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

The Trial of Claudius – Hamlet's prosecution

Hamlet kills Polonius – stabs the "Voice"

Laertes v Hamlet – poisoned foil

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 revenge – the rest is silence

Hamlet's fencing skill

Practice makes perfect

Laertes 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.
You have been talk'd of since your travel much,
...... for a quality wherein, they say, you shine: ......
Two months since, here was a gentleman of Normandy.
I've seen myself.
Laertes: A Norman was't?
Claudius: A Norman.
Laertes: Upon my life, Lamord.
Claudius: The very same.
Laertes: I know him well: he is the brooch indeed
And gem of all the nation.
Claudius: He made confession of you,
And gave you such a masterly report
For art and exercise in your defence
And for your rapier most especially,
That he cried out, 'twould be a sight indeed,
If one could match you: the scrimers of their nation,
He swore, had had neither motion, guard, nor eye,
If you opposed them.
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]
Did Hamlet so envenom with his envy
That he could nothing do but wish and beg
Your sudden coming o'er, to play with him.
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: I do not think so: since he went into France,
I have been in continual practice: I shall win at the odds.
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 match

A 'hit', when fencing, would kill the player if the foil were unbated, that is, if it were not fitted with a protective button on the point of the weapon. Now to the actual contest:

Hamlet will be killed if
(1) Laertes gets a 'hit' with his unbated foil,
(2) he is scratched anywhere by the poisoned point of the foil,
(3) he drinks from the poisoned chalice.

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 surviving the contest 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.
Laertes: My lord, I'll hit him now.
Claudius: I do not think't.
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, and so he puts the poison on his sword at this early stage, even though 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. The wound is obviously so far from the heart that he is only being weakened slowly and is still able to continue fighting just as skillfully. 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 his parries.

In the scuffle they swap swords. Laertes now knows 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.