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As dawn broke over Elsinore two yokels employed as gravediggers were already at work.
“Is she to be buried in the Christian way even though they say she took her own life?” the first gravedigger asked his mate.
“I tell you she is, so get on with it. The coroner took the case himself and says it’s to be a Christian burial.”
“How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defence?”
“Well, that’s the ruling.”
The gravedigger persisted with his arguments.
“It must be suicide. It can’t be anything else. This is my point. If I drown myself deliberately, that’s an act. An act has three parts, to act, to do, and to perform. Therefore she drowned herself wittingly.”
“No, you listen, Goodman Digger…”
“Excuse me! Here lies the water- good. Here stands the man- good. If the man goes to the water and drowns himself it is the end of him- tough. But if the water comes to him and drowns him, then he didn’t drown himself. Therefore, the man who is not guilty of taking his own life didn’t shorten his life. ”
“Is that the law?”
“Of course. Coroner’s inquest law.”
“Do you want to hear the truth of it?” the mate asked. “If she hadn’t been an aristocrat she wouldn’t have had a Christian burial.”
“Never a truer word! And more’s the pity that the great and good are privileged to go around drowning and hanging themselves whenever they please. Give me my spade. In olden days the only gentlemen were gardeners, ditch diggers and gravediggers. They followed the profession of Adam, the first man.”
“Was he a gentleman?”
“He was the first with arms.”
“Why, he didn’t have arms!” the second gravedigger insisted, talking about a coat of arms.
“Are you a heathen? How do you understand the Scripture? The Scripture says, Adam digged. Could he dig without arms? Here’s another question, if you don’t answer it right you’re for the high jump!”
“Go on.”
“What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?”
“The gallows maker, because the frame outlives a thousand tenants!”
“I like your wit! The gallows is a good answer. But how is it good? It’s good for those who do ill. But it is ill to say the gallows is stronger than the church. Therefore the gallows might do you some good. So try again. Come on!”
The gravedigger’s mate thought long and hard.
“Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright or a carpenter?”
“Yes, tell me that and relax your brain!”
“Wait, now I know!”
“Go on.”
“Blast! I’ve forgotten.”
“Don’t stew your brains any longer! You can’t speed up a stupid ass with a whip. The next time somebody asks you that question, say a grave maker. The houses he makes lasts until doomsday! Off you go to Vaughan’s and bring me a pint of beer.”
The mate went to the tavern and left the gravedigger to get on with his work. He began to sing to pass the time:
“In youth when I did love, did love,
I thought it was very sweet:
To arrange- Oh- the time for- ah-
my betrothal,
Oh I thought there- ah- was ah-was
nothing- ah- right.”
As the gravedigger was getting immersed in his song, Hamlet and Horatio, taking a judicious route through the graveyard met him.
“Has this fellow so little feeling that he sings while grave digging?” Hamlet asked.
“Monotony has made him oblivious to it,” Horatio said.
“I’m sure. The hands of little employment are more sensitive.”
The gravedigger was unaware of Hamlet and Horatio and continued to sing:
“But age with his advancing steps
Has caught me in his grasp,
And hath shipped me into the land,
As if I had never been here at all.”
The gravedigger’s spade whacked a skull which he picked up and threw to the ground above.
“That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once,” Hamlet said to Horatio. “How the joker throws it around as if it were the jawbone of Cain, who committed the first murder. This could be the head of a schemer, whom this ass now oversees- someone like Cain, out to trick God?”
“Possibly, my lord,” said Horatio.
“Or of some courtier, who could say, Good morning, my dear lord and How are you, good lord? This could be Lord So-and-So who praised Lord So-and-So’s horse, when actually he wanted to borrow it, might it not?”
“Yes, my lord,” said Horatio, by this time baffled.
“Yes, but now he is with Lady Worm. His cheeks devoured and battered on the head with a spade. Natural justice, if we could only understand. Did these bones not cost their parents more than the price of a game? Mine ache thinking about it.”
The gravedigger was still oblivious to them:
“A pickaxe and a spade, a spade,
For and a shrouding sheet,
Oh, a pit of clay is to be made
For such a dead guest to meet.”
His singing was interrupted by the clatter of another skull, which he picked up and threw aloft too.
“There’s another!” Hamlet said as soon as the skull landed near them. “Mightn’t that be the skull of a lawyer? Now where are his subtleties, his quibbles, his cases, his tenures and his tricks? Why does he let this rude knave knock him about the head without threatening legal redress? Hum! In his time this fellow might have been a great buyer of land- with his mortgages, his bonds, his fines, his guarantees and his warrants. Is this the fine of his fines, and the recovery of his recoveries- to have his head crammed with the land he craves? All his paperwork couldn’t fit into his grave! No space for the purchaser!”
“Not a jot more, my lord.”
“Isn’t parchment made of sheepskin?”
“Yes, my lord, and of calfskin, too.”
“They are the sheep and the calves for seeking security in parchment! I will speak to this fellow. Whose grave is this, sir?”
“Mine, sir.”
Totally unfazed by Hamlet, the gravedigger went back to his singing:
“Oh, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.”
“I think it is yours indeed, for you are lying in it.”
“You are laying out of it, sir, therefore it’s not yours. For my part, I don’t lie in it but it is mine.”
“You lie in it, you are in it, and you claim it is yours. It is for the dead, not the living. Therefore, you are lying.”
“It is a living lie, sir.”
“Who is the man you will be burying?”
“No man, sir.”
“What woman then?”
“No woman either.”
“Who is to be buried in it?”
“One that was a woman, sir; but God rest her soul, she’s dead.”
“How pedantic the knave is. We must speak with precision or ambiguity will undo us. By the Lord, Horatio! I’ve noticed in the past three years that society has become very refined. Indeed, the toes of the peasant are so close to the heel of the courtier they rub their foot sores. How long have you been a gravedigger?”
“Of all the days in the year, I started this job the very day our late King, Hamlet, defeated Fortinbras.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Don’t you know that? Every fool knows that! It was the very day that the young Hamlet was born- him that’s gone mad and been sent to England.”
“Of course. Why was he sent to England?”
“Why, because he was mad. He’ll recover his wits there. If not it doesn’t matter in England.”
“Why?’
“They won’t see it in him there. There all the men are as mad as him.”
“How did this madness come about?”
“Very strangely, they say.”
“What do you mean, strangely?”
“Truly, just lost his wits.”
“On what grounds?”
“Why, here in Denmark. I’ve been a gravedigger here, man and boy, for thirty years.”
“How long does a man lie in the earth before he rots?”
“Truly, if he isn’t rotten before he dies- and we have many poxy corpses these days that scarcely last till they are in! – he will last about eight or nine years. A tanner will last you nine.”
“Why longer than the rest?”
“Why, sir, his own hide is so tanned with his trade that he will keep out water for a long time. Your water is a right decayer of your dead body. Now, here’s a skull that has lay in the earth for twenty-three years.”
“Whose was it?’
“A ribald, mad fellow’s it was. Whose do you think it was?”
“I don’t know.”
“A mad rogue! He once poured a tankard of German wine over my head. This same skull, sir, was Yorick’s skull- Yorick, the King’s jester!”
“This?”
“Yes, that.”
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of excellent fancy. He carried me on his back a thousand times. And now-” Hamlet looked at the skull and shivered “-how abhorrent I find this! My stomach churns at it! Here hung those lips that I kissed I know not how often. Where are your gibes, your tricks, your songs and your repartee that use to set the table roaring? Not one left to mock your own grinning? Quite dejected? Now go to my lady’s chamber and tell her despite her inch thick cosmetics this is the state that awaits her. Make her laugh at that. Horatio, tell me one thing.”
“What’s that, my lord?” asked Horatio.
“Do you think Alexander the Great looked like this in the earth?”
“Identical.”
“And smelt so? Pah!”
Hamlet put the skull down.
“Same again, my lord.”
“To what humble uses may we be put to, Horatio! Why, curiosity could trace the noble dust of Alexander the Great and find him serving as a cork stopper?”
“Such a curiosity would be too curious to consider!”
“No, not at all. Simply follow the procedure, paying attention. Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returned to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why shouldn’t that loam he became become a stopper on a beer barrel?
“Imperial Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
Oh, that earth which kept the world in awe
Should patch a wall to expel the winter’s flaw.
But quiet a moment, quiet. Here comes the King, the Queen and court officials.”
Hamlet and Horatio hid behind a row of gravestones, but still close enough to follow and hear the proceedings.
“Whose coffin are they following?” Hamlet pondered. “The rites seem very short. This implies the corpse they follow had taken its own life. Probably an aristocrat.”
“No other rites?” they overheard Laertes asked impatiently.
“That’s Laertes,” Hamlet whispered to Horatio, “a very noble youth. Listen to what he has to say.”
“No other rites?” Laertes asked again.
“Her funeral has been enlarged as far as the warrant permits,” the priest said. “The nature of her death was doubtful. If it were not for official overruling this wouldn’t have occurred at all and her body would have been interred in unsanctified land until judgement day. Rather than charitable prayers, shards of pottery, flint and pebbles should have been cast on her resting place. Yet here she is allowed her virgin’s garlands and her floral tributes and the use of the bell in the service.”
“Is this it?” Laertes asked.
“No more can be done. We would profane the service of the dead if we sang a solemn requiem and put her to rest with the souls who died in peace.”
“Lay her in the earth and from her fair and chaste flesh violets will grow. I tell you, churlish priest, my sister will be a ministering angel when you are screaming in hell!”
“What, fair Ophelia?” Hamlet was astounded.
The Queen took her flowers and singly scattered them on Ophelia’s grave: “Sweets to the sweet. Farewell. I hoped you would have been my Hamlet’s wife. I thought I would be decorating your bridal-bed with flowers, not scattering them on your grave.”
“Oh woe to the cursed head whose wicked deed deprived you of your sanity! Don’t fill the grave yet. Let me hold her in my arms again!” Laertes yelled.
He jumped into Ophelia’s grave. From the grave his shouts seemed to echo: “Now pile your dust upon the living and the dead till this flat becomes a mountain higher than Pelion or the peaks of Olympus.”
Hamlet decided to make himself known.
“Whose is this grief so loud it commands the attention of the stars? This is I- Hamlet the Dane!”
In the grave Laertes stood frozen, his sorrow curtailed by dismay. He climbed from the grave.
“The devil take your soul!” Laertes screamed at Hamlet as he lunged at him.
“A sad prayer!” Hamlet said. “Take your hands off my throat! I may not be hot-headed and rash but there is something dangerous in me you’d do well to fear. Take away your hand!”
“Separate them! Separate them!’ the King yelled.
“Hamlet! Hamlet!” the Queen yelled.
Horatio rushed to restrain Hamlet: “Good my lord, calm down!”
“I will fight with him on this matter until the last glimmer in my eyes!” Hamlet yelled.
“Oh, my son, what’s the matter?” the Queen pleaded.
“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers and their love cannot exceed mine. What will you do for her?”
“Oh, he is mad, Laertes!” the King said, clearly seeing control slip away.
“For the love of God, leave him alone!” the Queen sobbed.
“Come, show me what you would do!” Hamlet screamed at Laertes. “Will you weep, will you fight, will you fast, will you wound yourself, will you drink vinegar, eat a crocodile? I’ll do it. Have you come here to whine and upstage me by leaping in her grave? Be buried with her, then so will I! And if you prattle on about mountains then let them throw millions of acres on top of us until their peak is scorched by the sun. High enough to make the mountain of Ossa look like a mere wart! Open your mouth and I’ll rant as well as you!”
“This is lunacy!” Gertrude yelled. “He will carry on like this for a while. When it’s over he’ll be as placid as a nursing dove.”
“Listen here, Laertes. Why are you behaving like this? I always liked you. But it doesn’t matter. Whatever Hercules says, the cat will mew and the dog will have its day,” Hamlet said.
Hamlet fled, sorrowful and embarrassed.
“Horatio, follow him and make sure he’s is calm, will you?” the King asked.
Horatio ran after Hamlet. Now that the King had got rid of Horatio he turned to Laertes: “About our words last night, be patient. We will deal with the matter urgently.”
The King then turned to his wife, who stood startled and sobbing: “Gertrude, set a watch on your son. This grave will be marked with a monument. We will rest for a quiet hour and attend to things later.”