondary purpose: Fortinbras intends to “take the city by the neck and shake it a bit” and establish his authority over the Danish people before seizing the throne. This show of military might—overtly in honor of the dead Hamlet—will do the job.
Hamlet, Fortinbras continues, “had to perish.” He was “not for life,” as he had high notions beyond the regular human experience. He stretched up, always seeking something more, something beyond “human clay.”
In Fortinbras’ view, this was not healthy. Hamlet “hunted chimeras,” mere illusions that tormented him. The Danish prince stretched too far, turned his back on human things so that he could no longer even breathe. He was “always twitching,” never satisfied, always half-asleep, never awake to reality.
Hamlet is now at peace, Fortinbras continues. The Danish prince has done his duty, presumably avenging his father’s murder. Now Fortinbras himself must pick up the pieces. What comes next, “belongs to me,” he says.
Hamlet actually “chose the easier part” with his “heroic death.” To Fortinbras remains the “eternal watching” of all the little, practical details of running a kingdom. He must monitor “the ant-hill and the clock’s dial”—the hard work and the progression of time.
Fortinbras must concentrate on mundane tasks like working out sewer projects, improving prison systems, and releasing decrees about “prostitutes and beggars.” Hamlet always said Denmark was a prison, and now, in a way, it is a prison to Fortinbras, too. Hamlet is a star in the night sky, and Fortinbras is stuck with the leftovers, which are not “worth a tragedy.”
The Norwegian prince concludes his elegy with something of a sigh. He and Hamlet cannot “greet each other or bid farewell.” They are now in two different worlds. Words can only do so much, and that, Fortinbras suggests, is very little in the grand scheme of things.