Here are the preplay events which are explicit in the dialogue, or which can reasonably be inferred, based on lines in the dialogue.
- Years earlier, there was some kind of battle between Danish and French forces. Claudius mentions this in Scene 18 while talking to Laertes. Claudius says, "I have seen, and served against the French..." That had to be when Claudius was a younger man, perhaps about the same age as Laertes in the play, since Claudius, when he says that, is attempting to relate to Laertes.
- At some time before the play begins, King Hamlet led the Danes to victory over Poland, Horatio informs us, in Scene 1:
Horatio: ... So frowned he once, when in an angry parley He smote the sleaded Pollax on the ice.
The odd spelling is for wordplay. Literally, "Pollax" means what it sounds like when spoken, which is "Polacks." The later, clearer references to Poland confirm that Poland is meant. The word "smote" is used in the Biblical way, to mean "resoundingly defeated."
- King Hamlet killed the Elder Fortinbrasse, who had challenged him to a single combat, with land at risk by both sides. King Hamlet's victory brought Elsinore Castle and its surrounding area into Denmark. (The land King Hamlet won was apparently the Fortinbrasse duchy, which was the northern part of the island of Zealand, equivalent to Jutland, and which had been part of Norway.) This is also related by Horatio in Scene 1.
- King Hamlet defeated Norway in war, as Horatio also tells us in Scene 1.
Although Horatio does not specify the order of the two events involving Norway, the reasonable conclusion is that King Norway went to war with Denmark to try to restore to Norway the land his late brother had lost. The single combat probably led to the war, otherwise, the war with Norway lacks known motivation.
By the way, this also means the Elder Fortinbrasse was not King of Norway, as is sometimes supposed, but rather he was a Norwegian Duke of Jutland. (On the point of Jutland, tn the story of Amleth by Saxo, the characters corresponding to King Hamlet and Claudius were appointed dukes of Jutland.) The King of Norway at the time of the single combat between King Hamlet and the Elder Fortinbrasse was the same "Old Norway" who is the Norwegian King during the play.
- Having defeated Norway, King Hamlet apparently moved his seat of government to Elsinore Castle, from Copenhagen, to secure his victory, and insure the land remained in Danish hands.
(A move of King Hamlet to Elsinore Castle matches up with actual Danish history in the 1580s, as far as the move goes. King James VI of Scotland, with his new bride the Princess Anne of Denmark, stayed at Kronborg Castle over the Christmas season in 1589, because the young King of Denmark was living there, instead of in Copenhagen.) Rosencrantz apparently alludes to the move of King Hamlet and family, in Scene 7, while speaking to Hamlet.
Ros: Even those you were wont to take such delight in, the tragedians of the city.
"The city" in Denmark is of course Copenhagen. It sounds as if the royal family were in Copenhagen earlier, so that Hamlet was able to attend the theater in the city frequently. Hamlet's friendship with the Players, revealed later in Scene 7, supports this interpretation. The defeat of Norway may have been only, say, four years before the play begins. (It's revealed in Scene 19 that Hamlet began attending the University of Wittenberg three years before he speaks, and he would not have seen the plays in Copenhagen from Germany.)
- More recently, King Hamlet defeated England, forcing England to pay tribute to Denmark. The recentness of this is explicitly stated by Claudius, in Scene 14, when he says the scar on England is "raw and red," in other words, fresh.
- A little of Hamlet's early personal history can be reasonably conjectured, then. In childhood he had the playmates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a fact explicitly stated in Scene 7. (It's unlikely he went to school with them, however, since the son of the King was probably tutored.) At age 10 or 11, or so, Hamlet, living with his family in Copenhagen then, developed a great fondness for the theater, went frequently, and became friends with the Players. (Shakespeare's young characters are often precocious.) It's implied the Players were the King's Men in those days, sponsored by King Hamlet. See Rosencrantz's "innovation" speech in Scene 7, where he implies the change of government, from King Hamlet to King Claudius, lost the Players their sponsorship. After the move to Elsinore Castle, Hamlet was still able to talk his parents into letting him go to Copenhagen fairly often, to attend the theater, we can guess.
- At age 13, three years before the play, Hamlet was sent to the University of Wittenberg, to become a scholar. His parents envisioned him as a future "scholar king" of Denmark, it's clear enough, else they wouldn't have sent him. R & G went to the U of Wittenberg at the same time. At the U, Hamlet met an impressive Dane named Horatio, who was from a different part of Denmark, and they became best friends.
- King Hamlet died, while taking a nap in his orchard, lying on flowers, on a warm, sunny afternoon. The coroner returned a verdict of snakebite as the cause of death. (The coroner's verdict was an honest mistake; more on that in the notes for the Mousetrap Play Scene.)
- Hamlet was notified of his father's death, and he returned to Elsinore from Wittenberg. Neither R & G nor Horatio accompanied him. However, Horatio followed soon after, to attend King Hamlet's funeral. (In Elsinore Town, at some point before the play begins, Horatio met and made friends with military personnel from the Castle. As the way such things go, he most likely met them at an alehouse.)
- King Hamlet's funeral was held, with large crowds, and many foreign dignitaries in attendance. Among the dignitaries was one Lamord, a Frenchman from Normandy, who was knowledgeable about fencing, and a wonderfully good horseman.
- A message from Young Fortinbrasse arrived, and it turned out to be a challenge to single combat to the next King of Denmark. Fortinbrasse, and everybody else at the time, supposed that would be Hamlet. Fortinbrasse intended to fight Hamlet to get revenge against the son of the man who killed his father, and in so doing reclaim his family land. The message was given to Queen Gertrude, since there was not yet a King of Denmark to receive it.
- Queen Gertrude, holding the reins of power during the interregnum, ordered a military buildup to meet the threat from Fortinbrasse and Norway. She ordered sentinels to keep watch all night.
- Hamlet noticed Ophelia, she noticed him, and their romance began. It was a whirlwind courtship. Hamlet asked Ophelia to marry him, and she said, yes.
- Hamlet saw Claudius being attentive to Gertrude and giving her gifts, which surprised and irritated him. He never liked Claudius, and nobody respected Claudius, as far as he knew. Hamlet was amazed that Gertrude seemed receptive to Claudius now.
- Gertrude and Claudius announced their engagement, and were soon married, within a month of King Hamlet's funeral, all of which shocked Hamlet.
- Hamlet and Ophelia decided to keep their engagement secret, since Hamlet did not want Claudius involved in his marriage plans, nor Gertrude since he now mistrusted her. Also, neither Hamlet nor Ophelia wanted Polonius involved, since he's so manipulative.
- The Danish electors chose Claudius King, to Hamlet's intense disappointment. (Gertrude never told Claudius that, as King, he would face a challenge to single combat from Fortinbrasse.)
- Gertrude observed how depressed Hamlet was, and suggested to Claudius that R & G be summoned so Hamlet would have friends to keep him company and entertain him. Claudius did summon R & G, for his own reasons.
- The night of Claudius's election, sentinels saw a Ghost that looked exactly like King Hamlet dressed in full battle armor, the same armor King Hamlet had worn for the war against Norway. The sentinels only stood and watched, not knowing what to do.
- Laertes had returned from France, at the insistence of his father, to attend Claudius's coronation.
- Claudius was crowned the day after he was elected. The sentinels saw the Ghost again that night, and again, they stood and watched. They decided to tell their friend Horatio about it, since he was college educated and might know what to do.
- Claudius dismissed his late brother's chief councilor, since he couldn't trust a man who worked closely with his brother for years. It aroused no suspicion, because changes at the top are always expected with a new administration. Claudius, looking through the King's paperwork, found the challenge to single combat from Fortinbrasse, and knew it would get him killed if he accepted it, since he is no shape to fight at his age, and after so many years of intemperance and self indulgence. Looking for a way out, without appearing to be a coward, Claudius consulted the remaining councilors for advice about the situation, and Polonius suggested a diplomatic mission to King Norway, based on a rumor he had heard, that King Norway was so sick abed he didn't know what Fortinbrasse was doing. Pleased at the idea, which Claudius credited with saving his life, Claudius promoted Polonius to be his chief councilor.
- The day after the coronation was a holiday, a day of national celebration for the new King. That night, Horatio accompanies the sentinels to see the alleged Ghost, about which he is highly skeptical, as the play begins.
© 2014 Jeffrey Paul Jordan
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