Some weeks later Polonius and his servant, Reynaldo, were discussing the latter’s imminent journey to Paris to visit Laertes, who had been away over a month and, his father thought, should have settled in.
“Give him this money and these notes, Reynaldo,” said Polonius.
“I will, my lord,” replied Reynaldo.
“Before you visit him, Reynaldo, it would be judicious to inquire what he has been up to.”
“My lord, I intended to.”
“Indeed, well said, very well said. And while you’re at it try to find out about the other Danes in Paris. Oh, their reasons for being there; who they are; how they support themselves; where they stay; the company they keep; their spending habits. If you question them in a vague pedantic way you’ll be able to establish if they know Laertes and you’ll get more out of them than by asking anything categorically. Just say you know his father, his family, something like that. Are you taking all this in, Reynaldo?”
Reynaldo having been in service with Polonius for many years was well aware of the well-meaning but long-winded nature of his master’s conversation.
“Yes, very closely, my lord.”
“You can also add that you know Laertes, but only through a brief casual meeting, or through a third party. But establish if it is the right person then add: Oh, he’s very wild… Tar him with vices of your choice. But only the minor, expected indulgences, certainly nothing that would dishonour him. Be careful of that. Remember, stick to predictable frivolity.”
“Like gambling, my lord?”
“Yes, drinking, too. Fencing, swearing, quarrelling and whoring. You can go that far.”
“My lord, that would be dishonouring him!”
“No, it will be up to you to spice up and tone down the banter as the situation dictates. Don’t go so far as to say he is insatiable. That’s not my intention. Discuss his faults so cleverly that they may appear to be the mere blemishes of youth. The rash indulgences of the free spirit, nothing more. These things are common to most men.”
“But, my good lord -”
“Why am I putting you up to this?”
“Yes, my lord. I would like to know that?”
“Well, sir, here’s my thinking, quite a trick, if you don’t mind me saying so. You gently smear Laertes with these little foibles and as you are telling some man in a tavern, say, in the course of your investigations the other fellow says, Ah, good sir or Friend or Gentleman or whatever address is the custom of his country.”
“Very good, my lord.”
“And then, Reynaldo, he does this. He…where was I again?”
“He speaks to me privately…”
“Ah, yes. So he speaks to you privately: I know that gentleman, I saw him yesterday or I saw him the other day. Or such and such a time – Reynaldo, you follow? And the fellow agrees. He was drunk. He was gambling. He was going into a brothel. And so on. You see, Reynaldo, how the bait of falsehood catches the carp of truth! This is how the wise man uses his brain to employ roundabout methods to get to the truth. So this little lesson will help you in pursuit of my son. You have followed me, have you not?”
“My lord, I have.”
“God be with you. A safe journey.”
“Thank you, my lord.”
“Keep your eye on him.”
“I shall my lord.”
“But let him sow his wild oats!”
“I will, my lord.”
As Reynaldo was leaving, Ophelia ran into the room distressed. As he waved Reynaldo off Polonius heard the muted sobs of his daughter.
“Ophelia, what’s the matter?”
“Oh, my lord, my lord, I’ve had such a fright!”
“In the name of God, what caused it?”
“My lord, I was sewing in my room, when Hamlet entered my chamber with his shirt unbuttoned, his stockings dirty and hanging around his ankles. His complexion was whiter than his shirt and his knees seemed to knock in fright. He looked as if he had seen hell and was here to speak of its horrors.”
“Mad for love of you?” Polonius asked.
“My lord, I do not know. But honestly, I fear so.”
“What did he say?”
“He took me by the wrist and held me tightly. He stretched out an arm and put his other hand across his brow as if he was composing a portrait of me. He stood like that for a long time. At last, he shook my arm and nodded his head three times and he sighed so piteously and deeply that it was like a death sigh. After that, he let me go but as he left he continued staring at me over his shoulder even as he went out the door.”
“Come with me. I will ask to see the King. This is a love whose violent nature could lead to desperate undertakings. Have you quarrelled lately?”
Ophelia looked at her father in dismay.
“No, my good lord, as you instructed I have returned his letters and denied him any chance of meeting me”
“It must have made him mad. I am sorry I have misread the gravity of the situation. I feared he was being frivolous, and that he would lead you to ruin. Curse, my suspicions! The older generations are as suspicious as the younger ones naive. Come, let us go to the King. This business could cause more trouble if we tried to hide it rather than inform the King. Come.”