The commentary on Hamlet is oceanic, but very little of it touches on foreign policy issues which this playwright thought were worth putting into what has become his most famous play
In the beginning, we are told that Fortinbras (‘strong arm’) of Norway, from an excess of pride, had challenged the king of Denmark to combat – just one on one it seems – with the winner taking some territory of the loser. This compact was made to have the force of law. King Hamlet of Denmark killed Fortinbras and occupied the territory that then became forfeit to Denmark.
Now, at the start of the play, the son of Fortinbras, also called Fortinbras, has formed an army with a view to recovering the lands lost by his father. This would look to us to be an unjustified war of aggression. In response, Denmark is arming itself with arms forged at home or bought from abroad. (We know that Danes go to Germany or Paris and stay there for some time to further their careers – as we would call it.) The present king of Denmark sends envoys to Norway to ask the uncle of Fortinbras to call the young Fortinbras off. That uncle is ‘impotent and bedrid’ and had thought that Fortinbras was getting ready to attack Poland. But after listening to the Danish envoys, the uncle gets young Fortinbras to vow never to attack Denmark. Instead, he is to use his aggression against Poland. (It was not the first time and would not be the last time than Poland got caught between two warlike states.) The envoys return to Claudius with this news and a request from Fortinbras for permission to be able to cross over parts of Denmark for the purpose of enabling them to attack Poland.
Then Claudius is troubled by the apparent madness of Hamlet – a loose cannon is the last thing this fratricide needs at home in Elsinore – and he resolves to send Hamlet ‘with speed to England for the demand of our neglected tribute.’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have in effect being spying on Hamlet at the request of Claudius. They will accompany Hamlet to England. It is a form of undeclared house arrest – and Hamlet puts no trust in either of them.
After Hamlet kills the courtier Polonius, Claudius thinks that he could have been the victim – and so does Hamlet. Claudius then asks England to kill Hamlet – without apparently telling the two envoys going with Hamlet. The soliloquy Claudius gives about this speaks of England with ‘free awe’ that ‘pays homage to us’, and implores England not to ‘coldly set our sovereign process’. Well, whatever may have been the kind of submission that the author contemplated between England and Denmark, it could hardly require England to commit murder at the mere request of the Danish king – not least when the proposed victim is the son of the queen and the heir to the throne. (Despatching a couple of courtiers would be another matter.)
The connections to Norway and England come together when Hamlet, en route to England with the two courtiers, runs into the army of Fortinbras. He seeks the promised licence to cross Denmark to confront Poland ‘to gain a little patch of ground’ not worth five ducats. Hamlet is ashamed that this young Norwegian prince is going to war on a point of honour, while he weakly vacillates about avenging the murder of his father.
Hamlet discovers the secret request of Claudius to England to execute him and substitutes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the victims. In the letter he forges for this purpose, he describes England as the Danish king’s ‘faithful tributary.’
So, when the house of Denmark lies desolate and headless under the mark of Cain, Fortinbras ‘with conquest come from Poland,’ is on hand to clean up the mess. He can ‘embrace my fortune’ since ‘I have some rights of memory in this kingdom’ and which he is now in a position to claim.
The wheel has turned full circle. It is hardly surprising that a royal house that devours itself, as grossly as some did in Greek tragedies performed two thousand years before, leaves its people prey to another nation.
There are some oddities of time here. Trial by single combat to determine boundaries of sovereign nations has an early medieval if not fantastic air about it. We know that this Denmark subscribes to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth and that the Danes go to other European cities for advancement. The atmosphere feels like the Renaissance. It must have been a long time after England paid any kind of tribute to Denmark – to hold off the Vikings? And the ‘conquest’ of Fortinbras in Poland must have broken the land speed record. But they are trifles.
It is at best impertinent and at worst impious to second guess a genius, but the significance of the international background may be found in the soliloquy where Hamlet compares himself to Fortinbras.
Examples gross as earth exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (4.4.4ff)
There you have the madness of all Europe in August 1914. It does not take Waterloo, the Somme, Hiroshima, or Nui Dat for those words of Hamlet to die on our lips.
Nor should we be surprised that our understanding of a great work of art alters with changes in the way that we see the world. Many of us now would prefer the remark of a statesman who could not be regarded as a soft touch speaking on behalf of a weak nation. In an address to the Reichstag in 1876, Otto von Bismarck said that German intervention in a Balkan war was not worth the bones of one Pomeranian grenadier. Thirty eight years later, his successors did not apply that wisdom, and millions were slaughtered in the worst war that mankind had known.
For a hero who is said to have been weak and indecisive, Hamlet has racked up quite a score by the end. He has directly killed Polonius, Laertes and Claudius. He has procured the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He is morally responsible for the death of Ophelia, and we may doubt whether Gertrude could survive many more nights with her deranged son like that after he had killed Polonius. (The performance of Penny Downie in that role against David Tenant in the Doran RSC film is thrilling in a way that Freud would have found positively electrifying.) The poisoning of Laertes was accidental. On any view, the killing of Claudius was warranted. But, it is hard to see a defence to a charge of murder against Hamlet for his role in the deaths of Polonius – ‘I’ll lug the guts into a neighbour room’ – or the two courtiers. He was downright cruel to Ophelia, and in his treatment of his mother, he would nowadays risk being branded as a misogynist on national television.
And while it may be true that there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow (5.2.220), it is also true that when it comes to matters of state between sovereigns, the writ of the Sermon on the Mount is banished from sight as a kind of curious relic whose reach has been long since passed.