The king and queen were holding court. The first item of business was with two young men, companions of Hamlet’s childhood, whom Claudius had secretly summoned. He had a proposition to put to them and they were immensely impressed that they had been singled out by the King of Denmark for a special mission.
Claudius greeted them with his famous, warm smile, applying the considerable skills he had in dealing with people. As he shook their hands his face showed delight and pleasure at the privilege.
‘Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!’ he exclaimed. ‘Apart from wanting so much to see you, the need we have to employ you made us send for you with insufficient notice.’ He smiled his apology. ‘I suppose you’ve heard about the transformation that’s taken place in Hamlet, as we would term it, since he’s changed so much in every way that he’s unrecognizable. I can’t imagine, apart from his father’s death, what’s making him behave so differently. What I would like you to do, as you grew up with him and have known him since his infancy, is to reside here in our court for a while and entertain him with your friendship, and find out whether anything that we don’t know about is troubling him so that, bringing it to the surface, we can see whether there’s anything we can do about it.’
Gertrude took their hands too. ‘Good gentlemen,’ she said, ‘he’s talked about you a great deal and I’m sure there are no two men alive that he likes as much. If you would be willing to oblige us and stay and help us for a while your services will receive the thanks that only a king can give.’
Rosencrantz bowed deeply. ‘Both your majesties need do no more than ask,’ he said.
Guildenstern nodded. ‘We will,’ he said. ‘And we dedicate ourselves and offer ourselves to be commanded.’
‘Thank you Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern,’ said Claudius.
‘Thanks Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz,’ said Gertrude. ‘And I ask you to visit my too much changed son immediately.’ She gestured to some attendants. ‘Go, and take these gentlemen to Hamlet.’
‘I pray to heaven that our presence and our skills will be pleasant and helpful to him,’ said Guildenstern.
‘Yes, so do I,’ said Gertrude.
Polonius came hurrying in.
‘The ambassadors from Norway, my lord,’ he said. ‘With good news.’
‘You’re always the father of good news,’ said Claudius, smiling.
‘Am I?’ Polonius stood before the king and rubbed his hands. ‘I assure my good liege that my duty comes before my life, which is dedicated to my God and my gracious king. And I think, unless I’m losing my faculties, that I’ve discovered the very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.’
‘Oh, tell me then,’ said Claudius.’ That’s what I long to hear.’
‘Listen to the ambassadors first. My news will be the dessert to that great feast.’
‘Bring them in.’
While Polonius was fetching the ambassadors Claudius paced, frowning. ‘He tells me, dear Gertrude,’ he said, that he’s found the root cause of your son’s bad mood.’
She sighed. ‘I don’t think it’s anything other than what we already know: his father’s death and our over hasty marriage.’
‘Well anyway, we’ll listen to him.’ His accustomed smile returned as Polonius entered with the ambassadors.
‘Welcome my good friends,’ he said. ‘So tell me Voltimand, what news from our brother Norway?’
Voltimand’s face showed that his mission had succeeded. ‘Very good,’ he said. ‘He immediately moved to suppress his nephew’s levies, which he had thought were preparations against the Poles, but when he looked more closely he found that they were really preparations against you. He was so annoyed that he ignored his sickness, age and weakness: sends an instruction to Fortinbras to stop, which, in short, the young man obeys. He receives rebuke from Norway, and finally makes a vow to his uncle that he will never again threaten your majesty. At that, old Norway, overjoyed, gives him a grant of three thousand crowns a year and a commission to use those soldiers against the Poles, with a request to you, contained here ….’ Voltimand handed the king a letter ‘………that it might please you to allow him to pass through your territory for that purpose, subject to the conditions that are set down in there.’
‘We’re happy with that,’ said Claudius, ‘and at our leisure we’ll read, answer and think about it. Meanwhile, we thank you for your splendid effort. Get some rest and tonight we’ll feast together. Welcome home!’
Polonius escorted the ambassadors to the door then came back and bowed unctuously. ‘A satisfactory end to this business,’ he said. He rubbed his hands, stood up straight and closed his eyes. ‘To argue things like the nature of majesty: why day is day, night night, and time is time would serve only to waste night, day and time…….’ He noticed Gertrude’s impatient gesture to him to get to the point and stopped. ‘….. Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward signs of wit, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. I say ‘mad’ because, to define true madness, what is it other than being mad?’ He was about to attempt another definition but he caught Gertrude’s eye and thought better of it. ‘But let that go,’ he said.
‘More substance with less rhetoric,’ said Gertrude.
‘Madam,’ he protested. ‘I swear I’m not employing rhetoric. It’s true that he is mad, and in being true, it’s a pity, and that it’s a pity is true. Rhetoric is a foolish art so goodbye to rhetoric for I will not use it. Let us grant that he is mad, and it remains, therefore, to find out the cause of this effect, or, should I say, rather, this defect, since this effect becomes defective by its nature. So it remains only, and the remainder is this: take note. I have a daughter – at least have as long as she’s mine – who in her duty and obedience, look, has given me this.’ He withdrew a letter from inside his doublet with a flourish. ‘Now listen, and draw your own conclusions. “To the divine, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified …..” That’s an awful phrase, an appalling phrase: beautified is an appalling phrase. But you will hear. So. “……. In her excellent white bosom, these, etcetera …….”’
‘This came to her from Hamlet?’ said Gertrude.
‘Good madam, be patient awhile. I’ll read it.
“Doubt that the stars are fire:
Doubt that the sun does move:
Doubt truth to be a liar:
But never doubt my love.
Oh, dear Ophelia, I’m bad at this poetry: I don’t have the skill to word my groans, but believe that I love you ardently. Oh, beloved, believe it. Adieu. Yours forever, dearest lady, as long as I live, HAMLET”
In her obedience my daughter has shown me this. And, moreover, all his solicitings – the times, the means, the places – have been reported to me.’
‘But how has she received his love?’ said Claudius.
Polonius was thrilled with his triumph. He cocked his head. ‘What do you think of me?’ he said.
Claudius and Gertrude glanced at each other. Gertrude was about to articulate the impatience that she was trying to conceal when Claudius placed a hand on her arm and smiled at Polonius. ‘That you’re a loyal and honourable man,’ he said.
‘I should hope so,’ said Polonius. ‘But what would you have thought if, when I had seen this hot love on the wing, as I perceived it to be – I must tell you that, before my daughter told me – what might you, or, my dear majesty, your queen here, have thought if I had imitated a table and stayed dumb, or turned a blind eye on this love? What would you have thought? No, I went straight to work, and said the following to my young mistress: “Lord Hamlet is a prince beyond your sphere. This must not be.” And then I gave her instructions to keep herself away from his usual places, admit no messengers and accept no gifts. Which done, she accepted the wisdom of my advice, and being rejected – to cut a long story short – he fell into a sadness, then into a depression, and from that into a distraction, and by this decline, into the madness that now makes him rave. And that we all mourn for.’ He rubbed his hands.
Claudius was dubious. He turned to Gertrude. ‘Do you think it’s that?’’
She thought for a moment. ‘It may be. It’s very likely.’
Polonius looked offended. ‘Has there ever been a time – I’d love to know that – when I have positively said it’s so and it has been proved otherwise?’
‘Not that I know of,’ said Claudius.
Polonius pointed to his head. ‘Take this from this,’ he said, ‘if it is proved otherwise. If I can I will always find the truth of things, even if it’s hidden very deep.’
‘How can we put it to the test?’ said Claudius.
‘You know that he sometimes paces for up to four hours at a time, out there in the lobby.’
‘Yes he does,’ said Gertrude.
‘Well, when he does that again I’ll get my daughter to go to him. You and I will hide behind the curtain, watch the encounter: if he doesn’t love her and has fallen into madness because of that, then I’m not fit to be an assistant to the state but only a farmer.’
‘We’ll try it,’ said Claudius.
Gertrude looked up beyond the door, to the lobby. ‘But look,’ she said. ‘the poor wretch is out there, reading.’
‘Go,’ said Polonius. ‘Both of you. I’ll confront him right now.’
Polonius went out into the lobby. Hamlet was pacing, reading a book. ‘Oh, I beg your pardon,’ said Polonius.
‘How is my good Lord Hamlet?’
‘Well, thank God,’ said Hamlet, looking up from his book.
‘Do you know me, my lord?’ said Polonius.
‘Very well. You are a fishmonger.’
‘No I’m not, my lord.’
‘Then I wish you were an honest man.’
‘Honest, my lord?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Hamlet. ‘To be honest nowadays is to be one man out of a thousand.’
‘That’s very true, my lord.’
‘Because if the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog, being a corpse ripe for kissing ….. Have you got a daughter?’
‘I have, my lord.’
‘Then don’t let her walk in the sun. Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive.’ Hamlet laughed. ‘So watch out, friend.’
Polonius frowned. What did he mean by that? Still harping on his daughter. But he didn’t know him at first, he called him a fishmonger. He’s far gone, far gone. Polonius remembered how in his youth he had suffered this kind of extremity when he was in love – very similar.
‘What are you reading, my lord?’
‘Words, words, words,’ said Hamlet.
‘What is the matter, my lord?’
‘I mean the matter that you’re reading?’
‘Slanders,’ said Hamlet. ‘For the satirical rogue who wrote this says here that old men have grey beards: that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes watery and sticky and that they are stupid, as well as having weak muscles. I completely agree with all that, sir, although I think he was wrong to write it down because you would be as old as I am, sir, if you could walk backwards like a crab.’
It was madness alright, but there seemed to be some sense in it somewhere. ‘Would you like to take a walk outside, my lord?’
‘Into my grave,’ said Hamlet.
‘Yes, indeed, that is outside.’
How full of substance some of his replies were. A coincidence that madness sometimes strikes, sometimes in ways that reason and sanity couldn’t achieve. He would leave him now and ‘accidentally’ find a way of encountering him and his daughter. ‘My lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you,’ he said.
Hamlet grinned. ‘You cannot, sir, take anything from me that I would more willingly part with.’ His face became sad suddenly. ‘Except my life,’ he said dreamily. ‘Except my life.’
‘Goodbye, my lord.’
Hamlet watched him walk off. ‘These tedious old fools!’ he exclaimed and returned to his reading.
Polonius got to the end of the long lobby just as Rosenctantz and Guildenstern were coming in.
‘You’re looking for the Lord Hamlet,’ he said. He turned and pointed. ‘There he is.’
‘God save you, sir,’ said Rosencrantz.
They walked swiftly to the other end of the lobby.
‘My honoured lord!’ said Guildenstern.
‘My most dear lord,’ said Rosencrantz.
Hamlet looked pleased to see them. ‘My excellent good friends!’ he exclaimed. ‘How are you?’
‘Not too bad,’ said Rosencrantz.
‘Content in that we’re not overjoyed,’ said Guildenstern. ‘We’re not exactly the top-button on fortune’s hat.’
‘But not the soles of her shoes either, I hope?’ said Hamlet.
‘Neither, my lord,’ said Rosencrantz.
‘Then you live around her waist – in the middle of her favours?’ said Hamlet.
‘In fact, around her private parts,’ said Guildenstern.
They all laughed.
‘In the secret places of Fortune?’ said Hamlet. ‘Yes indeed, she’s a whore.’
They all laughed again. Hamlet slapped Guildenstern on the back. ‘What’s your news then?’
‘None, my lord,’ said Rosencrtantz. ‘Except that the world’s grown honest.’
‘Then doomsday’s near,’ said Hamlet. ‘But your news isn’t true. Let me ask you more particularly, then. What have you deserved at the hands of fortune, my good friends, that she’s sent you to prison here?’
‘Prison, my lord?’ said Guildenstern.
‘Denmark’s a prison,’ said Hamlet.
‘Then the whole world’s one,’ said Rosencrantz.
‘A real one, in which there are many cells and dungeons,’ said Hamlet. ‘Denmark is one of the worst.’
‘We don’t think so,’ said Rosencrantz.
‘Well then, it isn’t to you, as nothing is either good or bad unless one perceives it as such. It’s a prison to me.’
‘That’s because your aspirations are so high,’ said Rosencrantz. ‘Denmark is too small for your mind.’
‘Oh God!’ exclaimed Hamlet. ‘I could be confined in a nutshell and consider that infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.’
Guildenstern nodded. ‘Which are aspirations, as I said. Because aspirations are only reflections of dreams.’
‘A dream is itself a reflection,’ said Hamlet.
‘Absolutely,’ said Rosencrantz. ‘And I believe that aspirations are so unsubstantial that they’re only reflections of reflections.’
‘Then our beggars’ bodies, and our monarchs and our great heroes are all only the beggars’ reflections.’ Hamlet scratched his head. ‘Shall we go to the court? Because I have to say that I can’t think this one through.’
‘We’re at your service,’ said Rosencrantz.
‘Never,’ said Hamlet. ‘I won’t rank you with my servants.’ He beckoned them close, looked around him and whispered: ‘To tell you the truth I’m most closely looked after.’ He led the way to the audience hall and invited them to sit. He signaled a servant to bring some refreshments.
‘But, as one friend to another,’ he said when they were settled, ‘tell me why have you come to Elsinore?’
‘To visit you, my lord,’ said Rosencrantz. ‘Nothing else.’
‘I’m a complete beggar,’ said Hamlet. ‘I’m even poor in my thanks. But I thank you, my dear friends, even though my thanks are worthless. Weren’t you sent for?’
They looked at each other sharply.
‘Is it your own idea? Is it a completely free visit? Come, tell me the truth.’
They protested with gestures of denial.
‘No, tell me,’ said Hamlet.
‘There’s nothing to tell,’ said Guildenstern. ‘What can we say?’
‘Anything but the truth, of course,’ said Hamlet. He pointed slyly at Guildenstern and smiled. ‘You were sent for.’ He wagged his finger playfully at Rosencrantz. ‘I know, because there’s a kind of confession in your looks which you’re not skillful enough to modify.’ He nodded decisively. ‘I know the good king and queen have sent for you.’
‘Why would they, my lord?’ said Rosencrantz.
‘You tell me,’ said Hamlet. ‘Let me urge you, for the sake of our history, the similarity of our ages, the obligation of our enduring regard for each other, and by whatever else such a close friend could mention, to be honest and direct with me. Were you sent for or not?’
Rosencrantz caught Guildenstern’s eye. Guildenstern nodded almost imperceptibly.
‘If you have any respect for me don’t hold back,’ said Hamlet.
Guildenstern turned his palms up and shrugged. ‘My lord, we were sent for.’
‘And I’ll tell you why,’ said Hamlet. ‘And in doing that you won’t have to spy on me and your secret dealings with the king and queen needn’t bother your conscience. I don’t know why it is, but I’ve lost all my sense of fun and ignored my physical exercise lately. I’ve become so depressed that this wonderful structure, the world, seems like a sterile promontory. This beautiful canopy, the sky – listen – this glorious heaven above us, this majestical roof decorated with golden fire ……… Do you know, it strikes me as nothing more than a foul and diseased swirl of evil smelling vapours?’
The two young men stared at their feet. This wasn’t what they had expected.
‘What a piece of work a man is!’ continued Hamlet. ‘How superior in reason! How infinite in intelligence! How well proportioned and admirable in his form! How like an angel in his actions, how like a god in his understanding! The masterpiece of the world, the perfect embodiment of animals! And yet, I ask myself what this quintessence of dust is. I get no pleasure out of man.’
Guildenstern looked up at that and winked. Rosencrantz nudged him.
‘No, nor woman neither, though judging by your silliness, you seem to be suggesting something.’
Rozencrantz looked hurt. ‘My lord, that was far from my thoughts.’
‘Why did you laugh then when I said I get no pleasure from man?’
‘I was thinking, my lord, that if you find no pleasure in man, what a poor reception the actors will get from you. We overtook them on the way here. They’re coming to offer you their service.’
‘The actor who plays the king will be welcome. I will salute his majesty. The adventurous knight will use his foil and shield. The lover won’t sigh for nothing. The trouble maker will end his part peacefully, the clown will make those laugh who laugh at nothing, and the lady will say her lines as inaccurately as she likes, or the blank verse will suffer for it. What players are they?’
‘Your favourite,’ said Rosencrantz. ‘The tragedians of the city.’
‘Why are they touring?’ said Hamlet. ‘Their permanent home was better from the point of view both of reputation and profit.’
‘I think they’ve gone out of fashion.’
‘Aren’t they as popular as they were when I was in the city?’
‘No, indeed, they aren’t.’ said Rosencrantz.
‘Why is that? Have they gone rusty?’
‘No,’ said Rosencrantz. ‘They’re just as good as ever, but there is, sir, an aerie of children – little nestlings, that declaim louder than the subject warrants, in their shrill treble voices, and are most vehemently clapped for it. These are now the fashion and they are abusing all the stages so much that the gallants with their rapiers are afraid of attending for fear of being wounded by the writers’ goose quill pens!’
‘What? Are they children? Who looks after them? How much are they paid? Are they going to continue as players when they can’t sing anymore? If they themselves grow up to be common players, as is most likely, won’t they say, if their income doesn’t improve, that their writers have done them no favours in making them cry out against the enemy that they are themselves going to become?’
Rosencrantz laughed loudly. ‘In fact, there has been a big to-do on both sides. And the public loves to incite them to controversy. For a while no-one would buy a script unless it depicted the fighting between the two groups.’
‘Oh there has even been violence.’
‘Do the boys carry it off?’
‘In more ways than one, my lord. They also carried off the statue of Hercules that stood in front of the Globe theatre!’
‘It’s not so strange, because my uncle is king of Denmark, and those who pulled faces at him when my father was alive, are now paying twenty, forty, fifty, a hundred ducats a-piece for his portrait in miniature. There’s something more than natural in this if we could work it out.’
The castle trumpeters were announcing an arrival.
‘The players,’ said Guildenstern.
Hamlet stood up. ‘Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore. Your hands.’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern got up and he made a show of shaking their hands. ‘Come then. Let me welcome you formally, as is expected of me when receiving representatives of the king. I’ll greet you in this way in case you think that the welcome I give the players, which I will do warmly, seems more heartfelt. You are welcome, but my uncle-father and aunt-mother are wrong.’
‘In what, my dear lord?’ said Guildenstern.
Hamlet looked from the one to the other and shook his head. ‘I’m only mad when it suits me – when the wind is north-north-west. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a heron.’
Polonius, followed by several attendants, was hurrying towards them. He waved and called to them. ‘Nice to see you, gentlemen!’
‘Listen to me, Guildenstern,’ said Hamlet, ‘and you too.’ He put an arm around the shoulders of each one and drew them close. ‘An ear from both. That great baby you see there isn’t out of his swaddling clothes yet.’
‘Perhaps this is the second time he’s wearing them,’ said Rosencrantz. ‘They say that an old man has a second childhood.’
I prophesy that he’s going to tell me about the players. Watch.’ He pretended that they were having a different conversation as Polonius came up to them. ‘You’re right, sir,’ he said, winking at Guildenstern.
‘On Monday morning that was the case.’
‘My lord, I have news to tell you,’ said Polonius.
‘My lord, I have news to tell you,’ mimicked Hamlet. ‘When Roscius was an actor in Rome ….’
‘The actors have arrived,’ said Polonius.
‘Yawn, yawn,’ said Hamlet.
‘Believe me…….’ said Polonius.
‘Then each actor came riding on his ass…’ sang Hamlet.
Polonius interrupted him. ‘The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, unified scene, or scene divided. Seneca isn’t too heavy for them not Plautus too light. For plays of the strict classical type and plays of the free romantic type, these are the only men.’
‘Oh Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure you had!’ exclaimed Hamlet.
‘What treasure did he have, my lord?’ said Polonius.
‘Don’t you know? “One fair daughter and no more, The which he loved passing well.” ’ The prince was still on about his daughter!
‘Aren’t I right, old Jephthah?’
‘If you want to call me Jephthah, my lord, yes, I do have a daughter that I love very much.’
‘No, that doesn’t follow.’
‘What does follow then, my lord?’
‘Don’t you know? “As by lot, Got wot,” and then, you know, “it came to pass, as most like it was.” The first verse of the pious song will show you more. But look, I’m cut short by these arrivals.’
Hamlet sprang towards the players as they approached, showing a real and genuine warmth, and pleasure at seeing them. He shook hands with them all. ‘You are welcome, masters, all welcome. I’m so glad to see that you’re well. Welcome good friends.’ He laughed and addressed one of them. ‘Oh, my old friend! You’ve grown a beard since I last saw you. Have you come to beard me in my Denmark?’ The boy actor stood shyly behind one of the others. Hamlet beckoned him forward. ‘What, my young lady and mistress! My goodness, you’ve grown tall: your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the height of a high-heeled shoe. I hope to God that your voice, like a gold coin, isn’t cracked at the rim. Masters, you are all welcome. We’ll get straight down to it like French falconers, and fly at anything we see. We’ll have a speech right now. Come, give us a taste of your acting. Come, a passionate speech.’
The players’ leader nodded. ‘Which speech, my lord?’
‘You did a speech for me once, but it was never performed,’ said Hamlet. ‘Or if it was, it couldn’t have been more than once because the play, as I remember, didn’t please the million – it was caviar to the general but it was, as I and some others, whose judgment was better than mine, regarded as an excellent play, well constructed and written with subtlety. I remember that one of them said that there was no bawdiness in the lines to make the play salacious, and no language that might have laid the author open to the charge of affectation. He called it an honest method, wholesome and sweet and very much more handsome than fashionable. The speech that I liked the most was Aeneas’ tale of the fall of Troy, and especially where he talks about the death of Priam. If you still remember it start at this line: let me see, let me see…’ Hamlet screwed up his face, trying to remember the line. ‘The rugged Pyrrus, like the Hyrcanian beast… No, that’s not it – it begins with Pyrrus –
“The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smear’d
With heraldry more dismal; head to foot
Now is he total gules; horridly trick’d.
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and damned light
To their lord’s murder: roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o’er-sized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles,
the hellish Pyrrhus Old grandsire Priam seeks.”
Like that. You carry on.’
Polonius clapped. ‘Before God, my lord, well done – such good accent and expression.’
The players’ leader took up the theme:
‘Anon he finds him S
triking too short at Greeks; his antique sword,
Rebellious to his arm, lies where it falls,
Repugnant to command: unequal match’d,
Pyrrhus at Priam drives; in rage strikes wide;
But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword
The unnerved father falls. Then senseless Ilium,
Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top
Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash
Takes prisoner Pyrrhus’ ear: for, lo! his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverend Priam, seem’d i’ the air to stick:
So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,
And like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing. But, as we often see, against some storm,
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
The bold winds speechless and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder
Doth rend the region, so, after Pyrrhus’ pause,
Aroused vengeance sets him new a-work;
And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall
On Mars’s armour forged for proof eterne
With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,
In general synod ‘take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!’
Polonius tutted. ‘This is too long.’
‘It will be sent to the barber with your beard,’ snapped Hamlet. ‘Carry on. He’s interested only in a jig or a smutty story, or he goes to sleep. Carry on. Come to Hecuba.’
‘But who, oh, who had seen the mobled queen…’
‘The mobled queen?’ said Hamlet.
Polonius nodded thoughtfully. ‘That’s good; mobled queen is good.’
Hamlet gestured impatiently to the actor, who continued:
‘Run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames
With bisson rheum; a clout upon that head
Where late the diadem stood, and for a robe,
About her lank and all o’er-teemed loins,
A blanket, in the alarm of fear caught up;
Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steep’d,
‘Gainst Fortune’s state would treason have pronounced:
But if the gods themselves did see her then
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husband’s limbs,
The instant burst of clamour that she made,
Unless things mortal move them not at all,
Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven,
And passion in the gods.’
‘Look,’ said Polonius. ‘He’s changed colour and he’s got tears in his eyes. Please, no more.’
The actor looked at Hamlet for guidance.
‘It’s fine,’ said Hamlet. ‘I’ll ask you to say the rest soon.’ He gestured to Polonius. ‘My good lord, will you take the players to their accommodation? Listen, look after them well because they are the chroniclers of our time. You would be better off having a bad epitaph after your death than an unfavourable report from them while you’re alive.’
‘My lord, I’ll treat them according to what they deserve.’
‘For God’s sake, man, much better. If you treat every man according to his desert who would escape whipping. Treat them according to your own honour and dignity. The less they deserve the more merit there is in your generosity. Take them.’
‘Come, sirs.’ Polonius turned.
‘Follow him, friends. We’ll hear a play tonight.’ Hamlet stopped the lead player as the others went off with Polonius. ‘Listen to me, old friend,’ he said. ‘Can you do The Murder of Gonzago?’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘We’ll have it. You could learn a speech of about twelve or sixteen lines, which I would write and insert if you had to, couldn’t you?’
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Good. Follow that lord.’ Hamlet called after him. ‘And make sure you don’t mock him.’
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern laughed loudly. Hamlet shook their hands again.
‘My good friends,’ he said. ‘I’ll leave you till tonight. You are welcome to Elsinore.’
They bowed and left him.
He was alone at last. He slid slowly down on to a bench. He gazed at the chairs of state at the far end of the room. All the laughter and pretence of this last hour made him feel even more miserable than before. What a deceitful fellow – a rogue, a peasant slave – he was! It was monstrous that this actor had only to imagine grief for his face to go pale and his eyes to stream. In a fiction! A made-up script of passion! He was able to effect a broken voice, a desperation in his body language, and everything he felt necessary to the situation he was imagining. And it was all for nothing! For Hecuba, dead for a thousand years! What was Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her? What would that actor do if he had the motive and the reason for grief that he had? He would flood the stage with tears and split the ears of the audience with the language he would find, terrifying the innocent and making the guilty mad. He would bewilder the ignorant and amaze the eyes and ears of all.
He stood up and paced. He was the opposite of the actor: he was a rascal, the mettle of whose character had become tarnished and dull. He was shrinking away from his duty like a John-o-dreams, slow to translate his purpose into action, unable to say a word, no, not even on behalf of a king who had been robbed of his property and most precious life. Was he a coward? The victim of bullies? Would he let them call him names, strike him on his head, pull his beard out and throw it in his face, assassinate his character? Ha! God, yes, he would just take it because it was impossible that he could be anything but pigeon-livered , lacking the gall to summon up enough bitterness to do anything about his father’s murder. Otherwise he would have fed this slave’s intestines to the local kites. The villain! Bloody, filthy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, cruel villain! Oh vengeance! His heart was beating fast and he was almost breathless from the thoughts that were plaguing him. He sat down again. What an ass he was! What a brave man! That he, the son of a beloved father who had been murdered, with every reason between heaven and hell to act, should unburden his heart with words and descend to cursing, like a whore – a servant. Curse it!
He sat for a moment and an idea that had occurred to him while talking to the actors began to take shape. He had to concentrate on it now. Hmmm. He had heard about guilty people who, while watching a play, had been so affected by the contents of the scene, that they had confessed to their crimes, because murder will always find a way to proclaim itself, even though it has no voice of its own.
The idea crystallized. He would get the players to perform something like the murder of his father in front of his uncle. He would watch his uncle’s reactions. He would probe his very thoughts. If his uncle so much as flinched he would know what to do. The ghost may have been the devil for all he knew, and the devil had the power to take on a pleasing shape. Yes, and perhaps the devil was taking advantage of his weakness and his grief to damn him. He was therefore going to get proof. The play was the thing in which he would catch the conscience of the king.