What is Hamlet's age?
This is one of those famous critical questions. The most overt mention of Hamlet’s age the gravedigger scene:
Hamlet: How long hast thou been a grave-maker?
Clown: Of the days i’th’ year I came to’t that out last King Hamlet overcame Fortinbras.
Hamlet: How long is that since?
Clown: Cannot you tell that? Every fool can tell that! It was the very day that young Hamlet was born (5.1.133-39)
… followed a little later with ‘I have been sexton here, man and boy, thirty years’ (5.1.152-3)
This matches with the anecdote about Yorick. According to the gravedigger, Yorick’s ‘skull has lain in the earth three-and-twenty years’ (5.1.159-60), and Hamlet says ‘He hath borne me on his back a thousand times’ (5.1.172-3). It figures then that Yorick died when Hamlet was about 7. So Hamlet is 30.
There are some significant textual variations in the other versions though. For instance, in the first quarto, the conversation between Hamlet and the gravedigger is a lot shorter. There’s no reference to the day Hamlet was born, or to how long the gravedigger has been sexton, but Yorick’s skull is referred to when the sexton digs it up and says ‘Look you, here’s a skull hath been here this dozen year - ay, ever since our last King Hamlet slew Fortenbrasse in combat. (16.87-88). It’s not explicit, but if Yorick has only been dead 12 years it does suggest a younger Hamlet.
The folio version has the same exchange between Hamlet and the gravedigger as the second quarto version, but it says ‘…here in Denmark. I have been sixteene here, man and boy, thirty years’ (5.1.159-60). The ‘sixteene’ may be an odd spelling of ‘sexton’, or possibly he’s claiming that he’s been a man in Denmark for sixteen years, thirty years if he counts the years of his boyhood. The spelling possibility is more likely given that he then goes on to say that Yorick’s ‘skull has lain in the earth three and twenty years’ (5.1.170-71): if he knows that, he’s probably been gravedigging for as long.
The general evidence from this scene suggests that Hamlet is 30. And there are plenty of people who are satisfied with this answer.
But it doesn’t quite square with a number of other factors. Horatio calls him ‘young Hamlet’ (1.1.169), Laertes says Hamlet’s affections are ‘A violet in the youth of primy nature’ (1.3.7), Polonius says ‘he is young’ (1.3.123), the ghost refers to Hamlet’s ‘young blood’ (1.5.16), Claudius calls him the ‘mad young man’ (4.1.19), and, of course, the gravedigger calls him ‘young Hamlet’ (5.1.139), but of course this last one might be a way of differentiating him from Hamlet senior.
30 might not be exactly ‘old’ for us, but it’s certainly not ‘young’ by early modern standards… and there’s the additional fact that Hamlet has just been at ‘school in Wittenburg’ (1.1.113). The university system was quite different to how it is today, so that most university students, and certainly most royalty, would have been at university in their teens, certainly not after they hit 20.
So is Hamlet a teenager, or is he 30? Have 10 years passed from the beginning of the play to the end? Not likely. One suggestion is that when it came to giving Hamlet a specific age they matched it with how Burbage looked when he played the part. The audience probably won’t notice the disparity in passing. Another suggestion is that the 10 years of aging implies a sort of symbolic maturity, or that the earlier parts of the play suit the temperament of a younger man and the later parts someone with a little more gravitas. In other words, there’s no correct answer. You can accept the simplest answer and go with 30, insist on a teenage Hamlet, accept no particular answer, or settle for the idea that Hamlet’s age is more fluid and metaphorical