A lot of people were grumpy and pissed in Hamlet, so I find it fitting to share my thoughts i.e. research essay on what I think is really going on with that Norway subplot.
So here goes…
The Chorus of Fortinbras
Hamlet, one of the most famous Shakespeare’s plays, follows the title character Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, as he returns home to find his father murdered and his mother remarried to the murderer, his uncle, now the King. Meanwhile, a war threat from Norway looms: Fortinbras, the young Prince of Norway is seeking to reclaim some of Norway land that his father lost to King Hamlet. For analyzing purposes, Hamlet has the main plot: Prince Hamlet plotting to avenge his father by killing Claudius, and two subplots: Hamlet and Ophelia’s love; and the so-called Norway subplot i.e. Fortinbras preparing to wage a war against Denmark. Fortinbras’ decidedness to act is in direct opposition to Hamlet’s hesitancy, and Fortinbras is in that sense usually regarded as Hamlet’s foil in the play. But could there be more to the Fortinbras’ storyline than meets the eye?
Fortinbras and his intentions towards Denmark are unveiled by Horatio early in the play.
“Now, sir, young Fortinbras,
Of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Shark’d up a list of lawless resolute … But to recover of us, by strong hand
And terms compulsatory, those foresaid lands
So by his father lost:” (1.1.94-103)
His position is revealed before Hamlet’s predicament is made known, and by the time Hamlet finds out the truth about circumstances surrounding his father’s death, there is already one prince in the play, out to avenge his father: Fortinbras.
As per Encyclopedia Britannica, chorus, in drama and music, is a performing format that involves “those who perform vocally in a group as opposed to those who perform singly. The chorus in Classical Greek drama was a group of actors who described and commented upon the main action of a play with song, dance, and recitation … During the Renaissance the role of the chorus was revised. In the drama of Elizabethan England, for instance, the name chorus designated a single person, often the speaker of the prologue and epilogue…”
In Hamlet, The King of Norway is not aware of his nephew’s belligerent intentions towards Denmark, and when so informed by Voltemand and Cornelius, he
“Sends out arrests
On Fortinbras; which he, in brief, obeys;
Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine
Makes vow before his uncle never more
To give the assay of arms against your majesty.
Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy,
Gives him three thousand crowns in annual fee,
And his commission to employ those soldiers,
So levied as before, against the Polack: “ (2.2.67-75)
So by the time King Claudius finds out that his nephew Hamlet is not lovesick, but more threateningly troubled, and orders that he be sent to England, there is already one King in the play who misunderstood his nephew’s intentions: King of Norway.
When Hamlet meets the Captain of Norway troops and inquires about their conquest, the Captain states that they “Go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.” (4.4.17-18)
By the time Hamlet inadvertently kills Polonius (whose name means ‘related to Poland’), Fortinbras was already granted passage to invade the land of Poland.
As Michelle Lee (2006) observed, “Elizabethan dramatists proved to be remarkably resourceful in adapting classical conventions to their own works. Elizabethan playwrights … popularized and innovated the choric form to the point that it had become a clichéd theatrical device by the time Shakespeare began experimenting with it. Shakespeare departed from convention, however, when he transformed the figure from a traditional dramatic presenter into a complex character with ambiguous motives who often provides ironic commentary on the dramatic action of the play proper.”
Although Shakespeare used a formal choric figure or prologue in some of his plays, Hamlet is not on that list.
D.J. Palmer (1982) has an interesting standpoint on the Elizabethan use of chorus and its “ evident tendency … for the Prologue/Chorus to assume a persona of his own and to adopt an oblique relationship to the play itself. Rarely if ever is such a figure used to tell the whole truth or to embody, Quince-like, the authorial point of view. He sets the scene by more ingenious and indirect means; otherwise, he were indeed a flat unraised spirit.”
Fortinbras’ story precedes and mirrors Hamlet’s story as the plot develops:
- King Hamlet kills King Fortinbras. Young Fortinbras wants revenge and some of his motherland back. His uncle is now King; Claudius kills King Hamlet. Young Hamlet wants revenge and (in a way) his mother back. Uncle Claudius is now King.
- Fortinbras prepares to attack Denmark. King mistakenly thinks he has his sight on Poland. He finds out the truth and orders arrest; Hamlet’s behavior and mood are deteriorating with thoughts of revenge. King Claudius mistakenly thinks he is troubled by love. He finds out the truth and orders trip to England and execution.
- Fortinbras swears to peace towards Denmark and is cleared to invade Poland; Hamlet kills Polonius (whose name means “related to Poland”)
- Fortinbras’ Captain tells Hamlet that they are invading Poland for but a name; Laertes forgives Hamlet but still fights for his name/honor.
- Dying Hamlet gives his blessing to Fortinbras as the rightful new King; Fortinbras appears and states that it is reasonable for him to claim the throne.
If the Norway subplot with Fortinbras is taken out of the play (as British director Matthew Warchus has done in his 1997. production), Hamlet still has a dramatic foundation solid enough to stand tall, and Laertes is a foil quite fitting to the young Hamlet. After all, Laertes lost both his father and (indirectly) sister to Hamlet, just as Hamlet lost both his father and (figuratively) mother to Claudius. Whilst their troubles bare some similarities, their way of seeking revenge is completely different and serves a good purpose for contrast and comparison. So why bother with Fortinbras at all? Because he is a prince? That does not seem relevant enough to be handed a role by Shakespeare. And yet, his story opens the play, and his words end the play. Fortinbras is so subliminally weaved in the story that his ascend to the throne does not feel unjust at all, and the story comes full circle from when his intentions were introduced in Act I. Susannah Clapp (1997.) reviewing Warchus production says that:
“Few audiences can ever have watched Hamlet longing for the entrance of Fortinbras. The Norwegian prince is one of the items cut from Matthew Warchus’s production, and he wasn’t missed by me; his excision would be undetectable by anyone unfamiliar with the play. “
By literary conventions, chorus is involved in both the prologue and epilogue. In Hamlet, there is no acknowledged use of chorus, and yet, Fortinbras’ story foreshadows Hamlet’s in all major happenings. The choric format does not conform to Elizabethan clichés, nor does it follow any example that Shakespeare himself has used as chorus. Fortinbras appears in person late in the play, in Act IV, so he is not the chorus per se. It is the entire “Norway subplot” that takes the role of foreshadowing major upcoming events related to Prince Hamlet: not in a straightforward manner, but clearly enough to subliminally form an attachment to Fortinbras so that his ascend to the throne, that seems both farfetched and inappropriate when the play starts becomes a natural resolution to the story when the curtain is about to fall.
To repeat D.J. Palmer’s (1982) observation of the tendency for the “chorus to assume a persona of his own”, in Hamlet, it seems that Shakespeare takes the chorus to another level by ingeniously giving it an entire subplot lead by, the often thought redundant – Fortinbras.
- Clapp, Susannah. “Hamlet.” New Statesman  23 May 1997: 40+. Literature Resource Center. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
- Lee, Michelle. “Choric Figures in Shakespeare’s Works”. Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 100. (2006) Gale. From Literature Resource Center. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
- Palmer, D. J. “‘We Shall Know by This Fellow’: Prologue and Chorus in Shakespeare.” Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester (Spring 1982): 501-521. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Ed. Michelle Lee. Vol. 100. Detroit: Gale, 2006. Literature Resource Center. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
- Shakespeare, William. Spark Publishing, 2003. Print.
- “Chorus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 29 Nov. 2012.
- Hamlet. By William Shakespeare. Dir. Matthew Warchus. Royal Shakespeare 1997. Performance.