Hamlet was preparing several of the players for the performance. He had presented the leading actor with his specially-written insert.
“Let the speech trip lightly off the tongue, the way I read it to you,” Hamlet said to the player. “If you don’t I might as well have the town-crier reciting it. Don’t throw your hands around too much, either, but gesture gently. When your passion reaches tempest pitch, whirlwind-like, I want you to be smooth – the eye of the storm, so to speak. It annoys me to hear some ham destroy a passionate passage with squawks that play to the gallery, where they appreciate only mime and puppets. I would have such an actor horsewhipped for overdoing the thug’s part. That kind of thing out-Herods Herod. Avoid that effect, please!”
“Yes, sir,” said the player.
“But don’t be too tame, either. Let discretion be your tutor. Ensure that action suits the word, and the word suits the action. But heed this: don’t overact! Things like that only detract from the purpose of acting, which from its inception has been to hold a mirror to reality. To show the moral side of man, to scorn what deserves to be scorned and to illustrate faithfully the condition of man. Acting overdone, or indeed undercooked, may make the ignorant chuckle, but it makes the judicious theatregoer wince, and his verdict, I’m sure you’ll agree, is more valid than a house full of gigglers. Oh, I’ve seen actors who could neither speak nor move their bodies in a way becoming to actors, yet they were praised to the heavens. They strutted and bellowed so incessantly that I thought man must be one of Nature’s errors, so abominably did humanity appear.”
“I hope control is among our acting skills, sir.”
“Oh, control it all the way through. Ensure that your comedians only do what the script tells them to do. Some are inclined to laugh, simply to get simpletons in the audience laughing too, resulting in vital parts of the plot losing momentum. It’s a cheap trick and it betrays pitiful ambition in the clown who uses it. Now, go and get ready.”
The leading man and the other actors left but Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern joined Hamlet.
“Well, now, Polonius, will the King be attending tonight’s performance?” Hamlet asked.
“And the Queen, too. They are on their way,” Polonius replied.
“The actors must hurry. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, will you hurry the cast along?” Hamlet asked.
“Of course, my lord,” said Rosencrantz.
Polonius went to wait for the King and Queen, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encouraged the actors.
“Horatio!” Hamlet yelled on seeing his friend.
“Here, my lord. At your service.”
“Horatio, you are as well balanced and as fair a man as any I’ve known.”
“Oh, my dear lord!”
“No, don’t mistake this for flattery. What favours can I hope for from you, you have no assets other than your good spirits? Why court favour with the poor? Let the sweet talkers keep adjectives for the absurd and their pomp. Let them fall to their knees when fawning is profitable. Are you listening? As soon as I was able to distinguish between men, I marked you out. You’ve suffered so much, you’ll suffer nothing. You accept Fortune’s rewards and rebuffs with equal thanks. And blessed are those whose blood and judgement are so well balanced that they are not at the beck and call of Fortune. Give me a man who is not at the mercy of his passions and I’ll take him to my heart, the very heart of my heart, as I do you. I’m embarrassing you! I’ve arranged for a play to be performed here before the King. One scene is similar to the circumstances of my father’s death. When that scene is on-stage I ask you to watch my uncle with the fullest concentration of your soul. If his guilty secrets don’t reveal themselves as he watches then I will know that the ghost we’ve seen is an instrument of the devil. Pay close attention to him. My eyes will be on him, too. Afterwards we will swap opinions on his behaviour.”
“Agreed, my lord. If he manages to get away with anything when I’ve got my eye on him I’ll take full responsibility.”
A servant from the royal household came in to announce the approach of the King and the Queen.
“They’re on their way for the performance. I must start my acting. Grab a seat, Horatio.”
As soon as the King appeared he smiled smugly at Hamlet.
“How are you?” asked the King.
“Excellent, my lord. Like chameleons, I eat the fresh air, flavoured with promises. But you can’t feed capons on that.”
“Your answer, Hamlet, doesn’t reflect my question.”
“No, I don’t understand my answer either. Polonius, didn’t you tell me you were an amateur actor when you were a student?”
“Yes, I did, my lord, and they said I was very good.”
“What did you play?”
“I played Julius Caesar. I was killed in the Capitol- Brutus killed me.”
“It was brutal of him to kill so capital a clown there! Are the players ready?”
“Yes, my lord. They’re just waiting for your signal,” said Rosencrantz.
“Come here, my dear Hamlet,” said the Queen, “and sit by me.”
“No, good mother, I’m pulled by something yet more attractive,” Hamlet said gazing at Ophelia, playing up to the royal suspicions.
“Did you see that?” Polonius whispered to the King.
Hamlet fell at Ophelia’s feet. “Lady, shall I lie in your lap?”
“No, my lord.”
“Do you think I mean something untoward?”
“I think nothing of the kind, my lord.”
“That’s a fair thought, to lie between maiden’s legs.”
“What is, my lord?”
“Nothing.”
“You are merry my lord.”
“Who, I?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Oh, God, quite the comedian! What should man do but be merry? Look how cheerful my mother looks, and my father is dead barely two months.”
“No, it’s four months, my lord.”
“So long? Then let the devil wear hum-drum black and I’ll get luxurious mourning clothes. Heavens, dead two months and not yet forgotten! Then there is hope that a great man’s memory may live beyond him, some six months, say. But by Our Lady, he must build churches or, like the origins of games, he will be forgotten…”
Trumpeting announcing the commencement of the performance interrupted Hamlet’s line of thought. The audience hushed instantly and the King signalled that the candles should be extinguished.
The room selected as the venue was large and spacious. The actors covered the floor with black and white chequerboard fabric. Screens illustrating gardens and the sky were used to add a sense of location and statues of classical heroes suggested a palatial residence. A huge candle illuminated the small performance area.
The performance began with a mime. A King and a Queen entered the stage and embraced lovingly. The Queen knelt, to express her devotion to the King. The King accepted her devotion and then lay down on a bed of flowers to sleep dreamily in her company. When the Queen saw that the King was sound asleep she kissed his forehead and left him alone. Almost immediately another man came on to the stage. He sat beside the sleeping King and carefully removed the monarch’s crown. The man kissed the crown and then poured a vial of poison into the sleeping King’s ear. The man left.
The screen was changed to show a sunset in the garden.
The Queen returned and found the King dead. The Queen grieved wildly. The Poisoner and several attendants rushed to the Queen’s aid. They too grieved, assuming the King was a victim of some natural catastrophe. The corpse was carried away. Later the Poisoner wooed the Queen with gifts. For a while she resisted his flattery, but in the end she could resist no longer and accepted his love.
“What does this mean, my lord?” Ophelia asked Hamlet at the end of the mime.
“Miching mallecho, dirty work. It means mischief.”
“I suppose this mime suggests the plot of the play.”
The grieving court left the stage and the player cast as Prologue entered to say his piece.
“This fellow will tell us. The players like to tell everything,” Hamlet whispered to Ophelia.
“Will he explain the mime?”
“Yes, and anything else you care to show him. If you are not ashamed to show, he won’t be ashamed to tell you.”
“You are naughty, very naughty. I’ll pay attention.”
The prologue reader stood in the midst of the room.
“For us, and for our tragedy, we stoop for your clemency, we beg your hearing patiently.”
“Is this a prologue or something engraved on a ring?” asked Hamlet.
“It’s brief, my lord,” Ophelia said.
“As a woman’s love.”
The actors cast as the King and Queen in the mime reappeared. The King spoke first.
“A full thirty times the chariots of Apollo have circled Neptune’s salty waves and the earth itself. And thirty dozen moons and their sheen have lit the skies twelve times thirty times since love filled our hearts and our hands were united with sacred bands.”
The Queen spoke.
“And so many more journeys may the sun and moon make together before our love has tired of itself. But woe is me, you’ve been unwell lately. So far from your witty and happy normal self that I distrust you. Though I am distressed, please don’t allow it to upset you. In a woman fear and love are inseparable. Either they are non-existent or excessive. What my love is, you have seen. My fears are as great as my love. When there is great love, little doubts lead to fears. Where little fears flourish, great love grows, too.”
The King continued his speech.
“Faith, I must leave you love, and shortly too. My vital abilities are not what they were. You shall remain in this fair world, alone, but honoured and cherished by your subjects. With luck you will meet a man suitable to be your husband-”
The Queen was appalled at what she heard.
“-No, don’t say another word! A love like that would be treason in my breast! Let any second husband be a curse to me. Only those who have killed the first marry the second.”
“Ah, a bitter taste!” Hamlet whispered.
The Queen continued her speech: “The motive for a second marriage is always money, never love. A second time I would kill you again with every kiss from a second husband.”
The King listened to his Queen, but persisted: “It is plain that you believe what you are saying, but on what we promise we often renege. Good intentions need a good memory. They are strong at birth but wither with time. Like unripe fruit they are firm on the tree but drop without any provocation when they are ready. It is inevitable that we forget to fulfil our promises, especially the ones we make to ourselves. A hot-head needs hot-blood, when the head cools so too does the passion. These extreme emotions interact and dilute each other. Grief and joy exchange places at even the slenderest quirk of fate. The world is not forever, there is nothing strange in our love changing as often as our luck. This is the question we must answer: Does love lead fortune, or fortune lead love? A great man in decline will be deserted by his friends but the poor man in advance will be befriended by his foes. Fortune does tend those who are not in need, they shall never lack friends. Those who need friends discover they only ever had enemies-in-waiting. But to get back to what I was saying, our will runs so contrary to fate’s plans that our plans are invariably overthrown. Our thoughts are ours but their end is always out of our control. So you say no second husband will you wed, your promise will die when your first lord if dead.”
The Queen continued to implore the King.
“May earth leave me hungry and may heaven leave me in the dark, may my days be restless, may my nights be sleepless! When I think of joy, give me the opposite, make what I have the source of my destruction. Both here and beyond pursue me with a lasting strife if, once a widow, I again become a wife.”
“A promise she can’t break,” Hamlet whispered to himself.
The King considered what his Queen had said.
“That was deeply sworn. My love, leave my here alone for a while. My spirits are tired and I would like see off the tedium of the day with some rest.”
The Queen stroked the King’s hair.
“Sleep serenades your mind. And never can a mischance separate us.”
The Queen left the stage and the King once more played the sleep scene of the mime.
“Madam, how do you like the play?” Hamlet asked the Queen.
“I think the lady is protesting too much.”
“Oh, but she’ll keep her word.”
“Have you seen this play before?” the King asked Hamlet. “Is it offensive?’
“No, no, it’s make believe. Even the poison. No offence at all”
“What’s the play called?” the King asked.
“The Mousetrap. Catchy title! It is based on a real murder that took place in Vienna. Gonzago is the name of the victim, his wife is called Baptista. You’ll see. It’s controversial, but then why not? Your Majesty, and those of us who have untainted souls, can enjoy it. Let the guilty wince. We are not affected. Here comes the character Lucianus, he’s the King’s nephew.”
“You are a good master of ceremonies, my lord,” said Ophelia.
“I could comment on you and your lover’s antics if you let me see the show.”
“You are biting, my lord. You are biting.”
“It would exhaust you trying to take the edge off me!”
“Sharper still. You are pandering to your baser instincts.”
“Sounds like a marriage!”
Hamlet yelled to the actor playing Lucianus: “Begin, murderer. Forget about funny faces and get on with it.”
The actor took his position on the stage and began to recite his lines: “Evil thoughts, violent hands, poison, the right time. The world is on my side, nothing is about. A rank mixture of poisonous weeds, with a witch’s curse three times over. Your natural magic and deadly properties will supplant a good life.”
Lucianus knelt beside the sleeping King and poured the potion into his ear.
“He poisons him in his garden so he can get his estate,” Hamlet whispered to Ophelia. “The play is contemporary and written in very fine Italian. Now you shall see how the murderer woos Gonzago’s wife.”
“Look, King Claudius is on his feet,” Ophelia said.
“What, frightened by false fire?” Hamlet said.
“How is my lord?” the Queen asked the King.
“Stop, at once!” Polonius shouted to the players.
“Give me some light!” the King bellowed. “Let’s leave!”
“Lights, lights, lights!” Polonius shouted in a panic.
The audience and attendants frantically followed protocol as the royal guests left. The actors, fearing the recriminations of offending the King, had already fled the stage. Only Hamlet and Horatio were left. Hamlet was reminded of the lines he had written for the performance and began to speak them: “Why, let the stricken deer go weep; the heart, uninjured, play. For some must watch, while some can sleep, that is the way of the world. If my luck turns sour wouldn’t those words get me a job on stage?”
“At least half a part!”
“A whole part! Listen, there’s more: By now you know, my country fellow, this kingdom has been deprived of Jove, and now its ruler is a peacock!”
“You should have rhymed!”
“Oh, good Horatio, I’ll believe that ghost to the tune of a thousand ducats. Did you notice the King?”
“Clearly, my lord.”
“During the poisonings?”
“I paid particular attention.”
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entered the chamber.
“Ah, ha. Come, some music! Bring on the flautists! For if the King doesn’t like the comedy. Then he likes it, he likes it not, by God! Music! Music!”
Guildenstern approached Hamlet.
“Good my lord, may I have a word with you?”
“Sir, a whole history!”
“The King, sir -”
“Yes, sir, what about him?”
“He has withdrawn to his private quarters in quite a temper.”
“Due to drink, sir?”
“No, my lord. Due to anger.”
“Your wisdom would be more enriched if you conveyed this news to his doctor. Indeed, if it were up to me to administer treatment I would perhaps plunge him into a more serious condition.”
“Good my lord, make your comments logical and relevant.”
“I’ve tamed my tongue, sir. Chat away.”
“The Queen, your mother, has in her distress sent me to you.”
“You are welcome.”
“Really, sir, this kind of mock-courtesy is inappropriate. If you would speak to me sensibly, I will do as your mother has asked. If not, with your pardon, I shall end my business here and return to her.”
“Sir, I cannot.”
“What, my lord?” Rosencrantz piped in.
“Speak to you sensibly. My brain is diseased. But sir, any answer I can give you is yours, or rather, is yours to give to my mother. But back to the answer. My mother, you say…”
“Her message is this: your behaviour has her amazed and dismayed,” said Rosencrantz.
“What a wonderful son, to astonish his mother! Surely there is a sequel to this mother’s astonishment. Do tell.”
“She wishes to speak with you in her quarters before you go to bed”. Rosencrantz said.
“I shall obey, even if she was ten times my mother. Have you any other errands here?”
“My lord, once you liked me,” said Rosencrantz.
“And still do, by these hands!”
“Good my lord, what is the cause of your disturbance. You surely bar the door to any cure if you can’t accept the assistance of your friends,” said Rosencrantz.
“Sir, I can’t fulfil my plans.”
“How can that be, when the King has named you his successor to the throne of Denmark?” Rosencrantz asked.
“Yes, sir, but you know that stale old proverb, while the grass grows the horse goes hungry.”
As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were contemplating Hamlet’s responses, the actors appeared with their flutes.
“Ah, the recorders. Let me see one.”
Hamlet took a flute from one of the actors and then turned to Guildenstern and asked: “Privately, tell me why you are so keen to trap me?”
“Oh, my lord. If my duty makes me bold, remember that it is love that inspires me.”
“I don’t quite understand that.”
Hamlet offered Guildenstern the recorder: “Will you play a tune?”
“My lord, I can’t.”
“Please?”
“Believe me, I can’t.”
“I beg you.”
“I haven’t the faintest idea of how to play it, sir.”
“It’s as easy as lying. Cover these holes with your fingers and thumb, blow through it with your mouth, and it will make eloquent music. Look, these are the stops.”
“But I can’t make the sounds into a harmony. I don’t have the skill.”
“Why, look how unworthy you make me feel! You jump at the chance to play me. You know where my stops are. You would like to get at my secrets. You sound me from lowest note to the highest. There’s plenty of music in this little recorder but you cannot make it speak. You think I’m easier to play than a recorder. Call me what instrument you will, but you cannot play it. God bless you, sir.”
Polonius entered, stiff and irate.
“My lord, the Queen would like to speak with you and speak with you now.”
“Do you see that cloud, Polonius, yonder, it’s almost shaped like a camel?”
“By heaven, it is indeed like a camel.”
“I think it’s like a weasel.”
“It has the back of a weasel.”
“Or like a whale.”
“Very like a whale.”
“Then I will go to my mother, soon. Soon, Polonius.”
“They mock me beyond my games,” Hamlet said to himself.
“I will tell your mother,” Polonius said as he left.
“Soon is easily said. Leave me friends.”
Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the actors shuffled out.
“Now it is the witching hour, when graves open and hell itself blows its contagion into the world. Now I could drink hot blood and do such vile things that would make the day hesitate to dawn. But, now to my mother. Heart, don’t lose your nature. Keep the mother-killing instinct out. Let me be cruel, but not unnatural. I will speak daggers to her, but I will use none. Let my tongue be more vicious than my soul. However wildly my words rebuke her I will not harm her.”