A Hamlet timeline – chronicle of events
Setting the Timeline – considerations
Claudius – planning my foul murder
King Hamlet's funeral – where was Hamlet?
Gertrude & Claudius – adultery or not?
Horatio – Hamlet's friend?
Horatio – is he passion's slave?
Polonius – the evil that men do
Ophelia's love? – did she love Hamlet?
Ophelia closetted – Polonius on love
O help xxx ....... – Olivier's version
Ophelia's change – is Hamlet suspicious?
Hamlet feigns madness – protective "cover"
Is Hamlet mad? – Polonius's opinion
Hamlet kills Polonius – stabs the "Voice"
Laertes on Ophelia – madness & death
Ophelia's death – a recipe
Hamlet's age – digging up the past
Yorick – something rotting in Denmark
Betting on Hamlet – the fencing match
Hamlet's fencing skill – better than Laertes
Hamlet's fencing skill
Practice makes perfectLaertes returned to France four months prior to the fencing match and two months later Hamlet was spirited out of Denmark. During the two months before Hamlet's departure Claudius would have seen him in fencing practice. We may deduce that Claudius, as a skilled soldier, was able to assess Hamlet's skill on what he saw during those two months. He has also assessed Laertes, not only on what he saw of Laertes before he left for France but also because he has been given a favourable report since being in France:
Claudius: ...... It falls right.Despite Claudius assessing Laertes as the better fencer he chooses to wager on Hamlet for, as he says, "We have therefore odds."
King Claudius: Sir, this report of his [Lamord's]Shortly after hearing this report, Hamlet was sent out of Denmark. Very likely Horatio had also heard Lamord's account and believes Hamlet can't win:
Horatio: You will lose this wager, my lord.Hamlet is confident of his fencing prowess because he has been in continual practice, that is, in the two months after Laertes went into France, but also in the following two months, right up to the present time. He does not say where he practiced, but it can only have been on the pirate ship because that is the only place he has been for all of the most recent two months.
Horatio [Reads the letter from Hamlet] ...... a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase........ I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy: but they knew what they did; I am to do a good turn for them. These good fellows will bring thee where I am.Pirates, by their very activity, use weapons and are particularly skilled in swordplay. Hamlet got on extremely well with his captors, so it seems certain that his practice was with the pirates. The pirate crew, perhaps 30 to 40 strong, are, in effect, professional swordsmen! Not only would he have learned a wealth of skills but they may have taught him to fight like a pirate. Claudius knew nothing of this but probably realised Hamlet's improvement immediately the fencing match got under way.
The fencing matchA 'hit', when fencing, would kill the player were it not for the protective button on the point of the weapon. Now to the actual contest:
Hamlet will be killed if
(1) Laertes gets a 'hit' with the unbated foil,
(2) he drinks the poisoned cup,
(3) he is scratched anywhere by the poisoned point.
Does Laertes put poison on his foil before the contest starts? No. One would think his belief and pride in his fencing skill would cause him to, at least, try to bring it off without poison. Despite his supposed skill, he fails to hit Hamlet but Hamlet hits him twice and proves a much better fencer than Claudius and Laertes believed. Hamlet's chance, therefore, of avoiding the poisoned point has improved but it has not been eliminated. He is just a harder target to hit.
At this point Claudius offers the poisoned cup to Hamlet but he refuses it and is likely to continue to refuse it. Reason: Hamlet is scoring easily and would believe he will make his five hits quickly and get it over and done with. Hamlet: "Come for the third, Laertes. You but dally." He has been in continuous training and is not tired nor in need of a drink.
Claudius: Our son shall win.Claudius, who is obviously a good judge of fencers, is doubtful Laertes can do it. Apparently Laertes, despite saying he will get a hit, appears to be as pessimistic as Claudius that he can do it, otherwise why the need to put poison on his sword at this early stage, in which he need make just the one killing hit before Hamlet scores three more hits. Putting poison on his foil is evidence of Laertes failure as a swordsman. With no confidence to make a killing hit, he just hopes for a fluke in that his sword might scratch Hamlet somewhere, drawn blood, and so transfer the poison. During the next pass Laertes gets his fluke when he nicks Hamlet, probably on the hand, but certainly remote enough from the heart that it takes half an hour, or so, for Hamlet to become affected and die. Even this shows Laertes failure as a swordsman. He would have tried to score a hit, i.e., stab Hamlet in the body, but was unable to penetrate Hamlet's parries. In the scuffle they swap swords. Laertes now knows that Hamlet has the unbated poisoned sword and, realising his mortal danger, would have fought like a demon to get a hit to bring a temporary halt in the contest, that he might ask for a drink, change his foil and otherwise create sufficient delay that the poison would begin to overwhelm Hamlet. But no! He can't get a hit. And then Hamlet hits him for the third time, but this time, because of the unbated weapon, the hit is mortal. The poison on the sword is not a factor in Laertes's demise, the sword thrust is all it takes. He falls and is dead within a minute:
Laertes: Here I lie, never to rise again.Even in this very last encounter Hamlet further proves his superiority over Laertes. The poisoned nick Laertes inflicted on Hamlet must therefore be considered as an accidental touch that might just as easily have missed. Had the fencing match been a genuine contest Hamlet would have won easily.
In the course of the fencing contest, Hamlet fulfils the revenge condition that his father's ghost requested of him. Hamlet actually kills Claudius whilst he is at gaming (i.e. Claudius has a wager on Hamlet).
Hamlet: Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent: