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

— 4.3 —

King Claudius said to some lords, “I have sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to seek Hamlet, and to find the body of Polonius. How dangerous it is that this man goes loose! Yet we must not put the strong arm of law on him. Hamlet is beloved by the unreasoning multitude of people. They use their eyes, not their reason and judgment, to decide whom to like. In such cases, they focus on the punishment given to the offender and not on the offense that the offender committed.

“To make everything go smoothly and evenly, my suddenly sending Hamlet away must seem like the result of careful deliberation.

“Desperate diseases require desperate cures, or they are not cured.”

Rosencrantz entered the room. Guildenstern stayed with Hamlet, guarding him, outside.

“How are you?” King Claudius asked him. “What has happened?”

“Hamlet will not tell us where he stowed the corpse of Polonius.”

“Where is Hamlet?”

“Outside, my lord. He is being guarded. What do you want done with him?”

“Bring him here before us,” King Claudius said.

“Guildenstern!” Rosencrantz called. “Bring in my lord.”

Hamlet and Guildenstern entered the room.

“Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?” King Claudius asked.

“At supper.”

“At supper! Where?”

“Do not ask where he eats, but where he is eaten,” Hamlet said. “A certain convocation of politic — shrewd — worms is even now gnawing at him.”

Hamlet was punning on the Diet of Worms, which was held in the German city of Worms in 1521. The word “diet” means “council.” Holy Roman Emperor Charles V presided over the Diet of Worms.

Hamlet continued, “Your worm is your only Emperor for diet. We fatten all other creatures so that we can eat them and grow fat ourselves, and we ourselves grow fat so that we can feed maggots. A fat King and a lean beggar are only two different courses at a meal; they are two dishes on one table. That’s the end for us.”

“Alas! Alas!” King Claudius said.

“A man may fish with a worm that has eaten part of a King, and then he can eat the fish that has fed on that worm.”

“What do you mean by this?”

“Nothing except to show you how a King may progress through the guts of a beggar,” Hamlet replied.

“Where is Polonius?”

“In Heaven; send someone there to see,” Hamlet replied. “If your messenger does not find him there, then seek him in the other place yourself. But indeed, if you do not find him within this month, you shall smell him as you go up the stairs into the lobby.”

King Claudius said to some attendants, “Go seek the corpse there.”

“He will stay until you come,” Hamlet said to the attendants as they were leaving the room.

“Hamlet, because of this deed, for your own personal safety — which we dearly care for, just as we dearly grieve for this deed that you have done — we must send you away from here with fiery quickness. Therefore prepare yourself to travel. The ship is ready, and the wind is blowing in the right direction, your companions are waiting for you, and everything is ready for you to go to England.”

“For England?”

“Yes, Hamlet.”

“Good.”

“So it is, as you would know if you knew our motives.”

“I see a cherub who sees them,” Hamlet replied.

He suspected King Claudius’ motives, and he was reminding King Claudius that God and the angels in Heaven know everything.

Hamlet continued, “Let’s go to England!”

He said to King Claudius, “Farewell, dear mother.”

King Claudius replied, “Your loving father, Hamlet.”

“You are my mother. Father and mother are man and wife; man and wife are one flesh; and so, you are my mother.

“Let’s go to England!”

Hamlet exited.

King Claudius ordered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Follow him closely; persuade him to board the ship quickly. Do not delay. I’ll have him leave here tonight. Away! Everything else needed for this journey to happen has been sealed and done. Please, hurry.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern left the room.

King Claudius motioned with his hands, and everyone departed, leaving him alone.

King Claudius had written a letter to the King of England, a letter that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would carry on board ship. Now he held an imaginary one-sided conversation with the English King:

“King of England, if you value at all my friendship — as you should, because of my great power … your country can still feel the raw and red scar that it received from the Danish sword, and you are paying homage and tribute to us to keep our soldiers away — because of this, you cannot coldly set aside and ignore our royal command, which is described in full in a letter: the immediate death of Hamlet. Do it, King of England — kill Hamlet.

“Hamlet rages like a fever in my blood, and you must cure me. Until I know that Hamlet is dead, whatever else happens, I will never be happy.”

— 4.4 —

On a plain in Denmark, young Fortinbras, one of his Captains, and an army of soldiers were marching.

Fortinbras ordered, “Go, Captain, and give the Danish King my greetings. Tell him that, in accordance with our agreement, Fortinbrascraves safe conduct and an escort as he marches across Denmark. You know the rendezvous. If his majesty wants to see us, we will pay his respects to him in person. Tell him that.”

“I will do so, my lord,” the Captain replied.

Fortinbras ordered his army, “March onward. Do nothing to cause trouble.”

Fortinbras and his army marched onward, leaving the Captain behind.

Hamlet, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and others arrived.

Hamlet said to the Captain, “Good sir, whose soldiers are these?”

“They are Norwegian, sir,” the Captain replied.

“Please tell me where they are marching, sir.”

“They are marching to fight in a part of Poland.”

“Who commands them, sir?”

“Fortinbras, the nephew to the aged King of Norway.”

“Will his army fight the heartland of Poland, or will it fight some frontier?”

“To speak truly, and with no exaggeration, we go to fight to gain a little patch of ground that has in it no profit but the name. Whoever wins the battle will gain nothing but reputation — he will win the name of conqueror. I would not rent it for five — five! — ducats. It would not bring in more to either the King of Norway or the King of Poland if it were sold outright. It is a worthless piece of land.”

“Why, then the King of Poland will never defend it.”

“Yes, he will,” the Captain said. “He has already stationed soldiers there.”

“Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats will not settle this straw — this trivial matter,” Hamlet said. “This is the abscess that results from having too much wealth during peacetime. The abscess festers inside the body and the man dies without other people knowing why.

“I humbly thank you, sir.”

The Captain replied, “May God be with you, sir,” and departed.

Rosencrantz asked Hamlet, “Will it please you to go, my lord?”

“I’ll be with you very quickly. Go ahead of me a little distance,” Hamlet replied.

Everyone started traveling again, leaving Hamlet alone.

Hamlet said to himself, “Everything denounces me and spurs me on to get my delayed revenge! What is a man, if his chief happiness and all he does with his time is simply to sleep and eat? He is a beast — no more than that. Surely, He Who made us with such a fine power of reasoning, which we can use to learn from the past and plan for the future, did not give us that capability and God-like reason to go unused by us and get moldy. Now, whether it be due to an animal’s forgetfulness or from some cowardice caused by thinking in too much detail on the outcome of our action — a thought that, divided into four parts, has but one part wisdom and three parts cowardice — I do not know why I yet live to say, ‘This thing is something I have to do.’ It should have been done already. After all, I have the reason — a cause — and the will and the strength and the means to do it.

“Examples as weighty as Earth exhort me to take action and get revenge. Witness this army of such size and expense that is being led by a delicate and tender Prince with a spirit that is puffed up with divine ambition and who makes a face at and scorns the unknown outcome of his war. He is exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death, and danger dare. And for what? For an eggshell.

“Rightly to be great is not to stir without great argument, but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honor is at stake.”

Hamlet thought, It is true that the way to get a reputation is not by refraining from making war unless you have a good reason for making war, but by making war over a trifle — a straw — when honor is at stake.

If Fortinbras had said that this trifle of land in Poland is not worth fighting for and so I will remain at home instead of going to war, he would gain no reputation. But since he is willing to go to war and get lots of soldiers killed and lots of money spent over a trifle, he will gain a reputation. But will it be a negative or a positive reputation?

Or perhaps the right way to be great is to not make war unless you have an excellent reason for making war, but people mistakenly think that the right way to be great is to make war over a trifle — a straw — when honor is at stake. But will it be negative or positive greatness?

Hamlet said, “But what about me? I am not concerned with trifles and straws. I have a father who has been murdered, a mother whose character has been stained, and incentives both in my mind and in my emotions to take action and get revenge, and what have I done? I have slept and done nothing. Meanwhile, to my shame, I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men, who, merely for Fortinbras’ fantasy and illusion of fame, go to their graves as if the graves were beds. They will die while fighting for a plot of land that is not big enough to contain all the soldiers fighting over it and which is not big enough to provide tombs and graves for all the soldiers who will die fighting over it.

“Oh, from this time forth, my thoughts will be bloody, or they will be worth nothing!”

***

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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