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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: April ::
Re: Fortinbras (was Oxymora)
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0851  Wednesday, 19 April 2000.

[1]     From:   Paul Swanson <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 18 Apr 2000 10:19:47 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.0836 Re: Oxymora

[2]     From:   Edmund M. Taft <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 18 Apr 2000 23:47:43 +0000
        Subj:   Oxymora


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul Swanson <
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Date:           Tuesday, 18 Apr 2000 10:19:47 -0400
Subject: 11.0836 Re: Oxymora
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0836 Re: Oxymora

Ed Taft writes:

>I end by noting that when Fortinbras actually appears, he shows honor,
>empathy, insight, and political acumen in a few short lines.  Why, it's
>almost like Hamlet is speaking!

Ed's observation brought to mind a 1999 production of Hamlet at Actor's
Theatre of Louisville. It was a strange production with numerous
questionable performance choices-the strangest of which might have been
their decision to make Hamlet a heroin addict.

Relevant to Ed's comment, the closing of the ATL production had
Fortinbras and his soldiers storming the stage to take Horatio prisoner.
At the end of the last line of the play, Fortinbras' "Take up the
bodies: such a sight as this / Becomes the field, but here shows much
amiss. / Go, bid the soldiers shoot.", two of his soldiers grab Horatio
forcefully and rush him off stage. Fortinbras, as I recall, looks around
the room and maybe even smokes a cigarette, and seconds later, we hear
off-stage gunshots, the implication being that Horatio has been executed
and that with his death, Hamlet's story also dies. (Other list members
who saw this production may recall some of the details better than I do,
but this is the basic gist of it.)

A very nihilistic ending, to be sure. Certainly this interpretation-
which I thought on the verge of non-sensical-contrasts Ed's interesting
observation about the parallel between Hamlet and Fortinbras.

Paul Swanson

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund M. Taft <
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Date:           Tuesday, 18 Apr 2000 23:47:43 +0000
Subject:        Oxymora

Frank Whigham observes, rightly, in my view, that "a sense of active
obscurity about why Fortinbras might think himself a revenger seems to
fit right in [with other themes similarly handled in the play]."  That
Fortinbras desires revenge is an inference, of course, but it is a
reasonable one because it completes the parallels between Hamlet and his
alter-ego, some of which I have listed before and will not repeat.  But
here are some new ones:

1. Fortinbras's target is Claudius, just as Hamlet's is.

2. Fortinbras "holds a weak supposal of [Claudius's] worth," again, like
Hamlet.

3. Fortinbras readies his initial forces just after Claudius becomes
king. Apparently, Fortinbras thought old Hamlet a too formidable foe,
whereas Claudius can be handled.  Thus, he sees the two men much as
Hamlet does-one great (if only in battle), the other a mere shadow of
the former king.  He also apparently thinks that Denmark is "disjoint
and out of frame" (1.2.20) -- sound familiar?

4. Fortinbras's uncle, who now rules in place of F's father (and F!), is
old, sick, and impotent.

This last parallel-F's uncle and H's uncle-may not seem like a parallel
at all. Claudius impotent?  Not a chance!  But, of course, the point is
that Old Norway is a weak king.  SO IS CLAUDIUS, and this is a point
worth emphasizing.  Despite the appearance of strength, the real truth
is that Claudius is besotted by drink and Gertrude, and spends most of
his time with one or the other. (In this sense, Claudius is, like Old
Norway, "bed-rid.")

The rest of his time is spent listening to fools like Polonius!  This
observation is so heterodox to most Hamlet critics that I offer the
following as proof: when Fortinbras asks for "quiet pass" through
Denmark to Poland, Claudius immediately agrees!  Now, stop and think for
a second.  A truly strong king would either (1) tell Fortinbras to march
around the borders of Denmark or, more likely, (2) give permission on
the condition that Fortinbras be escorted by a comparable army from
Denmark.

As a final bit of proof, let me propose that the second scene of Hamlet
is really a more complicated redoing of the first two scenes of Richard
II.  Both Bolingbroke and Hamlet look like troublemakers at first, while
both Richard and Claudius/Gertrude seem reasonable.  But in 1.2 of R2,
we find out that the king himself is guilty of a murder and that
Bolingbroke has been championing the cause of Gloucester's widow.
Suddenly, he looks good.  In the same way, at the end of 1.2 in Hamlet,
we find out about how hasty Claudius's marriage to Gertrude has been,
and we sense that Hamlet may be right that Denmark has become "an
unweeded garden" under Claudius.  He is a weak king morally (like R2)
and in practical terms too. He only SOUNDS strong. Retrospectively, we
admire Bolingbroke and Hamlet for having stood up to kings who are not
as blameless or as competent as they might first appear to be.

Well, all of this does not prove that Fortinbras desires revenge, but
the parallels between Hamlet and Fortinbras (and Old Norway and
Claudius) suggest that the two princes in this play  are "secret
sharers" engaged in an intricate duet throughout the plot of the play.

--Ed Taft
 

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