The Lord Chamberlain walked busily among the courtiers assembled in the main hall, fussing about the arrangements, making sure that everyone was in his or her place. He had summoned two lords, Voltimand and Cornelius, because the king wished to send them on an important mission. His son, Laertes, was there too. There had been some tension between them because Laertes wanted to return to Paris. He had come to Elsinore for the funeral of the late King Hamlet but he was missing the life he had made for himself in Paris. The Lord Chamberlain disapproved of his son’s Parisian lifestyle and was considering opposing his departure, which required King Claudius’ permission.
The great doors opened. The trumpeters raised their instruments and played a fanfare. The king and queen swept in, followed by the queen’s son, Prince Hamlet. The royal couple were splendidly dressed in colourful robes of state. Hamlet wore a black mourning suit.
The king and queen mounted the dais and sat down on their chairs of state. Hamlet joined the courtiers as they stood facing them, and stared at his uncle.
Claudius stood to address the assembly.
‘Although the memory of our dear brother Hamlet’s death is still green,’ he began, ‘and although we have mourned him in company with all our subjects, we should now find a balance. We should temper our public sorrow and remember him privately as we return to the consideration of our normal affairs. Therefore our former sister, now our queen, our imperial partner in the conduct of this warlike nation, we have, as it were, with mixed emotions, married. It was something of a low key wedding, with some happiness in the face of a funeral, and pain on the occasion of a marriage, in equal measure, weighing delight and solemnity. Nor have we declined to take your advice, which fully supported this marriage.’
He bowed graciously, embracing the company with a warm smile. ‘For all that, our thanks.’
He became businesslike. ‘Now. You know that Fortinbras, the young Norwegian prince, underestimating us, thinks that because of our late dear brother’s death our state is in disarray. That, together with what he imagines to be his military superiority, inspires him to pester us with the demand that we surrender those lands that his father lost, quite legally, to our most brave brother.’ He snapped his fingers. ‘So much for him. Now, as for ourself and the reason for this meeting: this is what the business is: we have written to the king of Norway, the uncle of young Fortinbras. He is weak and bedridden and doesn’t know what his nephew is up to so he’s unable to check him. He doesn’t know that his nephew is using his resources to build up his own army. Therefore we are sending you, good Cornelius, and you Voltimand, to take this letter to old Norway, giving you no further personal power to do business with the king other than the instructions set out in detail here. Farewell, and let your haste show your sense of duty.’
The ambassadors went forward and took the letter. They bowed and assured the king that they would show their duty in all things.
Claudius nodded graciously. ‘We don’t doubt that. With all our heart, farewell.’
When they had gone the king beckoned to Laertes, smiling to put him at his ease.
‘And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you?’ he said. ‘You told us of some suit. What is it, Laertes?’ Laertes cleared his throat and Claudius smiled more broadly. ‘If you want to speak reason to the Dane you mustn’t lose your voice. What could you ask, Laertes, that I wouldn’t give you? The head and the heart, the hand and the mouth, don’t work more closely together than the throne of Denmark and your father do. What would you like, Laertes?’
Laertes found his voice.
‘My dread lord,’ he said. ‘I want your permission and blessing to return to France, from where, though willingly, I came to Denmark to show my duty in your coronation. But now, I must confess, that duty done, my thoughts and wishes bend toward France again so I hope that you will forgive me and grant me your permission.’
‘Do you have your father’s permission?’ said Claudius. He turned to his Lord Chamberlain. ‘What does Polonius say?’
Polonius looked unhappy. He wrung his hands. ‘My lord, he has dragged my reluctant permission out of me by incessant pleading and nagging. Finally, I’ve agreed. I beg you, give him permission to go.’
The king looked down kindly at Laertes. ‘Whenever you please, Laertes,’ he said. ‘Take your time, and spend it as you like.’
Hamlet had not taken his eyes off the king all this time and Claudius now turned to look at him. ‘And now, my cousin, Hamlet, and my son,’ he began.
Hamlet’s staring expression did not change. The man before him was a bit more than a cousin now, but his feelings towards him as a “son” were less than kind.
‘Why is it that the clouds are still hanging over you?’ his uncle said.
‘That’s not true, my lord,’ said Hamlet. ‘I am too much in the sun.’ There was far too much of being a son for his liking.
His mother got up and joined her husband. ‘Good Hamlet,’ she said. ‘Take that black suit off and be more friendly to the king. Don’t spend the rest of your life with your eyes lowered, looking for your noble father on the ground. You know it’s natural that everyone must die, passing from life to eternity.’
‘Yes, madam, it’s natural,’ he said.
‘If you agree then why does it seem so personal to you?’
Hamlet looked up at her and opened his eyes wide. ‘Seems, madam! No, it is! I don’t know ‘seems’. It isn’t just my inky cloak, nor mourning suits of black, nor loud sighs. No, nor the streaming eyes, nor the dejected face, together with displays of moodiness and other forms of grief, that can sum me up. These outer signs do indeed seem because they are things that a man might act out, but I have feelings within me that can’t be expressed by actors. These are no more than the trappings and the clothes of grief.’
The queen was about to speak but Claudius stopped her with a hand on her arm. ‘It’s sweet and commendable of you, Hamlet,’ he said, ‘to give these mourning duties to your father. But surely you must realise that your father lost his father and that lost father lost his, and each time the son was obliged to mourn for a period of time? But to persist in obstinate mourning is a path of high stubbornness. It’s an unmanly grief. It shows a most ungodly selfishness, a lack of courage, an impatient mind, a lack of intelligence and a lack of education, because if we know that something must happen and that it’s as common as the most ordinary thing imaginable, why should we childishly oppose it and take it so much to heart? Come on! It’s an offence against heaven, an offence against the dead, against nature and against reason. It’s absurd. The death of fathers is a common thing. Who has wept from the first sight of a corpse till the day he died? This had to happen. We beg of you, bury this useless grief and think of us as your father. For let the world understand, you are the heir to the throne and I regard you with the same love as the dearest father does his son. As for your intention of going back to the university at Wittenberg, it’s not what we want, and we beg you to think about staying here where you can be with us – our main courtier, cousin and our son.’
‘Answer your mother’s prayers, Hamlet,’ said his mother. ‘I pray you, stay with us: don’t go to Wittenberg.’
‘I’ll obey you with all my heart, madam,’ said Hamlet.
Claudius was all smiles again. ‘Why, that’s a loving and a fair reply,’ he said. ‘I hope you will be comfortable here in Denmark.’ He offered his hand to his wife. ‘Madam, come. This gracious and voluntary agreement from Hamlet has warmed my heart. To celebrate that, every happy toast that the king of Denmark drinks today will resound to the clouds, and the king will make the heavens all sweet again with his earthly thunder. Come, let’s go.’
The courtiers followed them through the great doorway. Hamlet was left alone. He sank to the floor. He wished that his body would just melt, turn to water and become like the dew. Or that the Almighty hadn’t made a law forbidding suicide. Oh God! God! How weary, stale, flat and useless everything about life seemed! He moaned. It was terrible. The whole world was like an unweeded garden that had gone to seed – only ugly disgusting things thrived. He couldn’t believe what had happened. Only two months dead: no, not even two. Such an excellent king he had been, compared with this one. It was like Hyperion, the sun god, compared to a lecherous satyr. He’d been so loving to his mother that he wouldn’t even allow the gentle breeze of heaven to blow too roughly on her face. He lifted his hands and blocked his ears as though to shut his father’s memory out. She had loved him so much, adored him, as though the more she had of him the more she wanted him. And yet, within a month! He couldn’t bear to think about it. Women were so inconsistent! Only a month, even before the shoes with which she had followed his father’s body were old, all flowing with tears, she, even she……. Oh God! Even an animal that doesn’t have reason, would have mourned longer – ….she married his uncle! His father’s brother, but no more like his father than he was like Hercules. Even before the salt of those hypocritical tears had left her swollen eyes, she married. Oh, most wicked speed, to hurry so enthusiastically to incestuous sheets! It couldn’t end happily. But he would just have to break his heart, because he had to hold his tongue.
He heard some movement at the far end of the hall and he looked up. Three men were coming towards him.
One of them called: ‘Greetings to your lordship!’
‘I’m glad to see you well,’ said Hamlet. ‘Horatio, if I’m not mistaken.’
‘The same,’ said Horatio, ‘and ever your humble servant.’
Hamlet shook his hand. ‘Sir, my good friend. I’ll exchange that appellation with you. And what are you doing away from Wittenberg, Horatio? Is that Marcellus?’
Marcellus bowed. ‘My good lord.’
Bernardo, who had accompanied them, bowed too.
‘I am very glad to see you,’ said Hamlet. ‘Good evening, sir. But why have you left Wittenberg, Horatio?’
‘A truanting disposition, my good lord.’
Hamlet laughed. ‘I wouldn’t let your enemy say that. Nor will I allow you to do my ear such violence as to lie about yourself. I know you’re no truant. But what are you doing at Elsinore? We’ll teach you to drink deep before you leave!’
‘My lord, I came to your father’s funeral.’
‘Please, don’t mock me, my fellow student. I think it was to my mother’s wedding.’
‘Yes,’ said Horatio. ‘It did follow closely.’
‘It was a matter of economy, Horatio. Thrift. The food that was cooked for the funeral came out on to the marriage table as cold meat. I would rather have met my worst enemy in heaven than ever seen that day, Horatio!’ Hamlet thrust his head into his hands. ‘My father. I think I see my father.’
The other three exchanged glances.
‘Where, my lord?’ said Horatio.
‘In my mind’s eye, Horatio.’
‘I saw him once,’ said Horatio. ‘He was a great king.’
‘He was a real man,’ said Hamlet, ‘everything considered.
I won’t see his like again.’
‘My lord, I think I saw him last night.’
‘My lord, the king, your father.’
‘The king, my father!’
‘Temper your amazement for a moment with an attentive ear, and I’ll explain this marvel to you, which these gentlemen have witnessed.’
‘For the love of God, tell me.’
‘Two nights in a row, these gentlemen, Marcellus and Bernardo, were encountered while on their watch in the middle of the night. A figure, the image of your father, fully armed from head to toe, appears before them and with a solemn military gait walks slow and stately past them. He walked past their terrified and astonished eyes three times, only a truncheon’s length away, while they, reduced almost to jelly with fear, stand dumb and don’t speak to him. They confided this to me in dreadful secrecy and on the third night I went to keep the watch with them. Then, just as they had reported, at the same time and in the same form, the ghost comes. I knew what your father was like. It was him.’
‘But where was this?’ said Hamlet.
‘My lord, on the platform where we watched.’
‘Didn’t you speak to it?’
‘My lord, I did: but it didn’t answer. And yet, I thought that it lifted up its head at one point and looked as though it was going to say something. But just then the cock crowed loudly, and at the sound of that it shrunk away hastily and disappeared.’
‘It’s very strange,’ said Hamlet. He looked doubtful.
‘It’s true, my lord. I swear on my life. And we thought it our duty to tell you.’
‘Of course, of course. But this worries me. Are you on watch tonight?
‘We are, we are,’ said Bernardo.
‘In armour, you say?’
‘In armour, my lord,’ said Marcellus.
‘From top to toe?’
‘My lord, from head to foot,’ said Bernardo.
‘Then you didn’t see his face?’
‘Oh yes, my lord, he wore his visor up,’ said Horatio.
‘What, was he frowning?’
‘A face more in sorrow than in anger,’ said Horatio.
‘Pale or florid?’ said Hamlet.
‘No, very pale.’
‘And did he fix his eyes on you?’
‘I wish I had been there.’
‘It would have amazed you.’
‘I’m sure, I’m sure,’ said Hamlet. ‘Did it stay long?’
‘As long as it would take to count up to a hundred at a moderate pace.’
‘Longer, longer,’ said Marcellus.
‘Not when I saw it,’ said Horatio.
‘His beard was grizzled – no?’ said Hamlet.
‘It was, as I have seen it during his life – streaked with grey.’
‘I’ll come to the watch tonight,’ said Hamlet. ‘Maybe it will walk again.’
‘I’m sure it will,’ said Horatio.
‘If it takes the shape of my noble father I’ll speak to it, even if hell should open and silence me. I ask you all, if you have kept this a secret till now, continue to do that. And whatever else may happen tonight, listen but don’t say anything, and I’ll reward you. So goodbye then. I’ll visit you on the platform between eleven and twelve.’
They left him and he began to pace. His father’s ghost, armed! There was something wrong. He suspected some foul play. He wished the night would come! Patience. Calm down. Foul deeds must rise to the surface in spite of everything.
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