Chapter 9: Guilt and Treason
King Claudius paced the length of his chambers, his face sweaty and pale, his eyes popping. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stood nervously on the edge of the room, watching the king in his frantic pacing as he muttered feverishly at intervals to himself.
"I like him not," the king said, tearing his hand momentarily from his mouth, "nor stands it safe with us to let his madness rage. Therefore, prepare you – straight away to England – I will make the necessary arrangements – for danger doth hourly grow out of his lunacies . . ."
"We will make the preparations," said Rosencrantz.
"Yes, and make haste!"
"We will," said the two men and bowed and exited the king's chambers.
"Does anyone suspect? But my guilt smells to high heaven!" cried Claudius, tearing wretchedly at his clothing. "It hath the primal eldest curse upon it – a brother's murder! Pray, I can not, though I long to – how I long!" he cried and crossed himself miserably. "Try what repentance can: what can it not? Yet what can it when one can not repent? O wretched state!" he spat, tearing at his hair. "O bosom black as death! O limed soul that struggling to be free are more engaged! Help, angels!" and his twisted face turned in anguish to the ceiling. "Bow stubborn knees . . ." He sunk in agony to his knees and knelt, sweating profusely, over his clasped hands.
"Look you he prays," murmured Hamlet to himself, who in passing had paused outside the king's cracked door and watched the little scene with grim interest. "Now I might slay him easily, but he is praying no doubt for forgiveness. So would I be revenged, but he, forgiven, would go to heaven. He took my father grossly, his sins on his head, with all his crimes broad blown, and I shall do the same to him! And that his soul may be damned and black as hell, whereto it goes. My mother says: the prayer but prolongs sickly days."
And Hamlet moved on to his mother's chambers, his jaw rigid with anger that the king's prayers had forestalled his revenge.
Meanwhile, Polonius (who was standing watch in the hall) spotted Hamlet approaching and hurried into the queen's chambers. "He comes straight! Look you lay home to him! Tell him his pranks have been broad to bear with and that Grace hath stood between much anger and him. I'll hide away in here – I pray you be firm with him!"
"Mother!" called Hamlet's sing-song voice down the hall. "Mother! Mother!"
"I hear him coming!" hissed the queen, flustered. "Hurry! Withdrawl!"
Polonius dove behind a tapestry the very moment Hamlet entered. The prince was whistling cheerfully, his hands shoved in his pockets, and said happily, "Now, Mother, what's the matter?"
The glittering bitterness of his smile frightened Gertrude, who covered her fear well with a dignified lift of her chin.
"Hamlet," said the queen gravely, "thou hast thy father much offended."
"Mother," said Hamlet with mock gravity, "you have my father much offended." And he glowered at her quite sincerely, his eyes suddenly dark and ferocious.
"Come, come," Gertrude snapped, frowning at him, "you answer with an idle tongue."
"Go, go," mocked Hamlet, "you question with a wicked tongue."
And they fell into an uneasy silence, Hamlet's angry eyes never shifting from his mother's astonished face. It was not like Hamlet to be rude to her, to mock her, to seem to hate her as he wasbehaving tonight. Where was her Hamlet, so charming and gentle and kind? He must be mad after all, it was the only answer.
"Why, now, Hamlet!" cried the queen, shaking her head in despair. What could she do? She couldn't admonish a mad son! Did he even know what he was saying to her, how he was behaving? Did he even have any control?
"What's the matter now?" said Hamlet, rocking on his heels. He gave a little whistle and peered indifferently around the room.
"Have you forgotten me?" the queen demanded. For he had never treated her with such open contempt before but had always adored her. She fumbled anxiously with her long unbraided hair and stared at her son as helplessly as if she would have flown to the ends of the earth had he but asked.
Hamlet rocked on his heels again, "No, by the cross, not so. You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife, and – would it were not so! – you are my mother."
"Nay then," said the queen, her face darkening. "I'll set those to you who can make you speak." And she rose purposefully from her dignified seat on the edge of the bed.
Hamlet scowled at the empty threat. "Come, come, sit you down. You shall not budge. You will go not until I can reveal your true self to you!" He moved toward her with a menacing light in his eye, and Gertrude sank backward onto the edge of her bed as if her knees had given away, her blue eyes wide.
"What wilt thou do?" she gasped, shielding her face as Hamlet approached, his fists clenched at his sides. "Wilt thou murder me? Help, help!"
And Polonius screamed from behind the tapestry, "Help! Murder! Help!"
Hamlet spun around. "What's this? A rat?" he cried and passed his sword with a vicious stab through the tapestry.
There was a cry of anguish, and Polonius collapsed to the floor, clutching his gushing chest.
"O me!" shrieked the queen, covering her mouth and scrambling backward onto the bed, as if the bed would save her from her crazed son. "What – what hast thou done!" she shrilled. "O what a rash and bloody deed is this!"
Hamlet rushed at her and covered her mouth. "A bloody deed?" he sneered at her. "Yes, almost as bad as kill a king and marry his brother, eh, Mother?" He let her go and turned again to Polonius, who lay now dead and staring.
"As kill a king!" gasped the queen behind him, astonished.
"Ay, lady, that's what I said!" Hamlet grunted, rolling Polonius under the tapestry with his boot. "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!" he laughed. "Leave wringing of your hands!" he snarled suddenly at his mother, who was trying to dash for the door. "Peace, sit you down! Or I shall wring your heart!" and he lifted the back of his hand at Gertrude, who flopped onto the bed again, horrified.
"What have I done?" she sobbed. "What have I done that thou dar'st speak so rudely against me?" she begged, holding out her hands, her tousled blonde hair falling into her eyes.
"Such an act," said Hamlet darkly, his voice rising, "THAT MAKES MARRIAGE VOWS AS FALSE AS DICERS' OATHS!"
"Ay me!" Gertrude shrank beneath her towering son, covering her head. "What act that roars so loud and thunders!"
Hamlet pulled a chain from the collar of his tunic on which dangled the image of the late king. "Look you here!" he growled, dragging his mother's face close to the image by the hair. "Look upon this picture and see what grace was seated on this brow – Hyperion's curls, the face of Jove himself, an eye like Mars to threaten and command, a stature like to herald Mercury himself – a face with the stamp of approval placed upon it by every god – a handsome man! This is your husband!" he said through his teeth, shaking a sobbing Gertrude by the hair.
"This, this!" he screamed, his eyes widening at his mother, as if urging her to understand something she had long forgotten. "Here is your husband! Have you not eyes? O shame!" he growled, shoving her back on the bed.
Gertrude's legs flew up before she could stop them. She caught herself on one elbow and bowed her head until her long blonde hair was a shielding veil and sobbed fiercely.
"Where is thy blush?" Hamletraged at her. "Where is thy shame? Where is thy remorse?"
"O Hamlet!" moaned the queen, dragging a weary hand up to wipe her wet face. "Speak no more – thou turn'st mine eyes to my very soul . . . and there I see such black and grained spots as will not leave their tinct."
"Nay, but to live in the rank sweat of an unseamed bed!" roared Hamlet breathlessly. "Stewed in corruption, honeyed and making love over the nasty sty – "
"O speak no more!" sobbed the queen. "These words are like daggers. No more, Hamlet!" she said fiercely.
"A murderer and a villain," went on Hamlet, "a slave that is not twentieth part the tithe of your late lord. A vice of kings, a cur-purse of the empire and the rule, that from a shelf the precious diadem stole and put it in his pocket!"
"No more!" the queen roared, glaring at Hamlet.
But Hamlet, seeing his father's ghost drift through the wall, stopped in the middle of his tirade. The late king of Denmark stood before him, doleful and weary, and shook his miserable gray head at his son.
"What would your gracious figure?" whispered Hamlet, staring seemingly at the wall.
The queen looked wildly between Hamlet and the wall, her mouth open in her bewilderment. "Alas, he is mad!" she whispered to herself, clutching her heart.
"Do you come to chide me?" Hamlet asked the late king, slumping guiltily.
"Do not forget," answered the ghost. "This visitation is but to remind thee. Look! Your mother sits in amazement. Step between her and her fighting soul. Speak to her, Hamlet."
Hamlet turned to his mother, who was indeed sitting with her mouth open in wonder and fear.
"How is it with you, lady?" said the princeapologetically, his brows knitting.
"Alas, but how is it with you?" gasped Gertrude, glancing at the wall again as if it would relieve her of her puzzlement. "You bend your eye on vacancy and with the air hold discourse! O gentle son! Where on you look?"
"On him! On him!" cried Hamlet, jabbing his finger impatiently. "Look you, how pale he glares! Do not look upon me," he added to the ghost. "Lest with piteous action you convert my stern effects."
"To whom do you speak this?" asked the queen breathlessly, an uncertain hand at her lips.
"Do you see nothing there?"
"Nothing at all!"
"Nor did you nothing hear?"
"Only our voices!"
"But look you there!" persisted Hamlet. "Look! Look how he steals away!"
And the ghost drifted again from the room.
Gertrude merely stared at Hamlet as if he'd lost his mind and shook her head. "This is the very coinage of your brain: this bodiless creation of yours is madness!"
"Madness!" scorned Hamlet. "It is not madness that I have uttered. Mother, for love of grace, confess yourself to heaven: repent what's past; avoid what is to come; and do not spread the compost of weeds to make them ranker."
"O Hamlet! Thou hast cleft my heart in twain . . ." Gertrude could not even bring herself to look at her son. She hung her head again and the blonde hair draped in her face.
"I must be cruel only to be kind," Hamlet said gently.
"What must I do?" the queen implored, her blue eyes wandering now to Hamlet's left elbow.
"Go not to my uncle's bed. Let the king tempt you not, pinch your cheek, call you mouse . . ." He scowled as he remembered his mother and uncle's constant giggling and fondling. "Essentially, I am not in madness but mad in craft. Twere good you let him know."
"Be assured," answered Gertrude, drawing herself upright until her blonde hair fell again on either side of her face. "If words be made of breath, and breath of life, I have no life to breathe what thou hast told me."
And she closed her eyes in despair. Her poor Hamlet! To have borne the burden of such a secret for so long. Claudius was a murderer! Alas! A shudder went through her as she thought of it.
"I must go to England, you know that?" the prince was saying.
Gertrude looked around and her heart pumped with dread. She had only just realized: if Claudius was her late husband's murderer, then Hamlet was in danger!
"Alack!" she cried, reaching out for Hamlet. "I had forgotten: tis so concluded on."
Hamlet clasped her outstretched hand affectionately and kissed it, making her smile through her tears.
"There's letters sealed, and my two school fellows – who I trust as adders fanged – bear the command. They must accompany me to my doom. Let them try. I will blow them to the moon! Mother, good night. Indeed – " and he turned to Polonius's still body now, "this counselor is now most still, most secret, and most grave, who was in life a prating knave. Come, sir, to draw toward an end with you . . . Good night, Mother . . ."
And Gertrude watched, frozen on the edge of the bed, as Hamlet dragged Polonius's limp body from the room.