Claudius was making progress with Laertes. He had told him that Hamlet had murdered his father in his madness, leaving out the details of the eavesdropping, which no-one but he and Gertrude knew about, and his own part in it.
‘Now, in all conscience you must acknowledge my innocence,’ he said, ‘and you must take me to your heart as a friend, since you’ve heard with your own ears that he who killed your noble father was also intending to kill me.’
Laertes wasn’t fully convinced. ‘It does look like it,’ he said, ‘but what I want to know is why you didn’t act against these crimes – such serious ones – but were only interested in protecting yourself.’
‘Oh, there were two special considerations,’ said Claudius. ‘They may seem weak ones to you but to me they’re very powerful. His mother, the queen, dotes on him. As for myself, rightly or wrongly, she’s so close to me that I couldn’t live without her. The other reason why I couldn’t make it public is the great love that the people have for him. They sink all his faults in their love and, like the spring that turns wood to stone, convert his sins to virtues. So my arrows, too flimsy for such a strong wind, would have been blown back to my bow and missed their target.’
Claudius noted, with satisfaction, that Laertes was softening. He looked very unhappy, though.
‘And so I’ve lost a noble father,’ said Laertes. ‘And a sister driven to madness, whose worth surpassed all the challengers among her contemporaries. But my revenge will come.’
‘Don’t lose sleep over it,’ Claudius told him. ‘You mustn’t think that we are made of such flat and dull material that we can let our beard be shaken with danger and think it’s funny. You’ll hear more shortly. I loved your father, and we love ourself, and that, I hope, will allow you to imagine…’ He was interrupted by a messenger. ‘Hello, what news?’
‘Letters, my lord, from Hamlet.’ The servant handed him two. ‘This one is to your majesty, this is to the queen.’
Claudius frowned. ‘From Hamlet! Who brought them?’
‘Sailors, they say, my lord. I didn’t see them. Claudio gave them to me. He received them from those who brought them.’
‘Laertes,’ said Claudius. ‘You will hear it. Leave us,’ he told the messenger. He opened the letter addressed to him and read: ‘High and mighty. You should know that I am back in your kingdom, and destitute. I will beg permission to see your kingly eyes tomorrow, when I will first ask your pardon for my return then explain this sudden and even stranger return. Hamlet.’
‘What can this mean? Have all the others returned too? Or is it a hoax?’
‘Do you recognise the handwriting?’ said Laertes.
‘It’s Hamlet’s. Destitute! And in a postscript here, he says ‘alone’. Can you advise me?’
‘I’m at a loss, my lord. But let him come. It relieves my heartsickness to think that I shall live to tell him to his face: “You did this!” ’
Claudius turned the letter this way and that, examining it. ‘If it’s genuine – but how could it be? – but how couldn’t it be? Will you do as I say?’
‘Yes, my lord, as long as you don’t force me to make friends with him.’
‘No,’ said Claudius. ‘I’ll help you to make friends with yourself.’ He paced, stroking his beard, thinking. Then he came back to where Laertes sat waiting.
‘If he’s come back with no intention of leaving again, I’ll manipulate him into a scheme that I’ve thought of, where he can’t fail to fall. And there will be no blame for his death. Even his mother won’t know and think it was an accident.’
‘My lord, I’ll place myself in your hands. I would like to be the agent of his death if you can arrange it.’
‘That’s perfect,’ said Claudius. ‘Since you left they’ve been talking about a particular skill you have, and in Hamlet’s hearing too, in which, they say, you shine. All your other talents put together didn’t provoke as much envy in Hamlet as that one, which I have to tell you isn’t your best quality in my opinion.’
‘Which talent is that my lord?’
Claudius smiled indulgently. ‘That foremost ribbon in the cap of youth – wildness. It’s necessary, though, because light, colourful clothes become youth as well as black suits do the more settled ages. Two months ago a gentleman from Normandy was here…’ Claudius signaled to a servant to bring wine ‘…I’ve observed the French at first hand, and served against them too, and they’re good on horseback – but this gallant was magic. He seemed to be a part of his saddle, and he made his horse do such wonderful things that they might have been twins. He was so good that I couldn’t even understand how he was doing it.’
‘A Norman, was it?’
The wine arrived. Claudius waved the servant away and poured it himself. He handed Laertes a glass. ‘A Norman,’ he said.
Laertes slapped his thigh and grinned. ‘Upon my life, Lamond!’
‘The same,’ said Claudius.
‘I know him well,’ said Laertes. ‘He’s the jewel in the nation’s crown.’
‘He said that – that he knew you. And he gave such a favourable report of your martial arts skills, and of your fencing in particular. He cried out that it would be a rare sight to see you against someone of your standard. He swore that the champions of his nation couldn’t come near you for movement, guard and eye. Sir, this report of his envenomed Hamlet so much with envy that he could say nothing but wish that you would come back soon so that you could play together. Now using this…’
‘What do you mean, using this, my lord?’
‘Laertes.’ Claudius took a slow sip of his wine. ‘Did you love your father, or are you just the painting of sorrow, a face without a heart?’
‘Why are you asking that?’
‘It’s not that I think you didn’t love your father. It’s just that I know that time witnesses the beginnings of love and time also dissipates the intensity of it. The very thing that extinguishes love is actually inside the flame of love. Goodness can never retain its purity or consistency: it eventually weakens. When we want to do something we should do it instantly. Otherwise resolve becomes the victim of its own postponements and thoughtfulness. It finds all its alibis for not acting on impulse in itself. The ‘should’ becomes the mere sigh of a spendthrift. But back to the heart of the ulcer: Hamlet is back. What would you be prepared to do to prove you are your father’s son, in action rather than words?’
‘Cut his throat in the church!’
Claudius nodded thoughtfully. ‘Indeed, no place should harbour a murderer: revenge should have no bounds. But, good Laertes, will you do this: stay in your room? When Hamlet gets here he’ll know that you’ve come home. We’ll get people who will praise your excellence, exaggerating even the fame the Frenchman gave you, bring you together and place bets on your heads. Being devoid of any deviousness himself, Hamlet won’t inspect the foils, so you will easily be able to choose an unbated sword. Then, in a skilled pass, you can requite him for your father.’
‘I’ll do it,’ said Laertes, ‘and in that regard I’ll poison my sword’s tip. I bought a preparation from a quack, so deadly that if you only dip a knife in it, where it draws blood, no antidote, no matter how strong, can save anything that’s scratched with it. I’ll touch my point with this poison so that, if I wound him even slightly, he’ll die.’
‘We’ll have to think this through,’ said Claudius. ‘We’ll meet again at a time convenient to both of us. If this should fail and we are found out because we didn’t do it properly it would have been better if we hadn’t tried it. So this project should be backed up by something else so that it will be foolproof. Wait, let me see. I’ll make a bet on you winning… I’ve got it. When you’re in the heat of the action …. and make your bouts more energetic to that end… and he calls for a drink, I’ll have a chalice ready, that I’ll have prepared. On sipping that, if by any chance he’s escaped your poisoned stab, that will do it.’
The door opened suddenly and Gertrude came running in. She was even more distraught than she had been on the night of Polonius’ death.
Claudius rose. ‘What’s the matter, sweet queen?’
‘One trouble treads on another’s heels,’ she cried. ‘They follow each other so fast! Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.’
Laertes face was white. ‘Drowned! Oh, where?’
‘There’s a willow that grows beside a brook, that reflects its white leaves in the grassy stream. She went there with elaborate garlands that she’d made of weeds, nettles, daisies and long purples that shepherds have a vulgar name for, but that we know as dead men’s fingers. She climbed the tree to hang her coronet weeds from its branches. A thin bough broke and down she went with all her garlands, into the brook. Her dress spread wide and, like a mermaid, she lay on the water. She floated, during which time she sang snatches of old songs, unaware of the danger she was in, or like a creature of the water, was used to it. But it wasn’t long before her sodden clothes pulled her from her singing to muddy death.’
‘She’s drowned then?’ Laertes’ eyes had become moist.
‘Drowned, drowned,’ sobbed Gertrude.
‘You’ve had too much of water, poor Ophelia,’ said Laertes. ‘And so I forbid my tears.’ He was unsuccessful, though, and he couldn’t stop them. ‘But yet,’ he said, ‘I can’t help it. Let shame say what it likes. When these tears are gone the woman will be out of me. Adieu, my lord: I have a speech of fire in me but these tears would only douse it.’ He stumbled out.
‘We’d better follow him,’ said Claudius. ‘I had to work so hard to calm his rage! Now I fear this will start it again. So let’s follow.’