Hamlet: The Cosmopolitan Prince

Paul A. Cantor, “Hamlet: The Cosmopolitan Prince,” Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, 12, no. 1 (1984): 15-29


Few critics have trouble themselves over the question: Would Prince Hamlet have made a good King of Denmark? Preoccupied with the problem of why Hamlet fails to act for much of the play, critics have understandably been reluctant to speculate about how he might have acted had he come home to the throne. And yet Shakespeare raises the issue at the end of the play, when Fortinbras concludes by predicting what Hamlet’s political future might have been; “he was likely, had he been put on, / to have prov’d most royal” (v.ii. 397-98). Sympathetic as we are to Hamlet, we would like to think that Fortinbras correctly assessed the prince’s potential as a king. But Fortinbras has an ulterior motive — one might even say a political motive — in being so generous to the dead Hamlet. Ever one to seize an opportunity, Fortinbras is already thinking ahead to how he might exploit the situation he has stumbled upon: “I have some rights, of memory in this kingdom, / Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me” (vi.ii.389-90). By speaking well of Hamlet, Fortinbras may be seeking to win the hearts of the dead prince’s partisans and thus to advance his own cause in Denmark. What Fortinbras presumably does not yet know is how deeply indebted he actually is to Hamlet.

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