Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Three vengeful sons: Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laertes

Hamlet is a play driven by the question of how to revenge the death of the protagonist's father. It begins upon the battlements, which are apparently haunted by the ghost of the recently deceased king, Old Hamlet's. The ghost's reasons for remaining upon the earth, rather than residing in heaven become clear when he is given an opportunity to explain to his son the manner of his demise. Old Hamlet's brother Claudius, the current King of Denmark happened upon Old Hamlet while his brother was napping in an orchard, and poured poison in his ear. The king was murdered without the ability to make a full confession and is doomed to walk the earth until he is purged of all of his sins. Thus, Hamlet, the son of a murdered father, must avenge his father's death, and he vows to do so.

But the first encounter the audience has with an openly vengeful son is not with Hamlet, who is in mourning but still unaware of his father's murder at the beginning of the play, but Fortinbras, a young, hot-headed Norwegian king. Unlike Hamlet's melancholic attitude, for Hamlet is always characterized by relentless self-searching and exploration of his soul, psyche, and motivation, Fortinbras is a man of action. Once he learns about his father's death, Fortinbras feels no compunction about avenging his father, or at least the wrongs done to his father's estate. Unlike Hamlet and Laertes, Fortinbras' father was not murdered. However, Fortinbras is irate that his father's lands were lost, and is determined to recover them. Fortinbras' quest is not moral, or even based upon familial feeling.

It is for his own self-aggrandizement and enrichment that Fortinbras goes: "Importing the surrender of those lands/Lost by his father, with all bonds of law, / to our most valiant brother" (I.2). The politically savvy and cynical Claudius speculates, not without some justification that Fortinbras is seeking these lands not out of outrage for an old crime done to Fortinbras' father, but because he thinks Denmark is a state of transition, after the recent death of Old Hamlet, and thus will not be able to defend itself. Fortinbras later is proven right to some degree, as he assumes the Danish crown at the end of the play, after the court is decimated as a result of Claudius', Laertes', and Hamlet's actions during the final duel.

Later on in the play, Hamlet himself, after thinking about killing Claudius at prayer, and then deciding not to literally become a 'back stabber' will half-admire, half-despise Fortinbras' bloody military quest. Fortinbras goes to gain:.".. A little patch of ground / That hath in it no profit but the name. / to pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;" says a Norwegian captain, to Hamlet. However, for his own name, Fortinbras will sacrifice the lives of his men (IV.4). This suggests that Fortinbras' revenge has nothing to do with honoring the memory of his dead father but rather with his own honor. To make his own name in the world he will fight for a land as worthless as "an eggshell," in Hamlet's words, and he places the defense of his reputation above life itself, even the security of his citizens, army, and nation (IV.4).

Hamlet, although he despises Fortinbras' morality, as is evident in his ironic and bitter words, still admires the Norwegian's devotion to action, and contrasts it with his own attitude: "That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd,/Excitements of my reason and my blood,/and let all sleep?" (IV.4). Hamlet has more cause to act in a bloody fashion, but less motivation. He uses the example of Fortinbras, however perverse, to spur on his "dull revenge," own need for action and to revenge a truly beloved father (IV.4). Hamlet seems to imply that killing Claudius, however, will somehow be more productive than killing men over a worthless pieceā€¦