Meanwhile in the King’s apartments at Elsinore, the King, the Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were discussing Hamlet’s erratic behaviour. The King turned to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “And you cannot establish through conversation what exactly it is that troubles him and causes him to assume such a rebellious and dangerously lunatic stance?”
“He does confess that he feels distracted, but the cause he will not disclose,” said Rosencrantz.
“We have found that he is not inclined to be quizzed. The craftiness in his madness enables him to circumvent all our soundings,” added Guildenstern.
“Did he receive you warmly?” asked the Queen.
“With the manners of a gentleman,” said Rosencrantz.
“But also with quite a bit of effort,” said Guildenstern.
“He was not very talkative but he freely answered our questions,” Rosencrantz said.
“Did you try to involve him in any hobbies?” asked the Queen.
Rosencrantz beamed at this question: “Madam, by chance we overtook a troupe of actors bound for Elsinore. When we told Hamlet about them there did seem to be a flicker of joy. They are here and I think they are already preparing to perform tonight.”
“Oh, this is most true,” said Polonius. “And he asked me to ensure Your Majesties attend the performance.”
“With all my heart I’m glad he is showing an interest in something. Good gentlemen, you must go and encourage him in other pursuits,” said the King.
“We will, my lord,” said Rosencrantz, as he and Guildenstern bowed to leave.
When they had left the King knowingly glanced at Polonius.
“Sweet Gertrude, leave us too. Polonius and I have privately sent for Hamlet so that he can meet Ophelia here by accident, as it were. Polonius and I, as lawful spies, will hide and observe their encounter to frankly judge if it is love, or not, which inspires Hamlet to behave in this way,” said the King.
“I shall do so. As for you, Ophelia, I do hope it is your beauty that is the happy cause of Hamlet’s distress, and hope your virtues will soothe him again, for both your sakes,” Gertrude said as she left.
“Madam, I wish that, too.”
Polonius surveyed the room, establishing the positions for the scheme.
“Ophelia, you walk over here. Lord, if you please, we should hide now. Ophelia, take this bible, reading it is a sound excuse for your solitude. Lord, we are often to blame in these matters, experience tells us that we sugar the devil’s works to disguise them as piety.”
“That is too true,” the King said to himself, lost now in his guilty thoughts: “How those words lash my conscience! The harlot’s cosmetic face is not uglier in falseness than my deeds are regardless of my cosmetic words. Oh, heavy burden!”
“Oh, I hear Hamlet coming! Let’s hide, my lord,” said Polonius excitedly.
The King and Polonius hid behind a large wall-hung tapestry. Hamlet entered, giving them only seconds to conceal themselves. Hamlet was talking to himself, aloud.
“To be, or not to be. That is the question. Is it noble to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing them, defeat them? To die – to sleep: nothing more. And if by sleep we could end the heartaches and the thousand natural troubles that attack the flesh, it would be an end everyone would wish for. To die, to sleep: To sleep, perhaps to dream. Yes, and there’s the rub. The dreams found in the sleep of death, after we have let go of this mortal coil, will make us pause. The content of these dreams may be the reason why the living tolerate the calamity of life for so long. For who would bear the whips and scorns of life – the tyrant’s brutality, the arrogant man’s arrogance, the agony of rejected love, the law’s delay, the insolence of authority, and the insults hurled daily at the downtrodden – when man could quietly free himself of all of this with a mere dagger? Who would bear life’s burdens, grunting and sweating with exhaustion, if it were not for the dread of what lies beyond death? That undiscovered land from whose oceans no traveller returns, bewilders us. We would bear the ill we have rather than embrace things we know nothing about. Our conscience makes us cowards, our natural colour is drained by the prospect of it. Things of gravity and importance lose their momentum. Ah, it’s the beautiful Ophelia. Nymph, remember to pray for my sins.”
King Claudius listened to all of this very carefully. It didn’t sound like the rantings of a mad man to him.
“My lord, have you been keeping well?” Ophelia asked.
“Well, I thank you for your interest.”
“My lord, I have a remembrance of yours that I have been meaning to return to you for a long time. I pray that now you will take it.”
“No, not I. I never gave you anything.”
“My lord, you know very well that you did, and you did do so with words perfumed by sentiment. But now the fragrance is lost, take the gifts back. Rich gifts are poor if the giver is insincere.”
“Ha, ha! Are you a virgin?”
“Are you beautiful?”
“What does Your Lordship mean?”
“If you are virginal and beautiful then your beauty should protect your virginity.”
“Could beauty, my lord, be any safer than in the custody of virginity?”
“Yes, truly. Beauty will sooner transform chastity into a bawd than chastity can turn beauty into its likeness. In the past that was absurd, but now it is a truth. I loved you, once.”
“Indeed, my lord, that is what you made me believe.”
“You shouldn’t have believed me. Virtue can never compete against the sins of Adam. My love wasn’t true.”
“I was deceived.”
“Go to a nunnery! Why would you like to breed sinners? I am fairly moral yet I could admit to such sins that it would have been better that my mother never bore me. I’m very proud, revengeful, ambitious, and with more vices at my call than my thoughts and imagination can keep up with. What is someone like me doing in this existence, crawling between heaven and earth? We are all shysters. Don’t believe any of us. Take the first road to a nunnery. Where’s your father?”
Ophelia didn’t realise Hamlet knew he was being watched and his conversation was outrageous for that reason.
“At home, my lord.”
“Lock him in, that way he can play the fool only in the privacy of his own home. Farewell.”
“Oh, help him, sweet heaven.”
“If you do marry, I’ll give you this stain on your dowry: even if you are as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, you will not escape calamity. Go to a convent. Farewell. Or if you really do need to marry, marry a fool. Smart men know what cuckolds women make of them. To a convent, go, and quickly, too. Farewell.”
“Heavenly powers, restore his sanity!”
“I know all your skill with cosmetics. God gives women one face, but they make themselves another. You dance and flirt, use cooing voices, make up fancy names and then pretend all this is natural. I’ve had enough of it! It has made me mad! I say no more marriages! Those who are married already, with one exception, can get on with it. Everyone else shall stay single. You go to a convent.”
Hamlet left hurriedly. Ophelia was astounded.
“Oh, a noble mind has been defeated! Hamlet the courtier, the scholar, the soldier, his potential as a future king, the inspiration for other men and revered by the most loyal of courtiers, this Hamlet is lost, lost! I, the most dejected and wretched woman, who tasted his honeyed words, now see that his noble and brilliant reason harshly chimes, like bells out of tune. A rare example of physical and intellectual genius in youth, destroyed in its prime. Woe is me to have seen what I have seen, and see what I see.”
King Claudius and Polonius joined Ophelia.
“Love?” the King asked. “Hamlet doesn’t have the inclination to love. What he said, although it rambled, didn’t seem like madness. His brooding comes from a melancholy soul. Doubtless the cause will lead to violence. To prevent this I have, on impulse, decided he shall be sent to England to collect the duties we expect. The journey, the scenery and the opportunities of England will, with luck, rid him of the disturbance which leads him to act so unpredictably. What do you think, Polonius?”
“I think it might work. But my instincts tell me that this problem stems from rejected love. Ophelia, you needn’t bother telling us what Hamlet said, we heard it all. My lord, do as you see fit, but why not wait until after the play, then give his mother the chance to persuade him to explain his grief. Let her be direct, and with your permission, I will conceal myself again, and listen to his explanation. If she can’t get to the bottom of it, then send him to England – or imprison him, whatever you think is the best course.”
“Absolutely. Madness in the royal family cannot be ignored,” King Claudius said firmly.