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Polonius had gone to Queen Gertrude as soon as he had the King’s agreement that he should hide in her chambers during her discussion with Hamlet. They were expecting Hamlet but they did not know he had been spying on the King.
“He will be coming shortly,” Polonius told the Queen. “Now you must lay down the law to him. Tell him his pranks have become too insolent to be tolerated, and that you have protected him in the face of heated criticism. I will hide in silence. Give it to him forcefully.”
“Trust me, have no doubt that I will.”
“Mother, mother, mother!” Hamlet was yelling in the corridor.
“Hide! He’s coming.”
Hamlet sauntered in.
“Now, mother, what’s the matter?”
“Hamlet, you have deeply offended your father.”
“Mother, you have deeply offended my father.”
“Come, come, you answer me mischievously.”
“Go, go, you answer me wickedly.”
“Now, Hamlet…”
“What’s wrong now?”
“Do you forget who I am?’
“No, by the cross, no! You are the Queen. Your husband’s brother’s wife. And- who can change it? – you are my mother.”
“Right! I will send people who can speak to you.”
The Queen was furious. She headed for the door. But Hamlet leapt in front of her to prevent her from leaving.
“Come, come, you shall sit down again. You are not going anywhere. You will stay here until I get a mirror that will allow you to gaze into your own soul.”
Hamlet pushed the Queen back into a chair. She began to panic.
“What are you going to do to me? Are you going to murder me? Help! Help!”
Polonius was panicking too, but he was tangled behind the weighty curtains.
“What’s happening? Help! Oh, help!” Polonius yelled.
“What now?” Hamlet asked, pointing his sword into the curtain. “Just, a rat, I bet. I’ll kill it.”
Hamlet plunged his sword into the confused form panicking in the folds of the curtain. The voice became muffled and the shape fell to the floor.
Gertrude screamed. But Hamlet, for all his sensitivity, was curiously indifferent.
“Oh, goodness, what have you done?”
“I don’t know. Is it the King?”
Hamlet lifted the curtain and saw the bloody corpse of Polonius.
“Oh, what rash and violent behaviour!” Gertrude yelled.
The Queen turned away.
“Violent, indeed. Almost as bad as killing a king and marrying his brother.”
“Killing a king?”
“Yes, lady. You know! Polonius, you wretched, rash, nosey fool, I thought you were the King. Take your lot! You’ve found that being a busybody is a dangerous game.”
As Hamlet spoke these words his fury at the corpse was uncontained. He then turned back to his mother: “Stop wringing your hands and just sit down quietly. Let me wring your heart! For so I shall if it responds at all to human feeling, so brazenly does it defend itself against compassion.”
“What have I done, that you dare to subject me to this verbal abuse?”
“Things that obscure grace and modesty, that deflower innocence, that make marriage vows as fleeting as a gambler’s oath. Things that turn the sacrament of marriage into a side-show! Even the face of heaven blushes at your behaviour, which befits only doomsday.”
“Me? What have I done that is so monstrous?”
“Look here at this picture.”
Hamlet pulled a necklace from under his tunic and showed the Queen a miniature painting of the late King Hamlet.
“And look at this!”
He pulled a similar necklace from the Queen which had a portrait of King Claudius.
“Portraits of two brothers. Look at mine. See that grace that began at his forehead, the curls of the sun-god Hyperion, the forehead of Jove, a military man’s eye like Mars, the god of war, the posture of Mercury. Contributions from all the gods, stamped and sealed to form the epitome of man. That was your husband. But look what happened. Here is your husband.”
Hamlet clutched the Queen’s necklace aggressively.
“Bacteria, infecting his pure brother. Have you eyes? Could you desert a beautiful mountain for a swamp? Well, do you have eyes? You cannot call it passion! At your age, the blood is tame, it is answerable only to your judgement. What sort of woman would lose this brother and crave the other? What devil roped you into playing blind man’s bluff? Sight without touch, touch without sight, hearing with neither touch nor sight, smell alone: even with a modicum of these skills, you should have known what you were doing. Where are your blushes? If musty rebellions flourish in the bones of a matron, then hot-blooded youth will burst into flames! Don’t scold the young, when their elders are up to all kind of tricks.”
“Oh, Hamlet. Don’t say another word. You make me look inward and I can see the stains of guilt.”
“No, you live in the rank odour of a greasy bed, seething with corruption, making love in that sty of a bed!”
“Oh, no! Stop it! Your words are like daggers in my ears. No more, sweet Hamlet!”
“A murderer and a villain. A lowlife now worth a fraction of your late husband. A vice among kings, a usurper who stole the crown from a shelf and slipped it into his pocket-”
“-No more!”
“-A rag tag King.”
Hamlet froze, but not because he was obeying his mother. The ghost of his father had reappeared, wearing a night-shirt.
“Angels save me and hover over me. What does you gracious figure wish me to do?”
The Queen stopped sobbing and looked up at her son, dismayed at his behaviour. Unlike the guards on the ramparts, she could not see the ghost.
“Alas, he’s mad!”
“Have you come to chastise your son, who has not yet followed your dreadful command, and has squandered chances? Speak to me.”
The Ghost moved closer to Hamlet.
“Do not forget,” the ghost of King Hamlet said. “This visit is to stiffen your resolve. But look, your mother is astounded. Assist her in controlling herself. Morbid thoughts thrive in weak bodies. Speak to her, Hamlet.”
“How are you, madam?”
The Queen pressed herself against the wall in terror, as if looking into a void.
“Alas, how are you? What makes you stare and converse with air? Your eyes peer, like a wild spirit. Like a soldier caught dozing through an alert, your hair stands on end. Oh, gentle son, try to pull these impulses under control. What are you looking at?”
“At him, at him! Look at his pale glare. Stones would move at a glimpse of his agony!”
Hamlet turned back to the ghost.
“Don’t look at me, your awful state will make my stern goals be done out of sympathy rather than vengeance.”
“To whom are you speaking?” the Queen asked.
“Can you not see?”
“Nothing. Everything that is there I can see.”
“Did you not hear?”
“I heard us.”
“Why, look there! Look how he slips away! My father, dressed in the night-clothes that were his favourites. Look, he’s going through the door!”
The ghost had left.
“That was all a figment of your imagination. Lunacy is very adept at creating such illusions.”
“Lunacy? My pulse is as healthy as yours. I’m not talking rubbish. Put me to the test and I shall repeat it, something the mad won’t do. Mother, for the love of god, don’t soothe your soul, by pretending your sins are actually my madness. That will cover the ulcer, but the poison will fester inwards, unseen, burrowing all the way to the soul. Confess, repent and avoid your fate. Don’t aggravate your sins by committing more. Forgive this advice. But in these selfish times even virtue must pardon itself when it meets vice. Indeed, it has to beg and plead to offer a helping hand.”
“Oh, Hamlet, you have split my heart in two!”
“Then discard the infected part and live purely with the half that’s left. Goodnight. But don’t go to my uncle’s bed. Assume virtue, even if you are not virtuous. That monster, custom, which eats one’s sense of evil, is an angel in this respect: it can eventually make a habit of good deeds. Restrain yourself from that bed tonight and tomorrow’s abstinence will seem so much easier, and so on. Once again, goodnight. When you beg a blessing for yourself, I’ll beg a blessing from you. As for Polonius, I’m sorry. But heaven choose to punish me, and through me him. I must be heaven’s scourge and minister. I will have him buried and offer prayers. So again, good night. I must be cruel to be kind. The beginning is bad, worse awaits us. One word more, good lady.”
“What?”
“Do not, under any circumstances, do any of the following: don’t let the fat pig tempt you into his bed; pinch your cheeks; call you his mouse; let him in for a couple of kisses; or touch your neck; or allow him to unravel my plans. Essentially, I am not mad but mad in motive. If you were good you would let him know but only a queen -fair, sober, wise- could withhold such information from a frog, a bat, a cat? Who could do such a thing? No, despite sense and secrecy, let the cat out of the bag and leap about until you break your neck.”
“Be assured if words are made of breath, and breath is vital for life, I don’t have enough life in me to repeat what you’ve said.”
“I must go to England. Did you know?”
“Alas, I had forgotten. I believe that’s final.”
“The orders have been written, and my two school friends, whom I trust as one would trust snakes, will escort me. Polonius’ corpse will ensure my departure is hasty. I’ll drag the body into the next room. Mother goodnight, again. Polonius is now still, secret and grave. In life he was a prattling fool. Come sir, my business with you is coming to a close. Goodnight, mother.”
Hamlet dragged the corpse of Polonius out of the room while Gertrude stood shaking.
The Ghost had gone, returned to Purgatory. The Ghost had wanted to protect Gertrude even if she had married a murderer. The Ghost also knew what Hamlet never grasped. Despite idolising his father, in almost every aspect of character Hamlet was his mother’s son.