Fortinbras, Laertes and Horatio, as Foils to Hamlet
"What a piece of work is a man!" (II, 2, 305). In his statement Prince Hamlet, in his role as the star character in William Shakespeare's Hamlet, acknowledges the complexity of man; as "infinite in faculties. . . express and admirable. . . like an angel [or] like a god. . . and yet. . . [a] quintessence of dust" (II, 2, 307) is man described. Shakespeare emphasizes the observation by casting Hamlet as "a man," exposing his strengths and weaknesses through the contrast provided by Fortinbras, Laertes and Horatio, as foils to the tragic hero.
At his first appearance, young Fortinbras is shown to be inferior to Hamlet; being "of unimproved metal, hot and full" (I, 1, 96) unreasonably "[sharking] up a list of landless resolutes" (I, 1, 98), he is in sharp contrast to the "sweet and commendable" (I, 2, 87) Hamlet introduced in the next scene. As the play develops, however, Hamlet's weakness are highlighted as Fortinbras works to earn his name, "which seems to symbolize the strong arm of the soldier" (xxvii).
Fortinbras' uncomplicated, simple-minded determination towards final revenge of this father's death contrasts with Hamlet's intermittent efforts towards the same goal. The Norwegian's first appearance in the play, which does not occur until act IV, scene 4, is conveniently placed as Hamlet is on another of his "lows." Fortinbras' triumphant and majestic entry into Denmark evidences his ability to plan and act, circumventing obstacles in his plan as they arise, which contrasts with Hamlet's inability to do the same. Hamlet condemns himself and exposes one of his weaknesses -- his inability to act when required or possible -- by questioning "Why yet [he] live[s] to say 'this thing's to do,' / Sith [he] [has] cause, and will, and strength, and means / To do't" (IV, 4, 44): why does he continually acknowledge he must act, and yet fail to do so? Fortinbras' leadership of the Norwegian army further weakens Hamlet in the eyes of the reader, as he is unable to lead himself to bring his plan to fruition.
The differing plans of action (or inaction) adopted by Fortinbras and Laertes, though leading to the same goal, also serve to emphasize Hamlet's strengths and weaknesses. Of the three, Fortinbras is the most successful: he plans "to recover. . . by strong of hand. . . those lands / So by his father lost" (I, 1, 102), acts by "[sharking] up a list of landless resolutes" (I, 1, 98) and raising an army, is "suppress[ed]. . . [and] Receives rebuke from [old] Norway" (II, 2, 61), replans with his "three thousand crowns in annual fee / And his commission to employ [the] soldiers" (II, 2, 73), "march[es] over [the Danish] kingdom" (IV, 4, 3) and finally succeeds to "embrace [his] fortune" (V, 2, 378). Hamlet, however, is easily distracted by his emotions: his intent to "set [the injustice of his father's murder] right" (II, 1, 188) weakens gradually as he...