David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Act 5, Scene 2

— 5.2 —

Hamlet and Horatio talked together in a hall in the castle.

“So much for that,” Hamlet said. “Now let me tell you the other part of my story. Do you remember the background?”

“I remember, my lord,” Horatio replied.

“Sir, in my heart, while I was on the ship sailing to England, there was a kind of fighting that would not let me sleep. I thought that I lay more uncomfortably than failed mutineers in fetters. I then acted rashly — and let me praise rashness because rash actions sometimes serve us well when our carefully planned plots falter. That should teach us that a divinity shapes what happens to us although we ineffectually and roughly try to shape what happens to us.”

“That is most certain and true,” Horatio replied.

“Rashly, I got up from my cabin, with my long sea-coat wrapped about me. In the dark I groped to find Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I found them, and I took the letter that King Claudius had given to them to give to the King of England. Finally, I withdrew to my own room again, where I made so bold — my fears making me forget my manners — to unseal the letter, which was their grand commission.

“Written in the letter I found, Horatio — oh, royal knavery! — an exact command, garnished with many different sorts of reasons about what is good for the King of Denmark and what is good for the King of England, too, with a description of the danger I would be if I remained alive, that the King of England, as soon as he had read this letter should without delay — even a delay to sharpen the axe — cut off my head.”

“Unbelievable!” Horatio said.

“Here’s the letter itself,” Hamlet replied, handing Horatio the document. “Read it when you have time. Do you want to know what I did?”

“Yes, please.”

“Being thus surrounded with villainies to ensnare me and before I could even begin to consciously think about it, my brain leapt into action — I sat down, thought up a new commission that would supposedly come from King Claudius, and wrote it in an official hand — bureaucrats have to have good handwriting. I used to think, as our statesmen do, that it was base and beneath me to have good handwriting. I even wanted to unlearn what I had learned. But, sir, good handwriting now did me good service. I also imitated the flowery language that King Claudius used in the letter. My forgery of an official letter was quite good. Do you want to know what I wrote?”

“Yes, my good lord.”

“I wrote an earnest command from King Claudius to the King of England. I wrote that as the King of England was his faithful tributary, as love and friendship ought to flourish between them like the palm tree, as peace ought to come with rural prosperity, and as peace ought to join them in friendship like a comma joins two parts of a sentence, and I wrote many other ‘as’es of great charge — or asses carrying a great burden. The commandment was that the bearers of the letter ought to be put to death immediately — without first being given time to go to a priest for confession, penance, and absolution.”

“Official letters have official seals,” Horatio said. “How did you seal this letter?”

“Why, even in that was Heaven provident,” Hamlet replied. “I had my father’s signet ring in my possession; it was a replica of that Danish seal. I folded up the letter the same way as the original letter, signed it with the name of King Claudius, used my father’s signet ring to form an impression on the wax that sealed the letter, and replaced it safely. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did not realize that the letter had been replaced.

“The following day, pirates attacked us, and you know what happened after that.”

“So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to their deaths,” Horatio said.

“Why, man, they made love to this employment given to them by King Claudius,” Hamlet said. “They were eager to serve him and carry out his orders. Their deaths will not disturb my conscience; their deaths will occur because of their own actions. It is dangerous for the baser sort of people to come in between the thrusts of dangerous rapiers wielded by angry and powerful enemies.”

“Why, what a King is this Claudius!” Horatio said.

“Claudius has killed my father the King and whored my mother, he came in between me and the circle of nobles who selected the next King and thus dashed my hope to be King, he has tried to get me killed with trickery despite our being kin. Don’t you think I have a right to take action? Wouldn’t it be perfect if I were to get revenge against him? Wouldn’t it be damnable to allow this canker — this cancer, this malignant sore — of our human nature to commit further evil?”

“King Claudius will soon learn what has happened in England. He will learn that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead,” Horatio said.

“He will learn that soon, but I can act quickly,” Hamlet replied. “A man’s life’s is so short that he can do no more than to say ‘One’ before he dies. But I am very sorry, good Horatio, that I forgot myself when I saw Laertes. I should not have spoken to him the way I did. He and I are suffering the same kind of grief. By looking at the reflection of my cause, I see the portrait of his.”

Both Hamlet and Laertes were mourning the death of Ophelia, and both were mourning the death of their fathers. In Laertes’ case, however, it was Hamlet who had killed his father.

Hamlet continued, “I’ll court Laertes’ favor and try to be friends with him. But the passionate expression of his grief over Ophelia’s death certainly put me into a towering passion and anger.”

Horatio said, “I hear someone. Who is coming here?”

Osric, a foolish courtier, entered the room.

Osric took off his hat to show respect to Hamlet, who was higher in society than he was.

“Your lordship is very welcome back to Denmark,” Osric said to Hamlet.

“I humbly thank you, sir,” Hamlet replied.

Hamlet, who had little or no respect for Osric, asked Horatio, “Do you know this mosquito?”

“No, my good lord.”

“You are lucky, because it is unfortunate to know him,” Hamlet said. “He has much land, and it is fertile. Let a beast be the lord of beasts, and a plate for him shall be put on the King’s dining table. This man is a chatterer, but as I say, he enjoys the possession of a large quantity of dirt.”

“Sweet lord, if your lordship is at leisure, I would like to impart a thing to you from his majesty,” Osric said.

“I will receive it, sir, with all diligence of spirit,” Hamlet said.

Osric was using fancy language, and so Hamlet was using fancy language as a form of mockery.

Hamlet added, “You have already shown courtesy to me by taking off your hat. That is enough courtesy. You may put your hat on your head again.”

Osric, who was a stickler for the rules of etiquette, replied, “I thank your lordship, but it is very hot.”

This was an excuse for him not to put on his hat in front of Prince Hamlet.

“No, believe me, it is very cold,” Hamlet said. “The wind is blowing from the north.”

“It is rather cold, my lord, indeed,” Osric said.

“But yet I think that it is very sultry and hot for my temperament,” Hamlet said.

“Exceedingly, my lord,” Osric replied. “It is very sultry, as it were — I cannot tell how. But, my lord, his majesty asked me to tell you that he has laid a great wager on your head. Sir, this is the message —”

“Please,” Hamlet said. He motioned for Osric to put on his hat.

“No, my good lord,” Osric said. “I am more comfortable like this, believe me.”

He added, “Sir, Laertes is newly come to court. Believe me, he is a perfect gentleman, full of most excellent distinguishing characteristics, of very pleasing manners and handsome appearance. Indeed, to speak justly of him, he is the model of gentlemanly behavior, for you shall find in him the container of whatever parts a gentleman would want to see in another gentleman.”

Hamlet continued to satirize Osric’s elevated language: “Sir, Laertes suffers no loss when you describe him, although, I know, to mention each item in his inventory of good qualities would dizzy the arithmetic of memory, and still lag behind because of his many excellences. But, in the truth of extolling his great qualities, I take him to be a soul of greatness. His infusion of such rare excellences are such that, to speak true diction of him, his only equal is the image in his mirror; and whoever would try to match him would be only his shadow, nothing more.”

“Your lordship speaks most infallibly of him,” Osric said.

“What is the concernancy, sir?” Hamlet said. “Why does this concern us? Why do we wrap the gentleman with our gasping breath — breath that gasps with admiration for him?”

“Sir?” Osric asked.

“Is it not possible to speak in another tongue?” Horatio asked. “Can’t you two use a simpler language? Not even Osric can understand this language. Eventually, you will have to use simpler language.”

Hamlet continued to use fancy language: “What imports the nomination — the naming — of this gentleman?”

“Of Laertes?”

“Osric’s purse is empty already,” Horatio said. “All his golden words are spent.”

“Yes, I mean him, sir,” Hamlet said.

“I know you are not ignorant —” Osric started to say.

“I wish you did know that I am not ignorant, sir,” Hamlet interrupted, “but yet, truly, if you did know that I am not ignorant, it still would not give me much credit. Well, sir?”

Osric tried to continue: “You are not ignorant of Laertes’ excellence —”

Hamlet interrupted, “I dare not confess that I know his excellence, lest I should be thought to be saying that I share his excellence. In order for me truly to understand his excellence, I would have to possess and demonstrate that I possess that excellence.”

“I mean, sir, Laertes’ excellence with his weapons,” Osric said. “In the opinion of people who are in his service, he is unequalled in excellence with them.”

“What’s his weapon?” Hamlet asked.

“Rapier and dagger,” Osric replied.

“That’s two of his weapons, but that is fine,” Hamlet said.

“King Claudius, sir, has wagered six Barbary horses that you can defeat Laertes, who has in turn impawned six French rapiers and daggers, with their accessories, including belts, straps attaching the sword to the belt, and so on. Three of the carriages, truly, are very well designed, very appropriate for the hilts, very finely wrought carriages, and very richly decorated.”

“What do you mean by the word ‘carriages’?” Hamlet said.

“I knew that you would need explanatory notes in the margins — or footnotes or endnotes — before you were done talking to him,” Horatio said to Hamlet.

“The carriages, sir, are the hangers,” Osric said.

Osric was mistaken. Hangers were the straps attaching the sword to the belt. Carriages were wheeled structures used to transport cannon.

“The word would be more appropriate if wecould carry cannon by our sides instead of swords,” Hamlet said. “Until then, I prefer that we continue to use the word ‘hangers.’

“But let us move on. King Claudius has bet six Barbary horses, and Laertes has bet six French swords and their accessories, including three richly decorated ‘carriages.’ The things wagered show it is Denmark versus France.

“But what is this wager about? Why is this stuff — ‘impawned,’ you call it — being wagered?”

“King Claudius, sir, has bet that in a dozen bouts between yourself and Laertes, Laertes shall not defeat you by three bouts. Whoever touches the other with their blunted rapier will get a hit and win that bout. If Laertes wins eight bouts, he wins the bet; if you win five bouts, you win the bet for King Claudius. The bouts can begin right away if you vouchsafe — give me — your answer.”

“What if I answer ‘no’?” Hamlet asked.

“I mean, my lord, if you vouchsafe the opposition of your person in trial,” Osric said.

“Sir, I will walk here in the hall,” Hamlet replied. “If it please his majesty, it is the time of day for exercise with me. Let the foils — the rapiers — be brought, if the gentleman Laertes is willing, and if King Claudius wants the fencing match to proceed. I will win the fencing match for King Claudius if I can; if I cannot, I will gain nothing but my shame and the hits that Laertes will give me.”

“Should I give this answer to the King?” Osric asked.

“Yes, sir,” Hamlet said. “Add to it whatever rhetorical flourishes you wish to add.”

“I commend my duty to your lordship,” Osric said.

The verb “commend” can mean either “present, aka offer” or “praise.” Osric meant he was presenting his duty to Hamlet — a fancy way of saying that he would run the errand for Hamlet.

“Yours,” Hamlet replied. This was a dismissal.

Osric put his hat on his head and left to run the errand.

Hamlet said to Horatio, “He does well to commend — to praise — his duty himself; no one else would praise it for him.”

“This young lapwing runs away with the eggshell on his head,” Horatio said.

Lapwings were proverbially young and stupid birds. They left the nest quickly after hatching from their eggs — so quickly that it were as if they still had a piece of the eggshell on top of their head.

Hamlet said about Osric’s excessive sense of etiquette and formality, “He used to bow courteously to his mother’s nipple, before he sucked it.

“This drossy age — this shoddy age with no sense of real nobility — dotes on Osric and many more of the same company, but they have only got the tune of the time and the outward habit of encounter. They look the part of a courtier, and they can make some of the sounds of a courtier, but they have no substance. They have a kind of yeasty collection of rhetorical tricks that helps them mingle with — and impose on — men of very carefully considered and winnowed opinions. If all you do is blow on Osric and others like him, you blow away the bubbles and nothing remains.”

A lord entered the hall and said, “My lord, his majesty sent his compliments to you by young Osric, who brings back to him the news that you will attend him in the hall. He sent me to ask you if your pleasure is still to fence now with Laertes, or if you want to fence later.”

“I am constant to my purpose,” Hamlet said. “I will do whatever pleases the King. If he wants me to fence now, I am ready. If he wants me to fence later, I will fence later. Now or later are both fine, as long as I am as fit and ready to fence as I am now.”

“The King and Queen and all the others will come down to the hall now,” the lord said.

“In happy time,” Hamlet said. “Now is as good a time as any.”

“The Queen wants you to be courteous to Laertes before you begin to fence,” the lord said.

“She well instructs me,” Hamlet said. “I will do as she wishes.”

The Lord exited from the hall.

Horatio said, “You will lose this wager, my lord.”

“I do not think so,” Hamlet replied. “Ever since Laertes went to France, I have been continually practicing fencing. I shall win at the odds given — Laertes has been given a handicap. You cannot imagine how ill I feel here in my heart, but that does not matter.”

“My good lord —” Horatio began to say.

“It is only foolishness,” Hamlet interrupted. “It is such a kind of misgiving, such as would perhaps trouble a woman.”

“If your mind feels uneasy, listen to it,” Horatio replied. “I will stop them from coming here, and I will tell them that you are not ready to fence.”

“No,” Hamlet said. “We defy omens and the interpretation of omens. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.”

Hamlet was thinking of the Bible. Matthew 10:29-31 recounts the words of Jesus when he was reassuring his disciples, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father.But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.”

Hamlet continued, “If death comes now, death will not come later. If death does not come later, death will come now. If death does not come now, then death must come later. The readiness is all. Since no man knows anything about what he leaves, what does it matter if he dies now?”

Again, Hamlet was thinking of the Bible. Matthew 24:44 states, “Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.” We must always be ready for death. And since we do not know what we leave behind, we ought not to fear an early death. An early death may stop us from having a long and wretched life.

Hamlet heard a noise and said, “But let’s say no more.”

King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Laertes, some lords, Osric, and some attendants entered the hall. The attendants brought such items as rapiers.

“Come, Hamlet, come, and take this hand from me,” King Claudius, who was holding Laertes’ hand, said.

King Claudius put Laertes’ hand into Hamlet’s hand.

Hamlet said politely to Laertes, “Give me your pardon, sir; I’ve done you wrong. But pardon it, as you are a gentleman. This presence — this assembly of people — knows, and you must have heard, how I am punished with sore distraction — severe mental distress. What I have done that might roughly awake your natural filial feelings, honor, and disapproval, I here proclaim was done due to my madness.

“Was it Hamlet who wronged Laertes? Never was it Hamlet. If Hamlet is taken away from himself, and when he is not himself he does wrong Laertes, then Hamlet does not do it — Hamlet denies doing it. Hamlet is not responsible for his action.

“Who does it, then? His madness. If this is true, then Hamlet is one of the people who are wronged. His own madness is poor Hamlet’s enemy.

“Sir, in front of this audience, I proclaim my innocence and I disavow all intended and intentional evil. Let this free me so far in your most generous thoughts — believe that I have shot my arrow over the house, and hurt my brother. I have not done anything with the intention to hurt you.”

How are Hamlet and Laertes like brothers? They both loved Ophelia, and they both suffered the death of Ophelia and the killing of their father.

Laertes replied, “I am satisfied so far as natural feeling goes, although the deaths of my father and my sister ought to drive me to seek revenge — but I am not satisfied so far as my honor is concerned. I will not be reconciled with you until some elder masters, of known honor, give me a statement based on precedent that favors peace and reconciliation and will keep my name and reputation unsullied. But until that time, I accept your offered friendship as friendship, and I will not wrong or spurn it.”

Despite his words, Laertes was still planning to kill Hamlet in the fencing contest.

“I am grateful that you accept my offered friendship,” Hamlet said. “And I will frankly and freely participate in this wager between brothers.”

He said to the attendants, “Give us the foils — the rapiers.”

“Give me a foil,” Laertes said.

“I’ll be your foil, Laertes,” Hamlet said. “Against the background of my ignorance of fencing, your skill shall, like a star in the darkest night, stick out as fiery indeed.”

Hamlet was punning on the word “foil.” One meaning of “foil” was “rapier”; another was “setting for a rich gem.” The foil was designed to show off the rich gem to best advantage.

“You mock me, sir,” Laertes said.

“No, I swear it by this hand,” Hamlet said, holding up a hand.

“Give them the foils, young Osric,” King Claudius said.

He added, “Kinsman Hamlet, do you know the wager?”

“Very well, my lord,” Hamlet said. “Your grace has wagered on the weaker side.”

“I do not fear betting on you to win,” King Claudius replied. “I have seen you both fence. But since Laertes is better, we therefore have odds. Laertes has a handicap.”

Laertes said, “This rapier is too heavy; let me see another.”

He was being careful to get the rapier whose point was not blunted and to whose point poison had been applied.

“I like this rapier well,” Hamlet said. “These foils are all the same length?”

“Yes, my good lord,” Osric answered.

A fencer with a longer rapier than the other fencer would have an unfair advantage.

“Set the flagons of wine upon that table,” King Claudius ordered. “If Hamlet gives the first or second hit, or after having lost the first two bouts wins the third bout, let all the battlements their cannon fire. The King shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath and enhanced vigor, and he will throw a union in the cup of wine. This union shall be richer than any that four successive Kings of Denmark have worn in their crown.”

A union is a very valuable pearl, one valuable enough to be worn in the crown of a King. The wine would dissolve the pearl, something that was supposed to honor Hamlet, who would drink the wine.

King Claudius continued, “Give me the cups. And let the kettledrum speak to the trumpet, and the trumpet speak to the cannoneers outside, and the cannons speak to the Heavens, and the Heavens speak to the Earth, and let them all say, ‘Now the King drinks to Hamlet.’

“Come, begin the fencing contest. You judges, keep a close eye on the contest.”

“Come on, sir,” Hamlet said to Laertes.

“Come on, my lord,” Laertes replied.

They fenced.

“One,” Hamlet said. “I have hit you. I have touched you with the point of my rapier.”

“No,” Laertes said.

“Judgment,” Hamlet requested of the judges.

“A hit, a very palpable hit,” Osric said.

“Well, so be it,” Laertes said. “Let us fence again.”

“Wait,” King Claudius said. “Give me a drink. Hamlet, this pearl is yours. Here’s to your health.”

King Claudius drank, and kettledrums and trumpets sounded and the cannons fired.

King Claudius put the pearl and some poison in a cup of wine and said, “Give Hamlet the cup.”

“I’ll play this bout first,” Hamlet said. “Set the cup of wine aside for awhile.”

He said to Laertes, “Come on.”

They fenced, and Hamlet said, “Another hit; what do you say?”

“A touch, a touch, I do confess it,” Laertes replied.

“Our son shall win,” King Claudius said.

“He’s sweaty, and out of breath,” Queen Gertrude said. “Here, Hamlet, take my handkerchief and rub your brows. The Queen drinks to your fortune, Hamlet.”

She picked up the cup of poisoned wine.

“Good madam,” Hamlet saluted her.

“Gertrude, do not drink,” King Claudius said.

“I will, my lord,” Queen Gertrude said. “Please, pardon me.”

She drank.

King Claudius thought, It is the poisoned cup: it is too late to save her life.

Hamlet said to his mother, “I dare not drink yet, madam, but I will by and by.”

“Come, let me wipe your face,” she said.

“My lord, I’ll get a hit against him now,” Laertes said.

“I do not think so,” the King replied.

Hamlet’s skill in fencing had impressed Laertes, who thought, And yet it almost goes against my conscience to kill him.

To use poison in what was supported to be a friendly fencing contest was a violation of honor, as was using an unblunted rapier against an opponent who was using a blunt rapier.

 “Come on, let us fight the third bout, Laertes,” Hamlet said. “You are only dallying, not fencing. Please, make your thrust with the utmost force that you can. I am afraid that you are treating me as if I were a child.”

“Do you think that?” Laertes said. “Come on and fence!”

They fenced.

“Nothing, either way,” Osric said. “No hits scored.”

“Have at you now!” Laertes said.

They fenced, and Laertes wounded Hamlet. They wrestled, dropped their rapiers, and picked up each other’s rapier. Hamlet now had the poisoned rapier.

“Part them; they are incensed,” King Claudius ordered.

“No,” Hamlet said.

He said to Laertes, “Come, let us fence again.”

They fenced, and Hamlet wounded Laertes.

Queen Gertrude fell.

“Look after the Queen!” Osric shouted. “Stop the fencing!”

“Both Hamlet and Laertes are bleeding,” Horatio said. “The points of their rapiers ought to have been blunted.”

He asked Hamlet, “How are you, my lord?”

Osric asked Laertes, “How are you, my lord?”

Laertes replied, “Why, I am like a famously foolish woodcock captured in my own trap, Osric. I am justly killed because of my own treachery.”

“How is the Queen?” Hamlet asked.

“She fainted when she saw them bleed,” King Claudius said.

“No, no, the drink, the drink — oh, my dear Hamlet — the drink, the drink! I am poisoned,” Queen Gertrude said.

She died.

“Villainy!” Hamlet shouted. “Lock the door! Treachery! Find the source of the treachery!”

“It is here, Hamlet,” Laertes said. “Hamlet, you are slain. No medicine in the world can do you any good. You have not half an hour of life left. The treacherous instrument is in your hand; its sharp point has been dipped in poison. The foul trickery has turned itself on me. Here I lie, never to rise again. Your mother has been poisoned. I will live no more. The King — the King’s to blame.”

“The sharp point of this rapier!” Hamlet said. “Dipped in poison, too! Then, venom, do your work.”

Hamlet stabbed King Claudius.

People shouted, “Treason! Treason!”

“Defend me, friends,” King Claudius pleaded. “I am only wounded.”

“Here, you incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, drink the rest of this poisoned potion.”

Hamlet forced King Claudius to drink the poison.

As King Claudius died, Hamlet said to him, “Is your union here? Follow my mother.”

Even now Hamlet was able to pun. “Union” meant both “valuable pearl” and “marriage between King Claudius and Queen Gertrude.”

“He is justly served,” Laertes said. “It is a poison he himself mixed. Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet. My death and my father’s death will not fall upon you, and your death will not fall on me. We will forgive each other.”

“May Heaven absolve you of blame!” Hamlet said. “I follow you. I am dead, Horatio. Wretched Queen, adieu!

“Those of you who look pale and tremble at this mischance, who are only mutes or audience to this act, if I only had time — this fell sergeant, death, is strict in his arrest and will not give me time — I could tell you … but let it be.

“Horatio, I am dead, but you live. To those who do not know, tell them about me and my reasons for acting the way I have.”

“No,” Horatio said. “Don’t believe that I will do that. I am more an ancient Roman than a Dane. I am willing to commit suicide. There is still some poisoned wine left in the cup.”

Horatio picked up the cup, but Hamlet grabbed his arms and said, “As you are a man, give me the cup. Let go — by Heaven, I will have it.”

He wrestled the cup away from Horatio and said, “Good Horatio, I shall leave a badly wounded reputation behind me unless people understand why I acted the way I have acted. If you have ever regarded me as a friend in your heart, absent you from happiness for awhile — stay out of Paradise for awhile — and in this harsh world draw your breath in pain. That way, you can tell other people my story.”

The sound of marching soldiers and the sound of firing cannons were heard.

Hamlet asked, “What warlike noise is this?”

Osric came back from the door and said, “Young Fortinbras, coming victorious from Poland, gives this warlike volley to salute the also newly arrived ambassadors from England.”

“I am dying, Horatio,” Hamlet said. “The potent poison quite conquers my spirit. I will not live to hear the news from England. But I do prophesy that the nobles will select Fortinbras to be the next King of Denmark. He has my dying voice and recommendation; I want him to succeed me. So tell him my story, as I have urged you, with all its occurrences, greater and lesser.”

He paused and then said, “The rest is silence.”

He gave a long sigh and died.

“Now stops a noble heart,” Horatio said. “Good night, sweet Prince, and may flights of angels sing you to your rest!”

Drums sounded, and Horatio asked, “Why are the drums coming toward us?”

Young Fortinbras, the English ambassadors, and others entered the hall.

“Where is what I have come to see?” Fortinbras said.

“What is it you want to see?” Horatio replied. “If you want to see sights of woe or wonder, sorrow or disaster, cease your search.”

Fortinbras looked at all the dead bodies and said, “This quarry cries on havoc.”

The word “quarry” was a hunting term that meant “a heap of slain animals.” “To cry on havoc” meant “to loudly proclaim great slaughter.”

Fortinbras continued, “Proud death, what feast is being prepared in your eternal cell, that you so many Princes at a shot so bloodily have struck down?”

An English ambassador said, “This sight is dismal; and our news from England has come too late. The ears — those of King Claudius — are senseless that should have listened to our news. We came here to tell him that his commandment has been fulfilled — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. From whom should we now have our thanks?”

“Not from King Claudius’ mouth, even if he were alive to thank you,” Horatio said. “He never gave the order for their death.

“But since you, Fortinbras, who have come from the war in Poland, and you, ambassadors from England, have all here arrived opportunely at this bloody time, please give orders that these bodies be placed high on a platform so that people can view them, and let me speak to the yet unknowing world and say how these things came about.

“You shall hear about carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, about divine justice administered by what seem to be accidents, about slaughters due to chance, about deaths instigated by cunning and foul means, and, in this upshot, about purposes mistook that fell back on their inventors’ heads.

“I can tell you about all of these things.”

“Let us make haste to hear what you have to say,” Fortinbras said. “We will call the noblest people to be in the audience.

“As for me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune. I have some still-remembered rights in this Kingdom, and now circumstances allow me to claim my rights. I have some claim to be the King of Denmark.”

“Of that I shall also have cause to speak,” Horatio said. “And I will talk about the words that Hamlet said as he lay dying; he gave you his voice and recommendation, and those will encourage other nobles to make you King.

“But let what I have recommended be immediately done. Men’s minds are wild because they do not know Hamlet’s story. More misfortunes may happen unless we stop plots and correct errors.”

“Let four Captains bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the platform,” Fortinbras said. “Hamlet was likely, had he been put on the throne, to have proved to be most royal. To mark his passing, soldiers’ music and the rites of war — such as saluting him with a volley of shots — will speak loudly for him.

“Take up the bodies. Such a sight as this becomes a battlefield, but here it is much amiss.

“Go, order the soldiers to shoot a volley of shots to honor Hamlet.”

Marching music sounded. They carried away the bodies, and a salute of gunshots sounded.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


Edgar Lee Masters: Nancy Knapp and Barry Holden and State’s Attorney Fallas (Spoon River Anthology)

Nancy Knapp

WELL, don’t you see this was the way of it:
We bought the farm with what he inherited,
And his brothers and sisters accused him of poisoning
His fathers mind against the rest of them.
And we never had any peace with our treasure.
The murrain took the cattle, and the crops failed.
And lightning struck the granary.
So we mortgaged the farm to keep going.
And he grew silent and was worried all the time.
Then some of the neighbors refused to speak to us,
And took sides with his brothers and sisters.
And I had no place to turn, as one may say to himself,
At an earlier time in life;
“No matter, So and so is my friend, or I can shake this off
With a little trip to Decatur.”
Then the dreadfulest smells infested the rooms.
So I set fire to the beds and the old witch-house
Went up in a roar of flame,
As I danced in the yard with waving arms,
While he wept like a freezing steer.

Barry Holden

THE very fall my sister Nancy Knapp
Set fire to the house
They were trying Dr. Duval
For the murder of Zora Clemens,
And I sat in the court two weeks
Listening to every witness.
It was clear he had got her in a family
And to let the child be born
Would not do.
Well, how about me with eight children,
And one coming, and the farm
Mortgaged to Thomas Rhodes?
And when I got home that night,
(After listening to the story of the buggy ride,
And the finding of Zora in the ditch,)
The first thing I saw, right there by the steps,
Where the boys had hacked for angle worms,
Was the hatchet!
And just as I entered there was my wife,
Standing before me, big with child.
She started the talk of the mortgaged farm,
And I killed her.

State’s Attorney Fallas

l, THE scourge-wielder, balance-wrecker,
Smiter with whips and swords;
I, hater of the breakers of the law;
I, legalist, inexorable and bitter,
Driving the jury to hang the madman, Barry Holden,
Was made as one dead by light too bright for eyes,
And woke to face a Truth with bloody brow:
Steel forceps fumbled by a doctor’s hand
Against my boy’s head as he entered life
Made him an idiot. I turned to books of science
To care for him.
That’s how the world of those whose minds are sick
Became my work in life, and all my world.
Poor ruined boy! You were, at last, the potter
And I and all my deeds of charity
The vessels of your hand.


Lao-Tzu #72: Do not meddle with people’s livelihoods; if you respect them, they will in turn respect you.



When people become overly bold,

then disaster will soon arrive.


Do not meddle with people’s livelihoods;

if you respect them, they will in turn respect you.


Therefore, the Master knows herself but is not arrogant.

She loves herself but also loves others.

This is how she is able to make appropriate choices.


Tao Te Ching

By Lao-Tzu

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


Aesop: The Ass’s Brains

The Lion and the Fox went hunting together. The Lion, on the advice of the Fox, sent a message to the Ass, proposing to make an alliance between their two families. The Ass came to the place of meeting, overjoyed at the prospect of a royal alliance. But when he came there the Lion simply pounced on the Ass, and said to the Fox: ‘Here is our dinner for today. Watch you here while I go and have a nap. Woe betide you if you touch my prey.’ The Lion went away and the Fox waited; but finding that his master did not return, ventured to take out the brains of the Ass and ate them up. When the Lion came back he soon noticed the absence of the brains, and asked the Fox in a terrible voice: ‘What have you done with the brains?’

‘Brains, your Majesty! it had none, or it would never have fallen into your trap.’

Wit has always an answer ready.


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