At the end of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600-1601), Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, arrives in Denmark just in time to witness the aftermath of the tragedy. The bodies of Hamlet, Laertes, Gertrude, and Claudius litter the stage; the sight, as Fortinbras says, may become the battlefield, “but here shows much amiss.” Fortinbras’s role in the play is small. The audience occasionally hears of him but only briefly sees him as he brings his army through Denmark to reclaim territories elsewhere. Hamlet, who glimpses Fortinbras as he traverses Denmark, immediately begins to chastise himself for being unlike Fortinbras, who goes to battle “even for an eggshell.” Hamlet has more cause for action and yet has done nothing.
It is this Fortinbras, this minor star in a stellar cast, that Zbigniew Herbert selects to deliver a final tribute to Hamlet. Given that Fortinbras’s perspective and character are so slightly developed in the play, it is somewhat surprising that Herbert elects this nondescript personage to lament the hero’s death. Why not Horatio, Hamlet’s dearest friend? Perhaps the audience knows Horatio so well that it can imagine what he would say. The relatively empty character of Fortinbras gives Herbert more imaginative freedom. Also, Fortinbras will assume the rather major task of cleaning up after Hamlet. If critics are right about Shakespeare’s tragedies ending with intimations of order, Fortinbras is the person who will order a disordered kingdom. It is this cipher,...
(The entire section is 620 words.)