King Claudius and Laertes had formed an unholy alliance. The King was delighted at the success of his manipulation.
“Now your conscience must acknowledge my innocence,” the King said to Laertes. “And you must take me to your heart as a friend since you have agreed and believed that the man who killed your father also tried to kill me.”
“So it appears. But tell me why you never took action against these crimes, capital crimes at that, but acted upon the matters that concerned your safety?”
The King sighed in a cunning way.
“Oh, for two special reasons which perhaps to you will sound rather weak. The Queen, his mother, dotes on him. As for me, my virtue or my plague, I find the Queen so vital to my life that, just as a star moves in its own sphere, I need her in my orbit. The other problem was the esteem in which my subjects hold him. They are so fond of him that they tolerate his faults. Like the spring that turns wood to stone, they convert his guilt to grace. My accusatory arrows were too slim to counter this force and would have been beaten back to my bow, so to speak.”
“And so I have lost a noble father. And a sister who could have stood on a mountain and challenged the age to exceed her perfection is now insane. My revenge will come.”
“Don’t lose any sleep worrying about that. You must not think that I’m so soppy that I would allow a threat like Hamlet to be treated like a joke. You will shortly hear more. I loved you father, and I love myself. And that, I hope, will let you know-”
The King was interrupted by a messenger.
“This letter is for you, Majesty. This one is for the Queen.”
“From Hamlet! Who brought them?”
“Sailors, my lord, so they said. I didn’t see them. They were given to me by Claudio. He took them from the men who delivered them,” said the messenger.
“Laertes, you shall hear what Hamlet has to say. Leave us, man.”
Claudius opened the letter with some trepidation.
“Your High and Mighty Lord, you should know that I am back in your Kingdom, destitute. Tomorrow, I beg to stand before your kingly presence and I shall, after begging your pardon, explain the reasons for my unexpected and strange return. Hamlet. What does this mean? Have the rest returned, too? Is this a fraud? Untrue?”
“Do you recognise Hamlet’s handwriting?” asked Laertes.
“Oh, it’s Hamlet’s. Destitute? And in the postscript here he says, Alone. Laertes, can you advise me?”
The King did not need advice. He was subtly roping Laertes into his plans.
“I am puzzled by it, my lord. But let him come. It aids the sickness in my heart to know I will confront him and say: This is your death!”
“If this letter is authentic, and it appears to be, will you take my advice, Laertes?”
“Yes, my lord, as long as it not about reconciliation.”
“Reconcile your actions with your own conscience. If he has returned with no intention of leaving I will manipulate him into a plot of mine that will guarantee his downfall. His death will be blameless, even his mother will acknowledge that.”
“My lord, I’m all for it, especially if your plan will permit my participation.”
“Ideal. Since you went away there has been much talk, and Hamlet has heard it, of a quality you have in abundance. All your other skills combined didn’t provoke as much envy in Hamlet as that one. Which I have to say, is not your best quality.”
“Which quality is that, my lord?”
“Recklessness. It is typical of youth to be carefree as it is for the middle aged to appear reserved and successful and to imply health and conformity. Two months or so ago a gentleman from Normandy was here. I’ve seen and fought against the French myself. They are good on horseback, but this lad’s skill was magical. As soon as he mounted that horse he was like Perseus. His talents were so far in excess of my imagination that any task I set him came short of what he accomplished.”
“A Norman, did you say?”
“Yes, a Norman.”
“Yes, that was his name!”
“I know him well. He is the jewel in the crown.”
“He spoke of you. He gave such a shining account of your swordsmanship, that he said it would be something indeed if a match could be found for you. His countrymen he said couldn’t match your agility, defence or accuracy should you oppose them. Hamlet was so jealous he begged for your return so that he could fence with you. Now out of this-”
“What can come out of this, my lord?” interrupted Laertes.
“Laertes, was your father dear to you? Or are you like a portrait of sorrow, a face without a heart?”
“Why are you asking this?” Laertes asked, puzzled.
“It’s not that I think you didn’t love your father. It’s just that I know that time witnesses the beginnings of love and time, too, withers the intensity of it. Within the flame of love is the very thing that extinguishes it. Goodness can never retain its purity or consistency, it eventually succumbs to its own richness. What we would do, we should do instantly. Otherwise resolve becomes the victim of its own postponements and thoughtfulness. It finds its own alibis for not acting on impulse. The should becomes the mere sigh of a spendthrift. But back to the gist of the tumour: Hamlet is back. What will you do to prove you are your father’s son, deeds not words?”
“I’ll cut his throat in church!”
“Indeed, no place should harbour a murderer. Revenge should be unhindered. Do this for me, Laertes: stay in your room. Hamlet will be told you, too, have returned. I will orchestrate praise of your swordsmanship that will exceed that of the Frenchman. You will contest a duel, with wagers. Hamlet is trusting, negligent and immune to contrivance, he will not inspect the swords. So, easily, or with some handiwork, you can choose a foil which is not blunted. Then with the requisite tact you can avenge your father’s murder.”
“I will do it. And for that purpose I will season my sword. I bought a balm from a quack. So lethal is the formula that one only has to dip a knife into it and once it has drawn blood no herbal solution on this earth, however reputable, will be able to defeat the formula’s fatal effect. I’ll put the poison on the point of my sword and I’ll just need to scratch him to kill him.”
“Let’s consider this further, and decide on the most convenient time and place for us to play our parts. If this should fail, our real intentions would be seen. We must think carefully. This project should have a contingency that will succeed if the first fails. Let me think. Yes, I’ll make a wager on your skills. That’s it! Ensure your bouts are energetic and when he is hot and thirsty and asks for a drink, I’ll have prepared a drink especially for him. So, if by chance he escapes your venom, mine will be waiting for him. Task complete! What’s that racket?”
The King was disturbed by screaming and pandemonium in the hallway. Gertrude came in sobbing.
“One woe treads on the heels of the last! They come thick and fast. Laertes, Ophelia has drowned!”
“There is a willow that grows over the brook, its white leaves reflect in the water. Ophelia went there with garlands of daffodils, roses, daisies and long purples, which crude farmers give a rude name, but our virginal maidens call ‘dead men’s fingers’. Climbing up to hang her garlands on the boughs, a weak branch broke. She and her flowers fell into the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide and mermaid-like they kept her afloat. She sang snatches of old tunes, like someone oblivious to her own plight, or like a water-residing creature. But it wasn’t long before her heavy and muddy clothes pulled her from her melodious songs to a muddy death.”
“Alas, Ophelia has drowned,” Laertes said.
“Drowned….drowned…” the Queen said.
“You have had too much water, poor Ophelia, so I will curtail my tears. But it is our nature, customs will be adhered to, regardless of shame. When my tears are gone, that will be the last of the woman in me. Adieu, my lord. I have a speech of fire within me but my tears would only douse it.”
Laertes left, racked with grief.
“Let’s go after him, Gertrude. I had to do so much to calm his rage, but I fear this will trigger it again. Let’s follow him.”
Claudius and Gertrude rushed after Laertes.