David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 1

— 2.1 —

In a room of his house, old Polonius was talking to Reynaldo, who was one of his servants. Laertes was now living in Paris, and Polonius was sending Reynaldo to him.

“Give him this money and these letters, Reynaldo,” Polonius said.

“I will, my lord.”

“You shall do a marvelous and wise thing, good Reynaldo, if, before you visit him, you inquire about his behavior in Paris.”

“My lord, I intend to do that.”

“Well said; very well said,” Polonius said. “Look, sir, first inquire for me and find out which Danes are in Paris. Find out how they came to be there, who they are, how much money they have, and where they are living, what company they keep, and what are their expenses. If you find out that they know my son, you will learn more about him by using roundabout and vague questioning than if you were to question them directly about him. Pretend that you do not know him well, but that you have heard of him. You can say, ‘I know his father and his friends, and I know him a little.’ Do you understand me, Reynaldo?”

“Yes, very well, my lord.”

“‘— and I know him a little, but —’ you may say ‘— not well, but if this person is the man I mean, he’s very wild. He is addicted to so and so.’ You can then charge him with whatever false accusations you please, but be careful not to charge him with any rank and disgraceful accusations that would dishonor him. Be careful not to do that. But, sir, you may charge him with such wanton, wild, and usual slips and faults that are commonly made by young men who are enjoying their first taste of liberty.”

“Such as gambling, my lord?” Reynaldo asked.

“Yes, or drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling and fighting, visiting prostitutes — you may go so far as these things.”

“My lord, that would dishonor him.”

“In faith, no,” Polonius said, “as long as you moderate the faults. You must not charge him with a major scandal, such as that he visits prostitutes every night — that is not what I want you to do. Instead, I want you to lightly talk about the slips and faults that come when a young man is first given his freedom — they are the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind, the wildness of an untamed young man, the things that happen to most young men.”

“But, my good lord —”

“You want to know why I want you to do this?”

“Yes, my lord. I would like to know that.”

“This is my scheme, and I believe that it is a legitimate scheme. You will charge my son in conversation with these slight sullies, as if they were like some spots of dirt that have soiled embroidery as it was being made. Young men often acquire slight sullies in the process of maturing. Listen to me. The person to whom you are talking, the person from whom you are seeking information about my son’s conduct, if he has ever seen my son commit any of the sins that we have mentioned, he will confirm my son’s fault, and he will call you ‘good sir,’ or something similar, or ‘friend,’ or ‘gentleman,’ according to the form of address used by his social class and his country.”

“Very good, my lord.”

“And then, sir, he will do this — he will do — what was I about to say? By the Mass, I was about to say something. Where did I leave off?”

“You said that the person I was speaking to would confirm your son’s fault, if he is guilty, and would call me ‘good sir,’ or something similar, or ‘friend,’ or ‘gentleman.’”

“Yes,” Polonius said. “He will confirm my son’s fault by saying something like this: ‘I know the gentleman. I saw him yesterday, or the other day, or this day, or that day. And as you said, he was gambling, or drinking to excess, or playing court tennis.’ Or perhaps he will say, ‘I saw him enter such a house of sale.’ Videlicet[Latin for ‘That is to say’], a brothel. And so forth.

“Do you see? Your bait of falsehood will capture the prize of truth. We men of wisdom and of foresight use roundabout courses and devious tests to find out information and truth. If you follow this lecture and my advice, you shall learn the truth about my son. You understand me, don’t you?”

“I do, my lord,” Reynaldo replied.

“May God be with you,” Polonius said. “Farewell.”

“Goodbye, my lord.”

“Use your eyes when you are with my son. Go along with whatever he wants to do.”

“I shall, my lord.”

“And let him ply his music, whatever his music might be.”

“That is good advice, my lord.”


Reynaldo left the room just as Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter, entered it. Ophelia looked distressed.

“How are you, Ophelia! What’s the matter?”

“Oh, my lord, my lord, I have been so frightened!”

“Frightened by what, in the name of God?”

“My lord, as I was sewing in my private chamber, Lord Hamlet — with his jacket all unbuttoned, no hat on his head, wearing dirty stockings without garters so that his stockings had fallen down and were like fetters around his ankles, pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other, and with a look so piteous that it seemed as if he had been released from Hell so that he could speak of his horrors — came to me.”

“Is he insane because he loves you?” Polonius asked.

“My father, I do not know,” Ophelia replied, “but truly, I am afraid that that is true.”

“What did he say?”

“He took me by the wrist and held me hard, and then he backed up until he was at his arm’s length, and holding his other hand over his brow, he stared at my face as if he were going to draw it. He stayed like that a long time, but at last, shaking my arm a little, and waving his head up and down three times, he sighed so piteously and profoundly that it seemed to shatter his entire body and end his life. Having finished that, he let me go, and turning his head over his shoulder, he left my private chamber without the use of his eyes. He went out of doors without looking where he was going — he kept staring at me as he left.”

“Come with me,” Polonius said. “I will go and seek the King. Hamlet is in the very ecstasy and madness of love, whose violent nature destroys itself and leads the will to desperate undertakings as often as any passion under Heaven that afflict our natures. This madness has enough violence that it can cause self-destruction. I am sorry that Hamlet is insane. Have you spoken to him any hard words recently?”

“No, my good lord,” Ophelia replied. “I have done only what you commanded me to do. I returned his letters, and I have declined to let him visit me.”

“That has made him insane,” Polonius said. “I am sorry that I have not observed him with better heed and judgment. I was afraid that he was trifling with you and that he wanted to ruin you. Curse my suspicious nature! By Heaven, old people are just as likely to be overly suspicious as young people are to be indiscreet.

“Come, let’s go to the King. We must give him this information. He will not want to hear it, but it might cause more harm to keep it secret than to reveal it.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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