Disclaimer: I do not own Hamlet.
On a cold dark night outside Denmark's Elsinore Castle, the noble watchman Francisco stood alert at his post.
"Bored, bored, bored…" he muttered. "Why did I volunteer for night guard duty again? It's so dark that the only way I'd be able to see anyone approaching is if they were close enough to-"
"Kill?" whispered a voice from behind him.
Taken by surprise, Francisco bravely screamed and fainted.
The second man shook his head in disgust and kicked his fallen comrade. "Oh, get up. It's just me."
Obligingly, Francisco jumped up as if nothing happened, beaming. "Ah, Bernardo! Are you here to replace me?"
Bernardo slowly nodded. "Are you drunk?"
Francisco looked offended. "No, of course not!" he insisted as he promptly fell over. "Well…maybe just a little."
"Drinking on the job?" The sober of the pair shook his head ruefully. "In King Hamlet's day, this never would have happened. What do you think King Claudius would have to say about this?"
Francisco shrugged. "Dunno. I got it from him, though, so probably nothing much. 'Save some for me', perhaps?"
"You got this from the King?" Bernardo asked incredulously.
"It's cold out!" Francisco said defensively. "Want some?"
Bernardo considered for a moment. "Ah, what the hell. The King says it's okay, it's okay." He took a long swig. "It's after midnight; you should probably head to bed."
Francisco nodded agreeably. "Just as soon as the world stops spinning."
Bernardo started suddenly. "What's that?"
"Why is all the rum gone?" Marcellus – another watchman – complained, stumbling drunkenly onto the scene.
"You drank it all," Horatio, widely renowned as the only one who could make Prince Hamlet stop moping, explained patiently.
"Oh yeah," Marcellus said sheepishly. He turned and spotted his fellow watchmen. "Ah! A ghost!"
"Where?" Bernardo demanded, looking around wildly.
"You're a ghost!" clarified Marcellus helpfully.
"Ah! Why didn't you tell me?!?! I thought we were friends!" Francisco sounded hurt.
"We're not friends; I barely know you!" Bernardo pointed out.
"You still might have told me," Francisco sniffed.
Bernardo sighed, aggravated. "I'm not a ghost!"
"You're not?" Marcellus asked, surprised.
"Of course he's not! Next thing you know, you'll be saying that's a ghost," Horatio said, rolling his eyes and pointing to tree in the distance.
The three watchmen exchanged looks. "Ah! A ghost!"
"Oh, for the love of-! That's it, you've all had quite enough," Horatio said primly, taking their flasks.
"Awww…Since you took my flask, can you at least tell Prince Hamlet?" Bernardo asked hopefully.
"Tell him what; that his guards are a bunch of drunkards?" Horatio suggested sarcastically.
"No, no," Bernardo said dismissively. "Tell him about the ghost."
"WHAT ghost?" Horatio asked, exasperated.
"The ghost of King Hamlet," replied Francisco.
Horatio closed his eyes and counted to ten very slowly. "…Did he tell you he's the old king?"
Marcellus shook his head. "He won't talk to us; we're not important enough. I'm sure he'll talk to his son, however."
"Don't argue with drunks, don't argue with drunks…" Horatio muttered, his eyes still closed.
Bernardo pulled a puppy dog face. "So will you tell him? Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease?"
Horatio sighed. "Fine, whatever."
King Claudius had been King for some time now, but had refrained from addressing the court on the somewhat scandalous series of events before then.
"I would like to take this time to say that even though I'm thrilled to be king and finally married to the woman I've loved for over half my life, I do deeply mourn my brother," Claudius began. He paused for a moment and then went on much more honestly. "Particularly as Norway has decided to attack us only two months after I ascended to the throne. I'm fairly certain that the half-senile King of Norway knows nothing of this, so I'll send someone to inform him, so they'll call the troops back."
The designated messenger to Norway spoke up. "It's not that your brother chose an inconvenient time to die; Norway just thinks you'll be too busy going mad from guilt to put up much of a fight."
"Guilt? Why would I be guilty?" Claudius asked sharply.
The messenger pointedly eyed first the King's wedding ring and then Gertrude, coughing delicately. "Did I say guilt? I meant 'grief.'"
"Good. I'd hate for anyone to think I've done anything wrong…" Claudius said threateningly.
"I'll…just be going then, shall I? This message won't deliver itself!" The messenger quickly hurried out of the Castle.
"Now that that's settled...Did you want anything, Prince Laertes?" Claudius asked, turning to the boy he believed was his nephew.
"I'm not a prince, your majesty," Laertes corrected. "I'm the son of Polonius."
Claudius looked blank.
"Your advisor?" Laertes tried again. Still, no luck. Laertes sighed and soldiered on, "Now that the mourning period is so very clearly over, I would like to go back to France to further my studies."
"Why, nothing would give my greater pleasure than to see you happy, my dear nephew!" Polonius said jovially.
In the interest of getting what he wanted, Laertes decided to let it go for once. "So, that's a yes?"
"Of course it is, my boy. You must be worldly if you intend to inherit the throne after I'm gone," Claudius said sagely.
"…Right. Thanks again," Laertes said, leaving before anyone brought up the fact that he wasn't actually related to Claudius.
"And what about you? Who are you and why are you moping about?" Claudius asked, turning his attention to his actual nephew.
"I'm Hamlet," Hamlet replied flatly.
Claudius rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "Hamlet? I thought I kill- er, I thought he died."
"He did," Hamlet said gloomily. "I'm his son. Your nephew."
"I didn't know Laertes had a brother," Claudius said, surprised.
"He doesn't," Hamlet confirmed. "He has a sister, though."
Claudius's eyebrows rose. "You're a girl?"
"But you just said-" Claudius began.
"You know what? Never mind. Just know that I'm your nephew," Hamlet interjected.
"Is that true?" Claudius asked, turning to his new wife.
Queen Gertrude nodded. "Yes, Hamlet is my son. Laertes, on the other hand-"
"Fine boy, I know. A regular chip off the old block. Laertes is going off to France though, and doesn't appear to have any severe issues. Your other son, though…" Claudius shuddered. "He's a mess! Would you believe that he's STILL upset that the old King died?"
"The old King was my father!" Hamlet shouted. "And he only died two months ago."
"So? Everyone else is over it," Claudius pointed out.
"You served the leftovers from my father's funeral at your wedding!" Hamlet continued, outraged.
"We didn't want to be wasteful," Gertrude explained.
Hamlet just stared at her. "What is wrong with you people?"
"Now, now, Hamlet, I know it's quite normal to blame other people for your problems, but please stop upsetting your Aunt," Claudius said.
"She's my mother!" Hamlet said through gritted teeth.
"All the more reason to stop upsetting her," Claudius said blithely. "Everyone dies. It's a fact of life. Get over it already because your depression is getting seriously depressing."
"I'm sorry that my deep and abiding grief and natural outrage to almost everything you've done since my father's death is annoying you," Hamlet said sarcastically.
"I forgive you," Claudius said magnanimously.
"Can I go now?" Hamlet asked.
"Go where?" Claudius asked, confused.
"Wittenberg. I was studying there before I heard the news," Hamlet reminded his uncle.
"See, there you go dwelling on that again," Claudius chided. "And of course you can't."
"Than-wait, what do you mean no? Why not?" Hamlet demanded.
"Your brother is going off to France and I'd like at least one of my heirs here in Denmark while we all adjust to me being King. Besides, it will add a certain…legitimacy to my rule," Claudius explained.
Hamlet looked mutinous. "Laertes is NOT my brother!"
"Hamlet! I'm surprised at you! I know you're upset right now, but family is important, so that's no reason to go around disowning your relatives!" Claudius sounded shocked.
"Trust me, if I were disowning relatives you'd be the first to go…" Hamlet murmured. "And why is it okay for Laertes to leave and not me? That sounds an awful lot like favoritism."
"It's not favoritism; he just asked me first. If you had asked first, then you would be off in Williamsburg or wherever and Laertes would be here, not moping." Claudius paused, looking thoughtful. "I wonder if it isn't too late to change my mind…"
"I asked you if I could go back the minute your coronation was over!" Hamlet protested.
"Did you really?" Claudius asked. "Well, sorry about that, but I already promised your brother and a man's word is his bond, you know."
"Will you please stay, son? I missed you while you were gone," Gertrude entreated softly.
"Since I've not been given any choice in the matter, I guess I will," Hamlet agreed reluctantly.
"Excellent! This calls for a celebration! Bring in the fireworks and alcohol!" Claudius called as he and his procession left the room to inform people of the imminent festivities.
"I love you," Gertrude assured her distraught son as she hurried after her new husband.
"Let's recap, shall we?" Hamlet thought aloud once he was alone. "My dad's dead, my mother married my uncle in an incestuous marriage from hell so soon after my father's death that the mourners barely had time to change their clothes before they were the wedding guests, my Uncle thinks Laertes is my brother and he's the favorite! Ah well, at least I still have my girlfriend…"
The girlfriend in questions, Ophelia, chose then to walk into the room. "Hey, Hamlet? Listen, I really like you and all, but the King's insistence that my brother is your brother is starting to convince people and since the last thing we need around here is another incest scandal, I'm breaking up with you. Sorry." With that, Ophelia went to go look for her brother.
"Damn, my life sucks," Hamlet lamented. "I wish I had never been born!" He waited patiently but nothing happened. "And now I can't even wish myself out of existence properly! The only other option is suicide, but I think Hell is probably worse than dealing with Claudius. For now."
"Listen Hamlet," Horatio says as he enters the room of random comings-and-goings, followed closely by the clearly hung-over Marcellus and Bernardo. "I'm sorry to bother you, I really am – and I'm sorry about Ophelia, by the way – but these two have been pestering me all day to talk to you."
"Horatio!" Hamlet brightened upon seeing his friend. "What are you doing here?"
"I've actually been here for two months," Horatio explained. "But your Uncle seemed to think I was Laertes' friend and made me spend time with him. I came for the funeral."
"You mean the wedding?" groused Hamlet.
"I went to both," Horatio said neutrally.
"So what did these…watchmen want?" Hamlet asked disinterestedly.
"They were drunk on duty last night and mistook a tree for your father's ghost so they want you to stand watch with them tonight in case they get drunk and mistake the tree for your father's ghost again," Horatio summed the situation up.
Hamlet shrugged apathetically. "Ah, what the hell."
"And can you bring a flask?" Marcellus asked eagerly. "Horatio took mine."
"I can take some from my uncle's party," Hamlet agreed.
"Best. Prince. Ever," Bernardo breathed, awed.
"This whole place is full of madmen and drunkards…" Horatio realized, horrified.
"Do you need any help packing?" Ophelia asked, entering her brother's room.
Laertes laughed. "Are you kidding? I've been packed since I got here!"
"You mean you never unpacked," Ophelia deduced.
"These people are CRAZY, Ophelia. CRAZY. You stay here too long, you'll go crazy, too," Laertes warned. "Come with me!"
"I would if I could, Laertes," Ophelia told him. "But someone needs to stay here to remind the King who father is."
"I suppose you have a point," Laertes sighed. "Fine, stay here. But whatever you do, don't have sex with Hamlet! His mother will or uncle will probably arrange a marriage with some foreign princess and leave you high and dry."
"Oh, no need to worry about that," Ophelia assured him. "Seeing as how I broke up with him about ten minutes ago."
"Really?" Laertes asked, thrilled. At Ophelia's nod, he continued, "That's great, it really is. May I ask why? Last time we talked about this you told me to mind my own damn business. What changed?"
"Well…things just got really awkward, what with the rampant rumors about you and Hamlet being brothers and all," Ophelia admitted.
"I guess that does come in handy, after all…" Laertes mused.
"Laertes! Stop enjoying my pain," Ophelia ordered, smacking him.
"Sorry," he said dutifully.
"And if I'm not getting laid, you better not either," Ophelia said sternly. "Because again: we do not need any more scandals. We're all scandaled out. So behave."
"Fine, fine…" Laertes agreed reluctantly.
"Son," Polonius greeted as he walked into the room. "Your ship's leaving in about fifteen minutes, so hurry up."
"Don't you have any last minute advice to give me before leaving me completely to my own devices in a foreign country?" Laertes asked, surprised.
Polonius frowned."Well…I don't have anything prepared so…don't borrow or lend money, don't get anyone pregnant, don't give your honest opinion, no swearing, and above all: before you do ANYTHING, think to yourself 'is it worth it to have a conversation about this with not only my father but also my king whose convince he's my uncle?'"
Laertes paled at the thought. "It probably won't ever be…" he muttered. "Gotta go. Bye Dad, love you Sis."
"So what were you and your brother talking about before I came in here?" Polonius asked as they watched him leave.
"He told me not to sleep with Hamlet," Ophelia told him.
"That's good advice," Polonius agreed. "Don't do it."
"Wasn't planning on it," Ophelia assured him.
"Why are we out here, Hamlet?" Horatio asked, shivering. "It's cold and nothing's going to happen."
"I want to see my father," Hamlet explained, yet again.
"Your father is dead," Horatio reminded him.
"Which is why I'm waiting for his ghost," Hamlet pointed out.
"It's after just past midnight," Marcellus interjects. "The ghost should be along shortly."
"You know, everyone else is sleeping," Horatio muttered, pulling his jacket tighter to him.
"No, everyone else is partying," Hamlet corrects, disgusted. "It's almost just as well that I'm stuck here; my Uncle's incessant drunken carousing is quite frankly embarrassing and I'm glad I don't have to try and explain it away at Wittenberg."
"Hey, look, there he is!" Marcellus cried out, taking another sip from his flask.
"Where?" Hamlet asked, his eyes darting from tree to tree.
"Right there," Marcellus gestured to the same tree he'd mistaken for a ghost the night before.
"I see it," Hamlet breathed, stunned.
"See what?" Horatio demanded. "The tree? I see it too. Can we please go inside now?"
"My father…" Hamlet whispered. He broke into a run.
"Your father wasn't a tree, Hamlet!" Horatio called after him, but to no avail.
Hamlet stopped at the tree and began talking animatedly with it.
"Is he even drunk?" Horatio asked his companion.
Marcellus shrugged. "I don't see what difference that makes."
After a few moments, Hamlet rejoined him, his face flushed. "My father…my father said that he was murdered by my Uncle!" he declared dramatically.
Horatio snorted. "I could have told you that."
Hamlet turned to him, suspicious. "What do you know about this?"
"The King practically confesses every time he mentions your father," Horatio explained. "Surely you've noticed?"
Ignoring him, Hamlet went on, "My father wants me to take revenge on my Uncle but to leave my mother be as she has been corrupted by that foul incestuous beast!"
"You know, it does take two people to have a marriage," Horatio pointed out. "And I highly doubt that your Uncle could have forced your mother to marry him seeing as how she was the Queen and their union is widely regarded as incest."
"Of course he forced her," Hamlet said impatiently. "He's EVIL. Now, I want you both to swear to secrecy not to tell anyone what you've seen-"
"No worries there," Horatio muttered.
"And that I plan to act like a madman soon, so do not let anyone know that you know why," Hamlet concluded.
"I swear," Marcellus said solemnly.
"You want me not to tell anyone that a tree you confused for your father told you that the King very obviously murdered your father and you're going to 'pretend' to be crazy?" Horatio repeated. "Well, I doubt they'd believe me anyway, so why not?"
"God, my life sucks," Hamlet complained as they went inside.