Fortinbras and his army arrive at Elsinore. Fortinbras orders the captain of his army to go into the castle, bring Norway’s greetings to the Danish king, and remind him of the permission he granted Fortinbras to march his troops through their territory. Fortinbras tells his captain to make sure to let Claudius know that if there’s anything Claudius wants from them, they will do it for him. Fortinbras and his soldiers return to their camp, leaving the captain alone.
Fortinbras was spurred to action by his desire for revenge. Now, even without that outlet, he is still able to keep his armies marching forward. Where Hamlet has only trepidation, Fortinbras has nothing but resolve.
Hamlet, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern enter. Seeing the Norwegian army, Hamlet asks the captain what they’re doing there and what their purpose is. The captain tells Hamlet that the army is marching on to Poland under the command of Fortinbras, though he admits the piece of land they seek to claim is small and worthless. To himself, Hamlet laments the use of money and violence in such pointless, petty wars. The captain bids Hamlet goodbye and heads on to Elsinore.
Hamlet is shocked by Fortinbras’s army’s willingness to march onward in pursuit of such a small, petty goal. He feels ashamed that even though he himself has good reason for revenge, he’s been unable to muster the action of even Fortinbras’s hired mercenaries.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern walk ahead, but Hamlet lags behind. Alone, he states that his encounter with the army is spurring him to sharpen his “dull revenge.” Men who don’t think and act are no better than beasts, he believes. Seeing Fortinbras exercise “divine ambition” in commanding and leading a massive army in pursuit of something so small and trivial has reminded Hamlet of his inability to take action and get vengeance for his father. Watching 20,000 men march forward on little more than a whim has made Hamlet realize that if his “thoughts be [anything but] bloody,” they are “nothing worth.”
Hamlet realizes that Fortinbras and his entire army are more decisive—and thus more powerful—than Hamlet, even though they have less motivation, it would seem, to march on Poland. Hamlet resolves to think only of revenge from now on—but whether he’s actually able to follow through remains to be seen.