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The following afternoon at the sound of trumpets the court of King Claudius arose and bowed at the entrance of the recently crowned King. The King was followed by his new wife Gertrude, the widow of the late King Hamlet, who was Claudius’ brother. Behind the monarchs came the Council members Voltemand and Cornelius, and Polonius who was accompanied by his son Laertes. Hamlet, the mourning son of the late King and Gertrude, was last. He was attired completely in black.
The Queen remained seated as King Claudius addressed his assembled subjects.
“The memory of my dear brother Hamlet’s recent death in still fresh in our memory and Denmark has rightly mourned but our sorrow is wise, it takes account of the duties of the living. Therefore I have married my former sister-in-law and she is now our Queen and joint ruler of our country, which is now on a war footing. We did, so to speak, bring joy to the funeral, and wistfulness to the wedding; delight and displeasure shared the scales. Nor have we ignored your better wisdoms, which have openly applauded this alliance. To you all, our thanks.”
King Claudius paused craftily, taking measure of the court’s reception to his speech. After a few moments he continued.
“Now, something you already know about. Young Fortinbras, whose opinion of us is low and thinking that my late brother’s death has left our country disjointed and chaotic, is entertaining his dreams of taking advantage of Denmark. He has pestered us with messages demanding the surrender of those lands lost by his father and legally won by our dead brother. So much for him, now about us. I have called this meeting today to tell you of my response. We have written to the King of Norway, young Fortinbras’s uncle, to put a stop to all of this since the forces are his subjects, but from intelligence reports it appears the King is powerless and bedridden and scarcely knows a thing about his nephew’s ploys. We send you, good Cornelius, and you, Voltemand, as the bearers of this greeting to the King of Norway, giving you no personal power beyond what is detailed in this letter.”
King Claudius handed them the sealed document.
“Farewell, and let your haste command your duty.”
“In that, as in all things, we will show our loyalty,” said Cornelius and Voltemand together as they left court to pursue their diplomatic errand.
“Now, Laertes,” said King Claudius, “what’s your news? You spoke of some request. What is it, Laertes? You cannot ask anything reasonable of the King of Denmark and be ignored. What is this wish that you think I won’t grant before you ask it? The head is not more in tune with the heart, nor the hand more useful to the mouth, than your father Polonius is to the throne of Denmark. What do you wish, Laertes?”
“Your gracious lord, your permission to return to France, from where I willingly came to show my loyalty at your coronation. But now my duty is done and my thoughts and wishes, leaning towards France as they do, submit themselves to your gracious leave and pardon.”
“Have you sought your father’s approval? What does Polonius say?”
“He has, my lord, through constant petition, coaxed me into agreeing. I beseech you to give him leave to go,” Polonius said.
“Then seize the day, Laertes! Use your virtues as you see fit! Now to my kinsman, young Hamlet, my son…”
“The nearer in kin, the lesser in kindness,” Hamlet muttered under his breath.
“How is it that the clouds still hang over you?” asked the King.
“Not so, my lord, I’m too much in the sun!” His wordplay eluded the King.
“Hamlet, dear,” said Queen Gertrude, “throw off your dark moods and look upon the King with a friendly eye. Don’t walk around with heavy eyes, looking for your noble father in the dust. You know it’s the way things are: everything that lives passes through life to reach eternity.”
“Yes, madam, that is so.”
“If so, then why does this case of mourning seem so particular with you?” persisted Gertrude.
“Seem, madam? No, it is. It’s more than black moods and attire, heavy sighs, rivers in the eyes, mournful expressions and all the other signs of grief. Together all these things denote my feelings, truly. These feelings seem, because they are the sort of feelings some simply pretend to have, to experience. What is within me exceeds any exhibition of mourning, exceeds the traditions and trappings of mourning.”
The Queen was visibly hurt by the tone of her son’s reply. The King saw this and took over.
“It is sweet and commendable of you, Hamlet, to mourn your father so dutifully but you must know that your father lost a father; and his father in turn lost his; and the survivor is bound, in filial obligation, for some term of sorrow. But to persevere in obstinate condolence is a course of unholy stubbornness. It shows only a wilful disrespect; a lack of stoicness; an impatient mind; an intellect that cannot grasp the things that we know must be. It is as plain as the ordinary things we know through our senses. It is peevish opposition to take these things to heart. No more of this now. It is a fault against Heaven, a fault against the dead and a fault against Nature. To reason otherwise is absurd. The way of Nature is the death of fathers, from the first corpse until today. This must be so! I beg you to throw your pointless grief into the grave and think of me as a father. Let the world take note: you are heir to the throne and it is with a love no less noble than the dearest father that I love you. Your intention to return to your studies in Wittenberg is not what I would wish and I beseech you to remain here in the comfort of the royal court, as its chief courtier, kinsman and son.”
“Ensure that you mother’s prayers haven’t been in vain, Hamlet! Please stay, don’t go to Wittenberg,” the Queen pleaded.
“I shall do my best to obey you, madam.”
“Why, that’s a loving and fair reply,” said the King, unconvinced. “Be a Royal Prince of the Danes,” he continued.
The King, though, was unable to tolerate any more of Hamlet and turned to the Queen: “Madam, come, Hamlet’s gentle and unforced consent has put a smile in my heart. I will drink to celebrate and authorise a salute of cannons to tell the clouds. The skies will echo the King’s earthly pleasure. Come away!”
The King and Queen left to celebrate what the Queen took to be her son’s co-operation. Hamlet stood alone.
“If only this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw and dissolve into dew! If only the Almighty’s commandment did not forbid suicide! Oh, God! God! How weary, stale and pointless everything in this life seems to me! It’s an unweeded garden left to rot and now it grows the rank and gross of nature! That it should come to this! Two months dead-no not even two! So excellent a king! He was to this one what the radiant sun-god is to the farmyard satyr! So loving to my mother that he wouldn’t permit the wind to blow too harshly on her face! Heaven and earth! Must I remember! Why, she would hang on to him as if her desire for him kept growing. And yet within a month…don’t let me think about it! Frailty, your name is woman! A mere month, her funeral shoes, in which she followed my poor father’s body were barely worn. Like ancient Niobe, all tears, only tears. Oh, God! The dumb animals mourn longer. Married to my uncle! My father’s brother! But no more like my father than I am to Hercules! Within a month, before those crocodile tears had ceased to flush her eyes red, she married! Oh, the wicked speed of it! To hop between the beds of brothers so willingly! It is not good and no good can come of it. But, heart, you can break; I must hold my tongue.”
Hamlet was so gripped by grief and rage he hadn’t noticed Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo had come to see him.
“Greeting to Your Lordship!” said Horatio.
“I glad to see you well,” Hamlet said, almost mechanically before recognising his friend. “Horatio, it’s you!”
“It’s me, my lord. Your humble servant, as always.”
“My good friend, your servant, too. Why aren’t you in Wittenberg, Horatio? Ah, Marcellus, too!”
“My good lord,” Marcellus said, bowing.
“I’m very glad to see you. Barnardo, good evening, sir! As I said, Horatio, why aren’t you in Wittenberg?”
“A truanting disposition, my lord!”
“I wouldn’t tolerate your enemy saying that! So I won’t offend my ears but having you speak of yourself in this manner! I know you are no truant. What has brought you to Elsinore? We’ll teach you to drink deep before you leave!”
“My lord, I came for your father’s funeral.”
Hamlet’s pleasure evaporated.
“Don’t make fun of me, friend. I think you were here for my mother’s wedding.”
“Indeed, my lord, it was so soon after…”
“Thrift, Horatio, thrift. The baked meats at the funeral feast became the cold plate at the wedding. I would have preferred to have met my bitterest foe in Heaven than be there that day, Horatio! My father, I think I can see my father -”
“Where, my lord?”
“In my mind’s eye, Horatio.”
“I saw him once. He was a just king,” Horatio said.
“He was a man, but everything a man could be. I will never see his like again.”
“My lord, I think I saw him last night.”
“Saw? Who?”
“My lord, the King, your father.”
“The King, my father?”
“Stay calm for a moment and let me tell you about this marvel. These two gentlemen are my witnesses.”
“For the love of God, tell me!”
“For the last two nights Marcellus and Barnardo while on watch at the dead of night have been confronted with the same sight. A figure like your father, armed exactly as he from head to toe, appears before them and marches solemnly at a slow and stately pace. Three times he paced before their stunned eyes, as close as the length of his sword. They stood dumb and speechless, melting like jelly. They told me about this in strictest secrecy and on the third night I stood guard with them. And as they described, the apparition appeared. I knew he was your father as well as I know my hands are mine.”
“But where was this?”
“My lord, up on the ramparts where we watch,” said Marcellus.
“Didn’t you speak to it?”
“My lord, I did” said Horatio, “but it didn’t reply. But for a moment it lifted up its head and looked as if it was about to speak but it heard the crowing cock and at that sound it hastily vanished from our sight.”
“It’s very strange.”
“Upon my life, honoured lord, it’s true. We think it our duty to tell you.”
“Indeed, sirs. But this troubles me. Are you on watch tonight?” Hamlet asked.
“We are, my lord,” Marcellus and Barnardo said in unison.
“Armed? You said the ghost was armed?”
“Armed, my lord.” Marcellus and Barnardo said.
“From head to toe?”
“From head to foot, my lord,” they said.
“Then you didn’t see his face?”
“Oh yes, my lord, his face-guard was up”, said Horatio.
“Did he look like a warrior?”
“There seemed to be more sorrow than rage.”
“Pale or ruddy?” Hamlet asked.
“No, very pale,” Horatio replied.
“And he fixed his eyes upon you?”
“Constantly.”
“I wish I had been there.”
“It would have astounded you.”
“Very likely. How long did he stay?”
“You could have counted to a hundred.”
“Longer, longer!” chipped in Marcellus and Barnardo.
“Not when I saw it,” Horatio said.
“His beard, was it grey?” asked Hamlet.
“It was, as I remember seeing it, like sable,” Horatio said.
“I will watch with you tonight. Perhaps it will appear again,” Hamlet said.
“I’m sure it will,” Horatio replied.
“If it assumes my noble father’s person, I shall speak to it even if the gates of hell open and I am told to hold my peace. I will ask you all if you have hitherto concealed this sighting to continue to maintain your silence. Whatever else happens tonight, take it in but keep it sealed. I will reward your trust. So, goodbye. I will visit the watch between eleven and twelve.”
“Our duty to your honour!” they said.
“Your love, too, as you have mine. Goodbye.”
When they left Hamlet knew his grieving wasn’t in vain. His father would relieve him of his torture, but not yet.
“My father’s spirit here, but armed! All is not well. I fear foul play. I wish it was dark. Till then, patience, my soul. Foul deeds will become visible, no matter how deeply they are hidden from men’s eyes.”