Polonius ushered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into the audience hall. He had brought Ophelia because of the plan he had devised, that involved her.
Claudius greeted his guests warmly and after gracious inquiries about their comfort he got down to business.
‘And have you been able to draw anything out of him?’ he said. ‘Why he’s behaving in this confused way, upsetting his calm with such a turbulent and dangerous lunacy?’
‘He admits that he feels distracted,’ said Rosencrantz. ‘But he won’t tell us why.’
‘Nor do we find him prepared to be sounded out,’ said Guildenstern, ‘but stays aloof with a crafty madness every time we try to get him to say anything about it.’
‘Did he receive you well?’ said Gertrude.
‘Like a gentleman,’ said Rosencrantz.
‘But reserved,’ said Guildenstern.
‘Didn’t ask us any questions,’ said Rosencrantz. ‘But answered ours very liberally.’
‘Did you get him to join in with any entertainment?’
‘Madam, it so happened that we told him about some actors we had overtaken on the way. He showed a kind of joy at that news. They’re here somewhere and I think he’s already engaged them to perform for him tonight.’
‘That’s right,’ said Polonius, ‘and he asked me to invite your majesties to join him.’
‘With all my heart,’ said Claudius. ‘And it’s a relief to hear that he’s taking an interest in something. Good gentlemen, try and whet his appetite for more of these pleasures.’
‘We will, my lord,’ said Rosencrantz,. There were more pleasantries and thanks from the king, and then they left.
Claudius smiled at his wife. ‘Sweet Gertrude, leave us too, because we have just sent for Hamlet to come here so that he can encounter Ophelia, as though by chance. Her father and I, being lawful spies, will hide ourselves so that watching him but being unseen ourselves, we can frankly judge, according to his behaviour, whether it really is the affliction of his love or not that’s making him suffer like this.’
‘I will obey you,’ said Gertrude. ‘And as for you, Ophelia, I do hope that your virtues are, indeed, the happy cause of Hamlet’s disorder. By the same token, I hope that those virtues will also bring him to himself again, in a way that that will be honourable to both of you.’
‘Madam, I hope so too,’ said Ophelia.
Polonius bowed deeply as Gertrude left, and Ophelia curtseyed. Then Polonius resumed his busy manner.
‘Ophelia, walk around here. My gracious lord, if you don’t mind, we’ll hide ourselves.’ He pointed to one of the long velvet curtains.
Claudius went to the curtain. Polonius gave Ophelia a book. ‘Read this book,’ he said, ‘so that the appearance of loneliness will be increased. It’s a fact that we often sugar over the devil himself with an innocent face and saintly actions.’
Claudius knew the truth of that. Polonius’ comment had given his conscience a stinging lash. The makeup that whores plaster their faces with isn’t more hypocritical than his own plastered words were, compared with his deeds. Oh, the burden he carried was so heavy!
Ophelia sat down and started reading.
‘He’s coming!’ said Polonius. ‘Let’s hide.’
They slipped behind the curtain and stood where they had a clear view of the area where Ophelia was sitting.
Hamlet came into the hall. He was walking slowly. He didn’t see Ophelia. He was thinking. He paused and stood still. The question for him was whether to continue to exist or not – whether it was more noble to suffer the slings and arrows of an unbearable situation, or to declare war on the sea of troubles that afflict one, and by opposing them, end them. To die. He pondered the prospect. To sleep – as simple as that. And with that sleep we end the heartaches and the thousand natural miseries that human beings have to endure. It’s an end that we would all ardently hope for. To die. To sleep. To sleep. Perhaps to dream. Yes, that was the problem, because in that sleep of death the dreams we might have when we have shed this mortal body must make us pause. That’s the consideration that creates the calamity of such a long life. Because, who would tolerate the whips and scorns of time: the tyrant’s offences against us: the contempt of proud men: the pain of rejected love: the insolence of officious authority: and the advantage that the worst people take of the best, when one could just release oneself with a naked blade? Who would carry this load, sweating and grunting under the burden of a weary life if it weren’t for the dread of the after life – that unexplored country from whose border no traveler returns? That’s the thing that confounds us and makes us put up with those evils that we know rather than hurry to others that we don’t know about. So thinking about it makes cowards of us all, and it follows that the first impulse to end our life is obscured by reflecting on it. And great and important plans are diluted to the point where we don’t do anything.
He heard a movement and looked up. It was Ophelia, rising from a long-backed chair. She smiled nervously as she came towards him.
‘Nymph,’ he said. ‘Pray for my sins.’
‘Good my lord,’ she said. ‘How have you been these last few days?’
He bowed. ‘I humbly thank you,’ he said. ‘Well, well, well.’
‘My lord, I have some gifts from you that I have wanted to return. Will you take them now?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I won’t. I’ve never given you anything.’
‘My honoured lord, you know very well that you have. And with them, such sweet words, that made them all the more valuable. Now that their perfume has gone, take them back because to an honest mind rich gifts become poor when the givers grow unkind.’ She thrust a parcel at him. ‘There, my lord.’
‘Ha!’ he exclaimed. ‘Are you a virgin?’
‘Are you beautiful?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘That if you are chaste and beautiful your chastity should protect your beauty.’
‘Couldn’t beauty and chastity be equal, my lord?’
‘Of course they couldn’t: the power of beauty will change chastity into a pimp before the force of chastity will change beauty into its likeness. This was once a paradox but the present situation has proved it. I loved you once.’
‘Yes, my lord, and I thought so.’
‘You shouldn’t have believed me. Virtue can’t compete with our natural sinfulness. I didn’t love you.’
‘I was most deceived.’
Hamlet took a step closer to her. ‘Take yourself to a nunnery,’ he said. ‘Why would you want to be a breeder of sinners? I am myself fairly honest and yet I could accuse myself of such things that would make it better if my mother had never given birth to me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious …. and with more offences in mind than I have thoughts to conceive them, imagination to give form to them, or time to commit them. What are such fellows as I am doing alive? We are all atrocious knaves. Don’t believe any of us. Get on your way to a nunnery. Where’s your father?’
‘At home, my lord.’
‘Make sure he’s locked in so that he can make a fool of himself nowhere except in his own house. Farewell.’
‘Oh help him, sweet heavens,’ she said. There were tears in her eyes.
Hamlet leapt forward and grasped her wrist. ‘If you do marry, I’ll give you this thought for your dowry: whether you are as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, you won’t escape slander. Get yourself to a nunnery. Go! Farewell. Or if you really have to marry, marry a fool because wise men know well enough what monsters you turn them into. To a nunnery. Go! And quickly too. Farewell!’ He let go of her and she moved swiftly away from him.
‘Oh heavenly powers restore him,’ she sobbed.
Hamlet walked swiftly towards the door. He stopped suddenly and turned.
‘I know all about the way you paint yourselves too,’ he shouted. ‘God has given you one face and you make another for yourselves. You jump about, you walk provocatively, you lisp, and you use foolish pet names. And you pretend that you don’t understand your lasciviousness. Get away. I’ll have no more of it: it has driven me mad. I’m telling you that we’ll have no more marriages. Those that are already married will all live, except for one. The rest will be left alone. To a nunnery. Go!’ He turned and ran.
Ophelia returned to her chair and slumped down on it. She felt weak. What a noble mind had been destroyed. He had the eye, the tongue, the bravery of a nobleman, a scholar and a soldier. This man, the promise and hope of the nation, the model of fashion and the perfection of physical manhood, the most admired of all men – destroyed. And she was the most dejected and miserable of all women. She had experienced the joy of his attention, and now, that noble and most royal mind – all out of tune, like sweet bells that have gone wrong. That unequalled form, that flower of youth, cankered. She felt wretched. To have seen what she had once seen, and to see what she saw now…
Polonius and Claudius emerged from behind the curtain.
‘Love!’ exclaimed Claudius contemptuously. ‘His emotions don’t indicate that. And the things he said, though they lacked coherence to some extent, didn’t sound like madness. There’s something deep in his soul that he’s brooding on and I’m convinced that it’s developing into something dangerous. To prevent that I have made a decision: I am sending him to England to collect the money they owe us. Perhaps different seas and countries and the new experiences he will have might clear this matter from his heart. What do you think?’
‘It will do well,’ said Polonius. ‘But I still think that the origin of his grief sprang from unrequited love. Hello Ophelia. You don’t have to tell us what Lord Hamlet said: we heard it all. My lord, do as you please, but if you think it would help, when the play’s over, ask his mother to see him privately to tell her about his grief. She should be frank with him, and if you like, I’ll place myself where I will be able to listen to their whole conversation. If she can’t find out anything, send him to England, or lock him away somewhere, wherever you think best.’
‘We’ll do that,’ said Claudius. ‘We can’t ignore madness in high places.’