Hamlet had brought the actors to the room where they were to perform so that they could get their bearings and prepare for their performance. He took the leader aside and gave him the speech he had written.
‘Speak the speech as I have suggested – trippingly on the tongue,’ he told him. ‘But if you shout, as so many of you actors do, I might just as well have the town-crier speak my lines. And do not saw the air too much with your hand. Like this…’ He did an imitation of an actor gesturing extravagantly. ‘…but do it all gently, because even in the very torrent, tempest and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must cultivate a temperament that will give it smoothness. Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a roudy periwig-headed fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of those nearest the stage, the groundlings, who, for the most part, are capable or appreciating nothing but inexplicable dumbshows and noise. I would like to have such a fellow whipped for overdoing Termagant. It’s more evil than Herod. I beg of you, avoid it.’
‘I promise,’ the actor said.’
‘Don’t be too meek either, but let your own discretion be your guide. Suit the action to the word and the word to the action, and this, especially: don’t outdo the modesty of nature because anything overdone negates the purpose of acting, which has always been to hold a mirror up to nature as it were: to show the virtuous their own character, to scorn the scornful, and to reveal to everyone the age and time he lives in. Now if any of this is overdone, or underdone, although it may amuse the ignorant, it can’t help making the judicious wince. I’m sure you’ll agree that their verdict is worth more than a whole theatre-full of the others. Oh, there are actors I’ve seen acting, and heard others praising them, too, and highly – and I’m trying not to be too profane – who, having neither the accent nor the movements of Christians, pagans, nor any kind of man, have strutted and bellowed so unrealistically that I had thought mankind was made by nature’s apprentices, and not well either, those actors had imitated them so badly.’
‘I hope we control our acting quite well,’ said the player.
‘Oh, control it completely,’ said Hamlet. ‘And tell those who are playing your clowns not to improvise because sometimes they laugh to get the simpletons in the audience laughing too, while some important thing in the plot is occurring, and everyone is distracted from it. It’s unforgivable and shows pitiable judgment in the fool that’s doing it. Go and get ready.’
The actors filed out just as Polonius arrived with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
‘Welcome, my lord!’ exclaimed Hamlet with exaggerated warmth.’ Is the king coming to see this play?’
Polonius bowed. ‘And the queen too, and they’re on their way.’
‘Go and get the players back,’ said Hamlet. He shooed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away. ‘Go and help him,’ he said.
He still couldn’t have a moment to himself because no sooner had they gone when he heard someone else.
‘Who’s that?’ he said, peering through the darkness beyond the candlelight. ‘Horatio!’
‘It’s I, sweet lord, at your service.’
‘Horatio, you are the only man in the world I can talk to.’
Horatio waved the comment away. ‘Oh my dear lord….’ he began.
‘No, don’t think I’m being flattering . What could I possibly want from you as you’ve got no money – only your cheerful nature – to feed and clothe you? How can the poor be flattered? No, leave it to the candied tongue to lick absurd pomposity and crook the willing joints of the knee to gain something by fawning. No, listen to me. Ever since I first came to awareness and began to be able to judge one man’s merit against another’s I have singled you out as my friend. That’s because you’re a man who can take it: a man who accepts good and bad luck equally. And those who are so well balanced are blessed because they’re not like a recorder that has to sound every note according to the stops that fortune chooses to press. Give me a man who isn’t at the mercy of his passions and I will take him to my heart, yes, right to the heart of my heart, as I do you.’
Horatio bowed his head in acknowledgement of the prince’s declaration of friendship. There was nothing to say.
Hamlet laughed. ‘Enough of this,’ he said. He invited Horatio to sit down.
‘There’s a play tonight, and the king’s going to be here. One of the scenes comes close to the circumstances I told you about, of my father’s death. Please, when you see that scene coming, concentrate. Watch my uncle. If his guilty secret isn’t released by one of the speeches, then it’s an evil ghost we’ve seen and my suspicion of him is as vile as Vulcan’s anvil. Don’t take your eyes off him: mine will be riveted. And afterwards we’ll compare notes about his reaction.’
‘Well, my lord,’ said Horatio, ‘if he steals anything while the play is on and I miss it, I’ll pay compensation.’
Hamlet acknowledged his friend’s humour with a smile. The trumpeters were taking their places at the door.
‘They’re coming. I must resume my previous manner.’ There were two chairs set out for the royal couple and cushions for the others. ‘Choose a place,’ said Hamlet.
The musicians announced the king and queen’s arrival with a royal flourish and they came in, followed by Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
Claudius came straight to Hamlet, smiling. ‘And how is our royal cousin Hamlet faring?’ he said.
‘Excellently indeed,’ said Hamlet. He opened his mouth, pretending to swallow mouthfuls of air. ‘Like a chameleon, I eat the air, which is full of promised food. You can’t feed capons as well as that.’
‘I can make nothing of this reply,’ said Claudius. ‘I haven’t caught your words. They’re not mine.’
‘Nor mine now,’ said Hamlet. He turned away abruptly and smiled at Polonius. ‘My lord, you acted at the university once, you said?’
‘That did I, my lord: and was accounted a good actor.’
‘What part did you play?’
‘I played Julius Caesar. I was killed in the Capitol. Brutus killed me.’
‘It was brutish of him to kill so capital a calf there.’ He turned to Rosencrantz. ‘Are the players ready?’
‘Yes, my lord, they’re waiting for you.’
Gertrude stood beside her chair. ‘Come here, dear Hamlet,’ she said. She indicated the cushion beside the chair. ‘Sit by me.’
Hamlet glanced towards the chairs and cushions. He saw that Ophelia had selected a cushion and was lounging on it. He went towards his mother then grinned and sat on the floor in front of Ophelia. ‘No, good mother, here’s more attractive mettle,’ he said.
Polonius and Claudius had been watching Hamlet’s every movement. ‘Oh, ho,’ exclaimed Polonius under his breath. ‘Did you see that?’
Claudius nodded then went to his chair. The others took their places on the cushions.
Hamlet looked up at Ophelia and smiled engagingly. ‘Lady, do you want me to lie in your lap?’
‘No, my lord,’ she said.
‘I meant my head in your lap.’
‘I know, my lord.’
‘Did you think I meant country matters?’
‘I didn’t think anything, my lord.’
‘It’s a lovely thought, to lie between a young woman’s legs.’
‘What is, my lord?’
‘Nothing.’ He lay flat on his back.
‘You’re in a good mood, my lord,’ she said.
‘Who, I?’ He raised himself again to look at her.
‘Yes, my lord.’
‘Oh God, yes, I’m the ultimate comedian. What else can a man do but be in a good mood? Because, look, see what a good mood my mother’s in: and my father died within the last two hours.’
‘No,’ she said. ‘It’s four months, my lord.’
‘So long? No, let the devil wear black, then, and I’ll get a suit of the deepest pitch. Oh heavens! Died two months ago and not forgotten yet? Then there’s hope that a great man will be remembered for a full six months. In that case he must build churches as memorials or else he’ll be forgotten, like the banned hobby-horse, whose epitaph is ….’ He began singing: ‘For oh, for oh, the hobby horse is forgot.’
The shrill sound of hautboys interrupted them. The play was about to begin. Two actors walked solemnly to the front, dressed as a king and a queen. They bowed to their audience and began the dumb-show.
They embrace. The queen looks lovingly at the king and he holds her close. She kneels in front of him and makes a declaration of everlasting love, with elaborate gestures. He raises her up, kisses her and, and lays his head on her neck. Then he lies down on a bank of flowers, which the actors have strewn on the floor. She watches as he falls asleep then leaves. The king lies sleeping for a few moments. A man comes in, takes the king’s crown off his head, kisses it, then kneels down beside him and pours something in his ear and goes out again. The queen returns, finds her husband dead, and makes a great passionate display. The man comes in again, with a few attendants, and pretends to lament with her. The attendants carry the body away. The man woos the queen with gifts. She seems unwilling at first but then she accepts his love and embraces him. They go out.
‘What does this mean, my lord? said Ophelia.
‘Ah, this is a kind of skulking,’ he said. ‘It means mischief.’
‘Perhaps this show represents the theme of the play,’ she said.
The speaker of the prologue entered and stood before them.
‘We’ll know by this fellow,’ said Hamlet. ‘The players can’t keep secrets. They’ll tell us everything.’
‘Will he tell us what this show meant?’.
‘Yes, or any show that you want to show him. If you’re not ashamed to show it he won’t be ashamed to tell you.’
‘You’re rude,’ she said. ‘You’re rude. Let’s watch the play.’
The Prologue speaker began:
‘For us, and for our tragedy,
Here stooping to your clemency,
We beg your hearing patiently.’
‘Is this a prologue or the inscription engraved inside a ring?’ said Hamlet.
‘It is brief, my lord,’ said Ophelia.
‘Like a woman’s love,’ he said.
The two players dressed as the king and queen came in again. The queen put her arms lovingly around her husband’s neck and gazed into his eyes as he spoke:
‘A full thirty times the chariots of Phoebus have circled Neptune’s salty waves and the earth itself. And thirty dozen moons and their shine have lit the skies twelve times thirty since love filled our hearts and our hands were united in the sacred bands.’
The queen stretched up and kissed him then spoke:
‘And so many more journeys may the sun and moon make before our love is spent. But woe is me, you’ve been unwell lately – so far away from your witty and happy normal self that I have misgivings. Though I am distressed, please don’t allow it to upset you. In a woman fear and love are inseparable. Either they are non-existent or excessive. What my love is, you have seen. My fears are as great as my love. When there is great love, little doubts lead to fears. Where little fears flourish, great love grows, too.’
The king embraced her:
‘Faith, I must leave you, love, and shortly too. My vital abilities are not what they were. You shall remain in this fair world, alone, but honoured and cherished by your subjects. With luck you will meet a man suitable to be your husband.’
The queen was horrified by his speech:
‘No, don’t say another word! A love like that would be a treason in my breast! Let any second husband be a curse to me. Only women who have killed the first marry the second.’
Hamlet had difficulty in staying silent and not attracting attention to himself. It was so bitter. Wormwood.
The queen continued:
‘The motive for a second marriage is always money – never love. In a second marriage I would be killing you with every kiss from my husband.’
The king smiled down at her.
‘I know that you believe that, but we often change our minds. Good intentions require a good memory: they are strong at birth but wither with time. Like unripe fruit they are firm on the tree but drop without any provocation when they are ready. It is inevitable that we forget to fulfil our promises, especially the ones we make to ourselves. A hot-head needs hot blood – when the head cools so too does the passion. These extreme emotions interact with and dilute each other. Grief and joy exchange places at even the most delicate quirk of fate. The world is not forever: there is nothing strange in our love changing as often as our luck changes. This is the question we must answer: Does love lead fortune, or fortune lead love? A great man in decline will be deserted by his friends: the poor ma, advancing, will be befriended by his foes. Fortune does tend those who are not in need, they shall never lack friends. Those who need friends discover they only ever had enemies in waiting. But to get back to what I was saying: our will runs so contrary to fate’s plans that our plans are invariably overthrown. Our thoughts might be ours, but their ends are out of our control. So you say you will wed no second husband but your promise will die when your first lord is dead.’
The Queen continued to implore the King.
‘May earth leave me hungry and may heaven leave me in the dark, may my days be restless, may my nights be sleepless. When I think of joy, give me the opposite, make what I have the sources of my destruction – both here and beyond pursue me with a lasting strife if, once a widow, I again become a wife.’
Hamlet drew his breath in sharply and, loud enough for everyone to hear, said: ‘If she should break that now!’
The king lay down. The queen sat beside him and placed his head in her lap.
‘That’s solemnly sworn. Sweet, leave me for a while. I’m sleepy and I’d like to drift off.’
The king fell asleep and she removed herself gently.
‘Sleep rock your brain and may misfortune never part us!’
The queen left the king, sleeping. Hamlet smiled round at his mother. ‘How do you like this play madam?’ he said.
‘I think the lady protests too much,’ she said.
‘Oh, but she’ll keep her word,’ said Hamlet.
‘Have you seen this play before?’ said Claudius. ‘Are you sure it’s not offensive?’
‘Oh no,’ said Hamlet. ‘It’s all fiction – a fictional poisoning. No offence in the world.’
‘What’s it called?’ said Claudius.
‘The Mousetrap. Good title, isn’t it? This play is a representation of a murder that took place in Vienna. The duke’s name is Gonzago: his wife is Baptista. You’ll see. It’s a controversial play but so what? Your majesty and all of us who have clear consciences can’t be affected by it. Let the guilty wince: we’re not chafed by it.’
An actor entered.
This is Luciano, the king’s nephew,’ said Hamlet.
‘You should be the chorus, my lord,’ said Ophelia.
‘I could comment on what you and your lover do if you would let me see it.’
‘You are biting, my lord,’ she said. ‘Very biting.’
‘Softening my bite would cost you some groans,’ he said, and winked.
‘Even sharper,’ she said. ‘And even ruder.’
‘That’s what you get from husbands,’ he said. He called to the actor. ‘Come on, begin, murderer. Pox! Stop pulling faces and begin! Come, the bird of death is screaming for revenge.’
The actor began. He knelt beside the sleeping king.
‘Evil thoughts, violent hands, the poison ready, the right time, no-one watching. A rank mixture of poisonous weeds collected at midnight, with a witch’s curse three times over. Your natural magic and deadly properties will supplant a wholesome life.’
‘He’s poisoning him in the garden to steal his estate,’ said Hamlet. ‘His name’s Gonzago. The story’s translated: it’s written in the best Italian. You will see, now, how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.’
‘Look,’ said Ophelia. ‘The king’s getting up.’
What? Frightened by a fiction?’ said Hamlet.
Claudius was staggering forward, looking desperately ill.’
‘What’s the matter, my lord?’ said Gertrude.
‘Stop the play,’ cried Polonius.
The actors stood up. They looked confused.
Claudius was breathing in fast pants. ‘Give me some light! Go!’ he shouted.
Attendants went running for more candles. Claudius made for the door and they all left, hurrying, leaving Hamlet and Horatio alone.
‘So let the wounded deer go and weep,’ said Hamlet, ‘and let the uninjured hart play, because some must watch while others sleep – that’s the way of the world. Wouldn’t that speech, together with a rich costume and two rosettes on my shoes, get me a job as an actor if everything else fails?’
‘At least half a share,’ said Horatio.
‘A whole one, I,’ said Hamlet. ‘Because you should know by now, my fellow Dane, that this kingdom has lost Jove himself and is now ruled by a peacock.’
‘You might have used some rhyming!’
‘Oh, good Horatio. I’ll take the ghost’s word for a bet of a thousand pounds. Did you see?’
‘Clearly, my lord.’
‘When he talked of poisoning?’
‘I saw everything.’
Hamlet ran elatedly to the door and called out: ‘Ah ha!. Some music! Come, the recorders! If the king doesn’t like the play then he doesn’t like it. Come, some music!’
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appeared and Hamlet grinned at them.
‘My good lord,’ said Guildenstern. ‘Can I have a word?’
‘Sir, you can have a complete history,’ said Hamlet.
‘The king, sir…’
‘Yes, what about him?’
‘In his apartment, seriously unwell.’
‘No, my lord, angry, rather.’
‘You would be wiser to tell his doctor because if I were to treat him it would perhaps plunge him into a far greater anger.’
‘My good lord,’ said Guildenstern, ‘pay attention and don’t change the subject all the time.’
Hamlet nodded. ‘I’m listening, sir’ he said. ‘Talk.’
‘The queen, your mother, is very upset and has sent me to you.’
Hamlet bowed elaborately. ‘You are welcome,’ he said.
Guildenstern’s face showed his frustration. ‘No, my lord,’ he said. ‘this mock courtesy is inappropriate. If you would like to give me a proper answer I will be able to deliver your mother’s message. If not, your dismissal of me and my return will end my business.’
‘Sir, I can’t.’
‘Can’t what, my lord?’
‘Give you a proper answer. Didn’t you know my brain’s diseased? But, sir, whatever answer I can give I will give you or, rather, as you’ve said, my mother. So, no more of this, but to the point. My mother, you say …’
‘Then this is what she says: your behaviour has amazed and astonished her.’
‘Oh wonderful son, that can astonish a mother like this! But isn’t there something else that follows this mother’s amazement? Tell me.’
‘She wants to talk to you in her room before you go to bed.’
‘We will obey even if she were ten times our mother. Do you have any more business with us?’
Guildenstern turned but Rosencrantz lingered.
‘My lord,’ he said. ‘You loved me once.’
Hamlet wiggled his fingers in front of Rozencrantz’s face. ‘I still do, by these pickers and stealers,’ he said.
‘My dear lord,’ said Rosencrantz. ‘Why are you so unhappy? You’re only closing the door to help if you don’t tell your friend.’
‘Sir, it’s because I lack promotion.’
‘How can that be when you have the support of the king himself for your succession in Denmark?’
‘Yes, but sir, “while the grass grows the silly horse starves.” The proverb is somewhat mouldy.’
Some actors came in with recorders.
‘Oh, the recorders,’ said Hamlet. ‘Let me see one.’ He took one from a musician. He pointed it at Guildenstern. ‘Step aside with me.’
Guildenstern followed him out of the room, along the lobby and out on to a terrace where the northern sky was a dark blue above the gloomy landscape. Hamlet stopped. ‘Why are you trying to get the better of me, trying to trap me?’
‘Oh my lord,’ said Guildenstern. ‘If I’m too forward, it’s my respect for you that makes me bad mannered.’
‘I don’t really understand that,’ said Hamlet. ‘Play something for me on this recorder.’
Guildenstern laughed. ‘My lord, I can’t.’
‘Believe me, I can’t.’
‘I implore you.’
‘I haven’t got a clue, my lord.’
‘It’s as easy as lying,’ said Hamlet. He raised the recorder and demonstrated. ‘You control these holes with your fingers and thumb, you breathe into it with your mouth, and it will produce the most eloquent music.’
Guildenstern shook his head and stepped back.
‘Come on,’ said Hamlet. ‘Look, here are the stops.’
‘But I’m completely unmusical,’ said Guildenstern.
‘Well consider this,’ said Hamlet. ‘You’re insulting me. You’re trying to play me like a recorder. You think you’re familiar with my stops: you want to draw out my secrets: you want to bring out my music from my lowest note to the top of my range.’ He shook the recorder in Guildenstern’s face. ‘There’s plenty of music in this little instrument and yet you can’t make it sing. God! Do you think that I can be played more easily than a recorder? Call me whatever instrument you like, you can place your fingers on my frets but you can’t play me!’ His expression changed from one of anger to a foolish smile. Polonius was walking towards them. ‘God bless you, sir!’ he said.
‘My lord, the queen would like to talk with you,’ said Polonius. ‘And right now.’
Hamlet stared at him. Then he looked him up and down slowly. Polonius coughed and glanced at Guildenstern. Hamlet walked away and looked up at the sky. ‘Do you see that cloud that looks something like a camel?’
‘You’re right,’ said Polonius. ‘It does look like a camel.’
‘Hamlet pulled a face, considered, and shook his head. ‘I think it’s like a weasel.’
Polonius squinted. ‘It’s back is like a weasel’s,’ he said.
Hamlet’s face showed that he still wasn’t satisfied with the description. ‘Or like a whale?’
‘Very like a whale.’
‘Then I will go to my mother soon.’ Horatio and Rosencrantz had joined them. They were all irritating him beyond measure. ‘I will go to my mother soon,’ he said.
Polonius bowed. ‘I will tell her.’
‘ ‘Soon’ is an easy word to say.’
Polonius strutted away and Hamlet sighed. ‘Leave me, friends,’ he said.
He began pacing. It was almost midnight, the time when graves opened and hell itself breathed its contagion into the world. At this moment he felt that he could