There are several reasons the short discourse between Hamlet and a captain from Fortinbras’s army at the end of Act Four has become my favorite scene in the play Hamlet. There are 22 lines spoken between the Captain and Hamlet, but they contain questions about military service that reverberate today. Shakespeare’s fascination with the role of the soldier in society is evident in many of his plays, but rarely does he spotlight such blunt conversation between a character from the military and a member of the royal class.
In the following quick analysis of the scene, Hamlet is being packaged off to England accompanied by the hapless duo Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Even though he is Prince of Denmark, Hamlet can do nothing but witness what is happening; his Uncle Claudius is in charge of the kingdom.
Hamlet opens the exchange by asking the Captain what army is marching across Denmark.
Good sir, whose powers are these?
They are of Norway, sir.
How purposed, sir, I pray you?
Against some part of Poland.
To all observers, Fortinbras’s march through Denmark to Poland with an army is a potential threat to Denmark. Hamlet’s father had killed Fortinbras’s father in battle, and Fortinbras is one of the three sons looking to avenge a father in this tragedy.
Who commands them, sir?
The nephews to old Norway, Fortinbras.
Goes it against the main of Poland, sir,
Or for some frontier?
Hamlet is able to gather information as to Fortinbras’s intent, or at least the Captain’s orders. When the Captain speaks “truly,” he is unaware he is addressing royalty:
Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.
Here then, the Captain explains the soldier’s paradox. He has enlisted in the military, and in the military, he follows orders. The Captain knows the “little patch of ground” is worthless to him personally, “To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it…” That same land, however, has value to those who command the army, to those who engage in kingdom building, and to those who care for, “no profit but the name.” All land is valuable to those who desire to expand their holdings. Yet that same land is as valuable to those who own it, and Hamlet learns from the Captain that the Poles have dug in, preparing for Fortinbras’s coming attack:
Why, then the Polack never will defend it.
Yes, it is already garrison’d.
Shakespeare uses Fortinbras’s “man of action” to contrast Hamlet’s “man of thought” throughout the play. While Hamlet spends almost four acts fuming over his Uncle Claudius, Fortinbras amasses an army to claim or to regain land lost by his father. Of course the Poles will be defending their homeland, an understandable reason to risk their lives, but the Norwegian soldiers are not being attacked; they are the attackers. Hamlet’s last words to the Captain shows him considering an unnecessary war that will cost many soldiers lives:
Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. I humbly thank you, sir.
God be wi’ you, sir.
In the soliloquy that follows, Hamlet wonders why soldiers would enlist in such a venture when they risk their lives for an unknown cause:
“…for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain?”
In offering this soliloquy, Shakespeare poses a universal question: Why does anyone become a soldier?
As the mother of two active duty Marine Corps officers, I think about this same question. I think about this question knowing that only .5% of Americans serve in today’s military as compared to 12% in World War II.
Shakespeare asks what “a fantasy and trick of fame” drives men and women to enlist and follow orders. Certainly full employment is a draw to the profession, but a military that enlists only for money is akin to a military of mercenaries. A report by the US Department of Defense issued by the American Forces Press Service points to another reason, that military service is a family tradition. In a 2011 survey, “79% percent of veterans surveyed reported that an immediate family member is serving or has served in the military. That compares to 61 percent among the civilian respondents.”
A New York Times editorial (5/26/2013) Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart by Karl W. Eikenberry and David Kennedy, also points out the growing disconnect between the general population and those who serve. Eikenberry is a retired Lieutenant General and former United States commander in Afghanistan (2009-2001); Kennedy is an emeritus professor of history at Stanford. They discuss family legacy as the reason young men and women enlist:
“So many officers have sons and daughters serving that they speak, with pride and anxiety, about war as a “family business.” Here are the makings of a self-perpetuating military caste, sharply segregated from the larger society and with its enlisted ranks disproportionately recruited from the disadvantaged.”
I often hear praise heaped upon my sons because sometimes they are the only direct connection to the military for friends and associates. My extended family includes brothers, nephews, and brothers-in-laws who have also served in some branch of service. We could be part of the military caste that understands the concerns of Eikenberry and Kennedy who recount a maxim of George Washington:
“The [US Military] all-volunteer force may be the most lethal and professional force in history, but it makes a mockery of George Washington’s maxim: When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen. Somehow, soldier and citizen must once again be brought to stand side by side.”
Shakespeare presents the plight of the soldier to an audience of citizens by having the Captain speak to the “citizen” Hamlet. As the Captain bluntly assesses the coming attack, Shakespeare creates empathy for the soldier from the citizens who hear him speak. They hear Hamlet “humbled” in his thanks. In this short scene, Shakespeare illustrates the importance of Washington’s maxim: the citizen must stand with the soldier.
There is, however, another reason this scene from Hamlet has a special significance for me. My older son served his first tour (of three) in Afghanistan in 2011. In our mail one day was a small cardboard box top from an MRE box that he had used as a postcard. He indicated he was doing well, healthy and well-fed, and he asked us to thank those who had sent packages to him. He had carefully printed as much as he could on the box top, as if his writing would be sufficient to assure us of his safety. He signed off with his scrawly signature, but at the bottom of the card in a tiny line of postscript he had penned the quote:
“We go to gain a little patch of ground that hath in it no profit but the name.”