Update: After Dim Bulb's comment, I feel compelled to issue a spoiler alert. I discuss how Hamlet ends.
A while back when I was still a teacher at a university I had a discussion with the professor under whom I taught. He had just seen the recent version of Hamlet produced by Kenneth Branagh, and he was in rapture over the movie. He was particularly impressed with its conclusion. “Branagh really drives home the fact that the play ends with the military occupation of Denmark,” he said. “I never really comprehended that Fortinbras invaded Denmark.” In this matter my old Professor, and Kenneth Branagh as well, are absolutely wrong. Denmark is not invaded, and a military occupation is not its fate. Nor is Fortinbras taking over incidental to the plot of the play (Mel Gibson’s version, for instance, wrote it out of the play completely). It is critical to the play and its message. In fact, I would go so far as to say the Fortinbras’ bloodless takeover of Denmark is the entire point of the play.
To understand this point we have to look away from the play for a moment, and talk briefly about the nature of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, and the traditions out of which it arose. The immediate precursors to the Renaissance drama, and which were still acted out in Shakespeare’s time, were the craft cycle mystery plays (featuring dramatized scenes of the Bible) and the morality plays, such as Everyman or The Castle of Perseverance.
The morality plays are of particular importance to the study of Renaissance drama. In form they are simple. An allegorical figure (“Everyman”, for instance) takes its journey through life, and is subjected to the temptations that come to all people, either succumbs to temptation or stands firm, ultimately dies and is rewarded or punished according to his ability to stay faithful. The audience such a play is invited to identify with the character and see themselves and their lives dramatized upon the stage, and are encouraged to embrace the character’s virtues or shun their vices, and as a result enjoy the eternal reward of Heaven and escape the eternal punishment of Hell. The plays are, in short, dramatized sermons, and very often clumsy ones at that, designed to encourage the audience to mend their ways.
Modern critics and theorists, such as Catherine Belsey, have written of how the Renaissance dramatists rejected this kind of sermonizing model of drama in order to create their own more naturalistic model of drama. There is, however, another group of writers who claim that this model of dramatic sermons was still in force during the Renaissance period. This group is none other than the Renaissance writers themselves.
During the late 16th and early 17th century a huge debate raged on over the nature of poetry and theatre, and whether or not poetry and theatre should be allowed to exist. The entire debate hinged on two points, which in a sense are really the same: Where does poetry come from, and what are its effects? The critics of poetry, puritans mostly, claimed that poetry and drama corrupted the reader and the audience, and anyone who partook of such things would be made into a worse person for it. The apologists for poetry defended poetry along the same lines as the attackers: namely, the effect poetry would have upon the reader and the audience.
Sir Philip Sidney fairly set the tone for the defenders in his Apology for Poetry when he defined poetry by its capacity to move the audience:
Poetry is a form of mimesis- that is to say a representing, counterfeiting, or figuring forth- to speak metaphorically, a speaking picture- with this end, to teach and delight.
Sidney goes on to elaborate how delight and poetry work together.
Delight, to move men to take that goodness in hand, which without delight they would fly as from a stranger; and teach, to make them know that goodness whereunto they are moved.Other authors would pick up on Sidney’s premise and embellish it, and defined poetry on its ability to transform a reader or audience. There is Thomas Heywood, for example, in his bizarre Apology for Actors:
Braue men braue acts, being brauely acted too,
Makes, as men see things done, desire to do
And again, later, explaining drama's advantage over poetry in the teaching and delighting department:
A description is only a shadow receiued by the ear but not perceiued by the eye; so liuely a portraiture is meerely a forme seene by the eye, but can neither shew action passion or motion or any other gesture, to mooue the spirits of the beholder to admiration: but to see a souldier shap’d like a souldier, walke speake act like a souldier: to see a Hector... a Troylus... a Pompey... a Caesar... Hannibal... To see as I haue seen, Hercules in his owne shape... Oh, these were sight to make an Alexander.I could continue citing sources to show how widespread these beliefs were, but I trust I have made my point. To sum up, while modern critics believe that Renaissance drama either grew away from, or had a break with the morality plays of the past, to the writers of the Renaissance, their plays continued the trend of the morality plays: they invite the audience to see themselves in the characters onstage, and to embrace what is good and shun what is bad. In fact, both Sidney and Heywood define comedy and tragedy, the two main dramatic forms of the time, on whether they show the punishments meted out to the wicked- which is tragedy- or the rewards given to the good- which is comedy.
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is obviously a tragedy and therefore it was to display to the audience how God’s justice strikes the wicked. In order to see the play in these terms, one first step is required, one which requires a reader to go against a century of indifferent high school teachers and bad professors. The reader must understand that Hamlet is a good man who becomes a wicked man and gets his just reward. In order to see this, let me briefly discuss a few other plays that are of the same genre as Hamlet- revenge tragedies.
Revenge tragedies are just that: tragedies that focus on the theme of revenge. They tend to have certain other commonalities. A murdered person’s closest male relative seeks revenge against some high placed figure, usually at the command of the victim’s ghost, but not always. The avenger will wear a disguise or pretend to be insane in order to get close to his intended target. The avenger will frequently put on a play or some other form of entertainment ostensibly for their target’s amusement but really as part of their plot. Ultimately, the avenger is caught up in his vengeance and destroyed even as he enacts his vengeance.
Most of these elements are present in Cyril Tourneur’s (or Thomas Middleton’s, there’s some dispute) The Revenger’s Tragedy. That this play belongs to the Revenge tragedy is clearly broadcast by its very title. This play also broadcasts its relationship to the medieval morality plays in the names of the characters. The characters bear allegorical names like Vindice (vengeance) Lussurioso (lust) Spurio (false- this character is a bastard son), Ambitioso (ambition) Supervacuo (vain, foolish), Castiza (chastity). No personal or individualized characters here. The play opens with Vindice planning vengeance against the Duke who raped and murdered Vindice’s fiancé, while speaking to his fiance’s skull, which he keeps with him as a reminder. He puts on a disguise, goes to the court works his way into the inner circle, and ultimately murders the Duke and all the Duke’s sons. The play ends with the new Duke, who earlier had cried out for vengeance for the rape and murder of his wife by the old Duke, ordering Vindice and his brother away to their immediate executions. Although he wanted the Duke dead, the new Duke cannot allow vengeance in his land. As he tells Vindice: “You that would murder him would murder me.”
Another play by Tourneur, The Atheist’s Tragedy, spells out the lessons of foregoing vengeance even more clearly. It also reads as though Tourneur had a well-thumbed copy of Hamlet close at hand. In this play charlemont is visited by the ghost of his father, Montferrers, who tells Charlemont he was murdered by D’Amville, Montferrers’ brother. Charlemont reacts by immediately swearing to avenge his father’s death, but his father stops him, and warns him not to do anything:
Attend with patience the success of things,
But leave revenge unto the King of kings.
Charlemont is once tempted to forego his ghostly father’s advice and avenge himself, but his father appears to him again to warn him not to seek revenge. By the end of the play D’Amville (the atheist of the title) has been ruined. Everything he sought has been taken from him or made bitter, not in spite of his schemes but because of his schemes, and he dies caught up in his own plots. Charlemont, watching this, speaks the play’s moral: “Now I see/ That patience is the honest man’s revenge.” This is the message the audience is meant to take home and to heart: Vengeance is a fool's game, and anyone who wishes to prosper in the ways of God and man must abandon all thought of it.
Patience is often regarded as Hamlet’s problem, not his virtue. He is indecisive, he takes too long to the point that Laurence Olivier begins his movie version of Hamlet by claiming “This is the tragedy of a man who couldn’t make up his mind.” Olivier, like Branagh after him, misses the point. Hamlet does hem and haw his way through the play, endlessly thinking and not doing, but his destruction comes from two moments in which he fails to stop and think, and thus he, like the other revenge figures, is destroyed in his own web of vengeance. The thoughtless act that starts his downfall is the death of Polonius. In that scene, hearing someone behind the curtain, Hamlet rashly draws his sword and stabs through the veil. When his mother demands of him what has he done, Hamlet replies: “Nay, I know not, is it the King?” Hamlet thought it was Claudius behind the curtain, and thought to achieve his revenge in one rash stroke. It is, of course, not the King, and because of this “rash and bloody deed” Hamlet has created a second avenger: Laertes, who will desire revenge for Polonius’ death.
Laertes pursues his vengeance with a single minded determination that is completely different from Hamlet’s. Laertes does not waste time meditating and considering any possibility. He decides on a plan of action, and carries it out at his earliest possible convenience. His only wavering moment is during his sword fight with Hamlet, when he says in an aside to the audience: “And yet it is almost against my conscience.” That "almost" almost saves him, but he continues with his vengeance, and like Hamlet, gets trapped and destroyed in it, dying from a stroke of his own poisoned blade. The Tragedy of Hamlet also contains what could be called The Tragedy of Laertes.
Hamlet’s second thoughtless moment is his decision to have the sword fight with Laertes, even though he recognizes that Laertes has the same motivation as himself: “For in the image of my cause I see/ The portraiture of his.” Yet Hamlet fails to realize that a man who has the same cause as him may seek the same end. Horatio seems to think this, as he warns Hamlet just before the duel: “If your mind dislike any thing, obey it. I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.” But Hamlet, heedless of caution, goes ahead with the duel. Within minutes he is dead. His vengeance has taken a very bloody toll. With him in death is his mother, his uncle, Laertes, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and Polonius. His vengeance has claimed many lives, and has destroyed everyone close to him, save Horatio.
And it is at this point that Fortinbras re-enters the play. Fortinbras is the third character of the play who sought revenge. Horatio’s long speech in the opening scene outlines how Fortinbras is seeking vengeance for the death of his father by conquering Denmark. We also learn that Fortinbras, although the King of Norway’s son and of legal age, is not the King of Norway, but rather an uncle, “impotent and bed-rid” is King. He, like Laertes, is a figure who is clearly a parallel of Hamlet, but with one important difference: he abandons his plan of vengeance. Instead he takes the army he had raised to invade Denmark, and with his King’s blessing, attack Poland instead. He is even given free passage through Denmark. It is on his return home, again passing through Denmark, that he fires a salute to the King of Denmark, as protocol demanded, and came in to offer the appropriate courtesies. Upon his arrival he discovers the entire royal family dead, the throne empty and his for the claiming. By pursuing the right course, by abandoning all thoughts of revenge, Fortinbras gets everything he wanted at the beginning of the play without ever having fired a shot. The providence that punished and destroyed Hamlet and Laertes and all their kin has rewarded Fortinbras. The play, after displaying how vengeance is a destructive evil, now drives the point home even more by showing how abandoning vengeance leads to prosperity. This play shows both the punishments meted out to the wicked and the rewards given to the virtuous. The Tragedy of Hamlet/Laertes is also the Comedy of Fortinbras.