Hamlet Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

Hamlet book cover
Start Your Free Trial

What means does Shakespeare use to raise suspense during the fencing match?

Expert Answers info

Lauren Willson, M.A. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

briefcaseCollege Professor

bookM.A. from Radford University

calendarEducator since 2017

write1,502 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Law and Politics

William Shakespeare builds suspense by having Hamlet refuse to drink from the poisoned cup even when he's won points on Laertes and is supposed to drink. The audience gets more and more on edge as they wait for him to be poisoned from one source or another while he refuses to drink and avoids the blade.

The biggest source of suspense is the poison. The audience knows the cup and blade are both poisoned but not when—or who—will end up actually receiving it. Since Laertes is the better fencer, Hamlet gets three chances to strike Laertes. This actually means that there are more rounds for Laertes' blade to poison Hamlet. In case that doesn't work, though, Claudius also plans to poison his goblet. He says:

If Hamlet give the first or second hit
Or quit in answer of the third exchange,
Let all the battlements their ordnance fire!
The king shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath,
And in the cup an union shall he throw
Richer than that which four successive kings
In Denmark’s crown have worn.
The audience is in suspense wondering how Hamlet will be poisoned or whether someone else will get one of the fatal poisons. However, Shakespeare makes it even more suspenseful when he has Hamlet refuse the poisoned goblet after making a hit on Laertes. He says just to wait until they're done.
Ultimately, Gertrude drinks the poison and the poisoned sword strikes both Laertes and Hamlet. Claudius, of course, is both struck by Hamlet with the poisoned blade and forced to drink the rest of the poison.
Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

Reuben Lindsey eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2005

write1,774 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Business

Shakespeare gives advance warning to the audience about the complexity of Claudius' plan.  If the fencing scene were to occur without any of the additional information, the only suspense would be "who will be hurt"?  However, adding the poisoned tip and the poisoned cup add more drama to the scene and offer more possible outcomes, which increases the suspense. 

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial

mathcar | Student

I also believe Shakespeare creates suspense during the fencing match by having Hamlet strike the first and second hits. It seems possible that Hamlet, as he had alluded to Horatio just beforehand, had indeed been practising and now feels confident in his ability to beat Laertes. We, as readers, begin to think that Laertes and Claudius' plan may be foiled (pardon the pun)...but then again, it is a Shakespearean tragedy...