The Number Three
According to Colin Wilson, author of The Occult, some people believe that numbers have an influence on human affairs. It is well known that the Elizabethans were more superstitious than most, and the influence of numbers can readily be seen in Shakespeare's Hamlet. There are two women (Gertrude and Ophelia), two uncles (Claudius and Norway, and six countries (Denmark, England, France, Germany, Norway, and Poland), the result of two times three. The number three itself is a major, though often neglected, motif of the play. Wilson comments on its significance:
Three: the number of versatility and plenty; traditionally lucky ('three times lucky'); people with the number three are gay, charming, adaptable, talented, lucky, but inclined to be 'other directed', living too much for the approval and liking of other people. FN1
A close analysis of Hamlet reveals how very appropriate this description is for Shakespeare's play.
When the play first opens, we meet two of the three soldiers that will appear on stage, Marcellus and Bernardo. These two men form an important bridge in the play between the common people outside Elsinore who are affected by the happenings within the castle, and the people within Elsinore's walls. They are the observers of 'unnatural' events and the episodes caused by the politicians, and it is Marcellus who observes 'Something is rotten in the state of Denmark' (1.5.90). As members of the guard, they must adapt to the changing from the reign of King Hamlet who had taken them into a war against Norway and the new king, Claudius, who is preparing to defend Denmark from invasion by Norway. By the play's end, it is they who have escaped the carnage, but not the invasion. They must adapt once more at the end of the play to the new Norwegian king, Fortinbras.
The third soldier is the Captain of Fortinbras army, who voices the mission of the Norwegian army as Hamlet is being escorted to England by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He tells the Prince that the army goes to fight for a piece of land in Poland that is not worth very much except in terms of honour. Metaphorically, this is an encapsulation of Hamlet's problem: his assassination of Claudius is not worth very much except to him as revenge for his father's murder. It is a domestic problem, not a political one. In the Captain's case and Hamlet's such a tiny action can still have far-reaching effects. The Norwegian victory in Poland allows Fortinbras to turn his attention to Denmark, while Hamlet, returned from England, so distracts the villainous Claudius that Denmark is unprepared for invasion. For these three soldiers, adaptability and versatility necessitated by their military training proves to be the provider of lucky circumstances for survival.