Fathers And Sons In Hamlet
Hamlet includes the stories of three young men who have lost their fathers to violent deaths: Fortinbras, Hamlet, and Laertes. At some point in the plot, each purposes to avenge that death. But in the end of the play the fates of Fortinbras, Hamlet, and Laertes are vastly different. Shakespeare attributes the difference to the individual courses of their revenge.
As described by Horatio in the play's first scene, Old Fortinbras died honorably in chivalric combat against Old Hamlet. Both men were valiant kings who settled their differences by putting themselves at risk to spare their kingdoms from war. They represent a noble, irretrievable past. Some 30 years later, however, young Fortinbras chafes under his father's loss of lands to Old Hamlet and seeks to reclaim them. This Fortinbras is a ruthless soldier. Thus all Denmark is preparing for war with Norway as the first scene ends. Claudius addresses the growing Fortinbras threat by dispatching letters to Fortinbras' uncle. The King of Norway is enjoined "to suppress" his nephew's threatened revenge. Later Polonius reports, "Th' ambassadors from Norway . . . are joyfully return'd." Thus Fortinbras' rebellion has been quelled by diplomacy, and his revenge plot never develops. In a sense he becomes a type of forbearance. From this point Fortinbras takes on a new role, that of a successful and upright man of action. He occupies an ideal position which contrasts him to the other two sons in the play, Hamlet and Laertes.
It should be noted that Elizabethans distinguished between private and public, or civic, revenge. It is public vengeance, achieved through military battle, that Fortinbras initially seeks. He is never associated with private revenge as Hamlet and Laertes are. Late in the play Fortinbras passes across the stage with his army, his energies now directed toward Poland. He scorns death and danger, not to achieve vengeance, but to gain a small patch of ground for his country's honor. Hamlet professes admiration for such a man.
Like Fortinbras, Laertes is entreated by an older man concerning his desire for revenge, but with opposite intent. The villain Claudius so manipulates the grieving son and brother that he vows allegiance to hell. Daring damnation in the manner of a typical Elizabethan revenger, Laertes, under the tutelage of Claudius, lays a perfidious trap for Hamlet. In his attitude toward avenging his father's death, Laertes stands in stark contrast to both Fortinbras and Hamlet. His treachery misses the mark, however, and he dies from the poison on his sword. Yet the universe of Hamlet offers grace to the penitent, and the duped Laertes begs forgiveness of Hamlet before they both die.
After the entire Danish royal family lies dead on the stage, Fortinbras arrives in triumph from Poland. The only bereaved son who has completely eschewed private revenge, he presides over the carnage at the end. Fortinbras learns that he has Hamlet's "dying voice" and will become king of a reunited Denmark and Norway. That which he at first sought and later held back from seeking to obtain by vengeance has become his through the workings of divine Providence.
The tragic outcome is less triumphant for Hamlet, who failed for a time to check his rash desire for revenge. Not only is it impossible for him to ascend the throne of Denmark; he must, in fact, pay for blood with blood. Nevertheless, Hamlet comes to a realization of the error of his ways. By the final act of the play, he is a changed man. He expresses to Horatio his faith in an overruling Providence in lines that allude to Matthew 10:29-31. According to Horatio, Hamlet escapes damnation. He has repented his wrongdoing and embraced a new world view. Hamlet's death, then, is a victory of sorts, and he is borne away honorably, "like a soldier to the stage."