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King Claudius and Queen Gertrude were awaiting the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two young men who were students with Prince Hamlet. Trumpets announced their arrival, and court officials escorted them to the King. He did not waste any time telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern why he had summoned them to Elsinore.
“Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in addition to wishing to reacquaint ourselves we sent for you urgently because we have a job for you. You may have heard about Hamlet’s transformation. I describe it like that because neither his physical nor his mental state is much like it used to be. Other than his father’s death, I cannot understand what has alienated him from us. I ask you both, since you have been his childhood companions, to lodge with us here for a while, simply so that in your company he can rediscover the pleasures of an earlier time. Additionally, if the occasion permits, you may be able to establish the source of this disturbance, which we will attempt to remedy,” the King said in a creamy voice.
“Good gentlemen,” Queen Gertrude said, “Hamlet has often talked of you in the fondest terms, and I’m sure there are not two other men alive whom he holds in such esteem. If you would assist us by being our guests until we get to the bottom of the trouble you will be rewarded in a manner that fits the King’s pleasure.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were obviously delighted and surprised by their unexpected rise to importance.
“Both Your Majesties have sovereign power to command us to obey rather than request,” said Rosencrantz
“But we both obey, and offer ourselves fully to your service,” said Guildenstern.
“Thank you, Rosencrantz and kind Guildenstern,” said the King.
“Thank you, Guildenstern and kind Rosencrantz,” the Queen said, and added, “I implore you to visit my too-much-changed son immediately. An attendant will take you to him.”
“Pray to Heaven that our company and efforts will be amusing and helpful,” said Guildenstern.
“Amen!” said the Queen.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were led to Hamlet’s chambers. Claudius and Gertrude, thinking they were to be alone, were relaxed and optimistic that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would solve their problem. But their peace didn’t last- the vexed Polonius arrived.
“The ambassadors we sent to Norway have returned, my good lord,” said Polonius.
“You have always been the bearer of good news,” said the King.
“Have I, my lord? I assure you my duty is to serve my King as my soul serves God. I think that, if I’m as astute as I used to be, I have found the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.”
“Tell me! I’m longing to hear.”
“First we should see the ambassadors. My news will be the fragrant fruit that follows the feast.”
“Greet them yourself and bring them to me,” the King told Polonius. The King turned to Queen Gertrude, who was now engrossed in her tapestry: “He tells me he has found the root of your son’s problem.”
“I have no doubt it is none other than what I have said, his father’s death and our over-hasty marriage.”
“Well, we will quiz Polonius.”
Polonius reappeared with Voltemand and Cornelius, the ambassadors.
“Welcome, my good friends, tell us the news from the King of Norway.”
“A very fair hearing of your greetings and requests,” said Voltemand. “As soon as we raised the issue, he called a halt to his nephew’s military recruitment, which he understood to be a caution against the Poles. But looking into it he agreed the build-up was aimed at Denmark. Aggrieved that sickness and old age had left him powerless, he sent an edict restraining Fortinbras. And Fortinbras, well rebuked, vowed to his uncle never again to confront Denmark. Delighted with this, the old King gave Fortinbras an annuity of three thousand crowns and the authority to use his new forces against the King of Poland. He has asked that we give Fortinbras safe passage through Denmark. He has detailed the terms in this document.”
“It sounds pleasing. When I have more time I will read, think about this business and answer. In the meantime, we thank you for your successful labours. Now rest a while, and join us tonight for a feast. Welcome home, gentlemen.”
As Voltemand and Cornelius were leaving Polonius was preparing to impress the King and Queen with his revelations about Hamlet.
“One case closed. My King and Queen, to examine what kingship is, what duty is, why day is day, why night is night, and why time is time would be a waste of night, day and time. Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit and verbal gymnastics the soul of tediousness, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad. I called it madness, but to define true madness one would have to experience that state for oneself. But, we will put that to one side for the moment…”
“More of what you have to say, and less of how you say it,” the Queen said sharply, exasperated by Polonius’ verbosity.
“Madam, I swear, I’m coming to the point. That he is mad, it is true. That it is true is a pity. And it’s a pity that it’s true. A figure of speech, but we’ll forget it, since word games are tedious. So, let’s agree that he is mad. So now we must find out what has caused this effect, or rather caused this defect. Because the defective effect must have started somewhere. So it remains. It remains… where was I? I have a daughter, yes, until she marries, who in her duty and obedience gave me a letter. Now listen and surmise yourself. To the idol of the celestial and my soul, the most beautified Ophelia- That’s a tasteless word, beautified. You shall hear more. -In her excellent white bosom… etc., etc.”
“Was this letter sent to her by Hamlet?” Gertrude asked.
“Good madam, be patient. I’ll read you more: “Doubt that the stars are fire,
Doubt that sun does move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.”
Polonius Continued to read the letter: “Oh, dear Ophelia, I have no talent for verse. I can’t make art from my suffering. But I love you more than anyone, much more, believe it. Adieu. Yours evermore, my dear lady, as long as my heart beats, Hamlet. My obedient daughter showed me this, as well as told me about the means and methods they use to meet.”
“But how has she received his love?” the King asked.
“What do you think of me?” Polonius said, sounding injured.
“As a man of faith and honour.”
“As I would hope. What would you have thought if I hadn’t seen this hot love take flight- and perceive it as such, I must tell you, before my daughter told me- what would you have thought, or my Dear Majesty your Queen here have thought, if I had played the matchmaker or told my heart to play mute and dumb, or turned a blind eye? What would you have thought? I went to work, and said to my impressionable daughter: Hamlet is a prince, and out of your reach. This is to stop. I insisted she lock herself away, admit no messengers and refuse gifts. She followed my instructions to the letter and the dejected Hamlet suffered. Since then he hasn’t been able to eat, to sleep or to concentrate. And he has now reached this state of madness we know about.”
“Do you think,” the King asked the Queen, “this is it?”
“It could be. Very likely.”
“Has there ever been a time, tell me, when what I said was the case turned out to be wrong?” Polonius asked.
“Not that I know of,” the King replied.
“If I’m wrong then take this from me,” Polonius said indicating his head. “Given the details, I will find out the truth even if it is hidden at the centre of the earth.”
“How can we put your theory to the test?” asked the King.
“You know how Hamlet sometimes spends hours pacing the corridors?”
“He does indeed,” said the Queen.
“Well, the next time he is doing that I’ll make sure Ophelia crosses his path. You and I will hide behind one of the wall tapestries, noting the encounter. If he doesn’t love her and this love is not the cause of his insanity I will resign as a minister and become a farmer!”
“We’ll try it,” said the King.
As the King finished speaking Hamlet wandered in to the chamber apparently engrossed in a book.
“Look how sadly the poor wretch wanders,” said the Queen.
“Go, away, both of you, I beg you. With your permission I will speak to him,” said Polonius.
Claudius and Gertrude left as quickly and as subtly as possible.
“How is my good Hamlet?” asked Polonius.
“Fine, thank you.”
“Do you know me, my lord?”
“Very well. You are a fishmonger.”
“Not I, my lord.”
“Then I hope you are as honest as the fishmonger.”
“Honest, my lord.”
“Yes, sir. To be honest in this world is to be one man in ten thousand.”
“That’s very true, my lord.”
“The sun can conceive maggots in a dead dog, because it is such a fertile corpse…. Do you have a daughter?”
“I have, my lord.”
“Don’t let her walk in the sun. Conception is a blessing, but since your daughter may conceive – guard against it, friend.”
“Well, well,” Polonius said to himself, “still harping on about my daughter. Yet at first he didn’t know me. He said I was a fishmonger. He is far gone. Truly, in my youth I suffered for love, almost as extreme. I should speak to him again. What are you reading, my lord?”
“Words, words, words.”
“What’s the matter, my lord?”
“Between whom?”
“No, I mean the subject matter, my lord.”
“Slanders, sir. The satirical rogue writes that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, that their eyes ooze vile pus, that they have a chronic lack of mental ability and arthritic thighs. I believe all of it, but I do think it was distasteful to document it. You, sir, will grow as old as me – if you could go backwards, like a crab.”
“It might be madness, but there’s method in it,” Polonius thought to himself. He turned again to Hamlet: “Would you like to stroll in the open air, sir?”
“Into my grave?”
“Indeed, that would be in the air.”
“How multi-layered his replies are,” thought Polonius. “It’s a paradox to be found in madness, reason and sanity couldn’t distil such profundity. I will leave him, but first I must conspire to have him meet my daughter: My lord, I shall take my leave of you.”
“You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I would not part with more willingly. Except my life, except my life, except my life.”
“Farewell, my lord.”
“These tedious old fools!” Hamlet said when Polonius was out of earshot.
Hamlet heard Polonius talk with someone as he was leaving.
“Are you seeking the Lord Hamlet? If so there he is,” Polonius said to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
“Thank you, sir,” Rosencrantz said to Polonius.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern approached Hamlet and bowed to him.
“My honoured lord,” said Rosencrantz.
“My most dear lord,” said Guildenstern.
“My excellent good friends! How are you, Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz? Good lads, how are you both?”
“Agreeable,” said Rosencrantz.
“Happy in that we aren’t too happy. We are not the feather in Fortune’s cap!” said Guildenstern.
“Nor the soles of her shoes?” asked Hamlet.
“Neither, my good lord,” said Rosencrantz.
“Then you hang around her waist?”
“We are her foot soldiers!” said Guildenstern.
“Privy to Fortune’s secrets! She is wanton and indiscriminate. What news?”
“None, my lord, other than the world has become a bit more honest,” said Rosencrantz.
“Then doomsday must be near! But your news is not true. Let me quiz you closely. What bad luck has provoked your mistress, Fortune, to lead you to this prison?”
“Prison, my lord?” asked Guildenstern.
“Denmark is a prison.”
“Then so is the world,” said Rosencrantz.
“A huge one, in which there are many jails, pits and dungeons, Denmark being one of the most notorious,” Hamlet insisted.
“We don’t think so, my lord,” said Rosencrantz.
“Why then, it can’t be a prison to you. Nothing is really good or bad, it is one’s opinion which makes it so. To me it is a prison.”
“Surely, then it is your ambition that makes it so. Your mind doesn’t have the freedom it needs,” said Rosencrantz.
“Oh, God, I could live in a nutshell and think of myself as the king of an infinite space if only I didn’t have bad dreams.”
“Dreams are ambitions. The aim of the ambition is the power of the dream,” said Guildenstern.
“A dream itself is only a shadow.”
“True, but I say ambition is ephemeral, that it is the shadow of a shadow,” said Rosencrantz.
“Then it goes that our beggars are men of substance, while our monarchs and epic heroes are little more than the shadows of beggars. Shall we argue that one in court? Reason, alone, can’t give me the answer.”
“We’ll accompany you to court,” said Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
“I can’t have that. I won’t pass you off as my servants. To be frank, they attend to me in a sloppy manner. Tell me plainly, what brings you to Elsinore?”
“To visit you, my lord. Nothing else” said Rosencrantz.
“Beggar that I am, I can barely afford thanks, but I thank you. To be sure, my thanks are worth barely a penny. Were you not sent for? Did you come of your own inclination? Is this a voluntary visit? Come, come, speak truthfully! Speak.”
“What do you expect us to say, my lord?” asked Guildenstern.
“Anything. As long as it’s the truth. You were sent for. There is a confession appearing on your face, you’re not crafty enough to disguise it. I know the good King and Queen have sent for you.”
“What would be the point of that, my lord?” asked Rosencrantz.
“That, is something you must tell me. But let me suggest to you that by our long bonds, growing in stature since childhood, be honest with me whether you were sent for or not.”
“What will you say?” mumbled Rosencrantz to Guildenstern.
“I’ve got the measure you,” Hamlet said to himself. “If you have any regard for me, don’t treat me like a child.”
“My lord, we were sent for,” confessed Guildenstern.
“I will tell you why. My perception will find you out and that way oaths to monarchy are not broken. Lately, and I don’t know why, I’ve lost all my mirth, ignored exercise and relaxation. I’ve become so depressed the whole earth seems like a barren cliff. This sky, stunning to you, seems like a toxic and foul stream of vapour to me. What a piece of wonder is man; how noble in reason; how infinite in his talents; in form and function he excels; his tasks he completes like an angel; in his intellect he is like a god; the apex of form and function. But to me he is the apex of dust. Man does not delight me – no, nor does woman either, though by your smiling I think you imply so.”
“My lord, I never entertained such a thought,” said Rosencrantz.
“Then why did you laugh when I said man does not delight me?”
“To think, my lord, you get no delight from man. The actors coming will think your reception as dull as Lent. We passed them en route and they are coming to Elsinore to perform,” said Rosencrantz, by way of apology.
“The actor who plays the King will be welcome. I shall reward this King. The Knight can use his weapons. The Lover will not sigh out of loneliness. The Eccentric will be unconfined. The Clown shall make those readily given to laughter laugh. The Lady shall speak freely, or her verse will sound halting. From what company are these actors?”
“Your favourites from the city, the tragedians,” said Rosencrantz.
“Why are they touring? Surely their city base would be better for their reputation and their pockets.”
“I hear they have been banned because of a recent fracas,” said Rosencrantz.
“Are they as esteemed as I remember? Is their popularity still strong?”
“No, indeed, they are not,” said Rosencrantz.
“Why? Is there technique rusty?”
“No, their endeavours are as accomplished as ever. But there is, sir, a rival nest of child actors, little hawks who squawk at the top of their voices and are rapturously applauded for it. This is now the theatrical fashion. Everything else is derided, so much so that the fashionable stay away from the serious theatres just to follow fashion.”
“They are children? Who feeds them? Who supports them? Will they pursue acting when their voices break? If they mature into actors won’t they suffer for having ridiculed their profession?”
“There’s blame to be attributed to both sides, but the masses think inciting controversy is nothing to be ashamed of. For a while you couldn’t sell a play unless there was a squabble between the adult actors and the children’s writers,” said Rosencrantz.
“That bad?”
“Oh, a lot of opinions have been aired,” said Guildenstern.
“Do the children win?”
“That they do, my lord,” said Rosencrantz.
“I shouldn’t be surprised. My uncle is King of Denmark and those who made faces behind his back when my father was king now pay twenty, forty, fifty or a hundred ducats to buy miniature portraits of Claudius. There is something very illogical in this, if only the philosophers could figure it out.”
A flourish of trumpets heralded the arrival at the gates of Elsinore of the travelling theatre group.
“That will be the actors,” said Guildenstern.
Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern went the window to see the party of actors came through the castle gates into the central courtyard. They came on several wagons crammed with props and costumes, with most of the actors walking beside the wagons.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, you are welcome at Elsinore. Let’s shake hands. The appearance of welcome is vital to the ceremony. I tell you this because the welcome I give the players may appear to be more demonstrative than yours. You are welcome. My uncle-father and my aunt-mother are deceived.”
“In what way, my dear lord?” asked Guildenstern.
“I am only mad when there is a north wind. When the wind comes from the south I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
Polonius returned unannounced: “Greetings, gentlemen.”
Hamlet winced.
“Listen, Guildenstern. You too, Rosencrantz. A listener for each ear. Polonius is not yet out of his nappies.”
“Perhaps it’s the second childhood, they say that happens to the old,” said Rosencrantz.
“I predict he has come to tell me about the actors. Watch. As you say, sir, Monday morning was indeed…” Hamlet said, pretending he was having a conversation.
“My lord, I have some news for you,” Polonius said.
“My lord, I have some news for you,” Hamlet said, “when Roscius was an actor in Rome….”
“The actors have arrived, my lord,” said Polonius.
“You’re jesting!” Hamlet said, winking slyly at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
“Upon my honour-”
“Then came each actor on his ass,” Hamlet said, quoting to the puzzled Polonius.
“They are the best actors in the world,” Polonius said, “Whether it be tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, experimental, and the verse play. Seneca’s plays are aren’t too tough for them, nor are Plautus’ plays too light. Anything written, these are the only players.”
“Oh, Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure you had,” Hamlet said, quoting again to incite Polonius.
“What was this treasure, my lord?” Polonius asked.
“Why: One fair daughter and no more,
The which he loved so much.”
“Still on about my daughter!” thought Polonius.
“Isn’t that so, old Jephthah?’
“If I’m your Jephthah, my lord, I do have a daughter I love so much.”
“No that doesn’t follow.”
“What would follow, then, my lord?”
“Why: As by chance, God-
and you know the rest,
it came to pass, as was foretold- the first verse of that pious song will show you more, but unfortunately the actors stop me.”
The actors assembled in the chamber.
“You are welcome, gentlemen,” said Hamlet. “Welcome all.”
Hamlet studied the faces and spotted actors he remembered from a previous performance: “I’m glad to see you well! Welcome to all! Oh, old friend, you’ve got a beard now! Have you come to defy me in Denmark? What, hasn’t that young lady grown since I saw her last? As you’ve got taller, I bet your voice got lower! Gentlemen, you are all welcome. Let’s have a shot at something just now, to see if it flies! Come a taste of things to come, an indication of your talents. A passionate speech!”
“Which speech did you have in mind, my lord?” the principal actor asked.
“I heard your deliver a monologue once, but it was from an unpopular play, a piece for the literate not the hordes. But it was in my opinion, and in the opinion of those with more expertise than me, a superior play, well plotted and understated. I remember someone said there was no seasoning in the lines to give the play any unnecessary spice, nor anything that could be called pretentious. He said it was honest, wholesome and accomplished. One speech in particular struck me. It was Aeneas’ speech to Dido, the lines where he speaks of Priam’s slaughter. Bear with me, I remember the beginning. Let me see- The rugged Pyrrhus, like a Hyrcanian beast… No, that isn’t it. It begins with Pyrrhus. The rugged Pyrrhus, whose armour was blacker than his intentions was disguised as dark as the night when he lay in that Trojan horse, his appearance ever more fearful as he is covered head to foot in the red blood of the horribly-tricked. Blood of fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, baked hard on the streets by the sun. Roasted in wrath and fire and covered with more blood than was within him, and with eyes flaming like gems, Pyrrhus seeks the old grandfather Priam. Go on from there,” Hamlet told the actor.
“By God, my lord, well spoken, and with good pacing and very vivid,” Polonius threw in.
The actor began: “Soon he finds Priam, helplessly fighting off the Greeks. But his faithful sword can’t help him now, it falls, refusing to kill. An unequal match, Pyrrhus rages at Priam. The gust from his fierce swordsmanship felled the man. Then the castle Ilium, as if affected by Priam’s fate, topples, and the crash deafens Pyrrhus. His sword which was aiming for the grey hair of Priam halts in mid-air. So, like a warrior in art, Pyrrhus stands still, captured between the will and the goal. But like the calm that comes before the storm, when the clouds are slow and the wind still, until the moment the thunder frightens the air. So it was with Pyrrhus’ pause, vengeance was reborn with the rain. Never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall on Mars’ armour, forged for eternity, with less pity than Pyrrhus’ sword fell on Priam. Fortune, flee! You gods must agree to rid Fortune of her power. Remove all the spokes from her wheel and let the remnants roll far from Heaven, as low to the fiends.”
“This is too long!” Polonius said, clearly disturbed by the content.
“It shall go to the barber, to be trimmed along with your beard. Please continue, player. He only likes a farce or some bawdy nonsense, otherwise he falls asleep. Get to the part about Hecuba.”
“But who- ah, woe! – had seen the veiled Queen-”
“The veiled Queen’?” interrupted Hamlet.
“That’s good,” said Polonius.
“-running barefoot, up and down, trying to extinguish the flames with her tears. A rag on her head, where once there had been a crown. A sheet around her exposed and exhausted body. Even the most hateful man, witnessing this, would have protested on her behalf. But the gods themselves were oblivious to her agony as she saw Pyrrhus mutilate her husband into eight. Her howling was so loud it must have perturbed the gods and made the stars, the eyes of Heaven, shed tears.”
“Oh, look how his colour has changed!” Polonius said. “There are tears in his eyes.”
“That’s very good,” Hamlet told the actor, “I’ll have you read the rest later. Polonius, will you see that the players have suitable accommodation? Ensure they are well taken care of, for they are the chroniclers of our time. You would be better with a bad epitaph in death than be the butt of their jokes when you are living.”
“My lord, I shall treat then well.”
“Like the body of Christ. With reverence. If every man was treated well, who would need whipping? The less they are deserving, the more merit in your kindness. Take them in.”
“Follow me,” said Polonius.
“Go with him, friends. We’ll hear a play tomorrow. Before you go, a word in your ear, player friend, can you perform The Murder of Gonzago?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“We will have that play tomorrow night. Can you learn a short speech that I will write as an insert?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Good. Now, players, follow Polonius, and see that you don’t mock him!”
Hamlet was in high spirits as Polonius and the company left.
“My good friends,” Hamlet said to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I’ll leave you at leisure until later. In the meantime be comfortable at Elsinore.”
“Good, my lord,” said Rosencrantz.
“Indeed, away with you!”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern left Hamlet and returned to the guest quarters arranged for them by the King and the Queen.
Alone again Hamlet sunk into melancholic thought.
“Now I am alone. Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not amazing that the actor we saw give such intense feeling to something that is just a fiction, a dream of passion, such soulful distress? His face went white, tears ran down his cheeks. His voice broke and his whole body found suitable expressions for his grief. And all for nothing! For Hecuba! Who is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba? What would he do if he had my motive and urge for revenge? He would drown the stage with tears, and make hairs stand on end, he would drive the guilty insane and petrify the innocent. The ear and the eye would be amazed. Yet I, a dull and confused rascal mope about like a daydreamer ineffectively scheming, saying nothing- I can’t even avenge the murder of a glorious King. Am I a coward? Who calls me a villain? Who tugs at my beard or blows in my face? Does anyone? Would I accept it? I would accept it! It cannot be, but it is that I am chicken-hearted, lacking the gall to counter abuse. It must be, for otherwise I would have fed all the vultures around with the usurper’s offal. Bloody, bawdy, villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, cold murderer! Why, what a fool I am! This is brave! The son of a dear father, prompted to revenge by and hell, should unburden his heart with language befitting a whore. No! No! I have to think about this. I have heard that the guilty watching a play have by the impact of the scene confessed their guilt. Murder may not have a tongue but guilt will make sure it finds a voice. I will get the players to perform a murder which resembled that of my father, this in the presence of my uncle. I’ll watch his every move, if he blanches I must act. The spirit I have seen may be a devil, for the devil has the power to assume pleasing shapes and in my melancholy he has taken the opportunity to delude me, that is his game. I’ll have the evidence before I act. The play’s the thing to snare the conscience of the King.”