— 4.5 —
In a room in the castle at Elsinore, Queen Gertrude was talking with Horatio and a gentleman about Ophelia.
“I will not speak with her,” Queen Gertrude said.
“She is insistent, indeed distraught,” the gentleman said. “Her state of mind ought to be pitied.”
“What does she want?”
“She speaks a lot about her father; she says that she hearsthere’s tricks in the world; and she makes sounds, and she beats her heart,” the gentleman said. “She takes offense at trifles and straws, and she speaks ambiguously and says things that are only half-sensible. Her speech is nonsense, but because it is nonsense her hearers attempt to make sense of it. They work hard at understanding it, and they interpret her words to fit what they think. Her winks, and her nods, and her gestures convince them that her words must have meaning. Although they are not sure what that meaning is, they think that it must be an unhappy meaning.”
Horatio advised Queen Gertrude, “It is a good idea to talk to her because she may cause ill-breeding minds to make dangerous conjectures.”
“Let her come in,” Queen Gertrude said.
The gentleman left to tell Ophelia to come into the room.
Queen Gertrude thought, To my sick soul — sin’s true nature is sickness — each trifle seems to be the prologue to some great misfortune. So full of artless jealousy is guilt, it spills itself in fearing to be spilt. Guilt is so full of uncontrolled suspicion that it reveals itself because it so much fears to be revealed. The guilty act guilty because they are so afraid of being found out to be guilty.
Ophelia entered the room.
“Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?” Ophelia asked.
“How are you, Ophelia?”
Ophelia sang, “How should I your true love know
“From another one?
“By his cockle hat and staff,
“And his sandal shoon.”
Ophelia was singing about a lover who was dressed like a pilgrim. In his hat he wore a “cockle,” aka scallop shell, he carried a staff, and he wore sandals for his shoes. A pilgrim was someone who was going or had gone on a pilgrimage or journey to a religious site. Pilgrims who were returning from a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in Compostela, Spain, wore a cockle shell in their hat. Lovers sometimes disguised themselves as religious pilgrims to get access to those whom they loved.
“Alas, sweet lady, what is the meaning of this song?” Queen Gertrude asked.
“What did you say?” Ophelia asked. “Please, listen.”
She sang, “He is dead and gone, lady,
“He is dead and gone;
“At his head a grass-green plot,
“At his heels a tombstone.”
“But, Ophelia —” Queen Gertrude started to say.
“Please, listen,” Ophelia replied.
She sang, “White his shroud as the mountain snow —”
King Claudius entered the room.
Queen Gertrude said to him, “Alas, look here, my lord.”
Ophelia sang, “Sprinkled all over with sweet flowers
“Which bewept to the grave did go
“With true-love showers.”
“How are you, pretty lady?” King Claudius asked.
“May God reward you,” Ophelia replied. “They say the owl was a baker’s daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but we do not know what we may become. May God be at your table!”
According to an old legend, Christ, who appeared to be a beggar, asked a baker for food. The baker was a charitable person who put a large piece of dough in an oven to bake, but his daughter criticized him for putting such a large piece of dough in the oven — she wanted the beggar to be given less food. Because the baker’s daughter was not charitable, she was turned into an owl.
“She is distressed about her father,” King Claudius said.
“Please, let’s have no words about this,” Ophelia said, “but when they ask you what it means, say this.”
She sang, “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s Day,
“All in the morning early,
“And I a maiden at your window,
“To be your Valentine.
“Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
“And opened up the chamber-door;
“Let in the maiden, that out a maiden
“Never departed more.”
According to a folk belief, the first young person of the opposite sex that young men and young women would see on Saint Valentine’s Day would be their one true love.
“Pretty Ophelia!” King Claudius said.
“Indeed, la, without an oath,” she said, “I’ll make an end of it.”
She sang, “By Gis and by Saint Charity,
“Alack, and fie for shame!
“Young men will do it, if they come to it;
“By Cock, they are to blame.
“Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me,
“‘You promised me to wed.’
“‘So would I have done, by yonder Sun,
“‘If you had not come to my bed.’”
“Gis” meant “Jesus.” “Do it” meant “to have sex.” “Cock” meant “God” — and an obvious additional meaning. “Tumbled me” meant “to have sex with me”; in this context, it included the meaning of “took my virginity.”
“How long has she been like this?” King Claudius asked.
“I hope all will be well,” Ophelia said. “We must be patient, but I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him in the cold ground. My brother shall know about it, and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.”
Ophelia exited from the room.
“Follow her closely; watch her closely, please,” King Claudius said to Horatio.
Horatio followed Ophelia, leaving the King and Queen alone.
“Oh, this is the poison of deep grief,” King Claudius said about Ophelia’s insanity. “It springs entirely from her father’s death. Oh, Gertrude, Gertrude, when sorrows come, they come not singly like spies sent separately ahead to scout the land, but in whole battalions. First, her father was slain. Next, Hamlet, your son, has gone, and he was the most violent author of his own just exile. The people are confused; their thoughts and whispers are muddied and troubled and unhealthy and suspicious about the death of good Polonius. We have acted foolishly by hurrying to secretly inter him. Poor Ophelia is insane, divorced from her rational judgment, without which we are pictures —mere images of human beings — or mere beasts. Finally, and just as serious as all of these other ills, Ophelia’s brother — Laertes — has in secret returned to Denmark from France. He broods over his bewilderment, he does not seek the truth but remains ignorant of it. He has gossip-mongers buzzing in his ears and telling him pestilential stories about his father’s death. Because Laertes does not know the truth, he must of necessity believe me to be guilty because he must blame someone. This is a supposition that he will tell others. Oh, my dear Gertrude, this multitude of troubles is killing me over and over just like a cannon fires and kills many soldiers with grapeshot — many small pieces of metal that are fired all at once and that scatter and kill.”
They heard a noise in the castle.
“What is that noise?” Queen Gertrude asked. She was alarmed.
“Where are my Swiss guards?” King Claudius asked. “Let them guard the door!”
A messenger entered the room.
“What is the matter?” King Claudius asked.
“Save yourself, my lord,” the messenger said. “The ocean, rising above its limits, does not overwhelm the flat, low-lying coastal lands with more impetuous haste than young Laertes, advancing with an army of rebels, overwhelms your military officers. The rabble call him lord, and, as if the world were now going to begin again, with all traditions and established customs that ratify and prop up civilization having been forgotten, they cry, ‘We choose Laertes to be King.’ They throw their hats into the air, they applaud with their hands, and their tongues cry to the clouds, ‘Laertes shall be King! Laertes shall be King!’”
“How cheerfully they cry like hounds as they follow a false trail!” Queen Gertrude said. “These false Danish hounds are tracking counter — they are following the scent the wrong way! They trace the trail backwards!”
Laertes was looking for the person who had killed his father, but Hamlet’s trail led away from Elsinore and toward England. Laertes and his followers were heading toward Elsinore.
They heard noises, and King Claudius said, “The doors have been broken.”
Laertes and a number of his armed followers rushed into the room.
“Where is this King?” Laertes asked, contemptuously.
He said to his armed followers, “Sirs, all of you stand outside the room.”
His followers protested, “No, let us come in.”
Laertes replied, “Please, if you don’t mind.”
“We will obey,” his armed followers said.
As they left the room, Laertes said to them, “I thank you. Guard the door.”
He then said to King Claudius, “Oh, you vile King, give me my father!”
“Be calm, good Laertes,” Queen Gertrude said, holding on to him.
“Any drop of my blood that is calm proclaims me to be a bastard,” Laertes replied. “Any drop of my blood that is calm cries that my father is a cuckold and that my mother is a harlot with the brand of a whore on her forehead. If I am truly my father’s son, and if my mother has been faithful to her husband, then every drop of my blood is outraged by his death.”
“What is the reason, Laertes, that your rebellion looks so giant-like?” King Claudius asked. “This rebellion is like that of the giants Otus and Ephialtes, who tried to make war on the Olympian gods.
“Let him go, Gertrude. Do not fear for our person. Such divinity protects a King that treason can only peep at what it would like to do; it can act but little of what it wants to do.”
And yet Claudius had succeeded in murdering his brother, King Hamlet.
King Claudius continued, “Tell me, Laertes, why you are so incensed and angry? Let him go, Gertrude.”
She let go of Laertes.
“Speak, man,” King Claudius said.
“Where is my father?” Laertes asked.
“But your father was not killed by the King,” Queen Gertrude said.
“Let him ask whatever he wants to ask,” King Claudius said to her.
“What is the cause of his death?” Laertes asked. “I’ll not be trifled with and misled. To Hell with loyalty and allegiance! I will make vows to the blackest Devil! I will damn my conscience and grace to the profoundest pit! I dare to be damned for all eternity on Judgment Day. I am resolved: I do not care about this world or the next. Let come what will come, but I will be revenged most thoroughly for the murder of my father.”
“Who shall prevent you?” King Claudius asked.
“I swear that not all the world can stop me,” Laertes replied. “And as for my resources, I’ll manage them so well that although limited, they will go a long way.”
“Good Laertes, if you desire to know with certainty the cause of your dear father’s death, are you determined that in your revenge, like a gambler sweeping up all the money — including that belonging to winners as well as to losers — on a table, you will punish both friends and foes?”
“I will punish none but my father’s enemies,” Laertes replied.
“Would you like to know who are his friends and who are his enemies?”
“To my father’s friends, I will open wide my arms, and like the kind life-rendering pelican, I will feed them with my blood — I am willing to die for them.”
According to a folk tradition, the pelican fed its young with its own blood.
“Why, now you are speaking like a good child and a true gentleman,” King Claudius said. “I will prove to you that I am guiltless of your father’s death and that I grieve most sincerely for it. I will show my innocence to you as clearly as your eyes see daylight.”
Laertes’ men outside the door shouted, “Let her come in!”
Laertes said, “What’s going on? What noise is that?”
Ophelia entered the room.
Immediately recognizing that Ophelia was insane, Laertes said, “Oh, heat, dry up and ruin my brains! Excessively salty tears, burn out the ability of my eyes to see! I would rather lose both my mind and my sight than to see Ophelia like this!
“By Heaven, Ophelia’s madness shall be avenged! I will put my revenge into one side of a set of scales until it outweighs the harm done to you! Oh, rose of May! Dear maiden, kind sister, sweet Ophelia! Oh, Heavens! Is it possible that a young maiden’s wits should be as mortal as an old man’s life?
“Nature is exquisite in love, and when love is exquisite, it sends some precious part of itself after the thing it loves.”
Laertes believed that Ophelia had gone mad because of the death of their father and that she had sent her sanity to join his spirit. This is a poetic way of saying that Ophelia’s grief over the death of her father had driven her insane.
Ophelia sang, “They bore him barefaced on the bier;
“Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny;
“And in his grave rained many a tear —
“Fare you well, my dove!”
“If you had your wits and urged me to get revenge for the death of our father, you could not speak more persuasively,” Laertes said.
Ophelia said to the King and Queen, “You must sing, ‘A-down a-down.’”
Then she said to her brother, Laertes, “And you must sing, ‘A-down-a.’”
These words were the refrain to her song.
Ophelia then said, “Oh, how the wheel — the refrain — becomes it! It is the false steward, who stole his master’s daughter.”
Ophelia’s thoughts and songs were about the death of a loved one and about betrayal by a lover or “lover.”
“This nonsense has more meaning in it than sensible speech has,” Laertes said.
Ophelia said about the imaginary flowers she was “holding,” “There’s rosemary; that is for remembrance. Please, love, remember. And here are pansies; that is for thoughts.”
She “presented” the imaginary flowers signifying remembrance to Laertes.
“Here is a lesson in madness,” Laertes said. “She has fittingly linked thoughts and remembrance.”
Ophelia said, “There’s fennel for you, and columbines.”
She “presented” the imaginary flowers signifying deceit (fennel) and marital infidelity (columbine) to Queen Gertrude.
Ophelia said, “There’s rue for you.”
She “presented” the imaginary rue — an herb — signifying sorrow and repentance to King Claudius.
Ophelia said, “And here’s some rue for me. We may call rue ‘herb-grace of Sundays.’ Oh, you must wear your rue for a different reason. There’s a daisy.
“I would give you some violets, but they all withered when my father died. They say that he made a good end —”
She sang, “For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.”
The themes of Bonny Robin songs include lovers and unfaithfulness.
“She turns sadness and affliction, suffering, and Hell itself to charm and to prettiness,” Laertes said.
Ophelia sang, “And will he not come again?
“And will he not come again?
“No, no, he is dead:
“Go to your deathbed:
“Henever will come again.
“His beard was as white as snow,
“All flaxen was his head:
“He is gone, he is gone,
“And we cast away moan:
“God have mercy on his soul!”
She added, “And may God have mercy on all Christian souls, I pray. May God be with you.”
She exited from the room.
“Do you see this, God?” Laertes prayed.
“Laertes, I must share in your grief, or you deny me something that is my right,” King Claudius said. “Go and talk to your wisest friends. Let them judge the issue between you and me. If they find that I am implicated — whether directly or indirectly — in the death of your father, I will give you my Kingdom, my crown, my life, and all that I call mine, in recompense. But if they find me innocent, then be patient and let us work together to give your soul what it most wants: revenge.”
“Let this be so,” Laertes replied. “My father’s means of death and his obscure funeral — he had no trophy, sword, or painting of his coat of arms over his bones, and he had no noble rite or formal ostentation — all cry out, as if my father’s soul were shouting from Heaven to Earth, and so I demand an explanation of them.”
“And so you shall receive an explanation,” King Claudius said. “And where the offence is, let the great axe fall. Please, come with me.”
They departed together.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved