Hamlet and Horatio were alone in the castle of Elsinore.
“So much for this letter, Horatio,” said Hamlet. “Now I will tell you the rest about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You remember all the circumstances?”
“I remember, my lord!”
“Well, sir, I couldn’t sleep for the turmoil in my heart. I felt worse than a shackled mutineer awaiting his fate. Rashly, and all praise to rashness, I observed that our instincts sometimes save the day when our carefully plotted plans go awry, we are taught that God shapes the outcome regardless of our hopes-”
“That’s for certain,” Horatio piped in.
“I got up from my cabin and put on my heavy coat, and groped around in the dark to find Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Once I had done so I relieved their satchel of the royal documents and returned to my room. My fear overlooked my manners and I was bold enough to open the King’s order. Horatio, therein I found- royal treachery! – an exact command prefaced with all kind of royal protocols concerning the King of Denmark’s health and the King of England’s too, but all this was prelude to the order that I was to be beheaded without even a delay to sharpen the axe.”
“It isn’t possible!”
Hamlet pulled out his evidence.
“Here’s the commission. Read it at your leisure. Would you like to hear what I did next?”
“I beg you!”
“Being cornered by these villains I began to write the play before I thought of a plot. I sat down, devised a new commission and wrote it in the official manner that I had tried to forget and once mocked, as our politicians still do, but that day it served me well. Would you like to hear what I wrote?”
“Yes, my good lord.”
“I wrote an earnest plea from the King. As England was a faithful dependent of Denmark, the love between us should flourish like a palm, and peace should flourish until it stood between them like a comma between their wars, and many other pieces of some importance. And that the King of England should condemn the bearers of this letter to death without the opportunity of confession.”
“How did you seal the commission?”
“Why, even there heaven helped me out. I had my father’s signet ring with me in my satchel, the new King’s seal is almost identical. I folded the new order like the original, impressed the seal and replaced it, the switch was perfect. The next day was the fight at sea, and the rest you know.”
“So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz met their fate in England?”
“Why, man they loved their work. They are not on my conscience, they were defeated by their own attempts to get cosy with the King. It is very dangerous for the lower orders to get caught up in regal battles.”
“Why, what kind of king is this man!”
“Don’t you think it is now in my hands? He killed my father, whored my mother, coveted my right to succeed, and then plotted to have me killed. Isn’t it only too appropriate that I should rid Denmark of him? Isn’t it damnable to let the sore on humanity to spread more evil?”
“It can’t be long before he hears of what happened in England.”
“Soon. The interim is mine. A man’s life can be ended in the time it takes to say one. But I am very sorry, good Horatio, but with Laertes I forgot myself. In the image of my cause I see his too. I’ll try to get on his good side. But the display of his grief did put me in a towering temper.”
Horatio saw a courtier approach them.
“Peace, who are you?”
It was Osric, on an errand from the King.
“Your Lordship is very welcome back to Denmark,” Osric said to Hamlet, bowing and removing his flamboyant hat.
“I humbly thank you, sir,” Hamlet said and then whispered to Horatio: “Do you know this water-fly?”
“No, my good lord,” Horatio said to Hamlet.
“Then your state is gracious. It is a vice to know him! He has a lot of land, fertile too. Let a beast be a lord of beasts and his trough will be adjacent to the King’s table. He is a jackdaw, but with a lot of territory.”
“Sweet lord, if you have the time I would like to convey a message to you from the King.”
“I will receive it, sir, with all diligence of spirit. Put your bonnet to right use: it is for the head.”
“I thank Your Lordship, it’s very hot,” Osric said.
“No, believe me, it is very cold. The wind is northerly.”
“It is quite cold, my lord, indeed.”
“But I still think it is very sultry and hot for my constitution.”
“Exceedingly, my lord. It is very sultry- sultry to the point of- I don’t know the word for this sultriness. But, my lord, His Majesty asked me tell you that he has put a considerable bet on you. Sir, let me explain-”
“Remember your hat, please,” Hamlet said mockingly.
“Please, my good lord, for my comfort,” Osric said using his hat to cool himself. He continued: “Sir, Laertes has returned to court. Sir, you are not ignorant of his skills with his weapon.”
“What is his weapon?”
“Rapier and dagger.”
“That’s two of his weapons. But….”
“The King, sir, has wagered six Barbary horses, Laertes has wagered six French rapiers and daggers, complete with their accessories. Three of the carriages are exquisite, in design and craft.”
“Carriages? What are these carriages?”
“I knew this would have to be elaborated” Horatio said amused by Osric’s affectation.
“The carriages, sir, are the straps.”
“The word would be more relevant if we had cannons by our sides. Until then I would prefer if we said straps. But continue. Six Barbary horses against six French sword kits and three new-fangled carriages. That’s the French bet against the Dane. Why is this, as you say, staked?”
“The King, sir, has wagered, sir, that in a dozen rounds between you and Laertes, he will not win three more than you. Laertes says he will win nine bouts out of twelve. The bouts could take place immediately if Your Lordship granted an answer.”
“What if I answer no?”
“I mean, my lord, your participation in the challenge.”
“Sir, I will take a walk in the hall. It is the time of the day when I take some physical exercise, if that is acceptable to His Majesty. If the foils are brought, the gentleman is willing and if the King is still keen, I’ll win for him what I can. If not, I will gain only shame and a few hits.”
“Shall I convey that message?”
“The meaning, sir, but use the verbal flourishes you find second nature.”
“At your service, my lord, if I may recommend.”
“Yours, yours…. He is right in recommending himself, there are no other tongues to do it!”
“At last that hatchling has got his feathers back on its head!” said Horatio.
“He begged his mother’s breast pardon before a feed! He and others of his ilk who thrive in these shallow times speak only in the drivel of the day. Quiz them and they are exposed.”
“You will lose this wager, my lord,” Horatio said gravely.
“I don’t think so. Since Laertes went to France I’ve been in continuous practice. I can win at the odds. You wouldn’t believe how nervous I feel, but that is irrelevant.”
“No, but my good lord-”
“It’s nothing. Just the kind of hesitancy that might trouble a woman.”
“If your mind dislikes something, pay attention. I will stop them coming by saying you are not ready.”
“Certainly not. We must ignore superstition. Whatever will be will be. If death comes now, it won’t come in the future. If it is not later, then it is now. If not now, it will come. Being ready is everything. Since no man knows the world and what he leaves, what is it to leave mortal time? Be quiet, now.”
Hamlet and Horatio made their way to the room where the duel was to be held. The number of aristocrats and politicians who had gathered for the duel surprised Hamlet and delighted Claudius. Laertes looked lean, and hungry for revenge. Queen Gertrude sat pale and woeful.
“Come, Hamlet, come,” the King said, “take your opponent’s hand.”
“Give me your pardon, sir. I have done you wrong. But pardon me, as you are a gentleman. The court knows, and you must have heard, that I’ve been punished with a mental illness. What I have done to rile you, over family matters or your honour, I here proclaim was the result of madness. Was it Hamlet who wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet. If Hamlet was removed from himself and when he is not himself he wrongs Laertes then it wasn’t Hamlet. Hamlet denies it. Who was it? His madness. If so, then Hamlet is the wronged party. Hamlet’s madness is Hamlet’s enemy. Laertes, here and now let my denial of deliberate evil allow me to be free in your most generous thoughts, accept that everything was accidental.”
“I am satisfied with my feelings, they are reliable in provoking in revenge,” Laertes said. “But in terms of my honour I stand aloof, reconciliation will be something astute minds will ponder, until then my reputation cannot be sullied. Until then I will accept your offer of love for what it is and will not reject it.”
“I embrace it freely and will participate in this brother’s wager. Give us the foils.”
“Come, one for me.”
“I’ll be your foil, Laertes. My shortcomings will allow your skill to shine like a star in the darkest of nights- very brightly indeed.”
“You mock me, sir.”
“No, I swear.”
“Give them the foils, young Osric,” the King ordered, and then turned to Hamlet: “Hamlet do you know the bet?”
“Very well, my lord. Your Grace has put his bet on the weaker side.”
“I do not fear. I have seen you both but since Laertes is more experienced he has a handicap.”
The swords were brought, but Laertes took the wrong one: “This is too heavy bring me another.”
“I like this. The foils are all the same length?” Hamlet asked Osric.
“Yes, my good lord.”
Hamlet and Laertes went through the final preparations. Servants brought pitchers of wine, vital to the King’s plan.
“Put the stoups of wine on that table,” the King instructed the servants. “If Hamlet wins the first or second hit or takes the third let all the battlements salute. The King shall drink to Hamlet’s success and I’ll put in my cup a pearl grander than that found in the crown of four successive Danish kings. Give me the cups and let the kettledrum tell the trumpets, the trumpets tell the soldiers, the cannons tell the heavens, the heavens tell the earth: Now the King drinks to Hamlet. Come, begin. You judges, keep your eyes peeled.”
“Come on, sir,” Hamlet said to Laertes.
“Come, my lord,” Laertes replied.
The first bout began
“One!” Hamlet yelled delightedly.
“No!” Laertes protested.
“A judgement, please,” Hamlet said.
“A hit, a very palpable hit,” said Osric grandly.
“Begin again,” said Laertes.
“Wait!” the King said. “Give me a drink.”
The King took a long drink and then pondered Hamlet.
“Hamlet, this pearl is yours! Here’s to your health!”
The King dropped the pearl into the drinking cup. The drums, trumpets and cannons saluted Hamlet. The pearl, the poison, dissolved in the cup.
“Give Hamlet the cup,” the King said to an attendant.
“I’ll play this bout first. Keep it there for me.”
The King put the cup aside, disguising his irritation with a smile. Gertrude beamed. Hamlet and Laertes continued their duel.
“Another hit! Wouldn’t you agree?” Hamlet asked.
“A touch, a touch. I agree,” Laertes said.
“Our son shall win!” the King said, with panic masquerading as joy.
“Hamlet’s a bit unfit and short of breath,” Gertrude said concerned. “Here, Hamlet, take my napkin and wipe your brow. The Queen drinks to your good fortune, Hamlet!”
King Claudius was too preoccupied with his ploys and plans to realise what Gertrude had said. She picked up the poisoned drinking cup and sipped gently.
“Good madam,” Hamlet said to Gertrude, acknowledging her praise.
“Gertrude, don’t drink!” the King said.
“I will, my lord, pardon me, please.”
After a few sips Gertrude offered the cup to Hamlet.
“It’s the poisoned cup, it’s too late!” the King said to himself.
“I dare not drink yet, madam. By and by.”
“Come, let me wipe your face.”
As Gertrude was pampering Hamlet, Laertes turned to the King: “My lord, I will hit him now.”
“I don’t think so,” the King whispered.
“And yet it is almost against my conscience,” Laertes said to himself.
“Come for round three, Laertes. You are dilly-dallying! Come at me with all your skill! I think you are teasing me.”
“Really! Come on!”
The third bout began noticeably more enthusiastic. It seemed as if a fatality was imminent. They eventually locked swords and Osric stepped in.
Laertes, brimming with vengeance, caught Hamlet off-guard and managed to wound him.
“Have at you now!”
Enraged Hamlet lunged at Laertes. The King was ecstatic with joy. They were now so close to each other the duel resembled a wrestling match. In the mêlée they dropped their weapons.
“Separate them! They are incensed!” the King bawled, terrified that Hamlet may get the upper hand.
Osric intervened to separate them and they changed rapiers. Hamlet, though he didn’t know it, had the unbated foil.
“Come again!” Hamlet said to Laertes.
Laertes came towards him in an aggressive and undisciplined move that gave Hamlet the opportunity to wound him with the poisoned sword. Meanwhile the Queen was starting to feel drowsy. Suddenly she collapsed.
“Stop! Look at the Queen!” Osric shouted.
“Hamlet and Laertes are bleeding!” Horatio said. “How are you my lord?” he asked Hamlet.
“How are you, Laertes?” asked Osric.
“Why, like a woodcock caught in my own trap, Osric. I am justly killed by my own treachery.”
“What is the matter with the Queen?” Hamlet asked.
“She fainted at the sight of blood,” the King said.
“No, no!” the Queen struggled to speak. “The drink, the drink! Oh, my dear Hamlet! The drink, the drink! I’ve been poisoned!”
“Villainy!” Hamlet yelled. “Listen, let the door be locked! Treachery! Here!”
Osric locked the door.
“It’s here, Hamlet,” said the dying Laertes. “Hamlet, you are about to die. No medicine in the world can help you. You don’t even have half an hour to live! The treacherous weapon is in your hand. It is unbated and poisoned. This foul trick has turned on me. Look, here I lie never to rise again. Your mother is poisoned. I can’t say much more. The King- the King’s to blame!”
Laertes struggled for breath. Hamlet gripped the rapier and lunged at the King.
“This point is poisoned? Then venom do your work!”
“Treason! Treason!” the court yelled as Hamlet stabbed the King.
“Defend me friends. It is only a wound.”
Hamlet picked the drinking cup from the table and knelt beside the King.
“Here you incestuous, murderous damned Dane. Drink the rest of your poison. Is your pearl here? Follow my mother!”
Hamlet pushed the goblet to the lips of the King’s panic-stricken face and forced the liquid into his mouth. With the poison from the wine and the venom from the sword, Claudius’ death was rapid.
“He has been served with his own justice,” Laertes struggled to say. “The poison was mixed by him. Exchange forgiveness with me, Hamlet. You will not be blamed for my death and my father’s and I will not be blamed for yours.”
After saying these words Laertes died.
“May Heaven absolve you. I follow you. I’m dead, Horatio. Wretched Queen, adieu.”
Hamlet turned to the gasping court: “You who look pale and dumbstruck by these events I wish I had the time to tell you but Death’s sergeants are strict in making arrests so let that be. Horatio, I am dead but you live on. To those unsatisfied and mystified by events report my motives.”
“Never believe it. I am more an ancient Roman than a Dane. There’s some of that liquor left.”
Horatio picked up the poison intending to die honourably with Hamlet.
“Man, give me that cup! Let go, by heaven I’ll have it! Oh, God, Horatio, what a wounded reputation I would leave behind if the facts were not known. If you have ever held me in your heart then endure this harsh world a while longer to tell my story.”
Horatio held the dying Hamlet. The sound of cannons interrupted their peace.
“What warlike noise is that?” Hamlet struggled to ask Horatio.
“Young Fortinbras, returning victorious from Poland, salutes the ambassadors from England with this warlike volley,” Osric told them.
“Oh, Horatio, I’m dying. This potent poison is defeating my spirit. I will not live to hear the news from England, but I prophesy that the election lights will shine on Fortinbras. He has my dying support. Tell him that and the details of which led me to… The rest is silence…”
“Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince. Flights of angels sing you to your rest!”
Horatio grieving was interrupted by the drumming and marching of the Norwegian forces: “Why does the drum come here?”
Fortinbras, the ambassadors from England and the troops arrived at the chamber.
“Where is this sight?” Fortinbras asked, gloating.
“What is it you wish to see?” Horatio asked Fortinbras. “If it is woe and amazement, cease your search.”
“The bodies cry of chaos. Oh, proud Death, what feasts are you planning in your eternal hell that you slaughtered so many royals at once?” Fortinbras said.
“This sight is dismal,” said the English ambassador. “I fear our news from England has come too late. The ears that should hear that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been killed as he ordered are now beyond hearing. To whom should we receive our thanks?”
“Not from his mouth,” Horatio said, pointing to the corpse of Claudius, “even if he could thank you. He never gave the command to kill them. You from the Polish wars and you from the court of England have arrived here as bloody questions were resolved. Have these bodies placed on a high stage for all to see and I will explain how these things came about. You shall hear of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts; of deaths caused by cunning and plotting and in this instance, deviousness that went wrong and caught the instigators. All this, I can tell.”
“Let us hear it, with haste,” Fortinbras said, “and call the nobles to audience. For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune. I have rights to this kingdom, which is vivid in my memory and it is now advantageous to claim them.”
“Of that I will also speak, speak the words of a mouth that can no longer relate them. But let me continue immediately, even while the minds are wild, lest no more plots are hatched and mischance is at bay,” Horatio said.
“Let four captains carry Hamlet like a soldier to the platform,” said Fortinbras. “Had he become king the role would have suited him. To mark his death there will be a military salute. Raise the bodies. Such a sight like this is fit for the battlefield, but not here. Go, order the salute.”
Hamlet, King and Prince, were dead. Gertrude was dead. Polonius and his children were dead. Claudius was dead. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dead. Fortinbras savoured the carnage. He was a son who longed to avenge his father’s murder by the late King Hamlet. Now the Danish Royal Family lay dead.