David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Act 3, Scene 4

— 3.4 —

In the Queen’s private chamber, Queen Gertrude and Polonius were talking.

Polonius said, “Hamlet will be here very soon. Speak frankly to him: Tell him his rude behavior has been too outrageous to bear with, and tell him that your grace has screened him from and stood between him and severe criticism.

“I will hide myself here behind this arras. I’ll be quiet now. Please, be forthright when you speak to him.”

Hamlet called from outside the room, “Mother, mother, mother!”

Queen Gertrude said to Polonius, “Don’t worry about me. Hide. I can hear him coming.”

Polonius hid behind the wall hanging.

Hamlet entered the room and asked, “Now, mother, what’s the matter?”

“Hamlet, you have your father much offended.”

She was referring to King Claudius.

“Mother, you have my father much offended.”

He was referring to the late King Hamlet.

“Come, come, you answer me with an idle tongue.”

“Go, go, you question me with a wicked tongue.”

“Why, what are you saying, Hamlet!”

“What’s the matter now?”

“Have you forgotten who I am?”

“No, by the cross on which Christ hung, I have not forgotten who you are. You are the Queen, you are your husband’s brother’s wife. And — I wish that it were not so! — you are my mother.”

According to the Book of Common Prayer, “A woman may not marry with her […] Husband’s Brother.” Hamlet was accusing his mother of a forbidden marriage.

Queen Gertrude said, “I will not speak to you while you are like this. I will bring you some people to whom you can speak.”

She stood up, but Hamlet forced her to sit back down.

He said, “Come, come, and sit yourself down. You shall not budge from here. You may not leave until I set up a mirror in front of you that will make you see the inmost part of yourself.”

“What are you going to do?” Queen Gertrude asked. “Are you are going to murder me?”

She screamed, “Help! Help!”

Polonius screamed from behind the wall hanging, “Help! Help! Help!”

Hamlet drew his sword and said, “What is this! A rat? They get killed because they are always making noise and drawing attention to themselves. This rat is dead. I will bet a ducat that it will soon be dead; I will take a ducat for killing it.”

He thrust his sword through the wall hanging and stabbed Polonius.

Polonius moaned, “I have been killed!”

He fell and died.

“What have you done?” Queen Gertrude said.

“I am not sure,” Hamlet replied. “Is it the King?”

“What a rash and bloody deed this is!”

“A bloody deed!” Hamlet replied. “Almost as bad, good mother, as to kill a King, and marry his brother.”

“As kill a King!” a shocked Queen Gertrude said.

“Yes, lady, that is what I said.”

Hamlet was shocked that his mother had allowed someone to spy on what he thought was a private conversation with her. In his shock, he voiced his fear that his mother was complicit in Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet, although the ghost had not told him that. Witnessing his mother’s reaction to the accusation that she had helped kill her first husband, Hamlet became convinced that she was innocent of that sin.

Hamlet lifted the wall hanging and found Polonius.

He said to the corpse, “You wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! I mistook you for your better: I thought you were the King. Take your fortune. You have learned that to be too inquisitive is to put yourself in danger.”

He said to his shocked mother, “Stop wringing your hands. Be quiet! Sit down, and let me wring your heart. I will do that if your heart can be penetrated by feeling — if damned habitual sins have not hardened your heart like brass so that no feeling can penetrate it.”

“What have I done, that you dare wag your tongue so loudly and so rudely against me?”

“You have committed an act that blurs the grace and blush of modesty, calls virtue hypocritical, takes off the rose — female perfection — from the fair forehead of an innocent love and sets a blister — the branding of a prostitute — there, and makes marriage-vows as false as the oaths of people who gamble with dice,” Hamlet replied. “You have committed a deed that plucks the soul out of and makes void marriage vows and turns sweet religion into a confused and meaningless pile of words. Heaven’s hot face glows with shame above the Earth. Heaven is sorrowful, just as it will be on Judgment Day, because it is sickened by your act.”

“Tell me,” Queen Gertrude said, “what act have I committed that roars so loud, and thunders in these, your words that introduce your accusation of my act?”

On a necklace, Hamlet wore a miniature portrait of his father: the late King Hamlet. On a necklace, Queen Gertrude wore a miniature portrait of her husband: the present King Claudius.

Hamlet took the miniature portraits and held them side-by-side.

He said, “Look here, upon this picture, and upon this one. They are counterfeits — mere pictures — of two brothers.

“See, what a grace was seated on this brow — the brow of my late father. He is like the ancient mythological gods. He has the curled hair of Hyperion, the Sun-god. He has the forehead of Jove himself, King of gods and men. He has eyes like those of Mars, the god of war — eyes that threaten and command. He has a stance like that of the herald Mercury, messenger to the other gods, newly alighted on a hill so high that it kisses Heaven. My late father had a group of features and a form indeed, on which every god did seem to set his seal, to give the world assurance that this was a model man.

“That man was your first husband.

“But look now at the other portrait. Here is your second and present husband. He is like a moldy ear of corn, infecting his wholesome brother.

“Have you eyes?

“Could you leave this fair mountain — my father — to feed and gorge yourself on this barren moor? Ha! Do you have eyes?

“You cannot call it love because at your age the heyday in the blood — the passionate sexual period of life — is tame. It’s humble, and it waits upon reason. It obeys reason, and what reason would step from this, my father, to this, your second husband?

“Sense, surely, you have, or else you would not have the power of motion; but surely, that sense is paralyzed.

“Madness would never err in this way, and never has reason been so enthralled to sexual passion but that it was still able to make a choice between two such different alternatives.

“Your senses, madness, and reason could never choose King Claudius over the late King Hamlet.

“What devil was it then that thus has tricked you while you were playing Blind Man’s Bluff?

“Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight, ears without hands or eyes, smelling without any of the other senses, or even just a sickly part of one true sense could not be so unaware as to choose King Claudius over the late King Hamlet.

“For shame! Where is your blush? Rebellious Hellish sexual desires, if you can mutiny in a matron’s bones, then to flaming youth let virtue be like wax, and melt in her own fire. Proclaim no shame when the compulsive ardor of sexual desire gives the impetus to perform sexual misdeeds since frosty old age itself actively burns just like youthful sexual desire and since reason becomes a panderer for the passion. If old people are ruled by their sexual passion, what hope do young people have to resist such passion?”

“Oh, Hamlet, speak no more,” Queen Gertrude said. “You made my eyes look deep into my soul, and there I see such black and engrained spots whose tincture — color — will not be washed away.”

What sin is Queen Gertrude speaking about? She is not complicit in the murder of her first husband. Is she speaking only of her hasty second marriage or of something in addition to that? Adultery while her first husband was still alive, perhaps?

Hamlet replied, “No, it will not be washed away. And you are living in the rank sweat of a bed stained with the fluids of sex, stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty —”

Hamlet was punning again. The word “stewed” also referred to stewed prunes, which were served in brothels; as a result, “stews” became a slang word for brothels.

“Oh, speak to me no more,” Queen Gertrude said. “These words of yours, like daggers, enter my ears. No more, sweet Hamlet!”

“King Claudius is a murderer and a villain; he is a slave who is not worth one-twentieth of a tithe — ten percent — of your first husband. He is an unscrupulous monster among Kings; he is a cutpurse of the empire and the throne. From a shelf he stole the precious crown and put it in his pocket!”

The word “tithe” has religious significance because a Christian is supposed to tithe — give ten percent of income to charity and/or the church. In addition, the number “ten” has religious significance because ten is composed of three threes and one one. Three is the number of the Trinity, and one is the number of the Unity that is the Trinity. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost become the one true God.

“No more!”Queen Gertrude pleaded.

“He is a King made of bits and pieces —”

The ghost entered the room.

Hamlet saw the ghost and prayed, “Save me, and hover over me with your wings, you Heavenly guards!”

He then said to the ghost, “What does your gracious figure want?”

Queen Gertrude could not see the ghost. To her, it seemed as if Hamlet were speaking to empty air.

She said, “Hamlet is mad! He is insane!”

Hamlet said to the ghost, “Have you come to reproach your tardy son, who, surprised by you in a time and while feeling the emotions that are important in fulfilling your dread command, is still not yet carrying out that command? Tell me!”

Hamlet was filled with emotion, but he was not doing what the ghost wanted him to do. The ghost wanted Hamlet to get revenge on King Claudius, and the ghost did not want Hamlet to hurt his mother. Hamlet had passed up an opportunity to kill King Claudius, and he was now emotionally hurting his mother.

The ghost said to Hamlet, “Do not forget what I told you. The purpose of this visitation is to whet your almost blunted purpose. But, look, your mother is bewildered. Step in between her and her soul as it fights frightening images. The imagination works strongest in the weakest bodies. Speak to her, Hamlet.”

The ghost wanted Hamlet to take care of his mother and then to turn his attention to killing King Claudius.

“How are you, lady?” Hamlet asked his mother.

“How are you, Hamlet?” Queen Gertrude replied. “Why are you looking at nothing and speaking to empty air? Your eyes look wild as they wildly look, and your hair, like sleeping soldiers suddenly awakened by an alarm, is shocked and stands on end. Oh, gentle son, sprinkle cool patience upon the heat and flame of your distemper and illness. What are you looking at?”

“I am looking at him — at him!” Hamlet said as he pointed to the ghost. “Look, can’t you see how pale he is as he stares! If his appearance and his reason for appearing here could conjoin together and preach to stones, they would make them responsive to his words.”

He said to the ghost, “Do not look at me unless with piteous action you divert my stern deeds. If that happens, then what I have to do may lack the true color. Perhaps clear tears will flow instead of red blood.”

When Hamlet first saw the ghost, the ghost had told Hamlet not to pity him. The ghost wanted violent action and blood instead of pity and tears.

“To whom are you speaking?” Queen Gertrude asked.

“Do you see nothing there?”

“I see nothing at all; yet I see everything that there is to see.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“No, nothing but ourselves.”

“Why, look there! Look at how it is moving away! It is my father, wearing the clothing he used to wear when he was alive! Look, he is leaving now — he is going out the door!”

The ghost exited.

“This is only the invention of your brain,” Queen Gertrude said. “Madness is very cunning and skillful in creating things without bodies.”

“Madness!” Hamlet said. “My pulse, just like yours, temperately keeps time, and makes as healthful music. What I have said is not the result of madness. Put me to the test, and I will repeat everything that I have said — that is an act that madness would run away from.

“Mother, for the love of Heaven, do not apply a soothing ointment to your soul by believing that it is my madness speaking and not your sin. The flattering ointment will only put a skin over the ulcerous place while rank corruption, undermining everything underneath the layer of skin, infects unseen.

“Confess your sins to Heaven. Repent what sins are past; avoid the temptations to come. And do not spread compost on the weeds to make them ranker.

“Forgive me this virtuous sermonizing of mine because in the fatness and grossness of these pursy — corpulent and purse-proud — times virtue itself must beg pardon from vice. Yes, virtue must bow and woo for permission to do vice good.”

“Oh, Hamlet, you have broken my heart in two.”

“Throw the worse part of your heart away, and live all the purer with the other half,” Hamlet replied.

He added, “Good night, but do not go to my uncle’s bed. If you do not really have a particular virtue, act as if you have it. The monster custom eats up all understanding of evil when we habitually do evil deeds, but it is angelic in this: When one practices fair and good actions, they become habitual. Doing evil deeds can become a habit, but so can doing good deeds. We can put on good or bad habits the way that we put on good or bad clothing. It is our choice.

“Refrain from having sex with King Claudius tonight, and that shall lend a kind of easiness to the next abstinence. The abstinence after that will be even easier. Habit can almost change the stamp of nature — our inborn characteristics.

“Habit can either welcome the Devil, or powerfully throw him out.

“Once more, good night. And when you are desirous to be blessed and ask for God’s blessing, I’ll beg a blessing from you like a dutiful son.”

Hamlet pointed to the corpse of Polonius and said, “I repent killing this lord, but Heaven has been pleased to punish me with this corpse and to punish this corpse with me. It has been the will of Heaven that I be punished and that I punish Polonius. I have acted as Heaven’s agent and minister of justice, and Heaven has punished me. I will dispose of him, and I will atone for the death I gave him.

“So, again, good night.

“I must be cruel only to be kind. Thus bad begins and worse remains behind. The death of Polonius is a bad beginning, and worse is still to come.

“One word more, good lady.”

“What shall I do?” Queen Gertrude asked.

“Here are things that I tell you NOT to do, no matter what happens,” Hamlet said. “Let the bloated King tempt you again to go to bed. Let him pinch your cheek wantonly. Let him call you his mouse. Let him, because he gave you a few filthy kisses or stroked your neck with his damned fingers, convince you to disentangle everything for him. Tell him that I am not mad essentially, but am mad only in craft and cunning.”

He said sarcastically, “It would be good for you to let him know that I am faking my madness because who would hide from a toad, from a bat, or from a tomcat such dear information concerning him? Who would do such a thing? A queen, fair, sober, and wise?”

With more sarcasm, he added, “No, to spite sense and secrecy, you ought to climb on top of a house with a basket of birds, open the basket and let the birds fly out. Then you ought to imitate the experimenting ape in the famous story and climb into the basket, jump out and try to fly like the birds, and break your neck when you fall to the ground.”

“Be assured, Hamlet,” Queen Gertrude said, “if words are made of breath, and breath is made of life, I have no life to breathe what you have said to me. I will not tell my husband what you have told me.”

“I must go to England; do you know that?”

“Yes, I had forgotten, but it has been so decided.”

“The letters are sealed, and my two schoolfellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom I will trust as I trust fanged venomous snakes, bear the mandate — King Claudius’ letter to the English King. They must sweep my way clear and carry me off and lead me into some trap.

“So be it. It will be fun to have the engineer be hoist with his own petard — blown up with his own bomb. Things shall go badly for me unless I can outwit the enemy and use the enemy’s own bomb to blow him at the Moon. Oh, it is very sweet when two plots — the King’s and mine — meet head-on.

“This man — the dead Polonius — shall cause me to be sent to England in a hurry and shall cause me to begin my plotting. I’ll lug the guts into the neighboring room.

“Mother, good night.

“Indeed, this counselor is now very still, very secret, and very grave, although when he was alive he was a foolish prating knave.”

Hamlet said to the corpse, “Come, sir, I will draw toward an end with you.”

He added, “Good night, mother.”

Hamlet then began to drag away the corpse of Polonius.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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