Bernardo climbed the stairs to the castle’s ramparts. It was a bitterly cold night. He made his way carefully through the freezing fog to relieve Francisco of his guard duty. He saw a dim figure and challenged him.
‘No, you answer me!’ It was Francisco’s voice. ‘Stop and identify yourself!’
Bernardo stopped. ‘Long live the King!’
‘Yes, It’s me.’
Francisco relaxed. ‘You’re right on time.’
‘It’s just gone midnight,’ said Bernardo. ‘Get off to bed, Franciso.’
‘Thank God.’ Francisco prepared to leave. ‘It’s freezing and I’m dead bored.’
‘Has it been quiet?’
‘Not even a mouse stirring.’
‘Well goodnight then.’
Bernardo stopped him. ‘If you see the guard master and Horatio, the Prince’s friend, tell them to hurry.’
Francisco set off. He took a few steps then turned and called to Bernardo: ‘I think I can hear them now.’ He went to meet them. ‘Stop! Who’s there?’
‘Friends,’ said Horatio.
‘And loyal subjects of the king,’ said Marcellus.
‘Well goodnight to you, friends,’ said Francisco.
‘And to you, honest soldier,’ said Marcellus. ‘Who’s relieved you?’
‘Bernardo. Once again, good night.’
‘Ho, Bernardo,’ called Marcellus.
‘Tell me, is Horatio with you?’ said Bernardo.
‘What’s left of me, coming out in this cold night,’ said Horatio.
Bernardo waited for them. ‘Welcome, Horatio. Welcome good Marcellus.’
‘Well?’ said Marcellus. ‘Has that thing appeared again tonight?’
‘I haven’t seen anything.’
‘Horatio says it’s all in our imaginations and doesn’t believe we’ve seen it twice,’ said Marcellus. ‘Even though we have, so I’ve brought him with me on the night watch. If this ghost comes again he’ll see it with his own eyes.’
‘Tut, tut, nonsense! It won’t appear!’ said Horatio.
‘Just sit down and let us tell you the story that you won’t believe: tell you what we’ve seen two nights in a row.’
Horatio laughed and dismissed them with a wave of his hand. ‘Well let’s sit down anyway, and listen to Bernardo.’
‘Last night,’ began Bernardo, ‘when that star that’s to the west of the North pole had crossed the sky to where to it is now, Marcellus and I were sitting here when the bell struck one….’
‘Quiet!’ said Marcellus. ‘Stop. Here it is again!’
The three men watched as a figure walked slowly through the fog.
‘The same thing, that looks like the late King!’ Bernardo whispered.
‘You’re a scholar, Horatio,’ said Marcellus. ‘Speak to it.’
‘Look Horatio,’ exclaimed Bernardo. ‘Doesn’t it look like the King?’
Horatio shivered. ‘Too much like him. It fills me with fear and wonder.’
‘It wants you to speak to it,’ said Bernardo.
‘Question it, Horatio,’ said Marcellus.
‘Who are you and why do you disturb our watch, dressed in the armour of the dead King of Denmark?’ Horatio demanded. ‘In the name of God, speak!’
The ghost turned and glided away.
‘It’s offended,’ said Marcellus.
‘Look how it stalks away,’ said Bernardo.
‘Stop! Speak! Speak! I command you to speak!’ Horatio yelled.
The ghost disappeared into the fog.
‘Now it’s gone and won’t answer,’ said Marcellus.
Bernardo chuckled. ‘What’s the matter, Horatio? You tremble and you’re pale. Isn’t this something more than fantasy? What do you think now?’
‘Before God, I wouldn’t have believed this if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes!’ exclaimed Horatio.
‘Isn’t it just like the King?’
‘As much as you look like yourself.’ said Horatio. ‘That was the very suit of armour he wore when he frustrated the ambitions of the Norwegian king. I remember that frown – the same as on the day he trumped the Polish forces as they crossed the ice on their sledges. It’s strange.’
‘He disturbed our watch twice before at this very hour with that military bearing.’
‘I don’t know what to think about it,’ said Horatio, ‘but my overall opinion is that it bodes ill for matters of state.’
‘Alright then,’ said Marcellus. ‘ Sit down again and tell me, whoever can, why we have to do this guard duty every night! And why they’re making more and more cannons every day, and why there is such a brisk market in weapons and why shipwrights have to labour on Sunday. What’s going on that everyone’s working so hard night and day? Who can tell me?’
‘I can,’ said Horatio. ‘At least I can tell you the rumours. Our late King, whose ghost we’ve just seen, was challenged to a duel by Fortinbras, the King of Norway, who was driven by an envious pride. Our valiant King Hamlet, as this part of our known world knew him, killed this Fortinbras, who by the legal terms of the duel forfeited all his lands to his conqueror along with his life. Our King had lodged a similar agreement, with Danish territories going to Norway if Fortinbras had won. Now, sir, the young Fortinbras has grown up and, although he’s a novice in war, he’s spoiling for a fight and has assembled a gang of lawless troublemakers from the backwaters of Norway. For little more than their daily food they will try and recover the lands lost in that duel. From what I can gather this is the main reason for the watch and the frantic preparations for war.’
‘That makes sense,’ said Bernardo, ‘and it may be that this portentous figure that comes armed through our watch, looking so much like the dead king, is the focus of these wars.’
‘It certainly stirs the imagination,’ said Horatio. ‘At the height of Rome’s might, just before the mighty Julius Caesar was assassinated, graves opened and the dead walked the streets muttering and wailing. Stars of flaming fire came as disasters from the sun, and the moon, which influences Neptune’s watery empire, was eclipsed. Similar sightings, like warnings from heaven or prologues of an ill omen about to happen, have been witnessed here, by our own countrymen.’
He saw the ghost coming slowly towards them. ‘But look!’ he said, ‘the ghost comes again. I’ll approach it even though it might sweep me aside.’
The ghost walked past them without altering its pace.
Horatio followed it. ‘Stop, illusion!’ he commanded. ‘If you can make any sound or have a voice, speak to me. If there’s any good thing that has to be done that will give you peace and bring me grace, speak to me. If you have any foreknowledge of your country’s fate, which perhaps prior knowledge of may avoid, oh speak. Or if you have hoarded stolen treasure during your life, for which reasons, they say, you spirits walk after death, tell me about it.’
A cock crowed somewhere. The ghost continued walking.
‘Stop it, Marcellus!’ Horatio tried to grasp it but his hands went right through it.
‘Shall I hit it with my spear?’ said Marcellus.
‘Do so if it won’t stop,’ said Horatio.
‘It’s here!’ said Bernardo, pointing.
‘No, it’s here! said Horatio.
‘It’s gone,’ said Marcellus. ‘We wronged it, being so majestical, by threatening it with violence. It’s invulnerable, like the air. Our antics were a mockery.’
‘It was about to speak when the cock crew,’ said Bernardo.
‘And then it started like a guilty thing hearing a fearful summons,’ said Horatio. ‘I have heard it said that the cock, the trumpeter of the morning, wakes the god of day and at that warning, whether it’s in the sea, or in fire, on the earth or in the air, the wandering and erring spirits retreat to their prisons. What we’ve seen this morning is proof of that story.’
‘It faded on the crowing of the cock,’ agreed Marcellus. ‘Some say that at Christmas time the bird of dawn actually sings all night. And then, they say, no spirit dares roam. The nights are wholesome: the planets are stable: neither fairy nor witch has any power, so holy and gracious is that time.’
‘I’ve heard that too,’ said Horatio, and I partly believe it. But look, the morning, dressed in it’s russet mantle , is coming over the dew of that high eastern hill. Let’s break the watch up. My advice is that we tell young Hamlet of what we’ve seen tonight. I’ll bet my life that this spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him. Do you agree we should tell him out of our friendship and duty to him?’
‘Let’s do that,’ said Marcellus. ‘I know where we’ll find him.’