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

— 2.2 —

In a room in the castle, King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern were speaking. Also present were various attendants.

“Welcome, dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern!” King Claudius said. “We have much wanted to see you, but in addition, we need you to do something for us and so we sent a message to you to come quickly to us. You must have heard something about a change in Hamlet. We can say that he has been transformed since he is different both outside and inside. Neither the exterior nor the inward man resembles what it was.

“What the cause of this transformation, other than his father’s death, can be, I cannot dream. Therefore, I ask you both, since from childhood you have been brought up with him, and since you know his youth and behavior so well, to agree to stay here in our court for a little while. That way, you two can encourage Hamlet to engage in pleasurable activities, and we hope that you can learn whether there is something, unknown to us, that is afflicting him — something that, once we know what it is, we can set to rights.”

“Good gentlemen,” Queen Gertrude said, “Hamlet has talked a lot about you, and I am sure that there are not two men living with whom he is friendlier. If it will please you to show us so much gentlemanly courtesy and good will as to spend time with us for a while, and to help us, we will reward your visit with such thanks as only a King can give.”

Rosencrantz replied, “Both your majesties can, by the sovereign power you have over us, simply command rather than request us to do something.”

“But we will both obey you,” Guildenstern said, “and here we give up ourselves, and we fully and freely lay our service at your feet. Command us as you will.”

“Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern,” King Claudius said.

“Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz,” Queen Gertrude said, adding, “I ask you to immediately visit my too-much-changed son.”

She said to the attendants, “Go, some of you. Take these gentlemen to where Hamlet is.”

“May the Heavens make our presence and our actions pleasant and helpful to him!” Guildenstern replied.

“Amen!” Queen Gertrude said.

Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and some attendants departed.

Polonius entered the room and said, “The ambassadors from Norway, my good lord, have returned. They are joyful.”

“You have always been the father of good news,” King Claudius said.

“Have I, my lord?” Polonius replied. “I assure my good liege that I perform my duty to both my God and my King as carefully as I guard my soul.”

He added, “I think, or else this brain of mine is not as able as it used to be to follow a track or scent that requires a knowledge of men and political affairs, that I have found the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.”

“Tell us the cause,” King Claudius said. “I very much want to know that.”

“First allow the ambassadors to come here and give you their news,” Polonius said. “My news shall be the fruit — the dessert — to that great feast.”

“You may do the honors of welcoming the ambassadors and bringing them in here,” King Claudius replied.

Polonius left to do his duty.

King Claudius said to Queen Gertrude, “He tells me, my dear Gertrude, that he has found the head and source — the cause — of your son’s illness.”

“I doubt that it is anything but what we most suspect it is: his father’s death and our very quick marriage.”

“Well, we shall question Polonius thoroughly.”

Polonius returned, bringing with him King Claudius’ ambassadors to Norway: Voltemand and Cornelius.

King Claudius said, “Welcome, my good friends! Tell me, Voltemand, what news do you bring us from our fellow ruler the King of Norway?”

“I bring very fair greetings from him to you, and I bring a very fair answer to your requests of him. Immediately after our first meeting with him, he sent out men to stop his nephew from drafting men into an army. The King of Norway had thought that his nephew was raising an army to attack Poland, but after an investigation, he found that the army was actually being raised to attack your highness. Once he learned that, he was aggrieved and angry that he had been deceived in his sickness, old age, and lack of strength. He sent orders to young Fortinbras to stop preparing for war and to appear before him. Fortinbras came to the castle, received a rebuke from the King of Norway, and in the end vowed to his uncle the King that he would never again plan to make war against your majesty. Hearing this, the old King of Norway, overcome with joy, gave him an annuity of three thousand crowns, and he gave him permission to use his soldiers to make war against Poland. With that in mind, he gave us a document that entreats you for permission for Fortinbras’ army to cross Denmark so the soldiers can make war against Poland.”

Voltemand handed King Claudius a document and said, “The King of Norway hopes that you will give your permission to this enterprise. This document lays down guarantees for the safety of Denmark if you allow the Norwegian army to cross it.”

“We like this well,” King Claudius said, using the royal plural. He added, “And when we have more time to consider this matter, we will read this document carefully, send an answer to the King of Norway, and think about the far-reaching consequences that can follow what we decide.

“In the meantime, we thank you for your successfully undertaken labor. Go and rest now; at night we’ll feast together. Most welcome home!”

Voltemand and Cornelius departed.

Polonius said, “This business is well ended. My liege, and madam, to make a speech about what a King should be, what duty is, why day is day, night is night, and time is time, would accomplish nothing but to waste night, day, and time. Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness is the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. Your noble son is mad; he is insane. Mad call I it; because, to define true madness, what is true madness except to be nothing else but mad? But let that go.”

Queen Gertrude said, “More matter, with less art. More content, with fewer rhetorical flourishes.”

Polonius replied, “Madam, I swear I use no rhetorical flourishes at all. That Hamlet is mad, it is true. It is true that his madness is a pity, and it is a pity that it is true. But these are rhetorical flourishes, so I will stop using them, because I do not want to use rhetorical flourishes.

“Let us grant that Hamlet is mad, then. What now remains is to discover the cause of this effect, or I should better say, to discover the cause of this defect, because this defective effect has a cause. Thus it remains, and that is the remainder. Perpend. Listen carefully. I have a daughter — I have her while she is mine, which is until she marries — who, in her duty and obedience to me, you see, has given me this. Now gather, and think about this.”

He began to read a letter — written by Hamlet to Ophelia — out loud:

To the celestial, and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia,

“That’s an ill word, a vile word; ‘beautified’ is a vile word: but you shall hear the rest of the letter. Here it is:

In her excellent white bosom, this letter, & etc.

Queen Gertrude asked, “Did Hamlet write this letter to her?”

“Good madam, wait awhile,” Polonius said. “As I said that I would do, I will read the rest of the letter:

 “Doubt that the stars are fire;

Doubt that the Sun does move;

Suspect truth to be a liar;

But never doubt I love.

Oh, dear Ophelia, I am bad at writing poetry like this. I do not have the art to count my groans — or to make them scan as poetry. However, believe that I love you best — oh, most best — believe it.Adieu.

Yours evermore, most dear lady, while this complex body belongs to him, HAMLET.

“This letter, in obedience to me, my daughter has shown me. Hamlet also wrote other letters to her. My daughter has told me about his courting of her and at what times and places these acts of courtship occurred.”

“How has she reacted to his courtship of her?” King Claudius asked.

“What do you think about me?”

“I think that you are a faithful and honorable man,” King Claudius said.

“I hope to prove to be that,” Polonius replied. “But what would you have thought if, after I had seen this hot love on the wing — and I perceived it, I must tell you, before my daughter told me — what would you, or my dear majesty your Queen here, have thought if I had been like a notebook and simply recorded the information in my brain and kept silent about it? What if I had closed my eyes to it and kept mute and dumb, or if I had looked upon this love and done nothing? What would you have thought? No, I did not keep quiet. Instead, I took action and I said to my daughter, ‘Lord Hamlet is a Prince, and he is out of your league. This must not be.’ I then gave her orders to lock herself away from his presence, to admit no messengers from him, to receive no tokens of love. She did all these things. Hamlet, repelled by her — a short tale to say — fell into a sadness and depression, then into a fast because of loss of appetite, from thence into insomnia, from thence into a debility, from thence into a delirium, and, by this decline after decline, he finally fell into the madness wherein now he raves, and all of us mourn for him.”

King Claudius asked Queen Gertrude, “Do you think that this is true?”

“It very likely is.”

“Has there ever been a time — I’d like to know — that I have positively said, ‘It is so,’ and it turned out not to be so?” Polonius asked.

“Not that I know of,” King Claudius replied.

Polonius said, “Take my staff of office from my hand, if what I have said turns out not to be true. If I have relevant evidence, I will follow it and will find where the truth is hidden even if it were hidden in the center of the Earth.”

“How may we test whether this is true?” King Claudius asked.

“You know that sometimes Hamlet walks for four or so hours together here in the lobby,” Polonius said.

“So he does indeed,” Queen Gertrude said.

“At one of those times, I’ll loose my daughter so she can go to him.”

Polonius was unaware of the implications of the word “loose.” On a farm, an animal can be loosed so that it will have sex.

He continued, “King Claudius, you and I will be hidden behind an arras — a wall hanging — and we will witness their encounter. If we find out that Hamlet does not love my daughter and that his love for her is not the reason why he is mad, then let me be no longer a minister of state in your court; instead, I will take care of a farm and wagons.”

“We will try your plan,” King Claudius said.

“Look,” Queen Gertrude said. “Hamlet, the poor wretch, is coming here while reading.”

“Leave now,” Polonius said to King Claudius and Queen Gertrude. “Please leave now. I will talk to him alone. Please allow me to do that.”

King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and the remaining servants left the room, leaving behind Polonius and Hamlet.

Polonius asked, “How is my good Lord Hamlet?”

“I am well. May God have mercy on you.”

“Do you know who I am, my lord?”

“I know you very well,” Hamlet replied. “You are a fishmonger — a seller of fish.”

“I am not, my lord,” Polonius said.

“In that case, I wish that you were as honest as a fishmonger.”

“Honest, my lord?”

“Yes, sir,” Hamlet said. “To be an honest man, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.”

“That’s very true, my lord.”

Hamlet read out loud from his book, “For if the Sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a good kissing carrion—”

People in Hamlet’s time and society believed that the Sun shining on — kissing — a corpse causes maggots to come into existence — they did not realize that flies laid eggs on the corpse and maggots hatched out of those eggs.

Hamlet then asked, “Do you have a daughter?”

“I have, my lord.”

“Do not allow her to walk in the Sun. Conception is a blessing, but it would not be a blessing if your daughter were to conceive. Friend, be careful concerning your daughter.”

Hamlet was punning — and speaking inappropriately — about Polonius’ daughter: Ophelia. “Walk in the Sun” can mean “walk in public” or “be made pregnant by the Sun” — if the Sun can bring to life maggots, why can’t it bring to life a human infant? “Conception” can mean “(the ability) to form ideas” or “(the ability) to become pregnant.” “Conceive” can mean “form ideas” or “become pregnant.” Also, Hamlet transitioned from saying the term “kissing carrion” to talking about Ophelia. “Carrion” is a contemptuous term for flesh available for sexual pleasure.

Polonius thought, How about that! He is still thinking and talking about my daughter. But he did not recognize me at first; he said that I was a fishmonger. He is far gone, far gone in his madness. Truly in my youth I suffered very deep distress because I was in love; my distress was very close to this distress that Hamlet is feeling. I’ll speak to him again.

Polonius asked, “What are you reading, my lord?”

“Words, words, words.”

“What is the matter, my lord?”

“Between whom?”

“I mean the subject matter that you are reading, my lord.”

Hamlet replied, “I am reading about slanders, sir. The satirical rogue — the author — says here that old men have grey beards, that their faces are wrinkled, their eyes discharge thick amber sap and plum-tree gum, and they have a plentiful lack of wit, together with very weak legs. Although I most powerfully and potently believe all of these things, sir, yet I do not think that it is courteous to have it thus written down. You yourself, sir, should be as old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward.”

Polonius thought, Though these words are mad, yet there is some sort of meaning in them. Hamlet is ill; he should not be in this cold air.

Polonius asked, “Will you walk out of this air, my lord?”

“Into my grave,” Hamlet replied.

“Indeed, your grave is out of this air,” Polonius said.

He thought, How pregnant with meaning his replies sometimes are! Madness often hits on a happiness of meaning, although reason and sanity could not so quickly and happily come up with that meaning. I will leave Hamlet, and I will quickly contrive a meeting between my daughter and him.

He said to Hamlet, “My honorable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you. Goodbye.”

“You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part with — except my life, except my life, except my life.”

“Fare you well, my lord.”

Hamlet said as Polonius walked away, “These tedious old fools!”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entered the room.

Polonius said to them, “You must be seeking the Lord Hamlet; there he is.”

Rosencrantz replied, “May God save you, sir!”

Polonius departed.

Guildenstern said to Hamlet, “My honored lord!”

Rosencrantz said to Hamlet, “My most dear lord!”

Hamlet replied, “My excellent good friends! How are you, Guildenstern? Ah, Rosencrantz! Good lads, how are you two?”

Rosencrantz replied, “We are ordinary children of the Earth.”

“We are happy in that we are not too happy,” Guildenstern said. “We are not on the button at the very top of Fortune’s cap. We are not riding high on Fortune’s wheel.”

“Are you down so low that you sit at the soles of her shoes?” Hamlet asked.

“We live neither high nor low, my lord,” Rosencrantz said.

“Then do you live about her waist, or in the middle of her favors?” Hamlet asked.

“Indeed, we are the privates of her army. We are ordinary.”

“If you are her privates, you must live in the vicinity of her private and secret parts. This is not a surprise. Lady Fortune is a strumpet,” Hamlet said.

Many people regarded Lady Fortune as being a strumpet — a whore or promiscuous woman. She both gave and withheld good things indiscriminately. She was a fickle goddess — she was faithful to no man.

Hamlet asked them, “What’s the news?”

“There is no news, my lord, except that the world’s grown honest,” Rosencrantz said.

“Then Doomsday — the Day of Judgment — must be near,” Hamlet said. “That is the only thing that could make all the people of the world turn honest. But your news is not true. Let me make my question more specific: What have you, my good friends, done to be sent by Lady Fortune to this prison here?”

“Prison, my lord!” Guildenstern said.

“Denmark’s a prison,” Hamlet said.

“In that case, the world is a prison,” Rosencrantz said.

“The world is a spacious and fine prison,” Hamlet said. “In this world are many places of confinement, prison wards, and dungeons — and Denmark is one of the worst.”

“We think that that is not so, my lord,” Rosencrantz said.

“Why, then, it is not a prison to you,” Hamlet said, “because there is nothing either good or bad, except that thinking makes it so. To me, Denmark is a prison.”

Hamlet thought, There is nothing either good or bad, except that thinking makes it so. How much truth, if any, does that statement have? One’s attitude can affect how we regard something. If I feel that Denmark is a prison to me, then it is a prison to me. But is it true that no objective right and no objective wrong exist?

“Why, then your ambition makes Denmark a prison; it is too narrow for your mind,” Rosencrantz said.

“Oh, God, I could be confined in a nutshell and consider myself a King of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams,” Hamlet replied.

“Such dreams indeed are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream,” Guildenstern said.

“A dream itself is but a shadow,” Hamlet replied.

“Truly, and I think that ambition is of so airy and light a quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow,” Rosencrantz said.

“If that is correct, then only beggars have solid bodies because beggars have no ambition,” Hamlet said. “Our Kings and heroes are then the shadows of the beggars because Kings and heroes are ambitious and therefore shadows, and they must be the shadows of something. The shadows of the heroes are stretched out like shadows early in the morning or late in the afternoon. But perhaps we should go inside the court because my reasoning powers are going wacky.”

“We’ll attend you and be your servants,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern said.

“No,” Hamlet said. “I will not class you with the rest of my servants because, to tell you honestly, I am most dreadfully attended to. But, in the direct way that friends talk to one another, let me ask you this: Why are you here at Elsinore?”

“To visit you, my lord,” Rosencrantz said. “No other reason.”

“I am poor even in thanks, but I thank you,” Hamlet said. “But surely, dear friends, my thanks are too dear a halfpenny.”

Did Hamlet mean that his thanks were not worth a halfpenny because he lacked power in Denmark — his uncle, not Hamlet, had become King after Hamlet’s father died? Or did Hamlet mean that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did not deserve even his poor thanks, which were worth only a halfpenny? If so, Hamlet was already suspecting that King Claudius was using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were spying on Hamlet, then the two men deserved no thanks from Hamlet.

Hamlet then asked, “Weren’t you sent for and asked to come to the court? Did you come here of your own free will? Did you come here voluntarily or were you asked to come here? Come, deal justly with me. Come, come; speak up.”

Guildenstern asked, “What should we say, my lord?”

Hamlet replied, “Why, anything except something that is to the purpose.”

Hamlet did not expect a straight answer — a true answer — from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

He then said, “You were sent for; and there is a kind of confession in your looks that your modesties have not craft enough to color. You cannot hide the truth. I know the good King and Queen have sent for you.”

“For what purpose,my lord?” Rosencrantz asked.

“That you must teach me,” Hamlet replied. “But let me ask you solemnly, by the rights of our fellowship, by the harmonious friendship of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved friendship, and by whatever is more dear that a better proposer than I could mention to you, be even and direct with me. Answer me truthfully: Did someone send for you, or not?”

Rosencrantz whispered to Guildenstern, “What do you think we should say?”

Hamlet thought, I will keep my eyes on you two.

He said out loud, “If you regard me as a friend, answer me truthfully.”

“My lord, we were sent for,” Guildenstern said.

“I will tell you why,” Hamlet said. “No doubt you have promised not to speak honestly to me, and if I tell you why you were sent for, then you do not have to tell me why, and so you can keep your promise to the King and Queen.

“I have recently — but I do not know why — lost all my mirth, neglected my usual occupations; and indeed my mood is so depressed that this good structure, the Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory. I am so depressed that this very excellent canopy, the air — listen to me — this splendid overhanging firmament, this majestic roof decorated with the golden fire we call the Sun — why, it appears as no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and movement, how expressive and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension and understanding, how like a god! Man is the beauty of the world! Man is the paragon — the pattern of excellence — of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Hamlet thought, Genesis 3:19 states, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth: for out of it wast thou taken, because thou art dust, and to dust shalt thou return.”

He continued, “Man does not delight me — no — nor does woman, although by your smiling I judge that you seem to think so.”

“My lord, there was no such stuff in my thoughts,” Rosencrantz said.

“Why did you laugh, then, when I said, ‘Man does not delight me’?”

“I was thinking, my lord, that if you do not delight in man, then some actors who are coming here will receive a Lenten entertainment from you,” Rosencrantz replied. “Lent is a time of fasting and a time when the theaters are closed, and so a Lenten entertainment is a poor entertainment. On our way here, we passed a troupe of actors who are coming here to offer you their service.”

“He who plays the King shall be welcome; his majesty shall receive tribute from me,” Hamlet said. “The adventurous knight shall use his rapier and small shield. The lover shall not sigh for free but shall be paid. The eccentric man shall perform his part and end it in peace. The clown shall make laugh audience members who laugh easily when their lungs are tickled. The boy actor playing the lady shall speak the part freely and well, or the blank verse of the part shall limp because it is badly spoken.

“Which actors are they?”

“You have seen them before,” Rosencrantz replied. “You used to enjoy seeing them — they are the tragedians of the city.”

“Why are they traveling on tour?” Hamlet asked. “Their performing in their home city is better both for their reputation and for their profit.”

“I think that they have been banned from performing in their home city because of some recent political unrest and disturbances.”

“Do they have the same reputation that they had when I was in the city?” Hamlet asked. “Are they as popular now as they were then?”

“No, indeed, they are not,” Rosencrantz said.

“Why not? Have they grown rusty?”

“No, they are as good as they have ever been, but there is, sir, a nest of children, little baby hawks, who squawk louder than anyone else, and who are most excessively applauded for it. These child actors are now the fashion, and they so abuse the common stages — so people call the public theaters — that many fashionable gentlemen wearing rapiers scarcely dare to attend the theaters featuring adult actors because of the goose-quills wielded by poets writing plays for the child actors. In short, the fashionable gentlemen are afraid to attend the theaters featuring adult actors because the poets writing plays for the child actors will satirize them.”

“What? These rival actors are children?” Hamlet asked. “Who takes care of them? How are they maintained financially? Will they pursue the profession of acting no longer than they can sing? Will they stop acting once their voice breaks? Will they not say afterwards, if they should grow up and become adult actors — as is very likely, if their means of financial support are no better than they are now — their writers do them wrong, to make them exclaim against their own future profession?”

“Truly, both sides have been doing a lot of arguing,” Rosencrantz said, “and the nation holds it to be no sin to incite them to quarrel. There was, for a while, no money bid for a new play unless the plot led to a fight between the adult actors and the playwrights who write for the child actors.”

“Is this possible?” Hamlet asked.

“Oh, there has been much throwing about of brains,” Guildenstern said. “Much mental activity has been expended in this quarrel.”

“Do the child actors triumph?”

“Yes, they do, my lord,” Rosencrantz said. “They carry the victor’s crown the way that Hercules once carried the entire world when he took the burden off Atlas.”

“This change in popularity is not very strange,” Hamlet said. “My uncle is now King of Denmark, and those people who would make faces at him while my father still lived and ruled as King, now give twenty, forty, fifty, or a hundred ducats apiece for miniatures of his portrait.

“Such things commonly happen, but why? By God’s blood, there is something in this that is more than natural, if philosophy could find it out. Scientific inquiry may be able to find the cause.”

Trumpets sounded. The troupe of actors blew trumpets in towns and before castles to advertise their presence.

Guildenstern said, “There are the actors.”

Hamlet said to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore. Let us shake hands. Come on. The proper accompaniment of welcome is fashion and ceremony. Let me comply with all of that by shaking your hands. I will greet the actors with a friendly welcome, and I do not want you to think that I welcome them more than I welcome you. You are welcome, but my uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived.”

“In what, my dear lord?” Guildenstern asked.

“I am not insane all the time,” Hamlet said. “I am only mad when the wind is blowing from the north-north-west. When the wind is blowing from the south, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

Such words could only make Rosencrantz and Guildenstern suspect that Hamlet was mad, or on the verge of madness, all the time, but Hamlet may have given the two men a hidden warning. He knew the difference between two dissimilar things such as a hawk and a handsaw, and so he also knew the difference between two dissimilar things such as an enemy and a friend.

Polonius walked over to the three men.

“May you gentlemen be well,” Polonius said.

“Listen, Guildenstern — and you, too, Rosencrantz,” Hamlet said. “I want a hearer at each of my ears. That great big baby you see there is not yet out of his swaddling clothes.”

“Perhaps this is the second time of his life that he has to wear them,” Rosencrantz said, “because they say that an old man becomes a child for the second time.”

“I will prophesy that he has come here to tell me of the arrival of the actors,” Hamlet said. “Wait and see.”

He then pretended to be in the middle of a conversation: “You are correct, sir. On Monday morning — that was the time indeed.”

“My lord, I have news to tell you,” Polonius said to Hamlet.

“My lord, I have news to tell you,” Hamlet replied. “When Roscius was an actor in Rome —”

The famous Roman actor Roscius died in 62 B.C.E.

“A troupe of actors have come here, my lord,” Polonius said.

“Buzz, buzz! Yawn! This is old news!” Hamlet said.

“On my honor —” Polonius began to say.

“— then came each actor on his ass,” Hamlet said.

“— they are the best actors in the world,” Polonius said, “whether for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral plays, pastoral-comical plays, historical-pastoral plays, tragical-historical plays, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral plays, plays that observe the unities of action and time and place, or plays that do not. Seneca’s tragedies are not too heavy and serious for them, and Plautus’ comedies are not too light for them. For the law of writ and for the liberty, these are the only men — these actors perform well whether they are strictly following prescribed rules or performing more freely and loosely.”

“Oh, Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure you had!” Hamlet said.

“What a treasure he had, my lord?” Polonius asked.

“Why,” Hamlet said, and then he sang these lines:

One fair daughter he had and no more,

Whom he loved surpassingly well.”

Polonius thought, He is still thinking about my daughter.

“Am I not right, old Jephthah?” Hamlet asked Polonius.

Jephthah was a King of Israel who made a rash vow. When he went off to fight the Ammonites, he vowed to God that if he were victorious that he would then sacrifice to God the first thing that he saw coming out of the door of his house when he returned from battle. The first thing that he saw coming of the door of his house was his daughter, and he sacrificed her.

“If you call me Jephthah, my lord,” Polonius said, “I have a daughter whom I love surpassingly well.”

“No, that does not follow,” Hamlet said.

One can wonder whether Jephthah should have kept his vow and just how much he loved his daughter.

“What follows, then, my lord?”

“Why,” Hamlet said, and then he sang this line:

As by lot God wot [knows].”

Hamlet added, “And then, you know,” and he sang this line:

It came to pass most like it was —

He added, “The first row of the pious chanson will show you more.”

This is the beginning of the pious chanson, aka religious ballad:

I read that many years ago,

When Jepha Judge of Israel.

Had one fair daughter and no more,

Whom he loved so passing [surpassingly] well.

And as by lot God wot

It came to pass most like it was

Great wars there should be,

And who should be the chief, but he, but he.

The ballad then told the rest of the story. In the story were many rows, aka conflicts. The first conflict was that between nations: Israel versus Ammon. Other conflicts were between duty to God and duty to kin — in this case, a daughter.

In Dante’s Paradise, Dante the Pilgrim travels throughout the universe until he reaches the Mystic Empyrean, the dwelling place of God. On the Moon, he speaks to Piccarda Donati, who tells him that Jephthah’s vow was blind and rash, and he did evil by keeping it. Far better would have been for him to say, “My vow was wrong,” and not keep it. Such a vow as Jephthah’s is not the kind that God approves. Piccarda’s main advice to Dante, and to Christians, is to not make rash vows.

Like Jephthah, Hamlet must decide where his duty lies. What is his duty to his father? What is his duty to God? Do these duties conflict? If they conflict, what ought he to do?

When Hamlet said, “The first row of the pious chanson will show you more,” the word “row” could mean “line” or even “stanza.” Reading the first line or stanza of the religious ballad will provide more information, but it will not tell the entire story. Of course, “row” can also mean “quarrel” or “conflict.”

We can predict the consequences of our actions, but often we do not know what the consequences — even the serious consequences — will be. Jephthah probably thought that a dog, not his daughter, would be the first thing he saw coming out of the door of his house after he returned from war. Often, we do not know the consequences of our actions until we do the actions. Hamlet must choose to act — or choose not to act — with incomplete information.

Hamlet added, “Look, my abridgement is coming.”

Hamlet’s conversation was being shortened by the arrival of the actors, who also abridge, or shorten, time by putting on entertaining plays that make time pass quickly.

The actors walked up to the group of men.

“You are welcome, masters; welcome, all,” Hamlet greeted them. He recognized each of them. “I am glad to see that you are well. Welcome, good friends. Oh, my old friend! your face is valenced — fringed — with a beard since I saw you last. Have you come here to beard me in Denmark?”

This was a joke. To beard someone was a major insult — someone would pull out a few hairs from the beard of someone and throw them in his face.

Hamlet said to a boy who played female characters, “What, my young lady and mistress! By Our Lady the Virgin Mary, your ladyship is nearer to Heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a heel on a shoe. You have grown taller. Pray to God that your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring.”

This was another joke by Hamlet. Gold coins of the time bore the face of a King enclosed in a circle. Dishonest people would sometimes trim gold from the edges of coins. If they trimmed too much gold off the edge, so that the trimming — or crack — went inside the circle, then the coin became uncurrent — no longer legal tender. When the boy reached puberty and his voice began to crack, he would no longer be able to play the parts of female characters.

Hamlet’s joke included a bawdy aspect. The ring is an O, which is a symbol for a vagina. If the O is cracked, aka entered, the woman loses her virginity.

Hamlet continued, “Masters, you are all welcome. We’ll even have a go at it — the recitation of a speech — like French falconers, whose falcons fly at anything, including the first thing they see. We won’t wait; instead, we’ll have the recitation of a speech right now. Come, give us a taste of the quality of your acting; come, give us a passionate speech.”

The first actor asked, “What speech do you want to hear, my lord?”

“I heard you recite a speech once,” Hamlet replied, “but it was never acted; or, if it was, it was acted only once because the play, I remember, pleased not the millions. It was like caviar to the general public — too refined a taste for them to be able to enjoy. But it was — as I regarded it, and others, whose judgments in such matters are better than mine — an excellent play, well organized in the scenes, set down with as much modest restraint as cunning skill. I remember that one critic said that there were no sharp flavors, aka bawdy bits, in the lines to make them spicy, and there was nothing in the lines that might make the author guilty of affectation. The critic called the play unpretentious, as wholesome as sweet, and with much more natural grace than affectation and showiness.

“One speech in it I chiefly loved: It was Aeneas’ tale to Dido. I especially liked the part where he speaks about the slaughter of Priam.”

Hamlet was referring to the end of the Trojan War, which had started when Paris, a Prince from Troy, had run away with Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta in Greece. For ten years a Greek army besieged Troy but was unable to conquer it. Finally, Odysseus came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse. A Greek named Epeus built a huge, hollow horse that the Trojans thought was an offering to the goddess Athena. Inside the hollow horse Greek soldiers hid. The Trojans pulled the Trojan Horse inside the city, and at night the Greek soldiers came out of the horse and went to the city gates and let in the rest of the Greek army, which had pretended to sail back to Greece. One of the Greeks inside the Trojan Horse was Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles. After Achilles died at Troy, Pyrrhus went to fight in the Trojan War to avenge the death of his father. During the fall of Troy, its King, Priam, wore ancient armor and carried a weapon although he was much too old to fight. Pyrrhus found and killed the aged King Priam, whose son Paris had run away with Helen and started the war.

Hamlet said, “If you remember the speech, begin at this line — let me see, let me see,

The rugged Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast—”

Hyrcania was famous for its ferocious tigers.

Hamlet said, “Wait, that’s not right, but it does begin with ‘Pyrrhus’ —

The rugged and terrifying Pyrrhus, he whose sable armor,

Black as his purpose, resembled the night

When he lay hidden in the ominous horse,

Has now this dread and black complexion smeared

With a color more calamitous; from head to foot

Now is he totally red; he is horridly covered

With the blood of Trojan fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,

Baked and crusted from the fires in Trojan streets,

Fires that lend a tyrannous and damned light

To their King’s murder. Roasted in wrath and fire,

And glazed with coagulated gore,

With eyes like carbuncles that glow in the dark, the Hellish Pyrrhus

Old grandfather Priam seeks.

Hamlet said to the first actor, “Continue from where I left off.”

Polonius said to Hamlet, “Before God, my lord, I say that your recitation was well spoken, with both good delivery and good taste.”

The first player recited this speech:

Quickly Pyrrhus finds Priam

Striking at Greeks with blows that fall short; his antique sword,

Which will not obey his arm, lies where it falls,

Refusing to obey his will. Unequally matched,

Pyrrhus at Priam drives; in rage he strikes and misses;

But with the whiff and wind of his deadly sword

The enfeebled father Priam falls. Then the senseless citadel of Ilium — Troy —

Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top

Falls to its base, and with a hideous crash

Deafens the ears of Pyrrhus. Look! His sword,

Which was falling on the milky-white head

Of revered Priam, seemed in the air to stick.

So, like a painted portrait of a tyrant, motionless, Pyrrhus stood,

And as if he had lost interest in what he was doing,

Did nothing.

But, as we often see, predicting some storm,

A silence in the Heavens, the high clouds stand still,

The bold winds are without speech and the orb below is

As quiet as death, as soon as the dreadful thunder

Rends the air, likewise, after Pyrrhus’ pause,

Aroused vengeance sets him back to work.

Never did the Cyclopes’ hammers fall as they created

The armor of Mars, god of war, that they forged for eternal strength

With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword

Now falls on Priam.

Get out, you strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,

In general council ought to take away Fortune’s power;

You ought to break away all the spokes and the rim from her wheel,

And bowl the wheel’s round hub down the hill of Heaven,

As low as to the fiends!”

Polonius said, “This is too long.”

Hamlet replied, “It shall go to the barber’s to be cut, along with your beard.”

Hamlet then said to the first actor, “Please, continue. This critic here prefers dancing and singing or a bawdy tale, or else he falls asleep. Continue. Recite the part about Hecuba.”

Hecuba was Priam’s wife, the Queen of Troy. She had bore many sons to him, including Hector, the Crown Prince of Troy, whom she had witnessed Achilles killing. Following the fall of Troy, she was made a slave woman, and according to some accounts, she went insane.

The first actor recited this line:

But who, oh, who had seen the mobled Queen —

Hamlet asked, “The mobled Queen?”

The word “mobled,” which was little used, meant “muffled.” Hecuba’s face was muffled.

“That’s a good word,” Polonius said. “‘Mobled Queen’ is good.”

The first actor continued,

Runs barefoot up and down, threatening the flames

With blinding tears; a rag upon that head

Where recently a crown had stood, and for a robe,

About her thin and totally exhausted-by-excessive-childbirth loins,

A blanket, which she in the alarm of fear had caught up.

Any person who had seen Hecuba in this state, with bitter words

Would have railed treasonously against Lady Fortune’s rule.

But if the gods themselves had seen her

When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport

By chopping with his sword her husband’s limbs,

The instant burst of clamor that she made,

Unless mortal troubles move them not at all,

Would have made tearful the burning eyes — the stars — of Heaven,

And would have brought sympathetic suffering to the gods.”

Polonius said to Hamlet, “Look, the actor’s face has changed color — it is pale — and he has tears in his eyes. Please, let us hear no more.”

“Very good,” Hamlet said to the first actor. “I’ll have you speak the rest of the speech soon.”

Hamlet then said to Polonius, “My good lord, will you see that the actors are well accommodated? Listen to me. Let them be well treated because they are the summary and brief chronicles of the time. It would be better for you to have a bad epitaph after you die than their ill will while you live.”

“My lord, I will treat them according to their desert.”

“By God, man, treat them better than that!” Hamlet said. “If you treat people according to what they deserve, who would escape being whipped? Treat them according to your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your generosity to them. Take them to their quarters.”

Hamlet’s “insanity” involved his being very rude to others, but he wanted the actors to be well taken of.

“Come, sirs,” Polonius said to the actors.

“Follow him, friends,” Hamlet said. “We’ll have a play tomorrow.”

Polonius and all the actors began to leave, but Hamlet began to speak to the first actor, so Polonius and all the other actors stopped at the door.

Hamlet said to the first actor, “Listen to me, old friend. Can you and the other actors play the Murder of Gonzago?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“We’ll have that tomorrow night,” Hamlet said. “You could, if I asked you to, memorize a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would write and insert in the play, couldn’t you?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Very good,” Hamlet said. “Follow that lord, whose name is Polonius, and don’t make fun of him.”

Polonius and the actors departed.

Hamlet said to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had quietly listened to the recitation of the poetry, “My good friends, I’ll leave you until tonight. You are welcome to Elsinore.”

“Thank you, my good lord,” Rosencrantz said.

“May God be with you,” Hamlet replied.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern departed.

“Now I am alone,” Hamlet said to himself. “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! Is it not monstrous that this actor here, performing what is only a fiction, a dream, and a pretense — not the reality — of suffering, could force his inner being to be so in harmony with his acting that he could make his face turn pale, bring tears to his eyes, make his entire body seem to be suffering with grief, make his voice broken, and use his whole being to serve his acting. And all for nothing that actually affects him! He did all this for Hecuba! What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her? What would he do, if he had the motive and the cue for suffering that I have? My uncle, who has married my mother, has murdered my father! This actor would drown the stage with tears and burst everyone’s ears with horrifying speeches. He would make the guilty insane, horrify the innocent, astonish the ignorant, and bewilder everyone’s eyes and ears.

“Yet I, who am a dull and muddy-spirited rascal, mope, like John the daydreamer, not stirred to action by my cause and unable to say anything. I can do or speak nothing, no, not for a King, upon whose property and most dear life damned destruction was made.

“Am I a coward? Who calls me villain? Who breaks my head? Who plucks hairs from my beard, and blows them in my face? Who tweaks me by the nose? Who tells me that I lie in my throat as deep as to the lungs? Who does these things to me? Ha!

“By God, I should swallow these insults. I must have the anger of a pigeon, and I must lack the courage that would make me resent such bitter oppression, or else by now I would have fed the slave’s offal to the kites — birds of prey — and made them fat. The slave I mean is King Claudius — that bloody, bawdy villain! He is a remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, unnatural villain! Oh, vengeance!

“Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, that I, the son of a dear father who has been murdered, prompted by Heaven and Hell to seek my revenge, must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words, and curse, exactly like a prostitute or a lowly kitchen scullion! Damn!

“Get busy, my brain, and think of a plan!

“I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play have by the artistry of the scene been so struck to the soul that they have immediately confessed their evil deeds and crimes. Murder, although it has no tongue, will speak very miraculously — murder will out! I’ll have these actors perform a play with a plot something like the murder of my father with my uncle as a member of the audience. I’ll observe his looks; I’ll probe him deeply — to the quick. If he flinches, I will know my course of action. I will know what I should do.

“The spirit — the ghost that claims to be my father — that I have seen may be the Devil in disguise. The Devil has the power to assume a pleasing shape. Perhaps, because my spirit is weak and melancholy — and the Devil can powerfully influence people who have such moods — he is deluding me so that I will do something that will make me damned.

“I need more substantial evidence than what I have received from the ghost. I can get such evidence by watching my uncle as he watches the play. The play is the thing whereby I’ll learn the conscience of the King.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling — Act 2, Scene 1

— 2.1 —

In a room of his house, old Polonius was talking to Reynaldo, who was one of his servants. Laertes was now living in Paris, and Polonius was sending Reynaldo to him.

“Give him this money and these letters, Reynaldo,” Polonius said.

“I will, my lord.”

“You shall do a marvelous and wise thing, good Reynaldo, if, before you visit him, you inquire about his behavior in Paris.”

“My lord, I intend to do that.”

“Well said; very well said,” Polonius said. “Look, sir, first inquire for me and find out which Danes are in Paris. Find out how they came to be there, who they are, how much money they have, and where they are living, what company they keep, and what are their expenses. If you find out that they know my son, you will learn more about him by using roundabout and vague questioning than if you were to question them directly about him. Pretend that you do not know him well, but that you have heard of him. You can say, ‘I know his father and his friends, and I know him a little.’ Do you understand me, Reynaldo?”

“Yes, very well, my lord.”

“‘— and I know him a little, but —’ you may say ‘— not well, but if this person is the man I mean, he’s very wild. He is addicted to so and so.’ You can then charge him with whatever false accusations you please, but be careful not to charge him with any rank and disgraceful accusations that would dishonor him. Be careful not to do that. But, sir, you may charge him with such wanton, wild, and usual slips and faults that are commonly made by young men who are enjoying their first taste of liberty.”

“Such as gambling, my lord?” Reynaldo asked.

“Yes, or drinking, fencing, swearing, quarrelling and fighting, visiting prostitutes — you may go so far as these things.”

“My lord, that would dishonor him.”

“In faith, no,” Polonius said, “as long as you moderate the faults. You must not charge him with a major scandal, such as that he visits prostitutes every night — that is not what I want you to do. Instead, I want you to lightly talk about the slips and faults that come when a young man is first given his freedom — they are the flash and outbreak of a fiery mind, the wildness of an untamed young man, the things that happen to most young men.”

“But, my good lord —”

“You want to know why I want you to do this?”

“Yes, my lord. I would like to know that.”

“This is my scheme, and I believe that it is a legitimate scheme. You will charge my son in conversation with these slight sullies, as if they were like some spots of dirt that have soiled embroidery as it was being made. Young men often acquire slight sullies in the process of maturing. Listen to me. The person to whom you are talking, the person from whom you are seeking information about my son’s conduct, if he has ever seen my son commit any of the sins that we have mentioned, he will confirm my son’s fault, and he will call you ‘good sir,’ or something similar, or ‘friend,’ or ‘gentleman,’ according to the form of address used by his social class and his country.”

“Very good, my lord.”

“And then, sir, he will do this — he will do — what was I about to say? By the Mass, I was about to say something. Where did I leave off?”

“You said that the person I was speaking to would confirm your son’s fault, if he is guilty, and would call me ‘good sir,’ or something similar, or ‘friend,’ or ‘gentleman.’”

“Yes,” Polonius said. “He will confirm my son’s fault by saying something like this: ‘I know the gentleman. I saw him yesterday, or the other day, or this day, or that day. And as you said, he was gambling, or drinking to excess, or playing court tennis.’ Or perhaps he will say, ‘I saw him enter such a house of sale.’ Videlicet[Latin for ‘That is to say’], a brothel. And so forth.

“Do you see? Your bait of falsehood will capture the prize of truth. We men of wisdom and of foresight use roundabout courses and devious tests to find out information and truth. If you follow this lecture and my advice, you shall learn the truth about my son. You understand me, don’t you?”

“I do, my lord,” Reynaldo replied.

“May God be with you,” Polonius said. “Farewell.”

“Goodbye, my lord.”

“Use your eyes when you are with my son. Go along with whatever he wants to do.”

“I shall, my lord.”

“And let him ply his music, whatever his music might be.”

“That is good advice, my lord.”


Reynaldo left the room just as Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter, entered it. Ophelia looked distressed.

“How are you, Ophelia! What’s the matter?”

“Oh, my lord, my lord, I have been so frightened!”

“Frightened by what, in the name of God?”

“My lord, as I was sewing in my private chamber, Lord Hamlet — with his jacket all unbuttoned, no hat on his head, wearing dirty stockings without garters so that his stockings had fallen down and were like fetters around his ankles, pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other, and with a look so piteous that it seemed as if he had been released from Hell so that he could speak of his horrors — came to me.”

“Is he insane because he loves you?” Polonius asked.

“My father, I do not know,” Ophelia replied, “but truly, I am afraid that that is true.”

“What did he say?”

“He took me by the wrist and held me hard, and then he backed up until he was at his arm’s length, and holding his other hand over his brow, he stared at my face as if he were going to draw it. He stayed like that a long time, but at last, shaking my arm a little, and waving his head up and down three times, he sighed so piteously and profoundly that it seemed to shatter his entire body and end his life. Having finished that, he let me go, and turning his head over his shoulder, he left my private chamber without the use of his eyes. He went out of doors without looking where he was going — he kept staring at me as he left.”

“Come with me,” Polonius said. “I will go and seek the King. Hamlet is in the very ecstasy and madness of love, whose violent nature destroys itself and leads the will to desperate undertakings as often as any passion under Heaven that afflict our natures. This madness has enough violence that it can cause self-destruction. I am sorry that Hamlet is insane. Have you spoken to him any hard words recently?”

“No, my good lord,” Ophelia replied. “I have done only what you commanded me to do. I returned his letters, and I have declined to let him visit me.”

“That has made him insane,” Polonius said. “I am sorry that I have not observed him with better heed and judgment. I was afraid that he was trifling with you and that he wanted to ruin you. Curse my suspicious nature! By Heaven, old people are just as likely to be overly suspicious as young people are to be indiscreet.

“Come, let’s go to the King. We must give him this information. He will not want to hear it, but it might cause more harm to keep it secret than to reveal it.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 5

— 1.5 —

Hamlet stopped walking and asked the ghost, “Where are you leading me? I’ll go no further.”

“Listen to me carefully,” the ghost said.

“I will.”

“The hour has almost come when I must return to the sulfurous and tormenting flames of Purgatory.”

“Alas, poor ghost!”

“Do not pity me,” the ghost said. “Instead, listen carefully to what I shall tell you.”

“Speak; I am bound by filial duty to hear you.”

“When you hear what I have to say, you will be bound to seek revenge.”


“I am your father’s spirit. I am doomed for a certain time to walk during the night, and during the day I am confined to fast in fires, until the foul sins I committed in my days of life are burnt and purged away. If I were not forbidden to tell the secrets of my prison-house, I could tell you things whose lightest word would harrow your soul, freeze your young blood, and make your two eyes, like falling stars, start from their sockets, and part your carefully arranged locks of hair and make each individual hair stand on end like the quills of the bad-tempered porcupine. But this revelation of the mysteries of Purgatory must not be made to ears of flesh and blood. Listen, listen, listen to me if you ever have loved your dear father —”

“Oh, God!”

“— revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”


“Murder most foul,” the ghost said. “Murder is foul at best, but my murder was very foul, strange, and unnatural. My murder is unnatural because it goes against the natural bonds of kinship.”

“Quickly tell me what happened,” Hamlet said, “so that I, with wings as swift as thinking or the thoughts of love, may sweep to my revenge.”

“I find you apt and eager,” the ghost said. “You would have to be duller than the overgrown weeds that root themselves in ease on the banks of the Lethe River, whose water souls drink to forget past events, not to be moved by what I have to say.

“Now, Hamlet, listen. It was reported that as I was sleeping in my garden, a serpent bit me. The whole ear of Denmark is by a false account of my death rankly abused. Know, you noble youth, that the serpent that stung your father’s life now wears his crown.”

“Oh, my prophetic soul! I suspected this! My uncle!”

“Yes, your uncle is the cause of my death. He is an incestuous and adulterous beast. He used his knowledge of witchcraft, and he used traitorous gifts — wicked wit and gifts have the power to seduce! — to win to his shameful lust the will of my most seemingly virtuous Queen Gertrude, your mother.

“Oh, Hamlet, how she fell! She took her love from me, whose love was of such quality that it kept the vow I had made to her when I married her, and she gave it to a wretch whose natural gifts were poor in comparison to those of mine. True virtue can never be seduced even if lust dresses itself up with a Heavenly appearance, but lust, even if it has a Heavenly appearance, can first gorge itself in a celestial bed, and then gorge itself with garbage.

“But, wait! I think that I smell the morning air, so I must be brief. As I was sleeping — I thought safely — within my garden, as was my habit each afternoon, your uncle stole into my garden, carrying a vial of the poisonous juice of the cursed hebenon plant, and he poured the leprous poison into the shells of my ears. This poison so hates the blood of man that as quickly as it courses through the veins of the body, it makes the healthy and wholesome blood curdle like acid when dropped into milk. Quickly, my skin became like the bark of a tree. My skin became leprous; a vile and loathsome crust covered all my smooth body.

“That is how I, while sleeping, lost my life, my crown, and my queen, all because of a brother’s hand. My life was cut short even in the blossom of my sin. I died without receiving the sacrament of holy communion, without confessing and being absolved from my sins, and without being anointed with holy oil. I was not given my last rites. I was not able to make a reckoning of my sins before I died, but instead I was sent to give an account of my sins with all my imperfections on my head. Oh, horrible! Oh, horrible! Most horrible!

“If you have any natural feeling in you, do not tolerate this. Do not allow the royal bed of Denmark to be a couch for lustfulness and damned incest. But, whatever you do, do not allow your mind to be corrupted by contact with your uncle, and do not plot to harm your mother. Leave her to Heaven and to her conscience — allow those thorns that lodge in her bosom to prick and sting her.

“Farewell now! The glowworm shows that the morning is near — the glowworm’s ineffectual fire begins to pale.

Adieu, adieu! Hamlet, remember me.”

The ghost departed.

Hamlet said to himself, “Oh, all you host of Heaven — you angels! Oh, Earth! What else shall I call on? Shall I call on Hell? Damn! Do not break, my heart. And you, my sinews, do not grow instantly old, but instead keep me standing upright.

“Shall I remember you! Yes, you poor ghost, I will remember you for as long as memory holds a seat in this distracted globe — this head — of mine. Remember you! Yes, from the tablet of my memory I’ll wipe away all trivial and foolish records, all quotations from books, all ideas, all past impressions and observations that I have copied and written there in my youth. The only thing that shall live on in the book and volume of my brain will be your commandment. It will not be mixed with baser matter. Yes, by Heaven!

“Oh, most pernicious woman! Oh, villain, villain, smiling, damned villain! My tablet — it is fitting that I write down that a person may smile, and smile, and still be a villain. At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.”

Hamlet wrote on a tablet, and then he said, “So, uncle, there you are. Now to my watchword, aka motto — the words that I will live by. The ghost said, ‘Adieu, adieu! Remember me.’ I have sworn to remember it.”

Horatio called, “My lord! My lord!”

Marcellus called, “Lord Hamlet!”

“May Heaven protect Hamlet!” Horatio said.

Hamlet said to himself, “So be it.”

Horatio called, “Hillo, ho, ho, my lord!”

A falconer uses the words “Hillo, ho, ho” to call his falcon to return to him.

Hamlet called back, “Hillo, ho, ho, boy! Come, bird, come.”

Horatio and Marcellus walked over to Hamlet.

“How are you, my noble lord?” Marcellus asked.

“What happened, my lord?” Horatio asked.

“Something to be wondered at,” Hamlet replied.

“My good lord, tell us what happened,” Horatio requested.

“No; you’ll reveal it.”

“Not I, my lord,” Horatio said. “I swear it by Heaven.”

“I also swear that I will not reveal it,” Marcellus said.

“What do you say then to this?” Hamlet said. “Would anyone ever think —”

He stopped and then asked, “But you will keep this secret?”

Horatio and Marcellus replied, “Yes, we will. We swear it by Heaven, my lord.”

Hamlet thought about revealing to them what the ghost had said, but in the midst of speaking he changed his mind and said something obvious: “All complete and total villains dwelling in Denmark are … complete and total knaves.”

“No ghost, my lord, needs to come from the grave to tell us this,” Horatio said. “We already know it.”

“Why, you are right,” Hamlet said. “You are in the right, and so, without any more explanation at all, I think it fitting that we shake hands and part. You shall do as your business and desire shall point you; every man has business and desire, such as it is. As for me, I will go and pray.”

“These are wild and excited words, my lord,” Horatio said.

“I’m sorry that they offend you,” Hamlet said. “I am heartily sorry — yes, heartily.”

“I am not offended,” Horatio replied.

“By Saint Patrick you say that you are not offended,” Hamlet said, “but my words are about offense — and a lot of offense. Regarding this vision here, it is an honest and genuine ghost — I can tell you that. As for your desire to know what happened between the ghost and me, stifle that desire as much as you are able to. And now, good friends, as you are friends, scholars, and soldiers, grant me one poor thing I request.”

“What is it, my lord?” Horatio said. “We will grant it.”

“Never make known what you have seen tonight,” Hamlet said.

“My lord, we will not,” both Horatio and Marcellus said.

“Swear it,” Hamlet said.

“Truly, my lord, I will not reveal what I have seen tonight,” Horatio said.

“Neither will I, truly,” Marcellus said.

“Swear it upon the cross made by the hilt of my sword,” Hamlet said.

Hamlet drew his sword.

“We have sworn, my lord, already,” Marcellus said.

“Swear upon the cross made by the hilt of my sword,” Hamlet repeated.

The ghost’s voice came from under the ground: “Swear!”

“Ah, ha, boy!” Hamlet said, excitedly. “Do you say so? Are you there, truepenny — true and honest fellow?”

He said to Horatio and Marcellus, “Come on — you hear this fellow in the cellars — swear.”

“Propose the oath you want us to swear to, my lord,” Horatio said.

“Swear by my sword that you will never speak of this that you have seen.”

The ghost’s voice came from under the ground, but from a different spot than before: “Swear!”

Hamlet said about the ghost’s voice, “Hic et ubique? [Latin for ‘Here and everywhere?’] Then we’ll shift our ground and move to a different spot. Come over here, gentlemen, and lay your hands again upon my sword. Swear by my sword that you will never tell what you have heard.”

The ghost’s voice came from under the ground, and again it came from a different spot than before: “Swear by his sword!”

“Well said, old mole!” Hamlet said. “Can you dig and work in the earth so fast? You are a worthy miner! Once more, let us move, good friends.”

“Oh, day and night,” Horatio said, “but this is wondrously strange!”

“Since the ghost is a stranger, welcome it,” Hamlet said. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of by philosophers.”

He then said to both Horatio and Marcellus, “But come; swear here, as you have sworn oaths before, never, so help you God, no matter how strange or odd I act, as I perhaps hereafter shall think fitting to act in an antic and insane manner, that you, seeing me at such times, never shall do or say anything that reveals that you know that I am putting on an act. Swear that you will not fold your arms like this [Hamlet folded his arms], or shake your heads like this [Hamlet shook his head], or say some mysterious phrase such as ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, if we would,’ or ‘If we wanted to speak,’ or ‘There are people who could say more if they wanted to,’ or such other ambiguous hint. In short, you will do nothing and you will say nothing that hints that you know that I am putting on an act. Swear this upon the grace and mercy that you will need on the Day of Judgment.”

The ghost’s voice came from under the ground: “Swear!”

Horatio and Marcellus put their hands on Hamlet’s sword and swore not to tell what they had seen, not to tell what they had heard, and not to reveal that Hamlet was faking it when he acted as if he were insane.

“Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!” Hamlet said.

Hamlet then said to Horatio and Marcellus, “With all my love, I commend myself to you. Whatever so poor a man as Hamlet may do to express his love and friendship to you, God willing, he shall not stint to do. Let us go in together. Keep https://www.amazon.com/William-Shakespeares-Hamlet-Retelling-Prose-ebook/dp/B00TWSEKDY/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8your fingers always on your lips, I ask you.”

Hamlet made a ‘shh!’ sign with his finger on his lips, and then he added, “The time is disordered. Oh, cursed spirit, I regret that I was ever born to set it right!”

Horatio and Marcellus wanted Hamlet to enter the castle first, but Hamlet said to them, “No, let’s go in together.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 4

— 1.4 —

On the platform where the guards performed their duty, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus stood.

“The air bites sharply,” Hamlet said. “It is very cold.”

“It is a nipping and sharp air,” Horatio agreed.

“What time is it now?” Hamlet asked.

“I think that it is not yet midnight,” Horatio replied.

“No, the bell struck twelve,” Marcellus said.

“Really?” Horatio said. “I did not hear it. It is drawing near the time that the ghost is accustomed to walk.”

Trumpets sounded, and cannons fired.

“What does this noise mean, my lord?” Horatio asked Hamlet.

“King Claudius stays awake tonight in order to carouse. He drinks many toasts, and he dances swaggering dances. As he drains his draughts of Rhine wine, the kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out the triumph of his pledge. The kettledrum and trumpet are signals to fire the cannon.”

“Is this a Danish custom?” Horatio asked.

“Yes, indeed it is,” Hamlet said, “but in my opinion, although I am a native of Denmark and to the manner born, it is a custom that would be more honorable in being breached than in being observed. This heavy-headed reveling with its drunken practitioners makes other nations both in the East and in the West criticize and censure us. They call us drunkards, and they stain our names and titles by calling us swine. These drunken revels take away from our achievements, even those that are worthiest of the greatest praise. They cause us to lose the best and most valuable part of our national character.

“It often happens in particular men that they have some vicious defect of nature. This defect may, for example, be present from their birth because of their heredity — wherein they are not guilty, since no one can choose his origin. They are born with an unbalanced personality that often breaks down the fences and forts of reason. Or they may develop a personality flaw or a bad habit that excessively influences and perverts what would be their decent behavior.

“As I say, these certain men are contaminated by one flaw of the personality, whether it comes from nature or from nurture or from the workings of fate. Although in everything else they are completely virtuous and completely pure in grace — as complete as it is possible for a living man to be — yet the general opinion of everybody focuses on that one fault. A very small amount of evil can throw a shadow over all his many good qualities and hurt his reputation.”

Horatio said suddenly, “Look, my lord! Here comes the ghost!”

The ghost approached the men.

“May angels and ministers of grace defend us!” Hamlet said.

He said to the ghost, “You may be a spirit of health, an angel — or a damned goblin, a demon. You may bring with you airs from Heaven or blasts from Hell. Your intentions may be wicked or they may be charitable. But you have come here in such a shape as invites questioning, and so I shall speak to you. Because of the shape you have assumed, I will call you names that I hope will inspire you to speak to me. I will call you Hamlet, King, father, royal Dane. Oh, answer me! Let me not burst in ignorance; instead, tell me why your canonized bones — your bones that have been properly buried in a Christian graveyard and coffined in your death — have burst their funeral shroud. Tell me why the sepulcher, in which we saw you quietly buried, has opened its ponderous and marble jaws, and vomited you into the world of the living again. What is the meaning of this? Why are you, dead corpse, who is dressed again in a full suit of steel armor, revisiting the fitful gleams of flickering moonlight and making the night hideous? Why do you make we fools of nature so horridly tremble as we think about things that lie beyond the reaches of our souls? Why are you walking in the night? Why? What do you want us to do?”

The ghost motioned to Hamlet to follow him.

Horatio said, “It is beckoning you to follow and go away with it as if it had something important to tell you and you alone.”

“Look,” Marcellus said. “With a courteous motion, it waves at you to go to a more private place away from here. But do not go with it.”

“No, by no means,” Horatio said.

They were afraid for Hamlet. An evil spirit could tempt him to commit suicide.

“It will not speak to me here,” Hamlet said, “and so I will follow it.”

“Do not, my lord,” Horatio said.

“Why, what should I be afraid of?” Hamlet asked. “I do not value my life as much as I do a pin. As for my soul, what can the ghost do to that — my soul is as immortal as the ghost is. It is again motioning to me to go with it. I will follow it.”

“What if it tempts you toward the sea, my lord,” Horatio asked, “or to the dreadful summit of the cliff that juts out over the sea? Suppose that it then assumes some other horrible form that might deprive you of your reason and make you insane? Think about this. Such a scene — you looking down many fathoms to the sea and hearing it roar — puts thoughts of desperation into every brain that sees and hears it.”

“The ghost is still waving at me to follow it,” Hamlet said.

He said to the ghost, “Lead on. I will follow you.”

“You shall not go, my lord,” Marcellus said.

Marcellus and Horatio physically restrained Hamlet, who told them, “Take away your hands.”

“Listen to us,” Horatio said. “You shall not follow the ghost.”

“My fate cries out,” Hamlet replied, “My destiny is calling to me. Every petty artery in my body is now as hardy as the Nemean lion’s sinews. The Nemean lion was invulnerable, and so Hercules was unable to pierce its skin. He had to kill the lion by strangling it. The ghost still motions for me to come with it. Get your hands off me, gentlemen, or by Heaven, I’ll make a ghost of whoever hinders me! I say, stay away from me!”

Marcellus and Horatio let go of Hamlet, who said to the ghost, “Go on; I’ll follow you.”

Hamlet and the ghost departed.

Horatio said, “Hamlet grows desperate and reckless with imagination and delusions.”

“Let’s follow him,” Marcellus said. “We ought not to obey his orders to stay away from him. Obeying those orders would not be right.”

“Yes, let’s follow him,” Horatio said. “What will be the result of this?”

“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” Marcellus said.

“Heaven will take care of it,” Horatio replied.

“Let’s follow him,” Marcellus said.

They went in the direction that Hamlet and the ghost had taken.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 3

— 1.3 —

Laertes and Ophelia were in a room of Polonius’ house. Laertes was preparing to return to France, and they were saying their goodbyes to each other.

“My luggage is on board ship,” Laertes said. “Farewell. And, sister, if the winds are blowing in the right direction and a ship is ready to sail to France, do not sleep but instead write and send a letter to me.”

“Can you doubt that I will write to you?” Ophelia asked.

“As for Hamlet and his trifling flirting with you, know that it is a temporary liking and a passing fancy and a youthful amorous sport. It is a violet in the springtime of youthful nature. It is an early flowering; it is not permanent. It is sweet, but it is not lasting. It is the perfume and pastime of a minute. Hamlet’s feeling for you is no more than that.”

“No more than that?” Ophelia asked.

“Think that it is no more than that,” Laertes said. “As we grow, we do not grow only in physical size and strength of our temple the body, but we also grow in our mind and soul — our inward nature also grows and expands. Perhaps he loves you now, and now no stain or deceit does besmirch the honorableness of his will, but you must be aware and fear that because he is a great and important person his will is not his own. He himself is subject to his birth and rank, and so he cannot do as other, lesser people do. He may not, as unvalued and unimportant persons do, choose for himself whom to marry because the safety and health of this whole state of Denmark depend on his choice, and therefore his choice must be circumscribed — his choice must meet the approval of that body of citizens of whom he is the head.

“Therefore, if he says he loves you, you will be wise to believe it only to the extent that a man in his particular position can act on what he says, which is only as far as the general approval of the important citizens of Denmark will allow him to act.

“So weigh what loss your honor may sustain, if you listen to his songs of love with too credulous and believing ears. Weigh what loss your honor may sustain if you lose your heart to him, or if you open your chaste treasure — your virginity — to his uncontrolled demands.

“Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister, and keep yourself in the rear of your affection, out of the shot and danger of desire. Don’t display your affection, and so keep yourself safe. The most modest maiden is prodigal enough, if she unmasks her beauty to the Moon; she ought not to unmask her beauty to someone who will take advantage of her.

“The mere fact of virtue itself is not enough to escape malicious and destructive gossip. The cankerworm injures the young flowers of the spring very often before their buds have been disclosed, and in the morning and liquid dew of youth contagious infections are most imminent. Youth is a time of great promise — and great danger.

“Be wary therefore. The best safety lies in fear of danger. If you are not afraid of danger, you are not wary of danger, and so you can fall into danger. Youth often acts contrary to its better nature even when no temptation is near.”

“I shall keep the content of this good lesson in and as a watchman for my heart,” Ophelia replied, “but, my good brother, do not do as some pastors who lack grace do: They show me the steep and thorny way to Heaven, while like reckless libertines puffed up with pride, they tread the primrose path of wanton amusement — they do not take their own advice.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Laertes said, adding, “I have stayed too long.”

He heard a noise, looked up, and said, “Our father is coming.”

Polonius entered the room, and Laertes said, “A double blessing is a double grace; occasion smiles upon a second leave. I get to have two farewells from my father.”

“Are you still here, Laertes?” Polonius said. “For shame! The wind is blowing in the sails of your ship, and everyone is waiting for you!

“Well, take my blessing and my advice with you. Listen to what I have to say to you and engrave my words in your heart.

“Do not needlessly broadcast your thoughts, and do not act on any reckless thought.

“Be friendly, but do not be overly friendly. You need not be familiar with everybody.

“When you have friends who have proven themselves to be true throughout trials, keep them close to your soul with hoops of steel, but do not shake hands with every new and untested young man you meet.

“Beware of being involved in a quarrel, but once you are in the quarrel, act in such a way that the person arguing with you regrets it.

“Listen to every man, but give few men your recommendation.

“Listen to every man’s opinion, but reserve your judgment and form your own opinions carefully.

“Buy as good clothing as you can afford, but do not buy clothing with fancy trimmings. You need to buy rich — not gaudy — clothing. What a man wears often reveals what a man is. In France, people of the best rank and station know and practice this wisdom — they have good taste in clothing.

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be, because when you make a loan, you often lose both your money and your friend, and if you borrow money you do not practice the virtue of thrift.

“Practice this above all: To your own self be true. If you do this, it must follow, as the night follows the day, that you cannot then be false to any man.

“Farewell, and may my blessing help you to practice what I have said!”

“Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord,” Laertes said to his father.

“It is time for you to go,” Polonius said. “Your servants are waiting for you.”

“Farewell, Ophelia,” Laertes said, “and remember well what I have said to you.”

“Your words are locked in my memory, and you have the key. I will remember your words until you give me permission to forget them.”

“Farewell,” Laertes said, and then he departed.

“What is it, Ophelia, that Laertes has said to you?” Polonius asked.

“If it please you, he told me something concerning Lord Hamlet.”

“This makes me remember something,” Polonius said. “I have been told that Hamlet has very often recently spent private time with you, and that you yourself have been most free and bounteous of your time and have spent it with Hamlet. If what I have heard is true, and I have been told these things as a warning to be careful and protective of you, I must tell you that you are not acting in such a way that my daughter ought to act — you must protect your honor. What is going on between you and Hamlet? Tell me the truth.”

“He has, my lord, of late made many tenders of his affection to me. He has let me know that he is fond of me.”

The word “tender” means “offer.” The word can mean “an offer of love,” which is how Ophelia is using it, or it can mean “an offer of money,” which is one of the ways Polonius will use it. The word “tender” can also refer to offers of other things.

“Affection! Ha! You speak like a green and inexperienced girl who is untried in such perilous circumstances. Do you believe his tenders of affection, as you call them?”

“I do not know, my lord, what I should think.”

“By the Virgin Mary, I’ll teach you what to think. Think of yourself as a baby who has mistaken these tenders for true pay, but these tenders are counterfeit — they are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly — take better care of yourself. If you do not — and here I think I am overusing the word ‘tender’ — you’ll tender me a fool.”

By “tender me a fool,” Polonius meant three things: 1) Ophelia will make a fool of herself, 2) Ophelia will make Polonius look like a fool, and 3) Ophelia will present Polonius with a fool — a bastard grandchild.

“My lord, he has made me his tenders of love in an honorable fashion.”

“Aye, ‘fashion’ you may call it,” Polonius said. “Ha!”

“And Hamlet has given confirmation of his tenders of love to me, my lord, with almost all the holy vows of Heaven.”

“Hamlet’s words are traps to catch woodcocks, which are very stupid birds. I know how the soul, when the blood burns, gives with careless generosity such vows of love to the tongue. These flares, daughter, give more light than heat, but both light and heat are as quickly extinguished as they are made. You must not mistake these quickly ending flares for real fire and real love.

“From this time on, do not spend so much time with Hamlet. Keep your maidenly presence away from him. You are the protectress of a treasure — your virginity — and you need not enter into negotiations for it just because a besieger wants you to.

“As for Lord Hamlet, remember that he is young and he has much more freedom to do what he wants than you do. In short, Ophelia, do not believe the vows that Hamlet makes to you. His vows of love are brokers who dress in holy vestments but who act as panderers to entice you into unholy acts of sin.

“This is all I have to say. From this time forth, I do not want you, in plain words, to misuse any of your free time by spending it in conversation with Lord Hamlet. Make sure that you do what I am telling you to do. Come along with me now.”

“I shall obey you, my lord,” Ophelia said to her father.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Act 1, Scene 2

— 1.2 —

In a room of state in the castle were King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Hamlet, Polonius, Laertes (Polonius’ son), Voltemand, and Cornelius. Also present were other lords and some servants. Hamlet was dressed in black, the color of mourning.

Using the royal plural, King Claudius said, “Although the memory of the death of King Hamlet, our dear brother, is still green and fresh, and although it was fitting for us to bear our hearts in grief and for our whole Kingdom to be knit together in one brow of woe, yet discretion has so far fought with nature that we with wisest sorrow think about the late King Hamlet and at the same time remember our own position in the living world. Therefore, our former sister-in-law have we, as if with a defeated joy — with one eye smiling and the other eye dripping tears of sadness, with mirth at a funeral and with dirge at a marriage, with delight and dole weighing equally — married and taken as our wife, and no one has objected to our marriage. Our former sister-in-law is now our Queen, the imperial female sharer of the crown of this nation preparing for war. We have not gone against your very mature wisdom, which has freely approved this marriage all along. To all of you, we give our thanks.

“Now we must talk about young Fortinbras, who holds our worth in little regard, or who thinks that because of the death of our dear brother, the late King Hamlet, our nation is disturbed and is in disorder. These mistaken thoughts of his are allied with his dream of gaining personal advantages by threatening Denmark. Young Fortinbras has not failed to pester us with messages that demand the surrender of those lands that were lost by his father, in accordance with the law, to our most valiant brother. So much for what he is demanding: All this you know.

“Now for new information concerning what we ourself have decided — that is the main purpose and business of this meeting. We have here written a letter to the King of Norway, who is the uncle of young Fortinbras. His uncle became King of Norway after his father, the elder Fortinbras, died. Powerless and bedridden, the current King of Norway scarcely hears about his nephew’s intentions and actions — I have written him to ask that he stop young Fortinbras from proceeding further in this business. The King of Norway has the power to do that because the levies of soldiers — everyone who has joined young Fortinbras — are citizens of Norway and therefore subject to his rule. We now send you, good Cornelius, and you, Voltemand, as bearers of this greeting and as ambassadors to the aged King of Norway; we give to you no further personal power to do business with the King of Norway. You can do no more than the scope that these detailed documents allow. Farewell, and show your duty to me in your speed in accomplishing this task. We need not hear a long and flowery address of etiquette.”

“In delivering these documents and in all other things, we will show our duty,” Cornelius and Voltemand said together.

“We do not doubt it,” King Claudius said. “Heartily we say farewell to you.”

Cornelius and Voltemand departed.

King Claudius continued, “And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you? You told us that you had some request to make of us; what is it, Laertes? You cannot speak of anything reasonable to the King of Denmark, and waste your words. What can you reasonably request, Laertes, that shall not be my gift rather than your request? The head is not more closely related to the heart, the hand is not more instrumental to the mouth, than is the throne of Denmark to your father. We — the entire monarchy and ourself — value your father highly. What would you like to have, Laertes?”

“My dread lord,” Laertes said, “I request your leave and permission for me to return to France. From there willingly I came to Denmark to do my duty and be present at your coronation, yet now that this duty is done, I must confess that my thoughts and wishes bend again toward France and I hope that you will grant me permission to return there.”

“Have you your father’s permission?” King Claudius asked.

He then asked, “Polonius, what do you say about this?”

“He has, my lord, made laborious petitions to wring from me my slow permission for him to return to France. Finally, I gave him my consent. I stamped my seal of approval upon his request. I ask you, therefore, to allow him to go.”

“Take your fair hour, Laertes,” King Claudius said. “Let your time of youth be yours to spend as you will in accordance with your best qualities. You have our permission to return to France.”

He then said, “But now, my nephew Hamlet, who is also my son —”

Hamlet thought, A little more than kin, and less than kind. In other words: The nearer in kin, the less in kindness. And in yet other words: The closer the relationship, the greater the dislike. Am I your son? I say no. To call me your son is more than our actual relationship will allow. I do not accept you as my father. I also do not regard you as kind in the sense of being benevolent. The word “kind” also refers to the natural quality of family members; they should be united in a community of love toward each other. You and I do not have that. You married my mother, who is your brother’s widow; I do not consider such a marriage natural — it is incestuous.

“How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” King Claudius asked Hamlet.

“That is not true,” Hamlet replied. “I am too much in the Sun.”

He thought, And I do not like being called your son.

Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, said, “Good Hamlet, take off and put away your night-colored clothing, and let your eye look like a friend on the King of Denmark. Do not forever with your downcast eyes seek for your noble father in the dust. You know that everything that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.”

“Yes, that is a universal truth,” Hamlet said.

“If you know that, why does it seem that you are having such a hard time accepting your father’s death?”

“Madam, ‘seem’?” Hamlet replied. “I really am having such a hard time accepting my father’s death. The word ‘seem’ does not apply to me. It is not alone my inky-black cloak, good mother, nor the customary and conventional suits of solemn black, nor the windy sighs of forced breath, no, nor the fruitful river of tears flowing from the eyes, nor the dejected expression of the visage, together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, that can denote me truly. All of these indeed seem; they can be appearances of something that is not truly felt. They are actions that a man might act out hypocritically, but I have that within myself that surpasses show and goes beyond appearances. These other things are only the trappings and the suits of woe.”

“It is sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, to give these mourning duties to your father,” King Claudius said. “But, you must know that your father lost his father. That father also lost his father. With the loss of each father, the survivor is bound in filial obligation to do as the funeral services demand and to grieve for some time. However, to persevere in obstinate sorrow is a course of impious stubbornness; it is unmanly grief. It shows a will most incorrect and in opposition to Heaven, a heart unsupported by religious belief, a mind lacking the virtue of patience, an understanding ignorant and uneducated. When we know that something must occur and is in fact as common as the most ordinary thing that we can sense, why should we in our peevish opposition take it to heart and mourn it excessively? Ha! It is a transgression and sin against Heaven, a transgression and sin against the dead, a transgression and sin against nature, and a most absurd and sinful transgression against reason, whose common theme is the death of fathers. Everyone who has witnessed death in the first corpse to the corpse of the person who died today has cried, ‘This must be so.’”

The first corpse was a murder victim. Cain killed Abel, his brother. This story is recounted in Genesis 4:8.

King Claudius continued, “We ask you to please throw to earth this unprevailing sorrow — it can gain nothing — and think of us as of a father. Let the world take note that you are the most immediate to our throne. Denmark is an elective monarchy, but we now use our voice to say that we want you to succeed us on the throne. I feel the love for you that a biological father bears his son.

“We know that you want to go back to school in Wittenberg, but that is in opposition to what we desire. And so we beseech you to change your mind and remain here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye. You are our most important courtier, our kinsman, and our son.”

Queen Gertrude said, “Please do what I want you to do, Hamlet. Please stay here and do not return to Wittenberg.”

“I shall to the best of my ability obey you, madam,” Hamlet replied.

“Why, that is a loving and a fair reply,” King Claudius said. “Be a member of the royal family and stay here in Denmark.”

He said to Queen Gertrude, “Madam, come. This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet to our wishes sits smiling in my heart. To celebrate this, each time that we, the King of Denmark, will take a drink today, the great cannon will fire into the clouds, and the Heavens will all bruit and spread the King’s toast again, re-speaking it with Earthly thunder. Come, let’s go now.”

Everyone except Hamlet left the room.

Hamlet said to himself, “Oh, I wish that this too, too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Would that my body would waste away on its own! Or I wish that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon — his eternal law — against self-slaughter! Exodus 20:13 states, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ and that includes a prohibition against killing oneself. Oh, God! God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable seems to me the entire business of this world! Ha! This world is an unweeded garden, which goes to seed; things rank and gross in nature entirely possess it. That it should come to this!

“My father is only two months dead — no, not so much, not even two months. My father was so excellent a King; he was, compared to this King Claudius, Hyperion the god of the Sun compared to a lustful half-man, half-goat satyr. My father was so loving to my mother that he would not allow the winds of Heaven to blow against her face too roughly. Heaven and Earth, must I remember! Why, my mother would hang on my father, as if increase of affection had grown by what it fed on: and yet, within a month — let me not think about it! Frailty, your name is woman! She wore new shoes when she followed my father’s body as it went to the tomb. She cried like Niobe, who wept after all of her sons and all of her daughters died in a single day. A little, short month later, before those shoes were old, she married my uncle — oh, God, even a beast that lacks the ability to reason would have mourned longer!

“My mother married my uncle. He is my father’s brother, but he is no more like my father than I am like the super-strong Hercules. She married my uncle within a month of my father’s death. Even before the salt of very unrighteous tears had left the red flush of her bitter eyes, she married him. Oh, most wicked speed, to hasten with such dexterity and jump into incestuous sheets! It is not good, and it cannot come to be good. But break, my heart, because I must hold my tongue.”

Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo walked over to Hamlet.

Horatio greeted Hamlet: “Hail to your lordship!”

“I am glad to see you well,” Hamlet said. “You are Horatio, if I am not mistaken.”

“I am Horatio, my lord, and I am your poor servant ever.”

“Sir, my good friend, I’ll change that name with you,” Hamlet said.

He meant that he would change the name “servant” to the name “friend.” John 15:15 states, “Henceforth call I you not servants: for the servant knoweth not what his master doeth: but I have called you friends: for all things that I have heard of my Father, have I made known to you.”

Or, possibly, he meant that he would exchange names with Horatio — he would be Horatio’s servant.

Either way, Hamlet and Horatio were friends.

Hamlet added, “And what brings you here from Wittenberg, Horatio?”

He then noticed Marcellus and greeted him, “Marcellus!”

Marcellus replied, “My good lord.”

Hamlet said, “I am very glad to see you. Good day, sir.”

He then again asked Horatio, “What brings you here from Wittenberg?”

“A truant disposition, my good lord,” Horatio replied.

“I would not hear your enemy say that about you,” Hamlet said, “and I will not allow you to do my ear the violence that would make it trust your own report against yourself. I know that you are no truant. But what is your business here in Elsinore? We’ll teach you to drink deep before you depart. Danes are famous for their deep drinking.”

“My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral,” Horatio replied.

“Please, do not mock me, fellow student,” Hamlet said. “I think your purpose in coming here was to see my mother’s wedding.”

“Indeed, my lord, the marriage quickly followed the funeral.”

“Thrift, thrift, Horatio!” Hamlet said. “The hot baked meat pies for the funeral feast were set down cold on the tables for the marriage feast. I would prefer to have seen my worst enemy in Heaven before I had seen that day, Horatio! My father! I think I see my father!”

Startled, and thinking of the ghost, Horatio said, “Where, my lord?”

“In my mind’s eye, Horatio.”

“I saw him some time ago,” Horatio said. “He was a good-looking King.”

“He was a man — the ideal of man; he was perfect in every way,” Hamlet said. “I shall not look upon his like again.”

“My lord, I think I saw him last night,” Horatio said.

“Saw? Whom?”

“My lord, I think I saw the King your father.”

“The King my father!”

“Control your wonderment for a while,” Horatio said. “Listen with attentive ears until I can tell you what a marvelous thing I have seen with these gentlemen as witnesses.”

“For God’s love, let me hear,” Hamlet said.

“These gentlemen, Marcellus and Barnardo, had twice on their watch, in the dead vast and middle of the night, encountered something strange. A figure like your father, armed exactly like him from top to toe, appeared before them, and with solemn march stalked slowly and stately by them. Three times he walked by their troubled and fear-surprised eyes, as close as the length of his truncheon. They, melted almost to jelly because of their fear, stood silently and did not dare to speak to him. This they fearfully and secretly told me, and I kept the watch with them the third night. Exactly as they had said, at the time they had stated and dressed the way that they had described, the apparition appeared. Each word they had spoken proved to be true and good. I was acquainted with your father. My hands are not more similar than was the apparition to your father.”

“But where did this happen?” Hamlet asked.

“My lord, this happened upon the platform — the platform where the guns of the fort are mounted. That is where we kept our watch,” Marcellus replied.

“Didn’t you speak to the ghost?” Hamlet asked.

“My lord, I did,” Horatio replied, “but it did not answer me. Once I thought that it lifted its head up and looked as if it were about to speak, but just then the cock crew loudly to announce the morning, and at the sound of the cock it shrunk hastily away and vanished from our sight.”

“It is very strange.”

“As I live, my honored lord, it is true, and we thought that it was our duty to let you know about it,” Horatio said.

“Indeed, indeed, sirs, but this troubles me,” Hamlet replied.

He asked Marcellus and Barnardo, “Do you have the watch tonight?”

“We do, my lord,” they replied.

“Was the ghost armed?” Hamlet asked.

“It was armed, my lord,” they replied. “It was wearing armor.”

“From top to toe?”

“My lord, from head to foot,” they replied.

“Then you did not see his face?”

“My lord, we did see the ghost’s face,” Horatio said. “The face guard of its helmet was up.”

“How did he look?” Hamlet asked. “Did he frown and look fierce, like a warrior?”

“His countenance was more sorrowful than angry,” Horatio replied.

“Was his face pale or a healthy red?”

“Very pale.”

“And he fixed his eyes upon you?” Hamlet asked.

“Most constantly,” Horatio said.

“I wish I had been there.”

“It would have much amazed you.”

“Very likely, very likely,” Hamlet said. “Did it stay long?”

“As long as someone with moderate haste might count to a hundred,” Horatio replied.

“Longer, longer,” Marcellus and Barnardo objected.

“Not when I saw it,” Horatio said.

“His beard was grizzled, wasn’t it?” Hamlet asked.

“It was, as I have seen it in his life,” Horatio said, “a sable silvered. His beard was black but streaked with white.”

“I will watch with you tonight,” Hamlet said. “Perhaps it will walk again.”

“I predict it will,” Horatio said.

“If it assumes my noble father’s person, I’ll speak to it, even if Hell itself should gape and order me to be silent,” Hamlet said. “Please, if you have not already told someone what you saw, continue to keep what you saw secret. Whatever you see happen tonight, look at it closely but do not talk about it. I will reward your friendship. And so, farewell. Upon the guard platform, between eleven and twelve tonight, I’ll visit you.”

“We will do our duty to your honor,” they replied.

“Give me your friendship, as I give you mine,” Hamlet said. “Farewell.”

Everyone except Hamlet departed.

Hamlet said to himself, “My father’s spirit dressed in armor! All is not well; I suspect some foul play that the ghost wishes to inform me about. I wish that it were night! Until then, my soul, sit still. Foul deeds will rise, although all the Earth overwhelm them, to men’s eyes. No matter how people try to hide foul deeds, they will become unhidden.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


David Bruce: William Shakespeare’s HAMLET: A Retelling in Prose — Cast of Characters, and Act 1, Scene 1



GHOST of Hamlet’s father.

CLAUDIUS, King of Denmark.

HAMLET, Prince, son to the late King Hamlet, and nephew to the present King Claudius. Queen Gertrude is his mother.

POLONIUS, counselor to the King. Polonius is old, and his children are Ophelia and Laertes.

HORATIO, friend to Hamlet. Attended University of Wittenberg with Hamlet.

LAERTES, son to Polonius.

VOLTEMAND, CORNELIUS, Danish ambassadors sent to Norway.

ROSENCRANTZ, GUILDENSTERN, childhood friends to Hamlet.

OSRIC, a foolish courtier.

A Gentleman.

A Priest.


FRANCISCO, a soldier.

REYNALDO, servant to Polonius.

Players (actors).

First Player, acts the part of the King.

Second Player, acts the part of the Queen.

Third Player, acts the part of the King’s nephew, Lucianus.

Fourth Player, speaks the Prologue.

Two Clowns, gravediggers.

FORTINBRAS, Prince of Norway.

A Captain.

English Ambassadors.


GERTRUDE, Queen of Denmark, and mother to Hamlet.

OPHELIA, daughter to Polonius.


Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, Sailors, Messengers, and other Attendants.


Elsinore in Denmark, the royal castle and its surroundings.


— 1.1 —

At a guard post of the King of Denmark’s castle at Elsinore, Francisco stood guard. The time was midnight, and the weather was cold.

Barnardo walked over to Francisco and asked, “Who’s there?”

Francisco replied, “No, youanswer me. I am the sentinel. Stand still, and identify yourself.”

“Long live the King!” Barnardo replied. This was enough to show that he was a friend and not an enemy.

“Are you Barnardo?” Francisco asked.

“I am he.”

“You have come very promptly at your appointed time to relieve me.”

“The bell just now struck twelve,” Barnardo said. “Go to bed, Francisco.”

“For this relief, much thanks. It is bitterly cold, and I am sick at heart.”

“Have you had a quiet guard?”

“Not even a mouse is stirring.”

“Well, good night. If you meet Horatio and Marcellus, the partners of my watch, tell them to come quickly.”

“I think I hear them,” Francisco said. “Stop! Who’s there?”

Horatio and Marcellus walked over to the two guards.

Horatio, who was a friend to Prince Hamlet, answered Francisco’s question: “Friends to this country.”

Marcellus added, “And loyal liegemen to the King of Denmark.”

“May God give you a good night,” Francisco said.

“Farewell, honest soldier,” Marcellus said, and then he asked, “Who has relieved you?”

“Barnardo is taking my place. May God give you a good night.”

Francisco departed.

Marcellus called, “Hey! Barnardo!”

Barnardo replied, “Hello. Is Horatio there?”

Horatio replied, “Here is a piece of him,” and then he stuck out his hand to shake hands with Barnardo.

“Welcome, Horatio,” Barnardo said. “Welcome, good Marcellus.”

“Has this thing appeared again tonight?” Marcellus asked.

“I have seen nothing.”

“Horatio says it is only our fantasy,” Marcellus said. “He will not believe that this dreaded sight, which we have seen twice, is real. Therefore, I have entreated him to come along with us to watch all through this night. That way, if this apparition comes again, he may see it with his own eyes and speak to it.”

“Tush, tush,” Horatio said. “It will not appear.”

“Sit down awhile,” Barnardo replied, “and let us once again assail your ears, which are so fortified against and disbelieving of our story about what we have seen during two nights.”

“Well, let us sit down,” Horatio said, “and let us hear Barnardo tell his story.”

“Last night, when the yonder same star that’s west of the Pole Star had made its course to illuminate that part of the night sky where now it burns, Marcellus and I, the bell then striking one — ”

The ghost walked onto the scene.

“Quiet! Stop talking!” Marcellus said. “Look there! Here it comes again!”

“The ghost has the same shape it had,” Barnardo said. “It looks exactly like King Hamlet, the King who is dead.”

“You are a scholar,” Marcellus said. “Speak to it, Horatio.”

As a scholar, Horatio knew the proper Latin words to use to ward off the ghost if it turned out to be malevolent.

“Doesn’t it look like the late King?” Barnardo asked. “Look at it closely, Horatio.”

“It looks very much like the late King,” Horatio said. “This sight harrows me with fear and wonder. It is as if my skin were being raked with a harrow.”

“The ghost wants to be spoken to,” Barnardo said.

Ghosts cannot speak until after they are spoken to.

“Question it, Horatio,” Marcellus said.

Horatio asked the ghost, “What are you that is usurping this time of night, and is usurping that fair and warlike form in which the majesty of the buried King of Denmark did sometimes march? By Heaven, I order you to speak!”

Marcellus said, “The ghost is offended and does not speak.”

“Look!” Barnardo said. “It is stalking away!”

“Stay!” Horatio shouted. “Speak, speak! I order you to speak!”

The ghost stalked out of sight.

“It is gone,” Marcellus said, “and it will not answer you.”

“What now, Horatio!” Barnardo said. “You tremble and look pale. Isn’t this something more than fantasy? What do you think about it?”

“Before my God, I would not believe this without my having seen it with the sensible and true evidence of my own eyes,” Horatio said.

“Didn’t it resemble the late King Hamlet?” Marcellus asked.

“It resembles the late King just as much as you resemble yourself,” Horatio replied. “The ghost was wearing the very same armor that the late King was wearing when he combatted the ambitious King of Norway. The ghost frowned exactly the same way the late King frowned when once, in an angry and physical argument, he smote the Polish soldiers who were crossing the ice on their sleds. It is strange.”

“Twice before, and exactly at this dead, dark, and dreary hour,” Marcellus said, “the ghost has walked with a martial stride during our watch.”

“I do not know what exactly to think,” Horatio said, “but in general my opinion is that this ghost is a sign of some strange and violent disturbance coming to our state.”

“Please, sit down, and tell me, he who knows,” Marcellus said, “why each night the citizens of our country toil in a strict and most observant watch. Also tell me why bronze cannon are cast each day and why implements of war are being purchased in foreign marketplaces. Why have shipwrights been drafted to do their work every day with no Sabbath as a day of rest? What is the meaning of all this? What is so important that this sweaty haste results in such work being done both during the night and during the day? Who can tell me this?”

“I can,” Horatio replied. “Our last King, the late King Hamlet, whose image just now appeared to us, was, as you know, by Fortinbras of Norway and his competitive pride challenged to a combat. Our valiant King Hamlet — this side of our known world knew him to be valiant — slew this Fortinbras in that combat.

“By a sealed and legal agreement, well ratified by law and the code of heraldry, Fortinbras forfeited, with his life, all the lands that he personally possessed to the conqueror.

“Our King Hamlet had likewise risked some of his personally owned lands, enough to equal the amount of land waged by Fortinbras. If Fortinbras had defeated and killed King Hamlet, Fortinbras would have acquired those lands. Instead, King Hamlet defeated and killed Fortinbras, thereby acquiring the lands that Fortinbras had wagered. All of this was in accordance to the legal contract that the two men had made.

“King Hamlet died and left those lands he had won to his son, Prince Hamlet. Old Fortinbras had wagered all his lands, and so he had no lands to leave to his son, young Fortinbras.

“Now, sir, young Fortinbras, who is hot and full of undisciplined and unrestrained mettle, has in the outskirts of Norway here and there sharked up a list of lawless reprobates, indiscriminately adding them to his army the way that a shark indiscriminately adds fish to its belly. These landless and lawless reprobates will serve as the food that propels some enterprise that has a stomach in it — the enterprise needs these soldiers the way that a stomach needs food.

“That enterprise is no other than — as is well evident to our country — to take from us, by force and compulsion, those lands lost by his father, the elder Fortinbras.

“This, I take it, is the main reason for our preparations, the cause of this our watch and the fountainhead of this furious activity and turmoil in the land.”

“I think that what you have said is correct,” Barnardo said. “It is appropriate that this portentous figure — this ghost — comes armed during our watch; the ghost is very much like the late King who was and is the cause of these wars.”

“This sight of the ghost troubles the mind’s eye,” Horatio said. “In the most high and flourishing state of Rome, a little before the very mighty Julius Caesar fell, the graves stood open without their tenants and the dead, wrapped in sheets, squeaked and gibbered in the Roman streets. They were deadly portents just like meteors that trail trains of fire, dews of blood, and threatening signs in the Sun. In addition, the Moon, that moist planet that has power over the empire of Neptune, Roman King of the Seas, because it controls the tides, was almost completely blotted out because of an eclipse — it seemed as if it were the Day of Judgment.

“These same portents that foretold the assassination of Julius Caesar, these same portents that are precursors of fierce events, these same portents that are harbingers that always precede calamities and are prologue to a coming disaster — Heaven and Earth have joined together to show these same portents to Denmark and to the Danes.”

Horatio looked up and said, “But wait — look! Look, the ghost is coming here again!”

The ghost stalked closer to the three men.

“I’ll cross its path even though it blasts and destroys me,” Horatio said.

He said to the ghost, “Stay, illusion! If you can make any sound, if you can use your voice, speak to me. If I can do any good thing that will bring ease to you and honor to me, speak to me.”

The ghost opened its mouth, but a rooster — aka a cock — crowed.

Horatio continued, “If you have knowledge about evil coming to your country, which, perhaps, foreknowing may allow us to avoid, ghost, speak! Or if you have buried during your life ill-begotten treasure in the womb of the Earth, for which, they say, you spirits often walk in death, tell us about it.”

The ghost moved away, and Horatio called, “Stay, and speak!”

The ghost ignored Horatio, who then said, “Stop it, Marcellus.”

“Shall I strike at it with my pike?” Marcellus asked.

“Yes, if it will not stand still.”

Looking in one direction, Barnardo said, “It is here!”

Looking in another direction, Horatio said, “It is here!”

Marcellus said, “It is gone!”

The ghost could not be seen.

Marcellus added, “We do it wrong when we act so majestically and imperiously and threaten it with a show of violence. After all, the ghost is as invulnerable as the air and when we strike at it with our pikes we do it no harm. The ghost mocks our vain blows and maliciousness.”

“It was about to speak, but the cock crowed,” Barnardo said.

“And then it started like a guilty thing hearing a fearful summons,” Horatio said. “I have heard that the cock, which is the trumpeter to the morning, does with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat awaken Phoebus Apollo, the god of day. Hearing the cock’s warning, any spirit that is wandering out of its boundary hurries back to its place of confinement, whether in sea or fire, or in earth or air. What we have just witnessed is evidence that what I have heard is true.”

“The ghost faded when the cock crowed,” Marcellus said. “Some say that when that season comes in which the birth of our Savior is celebrated, the bird of dawning — the cock — sings, aka crows, all night long. And then, they say, no spirit dares to stir abroad. The nights are wholesome. No planets exert an evil influence, no fairy casts a spell, and no witch has the power to charm — because Christmas is so sanctified and gracious a time.”

“So I have heard and I do in part believe it,” Horatio said. “But, look, the morning, clad in a russet-colored mantle, walks over the dew of yonder high hill in the East. Let us end our watch. I advise that we tell what we have seen tonight to young Prince Hamlet. I believe, upon my life, that this spirit, which will not speak to us, will speak to him.

“What do you think? Do you agree that we should inform him about it? Do you agree that our friendship to Hamlet and our duty make it necessary for us to tell Hamlet what we have seen?”

“You are right,” Marcellus said. “Let us tell Hamlet what we have seen, please. I know where we can easily find him this morning.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved