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 a questions about military service that reverberates today, “Why does anyone become a soldier?”
Hamlet meets the Captain from Fortinbras’s Norwegian army, an army that is marching across Denmark. The Captain does not recognize Hamlet as royalty; he speaks to Hamlet “truly” in his blunt appraisal of the coming attack.
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.”
Why, then the Polack never will defend it.
Yes, it is already garrison’d.
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 invasion.
I think about this scene as the mother of two Marine Corps officers, both who have served tours in the current war in Afghanistan.
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 line of postscript, he penned the quote:
“We go to gain a little patch of ground that hath no profit in it but the name.”