But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with th’ occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence. Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2
“Fortinbras!” The A-level English teacher would almost spit out his name. “Hamlet could have been king of Denmark and instead it is Fortinbras. Fortinbras is a thug!”
To a seventeen year old boy sat in the classroom it didn’t seem to make much difference, neither of them had ever existed in the first place. Asked to give an objective opinion at the time, the sixth form college student might have increased the teacher’s sense of outrage by suggesting that Fortinbras couldn’t cause much more harm than Hamlet. Hadn’t Hamlet stabbed Polonius for eavesdropping, driven Ophelia to death by suicide, and forced Claudius to drink poison? Not much of the renaissance prince in someone who would kill without hesitation.
Fortinbras has lingered in the memory since that English class, was he really so bad?
Fortinbras seemed the sort of ruler who might have been commended by Machiavelli, the sort of prince whose style of rule might have conformed with the recommendations of Machiavelli’s The Prince. Machiavelli’s ideas may have come to be regarded as the embodiment of evil, he may have himself been perceived as “Old Nick,” yet what he sought in his work was to suggest rule that was efficient, rule that minimised violence through using such violence as was necessary quickly and ruthlessly at the outset.
Fortinbras may have been a thug, but if he was an efficient thug, then it may have been to have been to the benefit of all but the few against whom he had decided to act.
Perhaps the question should have been not whether Fortinbras was a thug, but who would benefit from his rule? Hamlet as king would have spent much time in reflection on the nature of life, much time in philosophical debate with his friends. It is difficult to imagine the perpetual student organizing the protection of his people. Fortinbras as king would have commanded the respect of the people because he would protect them against threats from outside of the country and from lawlessness within it. For an ordinary person, the choice between them would not be a difficult one to make.
Visiting Rwanda five times between 2009 and 2015, the country has remained an abiding interest. It is a country that asks whether one would prefer a Hamlet or a Fortinbras. This week it began a vaccination programme using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the first country in Africa to do so. Voice of America reports:
The government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, which prides itself on efficiency and technological prowess but is often criticized as authoritarian, has installed special infrastructure to keep the Pfizer vaccine at the recommended -80 to -60 Celsius.
Kagame may be accused of being a thug, but he has transformed his country. Compare Rwanda with its neighbours, and the effectiveness of the Fortinbras philosophy is immediately apparent.