It’s the last line of the show, y’all! This is it. We had a nice wrapping up rhyming couplet and then we get this little tag. And that is all. I like that the last line of the show is one that suggests that the soldiers do the thing that soldiers do. It feels a little like telling the milkmaids to go milk. Go, bid the firefighters fight fire! Go, bid the actors act! Go, bid the writers write!
It’s obviously not meant to be that but it sort of does it while, of course, we understand that Fortinbras has signaled some kind of tribute. I don’t think the soldiers had their own guns, per se, at this point in history but cannons and such were shootable and might be fired off in tribute. It might seem an empty gesture – but it is quite powerful, I have found.
I know that the gun salute that was performed at my grandfather’s funeral was shockingly powerful. In the abstract, I’d have thought it silly to shoot off guns for someone – but with all the ceremony, and co-ordination I found it incredibly moving. I’m glad Hamlet gets such a send off. Ending the play with a shooting salute feels entirely appropriate (not because Hamlet is a military guy – we know he’s not) but because a play like this needs a send off. It needs a sense of ceremony. It needs the closure a military goodbye can give you. Ka-blam! Ka-blam! Ka-blam!
Take your bows.
In my earlier days, I might have found the idea of a bunch of dead bodies becoming the field kind of horrifying. But after watching the documentary The 11th Day about the World War Two Battle for Crete, I kind of get it. I mean. Here are a people just minding their own business and then the Nazis bomb the hell out of their cities and homes. Then 8 thousand Nazis parachute out of planes onto their land. The people of Crete took up sticks and machetes and whatever they could find and by the time they were done, about half of the paratroopers had been killed or wounded. Such a sight as that might indeed become the field. I get it now.
The good thing about traveling with a bunch of soldiers is that you have a ready-made clean-up crew for any major crime scenes you happen to stumble upon. If there’s anyone who knows what to do with a large number of dead – it’s soldiers. At least that’s how it’s been for most of history.
I suppose now there are also all kinds of crisis teams who would know what to do with a lot of dead. I imagine that that’s a good thing. Better to have more, say, Red Cross officials than soldiers. Not that I am ungrateful for the soldiers. I am. But I think a society that has more crisis professionals than killing machines is a better society.
There seems to be some distaste in the literary community for this decision that Fortinbras makes. Hamlet wasn’t a soldier, they say! He even had a whole speech about how senseless the war Fortinbras was pursuing was! This is irony!
I’m guessing these folks have never been to a soldier’s funeral. I might have said the same before I went to my grandfather’s military funeral. Now, though, I understand what an honor it would be – solider or not. I’ve been a pacifist my whole life but if someone told me they were going to bury me at Arlington National Cemetery with any of the honors, I’d be pretty thrilled.
Military funerals are so good they make you want to join the military just so you can have one when you die.
Fortinbras is giving Hamlet all the honors. Why is not clear. Why he’s picked him out among the dead people for this particular honor is not obvious. The only explanation he provides is that Hamlet would have been most royal given half a chance.
I suspect it is more to do with Fortinbras seeing himself in Hamlet the same way Hamlet saw himself in Fortinbras earlier in the play. They are peers in a peerage. There aren’t a lot of them. They probably feel a need to stick together some.
This is a nice thought and as Hamlet is our guy after watching this whole play about him, we think well of Fortinbras for thinking well of Hamlet. Maybe Hamlet would have been a good king, maybe not and certainly his uncle screwed him out of the chance either way. It kind of doesn’t matter whether he could have been good at it. That’s the thing with kings – they’re not Merit Based. A lousy king is as important as a good one – if not more important somehow.
Yet I think Shakespeare gives Fortinbras this line to endear him to the audience. We like Hamlet and so we like a guy who likes him, too – one who would have liked to see him in the king’s seat.
Horatio asks Fortinbras to put all the bodies on a stage and then Fortinbras specifically chooses Hamlet to be taken – by four captains, no less. He does not even know what happened yet. Hamlet could have killed all the other people in a mad sociopathic spree. Fortinbras has literally no idea. He happens to choose the guy who we’ve been rooting for this whole time – but he could just as easily have chosen Claudius to bear to the stage like a soldier. Claudius gave him permission to troop through the country, after all. He could have been the soldier’s choice for an honorary soldier.
I suppose, depending on the arrangement of bodies when he enters, Fortinbras might be able to see that Horatio’s loyalty is with Hamlet. If, for example, Horatio is cradling Hamlet’s body – and Fortinbras is reading the room through Horatio, he could be making this call on physicality. Or else he’s just read the title of the play and he knows what side his literary toast is buttered on.
Isn’t this convenient? Fortinbras just happens to have some claim to the kingdom and just happens to be standing there in the moment of a power vacuum. Very very handy. It’s like someone who owns a share of an estate and just happens to walk in when all the other owners have suddenly turned up dead. He doesn’t need to wait for a letter from the lawyers. He can just start picking out paint samples.
Fortinbras seems to have sussed out the situation pretty quickly. What did he do? Just looked around – clocked a dead king, a dead queen and a dead prince and quickly did the math. He looked at this array of dead people and suddenly there’s no question in his mind that he’s the king of all this now. None of this “election” business required. He hears that there’s a story to tell and he’s like, “Great. Let’s hear it.” And then, “Also, I’m the king here now.”
Who’s left? Maybe it’s Claudius and Gertrude’s noblest friends that Claudius keeps threatening to call on but then never does?
There’s a way where it feels like anyone who is anyone in this play is already here and probably dead. But Fortinbras suggests there are more nobles to draw close. Or maybe he’s brought some along with him. Maybe it’s the Norwegian nobles he means.
The conceit here is that Death is having a party at his place and invited all these royals to be there. Unfortunately, the only way to get to Death’s place is to die so Death did all this just to boost his guest list? I mean how many princes do you need at a feast?
The thing is, though, I doubt that princes are the most fun to have over. Most of them tend to be a little bit too buttoned up or if they’re not buttoned up, they’re probably super rebellious and out of control. So, if I were Death, I’m not sure I’d be bringing Princes to my feasts. I’d much rather have a bunch of artists. Maybe some circus performers, stand-up comedians and some sculptors. They’d be a lot more fun at a party. Or just, like, someone who does a regular old job but is Mr. or Ms. Party Person.
Not that I’m advocating for Death to go on an artist murdering spree or a massacre of the fun people. Maybe Princes are a better idea. Yeah, yeah, feast with Princes.