The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 620

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.

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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, rather than the stars in the cast, that Herbert chooses to give a voice.

Herbert’s Fortinbras delivers an elegy which brings Hamlet’s life into bold and simple relief. The intensity with which Hamlet experienced life was, Fortinbras reveals, incompatible with the living of life. Hamlet was “always twitching as if asleep,” preoccupied by “chimeras.” A too-pure vision of life can cause life to wither—such is Hamlet’s vision. As Fortinbras portrays him, Hamlet was made to live in a different element, one more ethereal, less sullied by the trivia, plodding, and patience that life requires. Fortinbras accepts, unlike Hamlet’s personal advocates, Horatio and Ophelia, that Hamlet could not live: “Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life/ you believed in crystal notions not in human claywolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit/ you knew no human thing you did not know even how to/ breathe.” Even the air seemed to make Hamlet ill. He was too inquisitorial and too impatient for life, and thus he could not find a way to live it.

Fortinbras’s elegy expresses both admiration for Hamlet and a subtle envy. It also expresses some little contempt and perhaps a great love. Fortinbras realizes that, in comparison to Hamlet, he himself appears thoroughly banal. He is soldierly and inelegant, whereas Hamlet is a fashionable melancholiac. Fortinbras is very much aware as he speaks his elegy that the martial funeral rites that he will provide for Hamlet will be gauche, inappropriate to one who was a scholar, courtier, and glass of fashion.

While Fortinbras believes that what he leaves “will not be worth a tragedy” and that the “star named Hamlet” will always outshine him by magnitudes, he also believes that Hamlet took the easy way out: “you chose the easier part an elegant thrust/ but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching.” Fortinbras has the less glamorous job, the almost janitorial task of cleaning up a bloody stage and a bad government, but he takes some pride in his drudgery: “Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project and a decree on prostitutes and beggars/ I must also elaborate a better system of prisons/ since as you justly said Denmark is a prison.”

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