At a few minutes before midnight Hamlet and Horatio went out into the cold night and climbed up to the watch platform and joined Marcellus.
‘It’s biting cold,’ said Hamlet.
‘A nipping and stinging air,’ said Horatio.
‘What’s the time?’
‘Not yet twelve, I think,’ said Horatio.
‘No, it’s struck.’
‘Really? I didn’t hear it. Then it’s the time that the ghost usually walks.’ There was a flourish of trumpets and a huge banging of drums. ‘What’s that, my lord?’
‘The king is staying up tonight, carousing. Singing, dancing. And as he drinks his draughts of Rhineland wine, the kettle-drum and trumpet bray out his glorious achievement as a boozer .’
‘Is it a local custom?’
‘Yes, it is. But to my mind, although I’m a native here, and to the manner born, it’s a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance. This heavy-handed revelry makes our neighbours east and west censure us. They refer to Danes as drunkards and foul our reputation with swinish adjectives. And, to tell you the truth, it detracts from our achievements, though, at their best, they’re significant. It’s like it is with some men, who because of a vicious flaw in their nature, such as their class – which they’re not guilty of – since people can’t choose their origins, are unjustly condemned. Things like a too well-developed temper that sometimes overwhelms their reason, or a habit that makes them bad-mannered, no matter how great their strong points are, no matter that they may be as good as a man can be, can cause the finger to be pointed at that one fault. That drop of evil may bring doubt on the whole man.’
Horatio sprang up suddenly and pointed through the mist. ‘Look, my lord,’ he said. ‘It’s coming.’
The mist before them thickened and shaped itself into what looked like a human form. Hamlet scrambled to his feet. He crossed himself. ‘Angels and ministers of grace, defend us!’ he shouted. The ghost stopped and stood completely still. ‘Whether you’re a good spirit or a goblin from hell, whether you bring the sweet air from heaven or the blasts from hell, whether your intentions are wicked or loving, you come in such a strange shape that I will speak to you. I’ll call you Hamlet, King, father, royal Dane.’
The ghost stood unmoving. It said nothing.
‘Oh, answer me!’ said Hamlet. ‘Don’t make me burst in ignorance, but tell me why your saintly bones, buried in death, have burst their coffin: why the sepulchre in which we watched you being quietly entombed has opened its heavy marble jaws to cast you out again. What does this mean, that you, dead corpse, again fully armed, revisit the open night, making it hideous: and we, living beings, shake so horridly, with thoughts we’re unable to grasp? Tell me why. What for? What do you want us to do?’
The ghost raised its arm stiffly and pointed to Hamlet. Then it beckoned slowly.
‘It’s beckoning you to go to it, as if it had something to tell only you,’ said Horatio.
‘Look how it’s waving you towards a more remote place,’ said Marcellus. ‘But don’t go with it.’
‘No, on no account,’ said Horatio.
Hamlet didn’t move. The ghost continued to beckon. Eventually Hamlet took a step towards it. ‘It won’t speak,’ he said. ‘So I’ll follow it.’
Horatio put his hands on Hamlet’s shoulders. ‘Don’t my lord,’ he said.
‘I’ve got nothing to lose,’ said Hamlet. ‘I don’t rate my life as being worth a pin. And as for my soul, what can it do to that, being as immortal as itself? It’s waving me towards it again. I’ll go.’
Horatio held him more firmly. ‘What if it tempts you toward the sea, my lord? Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff that leans over towards the sea, and when there, assumes some other horrible form that might drive you mad? Think about it: the very place in itself could create mad impulses in any mind – to look so many fathoms out to see and hear it roar below.’
Hamlet wasn’t listening. ‘It’s still waving to me. ‘Go on,’ he shouted to it. ‘Ill follow you.’
Marcellus joined them and helped Horatio to restrain the prince. ‘You won’t go, my lord,’ he said.
‘Get your hands off me,’ said Hamlet. He tried to shake himself free.
‘Listen to us,’ said Horatio. ‘You won’t go.’
‘My destiny is calling,’ said Hamlet. ‘And it’s making every little artery in my body as strong as the Nemean lion’s nerve. It’s still calling me. Take your hands off me, gentlemen.’ They held him fast but he turned on them and roared. ‘By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that stops me! I’m telling you, get off me!’
They let go of him, then, and he rushed forward. ‘Go on,’ he said. ‘I’ll follow you.’
He disappeared into the mist.
‘His mind’s getting desperate,’ said Horatio.
‘Let’s follow him,’ said Marcellus. ‘We’re wrong to obey him like this.’
‘Come on then,’ said Horatio. ‘What will come of this?’
‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ said Marcellus.
‘Heaven will decide.’
‘Yes.’ Marcellus was already on his way. ‘Let’s follow him.’