Horatio had gone with Hamlet to his apartment, where Hamlet read the letters that had arrived for him in his absence. He thrust the last one aside. ‘So much for these,’ he said. ‘Now I’ll tell you about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Do you remember the situation regarding them?’
‘Of course, my lord,’ said Horatio.
‘Well, sir, one night on board ship, I couldn’t sleep for the turmoil in my heart. I lay more restlessly than if I had been a mutineer imprisoned in the galley. Sometimes we do something instinctively and it turns out to be the right thing. That teaches us that whatever we may do it’s God who shapes our fate.’
‘Well that’s true,’ said Horatio.
‘I put my heavy coat on and crept out of my cabin. I groped about in the dark and found my escorts. I stole their documents and went back to my cabin where, ignoring good manners, I unsealed the royal commission. Oh, royal knavery, Horatio! It was larded with pleasantries about the respective healths of Denmark and England, and then, can you believe it! Lies about me and a request to chop my head off immediately, without even stopping to sharpen the axe!’
‘No!’ said Horatio. ‘I can’t believe that!’
‘Here it is,’ said Hamlet. ‘Read it yourself. But do you want to know what I did next?’
‘They had cornered me – started the play before I had a chance to make a prologue. I sat down and wrote a new commission, in the official and elegant way.’ Hamlet laughed loudly. ‘I used to mock the style that statesmen use and worked hard to avoid using it myself. But, sir, my skill did me good service this time. Do you want to know what I wrote?’
‘Yes, my good lord.’
‘An earnest plea from the king. In as much as England was his faithful tributary: as love between them might flourish like a palm: as peace should wear her garland of wheat and link them in friendship – and many other as of great importance – that on reading and absorbing the contents he should put the bearers to sudden death without the advantage of confession.’
‘But how did you seal it?’
‘Even that was helped by heaven. I had my father’s signet ring in my luggage, which is the model for the Danish seal. I folded the writ up the same as the original, signed it, stamped it, and put it back in their luggage. They had no idea. The next day there was the sea-fight and you know the rest.’
Horatio nodded gravely. ‘So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are for it.’
Hamlet could see that his friend disapproved. ‘Why man,’ he said. ‘They loved this work. I don’t feel guilty about it. Their downfall is the direct result of their ambition. It’s dangerous for common people to get mixed up with the affairs of the powerful.’
‘What a king this is!’ said Horatio.
‘Don’t you agree that it’s up to me now? He killed my king and turned my mother into a whore, frustrated my hopes of succession and plotted to kill me. And with such cunning! Isn’t it perfectly in order to kill him with this arm? And wouldn’t it be a sin to let this cancer go deeper?’
‘It can’t be long before he hears about the business in England.’
‘It won’t be,’ said Hamlet. ‘The interim is mine, though. A man’s life can be ended in the time it takes to say ‘one’. But I’m very sorry, good Horatio, that I forgot myself with Laertes. I identify with him. I’ll try and get back into his good books. Unfortunately, his display of grief enraged me.’
An attendant entered the room and told them that a messenger had come from the king. When the messenger came in Horatio could hardly contain his amusement. Of all the ostentatious and colourful courtiers there were, this one was spectacular. Hamlet knew Osric. He sat back and enjoyed Horatio’s amusement.
‘What’s this?’ said Horatio.
Osric swept his feathered hat off and bowed elaborately ‘Your lordship is right welcome back to Denmark,’ he lisped.
Hamlet got up and imitated the bow. ‘I humbly thank you, sir,’ he said, and then to Horatio, ‘Do you know this water-fly?’
‘No, my good lord.’
‘You’re lucky then, because it’s a vice to know him. He owns a lot of land – fertile too. If a beast is a lord of beasts his trough will stand beside the kings’ table. He’s a jackdaw but, as I say, he owns a lot of land.’
Osric was still bowing. ‘Sweet lord,’ he said. ‘If your lordship is at leisure I would impart something to you from his majesty.’
‘I will hear it, sir, most diligently. Put your bonnet to its proper use: it’s for the head.’
‘I thank your lordship.’ Osric hesitated. ‘It’s very hot.’
Hamlet pretended to shiver. ‘No, believe me,’ he said. ‘It’s very cold: the wind is northerly.’
‘It’s quite cold, my lord,’ said Osric.
Hamlet lifted one of the letters and fanned himself. ‘But yet I think it’s very sultry, and too hot for me.’
‘Very, my lord,’ said Osric. ‘It’s very sultry, as it were. I don’t know why.’ He removed his hat again and fanned himself. ‘But my lord, his majesty told me to tell you that he has bet a great deal on you. Sir, this is the substance…’
Hamlet indicated Osric’s hat. ‘I beg you to remember…’
‘No, my good lord,’ said Osric, ‘it’s for my comfort. Sir, Laertes has recently arrived at court. He’s an absolute gentleman, believe me, full of most excellent attributes and social graces. Indeed, to tell the truth, he is the card or calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentlemen would see.’
‘Sir,’ said Hamlet, bowing low. ‘His definition suffers no loss by you: though I know, to describe him in detail would dizzy the arithmetic of memory and yet would not come near to his shipworthiness. And yet, in respect of high praise, I understand him to be the picture of all that’s wonderful, and his qualities of such worth and rarity that it would be impossible to describe them. To find anything like him we must look into his mirror: his imitators are no more than shadows.’
Osric was impressed. ‘Your lordship speaks most infallibly of him,’ he said.
‘The concernancy sir?’ said Hamlet. ‘Why are we cloaking this wonderful gentlemen in our unworthy breaths?’
Osric looked bewildered. ‘Sir?’
Horatio laughed. ‘Is it not possible to understand your ridiculous language when spoken by another tongue Have another try. I’m sure you’ll get it.’
Hamlet took pity on him. ‘Why have you named this gentleman?’ he said.
‘Who?’ said Osric. ‘Laertes?’
‘His purse is empty now,’ said Horatio. ‘His golden words are spent.’
‘Him, sir,’ said Hamlet.
‘I know you are not ignorant…’ began Osric.
‘I wish you did know that, sir,’ said Hamlet. ‘I would like you to know that. Well sir?’
‘You are not ignorant of how excellent Laertes is…’
‘I dare not confess to that,’ interrupted Hamlet, ‘ in case I should rival him in excellence. But to know a man well were to know oneself.’
‘I mean regarding his weapon, sir. According to those who’ve seen him, he’s unrivalled.’
‘What’s his weapon?’
‘Rapier and dagger,’ said Osric.
‘That’s only two of his weapons,’ said Hamlet, ‘but go on.’
‘The king, sir, has imponed six Barbary horses, against which I believe he has pledged six French swords, with their appurtenances – girdle, straps and so on. Three of the carriages are very finely wrought, exactly fitting for the hilts – most delicate carriages, and elaborately decorated.’
‘What do you mean by ‘carriages’?’
Horatio laughed and pointed at Hamlet. ‘I knew one of his words would catch you out before you had finished.’
‘The carriages are the straps,’ said Osric.
‘The word would be more to the point if we could carry cannons at our sides instead of swords,’ said Hamlet. ‘I would rather they would be straps till then. But go on: six Barbary horses against six French swords, their appurtenances and three finely wrought carriages. That’s the French bet against the Danish. Why is this ‘imponed’ as you call it?’
‘The king, sir, has bet that, in a dozen passes between yourself and Laertes, he shall not exceed three hits: he has laid on twelve for nine, and it will be done immediately if you would offer an answer.’
‘What if I say no?’ said Hamlet.
‘I mean, my lord, your participation in this challenge.’
‘Sir,’ said Hamlet. ‘I will walk there in the hall. With his majesty’s permission it’s the time of day when I like to take some exercise. If the foils are produced, the gentleman willing, and the king still want that, I will win for him if I can. If not I’ve got nothing to lose.’
‘Shall I return your message just like that?’
‘Something like that – with whatever flourishes you like.’
Osric stepped backwards, bowing and flourishing. ‘I commend my duty to your lordship,’ he said.
Hamlet matched him, holding him there for a moment longer. When he had gone Hamlet said, ‘He does well to commend his duty to me personally because no-one else would do it on his behalf.’
‘He looks like a chick running off with his eggshell on his head,’ said Horatio.
‘A natural courtier, who always behaved with ingratiating good manners, even towards his nurse’s breast. He and so many of his type that you find these days just talk and talk – all form without substance. Put them to the test and they fail.’ Hamlet led the way to the hall, where chairs had been set up in a large semi-circle.
Another courtier greeted them. ‘My lord, his majesty has heard from young Osric that you’re waiting for him in the hall. He’s sent me to ask if you’re ready to play with Laertes or whether you need more time.’
‘I’m ready,’ said Hamlet. ‘I’m waiting for the king. If he’s ready I am, now or whenever.’
‘The king and queen are all coming down,’ said the courtier.
‘The queen would like you to engage in some friendly conversation with Laertes before you start playing.’
‘She’s right,’ said Hamlet.
Hamlet and Horatio waited for the other party and the spectators to arrive.
‘You’re going to lose this bet,’ said Horatio.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Hamlet. ‘Since he went to France I have been practicing. With the odds he has made I’ll win. But you wouldn’t believe the misgivings I have. But it doesn’t matter.’
‘Yes, it does,’ my good lord…’
‘It’s silly – the kind of intuition that might perhaps trouble a woman.’
‘If there’s anything your mind doesn’t like, listen to it. I’ll stop them coming here and say you’re not fit.’
‘No you won’t. I’ll defy forebodings. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it happens now then it’s not destined to come later, if it’s not destined to come later it will be now, if it’s not now, it will still come. The readiness is everything. Since no man has any idea of what he’s going to what does it matter when he goes?’
The trumpeters were taking up their positions. Hamlet and Horatio stood respectfully, waiting. The royal party, accompanied by Laertes and Osric, swept in to a fanfare. Attendants carried bags of equipment, which they placed on the floor. The king and queen sat and the courtiers followed. Then Claudius rose again. He took Laertes’ hand.
‘Come, Hamlet,’ he said, ‘and take this hand from me.’
Hamlet joined them. They shook hands. Claudius sat down again.
‘Give me your pardon, sir,’ said Hamlet. ‘I’ve done you wrong, but as a gentleman, forgive me. Everyone here knows, and you must have heard, how I am suffering from a painful mental condition. What I did to offend you so badly was due to madness. Was it Hamlet who wronged Laertes? It couldn’t have been Hamlet if Hamlet wasn’t himself. And if he wrongs Laertes when he’s not himself then Hamlet isn’t doing it. Hamlet denies it. Who’s done it then? His madness. If that’s so Hamlet’s the one who’s been wronged: his madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy. Sir, before this royal assembly, be so generous as to accept, at least, that I did not intend any evil – that I hurt you by accident.’
Laertes bowed. ‘My feelings about this should stir me to immediate revenge,’ he said. ‘But I will stand back from satisfying my honour, nor will I be reconciled, until such time as I have taken advice on how I can avoid my name being unsullied. Until such time I accept your offered love as genuine and will not abuse it.’
‘I embrace that,’ said Hamlet, ‘so let us play this wager like brothers.’ He went and stood beside Horatio. ‘Give us the foils,’ he told the attendants. ‘Come on.’
The foils were produced.
‘Come,’ said Laertes. ‘One for me.’
‘I’ll be your foil, Laertes,’ said Hamlet. ’Compared with mine, your skill will shine like a star in the darkest night and reflect its light off me.’
‘You mock me sir,’ said Laertes.
‘No, by this hand.’
Claudius signalled to Osric. ‘Give them the foils, young Osric,’ he said. ‘Cousin Hamlet, you know the wager?’
‘Very well, my lord. Your grace has placed the bet on the weaker side.’
‘I don’t think so: I have seen you both. But since he’s improved in France, we have given you odds.’
The contestants were choosing their weapons. Laertes made a few moves with the one he was holding then handed it back to an attendant. ‘This is too heavy, he said. ‘Give me another.’
Hamlet took one and threw it from the one hand to the other. ‘I like this one,’ he said. ‘Are they all the same length?’
Osric assured him that they were.
They took up their fencing poses.
Claudius stood up. ‘Set the wine up on that table,’ he told a servant. And then to a guard: ‘If Hamlet wins the first or second hit or takes the third let all the battlements fire their cannons. The King shall drink to Hamlet’s success and he’ll put a pearl grander than that found in the crown of four successive Danish kings in the cup. Give me the cup and let the kettledrum tell the trumpets, the trumpets tell the soldiers, the cannons tell the heavens, the heavens tell the earth: ‘Now the king drinks to Hamlet.” Come, begin. And judges, keep your eyes open.’
‘Come on, sir,’ said Hamlet.
‘Come my lord.’
Evenly matched, they thrust and parried until Hamlet said ‘one’.
‘No,’ said Laertes.
Hamlet stood back and put his foil up. He looked at Osric. ‘Judgment,’ he said.
Osric nodded, ‘A hit, a very palpable hit.’
‘Content,’ said Laertes. ‘Again.’
‘Wait,’ said Claudius. ‘Give me a drink. Hamlet.’ He held a pearl in his fingers. ‘This pearl is yours. Here’s to your health.’ There was a fanfare and then cannon fire. He passed the cup to a servant. ‘Give him the cup.’
‘I’ll play this bout first,’ said Hamlet. ‘Put it aside for the moment.’ He nodded to Laertes. ‘Come.’
They began again. Hamlet’s rapier point caught Laertes on the arm.
‘Another hit,’ said Hamlet. ‘What do you say?’
‘A touch, a touch, I confess,’ said Laertes.
Claudius beamed. He leant towards Gertrude. ‘Our son will win,’ he said.
‘He’s out of breath and sweating,’ she said. ‘Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, wipe your brow.’ She took the cup that was waiting for Hamlet. ‘The queen drinks a toast to your success, Hamlet.’
Hamlet acknowledged her with a salute. ‘Good madam!’
‘Don’t drink that!’exclaimed Claudius.
‘I want to, my lord. Please! Pardon me.’
Claudius watched, powerless, as she drank from the poisoned cup. It was too late to stop her.
‘I don’t dare drink yet, madam,’ said Hamlet. ‘I will later.’
‘Come here,’ she said. ‘Let me wipe your face.’
Hamlet went to her and she lovingly wiped the sweat from his face. Laertes went close to Caudius.
‘My lord, I’ll hit him now,’ he said.
Claudius did not remove his horrified eyes from Gertrude. ‘I don’t think so, somehow,’ he muttered.
As the contestants returned to the match Laertes was having regrets. What he was doing was almost against his conscience.
Hamlet smiled. ‘Come and get the third, Laertes,’ he said. ‘You’re just trifling. Please, make your best thrusts. I think you’re playing with me.’
‘Is that so? Come on, then.’
Another bout ended with a conclusion from Osric. ‘Nothing neither way.’
They positioned themselves again and suddenly Laertes said: ‘Have at you now!’ and thrust hard. The foil’s point entered Hamlet’s side and drew blood.
Hamlet, shocked, dropped his sword. He grasped Laertes’ blade and pulled the sword from Laertes’ hand. He righted himself and, holding Laertes’ sword now, motioned his opponent to come on. Laertes had no alternative but to take Hamlet’s sword and present his response with it, as tradition dictated. A moment later he was also wounded.
Claudius looked at the scene around him: Gertrude, poisoned on the one side, and Laertes wounded with the bated sword on the other. ‘Part them!’ he shouted.
‘No,’ said Hamlet. ‘Come again.’
Gertrude slumped suddenly and slid to the floor, her body jerking violently.
‘The queen, the queen!’ exclaimed Osric.
‘Both sides are bleeding,’ shouted Horatio. Hamlet was breathing deeply and clutching his side. ‘How are you, my lord?’
Before he could reply Laertes fell heavily.
‘How is it Laertes?’ said Osric.
‘Like a woodcock caught in my own trap, Osric,’ gasped Laertes. ‘I’m justly killed by my own treachery.’
Claudius knelt beside Gertrude. She moaned loudly.
‘What’s the matter with the queen?’ said Hamlet.
‘She’s fainted at the blood,’ said Claudius.
Gertrude summoned her remaining strength. ‘No, no,’ she gasped. ‘The drink, the drink ….’
Hamlet, limped to her and with Horatio’s help, took her in his arms.
‘Oh my dear Hamlet,’ she sighed. Then she made a final effort to speak. ‘The drink, the drink! I’ve been poisoned.’ Her eyes closed.
Hamlet lowered her to the floor. Claudius stood up and backed away.
‘Oh foul play!’ cried Hamlet. ‘Ho, there, lock the door! Treachery! Find it!’
‘It’s here, Hamlet.’ Laertes lay stricken, unable to get up. Hamlet and Horatio went to him quickly. He raised himself as much as he could. ‘You’ve been killed,’ he said. ‘No medicine in the world can do you good. There’s not a half an hour of life left in you.’ He glanced towards the weapons lying on the floor. ‘That’s the treacherous instrument, unbated and envenomed. The foul plot has turned itself on me. Look, I lie here, never to get up again: your mother’s been poisoned.’ His voice was fading. ‘I can’t talk,’ he whispered. With an enormous effort he pointed at the petrified Claudius. ‘The king. The king’s to blame.’
‘The point!’ Hamlet grasped the rapier and held it up in front of his face. ‘Poisoned too!’ He moved as fast as he could to where the king was standing. Claudius sank down on to his chair and the guards closed in to protect him. They were too late, though, because Hamlet was there suddenly, and with one thrust the damage was done. ‘Venom, do your work!’ he cried. Claudius slumped in his chair while the courtiers screamed in horror. Hamlet warded the guards off with the rapier. Claudius appealed loudly. ‘Help me friends, I’m only hurt.’
Hamlet took the chalice from the table and hurled himself at Claudius, who was beginning to feel the effects of the venom. The courtiers and the guards watched in stunned silence as Hamlet forced the cup to the king’s lips. ‘Here, you murderous, damned Dane,’ he said. He pulled Claudius’ head back by the hair and poured the wine into his panting mouth. ‘Drink this poison. Is your pearl in there? Follow my mother.’
Claudius’ body convulsed horribly then he became still.
‘He’s been justly treated,’ said Laertes, barely audible now. ‘He prepared the poison himself.’ He stretched out feebly to Hamlet. ‘Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.’ He grasped Hamlet’s hand. ‘There is no blame on you for my death, nor that of my father.’ He used his last breath for a final question: ‘Nor yours on me?’
Hamlet, himself fighting for breath as he succumbed to the power of the poison, forgave him. He struggled to his feet and Horatio helped him to stand. ‘I’m dead, Horatio,’ he said. He swayed as he surveyed the scene. Claudius’ body sprawled across his chair. His mother lay, crumpled, beside her chair. ‘Poor queen, adieu,’ he said. The courtiers were silent. ‘You, pale and trembling at these events, are dumb onlookers. If I had time – but Death is a harsh sergeant, and doesn’t waste time in making arrests – oh I could tell you… But let it go.’ Then to his friend. ‘I’m dead, Horatio. You’ve survived. Report my actions and their reasons for them faithfully to the skeptics.’
Horatio shook his head slowly. ‘Don’t expect that. I’m more Roman than Dane. He reached for the poisoned cup. ‘There’s still some wine…’
Hamlet tried to pull the cup away from him. ‘Give me the cup!’ Horatio refused Hamlet wouldn’t give up. ‘Let go,’ he cried. ‘By heaven, I’ll have it!’ He wrenched as hard as he could and the cup clattered to the floor. The remaining wine spilt out. ‘Oh good Horatio,’ said Hamlet, ‘what a wounded reputation I would leave if the facts weren’t made known. If you ever loved me hold back from the release of death awhile and endure the pain of this harsh world ,to tell my story.’
Cannons fired in the distance.
‘What’s that?’ said Hamlet.
‘It’s young Fortinbras,’ said Osric. ‘He’s returning to Norway in triumph over the Poles and he’s saluting the ambassadors from England.’
Hamlet was too weak to stand now, and Horatio lowered him gently and cradled him in his arms.
‘I’m dying, Horatio, sighed Hamlet. ‘This powerful poison has defeated me. I won’t live long enough to hear the news from England. But I expect that the succession will land on Fortinbras: he has my dying voice. So tell him everything that’s happened.’ He smiled. ‘The rest is silence.’
Horatio held his friend’s body close and stroked his hair. ‘Now cracks a noble heart,’ he said. ‘Good night, sweet prince,’ he whispered. ‘And flights of angels sing you to your rest.’ He looked up. The drums had become so loud that it was clear that they had actually entered the castle and were approaching the hall. ‘Why are they coming here?’ he said.
And then they were right in the hall – young Fortinbras, his officers and the English ambassadors. Fortinbras looked around, amazed at the sight before him. ‘What’s this?’ he said.
‘What did you expect to see?’ said Horatio. ‘If anything sad or amazing then stop expecting. This is it.’
‘This is a scene of chaos,’ said Fortinbras. ‘Oh proud Death, what feast is this in your eternal domain that you’ve slaughtered so many princes at one stroke?’
The ambassadors didn’t know who to talk to. ‘It’s a dismal sight,’ one of them said. ‘And we’re too late to deliver the message from England. The ears they’re intended for are without sense. It was to tell him his instructions have been followed: that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Where shall we find our thanks?’
‘Not from his mouth,’ said Horatio with a nod towards the dead king. ‘Even if he had the ability to thank you. He never gave an instruction for their deaths. But since you have all arrived here at this bloody question’s resolution – you from the Polish wars, and you from the court of England – order that these bodies be placed on a high platform for all to see. I will explain to an ignorant world how these events came about. You will hear about carnal, bloody and unnatural deeds, of misunderstandings, wanton killings, of carefully plotted deaths: and in this case, deviousness that misfired and shot the instigators. I can give a true account of all this.’
‘Let us hear it soon,’ said Fortinbras. ‘Call the great and the good to hear it. As for myself, I embrace my fortune with sadness. I recall that I have some rights in this kingdom and this is the time to claim them.’
‘I have something to tell you about that,’ said Horatio, ‘from his mouth whose voice will offer you more rights here. But let us display the bodies before there is more misfortune, before there are more plots and mistakes.’
Fortinbras mounted the dais. ‘Let four captains bear Hamlet to the platform like a soldier, because he was likely to have proved himself as king if he had been given the chance. And let that be accompanied by martial music and the rites of war. Take the bodies up. A sight like this is fitting for the battlefield but here, at the court, it shows things to be badly wrong. Go, tell the soldiers to fire a salute.’