David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Act 2, scene 2

— 2.2 —

In a room in the castle, King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern were speaking. Also present were various attendants.

“Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!” King Claudius said. “We have much wanted to see you, but in addition, we need you to do something for us and so we sent a message to you to come quickly to us. You must have heard something about a change in Hamlet. We can say that he has been transformed since he is different both outside and inside. Neither the exterior nor the inward man resembles what it was.

“What the cause of this transformation, other than his father’s death, can be, I cannot dream. Therefore, I ask you both, since from childhood you have been brought up with him, and since you know his youth and behavior so well, to agree to stay here in our court for a little while. That way, you two can encourage Hamlet to engage in pleasurable activities, and we hope that you can learn whether there is something, unknown to us, that is afflicting him — something that, once we know what it is, we can set to rights.”

“Good gentlemen,” Queen Gertrude said, “Hamlet has talked a lot about you, and I am sure that there are not two men living with whom he is friendlier. If it will please you to show us so much gentlemanly courtesy and good will as to spend time with us for a while, and to help us, we will reward your visit with such thanks as only a King can give.”

Rosencrantz replied, “Both your majesties can, by the sovereign power you have over us, simply command rather than request us to do something.”

“But we will both obey you,” Guildenstern said, “and here we give up ourselves, and we fully and freely lay our service at your feet. Command us as you will.”

“Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern,” King Claudius said.

“Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz,” Queen Gertrude said, adding, “I ask you to immediately visit my too-much-changed son.”

She said to the attendants, “Go, some of you. Take these gentlemen to where Hamlet is.”

“May the Heavens make our presence and our actions pleasant and helpful to him!” Guildenstern replied.

“Amen!” Queen Gertrude said.

Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and some attendants departed.

Polonius entered the room and said, “The ambassadors from Norway, my good lord, have returned. They are joyful.”

“You have always been the father of good news,” King Claudius said.

“Have I, my lord?” Polonius replied. “I assure my good liege that I perform my duty to both my God and my King as carefully as I guard my soul.”

He added, “I think, or else this brain of mine is not as able as it used to be to follow a track or scent that requires a knowledge of men and political affairs, that I have found the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.”

“Tell us the cause,” King Claudius said. “I very much want to know that.”

“First allow the ambassadors to come here and give you their news,” Polonius said. “My news shall be the fruit — the dessert — to that great feast.”

“You may do the honors of welcoming the ambassadors and bringing them in here,” King Claudius replied.

Polonius left to do his duty.

King Claudius said to Queen Gertrude, “He tells me, my dear Gertrude, that he has found the head and source — the cause — of your son’s illness.”

“I doubt that it is anything but what we most suspect it is: his father’s death and our very quick marriage.”

“Well, we shall question Polonius thoroughly.”

Polonius returned, bringing with him King Claudius’ ambassadors to Norway: Voltemand and Cornelius.

King Claudius said, “Welcome, my good friends! Tell me, Voltemand, what news do you bring us from our fellow ruler the King of Norway?”

“I bring very fair greetings from him to you, and I bring a very fair answer to your requests of him. Immediately after our first meeting with him, he sent out men to stop his nephew from drafting men into an army. The King of Norway had thought that his nephew was raising an army to attack Poland, but after an investigation, he found that the army was actually being raised to attack your highness. Once he learned that, he was aggrieved and angry that he had been deceived in his sickness, old age, and lack of strength. He sent orders to young Fortinbras to stop preparing for war and to appear before him. Fortinbras came to the castle, received a rebuke from the King of Norway, and in the end vowed to his uncle the King that he would never again plan to make war against your majesty. Hearing this, the old King of Norway, overcome with joy, gave him an annuity of three thousand crowns, and he gave him permission to use his soldiers to make war against Poland. With that in mind, he gave us a document that entreats you for permission for Fortinbras’ army to cross Denmark so the soldiers can make war against Poland.”

Voltemand handed King Claudius a document and said, “The King of Norway hopes that you will give your permission to this enterprise. This document lays down guarantees for the safety of Denmark if you allow the Norwegian army to cross it.”

“We like this well,” King Claudius said, using the royal plural. He added, “And when we have more time to consider this matter, we will read this document carefully, send an answer to the King of Norway, and think about the far-reaching consequences that can follow what we decide.

“In the meantime, we thank you for your successfully undertaken labor. Go and rest now; at night we’ll feast together. Most welcome home!”

Voltemand and Cornelius departed.

Polonius said, “This business is well ended. My liege, and madam, to make a speech about what a King should be, what duty is, why day is day, night is night, and time is time, would accomplish nothing but to waste night, day, and time. Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness is the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad; he is insane. Mad call I it; because, to define true madness, what is true madness except to be nothing else but mad? But let that go.”

Queen Gertrude said, “More matter, with less art. More content, with fewer rhetorical flourishes.”

Polonius replied, “Madam, I swear I use no rhetorical flourishes at all. That Hamlet is mad, it is true. It is true that his madness is a pity, and it is a pity that it is true. But these are rhetorical flourishes, so I will stop using them, because I do not want to use rhetorical flourishes.

“Let us grant that Hamlet is mad, then. What now remains is to discover the cause of this effect, or I should better say, to discover the cause of this defect, because this defective effect has a cause. Thus it remains, and that is the remainder. Perpend. Listen carefully. I have a daughter — I have her while she is mine, which is until she marries — who, in her duty and obedience to me, you see, has given me this. Now gather, and think about this.”

He began to read a letter — written by Hamlet to Ophelia — out loud:

To the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia,

“That’s an ill word, a vile word; ‘beautified’ is a vile word: but you shall hear the rest of the letter. Here it is:

In her excellent white bosom, this letter, & etc.

Queen Gertrude asked, “Did Hamlet write this letter to her?”

“Good madam, wait awhile,” Polonius said. “As I said that I would do, I will read the rest of the letter:

 “Doubt that the stars are fire;

Doubt that the Sun does move;

Suspect truth to be a liar;

But never doubt I love.

Oh, dear Ophelia, I am bad at writing poetry like this. I do not have the art to count my groans — or to make them scan as poetry. However, believe that I love you best — oh, most best — believe it.Adieu.

Yours evermore, most dear lady, while this complex body belongs to him, HAMLET.

“This letter, in obedience to me, my daughter has shown me. Hamlet also wrote other letters to her. My daughter has told me about his courting of her and at what times and places these acts of courtship occurred.”

“How has she reacted to his courtship of her?” King Claudius asked.

“What do you think about me?”

“I think that you are a faithful and honorable man,” King Claudius said.

“I hope to prove to be that,” Polonius replied. “But what would you have thought if, after I had seen this hot love on the wing — and I perceived it, I must tell you, before my daughter told me — what would you, or my dear majesty your Queen here, have thought if I had been like a notebook and simply recorded the information in my brain and kept silent about it? What if I had closed my eyes to it and kept mute and dumb, or if I had looked upon this love and done nothing? What would you have thought? No, I did not keep quiet. Instead, I took action and I said to my daughter, ‘Lord Hamlet is a Prince, and he is out of your league. This must not be.’ I then gave her orders to lock herself away from his presence, to admit no messengers from him, to receive no tokens of love. She did all these things. Hamlet, repelled by her — a short tale to say — fell into a sadness and depression, then into a fast because of loss of appetite, from thence into insomnia, from thence into a debility, from thence into a delirium, and, by this decline after decline, he finally fell into the madness wherein now he raves, and all of us mourn for him.”

King Claudius asked Queen Gertrude, “Do you think that this is true?”

“It very likely is.”

“Has there ever been a time — I’d like to know — that I have positively said, ‘It is so,’ and it turned out not to be so?” Polonius asked.

“Not that I know of,” King Claudius replied.

Polonius said, “Take my staff of office from my hand, if what I have said turns out not to be true. If I have relevant evidence, I will follow it and will find where the truth is hidden even if it were hidden in the center of the Earth.”

“How may we test whether this is true?” King Claudius asked.

“You know that sometimes Hamlet walks for four or so hours together here in the lobby,” Polonius said.

“So he does indeed,” Queen Gertrude said.

“At one of those times, I’ll loose my daughter so she can go to him.”

Polonius was unaware of the implications of the word “loose.” On a farm, an animal can be loosed so that it will have sex.

He continued, “King Claudius, you and I will be hidden behind an arras — a wall hanging — and we will witness their encounter. If we find out that Hamlet does not love my daughter and that his love for her is not the reason why he is mad, then let me be no longer a minister of state in your court; instead, I will take care of a farm and wagons.”

“We will try your plan,” King Claudius said.

“Look,” Queen Gertrude said. “Hamlet, the poor wretch, is coming here while reading.”

“Leave now,” Polonius said to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. “Please leave now. I will talk to him alone. Please allow me to do that.”

King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and the remaining servants left the room, leaving behind Polonius and Hamlet.

Polonius asked, “How is my good Lord Hamlet?”

“I am well. May God have mercy on you.”

“Do you know who I am, my lord?”

“I know you very well,” Hamlet replied. “You are a fishmonger — a seller of fish.”

“I am not, my lord,” Polonius said.

“In that case, I wish that you were as honest as a fishmonger.”

“Honest, my lord?”

“Yes, sir,” Hamlet said. “To be an honest man, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.”

“That’s very true, my lord.”

Hamlet read out loud from his book, “For if the Sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion—”

People in Hamlet’s time and society believed that the Sun shining on — kissing — a corpse causes maggots to come into existence — they did not realize that flies laid eggs on the corpse and maggots hatched out of those eggs.

Hamlet then asked, “Do you have a daughter?”

“I have, my lord.”

“Do not allow her to walk in the Sun. Conception is a blessing, but it would not be a blessing if your daughter were to conceive. Friend, be careful concerning your daughter.”

Hamlet was punning — and speaking inappropriately — about Polonius’ daughter: Ophelia. “Walk in the Sun” can mean “walk in public” or “be made pregnant by the Sun” — if the Sun can bring to life maggots, why can’t it bring to life a human infant? “Conception” can mean “(the ability) to form ideas” or “(the ability) to become pregnant.” “Conceive” can mean “form ideas” or “become pregnant.” Also, Hamlet transitioned from saying the term “kissing carrion” to talking about Ophelia. “Carrion” is a contemptuous term for flesh available for sexual pleasure.

Polonius thought, How about that! He is still thinking and talking about my daughter. But he did not recognize me at first; he said that I was a fishmonger. He is far gone, far gone in his madness. Truly in my youth I suffered very deep distress because I was in love; my distress was very close to this distress that Hamlet is feeling. I’ll speak to him again.

Polonius asked, “What are you reading, my lord?”

“Words, words, words.”

“What is the matter, my lord?”

“Between whom?”

“I mean the subject matter that you are reading, my lord.”

Hamlet replied, “I am reading about slanders, sir. The satirical rogue — the author — says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes discharge thick amber sap and plum-tree gum, and they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with very weak legs. Although I most powerfully and potently believe all of these things, sir, yet I do not think that it is courteous to have it thus written down. You yourself, sir, should be as old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.”

Polonius thought, Though these words are mad, yet there is some sort of meaning in them. Hamlet is ill; he should not be in this cold air.

Polonius asked, “Will you walk out of this air, my lord?”

“Into my grave,” Hamlet replied.

“Indeed, your grave is out of this air,” Polonius said.

He thought, How pregnant with meaning his replies sometimes are! Madness often hits on a happiness of meaning, although reason and sanity could not so quickly and happily come up with that meaning. I will leave Hamlet, and I will quickly contrive a meeting between my daughter and him.

He said to Hamlet, “My honorable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you. Goodbye.”

“You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part with — except my life, except my life, except my life.”

“Fare you well, my lord.”

Hamlet said as Polonius walked away, “These tedious old fools!”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entered the room.

Polonius said to them, “You must be seeking the Lord Hamlet; there he is.”

Rosencrantz replied, “May God save you, sir!”

Polonius departed.

Guildenstern said to Hamlet, “My honored lord!”

Rosencrantz said to Hamlet, “My most dear lord!”

Hamlet replied, “My excellent good friends! How are you, Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how are you two?”

Rosencrantz replied, “We are ordinary children of the Earth.”

“We are happy in that we are not too happy,” Guildenstern said. “We are not on the button at the very top of Fortune’s cap. We are not riding high on Fortune’s wheel.”

“Are you down so low that you sit at the soles of her shoes?” Hamlet asked.

“We live neither high nor low, my lord,” Rosencrantz said.

“Then do you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?” Hamlet asked.

“Indeed, we are the privates of her army. We are ordinary.”

“If you are her privates, you must live in the vicinity of her private and secret parts. This is not a surprise. Lady Fortune is a strumpet,” Hamlet said.

Many people regarded Lady Fortune as being a strumpet — a whore or promiscuous woman. She both gave and withheld good things indiscriminately. She was a fickle goddess — she was faithful to no man.

Hamlet asked them, “What’s the news?”

“There is no news, my lord, except that the world’s grown honest,” Rosencrantz said.

“Then Doomsday — the Day of Judgment — must be near,” Hamlet said. “That is the only thing that could make all the people of the world turn honest. But your news is not true. Let me make my question more specific: What have you, my good friends, done to be sent by Lady Fortune to this prison here?”

“Prison, my lord!” Guildenstern said.

“Denmark’s a prison,” Hamlet said.

“In that case, the world is a prison,” Rosencrantz said.

“The world is a spacious and fine prison,” Hamlet said. “In this world are many places of confinement, prison wards, and dungeons — and Denmark is one of the worst.”

“We think that that is not so, my lord,” Rosencrantz said.

“Why, then, it is not a prison to you,” Hamlet said, “because there is nothing either good or bad, except that thinking makes it so. To me, Denmark is a prison.”

Hamlet thought, There is nothing either good or bad, except that thinking makes it so. How much truth, if any, does that statement have? One’s attitude can affect how we regard something. If I feel that Denmark is a prison to me, then it is a prison to me. But is it true that no objective right and no objective wrong exist?

“Why, then your ambition makes Denmark a prison; it is too narrow for your mind,” Rosencrantz said.

“Oh, God, I could be confined in a nutshell and consider myself a King of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams,” Hamlet replied.

“Such dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream,” Guildenstern said.

“A dream itself is but a shadow,” Hamlet replied.

“Truly, and I think that ambition is of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow,” Rosencrantz said.

“If that is correct, then only beggars have solid bodies because beggars have no ambition,” Hamlet said. “Our Kings and heroes are then the shadows of the beggars because Kings and heroes are ambitious and therefore shadows, and they must be the shadows of something. The shadows of the heroes are stretched out like shadows early in the morning or late in the afternoon. But perhaps we should go inside the court because my reasoning powers are going wacky.”

“We’ll attend you and be your servants,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern said.

“No,” Hamlet said. “I will not class you with the rest of my servants because, to tell you honestly, I am most dreadfully attended to. But, in the direct way that friends talk to one another, let me ask you this: Why are you here at Elsinore?”

“To visit you, my lord,” Rosencrantz said. “No other reason.”

“I am poor even in thanks, but I thank you,” Hamlet said. “But surely, dear friends, my thanks are too dear a halfpenny.”

Did Hamlet mean that his thanks were not worth a halfpenny because he lacked power in Denmark — his uncle, not Hamlet, had become King after Hamlet’s father died? Or did Hamlet mean that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did not deserve even his poor thanks, which were worth only a halfpenny? If so, Hamlet was already suspecting that King Claudius was using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were spying on Hamlet, then the two men deserved no thanks from Hamlet.

Hamlet then asked, “Weren’t you sent for and asked to come to the court? Did you come here of your own free will? Did you come here voluntarily or were you asked to come here? Come, deal justly with me. Come, come; speak up.”

Guildenstern asked, “What should we say, my lord?”

Hamlet replied, “Why, anything except something that is to the purpose.”

Hamlet did not expect a straight answer — a true answer — from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

He then said, “You were sent for; and there is a kind of confession in your looks that your modesties have not craft enough to color. You cannot hide the truth. I know the good King and Queen have sent for you.”

“For what purpose,my lord?” Rosencrantz asked.

“That you must teach me,” Hamlet replied. “But let me ask you solemnly, by the rights of our fellowship, by the harmonious friendship of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved friendship, and by whatever is more dear that a better proposer than I could mention to you, be even and direct with me. Answer me truthfully: Did someone send for you, or not?”

Rosencrantz whispered to Guildenstern, “What do you think we should say?”

Hamlet thought, I will keep my eyes on you two.

He said out loud, “If you regard me as a friend, answer me truthfully.”

“My lord, we were sent for,” Guildenstern said.

“I will tell you why,” Hamlet said. “No doubt you have promised not to speak honestly to me, and if I tell you why you were sent for, then you do not have to tell me why, and so you can keep your promise to the King and Queen.

“I have recently — but I do not know why — lost all my mirth, neglected my usual occupations; and indeed my mood is so depressed that this good structure, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. I am so depressed that this very excellent canopy, the air — listen to me — this splendid overhanging firmament, this majestic roof decorated with the golden fire we call the Sun — why, it appears as no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and movement, how expressive and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension and understanding, how like a god! Man is the beauty of the world! Man is the paragon — the pattern of excellence — of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Hamlet thought, Genesis 3:19 states, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth: for out of it wast thou taken, because thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.”

He continued, “Man does not delight me — no — nor does woman, although by your smiling I judge that you seem to think so.”

“My lord, there was no such stuff in my thoughts,” Rosencrantz said.

“Why did you laugh, then, when I said, ‘Man does not delight me’?”

“I was thinking, my lord, that if you do not delight in man, then some actors who are coming here will receive a Lenten entertainment from you,” Rosencrantz replied. “Lent is a time of fasting and a time when the theaters are closed, and so a Lenten entertainment is a poor entertainment. On our way here, we passed a troupe of actors who are coming here to offer you their service.”

“He who plays the King shall be welcome; his majesty shall receive tribute from me,” Hamlet said. “The adventurous knight shall use his rapier and small shield. The lover shall not sigh for free but shall be paid. The eccentric man shall perform his part and end it in peace. The clown shall make laugh audience members who laugh easily when their lungs are tickled. The boy actor playing the lady shall speak the part freely and well, or the blank verse of the part shall limp because it is badly spoken.

“Which actors are they?”

“You have seen them before,” Rosencrantz replied. “You used to enjoy seeing them — they are the tragedians of the city.”

“Why are they traveling on tour?” Hamlet asked. “Their performing in their home city is better both for their reputation and for their profit.”

“I think that they have been banned from performing in their home city because of some recent political unrest and disturbances.”

“Do they have the same reputation that they had when I was in the city?” Hamlet asked. “Are they as popular now as they were then?”

“No, indeed, they are not,” Rosencrantz said.

“Why not? Have they grown rusty?”

“No, they are as good as they have ever been, but there is, sir, a nest of children, little baby hawks, who squawk louder than anyone else, and who are most excessively applauded for it. These child actors are now the fashion, and they so abuse the common stages — so people call the public theaters — that many fashionable gentlemen wearing rapiers scarcely dare to attend the theaters featuring adult actors because of the goose-quills wielded by poets writing plays for the child actors. In short, the fashionable gentlemen are afraid to attend the theaters featuring adult actors because the poets writing plays for the child actors will satirize them.”

“What? These rival actors are children?” Hamlet asked. “Who takes care of them? How are they maintained financially? Will they pursue the profession of acting no longer than they can sing? Will they stop acting once their voice breaks? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow up and become adult actors — as is very likely, if their means of financial support are no better than they are now — their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own future profession?”

“Truly, both sides have been doing a lot of arguing,” Rosencrantz said, “and the nation holds it to be no sin to incite them to quarrel. There was, for a while, no money bid for a new play unless the plot led to a fight between the adult actors and the playwrights who write for the child actors.”

“Is this possible?” Hamlet asked.

“Oh, there has been much throwing about of brains,” Guildenstern said. “Much mental activity has been expended in this quarrel.”

“Do the child actors triumph?”

“Yes, they do, my lord,” Rosencrantz said. “They carry the victor’s crown the way that Hercules once carried the entire world when he took the burden off Atlas.”

“This change in popularity is not very strange,” Hamlet said. “My uncle is now King of Denmark, and those people who would make faces at him while my father still lived and ruled as King, now give twenty, forty, fifty, or a hundred ducats apiece for miniatures of his portrait.

“Such things commonly happen, but why? By God’s blood, there is something in this that is more than natural, if philosophy could find it out. Scientific inquiry may be able to find the cause.”

Trumpets sounded. The troupe of actors blew trumpets in towns and before castles to advertise their presence.

Guildenstern said, “There are the actors.”

Hamlet said to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore. Let us shake hands. Come on. The proper accompaniment of welcome is fashion and ceremony. Let me comply with all of that by shaking your hands. I will greet the actors with a friendly welcome, and I do not want you to think that I welcome them more than I welcome you. You are welcome, but my uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived.”

“In what, my dear lord?” Guildenstern asked.

“I am not insane all the time,” Hamlet said. “I am only mad when the wind is blowing from the north-north-west. When the wind is blowing from the south, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

Such words could only make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suspect that Hamlet was mad, or on the verge of madness, all the time, but Hamlet may have given the two men a hidden warning. He knew the difference between two dissimilar things such as a hawk and a handsaw, and so he also knew the difference between two dissimilar things such as an enemy and a friend.

Polonius walked over to the three men.

“May you gentlemen be well,” Polonius said.

“Listen, Guildenstern — and you, too, Rosencrantz,” Hamlet said. “I want a hearer at each of my ears. That great big baby you see there is not yet out of his swaddling clothes.”

“Perhaps this is the second time of his life that he has to wear them,” Rosencrantz said, “because they say that an old man becomes a child for the second time.”

“I will prophesy that he has come here to tell me of the arrival of the actors,” Hamlet said. “Wait and see.”

He then pretended to be in the middle of a conversation: “You are correct, sir. On Monday morning — that was the time indeed.”

“My lord, I have news to tell you,” Polonius said to Hamlet.

“My lord, I have news to tell you,” Hamlet replied. “When Roscius was an actor in Rome —”

The famous Roman actor Roscius died in 62 B.C.E.

“A troupe of actors have come here, my lord,” Polonius said.

“Buzz, buzz! Yawn! This is old news!” Hamlet said.

“On my honor —” Polonius began to say.

“— then came each actor on his ass,” Hamlet said.

“— they are the best actors in the world,” Polonius said, “whether for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral plays, pastoral-comical plays, historical-pastoral plays, tragical-historical plays, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral plays, plays that observe the unities of action and time and place, or plays that do not. Seneca’s tragedies are not too heavy and serious for them, and Plautus’ comedies are not too light for them. For the law of writ and for the liberty, these are the only men — these actors perform well whether they are strictly following prescribed rules or performing more freely and loosely.”

“Oh, Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure you had!” Hamlet said.

“What a treasure he had, my lord?” Polonius asked.

“Why,” Hamlet said, and then he sang these lines:

One fair daughter he had and no more,

Whom he loved surpassingly well.”

Polonius thought, He is still thinking about my daughter.

“Am I not right, old Jephthah?” Hamlet asked Polonius.

Jephthah was a King of Israel who made a rash vow. When he went off to fight the Ammonites, he vowed to God that if he were victorious that he would then sacrifice to God the first thing that he saw coming out of the door of his house when he returned from battle. The first thing that he saw coming of the door of his house was his daughter, and he sacrificed her.

“If you call me Jephthah, my lord,” Polonius said, “I have a daughter whom I love surpassingly well.”

“No, that does not follow,” Hamlet said.

One can wonder whether Jephthah should have kept his vow and just how much he loved his daughter.

“What follows, then, my lord?”

“Why,” Hamlet said, and then he sang this line:

As by lot God wot [knows].”

Hamlet added, “And then, you know,” and he sang this line:

It came to pass most like it was —

He added, “The first row of the pious chanson will show you more.”

This is the beginning of the pious chanson, aka religious ballad:

I read that many years ago,

When Jepha Judge of Israel.

Had one fair daughter and no more,

Whom he loved so passing [surpassingly] well.

And as by lot God wot

It came to pass most like it was

Great wars there should be,

And who should be the chief, but he, but he.

The ballad then told the rest of the story. In the story were many rows, aka conflicts. The first conflict was that between nations: Israel versus Ammon. Other conflicts were between duty to God and duty to kin — in this case, a daughter.

In Dante’s Paradise, Dante the Pilgrim travels throughout the universe until he reaches the Mystic Empyrean, the dwelling place of God. On the Moon, he speaks to Piccarda Donati, who tells him that Jephthah’s vow was blind and rash, and he did evil by keeping it. Far better would have been for him to say, “My vow was wrong,” and not keep it. Such a vow as Jephthah’s is not the kind that God approves. Piccarda’s main advice to Dante, and to Christians, is to not make rash vows.

Like Jephthah, Hamlet must decide where his duty lies. What is his duty to his father? What is his duty to God? Do these duties conflict? If they conflict, what ought he to do?

When Hamlet said, “The first row of the pious chanson will show you more,” the word “row” could mean “line” or even “stanza.” Reading the first line or stanza of the religious ballad will provide more information, but it will not tell the entire story. Of course, “row” can also mean “quarrel” or “conflict.”

We can predict the consequences of our actions, but often we do not know what the consequences — even the serious consequences — will be. Jephthah probably thought that a dog, not his daughter, would be the first thing he saw coming out of the door of his house after he returned from war. Often, we do not know the consequences of our actions until we do the actions. Hamlet must choose to act — or choose not to act — with incomplete information.

Hamlet added, “Look, my abridgement is coming.”

Hamlet’s conversation was being shortened by the arrival of the actors, who also abridge, or shorten, time by putting on entertaining plays that make time pass quickly.

The actors walked up to the group of men.

“You are welcome, masters; welcome, all,” Hamlet greeted them. He recognized each of them. “I am glad to see that you are well. Welcome, good friends. Oh, my old friend! your face is valenced — fringed — with a beard since I saw you last. Have you come here to beard me in Denmark?”

This was a joke. To beard someone was a major insult — someone would pull out a few hairs from the beard of someone and throw them in his face.

Hamlet said to a boy who played female characters, “What, my young lady and mistress! By Our Lady the Virgin Mary, your ladyship is nearer to Heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a heel on a shoe. You have grown taller. Pray to God that your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring.”

This was another joke by Hamlet. Gold coins of the time bore the face of a King enclosed in a circle. Dishonest people would sometimes trim gold from the edges of coins. If they trimmed too much gold off the edge, so that the trimming — or crack — went inside the circle, then the coin became uncurrent — no longer legal tender. When the boy reached puberty and his voice began to crack, he would no longer be able to play the parts of female characters.

Hamlet’s joke included a bawdy aspect. The ring is an O, which is a symbol for a vagina. If the O is cracked, aka entered, the woman loses her virginity.

Hamlet continued, “Masters, you are all welcome. We’ll even have a go at it — the recitation of a speech — like French falconers, whose falcons fly at anything, including the first thing they see. We won’t wait; instead, we’ll have the recitation of a speech right now. Come, give us a taste of the quality of your acting; come, give us a passionate speech.”

The first actor asked, “What speech do you want to hear, my lord?”

“I heard you recite a speech once,” Hamlet replied, “but it was never acted; or, if it was, it was acted only once because the play, I remember, pleased not the millions. It was like caviar to the general public — too refined a taste for them to be able to enjoy. But it was — as I regarded it, and others, whose judgments in such matters are better than mine — an excellent play, well organized in the scenes, set down with as much modest restraint as cunning skill. I remember that one critic said that there were no sharp flavors, aka bawdy bits, in the lines to make them spicy, and there was nothing in the lines that might make the author guilty of affectation. The critic called the play unpretentious, as wholesome as sweet, and with much more natural grace than affectation and showiness.

“One speech in it I chiefly loved: It was Aeneas’ tale to Dido. I especially liked the part where he speaks about the slaughter of Priam.”

Hamlet was referring to the end of the Trojan War, which had started when Paris, a Prince from Troy, had run away with Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta in Greece. For ten years a Greek army besieged Troy but was unable to conquer it. Finally, Odysseus came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. A Greek named Epeus built a huge, hollow horse that the Trojans thought was an offering to the goddess Athena. Inside the hollow horse Greek soldiers hid. The Trojans pulled the Trojan Horse inside the city, and at night the Greek soldiers came out of the horse and went to the city gates and let in the rest of the Greek army, which had pretended to sail back to Greece. One of the Greeks inside the Trojan Horse was Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles. After Achilles died at Troy, Pyrrhus went to fight in the Trojan War to avenge the death of his father. During the fall of Troy, its King, Priam, wore ancient armor and carried a weapon although he was much too old to fight. Pyrrhus found and killed the aged King Priam, whose son Paris had run away with Helen and started the war.

Hamlet said, “If you remember the speech, begin at this line — let me see, let me see,

The rugged Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast—”

Hyrcania was famous for its ferocious tigers.

Hamlet said, “Wait, that’s not right, but it does begin with ‘Pyrrhus’ —

The rugged and terrifying Pyrrhus, he whose sable armor,

Black as his purpose, resembled the night

When he lay hidden in the ominous horse,

Has now this dread and black complexion smeared

With a color more calamitous; from head to foot

Now is he totally red; he is horridly covered

With the blood of Trojan fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,

Baked and crusted from the fires in Trojan streets,

Fires that lend a tyrannous and damned light

To their King’s murder. Roasted in wrath and fire,

And glazed with coagulated gore,

With eyes like carbuncles that glow in the dark, the Hellish Pyrrhus

Old grandfather Priam seeks.

Hamlet said to the first actor, “Continue from where I left off.”

Polonius said to Hamlet, “Before God, my lord, I say that your recitation was well spoken, with both good delivery and good taste.”

The first player recited this speech:

Quickly Pyrrhus finds Priam

Striking at Greeks with blows that fall short; his antique sword,

Which will not obey his arm, lies where it falls,

Refusing to obey his will. Unequally matched,

Pyrrhus at Priam drives; in rage he strikes and misses;

But with the whiff and wind of his deadly sword

The enfeebled father Priam falls. Then the senseless citadel of Ilium — Troy —

Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top

Falls to its base, and with a hideous crash

Deafens the ears of Pyrrhus. Look! His sword,

Which was falling on the milky-white head

Of revered Priam, seemed in the air to stick.

So, like a painted portrait of a tyrant, motionless, Pyrrhus stood,

And as if he had lost interest in what he was doing,

Did nothing.

But, as we often see, predicting some storm,

A silence in the Heavens, the high clouds stand still,

The bold winds are without speech and the orb below is

As quiet as death, as soon as the dreadful thunder

Rends the air, likewise, after Pyrrhus’ pause,

Aroused vengeance sets him back to work.

Never did the Cyclopes’ hammers fall as they created

The armor of Mars, god of war, that they forged for eternal strength

With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword

Now falls on Priam.

Get out, you strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,

In general council ought to take away Fortune’s power;

You ought to break away all the spokes and the rim from her wheel,

And bowl the wheel’s round hub down the hill of Heaven,

As low as to the fiends!”

Polonius said, “This is too long.”

Hamlet replied, “It shall go to the barber’s to be cut, along with your beard.”

Hamlet then said to the first actor, “Please, continue. This critic here prefers dancing and singing or a bawdy tale, or else he falls asleep. Continue. Recite the part about Hecuba.”

Hecuba was Priam’s wife, the Queen of Troy. She had bore many sons to him, including Hector, the Crown Prince of Troy, whom she had witnessed Achilles killing. Following the fall of Troy, she was made a slave woman, and according to some accounts, she went insane.

The first actor recited this line:

But who, oh, who had seen the mobled Queen —

Hamlet asked, “The mobled Queen?”

The word “mobled,” which was little used, meant “muffled.” Hecuba’s face was muffled.

“That’s a good word,” Polonius said. “‘Mobled Queen’ is good.”

The first actor continued,

Runs barefoot up and down, threatening the flames

With blinding tears; a rag upon that head

Where recently a crown had stood, and for a robe,

About her thin and totally exhausted-by-excessive-childbirth loins,

A blanket, which she in the alarm of fear had caught up.

Any person who had seen Hecuba in this state, with bitter words

Would have railed treasonously against Lady Fortune’s rule.

But if the gods themselves had seen her

When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport

By chopping with his sword her husband’s limbs,

The instant burst of clamor that she made,

Unless mortal troubles move them not at all,

Would have made tearful the burning eyes — the stars — of Heaven,

And would have brought sympathetic suffering to the gods.”

Polonius said to Hamlet, “Look, the actor’s face has changed color — it is pale — and he has tears in his eyes. Please, let us hear no more.”

“Very good,” Hamlet said to the first actor. “I’ll have you speak the rest of the speech soon.”

Hamlet then said to Polonius, “My good lord, will you see that the actors are well accommodated? Listen to me. Let them be well treated because they are the summary and brief chronicles of the time. It would be better for you to have a bad epitaph after you die than their ill will while you live.”

“My lord, I will treat them according to their desert.”

“By God, man, treat them better than that!” Hamlet said. “If you treat people according to what they deserve, who would escape being whipped? Treat them according to your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your generosity to them. Take them to their quarters.”

Hamlet’s “insanity” involved his being very rude to others, but he wanted the actors to be well taken of.

“Come, sirs,” Polonius said to the actors.

“Follow him, friends,” Hamlet said. “We’ll have a play tomorrow.”

Polonius and all the actors began to leave, but Hamlet began to speak to the first actor, so Polonius and all the other actors stopped at the door.

Hamlet said to the first actor, “Listen to me, old friend. Can you and the other actors play the Murder of Gonzago?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“We’ll have that tomorrow night,” Hamlet said. “You could, if I asked you to, memorize a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would write and insert in the play, couldn’t you?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Very good,” Hamlet said. “Follow that lord, whose name is Polonius, and don’t make fun of him.”

Polonius and the actors departed.

Hamlet said to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had quietly listened to the recitation of the poetry, “My good friends, I’ll leave you until tonight. You are welcome to Elsinore.”

“Thank you, my good lord,” Rosencrantz said.

“May God be with you,” Hamlet replied.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern departed.

“Now I am alone,” Hamlet said to himself. “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that this actor here, performing what is only a fiction, a dream, and a pretense — not the reality — of suffering, could force his inner being to be so in harmony with his acting that he could make his face turn pale, bring tears to his eyes, make his entire body seem to be suffering with grief, make his voice broken, and use his whole being to serve his acting. And all for nothing that actually affects him! He did all this for Hecuba! What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her? What would he do, if he had the motive and the cue for suffering that I have? My uncle, who has married my mother, has murdered my father! This actor would drown the stage with tears and burst everyone’s ears with horrifying speeches. He would make the guilty insane, horrify the innocent, astonish the ignorant, and bewilder everyone’s eyes and ears.

“Yet I, who am a dull and muddy-spirited rascal, mope, like John the daydreamer, not stirred to action by my cause and unable to say anything. I can do or speak nothing, no, not for a King, upon whose property and most dear life damned destruction was made.

“Am I a coward? Who calls me villain? Who breaks my head? Who plucks hairs from my beard, and blows them in my face? Who tweaks me by the nose? Who tells me that I lie in my throat as deep as to the lungs? Who does these things to me? Ha!

“By God, I should swallow these insults. I must have the anger of a pigeon, and I must lack the courage that would make me resent such bitter oppression, or else by now I would have fed the slave’s offal to the kites — birds of prey — and made them fat. The slave I mean is King Claudius — that bloody, bawdy villain! He is a remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, unnatural villain! Oh, vengeance!

“Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, that I, the son of a dear father who has been murdered, prompted by Heaven and Hell to seek my revenge, must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words, and curse, exactly like a prostitute or a lowly kitchen scullion! Damn!

“Get busy, my brain, and think of a plan!

“I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play have by the artistry of the scene been so struck to the soul that they have immediately confessed their evil deeds and crimes. Murder, although it has no tongue, will speak very miraculously — murder will out! I’ll have these actors perform a play with a plot something like the murder of my father with my uncle as a member of the audience. I’ll observe his looks; I’ll probe him deeply — to the quick. If he flinches, I will know my course of action. I will know what I should do.

“The spirit — the ghost that claims to be my father — that I have seen may be the Devil in disguise. The Devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape. Perhaps, because my spirit is weak and melancholy — and the Devil can powerfully influence people who have such moods — he is deluding me so that I will do something that will make me damned.

“I need more substantial evidence than what I have received from the ghost. I can get such evidence by watching my uncle as he watches the play. The play is the thing whereby I’ll learn the conscience of the King.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


David Bruce: Education Anecdotes

Sister Helen P. Mrosla, a Franciscan nun, taught Mark Eklund in the third grade at Saint Mary’s School in Morris, MN, and she taught him again in a math course in the ninth grade. One day, the students were struggling in class, and she decided to do something different to stop their bad spirits and crankiness. She asked each student to take out some paper and list each classmate’s name on it, leaving some room in between each name. She then asked students “to think of the nicest thing they could say about each of their classmates and write it down.” At the end of the class, she collected the papers. Over the weekend, she wrote down the name of each student on a separate sheet and then she wrote down on each sheet of paper the nice comments that the other students had written about that student. On Monday, she gave each student his or her list of nice comments. She remembers, “Before long, the entire class was smiling. ‘Really?’ I heard whispered. ‘I never knew that meant anything to anyone!’ ‘I didn’t know others liked me so much!” No one ever mentioned those papers in class again. I never knew if they discussed them after class or with their parents, but it didn’t matter. The exercise had accomplished its purpose. The students were happy with themselves and one another again.” A few years later, in 1971, a grown-up Mark Eklund died in Vietnam—not in combat, but from a pulmonary and cerebral edema while sleeping. Sister Helen attended his funeral, and a soldier who was a pallbearer asked her, “Were you Mark’s math teacher?” He then said, “Mark talked about you a lot.” And Mark’s father said to her, “We want to show you something. They found this on Mark […]. We thought you might recognize it.” The something was the piece of paper on which was written a list of students’ nice comments about Mark. The well-worn paper had obviously been read often. Mark’s mother said, “Thank you so much for doing that. As you can see, Mark treasured it.” Several other students who had been in the class, including Mark’s wife, kept their own lists of nice comments. One former student showed Sister Helen her list and said, “I carry this with me at all times. I think we all saved our lists.

The ancient people of Japan passed on what they had learned from their experiences of tsunamis. Those who heeded the wisdom of the ancient people fared better in the great tsunami of 2011 than those who did not. For example, in the village of Aneyoshi, a stone slab that is hundreds of years old stated, “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants. Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.” The people of Aneyoshi had not built any homes below that point, and they fared well in the earthquake. On the coastline of Japan, hundreds of stone slabs bear good advice. For example, a stone slab states, “If an earthquake comes, beware of tsunamis.” Another stone slab states, “Always be prepared for unexpected tsunamis. Choose life over your possessions and valuables.” Such advice is needed. Large tsunamis occur rarely, and without such reminders, people can forget the danger and do such things as build homes on the coastline—as many people in other areas of Japan had done. Tetsuko Takahashi, 70, who lives in a hillside house in Kesennuma, saw from her window a ship swept inland a half-mile—it crushed buildings as it was swept inland. She says, “After the earthquake, people went back to their homes to get their valuables […]. They all got caught.” The names of towns also provide warnings. For example, one town is named “Octopus Grounds” because lots of sealife was washed onto it because of a tsunami. Fumihiko Imamura, a professor in disaster planning at Tohoku University, says, “It takes about three generations for people to forget. Those that experience the disaster themselves pass it to their children and their grandchildren, but then the memory fades.” In Aneyoshi, people remembered. Yuto Kimura, who is 12 years old, says, “Everybody here knows about the markers. We studied them in school. When the tsunami came, my mom got me from school and then the whole village climbed to higher ground.”

Ross P. Mayo, a male nursing student working in the nursing station at an elementary school, ran into a problem when a little girl named Tammi came in to have a scratch treated. Even though he told her, “I am a nurse. I can help you, Trust me,” Tammi was terrified because she thought that all nurses were female and she did not know who this strange man was. Fortunately, Ms. Walker, the school nurse, walked in and reassured Tammi. Even then, Tammi did not believe that Ross was a nurse. Ross asked Tammi why she did not believe that he was a nurse, and Tammi answered, “Because you’re not a lady.” Therefore, Ross decided to teach the students that some nurses are men. He addressed the second-grade students because he felt that they would be able to understand what he had to say to them. He turned it into a game and had the children determine his occupation by asking him questions. It took a while, with the children guessing that he was a doctor or a dentist, but finally they figured out that he was a nurse. Ross was able to explain in words that the children could understand that some women are doctors and that some men are nurses. Before the meeting, the children had written about nurses. After the meeting, he had the children write again about nurses. The writing showed that the children had learned a lot about nurses. A sample BEFORE paper: “I think a nurse is a nice lady who helps people.” A sample AFTER paper: “A nurse can be a lady or a man. Nurses are working in clinics, schools, and hospitals. And some nurses are going to people’s houses, too. And a lady can be a doctor.”

“I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.” — Edith Ann, aka Lily Tomlin.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


Edgar Lee Masters: Nellie Clark (Spoon River Anthology)

I WAS only eight years old;
And before I grew up and knew what it meant
I had no words for it, except
That I was frightened and told my Mother;

And that my Father got a pistol
And would have killed Charlie, who was a big boy,
Fifteen years old, except for his Mother.
Nevertheless the story clung to me.
But the man who married me, a widower of thirty-five,
Was a newcomer and never heard it
’Till two years after we were married.
Then he considered himself cheated,
And the village agreed that I was not really a virgin.
Well, he deserted me, and I died
The following winter.


Lao-Tzu #62: Words that are beautiful are worth much, but good behavior can only be learned by example.



The Tao is the tabernacle of creation,

it is a treasure for those who are good,

and a place of refuge for those who are not.


How can those who are not good be abandoned?

Words that are beautiful are worth much,

but good behavior can only be learned by example.


When a new leader takes office,

don’t give him gifts and offerings.

These things are not as valuable

as teaching him about the Tao.


Why was the Tao esteemed by the ancient Masters?

Is it not said: “With it we find without looking.

With it we find forgiveness for our transgressions.”

That is why the world cannot understand it.


Tao Te Ching

By Lao-Tzu

A translation for the public domain by j.h.mcdonald, 1996


Aesop: The Fox and the Mosquitoes

A Fox after crossing a river got its tail entangled in a bush, and could not move. A number of Mosquitoes seeing its plight settled upon it and enjoyed a good meal undisturbed by its tail. A hedgehog strolling by took pity upon the Fox and went up to him: ‘You are in a bad way, neighbour,’ said the hedgehog; ‘shall I relieve you by driving off those Mosquitoes who are sucking your blood?’

‘Thank you, Master Hedgehog,’ said the Fox, ‘but I would rather not.’

‘Why, how is that?’ asked the hedgehog.

‘Well, you see,’ was the answer, ‘these Mosquitoes have had their fill; if you drive these away, others will come with fresh appetite and bleed me to death.’


Free downloads of Aesop’s Fables and many other books: