David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Act 4, Scenes 6-7

— 4.6 —

In another room in the castle, Horatio said to a servant, “Who are they who would speak with me?”

“Sailors, sir,” the servant replied. “They say they have letters for you.”

“Let them come in.”

The servant left to get the sailors.

Horatio said to himself, “I do not know from what part of the world I should be greeted, if not from Lord Hamlet.”

Some sailors entered the room.

The first sailor said, “God bless you, sir.”

“Let Him bless you, too,” Horatio replied.

“He shall, sir, if it please Him,” the first sailor said.

He handed Horatio a letter and said, “There’s a letter for you, sir; it comes from the ambassador who was bound for England. This letter is for you, assuming that your name is Horatio, as I am told it is.”

The letter was from Hamlet, who had told the sailors that he was an ambassador instead of telling them that he was a Prince and presumably the next in line to be King.

Horatio read the letter out loud.

Horatio, when you shall have looked over this letter, give these fellows some way to have contact with the King: They have letters for him. Before we were two days out at sea, a pirate ship ready to do battle chased us. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we were forced to be brave and fight, and the pirates threw grappling irons to our ship. I crossed the lines to the pirate ship, and then the pirate ship and our ship separated with the result that I became the pirates’ only prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy — like merciful thieves — but they knew what they were doing. In return for their mercy, I am to do a good turn for them.

Let the King have the letters I have sent and then come to me with as much speed as you would use to flee from death. I have words to speak in your ear that will make you speechless; yet they are much too light for the seriousness of the matter. These good fellows will bring you to where I am.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern still hold their course for England. Of them I have much to tell you.


He whom you know to be your friend,


Horatio said to the sailors, “Come, I will give you help to deliver these letters of yours, and I will do that as quickly as possible so that you may take me to the man whose letters you brought.”

— 4.7 —

In another room of the castle, King Claudius and Laertes were talking together, alone.

King Claudius said, “Now you must agree that I am not guilty of the death of your father, and you must regard me as a friend since you have heard and learned that the man who has slain your noble father has tried to kill me.”

“It looks that way,” Laertes replied. “But tell me why you did not try to punish the man who committed these deeds that are so criminal and punishable by death. Regard for your own safety, as well as wisdom and everything else, ought to have provoked you and made you punish him.”

“I had two special reasons,” King Claudius said. “To you they may seem very weak, but to me they are strong.

“The first reason is that the Queen his mother dotes on him. As for me — my virtue or my plague, whichever it is — she is such a part of my life and soul that, just like a star moves only in its orbit-sphere, I must be with her and move with her.

“My other reason, explaining why I could not try him in a public court, is that the general public loves him. They dip his faults in their affection, and they are like a spring that turns wood to stone by petrifying it; they convert his metaphorical fetters — his faults — to graces. And so my arrows, which are too slight to be used in such a wind, would have returned again to my bow — they would not have hit the target I aimed at.”

“And so I have lost a noble father, and my sister has been driven into a desperate condition,” Laertes said. “Her worth, if praises may go back again to what she used to be, offered a conspicuous challenge — as if she stood on a mountain — to others to equal her perfections. But my revenge will come.”

“Don’t toss and turn at night because of thinking about revenge,” King Claudius said. “Don’t think that I am made of stuff so flat and dull that I will let my beard be shook with danger and think that it is a joke and a game. You shortly shall hear more.”

By sending Hamlet to England, King Claudius was hoping that Hamlet would soon be killed. King Claudius thought that he could soon tell Laertes that the man who had killed his father was dead.

King Claudius continued, “I loved your father, and I love myself, and that, I hope, will teach you to imagine —”

A messenger entered the room, and King Claudius broke off what he was saying to Laertes and instead asked the messenger, “What is it? What is the news?”

“I bring letters, my lord, from Hamlet. This letter is to your majesty; this letter is to the Queen.”

“From Hamlet! Who brought them?”

“Sailors, my lord, they say,” the messenger replied. “I did not see them. These letters were given me by Claudio; he received them from the person who brought them.”

King Claudius said, “Laertes, you shall hear this letter.”

He ordered the messenger, “Leave us.”

The messenger exited.

King Claudius read out loud the letter that Hamlet had written to him:

High and mighty one,

You need to know that I have been set naked — without any possessions — on the land of your Kingdom. Tomorrow I shall beg for permission to see your Kingly eyes. At that time, I shall, after first asking your pardon to do so, recount the occasion of my sudden and very strange return to Denmark.


King Claudius asked, “What does this mean? Have all the rest come back to Denmark, too? Or is this some trick, and Hamlet has not returned?”

“Do you know the handwriting?”

“It is Hamlet’s handwriting,” King Claudius said. “He writes, ‘Naked’! And in a postscript here, he writes that he is ‘alone.’ Do you know anything about this?”

“I know nothing about it, my lord,” Laertes replied. “But let Hamlet come. It warms the very sickness in my heart to know that I shall live and tell him to his teeth, ‘You did this: You killed my father. And now you die.’”

“If the contents of this letter are true, Laertes — as how could they be otherwise? — will you allow yourself to be ruled by me? Will you do what I tell you to do?”

“Yes, my lord,” Laertes said, “as long as you do not overrule my desires and order me to make peace with Hamlet.”

“I want you to be at peace with yourself,” King Claudius said. “If Hamlet has now returned to Denmark, rejecting his voyage to England and with no intention of undertaking it in the future, I will persuade him to undertake an exploit that will result in his death, and no one shall suspect ill play. Even his mother will think that Hamlet died by accident.”

“My lord, I will do what you tell me to do,” Laertes said. “I will especially do it if you can arrange for me to be the cause of Hamlet’s death.”

“I have an idea,” King Claudius said. “You have been much talked about since your travels, and Hamlet has heard what people have said about you. They praise a skill in which you shine. None of your other good points made Hamlet as envious as that one skill, although in my opinion, that skill is not the best of those things in which you excel.”

“What skill is that, my lord?” Laertes asked.

“It is a mere ribbon in the cap of youth,” King Claudius said, “and yet it is a necessary skill, too. Light and careless clothing is as becoming to young people as is dark and serious clothing that denotes well being and seriousness to the old. Some things are suitable for young men, and other things are suitable for old men.

“Two months ago, a gentleman of Normandy visited here, I’ve seen and served against the French, and they can ride well on horseback, but this gallant Norman’s skill on horseback had witchcraft in it. He seemed to grow into his seat, and he made his horse do such wondrous things that it was if he and his horse were one being, like a Centaur. He performed better than I ever imagined that a man could perform on horseback. Whatever I was able to conceive in my imagination, he outperformed.”

“He was a Norman?”

“Yes, a Norman.”

“I bet my life that his name was Lamond.”

“The very same.”

“I know him well,” Laertes said. “He is the ornament and jewel indeed of all his nation.”

“He said that he knew you, and he praised highly your skill in the exercise of the defensive arts. He especially praised your skill with the rapier. He cried out that it would indeed be a sight if anyone could match you. The fencers of France, he swore, would lack motion, guard, and eye, if you opposed them.

“Sir, Lamond’s report about you inflamed Hamlet with such envy that he could do nothing but wish and beg that you would return to Denmark so that he could fence with you.

“Now, out of this …” King Claudius started to say, and then he hesitated.

“What can come out of this, my lord?” Laertes asked.

“Laertes, was your father dear to you?” King Claudius asked. “Or are you like the painting of a sorrow — a mere face without a heart?”

“Why are you asking me this?”

“It is not the case that I think you did not love your father,” King Claudius said. “But I know that time causes love to come into being, and I see from well-attested examples that time diminishes the spark and fire of love. There lives within the very flame of love a kind of wick that will burn and diminish and so will abate and lessen love. Love burns out; nothing remains the same. Even goodness, growing to excess, can die from that excess. Love can die slowly over time, and love can burn out through over-intensity.

“When should we do those things we ought to do? We should do them when we ought to do them. What we want and ought to do is subjected to weakenings and delays; there are as many weakenings and delays as there are tongues, and hands, and impediments.

“We have an awareness of what we ought to do and what we should do. Unless we take action and do those things, we are hurting ourselves. Taking the easy way out by not taking action may seem to be a kind of relief, but that is only appearance, not reality.

“But, to go to the quick — the most sensitive and painful part — of the ulcer, Hamlet is coming back to Elsinore.

“What are you willing to do that will show yourself to be your father’s son in deed and not just in words?”

“I am willing to cut Hamlet’s throat in the church,” Laertes replied.

“No place, indeed, should be a sanctuary for a murderer,” King Claudius said.

He meant that no place should be a sanctuary for Hamlet, but if Laertes were to murder Hamlet, then King Claudius’ sentence would apply also to Laertes.

King Claudius continued, “Revenge should have no bounds.

He meant that Laertes’ revenge should have no bounds, but his sentence could apply also to Hamlet’s revenge.

King Claudius continued, “But, good Laertes, will you do what I want you to do? Will you stay hidden within your chamber? When Hamlet returns, he will learn that you are here. I will have other people praise your excellence in fencing; their praise will be added to that of the Norman.

“We will then finally bring you two together, and place bets on the duel. Hamlet is carelessly trusting; he is very magnanimous and he does not engage in deceitful practices, and so he will not closely inspect the swords. Therefore, you can easily — or, if need be, use some trickery to — choose a sword that has not been blunted. In the duel, you will kill him and avenge your father.”

“I will do it,” Laertes said. “And, to make sure I kill Hamlet, I’ll anoint my sword with poison. I bought an ointment from a mountebank — a travelling quack. The ointment is so poisonous and deadly that if a knife that has been dipped in it draws blood, there is no mixture of medicines so strong that it can save the person who has been scratched.

“I will touch the point of my sword with this contagion, with the result that, if I touch him even slightly, he will die.”

“Let me think further about this,” King Claudius said. “Let me figure out which time and which method are most likely to work. If this plot should fail, and if our part in it should become known, it would have been better for us not to have tried it. Therefore, we should have a backup plan to kill Hamlet, in case this plan fails to work.

“Think! Let me see. We’ll make a solemn wager on your respective skills — I have it!

“When in your duel you both are hot and dry — make the duel very active to achieve that end — and so Hamlet calls for something to drink, I’ll have prepared a chalice of poisoned drink for him for the occasion. If Hamlet merely sips from the chalice, he will die, even if he escapes being injured by your poisoned sword.”

Queen Gertrude entered the room.

King Claudius asked, “How are you, sweet Queen?”

“One woe treads upon another woe’s heel, so fast they follow,” she replied. “Ophelia, your sister, has drowned, Laertes.”

“Drowned! Where?”

“There is a willow that is growing slantingly over a brook,” Queen Gertrude replied. “The grey undersides of its leaves are reflected in the glassy waters of the stream. There Ophelia came with fantastic garlands of crow-flowers, non-stinging nettles, daisies, and long purple flowers that rudely speaking shepherds give a crude name, but that our chaste maidens call dead men’s fingers.

“There, as she clambered on the boughs to hang her coronet weeds, an envious branch broke, and she and her flowery trophies fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide, and for a while they bore her up like a mermaid, during which time she chanted snatches of old tunes, like one who is incapable of understanding the danger she was in, or like a creature born and equipped to live in water, but before long her clothing, heavy with their drink, pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay down to muddy death.”

“Alas, then, she is drowned!” Laertes exclaimed.

“Drowned! Drowned!” Queen Gertrude said.

“Too much water you have had, poor Ophelia,” Laertes said, “and therefore I forbid my tears to fall, but yet crying with grief is our way; nature must have her custom, let shame say what it will. When these tears are gone, the womanish part of me will be out of my body.”

He said to King Claudius, “Adieu, my lord. I have a speech of fire, which would like to blaze, except that this folly of tears puts it out.”

He exited from the room.

King Claudius said, “Let’s follow him, Gertrude. How much effort I had to make to calm Laertes’ rage! Now I fear this will start it up again. Therefore let’s follow him.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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