The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0897  Monday, 24 April 2000.

From:           David Bishop <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 22 Apr 2000 13:44:46 -0400
Subject: 11.0884 Re: Fortinbras
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.0884 Re: Fortinbras

I think Tony Burton is right that Fortinbras's case doesn't exactly
parallel Hamlet's, and that to call him merely a "revenging son" is a
little glib.  Still, I think the structural parallel between the three
young men is important to the play, though Fortinbras is of course the
most marginal of the three. His intended invasion of Denmark is directed
against "Denmark"-who was Hamlet's father and is now Claudius. But it's
a more important parallel that he would be responding to the defeat of
his father unlawfully. As Tony points out, the combat was ratified by
all bonds of law.  Fortinbras converts from lawlessness to lawfulness to
make him worthy to succeed at the end, and also to reflect, in a distant
mirror, Hamlet's path through the play.

Revenge and justice were not synonyms in Shakespeare's time any more
than they are in ours. Since vengeance is a component of justice, they
overlap; but it's in the areas where they don't overlap, where they
conflict, that the dramatic action takes place. Revenge is undertaken
outside the law by a party who is personally-which includes
familially-aggrieved. Justice involves objectivity: a measured response
taken by an objective authority, based on objective, publicly
presentable evidence. It seems to me that this is why Hamlet, as a
dutiful subject, but especially as the heir to the throne, with a
special duty to uphold the law, needs to find a way to kill Claudius
which is more justice than revenge. One thing that moves the killing
toward justice is the discovery of objective evidence of Claudius's
tyranny, in the commission that Hamlet hands over to Horatio. Another is
Laertes' dying testimony. Another is the fact that Claudius is "but
hurt" by Hamlet's sword thrust. In a sense, an important sense, he is
not killed by Hamlet but by his own poison: justly served, or, like
Laertes, justly killed with his own treachery. There's also a component
of revenge in the killing, a revenge not cold and reasoned, which would
not quite be acceptable, but immediate and hot-blooded: it's his
hot-blooded response to his mother's death-and his own. Hamlet's killing
of Claudius is both revenge and justice, in a way, but it doesn't feel,
to me, like the "Revenge" his father commanded. That revenge would have
been as lawless as Fortinbras's "lawless resolutes", or, in a way
complicated by "madness" the "lawless fit" in which he kills Polonius.
Assuming the law includes a provision for the removal of tyrants, when
in the course of human events it becomes necessary, by the end Hamlet
just barely, but definitely, slips under the wire of the law.


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