(and yes, I know, questioning time in Shakespeare can be a shaky proposition [pun totally intended…])
Let’s set Hamlet in the eleventh century (based on some historical context). Given that setting, let’s start (perversely enough) at the end of the play and work backwards…
Like I said, we’ve talked a little about historical context, but what about geographical context?
How long does it take to sail from Denmark to England? Double that time period and take into account a slight delay in the trip to England–remember the pirate attack–and that round trip duration is roughly the time between the end of Act Four, Scene Three, when Claudius calls upon England to accomplish “the present death of Hamlet” (IV.iii.64) and the final blood bath where we learn from the English Ambassador that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” (V.ii.354).
Whatever time period that is, it’s longer than the time it takes news of Polonius’ death to travel the roughly 840 miles to Laertes in Paris (if he is there–it’s unsaid–but this can be reduced to some 760 miles to Calais, the closest major city in France), and for him to return to Denmark. Add to this the time Laertes spends “feed(ing) on this wonder, keep(ing) himself in clouds” (IV.v.89) of hiding in Denmark, and you have roughly the time between Act Four, Scene Three (the fallout from Polonius’ death) and Act Four, Scene Five, when Laertes leads the mob into Elsinore.
At the play-within-a-play, Ophelia says that it has been “twice two months” (III.ii.123) since Old Hamlet’s death, and thus we know that the play Hamlet opens more or less two months before the play “The Mousetrap,” since in our play’s second scene, Hamlet says that his father has been “but two months dead, nay, not so much, not two” (I.ii.138).
Where were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the start of the play? We can assume that it’s not Wittenberg as when Hamlet greets Horatio, he mentions “Wittenberg” (I.ii.168), but he makes no such reference when greeting the two courtiers. They have traveled some distance, however, since Claudius mentions his “hasty sending” (II.ii.4) for them, and both Gertrude and Hamlet talk of their “visitation” (II.ii.25 and 245, respectively). But why did the king and queen send for them? Is it Hamlet’s melancholy and depression or is it the “antic disposition” (I.v.175). If it’s the former, then it’s possible that the request could have been sent around the time of the opening of the play (which would have made their distance from Elsinore quite far); if the latter, then much closer since it would have taken some time for the “antic disposition” to bother Claudius and Gertrude enough to prompt them to send for the courtiers.
Regardless, I would argue that nearly two months have passed between Act One, Scene Five, and Act Two. First, it seems that the beginning of Act Two is mere days from “The Mousetrap,” as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s appearance coincides with the arrival of the players, and the play is put on the next or “tomorrow night” (II.ii.479). Plus, this would give Hamlet ample time to disturb Ophelia with his strange behavior.
We know from the speech in Act One, Scene Two of Hamlet, that two months have passed between the death of old Hamlet and the events of the play, with Gertrude’s marriage to Claudius taking place “within a month” (I.ii.145) of that death.
At the opening of the play, how long have the students Laertes, Hamlet, and Horatio been at Elsinore? Laertes says that he had come “to show (his) duty in (Claudius’) coronation” (I.ii.53). Was he able to arrive in time for said coronation? How soon after the death of old Hamlet did the “election” of Claudius as King of Denmark take place? If the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude took place a month after the death, then did the coronation take place before or after the wedding? I would assume the wedding took place after, but when Hamlet lists to Horatio all that Claudius has done, he says that the king
killed my king and whored my mother,
Popped in between th’ election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life
These would seem to come in chronological order, making the election and coronation after the wedding. But that just seems weird.
How long does it take for news travel the 530 or so miles from Elsinore in northeastern Denmark to Wittenberg, Germany, anyway? Was Hamlet in attendance for the funeral, the election or the wedding? If he was there for the election, why wasn’t he elected?
Could his age have anything to do with it?
If Yorick, the king’s jester, had been buried “three and twenty years” (V.i.163-4), and Hamlet is old enough to remember him, then it would seem that the gravedigger’s entire tenure as “sexton” (V.i.152) has included being a gravedigger, and that Hamlet is “thirty years old” (V.i.153).
A thirty year-old student who is (conveniently) out of town (or not).
Compared to a politically capable younger brother to the king, one who is able to negotiate a peace with a foreign nation, has a political “hand more instrumental” (I.ii.48) in Polonius, and is willing to marry (or maybe has already married) the widow queen for royal continuity?
Maybe we can see why the election went to Claudius.
(But more on that age thing later… oooooh, spoilers!)