David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 3

— 1.3 —

Laertes and Ophelia were in a room of Polonius’ house. Laertes was preparing to return to France, and they were saying their goodbyes to each other.

“My luggage is on board ship,” Laertes said. “Farewell. And, sister, if the winds are blowing in the right direction and a ship is ready to sail to France, do not sleep but instead write and send a letter to me.”

“Can you doubt that I will write to you?” Ophelia asked.

“As for Hamlet and his trifling flirting with you, know that it is a temporary liking and a passing fancy and a youthful amorous sport. It is a violet in the springtime of youthful nature. It is an early flowering; it is not permanent. It is sweet, but it is not lasting. It is the perfume and pastime of a minute. Hamlet’s feeling for you is no more than that.”

“No more than that?” Ophelia asked.

“Think that it is no more than that,” Laertes said. “As we grow, we do not grow only in physical size and strength of our temple the body, but we also grow in our mind and soul — our inward nature also grows and expands. Perhaps he loves you now, and now no stain or deceit does besmirch the honorableness of his will, but you must be aware and fear that because he is a great and important person his will is not his own. He himself is subject to his birth and rank, and so he cannot do as other, lesser people do. He may not, as unvalued and unimportant persons do, choose for himself whom to marry because the safety and health of this whole state of Denmark depend on his choice, and therefore his choice must be circumscribed — his choice must meet the approval of that body of citizens of whom he is the head.

“Therefore, if he says he loves you, you will be wise to believe it only to the extent that a man in his particular position can act on what he says, which is only as far as the general approval of the important citizens of Denmark will allow him to act.

“So weigh what loss your honor may sustain, if you listen to his songs of love with too credulous and believing ears. Weigh what loss your honor may sustain if you lose your heart to him, or if you open your chaste treasure — your virginity — to his uncontrolled demands.

“Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister, and keep yourself in the rear of your affection, out of the shot and danger of desire. Don’t display your affection, and so keep yourself safe. The most modest maiden is prodigal enough, if she unmasks her beauty to the Moon; she ought not to unmask her beauty to someone who will take advantage of her.

“The mere fact of virtue itself is not enough to escape malicious and destructive gossip. The cankerworm injures the young flowers of the spring very often before their buds have been disclosed, and in the morning and liquid dew of youth contagious infections are most imminent. Youth is a time of great promise — and great danger.

“Be wary therefore. The best safety lies in fear of danger. If you are not afraid of danger, you are not wary of danger, and so you can fall into danger. Youth often acts contrary to its better nature even when no temptation is near.”

“I shall keep the content of this good lesson in and as a watchman for my heart,” Ophelia replied, “but, my good brother, do not do as some pastors who lack grace do: They show me the steep and thorny way to Heaven, while like reckless libertines puffed up with pride, they tread the primrose path of wanton amusement — they do not take their own advice.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Laertes said, adding, “I have stayed too long.”

He heard a noise, looked up, and said, “Our father is coming.”

Polonius entered the room, and Laertes said, “A double blessing is a double grace; occasion smiles upon a second leave. I get to have two farewells from my father.”

“Are you still here, Laertes?” Polonius said. “For shame! The wind is blowing in the sails of your ship, and everyone is waiting for you!

“Well, take my blessing and my advice with you. Listen to what I have to say to you and engrave my words in your heart.

“Do not needlessly broadcast your thoughts, and do not act on any reckless thought.

“Be friendly, but do not be overly friendly. You need not be familiar with everybody.

“When you have friends who have proven themselves to be true throughout trials, keep them close to your soul with hoops of steel, but do not shake hands with every new and untested young man you meet.

“Beware of being involved in a quarrel, but once you are in the quarrel, act in such a way that the person arguing with you regrets it.

“Listen to every man, but give few men your recommendation.

“Listen to every man’s opinion, but reserve your judgment and form your own opinions carefully.

“Buy as good clothing as you can afford, but do not buy clothing with fancy trimmings. You need to buy rich — not gaudy — clothing. What a man wears often reveals what a man is. In France, people of the best rank and station know and practice this wisdom — they have good taste in clothing.

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be, because when you make a loan, you often lose both your money and your friend, and if you borrow money you do not practice the virtue of thrift.

“Practice this above all: To your own self be true. If you do this, it must follow, as the night follows the day, that you cannot then be false to any man.

“Farewell, and may my blessing help you to practice what I have said!”

“Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord,” Laertes said to his father.

“It is time for you to go,” Polonius said. “Your servants are waiting for you.”

“Farewell, Ophelia,” Laertes said, “and remember well what I have said to you.”

“Your words are locked in my memory, and you have the key. I will remember your words until you give me permission to forget them.”

“Farewell,” Laertes said, and then he departed.

“What is it, Ophelia, that Laertes has said to you?” Polonius asked.

“If it please you, he told me something concerning Lord Hamlet.”

“This makes me remember something,” Polonius said. “I have been told that Hamlet has very often recently spent private time with you, and that you yourself have been most free and bounteous of your time and have spent it with Hamlet. If what I have heard is true, and I have been told these things as a warning to be careful and protective of you, I must tell you that you are not acting in such a way that my daughter ought to act — you must protect your honor. What is going on between you and Hamlet? Tell me the truth.”

“He has, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me. He has let me know that he is fond of me.”

The word “tender” means “offer.” The word can mean “an offer of love,” which is how Ophelia is using it, or it can mean “an offer of money,” which is one of the ways Polonius will use it. The word “tender” can also refer to offers of other things.

“Affection! Ha! You speak like a green and inexperienced girl who is untried in such perilous circumstances. Do you believe his tenders of affection, as you call them?”

“I do not know, my lord, what I should think.”

“By the Virgin Mary, I’ll teach you what to think. Think of yourself as a baby who has mistaken these tenders for true pay, but these tenders are counterfeit — they are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly — take better care of yourself. If you do not — and here I think I am overusing the word ‘tender’ — you’ll tender me a fool.”

By “tender me a fool,” Polonius meant three things: 1) Ophelia will make a fool of herself, 2) Ophelia will make Polonius look like a fool, and 3) Ophelia will present Polonius with a fool — a bastard grandchild.

“My lord, he has made me his tenders of love in an honorable fashion.”

“Aye, ‘fashion’ you may call it,” Polonius said. “Ha!”

“And Hamlet has given confirmation of his tenders of love to me, my lord, with almost all the holy vows of Heaven.”

“Hamlet’s words are traps to catch woodcocks, which are very stupid birds. I know how the soul, when the blood burns, gives with careless generosity such vows of love to the tongue. These flares, daughter, give more light than heat, but both light and heat are as quickly extinguished as they are made. You must not mistake these quickly ending flares for real fire and real love.

“From this time on, do not spend so much time with Hamlet. Keep your maidenly presence away from him. You are the protectress of a treasure — your virginity — and you need not enter into negotiations for it just because a besieger wants you to.

“As for Lord Hamlet, remember that he is young and he has much more freedom to do what he wants than you do. In short, Ophelia, do not believe the vows that Hamlet makes to you. His vows of love are brokers who dress in holy vestments but who act as panderers to entice you into unholy acts of sin.

“This is all I have to say. From this time forth, I do not want you, in plain words, to misuse any of your free time by spending it in conversation with Lord Hamlet. Make sure that you do what I am telling you to do. Come along with me now.”

“I shall obey you, my lord,” Ophelia said to her father.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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