Hamlet’s Last Laugh

15 Apr

But I do prophesy th’ election lights
On Fortinbras; he has my dying voice. (Hamlet 5.2.392-3)

For centuries people have wondered why Hamlet would spend his dying breaths and words on an aggressive lout like Fortinbras of Norway whose “sharked up” band of “lawless resolutes” arrives at Elsinore just in time to receive the kingdom for which he might otherwise have battled. This is not the first time Shakespeare juxtaposes the two young men and has Hamlet give way to the thug with whom he compares himself adversely. The first was when Hamlet, on his way to England encounters the Norwegian army on its way to fight the Polish for “a little patch of ground” so poor that “five ducats” would be too great a rent to pay to farm it (4.4.19-20). Yet twenty thousand lives will be lost fighting for a plot “not large enough to hide the slain.”
Hamlet upbraids himself and condemns his rationalizations for delaying revenge as “ever one part wisdom and three parts coward” (4.4.44-5). He vows henceforth that he will let his “thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth” in finally avenging himself and his father on his uncle Claudius, “a little more than kin and less than kind,” that is, the space or “nothing” between the ‘n’ and the ‘d’ in kind (1.2.67).
Why should Hamlet who so keenly appreciates the value of “godlike reason” as well as how timing and choice converge in providence give his voice to Fortinbras whose ambitions are a toxin trickling like fate through the generations from father to son? To be brief, in his last and one of his most quietly brilliant and pointed word plays, Hamlet shows that Fortinbras deserves Denmark and that Denmark, “a rank garden” deserves him. He is the man to reign over a bed of corpses. “Things rank and gross in nature possess it” utterly. So he leaves Fortinbras on the field of death to speaks praise whose truth he cannot begin to comprehend (this uncomprehending laudation is more of the “pains which patient merit of the unworthy takes,” and this at the very end) and to “bid the soldiers shoot” (5.2.449). Given the larger context in which Hamlet declares that “the readiness is all” and that in the most obscure ways “heaven is ordinant” he lets Fortinbras have his “dying voice” while he lives in memory.
Whether or not “the rest is silence” (and truly, none can say except on faith) Hamlet exits with his characteristic brilliance and self-effacing, doubly pointed poignancy.

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