Laertes, dressed for travelling, was saying goodbye to his sister, Ophelia. They stood at the main entrance to the castle. The coach was waiting.
‘My luggage has been loaded on to the ship,’ he said. ‘Farewell. And sister, as the winds are favourable and letters can be sent fast, don’t ignore me. Write to me.’
‘How can you doubt me?’ she said.
He looked around for his father. ‘As for Hamlet,’ he said. ‘Think of his attentions as a flirtation on his part. It’s something he feels obliged to do, just a whim. It won’t last: it’s only entertainment for him: nothing more.’
‘Nothing more?’ she said. ‘Is that all?’ She was smiling.
‘Don’t think of it as anything more than that. Our natural growth isn’t only physical. As our bodies mature our minds and souls do too. It may be that he loves you now, and that his intentions are honorable, but remember who he is. He’s not his own man: he’s subject to his birth. He can’t just do as he likes as the common people can. In time the safety and health of Denmark will depend on his decisions. When he chooses a wife it must be after he has heard and considered the opinions of those institutions that he is the head of. So if he tells you he loves you you should understand that he loves you in as much as a man in his position can, which is no more than the people of Denmark will allow. Decide whether you can cope with it if you suffer disappointment by taking too much notice of his serenades and falling in love with him or surrendering your virginity to him. Be careful, Ophelia. Be careful, my dear sister: be reserved and don’t allow yourself to give in to desire. Modest girls are almost too forward when they only display their beauty to the moon. Even the most virtuous can’t defend herself against malicious gossip. The liquid dew of youth is particularly vulnerable, like spring buds are to disease. So be careful. That’s the best defence. Young people don’t need much urging to get into trouble.’
‘I’ll remember what you’ve said,’ she told him, ‘and take it to heart.’ She laughed and kissed his cheek. ‘But my dear brother, you’re like a hypocritical preacher, showing others the steep and thorny way to heaven while he himself, a bloated, reckless libertine, treads the primrose path of dalliance and doesn’t practice what he preaches.’
Laertes laughed. ‘Oh, don’t worry about me!’ He signalled to the coachman. ‘I’m going to be late. But here’s my father.’
Polonius was hurrying, as usual, busy with the affairs of state.
‘I’m getting two blessings,’ said Laertes. ‘The advantage of two leavetakings.’
‘Still here, Laertes!’ said Polonius. ‘Aboard, aboard, for shame! The wind is fair and they’re waiting for you.’ He embraced his son. ‘There,’ he said. ‘My blessing on you!’
Laertes kissed Ophelia again and as he took his father’s hand Polonius nodded.
‘And here are a few words of advice. Make sure that you keep them in mind.’
His son and daughter looked at each other. Ophelia raised her eyes up to the sky. The coachman shook his head vigorously and beckoned. Laertes sighed. Polonius, oblivious to the reaction his words had produced, continued.
‘Don’t ever say what you think,’ he began.
Laertes could only stand and listen to the speech he had heard many times before.
‘And don’t do everything you feel like doing. Be friendly to people but on no account vulgar. When you’ve tested the loyalty of the friends you already have, bind them to you with hoops of steel, but don’t lower yourself by embracing every untried new companion. Be careful of getting into fights, but if you do make sure that your opponent will think twice before tangling with you again. Listen to everyone but give advice to only a few: accept criticism from all but reserve your judgment. Buy the clothes that you can afford, although not just everything you like – expensive, yes, but not gaudy because the clothes usually show what the man is – the top Frenchmen are good models for that. Never borrow or lend because lending often loses both the money and the friend, and borrowing makes you too extravagant.’
He paused, as though trying to remember something and Laertes nodded and turned away. The coachman was mouthing something and pointing towards the harbour.
‘But most of all,’ said Polonius, ‘be true to yourself and then it must follow, as night follows day, that you can’t be false to any man. So farewell, and take my blessing.’
‘I’ll go then,’ said Laertes, ‘with the greatest respect.’
‘You’re late,’ said Polonius, ‘and your servants are waiting.’
‘Farewell, Ophelia,’ said Laertes. ‘And don’t forget what I said to you.’
‘It’s locked in my memory,’ she said, ‘and you yourself will keep the key of it.’
Laertes ran to the coach. As the coachman cracked his whip Laertes waved. ‘Farewell,’ he called.
They watched as the coach disappeared from view.
‘What did he say to you, Ophelia?’ said Polonius.
‘Something about the Lord Hamlet.’
‘Ah, that reminds me,’ he said. ‘It’s come to my notice that he’s been spending a lot of private time with you lately, and that you have made yourself easily available to him. If that’s true, and what I’ve heard is so, then, by way of a caution, I must tell you that you don’t understand very clearly what’s appropriate for my daughter and your own honour. What is there between you? Be honest.’
‘Recently, he’s often expressed his affection for me.’
‘Affection!’ Polonius sneered. ‘Pooh! You speak like an immature girl, unaware of the dangers of that. Do you believe his expressions, as you call them?’
‘I don’t know what to think, my lord.’
‘Well I’ll teach you what to think. Think yourself a baby, that you’ve taken these expressions as true feelings. Value yourself more highly, or, not to put too fine a point on it, you’ll make a fool of me!’
‘My lord, he’s told me he loves me in an honourable fashion.’
‘Yes, fashion is the right word. Come on, come on.’
‘And he’s talked to me about it with all the holy vows of heaven.’
‘Yes, traps to catch woodcocks.’ Polonius shook his finger at her. ‘I know very well that when the blood rages the tongue makes extravagant vows. These blazes, daughter, giving more light than heat, are soon extinguished – even as they’re being made – as the very words are coming out. You mustn’t mistake them for genuine feeling. From now on, be more sparing of your availability. Set your meetings at a higher price than a summons to chat. As for Lord Hamlet, think about this: he is young and is more free to do as he likes than you are. In short, Ophelia, don’t believe his vows: they’re not indicators of what they seem to you, but of dishonourable intentions, talking sweet words, like sanctimonious pimps do, designed to deceive. This is final: in plain terms, I forbid you, from this moment on, to waste any more of your leisure time talking to the Lord Hamlet. Do it, I order you. Go on, then, on your way.’
Ophelia looked at him with wide eyes that had become damp. ‘I will obey, my lord,’ she mumbled.
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