Friday, November 20, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act IV, Scene 4

Here we finally meet Fortinbras.  We've been talking about him since the beginning of the play, how he's thinking of attacking Denmark, then he's agreeing not to attack Denmark, then he's asking to march through Denmark to attack Poland.  Kind of a restless boy, methinks.  Lots of energy and desire to go punch people or something.  He only gets a few lines, and exits before Hamlet enters.  

I've talked a little before about Hamlet's foils in the play, 'foil' meaning "a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight particular qualities of the other character" (Wikipedia).  Prince Hamlet has several foils, namely Horatio, Laertes, and Fortinbras.  (Some argue that Claudius is also a foil, but I think that's a bit of a stretch, so I'll be discussing the three others here.)  Horatio is like Hamlet in being a student, but he isn't royal or even necessarily noble, doesn't seem to have any issues with his parents.  He's Hamlet as he used to be, kind of carefree and able to do what he wants most of the time.  Then there's Laertes, who is like Hamlet in that his father gets murdered, and we'll see how he reacts to that before long.  And then we have Fortinbras.  Fortinbras's father was killed by Hamlet's father in a battle, and he wanted to attack Denmark in revenge, but gets persuaded not to by his uncle, the king of Norway.  By comparing the actions, attitudes, and reactions of these three with Hamlet, we can kind of sharpen our understanding of Hamlet in some ways.  See the choices he has made in a new light, when contrasted with the choices of others like him, that sort of thing.  Just some stuff for you to mull over if you feel like it!

Okay, anyway, the rest of this scene is about Hamlet and a captain in Fortinbras' army discussing how stupid this war is going to be, that all these men will die because someone wants a little scrap of unprofitable ground.  Hamlet then launches into his seventh and final soliloquy.  He considers the point of being alive -- is it just to eat and sleep?  No, he thinks that when God gave men understanding and reason, he expected them to use it.  And I think Hamlet doesn't want to waste those abilities that he has -- waste them by killing Claudius and thereby throwing his life away.  But he sees this "delicate and tender prince" (45) Fortinbras (and he's being deliciously sarcastic there, isn't he?) leading all these men to their death for no real reason at all, and he thinks, "I have so many actual good reasons to fight and kill, why don't I go ahead and do it?"  So he decides "from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!" (63)  Whether he sticks to that resolution or not remains to be seen.

Possible Discussion Questions:

Why might Shakespeare have had Fortinbras exit before Hamlet enters?  What might they have said to each other if they had met here?

12 comments:

  1. That's a good question, but I will avoid it as I cannot possibly second guess Shakespeare's choices. However, I will take a moment to mention this: The dynamic between fathers and sons is especially important in this play. How each aggrieved son responds to his father's death is the key to understanding Shakespeare's long meditation upon choices between rational and irrational behaviors (and his lesson to us about the proper balance between those poles in our lives).

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    1. R.T., I don't think it's so much second-guessing as just speculating. But as a writer, I'm always trying to figure out why writers make different choices, and I know that's not everyone's thing.

      You're right, the three sons and their fathers are huge there -- they present such a nice spectrum, don't they? I know much has been written about the fact that Shakespeare wrote this shortly after his own father died.

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  2. Interesting! I've never thought of this. In fact, since Hamlet names Fortinbras as his successor, I was assuming they knew each other. They are much alike - having lost their fathers and holding thoughts of vengeance, both under the thumb of an uncle. But the primary difference is that Hamlet is a scholar while Fortinbras is a seasoned soldier with a sizable army. What do you think? If there was no warfare with the Danes following the death of Fortinbras' father's death and up to the present time, Hamlet may have had only cursory military training, while Fortinbras sure knows what he's doing & has a large, standing army at his beck and call. If you haven't experienced mass warfare & its indiscriminate killing, maybe it would be harder to kill on an individual basis. Skipping ahead a bit, there's certainly a question of whether Fortinbras did move out his army.
    ~Kelda

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    1. Kelda, yeah, we totally don't know if Fortinbras and Hamlet have ever even met. Intriguing possibilities there, huh? And they definitely have such different backgrounds and so on. Perhaps it's Hamlet's taste of violence in the fight with the pirates is what makes him so much more resigned to his own death, and ready for it?

      I always suspect Fortinbras of duplicity with his whole, "Oh, okay, I won't attack Denmark, but how about I march my Whole Army Right Through It? Totally going to attack Poland, honest, just happen to be marching through here, doo-dee-doo-dee-doo..."

      Anyway, I just thought of this today: what if Hamlet gives Fortinbras his dying vote as successor to spare the people of Denmark further bloodshed? He knows Fortinbras wants to take over, he knows Fortinbras has an army with him -- by naming him as his successor, Hamlet keeps his people safe even though he will not be there with them anymore. Oh, what a king was here!

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  3. mmhm. England was subjected to Denmark, paying taxes, yielding up land for these former vikings to establish farms & villages. The Ambassadors from England are standing right there beside Fortinbras. Given the choice Hamlet would choose the culturally similar Norway, and avoid the danger of a conquered country setting up war.

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    1. Thank you. But my problem is I can't stand ambivalence in books - so I just start worrying the book from all angles,&pull in bits of history to pad it :^) One night I sat down & highlighted all of Horatio's lines & anything pertaining to him. Once I saw how few lines he has, i sort of understood why some directors edit him out. But they are missing the Quality of the part for the Quantity. That line by Horatio to Hamlet about needing margin notes to understand Osric I have missed every time I have read or seen the play until this time.Blogging is fun!

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    2. That's one of the things I love best about this play: every time I read or see it, I learn something new, catch something, "get" something -- it's astounding.

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  4. Good stuff Hamlette! Definitely helped me understand the scene better. :) Last soliloquy, huh? I don't think I want this to end...

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    1. Thanks, Sarah! And yes, it's the last soliloquy. But we have four scenes to go yet, and two of them are quite large. But I agree, I've been enjoying this read-along and am sorry to see its end on the horizon.

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  5. Well, I picked up the Laertes and Fortinbras foils but I hadn't tagged Horatio. Thanks for pointing it out ..... I'll have to think about it some more.

    There is definitely a shuffling for power between Norway and Denmark. The king of Norway agrees to control his nephew, Fortinbras,on the condition that they are allowed to take their armies through Denmark. Perhaps this is a practical request, but it also would allow them to see how well protected Denmark is, and give them an idea of military ability, locations of outposts, etc. By Claudius allowing Fortinbras into his country, it puts him at a distinct disadvantage. However, if he hadn't agreed, he might have had war, so perhaps he had no choice. In any case, at the moment, Fortinbras appears to have the upper hand in this power struggle.

    I also notice in this part that while Hamlet is still beating himself up for not acting, he is still focussed on thoughts rather than action:

    "From now on, if my thoughts aren't violent I'll consider them worthless."

    He can still only "think" rather than "do." It's almost like he is a prison in his own mind.

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    1. Cleopatra, I LOVE your observation that Hamlet is still focusing on thinking rather than doing. Absolutely true. "My thoughts be bloody," not "my deeds be bloody." Good work.

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