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Fortinbras is the name of two minor fictional characters from William Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet. The more notable is a Norwegian crown prince with a few brief scenes in the play, who delivers the final lines that represent a hopeful future for the monarchy of Denmark and its subjects. Fortinbras is also the name of the former king of Norway and father of the crown prince Fortinbras. King Fortinbras was slain in the play's antecedent action in battle with King Hamlet. The battle between the two is described by Horatio in act one, scene one (I,i) of the play.
Role in the play
Although Fortinbras makes only two brief appearances in the later half of the play, he is referred to throughout: King Claudius sends ambassadors to Norway in the hopes of staving off his invasion, and they return with the news that Fortinbras will attack Poland but leave Denmark alone. At the very end—after all the major characters except Horatio are dead—Fortinbras and his army enter, accompanied by ambassadors from England who have come to announce that Claudius' supposed orders to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been carried out. With the throne of Denmark now vacant, Fortinbras is to be crowned ruler. This may be an allusion to the political situation of the day: at the time the play was written, Denmark and Norway were united under a single crown; also, England itself was to be ruled by King James I (also James VI of Scotland), who claimed the throne by virtue of his blood relation to Elizabeth I (the play was written before Elizabeth I's death).
Fortinbras also serves as a parallel to Hamlet in many ways: like the latter, he is motivated largely by the death of his father, whose name he also bears (as Hamlet does his), and both serve as princes of their respective countries. In other respects, Fortinbras serves as a foil for Hamlet: while the Danish prince is deliberate and given to long-winded soliloquies, the Norwegian is impulsive and hot-headed, determined to avenge his slain father at any cost.
Fortinbras orders that Prince Hamlet be given a soldier's funeral, describing him as "likely, had he been put on, to have proved most royally".
As Hamlet, with a running time in the range of four hours, is seldom performed in its entirety, the role of Fortinbras is sometimes omitted, as it was in the 1948 film starring Laurence Olivier, in the 1969 film starring Nicol Williamson, and the 1990 film starring Mel Gibson. He was included, however, in the 1964 Broadway revival, which was later filmed as Richard Burton's Hamlet, in the 1980 BBC Shakespeare television production starring Derek Jacobi, in the 1996 film starring Kenneth Branagh and the 2000 film starring Ethan Hawke, although in the 2000 film, he is an enemy of business. In these films he was played by Michael Ebert, Ian Charleson, Rufus Sewell and Casey Affleck, respectively.
Other stage adaptations
Fortinbras is the protagonist of the 1992 play Fortinbras by Lee Blessing. The plot of Fortinbras follows that of Hamlet; the first scene is the death of Hamlet in the original Shakespearean text. The rest of the play is in a vernacular, modern English. Major characters from Hamlet appear as ghosts in this sequel.