Hamlet, Fortinbras and Leartes are all very different people with different lives, but as these men interact in the play we learn that there are many circumstances surrounding them that mysteriously connect them. All three of these characters had some reason to avenge some circumstance in their life, but they all had a very different way of conquering the object of their hatred.
Fortinbras had levied an army to attack and conquer Denmark. Though son of the late King of Norway, the crown of Norway had gone to his uncle, just as the crown of Denmark had gone to Hamlet’s uncle. This shows that in the world of the play it was not unusual for brothers to late kings to be elected to the throne over the pretensions of their younger nephews. But Fortinbras was not prepared to accept his constitutional dispossession so easily. If he had been deprived of the throne of his father, he would try to conquer a kingdom of his own in which, as he later tells Horatio, he has “some rights of memory.”
Fortinbras is not willing to put an end to his military adventures. Desiring to win honor through the sword, he cares not that the prize of his glory is worthless or that he will sacrifice thousands of lives and much wealth for this hollow victory. Like Hamlet, Sr., Fortinbras is an empire builder who desires only to fight for glory and so, in an ironic way, he is fitted by character to inherit the kingdom of Hamlet, Sr.
Laertes is a young man whose good instincts have been somewhat obscured by the concern with superficial appearances which he has imbibed from his father, Polonius. Like his father, Laertes apparently preaches a morality he does not practice and fully believes in a double standard of behavior for the sexes. But if his father allows him these liberties, it is that he may better approximate the manner of a so – called gentleman. More concerned with the outward signs of gentility than with any inner refinement of spirit, Laertes has well observed his father’s advice to be concerned with appearances since “the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
As unconcerned for the order of society as he is for his own salvation, he would rather “dare damnation” than leave his father’s honor and his own besmirched. Though the sight of his sister’s madness brings him to a moment of true grief, he is still primarily enraged by his father’s “obscure funeral – / No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o’er his bones, / No noble rite nor formal ostentation.” To vindicate his honor, Laertes stoops to a most dishonorable practice.
Laertes is so concerned about his formal and outward “terms of honor” that he cannot permit his natural feelings to rule his will. In this concern for outward honor he further dishonors himself by the false statement that he will act honorably with Hamlet. Saying that “I do receive your offered love like love, / And will not wrong it,” he goes and chooses the lethally sharp and poisoned weapon. Had Laertes acted upon the honorable promptings of his conscience, he would have avoided his own death and, by allying himself with Hamlet, would have won the gratitude of the future King. Laertes’ false sense of honor and pride override his better instincts to the fatal harm of both. Recognizing his dishonor too late and admitting that he is “justly killed with mine own treachery,” Laertes finally rises to the true honor of admitting his fault to Hamlet, informing him of Claudius’ designs, and then, in a tragically belated reconciliation with
Hamlet, offering him an exchange of forgiveness. But if his rise to true honor finally redeems him in our eyes, his false honor has destroyed his life.
Hamlet dares us, along with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to “pluck out the heart of my mystery.” This mystery marks the essence of Hamlet’s character as, in spite of our popular psychologies, it ultimately does for all human personalities. Granting this, we can attempt to chart its origin and outward manifestations. Ophelia tells us that before the events of the play Hamlet was a model courtier, soldier and scholar, “The glass of fashion and the mould of form, / Th’ observed of all observers.” With the death of his father and the hasty, incestuous remarriage of his mother to his uncle, however, Hamlet is thrown into a suicidal frame of mind in which “the uses of this world” seem to him “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” Though his faith in the value of life has been destroyed by this double confrontation with death and human infidelity, he feels impotent to effect any change in this new reality: “It is not, nor it cannot come to good. / But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.” All he can do in this frustrated state is to lash out with bitter satire at the evils he sees and then relapse into suicidal melancholy.
Claudius’ responsibility for Hamlet’s death and the death of his mother is established before the court by Laertes and he is able to execute Claudius for these crimes alone. Hamlet has transcended his earlier damnable intention of premeditated revenge in a spontaneous act of just repayment for the loss of his own life. Recognizing that “the readiness is all,” Hamlet has finally achieved this readiness to endure both life and death. His final actions are his most life affirming, his restraining of Horatio from committing suicide and his concern for the continuing welfare of Denmark. The tragedy of his death is that it comes at the moment when “he was likely, had he been put on, / To have proved most royal.” Destroyed and redeemed by the same brilliance of perception, Hamlet’s spirit has undergone a tragic development from the self – destructive negation of life and of heaven’s purposes to a new affirmation of the providential sanctity of life, and it is this final “readiness” which redeems him.
Hamlet, Leartes and Fortinbras all had some huge issues to work out in their lives. The way they worked out these problems is how we see the action behind the men and are able to recognize the traits that influenced all characters in the play, not just the ones discussed here. All three of these men avenge in very different ways. Hamlet, with his blinding rage, cannot see the forest from the trees. Fortinbras does not care what he fights for as long as it brings him honor. Leartes chases after false honor and is not able to detect something really worth fighting for. As these men interact in this play, you can see how these differences tug at the very root of the play, distinguishing it from all others.