Ethics & Public Policy Center

Denmark’s Challenge and Hamlet’s Task

Published in The St. John’s Review 60.1-2 (2018-2019) on December 20 2018


The end of Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, shows three foreigners speaking about the scene of “woe and wonder” (V.ii.402) upon which they look. An English ambassador, the Norwegian prince Fortinbras, and Hamlet’s friend Horatio all marvel at the carnage before them—a dead prince, Hamlet; his dead rival, Laertes; a dead queen, Gertrude; and a dead king, Claudius. Together with the death of the king’s counselor Polonius earlier in the play, Fortinbras appears to hold the political equivalent of a royal flush as he surveys the scene and immediately begins to give orders that will lead to his conquest of Denmark. Fortinbras’s position is so strong that he doesn’t even bother to hide that he has “some rights of memory in this kingdom/Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me” (V.ii.432-33).

What Fortinbras does not yet know is that Hamlet is responsible for all but one of the deaths that have emptied his nation of any pretenders to the throne, including himself, thus clearing the path for Fortinbras’s conquest of Denmark. Moreover, Hamlet has bequeathed his “dying voice” (V.ii.393) to Fortinbras in support of his appropriation of the kingdom that Hamlet’s father once ruled. Fortinbras owes much to Hamlet for his future dominion over the Danes.

By the end of the play, Hamlet has also successfully fulfilled the command of his father’s ghost to “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.31) while also obeying the direction to “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive/Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven” (I.v.92-3). Claudius is dead by his own hand. Heaven has spared Hamlet from killing his mother by having Claudius do it. And Hamlet’s mind remains guileless and untainted throughout his final interactions with the members of the Danish court in the last scene. Yet Hamlet has failed as prince
of Denmark, for he has handed the kingdom off to a foreigner who probably has been angling to conquer Denmark since before the beginning of the play.

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Ian Lindquist is Executive Director at the Public Interest Fellowship in Washington, D.C. and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. This essay was originally delivered as a lecture for the Graduate Institute at St. John’s College in Annapolis on July 25, 2018 under the title Duty and Love in the Land of the Danes in Shakspeare’s Tragedy Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. All references are to the Folger Shakespeare Library edition of The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992).

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