The queen’s bedroom was richly furnished and warm. Gertrude had dismissed her attendants after they had prepared her for the night and she sat on her bed, her long hair hanging loosely down to her waist. There was a knock on the door. It was Polonius.
‘He’s on his way,’ he said. ‘Now look here, make sure you don’t spare him. Tell him his antics have been too much to take and that your grace has been protecting him from the consequences.’ He went to a thick tapestry.
‘I’ll esconce myself here. Don’t forget: be straight with him.’
They heard his voice: ‘Mother, mother, mother!’
‘I promise,’ she said. ‘Don’t doubt me. Quick, hide. That’s him.’
Polonius slipped behind the tapestry just as Hamlet opened the door.
‘Now, mother,’ said Hamlet. He sat down on the bed beside her. ‘What’s the matter?’
Gertrude’s face was stern. ‘Hamlet,’ she said, ‘you have severely offended you father.’
‘Mother,’ he said, ‘you have severely offended my father.’
‘Come, come,’ she said, ‘you’re answering with a loose tongue.’
‘Go, go,’ he said, ‘you’re questioning with a wicked tongue.’
Her expression softened. She sighed. ‘Oh Hamlet.’
‘What now?’ he said.
‘Have you forgotten me?’ she said.
‘No, by the cross, I haven’t. You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife. And – I wish it wasn’t so – you are my mother.’
She got up. ‘Alright then,’ she said, ‘I’ll get someone who can talk to you.’
He caught hold of her arm and pulled her back on to the bed. ‘Come here,’ he said. ‘Sit down: you won’t budge! You’re not going till I show you a mirror in which you’ll see your inner self.’
She tried to get up but he pulled her down again and held her there.
‘What are you going to do?’ she said. Her pitch was rising. ‘You’re not going to murder me are you? Help, help!’
Polonius’s voice came from behind the tapestry. ‘What, ho! Help, help, help!’
Hamlet sprang up and drew his sword. He went swiftly to the tapestry. ‘Hello? A rat! Dead for a ducat. Dead!’ He thrust his rapier clear though the tapestry.
Polonius fell. ‘Oh, I’m killed,’ he groaned.
‘Oh God,’ screamed Gertrude. ‘What have you done?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Hamlet. ‘Is it the king?’
Gertrude fell on to the bed and sobbed. ‘Oh what a rash and violent thing you’ve done!’
‘A violent thing!’ he exclaimed. ‘Almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry his brother.’
‘As kill a king!’ She looked at him in astonishment.
‘Yes, lady, that’s what I said.’ He lifted the tapestry and saw Polonius’ body. He stared down at the chamberlain. ‘You poor, rash, intruding fool, farewell!’ he said. ‘I took you for your better. Accept your fate. You’ve found that being a busybody is dangerous.’ He turned back to his mother. ‘Stop wringing your hands. Be quiet! Sit down and let me wring your heart, because I can, if it has any softness, if the things you’ve been doing haven’t brassed it over so much that it’s impervious to feeling.’
Anger welled up in her. ‘What have I done that you dare to wag your tongue at me so rudely?’
‘Something that smears the grace and blush of modesty, calls virtue a hypocrite, takes the rosiness off the beautiful forehead of an innocent love and puts a blister there, and makes marriage vows as false as dicers’ oaths. Oh, it’s a deed that plucks the very soul from the body of a marriage-contract, and makes the sweetness of religion a mere rhapsody of words. It makes heaven blush. Yes, this earth, with a face as sorrowful as though doomsday were at hand, is filled with anxiety.’
Gertrude shook her head. ‘Dear God, what deed, that’s brought such an extreme reaction?’
Hamlet looked around. There was a portrait of his father on the wall, and another of his uncle. ‘Look at those two pictures,’ he said, ‘the portraits of two brothers.’ He went up to his father’s portrait and pointed to it. ‘Look at the grace there was on this brow. Hyperion’s curls, the bearing of Jove himself, an eye like Mars, to threaten and command. The posture of Hermes, the messenger of the gods, just landed on a high hill. Qualities and a form that every god seemed to stamp his seal on to give the world assurance of a great man. This was your husband.’
He went to the other portrait. ‘Here is your husband. Like a mildewed ear, infecting his healthy brother. Have you got eyes? Could you leave this fertile mountain and get fat by feeding on this barren swamp? Ha! Have you got eyes? You can’t call it love because at your age the hey-day of desire is tame: it’s given way to judgment, and what kind of judgment would go from this to this? You have feeling, of course you have, or you wouldn’t be alive, but what’s certain is that that feeling is paralyzed. What devil has deceived you in this game of blind man’s buff? Sight without touch, touch without sight, hearing with neither touch nor sight, smell alone: even with a modicum of these skills, you should have known what you were doing. Oh shame! Where are your blushes? If musty rebellions flourish in the bones of a matron then hot blooded youth will burst into flames! Don’t scold the young when their elders are up to all kinds of tricks.’
‘Oh Hamlet,’ she said, don’t say any more. You’ve turned my eyes into my soul, and there I see such black and engrained spots as can’t be erased.’
‘Yes, but to lie in the gross sweat of a lecherous bed, stewed in corruption, kissing and making love over the nasty pigsty of…’
She stopped him. ‘Oh, don’t say any more. These words enter my ears like daggers. No more, sweet Hamlet!’
‘…a murderer and a villain,’ he continued. ‘A slave who isn’t worth a twentieth part of your previous lord. A criminal king, a thief of the empire and the crown, who stole a precious diadem and put it in his pocket!’
She clapped her hands over her ears. ‘No more!’
He tried to pull her hands away, shouting: ‘A king of rags and patches…’ He saw the ghost standing beside him and he let her go. ‘Oh, you angels, save me and protect me with your wings. What does your gracious figure want?’
Gertrude sat up and watched him staring and gaping at the open air. ‘Alas,’ she said, ‘he’s mad.’
‘Haven’t you come to reprimand your slow son who’s wasted time and lost his passion, who’s neglected the important execution of your dread command? Tell me!’
‘Don’t forget,’ the ghost said. ‘This visitation is only to sharpen your almost blunted purpose.’ It raised its hand. ‘But look how amazement sits on your mother. Oh, come between her and her fighting soul. Imagination works most strongly in the weakest bodies. Talk to her, Hamlet.’ The ghost stepped back and watched.
Hamlet took his mother’s hand gently. ‘How is it with you, lady?’ he said.
‘Alas, how is it with you, that you stare at nothing and converse with thin air? Your soul peeps wildly out of your eyes. Your hairs start up and stand on end like sleeping soldiers woken up by the alarm. Oh gentle son, try to control your impulses. What are you looking at?’
Hamlet pointed. ‘At him, at him! Look how palely he’s glaring! The combination of his appearance and mission would bring stones to life.’
The ghost stared at him with an expression of infinite sadness.
‘Don’t look at me,’ said Hamlet. He held his hand up in front of his eyes. ‘That look will change my resolve to do what I have to, from vengeance to pity for your wretched state.’
‘Who are you talking to?’ said Gertrude.
‘Can’t you see anything there?’
‘Nothing at all, but there’s nothing wrong with my eyes.’
‘Nor did you hear anything?’
‘No, nothing but ourselves.’
The ghost turned and walked slowly towards the door.
‘Look there!’ Hamlet was shouting. ‘Look! Look how it steals away. My father, in the clothes he wore when he was alive! Look, he’s going out the door!’
‘This is in your mind,’ said Gertrude. ‘The imagination is very cunning and has created this frenzy.’
‘Frenzy!’ He grasped her hand and placed it on his chest. ‘My pulse is as even as yours and is beating normally. The words I’ve spoken aren’t madness. Test me: I’ll re-word it if you like: madness couldn’t do that. For the love of God, mother, don’t try and comfort yourself by affecting innocence – that it’s my madness that’s to blame. That will only hide the ulcer while its poison festers inwards, unseen, burrowing itself all the way to the soul. Confess to God, repent, and save your soul. Don’t spread compost on the weeds to make them worse. Forgive me for giving you this advice. In these selfish times even virtue has to beg vice’s pardon. Yes, it has to beg and plead to offer help.’
‘Oh Hamlet!’ Gertrude shook her head sadly. ‘You’ve cut my heart in two.’
‘Oh, throw away the worse half,’ he said, ‘ and live more purely with the other part. Good night. But don’t go to my uncle’s bed. Appear virtuous, even though you’re not. That monster, custom, that eats one’s sense of evil, is an angel in this one thing: it can eventually make a habit of good deeds. Avoid temptation tonight and that will make it easier to abstain the next time, and even easier the next. Getting used to something can change patterns and either accept the devil or throw him out with amazing force. Once again, good night. When you are ready to ask for a blessing I’ll ask one of you.’ He went and stood at Polonius’ body. ‘As for this lord, yes, I’m sorry, but heaven has chosen to punish me with this and this with me, that I have to be heaven’s agent for its retribution. I’ll take him away and pray for him. So, again, good night. I have to be cruel only to be kind. This is a bad beginning but there’s worse to come. One word more, good lady.’
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘To not under any circumstances, do any of the these things: let the bloated king tempt you to bed again: pinch your cheek wantonly: call you his mouse: and allow him to make you tell him that I’m not mad, but only feigning madness, in return for a few stinking kisses, or stoking your neck with his damned fingers.’
‘You can be sure of that. Words are made of breath and I have no breath to utter what you’ve told me.’
‘I have to go to England,’ said Hamlet. ‘Did you know that?’
‘Yes, I had forgotten: it’s been decided.’
‘The orders have been sealed and my two schoolfellows, whom I trust as much as I do poisonous snakes, are going to escort me. Let it work its way through because the game is to have the engineer hoist with his own petard. It’s tricky, but I’ll keep one step ahead of them and turn the tables. Oh it’s such a pleasure to get the better of someone who’s out to harm one.’ Hamlet nodded towards Polonius’ body. ‘This man will hasten my departure. I’ll lug the guts into the next room. Good night, Mother.’ He turned and laughed. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘This counsellor who was a foolish prattling knave in life is completely silent, completely discreet and most solemn.’ He bent over and gripped Polonius’ ankles. ‘Come, sir, let’s end our business with you. Good night, Mother.’
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