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 age — a puzzle
It has been said by many that in the first four acts of the play Hamlet seems to be a young man, a student, and that his acquaintances are also students and youthful associates but that in Act V the impression, based on the remarks of the grave-digger Clown, is that Hamlet is 30 years old. It has been suggested that it may have suited Shakespeare's dramatic purposes to make Hamlet 30, or perhaps he forgot or simply did not care. But let us see what can be made of it.
The Clown has some incredibly idiotic beliefs, particularly about suicide. Wisely, we ought be careful to believe anything, let alone everything, this fool says. When he talks to Hamlet he recalls the remarkable coincidences that occurred on a particular day, many years ago, when he was still a child. Hamlet doesn't question the Clown's veracity but that proves nothing. Hamlet has already sized up the remarks of this windbag:
Hamlet: How absolute the knave is! we must
speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.
Hamlet: How long hast thou been a
In response to this answer Hamlet's next question may seem strange.
Hamlet: How long is that since?
Is Hamlet seriously seeking information? Doesn't he know when the battle took place? We may not know how old Hamlet is but doesn't Hamlet know how old he is? Hamlet knows these things, of course. He, more than anyone, would know the historical date of his father's victory and that he had been born on that very day. He would have been told of that fact again and again and know it, never needing to enquire of a Clown to learn it. So why does Hamlet ask the Clown? It, and the questions that follow, seem nothing more than to enjoy the comedy of the Clown's responses.
A little later the Clown adds:
Clown: I have been sexton here, man and boy,
The logic of these various remarks makes Hamlet 30 years old, but that is a rounded figure. The important historical dates of the victory over Fortinbras and Hamlet's birth and the fact that both occurred on the same day will be well-known to the Danes: 'Every fool can tell that' says the Clown. Had the 30th anniversaries of these events already taken place they would not have passed unnoticed, particularly with Hamlet being so popular, yet there is nothing to suggest either having been celebrated. It may be that Hamlet is only 29 and several months, hence the rounding to 30 years.
That the Clown has been a grave-digger for 30 years is no surprise. What is a surprise is that he claims his first day at work coincided with these two historic events. It is nonsense to believe that anyone, let alone a grave-digger clown, can recall historic events that happened on a particular day in their childhood. Given the Clown's exaggerations, how much more likely is it that, over the years, he has attached his first day at work to these famous events? It makes a good story and probably gets him an occasional free beer from his cronies.
Despite the obvious fabrication, vast numbers who hear the play accept, without question, the Clown's childhood memories, yet sane people, if asked, are unable to recall dates or to link events in their remote pasts. Isn't it reasonable to doubt the Clown's accuracy and veracity? He is so precise in his colourful recollections that he seems too good to be true. When the baby was born in the palace perhaps the news seeped down to the populace that very day but would a mere boy place special significance on the event? News of the defeat of Fortinbras would not have arrived in Elsinore until many days or weeks after the actual battle. Are we to believe the boy grave-digger counted back to that date and found it coincided with the day he started work? There is nothing to corroborate his statements so why swallow them hook, line and sinker?
Something is rotting in the state of Denmark!
While the Clown is digging the grave he throws up a skull. A little later he throws up another skull. While he is talking to Hamlet he picks up a third skull. He says that this particular one is Yorick's skull:
Clown: Here's a skull now; this skull has lain in
the earth three and twenty years.
Presumably he would need to know all three skulls individually to be able to declare so precisely who owned this one. How does he do that? But is this one really Yorick's skull? It seems most unlikely:
Hamlet: How long will a man lie i' th' earth ere
Hamlet: Let me see. [Takes the skull.] Alas, poor
So we see that Yorick has had time to rot three times over and yet his skull still smells! That is ridiculous! This particular skull has been in the ground for less than eight years so it cannot possibly be Yorick's. The Clown has got the skulls muddled, quite simply because he can't tell one skull from another. Who can? You've seen one skull, you've seen 'em all!
So, how old is Hamlet?
The Clown says Yorick died 23 years earlier. There is nothing to suggest he is inaccurate with the years and perhaps the grave is marked with a date. Hamlet recalls Yorick:
Hamlet: ...... I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
Hamlet's happy memories of Yorick are those of a young child and of several years of that childhood. If we assume that Yorick frequented the palace right up to his death, the question is: what age was Hamlet when Yorick died? An age of six or seven seems reasonable given the nature of Hamlet's recollections. Thus, if Hamlet were seven when Yorick died 23 years ago then Hamlet's present age is 30.
The play's the thingHamlet's production of The Mousetrap includes lines that he has written. Hamlet uses poetry to show that the Player Queen and Player King have been married for 30 years up to the death of the King. Hamlet's object, of course, is to precisely duplicate the years of marriage between Gertrude and King Hamlet up to the death of King Hamlet.
Full thirty times hath Phoebus' cart gone round
Hamlet wants to be sure that his audience don't miss the significance of that 30 year interval. He is most emphatic in driving that point home! He has just used the sun (Phoebus, the sun-god) but now he switches to that other measurer of time, the moon, and uses it, not once, but twice!
And thirty dozen moons with borrow'd sheen
So many journeys may the sun and moon
These verses are specific enough to enable Hamlet's age to be deduced with reasonable precision. King Hamlet and Gertrude were married for 30 years (not nearly 30 or less than 30 but 30 exactly or perhaps a little more, for Hamlet says Full thirty times). If we assume Hamlet was born in the first year of the marriage then his age at the time of his father's death will not be greater than about 29¼. When Hamlet talks to the grave-digger six months later he is therefore 29¾, but nobody, even Hamlet, would ever state their age with such precision, and the rounding off to 30 is supported by the grave-digger's remarks.