Why did Shakespeare have Norway save the day in his legendary play “Hamlet”?
Let’s look at the story for answers.
Poor 30-something Hamlet. His father has been murdered. Hamlet’s dad, his spirit direct from purgatory (he’s the king that was murdered) tells Hamlet he must avenge his death—and the murderer is…Hamlet’s uncle (the dead king’s brother)…who is now sleeping with Hamlet’s mom. Gotta love how bold the Bawd was.
Now, Hamlet is very troubled by all of this.
It also troubles our thoughtful hero that his uncle hopped right over his birthright to be the King of Denmark. A wildly bold move on the part of uncle Claudius. What a dirty-birdy uncle he is. That is just rotten behavior.
Hamlet is incensed to honor his slain father’s spirit and revenge the wrongful death.
But, Hamlet is too indecisive. He thinks about things too much. He is such a poet. The “Poet King”, they might have called him. The guy was studying alchemy. Alchemy is the process of changing base metal into gold. To be certain, no person in human history has accomplished this task. Gold comes from super nova explosions and was literally deposited into the earth. It is a foreign and rare substance, indeed. Nonetheless, many tried. But what alchemy really is is the process of turning your base soul into gold. It is a spiritual pursuit and all about transformation. Hamlet may just be an artist or a priest in nature. He does dress a lot in black.
Hamlet’s indecisiveness just goes on and on, never seeming to end. He has a chance to kill Claudius, but laments he would send him to heaven because Uncle King is in the act of praying at the time. Yea. Yea. Sh*t or get off the pot, Hamlet. You had a chance. Kill Claudius. That is the goal. Eye on the prize, buddy. Hamlet, instead, goes off to think…and bother mommy in her bedroom.
Nearing the play’s end, in a wonderfully dramatic moment, Hamlet finally claims his rightful role as Denmark’s King. He does so by jumping out of a grave, in which, he had just been chatting with a skull, musing. Forever musing. He leaps out of the grave and says, “This is I, Hamlet the Dane”. What this mean is, “It is me, Hamlet, the King of Denmark”.
Wow! We have hope. The boy prince may be becoming a man. Hamlet, we hope, is about to have “an enterprise of great pith and moment”. He may just kick some boo-tay. Poet boy is gonna get his fight on. Where? At a simple sparring match with swords…competing for points.
“Perfect”, plots scheming Uncle King and no-longer-friend Laertes.
With this new boldness in our (the audience’s) mind, what happens? Our over-thinking poet king-hopeful falls into a trap and only takes serious action in cleaning house in the castle of Denmark, because Laertes cuts him first. Toddlers to nobility…all the same. Ironically, poet boy Hamlet only takes such ready action and warrior-like behavior in total ignorance of what he is doing. He does not even realize he is killing Laertes, who has plotted against (and we come to find, successfully killed) Hamlet.
Queen mommy starts her death throws. She is ignorantly killed by her husband’s treachery, drinking poisoned wine Uncle King prepared for Hamlet.
In watching mommy and while listening to Laertes death-bed confession of the poisoning of the wine and sword he has been cut with, Hamlet sees what is going on. Only with death looming and while seeing mommy going down, does he seize the moment. Knowing it is now or never, he poisons Claudius with the poison Uncle King prepared himself. Now Uncle King is dead and so is mommy. Laertes’ toes are turned up and Hamlet is about to meet the same fate.
Our hero, the man who has finally sacrificed his own person (if not accidentally), bids a parting farewell to the world and collapses with the others. However, before doing so, he gives over all Danish authority to…Fortinbras, the prince of Norway.
O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o’er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.
With Hamlet dead, the doors to the palace open and who walks in? Norway…in the figure of Prince Fortinbras, present to restore health to a deeply sickened, indeed rotten, nation.
Shakespeare told us in the beginning of the piece that “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. Sometimes, when something is rotten, it must be extracted or killed off, lest it grow like a cancer and kill the larger body. Shakespeare needed to kill them all off, including the star of the show. Hamlet had to go, as he would have made for a terrible king, in all likelihood. He would have been terrible, as he thinks too much and is too slow and even unwilling to take necessary action, though such actions may be unpopular.
Several references in the play said Fortinbras was coming to avenge his father’s death and reclaim lands that were his (and Norway’s) and take some, if not all of Denmark in the process. He is now here–now and future king–with an effortless concurring of the Danes, handed over by our poet prince, Hamlet.
One cannot help but wonder what Shakespeare was thinking, what he was imagining. Shakespeare gives Denmark to Norway, the presumed healing agent to juxtapose the deep decay of Denmark and then says “The rest is silence”. Will Fortinbras be a great ruler? We do not know. However, we do know he will be a ruler of action. He can and will lead…quite unlike our now dead poet prince.
This never happened. No Danish court ended in bloodshed only to be handed over to Norway. Norway has never ruled Denmark, but Denmark (and Sweden) have ruled Norway and at the time this play was written, Denmark, Sweden and Norway were under one flag. Was Shakespeare’s choice of choosing Norway as the healthy alternative to the rotten state simply a function, the easiest option in his storytelling? After all, someone had to lead in the end and Shakespeare likely needed a bow on the play to make it a highly digestible piece for the audience. Or was his choice more purposeful? This guy, Bill Shakespeare, had a vocabulary six times larger than the average person today and was, in all likelihood, smarter than you or I. He was incomprehensibly brilliant. It is unlikely that Shakespeare’s Fortinbras was a haphazard function, a trivial choice. Rather, it was by design and purposeful decision making.
So, what did Bill see in Norway?
Jim Hart is the founder of The International Theatre Academy Norway