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 problem – Did the ghost tell the truth?

King Hamlet's ghost tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered him.  Hamlet's concern is that the ghost may be evil and has told him a lie. For a couple of months Hamlet has sought the truth but gotten nowhere. But then comes a breakthrough, or is it? Hamlet has heard a rumour! However, he has forgotten the good advice about NOT listening to them.
Hamlet: Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. ......... the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.
This is not a proven method – quite the contrary – it is not a method at all, it is ridiculous! If it were possible, how easy would it be to catch murderers? Simply, put all the suspects in a theatre, re-enact the murder and then scan their faces to find the one with the guilty 'look'. Though this seems so obvious, Hamlet doesn't think about it for a moment but only thinks of putting on a play to trap Claudius. He adapts a play called The Murder of Gonzago to fit the scene the ghost described of King Hamlet's death. He names his play The Mousetrap.

Just before The Mousetrap is performed Hamlet tells Horatio there is a scene that simulates his father's murder. He asks Horatio to note Claudius's reaction when the murder is played.

Hamlet: There is a play to-night before the King.
One scene of it comes near the circumstance,
Which I have told thee, of my father's death.
I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe my uncle ..... Give him heedful note;
He never mentions his mother's marriage to Claudius. Horatio may, like everyone else, though not Hamlet, simply accept the marriage as a normal event, even if he were aware that Hamlet was upset by it. Even then, Horatio would consider the murder to be of vastly greater significance, particularly as this is the only thing Hamlet mentions before the play. If Horatio sees any reaction whatsoever in Claudius he might automatically assume it is triggered by the murder. If Claudius reacts for some entirely other reason, say, Hamlet's comments about the marriage, Horatio is unlikely to realise that this may be the real cause of Claudius's agitation.

A courtroom drama – The Trial of King Claudius

The venue for the play and, therefore, the 'trial' is a room in the palace. Hamlet is the prosecutor, Horatio is the jury. There is no judge and no defence.

The Mousetrap is performed, first as a dumb show and, after a short intermission, as a spoken play. This is Hamlet's complete case. Claudius shows no response to the dumb show. During the intermission he asks Hamlet the name and nature of the play, typical of the usual chit-chat one hears at the performance of any play.
King Claudius: What do you call the play?
Hamlet: The Mousetrap. Marry, how? Tropically. This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna: Gonzago is the duke's name; his wife, Baptista:
Enter Lucianus
Hamlet: This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king.
Claudius is the only person to whom Hamlet mentions Gonzago. Hamlet gives him a detailed account of the Gonzago story and that a play called The Murder of Gonzago had been written about it. Hamlet tells Claudius that his own The Mousetrap is a variant of the original.

The rest of the audience know nothing of the origin of The Mousetrap, therefore don't know it is a copy of The Murder of Gonzago, or even that it is a copy of a play. To them, The Mousetrap would be seen as a depiction of recent Danish events, except for how King Hamlet died. They would be appalled by its offensive sarcasm to Claudius, who, just like the murderer in the play, gained the crown and married the dead king's widow.

Hamlet's play:
"The Mousetrap"

Elsinore during the
last 4 months

King & Queen,
30-year marriage anniversary
K. Hamlet & Gertrude,
30-year marriage anniversary
King died in his garden.
Poisoned (murder)
King died in his garden.
Poisoned (snake–bite)
Murderer elected king
Claudius elected king
Murderer married king's widow Claudius married king's widow
During the spoken play, Claudius shows no reaction until Hamlet yells out to HIM (the only one Hamlet told of Gonzago):
Hamlet: He poisons him i' the garden for's estate. His name's Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian: you shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago's wife.
Claudius, clearly angered at Hamlet's sarcastic innuendo, finally stands up and demands the performance come to an end. One could hardly blame him.

This action by Claudius convinces Hamlet that the ghost told him the truth and that Claudius is guilty and he says so to Horatio. He then puts some leading questions to Horatio (see below).

Claudius's defence

Defence counsel (if it had existed) would believe they can get a 'not guilty' or at least a 'not proven' verdict. Their argument: It is logically impossible to prove Hamlet's theory about a criminal's guilty look; let's call it the X factor.

Whether X actually exists has never been proven, hence what X is, is unknown. The X factor is the prosecution's entire case. The defence will challenge its validity before the jury.

Defence calls several experienced Shakespearean actors – they are all familiar with Hamlet. They are instructed to take on board Hamlet's belief in the rumour that a murderer cannot help but reveal his guilt in some uncontrolled or reflex act, the X factor, and are asked to try to portray it. In front of the jury, each actor, in turn, plays the role of Claudius as he watches The Mousetrap.

The defence council's key points:

  • doubts that X exists
  • that if X exists, no-one knows how it manifests itself
  • that X cannot be acted by any actor simply because no actor can know what the X factor looks like
  • that if X exists it may induce responses indistiguishable from those induced by other causes
  • if X could be acted, it would create doubt – was it acting or real?
  • if a superb actor could act X it would be impossible to distinguish between good acting and a murderer's guilt.

Horatio's equivocation

After the play, Horatio's answers are vague and say almost nothing:
Hamlet: O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound! Didst perceive?
Horatio: Very well, my lord.
Hamlet: Upon the talk of the poisoning?
Horatio: I did very well note him.
Though this might seem to be proof that Claudius did something to cause Hamlet to believe The Mousetrap had proven the murder, this is far from being a proof! Hamlet has asked Horatio a pair of leading questions and that's not valid. A leading question suggests its own answer, in effect putting words into the mouth or thoughts into the mind of the witness. No court or judge allows such questions to be asked let alone incorporates them in a proof of guilt. Hamlet's leading questions will influence Horatio to think the way Hamlet is thinking. We won't know for sure what Horatio saw or what HE was thinking. Hamlet asks leading questions of others which clearly demonstrate their unwholesome influence. Both Polonius and Osric are apparently overawed by Hamlet's royal status and respond to his leading questions by agreeing with whatever he says, however ludicrous:
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
Polonius: By th' mass, and 'tis like a camel indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is back'd like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale.
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Hamlet: Then will I come to my mother by-and-by.
— They fool me to the top of my bent. —

Osric: ..... it is very hot.
Hamlet: No, believe me, 'tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
Osric: It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
Hamlet: But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.
Osric: Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry, as 'twere – I cannot tell how.
Can it be said with any certainty that Horatio is not also in awe of his illustrious friend? Despite Hamlet's remark, 'Nay, do not think I flatter;' can we be sure that Horatio remains unaffected by Hamlet's unqualified esteem?
Horatio: Here, sweet lord, at your service.
Hamlet: Horatio, thou art e'en as just a man
As e'er my conversation cop'd withal.
Horatio: O, my dear lord!
Hamlet: Nay, do not think I flatter;
For what advancement may I hope from thee,
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flatter'd?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath scald thee for herself. For thou hast been
As one, in suff'ring all, that suffers nothing;
A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.
With Hamlet's glowing praise ringing in his ears, is Horatio likely to deny the certainty of Hamlet's conclusion and say he is not sure of what he saw? In response to Hamlet's leading questions Horatio doesn't say anything definite. What he answers to the first question and what he answers the second question are very similar and don't commit him to anything. He might just be responding the way he thinks Hamlet wants him to respond. That is one of the dangers that arises when leading questions are asked. Hamlet could easily have found out what Horatio saw without asking leading questions. The final answer, when it comes, may be a surprise, and may be quite different to what was expected, but it is likely to be the truth. Here are just two of several possibilities:

Hamlet: Didst perceive?
Horatio: Very well, my lord.
Hamlet: And what did you perceive?
Horatio: I did very well note him.
Hamlet: And what did you note
about him?
Horatio: He became agitated,
began shaking, got very angry
and his eyes were bulging.
Hamlet: And when did you note
him so?
Horatio: Upon the talk of
the poisoning.
Hamlet: Didst perceive?
Horatio: Very well, my lord.
Hamlet: And what did you perceive?
Horatio: I did very well note him.
Hamlet: And what did you note
about him?
Horatio: He became agitated,
began shaking, got very angry
and his eyes were bulging.
Hamlet: And when did you note
him so?
Horatio: When you disparaged
their marriage.

Neither Shakespeare nor Hamlet is a lawyer (thank God!) nor has Shakespeare written a 'whodunit'. It is utterly brilliant of Shakespeare to have Hamlet ask leading questions! It means nothing Horatio said can be considered as 'beyond a reasonable doubt' and thus cannot be used in determining the guilt of Claudius. Regardless of whether Claudius is guilty or not, Hamlet is completely mistaken in thinking he has proven him guilty.

Horatio remains loyal to Claudius.

Again and again we find that experts believe Horatio's response to Hamlet after The Mousetrap assists in proving Claudius's guilt but will it stand up to examination? It seems doubtful, for Horatio remains loyal to Claudius and continues to serve him as a courtier. Claudius gives Horatio an order and he instantly responds:

King: Follow her close; give her good watch, I pray you. [Exit Horatio.]
It is clear Horatio does not think Claudius is guilty of anything. When Ophelia goes mad he warns Queen Gertrude to speak with Ophelia:
Horatio: 'Twere good she were spoken with, for she may strew
Dangerous conjecture in ill-breeding minds.
Queen: Let her come in.
This proves Horatio's loyalty and his concern that some of Claudius's subjects might be dreaming up things to threaten him. It is about two months since Hamlet left for England and it is evident that Horatio must have always believed Claudius to be innocent and that Hamlet had talked nonsense. A couple of days after giving his warning to the Queen, he meets Hamlet and reads the commission ordering Hamlet's death. Only then does he come to the realisation that Claudius is a villain:
Horatio: Why, what a king is this!