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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Fortinbras
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1021  Thursday, 11 May 2000.

[1]     From:   Edmund M. Taft <
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        Date:   Thursday, 11 May 2000 00:25:27 +0000
        Subj:   Fortinbras

[2]     From:   Florence Amit <
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        Date:   Thursday, 11 May 2000 13:15:37 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1011 Re: Fortinbras


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund M. Taft <
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Date:           Thursday, 11 May 2000 00:25:27 +0000
Subject:        Fortinbras

Actually, I think there is more agreement between David and myself than
perhaps he realizes.  I tried to indicate this sentiment in an earlier
post when I suggested that "the business of the play is to move Hamlet
from a revenger to an avenger"-but David rejected that idea.  Yet I
think that this is precisely what he is getting at in his own analysis
of the final scene, for he seems to want to argue that Hamlet is not
exactly fulfilling the ghost's initial command.

David is right.  The wish for revenge that is so apparent in the ghost
has been moderated in Hamlet by the end of the play, and his final acts
are less intentionally vicious than Hamlet himself imagines they must be
when, for example, he chooses NOT to kill Claudius while he is at
prayer.

David may have his own explanations for how this process of "moderation"
works, and I'll be glad to read them.  In the meantime, here is why and
how I think this process of moderation works: First, from a purely
theological point of view, we have to remember that Hamlet, Sr., has
only been in purgatory (if that's where he really is) for a short
time-too short for purgatorial fires to wipe out of him the very "human"
thoughts he expresses to his son-above all, that justice is not enough,
that Hamlet should engage in a kind of brutal revenge.

Well, Hamlet thinks about that, and shares the emotion of his father,
but recoils (at least part of him does) from actually carrying out such
actions.  Here is where Hamlet's alter ego, Fortinbras, comes in.
Notice that in 1.2 Claudius is actually much more concerned about
Fortinbras than about Hamlet.  There is something personal going on
between Fortinbras and Claudius, though we never learn what it is.  The
proof of this conten-tion is in Claudius's speech and actions.  He has
made Elsinore into an armed camp, as if Fortinbras wants to attack the
castle, not just capture some portion of land lost by his father!
Moreover, Fortinbras apparently does want to attack Claudius because he
[Fortinbras] " holds a weak supposal of [Claudius's] worth"!  Fortinbras
wants to topple Claudius, and he wants not just to get back some land,
but to conquer Denmark-all of it!  Clearly, this is an excessive
response on Fortinbras's part to the loss of lands in the earlier wager
between Old Hamlet and Fortinbras's father.  Not that getting rid of
Claudius is wrong, but the way Fortinbras initially wants to do so (by
all-out battle) is wrong: it's too bloody, just as Hamlet's
understanding of what his father wants him to do is excessive-brutal
revenge.

In a delicious irony, Claudius himself provides Fortinbras another way
to accomplish his ends (just as he will later on with Hamlet!): the
letters to Old Norway and the exacted promise from Fortinbras never to
attack Claudius both force Fortinbras to another strategy: he will march
through Denmark and attack Poland, putting himself in some danger, and
wait for Claudius's kingship to fall of its own weight.  In short, he'll
be on hand when it happens and seize the moment if he can.

Fortinbras and Hamlet are in the closest physical proximity to each
other in 4.4, and that's where the problem of action comes to a head for
Hamlet.  How to proceed?  Between the penultimate and the final line of
"How all occasions do inform against me," Hamlet, in a flash of insight,
realizes what Fortinbras is really up to!  That's why the final line of
the soliloquy substitutes the word thoughts for the word actions: "My
thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth" (67).

Now, Hamlet knows how to proceed!  Like Fortinbras, he will put himself
in danger and see if things go his way.  He walks off into a trap and
certain death (R&G) to test Providence.  If Providence wants him to
survive, it will provide the means to do so.  All Hamlet has to do is to
be ready and seize the moment!  And that's exactly what happens,
including a mysterious pirate ship to bring him back to Denmark!

When Hamlet comes back to Denmark, he even taunts Claudius: "Yoo Hoo!
Here I am!  Just back and by myself!  I'll see you tomorrow!"
(4.7.46-52, "loosely" paraphrased).  The method is the same as before:
if Providence wants Hamlet to kill Claudius, it will provide the means
and the opportunity-all Hamlet has to do is seize the moment.  And
that's what Providence does, in a final scene that IS mysterious, as
David Bishop says: "Providence works in mysterious ways."

By the time Hamlet kills Claudius, his act seems lawful to me.  He acts
as an avenger, a justicer, if you will.  But he is still the image of
his father, and for this reason: by now, the fires of purgatory have
done their work, and what Hamlet does in the final scene is exactly what
Old Hamlet now wants done.  Just as purgatory has "purified" Old Hamlet
by 5.2, Providence has led and "purified" Hamlet's final act of
"revenge."

Hamlet is the apotheosis of the Renaissance hero: "Man is the measure of
all things."  Hamlet has taken the measure of Providence and put it on
trial.  He has interrogated the Mind of God Himself.  What a hero!

Ed Taft

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Florence Amit <
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Date:           Thursday, 11 May 2000 13:15:37 +0000
Subject: 11.1011 Re: Fortinbras
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1011 Re: Fortinbras

Pardon me for the intrusion:  I believe that Hamlet did not carry forth
the execution of King Claudius before the duel scene  simply because he
no longer had an opportunity. The initiative had been taken from him and
all the defenses and (offenses) of his adversary were lined up against
him, although psychologically and I might say religiously too - because
revenge for him had become righteous vindication and to execute a
"damned" and stealthy murderer was fully justified by now in his mind.
The tragedy is that this vindication is at the cost of all the erring
protagonists.

Florence Amit
 

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