‘I don’t like it,’ Claudius told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. ‘And it’s not safe to let his madness rage. So prepare yourselves. I’ll give you your commission immediately, and he’ll go to England with you. We can’t allow his growing lunacies to threaten Denmark.’
‘We’ll get ready,’ said Guildenstern. ‘It’s a holy and religious duty to safeguard the many subjects who depend on your majesty.’
‘It’s one thing to keep your own mind from annoyance with all the strength and armour you have,’ said Rosencrantz, ‘but quite another, and more important, to preserve the one on whom the wellbeing of the many depend. When a king dies he doesn’t die alone, but like a void, he pulls whatever’s near him in. He is a great wheel on top of the summit of the highest mountain. And ten thousand lesser things are attached to its huge spokes. When it falls, every small attachment, every tiny matter, is ruined too. A king never sighs without a general groan.’
‘Prepare for a speedy departure,’ said Claudius, ‘because we want to control this danger that’s getting out of hand.’
‘We’ll hurry,’ said Guildenstern. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bowed and left to prepare for their journey.
Claudius went to his private chapel and stopped in the doorway as Polonius came towards him, gesturing for him to wait.
‘My lord,’ said Polonius, ‘he’s going to his mother’s room. I’ll hide behind the curtain so that I can listen to the conversation. I guarantee she won’t spare him. And as you said, and wisely, too, it’s important that someone other than a mother should hear this vital evidence, since nature makes a bond between mother and son. Farewell then, my liege. I’ll see you before you go to bed and tell you what I’ve found out.’
‘Thank you, my dear lord,’ said Claudius. He entered the chapel and stood, gazing at the centuries-old place of worship, where his ancestors had, prayed and married, where their coffins had lain in state. This was the time to pray if there ever was one. His offence was rank, it smelt to heaven. It had the most primal ancient curse on it. A brother’s murder! He tried to kneel but couldn’t. He couldn’t pray, even though his need to was as powerful as it could be. His guilt outweighed his strong desire. He didn’t know where to begin as there were two main considerations: his crime against a human being and his sin against God. And so he could only stand there doing nothing. What if this cursed hand of his were thicker than itself with brother’s blood: wasn’t there enough rain in the sweet heavens to wash it white as snow? What was mercy for if not to help him fight the effects of his crime? And what was prayer for if not to prevent his fall before it happened? Or if it did happen, to pardon him when it did? Then he would be able to look up because his sin would be behind him. He prepared to kneel but still, what kind of prayer would help him? ‘Forgive me my foul murder?’ That was no good because he still possessed those things that he had done the murder for: his crown, his ambition, and his queen. Could one be pardoned for a sin and still keep the benefits of it? In the corrupt ways of the world one could shove justice aside and the power and wealth one achieved by one’s crimes could be used to bribe the dispensers of law. But that wasn’t the case in heaven. There’s no crooked dealing there. Our actions’ true nature is laid bare before God and we ourselves are forced to give full and true evidence. What should he do then? What could he do? Only try what repentance he could. It couldn’t do any harm. But it wouldn’t help if one simply couldn’t repent. Oh wretched condition! Oh heart as black as death! Oh soul trapped in sticky lime, that struggling to free itself, was becoming even more entangled! Help angels! Make him do it! Make his stubborn knees bow, and make the steel strings of his heart as soft as the sinews of a newborn baby! It may work. He knelt slowly in front of the altar, bowed his head and clasped his hands together.
As Hamlet passed the chapel on his way to his mother’s room he saw the light in the chapel. He paused and stood silently at the door. He saw the still form of his uncle kneeling before the altar. He drew his sword and tiptoed into the chapel and stood at the back. He could do it, right now, easily, while he was praying. And he would. Right now. He took a step forward then stopped. And so he would go to heaven, and what kind of revenge would that be? That was something to think about. A villain kills his father: and for that his son sends that villain to heaven. Oh, that would be a service he was giving that villain, not revenge. He killed his father most grossly, full of unresolved sins himself, with all his crimes in blossom, like the flowers of May. And no-one knew how his father’s audit stood in heaven. As far he knew it stood seriously. So would he be revenged if he took his uncle while he was purging his soul, when he was fit and ready for his death? No! He put his sword back. He would find a more suitable occasion, when he was drunk, or asleep, or in a rage, or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed, or gambling, swearing, or some other act that had no taste of salvation in it. Then he would trip him so that his heels would kick out at heaven. His soul would then be damned as black as the hell it was destined for. His mother was waiting, but this delay would only prolong his uncle’s last sickly days. He turned and went out quietly.
Claudius rose. He hadn’t been able to pray. His words had been flying up to heaven but his thoughts had been dwelling on those worldly things that he couldn’t get out of his mind. Words without thoughts never went to heaven.
Read other Hamlet scenes in modern English:
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 1
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 2
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 3
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 4
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 5
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 6
Modern Hamlet Act 4, Scene 7
Read all of Shakespeare’s plays in modern English