The head of Polonius’ household had come to the castle with an urgent matter that he wanted to discuss with the queen. Horatio brought him to her apartment. It was a straightforward matter: Ophelia wanted see her.
‘I don’t want to talk to her,’ said Gertrude.
‘She pleads with you,’ the messenger said. ‘Indeed, she’s distraught. Her condition is pitiable.’
‘What does she want?’
‘She talks about her father constantly. She says that she’s heard that the world has become crafty, she screams and beats her chest. She’s moody: she talks incoherently and makes little sense. It’s meaningless, and the wildness of her language forces you to guess at what she’s trying to convey. Her winks and nods and gestures make one think that there may be sense in them but it’s not there. It’s very sad.’
‘It’s best that you speak to her,’ said Horatio, otherwise, ‘in her state, she might feed the rumour-mongers.’
‘Bring her,’ said Gertrude.
Gertrude walked through the cloisters of her private apartment – round and round. ‘This was another of so many things that were troubling her. It was the nature of sin that so many little things like this led to some big, new problem. Guilt was uncontainable and always spilt out the things it was trying to contain.
When Horatio brought Ophelia in it was clear that there was something dreadfully wrong. Her hair was disheveled and she wore a nightdress. She had clearly not slept for a while.
‘Where is the beautiful queen of Denmark?’ she muttered as she followed Horatio into the queen’s garden.
Gertrude kissed her. ‘How are you, Ophelia?’ she said.
Ophelia didn’t look up. She began singing, softly.
‘How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
And his sandal shoon.’
‘Alas, sweet lady,’ said Gertrude. ‘What does this song mean?’
‘What? No, listen:
He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone:
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.’
‘Yes, but Ophelia…’
‘No, listen,’ said Ophelia:‘White his shroud as the morning snow…’
Claudius was coming towards them across the lawn.
‘Oh dear, look at this, my lord’ said Gertrude.
Ophelia took no notice of the king’s arrival:
‘Larded with sweet flowers
Which bewept to the grave did go
With true-love showers.’
‘How are you pretty lady?’ Claudius spoke gently.
‘Well, God’s blessings on you!’ said Ophelia. ‘They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. We know what we are, my lord, but we don’t know what we’re going to become. God bless your table!’
‘This is because of her father’s death,’ Claudius assured Gertrude.
Ophelia held her hand up. ‘Please,’ she said, ‘let’s not talk about that, but when they ask what it means, say this.’
She began singing again:
‘To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door:
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.’
‘Pretty Ophelia,’ said Claudius.
‘Indeed, la,’ said Ophelia. ‘I’ll finish it:
‘By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t, if they come to’t:
By cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha’ done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.’
‘How long has she been like this?’
‘I hope it will end well,’ said Ophelia. ‘We’ll have to wait and see, but I can’t stop crying when I think about him lying in the cold ground. My brother will have something to say about it. And so I thank you for your good advice. Where’s my coach? Good night, ladies: good night sweet ladies: good night, good night.’
She wandered away, walking slowly back through the garden.
Claudius nodded to Horatio. ‘Follow her closely. Watch her carefully, if you don’t mind.’
Claudius and Gertrude watched until she had left the garden then Claudius sat on a bench and drew Gertrude down beside him. ‘Oh, this is the poison of deep grief: it springs from her father’s death.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘Oh Gertrude, Gertrude, when sorrows attack us they don’t do it with single soldiers, but in battalions. First, her father killed, next, your son gone – although we mustn’t forget that he was the most violent author of his own justifiable removal. The people are confused, full of unwholesome rumours about good Polonius’ death. We were naïve to bury him in secrecy the way we did. Poor Ophelia – unhinged, deprived of her reason, without which we are no more than empty forms, or mere animals. Finally, but as significant as the rest, her brother has arrived secretly from France, becoming increasingly agitated, soaking up rumours, and doesn’t lack gossip mongers to infect his ear with pestilential accounts of his father’s death, in which our name features strongly. Oh my dear Gertrude, this is like that murderous piece of artillery that fires lethal bits of metal, hitting me everywhere.’
‘What’s that noise?’ said Gertrude, as a huge racket – many voices shouting – suddenly burst on the peaceful morning.
Claudius sprang up and reached for his sword. ‘Where are my Switzers, he roared to the attendants who stood near the entrance to the queen’s apartment. ‘Tell them to guard the door!’
A Swiss guard officer was running towards them. ‘Save yourself,’ my lord,’ he said. He beckoned and they followed him into the state room where the guards were assembled. They locked and barred the door.
‘Even tidals waves don’t rush across the land as fast and powerfully as young Laertes and his rebels,’ the officer said. ‘The rabble are calling him Lord, disregarding all our civil structures, wanting to sweep them away. They’re shouting, “we are choosing: Laertes will be king.” Their caps, hands and tongues are raised to the skies, crying: “Laertes for king, Laertes king!” ’
‘How joyfully they’re shouting on this false trail!’ said Gertrude. ‘Oh you are wrong, you traitorous Danish dogs,’ she shouted.
There was a tremendous crashing and the doors burst open. ‘They’ve broken down the doors,’ said Claudius. He sat down abruptly on his chair of state and tried to maintain a calm pose fitting his position as the lawful king of Denmark.
Laertes led a motley bunch of countrymen into the hall, brandishing his sword and shouting, ‘Where is the king?’ He saw Claudius and Gertrude and stopped. He shouted to his followers: ‘All of you, wait outside.’
It was an unpopular instruction, with the men protesting loudly. But they stopped to hear Laertes as he turned to them. ‘Please,’ he said. ‘Allow me.’
They left, muttering, and took up positions at the door.
‘Thank you,’ called Laertes. ‘Guard the door.’ He turned viciously to Claudius. ‘Oh you vile king! Give me my father!’
‘Calm down, good Laertes,’ said Claudius, mustering as much calm as he could himself.
Gertrude sprang from her chair and placed herself between them. She faced Laertes, clutching his arms.
‘If I had a drop of calm blood I would be a bastard: it would proclaim my father a cuckold and my mother a whore!’ shouted Laertes.
Claudius’ heart was beating furiously but he was able to employ the skills that had always served him in difficult situations. ‘What’s all this about, Laertes?’ he said, calm now. ‘Such a giant-like rebellion? Let him go, Gertrude: don’t be afraid for me. Kings are protected by their divine right and treason can only dream about what it wants.’
She ignored him and gripped Laertes’ arms more determinedly.
‘Tell me, Laertes,’ said Claudius. ‘Why are you so incensed? Let him go, Gertrude.’
Gertrude stepped back and returned to her chair.
Claudius felt confident enough to try his warm beaming smile. ‘Speak, man,’ he said gently.
‘Where is my father?’
‘Dead,’ said Claudius.
‘But not at his hands,’ said Gertrude.
Claudius turned to Gertude and placed his fingers on his lips. ‘Let him air all his demands,’ he said.
‘How did he die?’ demanded Laertes. ‘I won’t be juggled with!’ He waved his sword at Claudius. ‘To hell with my allegiance! I’ll be allied to the devil. Conscience and salvation can go to hell. Damnation doesn’t scare me. I care nothing about either this or the next world. Let whatever happens happen. One thing I’m sure of: I’ll be thoroughly revenged for my father.’
‘Who’s going to stop you?’ said Claudius.
‘Nothing can stop me, except my will. And although I have few resources I’ll marshal them well.’
‘Good Laertes, in your desire to get to the truth will your impulses sweep away friend and foe?’
‘None but my enemies.’
Claudius looked nervously at Gertrude. ‘Do you want to know who they are, then?’ he said.
Laertes spread his arms. ‘I’ll open my arms this widely to my friends,’ he said. ‘And like the pelican, feed them with my own blood.’
‘Now you’re talking like a good child and a true gentleman,’ said Claudius. ‘It will become as clear as daylight that not only am I innocent of your father’s death but that I’m also grief-stricken by it.’
There was an outburst from the Danes outside.
‘Hello? What’s that?’ said Laertes, turning.
The crowd were jostling each other, making a passageway between them. Ophelia emerged from that and came towards them. She had covered herself with flowers and herbs. Laertes rushed to the forlorn, unkempt figure and took her in his arms. She reacted as though she didn’t know who he was, showing no sign of welcome but leaning passively against his body.
‘Oh heat, dry up my brains and make me lose my reason!’ exclaimed Laertes. ‘My tears will destroy my eyes! My revenge will match your madness in its fury! Justice will be done! Rose of May! Dear kind, sweet sister, Ophelia! Is it possible that a young maid’s sanity could be as mortal as an old man’s body?’
Ophelia took no notice of him. She began to sing:
‘They bore him barefaced on the bier:
Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny:
And in his grave rain’d many a tear:–
Fare you well, my dove!’
‘If you’d had your wits still and urged me to revenge it couldn’t have influenced me as much as this,’ said Laertes.
Ophelia glanced up at Gertrude. ‘Sing Call him a-down-a. It goes round and round. It concerns a manipulative sheriff who eloped with his master’s daughter.’
‘There’s no sense in this!’ exclaimed Laertes.
Ophelia hummed and began to dance. She pulled a herb from her hair and gave it to Laertes. ‘This is rosemary: it’s for remembrance. I pray you, love, remember.’ She produced some pansies and gave them to him too. ‘That’s for thoughts.’
‘A coherent narrative in madness,’ said Laertes. ‘Thoughts and remembrance go together.’
Ophelia danced up to Gertrude. ‘There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue for you: and here’s some for me: we may call it herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they all withered when my father died: they say he made a good end,– For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.’
‘She turns everything to prettiness,’ said Laertes. ‘Thought and affliction, passion, – hell itself.’
Ophelia sang again:
‘And will he not come again?
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead:
Go to thy death-bed:
He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll:
He is gone, he is gone,
And we cast away moan:
God ha’ mercy on his soul!
And I pray for all Christian souls,’ she said. Goodbye.’
They watched, speechless, as she danced to the door and through the crowd, who cleared the space for her.
Laertes looked up to heaven and clasped his hands together. ‘Do you see this, oh God?’ he said.
Claudius got up and went to him. He put an arm around his shoulders. ‘Laertes,’
he said, ‘I must commiserate with you or you deprive me of a right. Go away now, and consult your wisest friends, and they will listen and judge between you and me. If they find me involved, either directly or indirectly, we will give you our kingdom, our crown, our life and everything else in compensation. But if they don’t I ask for your patience, and we will work together for a fitting redress.’
‘I agree,’ said Lertes. ‘The manner of his death, his obscure funeral, cry to be heard. No trophies, sword, no gravestone over his bones, no rites or formal ceremony. I have to question that.’
‘So you will,’ said Claudius. ‘and let the great axe fall where the offence is. Please come with me.’