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The Oral History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark By Bryan Lee Peterson Polonius paced the dressing room space nervously, trying to pull his lines back up from memory. He'd been going like this for the hour since he'd arrived with Fortinbras, who lay asleep on a hard wooden bench. "And keep these precepts in memory: Look after your...thy character. Give your ...thy thoughts no tongue, and no unappropriate thought an act. Be familiar, but in no way vulgar. The friends you have, their adoption tried, Bring them into thy soul, and hold them like steel. Do not dull thy palm with the entertainment of every new hatched, unﬂedged comrade. Beware entrance to a quarrel; but, finding yourself there, bear it in mind that the opposed may be wary of thee," Polonius said. He scratched his head and then started over. He'd never been this nervous before a performance in all his time in performance. "I hardly remember these lines. How long has it been? Fortinbras lifted his head only enough to directly address Polonius. "Too long," he said, and put his head back down. He had large bags under his eyes, they hadn't let him sleep either. "I've lost track of the last time we did this. When was the last time we were even together? I was in the camp for months, I know. Before that, there was a time where I never saw day or night, and I lost track of time. None of us knew what day it was. There were only days." He shook his head. "I lost track as well. After a while I stopped wondering, it caused too much pain." "There are so many lines to recall. Why was I cast as Polonius, anyway? He just goes on and on. He's a prattler, and I'm not a prattler by nature." "Sure you're not," Fortinbras said. "Maybe a bit when I'm nervous."
2 "Sure," Fortinbras said with a sly nod, and a slight wink. "When you're nervous." "But there's so many lines to remember. It just feels so much like it was another age when we last did this. So much has happened to us." "Hm," Fortinbras grunted in agreement. "Last time we had better accommodations." "We'll never get back to that, will we? This performance can't possibly change anything for us, right? I'd like to think that we could somehow make it out, but that doesn't seem very likely." "To thine own self be true," Fortinbras said. "Is that the next line? I wish I had a book somewhere." "No. There's no book lying around. Hasn't been a book of this in country for fifteen years probably." Fortinbras resigned himself to not being able to get to sleep a wink with Polonius about. He'd just have to find some energy somewhere that they hadn't taken from him. "I wouldn't worry about lines. This audience won't know them, and they won't be critical either. They've all but forgotten the name of the play by now. I hope the rest of the world remembers Shakespeare, because they won't here soon." The door opened, and Claudius walked in, carrying a folded costume in his arms. They pushed him in the door and closed it behind him. For a moment the three stared at each other, then Claudius dropped his kingly robes, and stepped to Polonius, arms outstretched in embrace. "I can hardly believe it," Claudius said. Fortinbras stood, and they hugged as well, patting each other on the back. "My god, it's good to see you." "To see you both alive and well...I haven't got words," Claudius said. "Is it possible that we're all alive," Polonius said. "We're all going to be reunited? What do you know of their plans? Please tell us what you've heard, and we'll collect our knowledge. I have to tell you, we're both ignorant of why we've been brought here." Claudius smiled and held up his hand, silently asking Polonius to hold his speech. "I'm as ignorant as you are. They've only told me we've been ordered to assemble and perform. Perhaps they are rethinking their stance." "Not likely," Fortinbras said. "Where do they have you?" "North I think. There are times where I can smell the sea air. That's about all any of us there know. And you?" "South, near farms. All we smell is cow shit and hog shit." The door opened again, and Hamlet was pushed in before it crashed closed again. He almost tripped over his feet, as they dragged so much. He made it to one of the benches and collapsed. "Son," Polonius said, and ran to his side. He took Hamlet's hand, and
3 kissed it, breaking into tears. "I never thought I'd see you again. Where have they had you?" "Dad," Hamlet said, breaking into tears. After a moment, he regained composure and could speak. "I don't know. I don't want to talk about it." "If we don't talk about it, they've won," Claudius said. "After, or during. I want to rest now." "Do you have it in you to perform?" "I don't think I have a choice," he said. "I don't think we can postpone," Fortinbras said, a sardonic tone to his voice. Polonius beamed with fatherly pride. "I can make it through. Help me up." They lifted him to his feet, and he took off his shirt. His chest and back were covered with welts, some of them fresh, some having healed for several days. "Son, did you resist?" "Of course. If it hadn't been for this command performance, they'd have killed me." The rest of the players began arriving, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. Each one was met with a tearful reunion, and immediately followed by a question, usually starting like 'any word of my mother?' or, 'have you seen my brother?' Hamlet’s real life uncle played the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Of all of the people who had been assembled in the dressing room, he looked the weakest of all; he was gaunt, and moved stiffly. In the camps, his hair had made the transition from a light brown to gray, and the lines in his face looked deeper. He'd aged considerably in the time they'd all been apart, the kind of aging that happens more with hard times rather than just plain times. He looked like his part, a specter on two legs. He spoke in a stage whisper, and gasped in weakness with every gesture. He'd learned an economy of movement from this weakness, wherever he'd been placed, it was stark, and difficult. The others wondered if maybe his punishment had been harsher because he'd been their director, he'd been the instigator. If he was asked about his health, he'd dismiss the questioner, "I'll be fine come showtime." In truth, he felt that this would be his last performance if given the choice of it. He'd been broken, and his heart couldn't take much more. He'd tried to will it to stop during the interrogations, during the sessions, but it never happened. He still commanded respect, but he felt the shame of having brought this on all of them, his family and friends. It had been such a great goal, keeping the stories alive as oral traditions, and he'd been foolishly optimistic about his ability to keep it secret. There was no secret anymore, not in their country. Their productions had been fun, Hamlet, Caesar, Much Ado about Nothing, A Midsummer Night's Dream, but he never wanted to have his friends and family put into this situation. He was torn between the hard times he'd spent since apprehension, and the excitement of what was
4 happening in this room right now. Putting on a play had always been magic, and it was that thrill that had brought the risk for them. That paradox was echoed tonight for him. He knew this performance would be dangerous, but it would also bring back that thrill. It wasn't that he had a choice to do the performance, that was quite out of his hands. His choice was in how well he did it. Did he just go through the motions, or did he rise to the occasion? In the end, he decided to give them a performance worthy of the bard, to show them all what they had destroyed in this world. Polonius went on, going over his lines, and Hamlet's Father didn't feel the need to correct him, it would only hurt the show. The doors opened again, and Gertrude was delivered, like the rest she carried her costume in front of her like a prisoner on the way to her cell. She handed it to another of the cast members and ran to her husband. The ghost was barely strong enough to stand, but they kissed, and promised themselves they'd never be apart again, probably foolishly, but for the moment, the promise was the strongest thing in the world. Ophelia came in, too, and ran straight for Hamlet. This got his spirit up, they had been meant to marry soon, but the raid and detention had put a stop to it. It was her memory alone that had kept Hamlet going through the torture. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watched her run past. "I had almost won her heart once," Rosencrantz said. "You never did, I remember," Guildenstern said. "I did too. We went out." "She was humoring you." Rosencrantz hit him. "You weren't even the best in the neighborhood. Come on." Gertrude and the ghost of Hamlet's father weeped tears of joy, and whispered of their times in their embrace. When their embraced reached a comfortable point, she broke free, and turned her gaze to Claudius. She walked over and held his hand. "I have something to tell you, and it won't be easy to hear," she said. His celebratory mood turned to one of fear. His eyes widened, and he stopped his excited movements about the company. "I was with your Rebecca. They killed her." Claudius fell to the floor, unable to support his own weight. He felt the tears coming, but they fought with anger, and an exhaustion of will to materialize. The room emptied of sound, the group’s attention focused on him until it became too uncomfortable, and the cast turned away. There had been too much struggle for them, too much pain since they had last seen any of this company. This much pain took away their jubilation, but overwhelmed their ability to be compassionate. "Come, get up off the floor," Polonius said. He held out a hand. Claudius pushed it away. "Please, leave me alone. I need time." The news emptied Claudius, and completely changed his being. Until that
5 moment, he thought he'd had some fight left in him, but now it was gone. The hate that he felt for the regime which he'd been able to control up to now consumed him whole. This whole thing was folly. He'd go through the motions, tonight and forever, but he knew that he had just died inside, and all was headed for tragedy. Hamlet had found a reserve of strength they somehow hadn't found. He tried to lead Ophelia to a side room for some lover's privacy, but the attitude of the guards had changed. They were remaining in the room, by order of their captain. Their numbers were getting sufficient enough to warrant closer observation. Polonius felt the change, and saw how it brought the cast down. Their volume levels had fallen significantly as they got into costume and makeup. "Could you, uh, leave us to our preparations?" he asked them politely. "By order of our captain, we are to remain in the room with you, for your own safety." Polonius nodded, and doddered away, grumbling. Lieutenant Collins had served under General Roth for six months of eager service when the invitation to go to the theatre had been made. It had confused him, hadn't the theatres been closed since the regime had taken power? The old general leaned in and smiled. "Rank has its privileges," the General had said, which meant that he was under unexpressed orders to attend, and then they went on to other business. Collins didn't really care wither way. He was a military man, and anything beyond had little interest for him. The general had told him it was an order, and even if it had been ordered in jest, he took it as a command. He had to play the game, and this was part of it. As it turned out, the general only wanted somebody to drive the car and accompany him, a job that his chauffeur wasn't allowed. Nobody that low could attend this event, the general had said. When he pulled the car around the corner to the theatre, he surprised to find that it was lit magnificently, and everything around it was black. The buildings around were empty, there were no living quarters in the area, and the blocks had been shut off to all but official traffic. Two tanks idled in front of the theatre, the newest in the army, purchased from abroad, and manned by soldiers who saluted the officers in between careful observation of the surrounding street. The theatre, by contrast, was an island made entirely of gold light, with nothing but olive suited officials milling around in front. Lieutenant Collins pulled the car to a stop between the tanks and in the island of light in front of the theatre's red carpet, pulled the parking brake, and stepped around to the other side to open the door for the General. "Thank you Lieutenant. Go park the car, I'll wait for you here." "Yes sir," he said, closing the door. When he got back, the General was standing with two other officers in a discussion. Lieutenant Collins knew his protocol. He stepped behind the general's side, and stood at ease, waiting for his next order.
6 "Don't be so stiff tonight, Lieutenant. This is an evening of pleasure, there are no formalities, I order it." He smiled in that way Generals have that implies they won't be smiling for long if you don't snap right to what they just said. "Thank you, General." "Boys, this is Lieutenant Collins. It was time to let him in on one of our gatherings. He's earned it." "Thank you, sir." He shook the hands of the officers. One of them smoked a cigarette, the other a cigar. Tobacco was an expensive commodity. "Would you like one?" the cigarette smoker asked. "Thank you, sir." He took it, and accepted the light. The first inhalation went down rough. It had been a long time since he'd had a cigarette. The buzz hit him hard, but it relaxed him. "Come on, let's go inside," the general said. Collins thought the lobby to the theatre was impressive, though it smelled musty. It was packed with party officials and military from all branches of service. They were all dressed in their tightest parade dress. The party officials all looked dressed for a party meeting. Collins looked down at his uniform to make sure he was arranged to match the standards of the room. He had never been in a theatre lobby before, but he found it impressive. Marble columns led his eyes up to a balcony, intricate carpets were underfoot, and paintings hung on the walls. The general led him to a bar. "Drink?" "Yes, sir." "Two whiskeys," he said. The bartender was a young ensign, his hair cut close, and a fresh look about his cheekbones. "Never been before?" "No, sir, it was banned when I was twelve, and we were too poor to go before then." "It is a shame to see places like this get dusty. Still, for the good of the country, right?" It was a toast. They drank their whiskeys in one shot. "Sir, if you don't mind my asking...?" "No, please, ask." "Why did we ban theatre?" "Theatre, like the arts in general, promoted dangerous radical thoughts. It was a corrupt system, the arts. It allowed the resistance to get out their message subtly and to a wide audience. Even plays like Hamlet, tonight, could be used to promote an anti-party message." "So why do we get to see it here?" "You're very lucky that the consuls have allowed this showing. Besides, there's no reason the party's best can't participate in a little contraband, right?"
7 He didn't get a chance to finish, the lights flashed twice, and the General gestured him to find their seats. The inside of the theatre was much larger than what he'd been expecting. There had to be over a thousand audience members. The room was lit well, but still darker than the lobby. Its walls were more somber shades, less ostentatious, but by no means less ornate. An ensign ushered them to their seats. As curtain time neared, the cast felt the usual buildup of momentum coming close. Most of them were in costume, or getting laced into the last bits of one. While they felt the flutter and rush of performance, their hearts were also gripped with apprehension. They still didn't know what had conspired to bring them together for this performance. Seeing their loved ones created a blindness about their situation, they were convinced that they would perform, and then be together again, families in a neighborhood like it had been: Hamlet wooing the fair Ophelia, his ghostly father with Gertrude, and all of the other relationships back again. "You remember the parts, right?" the ghost of Hamlet's father asked. "Yes, of course." "Because I can help you if you just ask. I know it by heart." "You have my assurances that we'll do you proud," Polonius said. A new guard entered the room. He was evidently the head of the guards, judging by the number of decorations on his uniform. "Ladies and gentlemen, a few words," he announced. The room hushed. "This performance is on command of the consuls themselves, who are among those in attendance this evening. We recommend you give your best performance. We regret to inform you that we have no stagehands provided, and the performance will be entirely under standard lighting. I trust you can make do." "We'll be fine," Claudius said. The others immediately hushed him, fearful of retribution for his defiance. "The guards will be in the wings of the stage, and all stage doors will be locked during performance. If we succeed tonight, there will likely be more performances. We start in five minutes. Please be ready. Thank you." He turned a sharp corner and exited. "What do you make of that?" the ghost asked. Polonius shrugged. "I suggest we get to places and see what comes." The lights in the house dimmed, and the stage lights came up. The head guard walked out on stage, the stomp of his boots echoing in the hall. "My esteemed compatriots. By arrangement of our beloved consuls, we have a special presentation of Hamlet, by William Shakespeare. Tonight's performance is a new sport devised by our consuls, for the entertainment of only those present tonight." Offstage, the cast looked bewildered.
8 "Sport?" Polonius asked. Hamlet shrugged. "Our cast was arrested in a performance of this very play, and sent to camps some time ago. We have reunited them by special order and arrangements. And now, Hamlet." The audience applauded. Francisco entered stage left. After a moment, Bernardo entered, stage right. "Who's there?" Bernardo called. "No, answer me. Reveal yourself." Francisco replied. "Long live the king!" "Bernardo?" "Aye." "You come most cautious on your watch." "It is now past twelve. Get to bed, Francisco." Offstage, the ghost of Hamlet's father mouthed the actual words of the play. He'd had it memorized for years before the ban. He could never get the cast to a level of perfect memorization, but they had it close. It was important to him that they kept up literature as best they could. It would outlast this regime like it had so many others, and would hold up even as an oral tradition until books could return. He exchanged glances with the guard, and tried to ignore the machine gun, the olive uniform, his disapproving expression. He looked on the boy as someone who would never understand the greatness of the written word. He might have been in diapers when the ban went into effect, he never would have had a chance against this terrible nationalism. Horatio and Marcellus walked out next. He watched them closely. He'd had reservations about this performance, due mostly to the lack of a rehearsal. The regime hadn't allowed one, they said it wasn't necessary. No sooner did the thought cross his mind than he started out to the stage to face them. Even when an audience is a known quantity, the performers tried to see their audience. While stage lighting usually made all but the first few rows a mass of faceless silhouettes, they still wanted to know who they were performing for. From what they could see, the audience they played to was homogeneously male, and for all they could see, entirely military. They had no doubts that the bureaucrats had pulled rank and gotten the boxes. The bureaucrats always had their ways of pulling things like that, they wore selfimportance like a well-tailored suit. The act was winding down, and most of the players had taken their first turns on the stage. It was up to Hamlet to close it out. "I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play, have by the nature of the scene been so struck to the soul that they have confessed their guilt; murder, though it have no tongue, will speak through a most miraculous organ." The audience laughed quietly at the concept, the kind of laugh that
9 something they were seeing was preposterous beyond belief. It was certainly a construct beyond their reality. "I’ll have these players play something like the murder of my father before mine uncle: I’ll observe his looks; I’ll tent him to the quick: if he but flinch, I know my course. The spirit that I have seen may be the devil: and the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps out of my weakness and my melancholy, as he is very potent with such spirits, abuses me to damn me: I’ll have grounds More relative than this.–the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king." He exited and the house remained silent and disinterested. The lieutenant felt bored, but somewhat intrigued, which was more than he could say about the rest of the audience. They hadn't grown up with many stories, and this hardly held their attention, but he was older than a lot of them. He'd been through a couple years of upper education before the party had mandated new educational goals. He wanted to stretch his arms and yawn, but decorum didn't allow that. Backstage, the players filed into the dressing room. The guards closed the doors behind them, and assumed a ready stance, their guns hanging at the exact same angle. For a few minutes, they went about their business, the normal excitement of a performance completely absent, but the business still in motion. The only sounds in the room were those of costume changes, until Laertes broke the silence. "God it feels great to be back together." "Here, here!" the player king said. This attracted the attention of all the players, and the room resounded agreement. "We could have a better audience," Horatio complained. "They wouldn't know a joke if it came up and shot them," One of the gravediggers said. "I’m worried for my scene." The cast laughed, but the guards didn't flinch. They hardly even took it personally. They had the guns. They had a job, and they were doing it. They expected prisoners to talk ill of their captors, it was no different from anywhere else in the world. Hamlet and Ophelia had by now found their quiet corner. They held each other in a passionate kiss. "Are you in pain, my love?" she asked him, feeling his wounds. "No. There is no such thing as pain now that you're here." "I'm never letting you go," she said. "Even if they shoot us for resisting, I'm not letting go." "I'd never let that happen. We're going to go through a window, out a door, and away. The border is only fifty miles or so. We'll walk right across." They knew it was only idle talk. There was no hope of getting away. They'd have the city locked down in minutes if they escaped. They were already well past curfew. Claudius wouldn't partake in their laughter. He went about his business
10 stone silent. He'd been trying to find something to hold onto, something that remained for him. He thought that he'd be able to hold onto the play, and his cast of friends, but there was nothing there. Inside, slipped down a path of memories, his wife, this whole cast. They would have never gotten involved in this had they not assured him they were safe, and he wouldn't be here and Rebecca wouldn't be dead, and therein lie the conundrum: blame. It lie in the man who pulled the trigger, but it lied in all of them, all who were complicit in the Regime, and all that drafted him into this horrid Shakespeare. Losing a family member, he thought, and having to maintain a duty that was enforced upon him by the killers was enough to drive him mad. He'd been afraid of them until the moment those words came to him, and now there was no fear, there was nothing, could never be. He could think of no possibility of justice for Rebecca's death, and the tragedy of that left him unhinged. What man should have to bear this without looking for retribution or death? He felt the underpinnings of his sanity releasing, and his fear floated up and away to a separate place, distant and beyond hope of retrieval, and that left him knowingly unstable, ready for the rest to unravel, and fall apart. He went about his business of fixing his makeup, but it was stage business, designed more to keep people from bothering him. The excitement has mostly swept the cast into forgetting about him. Performances were not the time for heartbreak, actors saved their emotions for the times between the stage. He thought about killing himself. There would probably be a time when he was backstage, and most of the rest were on where he had the opportunity. The play couldn't go on without him. He looked around for anything that could do the job, and his eyes fell only on the guards. They could pull their triggers, but the exit would hardly be worthy, and that was the problem. If he was going to do it, he was going to do it right He resolved to do nothing until the moment presented itself. Then he stopped that line of thinking. It didn't make sense, but then, none of this did. The prison camps, the regime, how did this country ever let them come to power? They exceeded their ignorance only by brutality. There was something wrong in all of this, something that he couldn't believe: why would they be interested in Hamlet. "I think this audience wants blood. It's the only thing they understand," the ghost of Hamlet's father said. "You think? I know they do," Gertrude replied. "It's a tragedy. They'll get their blood," Hamlet said. "As soon as I get killed, they'll start responding," Polonius said. "You'll see." The lights went up in the house, and the General flashed a quick smile at the Lieutenant. "Would you care for more refreshments?" he asked.
11 "Yes, sir. I'd enjoy another drink." He gestured for the Lieutenant to lead the way. In the lobby, many of the lesser ranks made way for the General. The bartenders served him nearly first, even though he was one of the last to walk up. He ordered two more Whiskeys, doubles this time. "Tell me what you think," he said. He seemed to beam with pride, though the Lieutenant couldn't say what hand he had in the evening to justify his pride. "Of the play? There are too many words." The general laughed in a way that was both polite and condescending. You don't get to be a general without perfecting such laughs, not in as political an organization as this military. "I think that very little has happened. The king has taken the throne from a weak ruler. He was obviously the better tactician, and now Hamlet is too weak to do anything about it. We've taken an hour and a half to learn that." "These plots take their time to unfold. Do you play chess?" "No." "Do you know how to win a game of chess?" "You take the king." "Not quite. You construct a reality that leads your opponent to believe that he is going to win, until you have sprung your trap, and no matter what moves he may try, there is no option but to lose his king. It is a game of strategy and misdirection, and you'd do well to learn it." Lieutenant Collins took a large sip of his whiskey. "And what does this have to do with the play?" "Hamlet and Claudius are playing their pieces, and will lay their traps. But more important, pay no mind to the play. The play is not the thing." Collins had no idea of what the general meant. "But why is this banned?" "When we forced the king from power, the old ways were very firmly entrenched. We had to make the old ideas into the new ideas. When the books burned in the squares across this country, we took away all record of ideas that were contrary to the regime. It won't take much longer to completely eradicate these old ways of thinking. In their place, we have put thousands of works, all created and approved by the regime. This cast, in fact, was arrested performing this play in a private home, and as you know, participation in banned materials is guilty of being part of the resistance." "But aren't we participating in banned materials?" "My boy, we are the regime. Those rules don't apply to us." "And if this event corrupts our thoughts?" "We're the regime. We are incorruptible. Partaking in these events allows us to see how the rest of the world is corrupting itself. It reminds us of our great directives, which these criminals could never comprehend. They actually feel this is culture." "So these are prisoners?" The general nodded, and took the last sip of his whiskey.
12 "Oh, yes. Caught and convicted. Condemned." The lights flashed. "Let's get back to our seats, they will be starting again." The cast was escorted en masse to their places. When the lights went up on stage, Claudius took Gertrude's arm. She held him tightly, gave him a reassuring look, and led him out, followed by his retinue of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The gesture, though probably genuine, could hardly be taken as anything but the mocking of a false wife who had her husband, or was he just too deep in it to be able to tell? The whole situation was a mockery of what was right, a psychodrama that he couldn't rationally interpret. His perception was confused and clouded, and he went about his performance absent of himself, viewing everything as if he were separate of his body, a third person, a spectator, his body was Claudius, and he was just a detached observer. Every interpretation he made of events felt real, and truthful, and he couldn't trust himself to judge. Was Gertrude telling the truth? Could his messenger be trusted? Here he was, parading himself like a damn fool on a stage for the world to see when all he could do is prop himself up inside. It would all come falling in, in the end, it was all tragedy. "And can you by no drift of circumstance get out of him why he shows this confusion, grating so harshly all his days of quiet with turbulent and dangerous lunacy?" Claudius said. His speech was an automatic process, a memorized and programmed event, autonomous to powers with which he had no communication. "He does confess he feels distracted, but from what cause he will by no means speak," Rosencrantz said. "Nor do we ﬁnd him open to be sounded, rather with a crafty madness, he keeps aloof when we would bring him on to some confession of his true state," Guildenstern added. "Did he receive you well?" the queen asked. "Most like a gentleman," Rosencrantz again. "But with much forcing of his disposition," Guildenstern added. The show went on. When the dumb show played out on stage, there was a commotion in the audience. Hamlet's trap didn't play out exactly as he had planned for the military audience. They howled with laughter, especially when Claudius reacted with so much guilt to the play. Their laughter was so great that the cast nearly lost its place, it almost broke their own suspension of disbelief. Only a society so violent as to be guiltless could laugh at a murderer being caught as Claudius was now being on stage. It proved to the cast that their audience was complicit in many far worse murders. This callous laughter was unnerving to the cast, but they continued on to the bedroom scene. "He will come anon. Look you lay home to him: Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with, and that your grace hath diverted and stood between much heat and him. I’ll conceal myself behind here. Pray you, be
13 firm with him," Polonius said. He stood behind an improvised tapestry--a party banner. They'd allowed them at least that for setting. Hamlet entered, fueled with his success in having sussed out the king's guilt. The argument played out until the Queen felt threatened. "Have you forgot me?" she asked. "No, by the rood, not so: You are the Queen, your husband’s brother’s wife, and,–would it were not so!–you are my mother." "Nay, then, I’ll set those to you that can speak." "Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge; you go not till I set you up a glass where you may see the inmost part of you." "What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?–Help, help, ho!" Polonius piped up at this. "What, ho! Help, help, help!" Hamlet turned on his feet, a cat stalking prey. "How now? A rat?" He drew a stage dagger, it was a letter opener, really, and its blade would shatter if it ever came into contact with a person's body with force. "Dead for a ducat, dead!" He stabbed. The banner came down, and Polonius had to drag himself out from underneath to deliver his speech. "O, I am slain!" He collapsed to the stage. The audience laughed slightly at this. "O me, what hast thou done?" "Nay, I know not: is it the king?" He dragged Polonius out from under the cloth. "O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!" "A bloody deed!–almost as bad, good mother, as kill a king and marry with his brother." The scene continued, Hamlet, the Queen, and his father's ghost talking through the situation, far too verbosely for the audience's taste. The spectacle had just gotten interesting, there was a body on stage, and they wanted to talk about it? They wanted more blood. They exited the stage, Hamlet dragging Polonius. The house lights came up, and as Polonius dragged himself to his feet he said, "I almost thought the curtain had me." A guard leveled his gun and fired, killing Polonius instantly. The shot rang through the theatre. "What was that? Did one try to escape?" Collins asked. "This is the sport. When a character on stage dies, the actor is executed." He smiled a self-satisfied smile that said it all. "This was your idea." "I contributed. Come, another drink." Backstage Gertrude, Hamlet and the ghost stood aghast. The guard smiled, and then brought his gun up to face them. "How could you do that?" Hamlet asked. "His sentence has been carried out. Orders from above."
14 Gertrude broke into tears, and fell to her knees, and picked his head off the ground. Hamlet made a fist, but the old man held him back. He'd seen this scenario play out in the camps before, and it never wound up in the prisoner's favor. It was obvious they wouldn't have a conversation about this with this guard, he was just a follower, barely out of his parent’s house. They started to walk down to the dressing room. "You will stay here. The rest of the cast will join you after the intermission." It was obvious they didn't want them to tell the others. Hamlet was numb with shock. His father had just been killed before him, and he had no course for vengeance. He spun into a futile rage, but had to bury it deep within him. Attempting an attack in blind rage would only find him as another body on the floor. He had t find a way to get back at them, but now was not the time. There would be opportunities to fulfill his vow of revenge, he promised himself he would make the regime pay. He could bide his time and calculate. The head of the guards was no fool, he knew what was going on in the boy’s head, how the other witnesses felt the same way. It was second nature. He didn’t need the other cast members to know about it, however. He pointed to the body, and barked an order to the other guards. "Take this away." In the lobby, the General drank his whiskey calmly, enjoying its flavor, its body. "You see the play is about political power." "So you've read it?" "Long ago. Hamlet is upset that he is not king, but lacks the political strength to take power himself successfully. He is supposed to be much younger than the person playing him." "But his speeches, they aren't about power at all," Collins said. "Of course they are. He was supposed to be King, but his uncle killed the King and took the throne. The Queen, being weak, took the only route she could that would keep her alive, she married the new King. Otherwise she would have been killed with Hamlet, and a new line created. This King, he's one for action." "But the prince isn't talking about that. He's concerned for justice." "Justice is a point of view. Hamlet is as just as the king. The king has a sharper mind for these things, and Hamlet knows it. Justice is carried out by those in power. That is the lesson of the story." The General emptied his whiskey, and asked for more. It was immediately served. Collins looked down at his. He had a nagging doubt about the night, but wasn't sure if he should voice them. "You have a question, but you don't want to ask. You can feel free. I am a head of the party, and I will teach the ways of the party to you. It is why I have brought you to my office, and indeed, with me tonight."
15 "The actor was killed, right, sir?" "Yes. His character was killed on stage. We had no more use for him." "Why?" "He was caught performing banned literature in a private house, and thus was part of the resistance and a traitor. Traitors are condemned to death. His sentence was altered by our consuls to include this performance." "Why not just kill him?" "Isn't this so much more amusing?" He swallowed his drink and asked for another. "This is a celebration of the new ways of our great country, one that is allowed only for the finest people in our country. Could you imagine what kind of ideas people might get if they saw a weaker child plotting against the king?" "Hm," The Lieutenant nodded, but didn't quite see where he was going. "They'd be inspired to rise themselves against any little thing they felt wrong, and upset the whole order." "But didn't we come to power by revolution?" "We came to power by enforcing order on a corrupt and indulgent society. Don't you forget it." The shot was heard in the dressing room as a loud but dull pop that had echoed down halls and stairs. Their excitement had stopped for a moment, but this pause hadn't lasted. Five minutes into the intermission, they began to wonder, however, what that was. It had been very loud, and sharp. "Has Hamlet been down?" Fortinbras asked. "No," Rosencrantz said. He looked around, and realized that neither had Polonius, Gertrude or the ghost. Fortinbras looked around, replaying what he'd seen and heard. "Was that a-," he didn't want to say it. "-A gunshot?" Rosencrantz and Ophelia looked up, and they knew it must be true. No one dared speak the next question, but they all thought it. Who had been shot? Fortinbras stood, and headed to the door. The guard stood in the door, and would not move. "I'd like to get to my places for the next act, please," Fortinbras said. "We will all go up together," the guard said. His face was hard with disdain, and his eyes remained focused on the room. He tried to press through the door, but the guard was quick with the butt of his gun. Fortinbras fell to the floor, his cheekbone broken and bloodied. "The show will go on. Now." The head of the guards came into the room, his presence announced by tense silence. "Please assemble, we will go to the stage now." The body of Polonius had been removed but the pool of blood and acrid smell of discharged rounds gave all the evidence that the cast needed. The lights
16 were down and the audience seated, but the cast didn't move. "Who is supposed to be on stage? Get out there. Now!" The head of the guards ordered. In support of the argument he called forth the guard whose gun had been used recently. Claudius and Gertrude stepped through the crowd, dragging Rosencrantz and Guildenstern along with them. Claudius started into the scene, and Gertrude bore and expression of fear and worry that fit the character and the moment, but were far too real to be put on. She hyperventilated and cried real tears, her emotion bursting from within. Claudius was far beyond worried, he was distant, unfocused. "What, Gertrude? How does Hamlet?" "Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend which is the mightier: in his lawless fit behind the arras hearing something stir, he whipped out his rapier, cried ’A rat, a rat!’ And in this brainish apprehension, kills the hidden good old man." "O heavy deed! It hath been so with us, had we been there: his liberty is full of threats to all; to you yourself, to us, to every one. Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered?" Backstage, Hamlet quietly whispered into the ear of Marcellus. "Do not react at all. They killed Polonius. They will kill us as we die on stage. We must do something." "What can we do? We can't stand up to the guards." Hamlet shrugged. "Tell the others." "Silence!" The captain of the guards called. "Stage business, we're going over blocking," Hamlet stage whispered. The two quietly moved to another two in the cast, and soon four knew. Then eight. Then sixteen, and then all but Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Claudius. The head of the guards knew they were lying, but it played into the hands of the entertainment of the evening. Even still, he stepped up to the edge of the stage to prevent any such discussions. Hamlet ran over the next few scenes in his head, they were on stage and off in the parade the pawns made before being sacrificed to the higher goal. In the brief moments when they were offstage, he couldn't tell them with the head of the guards now so close. He would come up with a plan. He had to. With the first scene done, Claudius and Gertrude came out offstage, and Hamlet entered with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The cast was huddled, like a herd of sheep, and Claudius knew something else was wrong. Even through his fractured mind, he knew which way the wind was blowing. Gertrude leaned to him and whispered the news to him, and whatever bit he retained of himself he had left him. He would end his life as Claudius, king of Denmark, increasingly paranoid of the threats to his life, and increasingly ready to order the execution of those he suspected of being part of the plot to overthrow him. He stood away from the crowd, away from their glances. The scene was over in a flash, and the attendants urged Claudius onto the stage. "I have sent to seek him and to find the body. How dangerous is it that
17 this man goes loose! Yet must not we put the strong law on him: He’s beloved by the distracted multitude who like not in their judgment, but their eyes; and where it is so, the offender’s scourge is weighed, but never the offence. To bear all smooth and even, this sudden sending him away must seem deliberate: diseases desperate grown by desperate appliance are relieved, Or not at all," Claudius spoke. He had been transformed in the time back stage. He wore his mantle like a king and not a player, spoke like a king and not like one of the frightened of the nation. For the cast, they knew they were witnessing the best performance he had ever given, but they feared the motivation. Rosencrantz entered. "How now! what hath befallen?" Claudius asked, thankful for his trusted counsel. "Where the dead body is bestowed, my lord, we cannot get from him." "But where is he?" "Without, my lord; guarded, to know your pleasure." "Bring him before us." "Ho, Guildenstern! bring in my lord." Guildenstern entered then with Hamlet. "Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?" "At supper." "At supper! where?" "Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are eating at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service,–two dishes, but to one table: that’s the end." Claudius lost patience with him, how dare he insult a king? He asked again, and got a similarly nonsensical response. He was furious, and the game hamlet was so cleverly playing would have to come to an end, here and now. There was discretion to be considered, princes could hardly be killed lightly, but he became resolute in his heart. Hamlet must die if he were to continue his reign. He would send Hamlet to England, and his trusted servants Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would accompany him. They were loyal to Denmark and friend to Hamlet, in that order. They would see his will done. "Hamlet," Claudius said, as he took the boy by the shoulder, "This deed, for thine especial safety,– which we do tender, as we dearly grieve for that which thou hast done,–must send thee hence with fiery quickness: therefore prepare thyself; the bark is ready, and the wind at help, the associates tend, and everything is bent for England." "For England!" "Ay, Hamlet." Fortinbras marched on stage, with all of the spare male cast members as his army.
18 "Go, Captain, from me greet the Danish king," Fortinbras said. "Tell him that, by his license, Fortinbras Craves the conveyance of a promised march over his kingdom. You know the rendezvous. If that his majesty would aught with us, we shall express our duty in his eye; and let him know so." "I will do it, my lord," his Captain said. "Go softly on." Backstage, Hamlet was ready to enter with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They still didn't know. Poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were always the last to know. "Keep close to me. We'll think of something." They walked out onto the stage. Hamlet gave his lines, had his discussion with Fortinbras and cursed his inaction while these soldiers would fight for a worthless piece of land and for the fun of the fight. "From this time forth, my thoughts be bloody, or be worth nothing!" Inwardly, however, he searched for a way to save his friends from the blood that had already spilled on this stage tonight. Exuent, and Gertrude, Horatio and a gentleman entered. The stage transformed from a field of Denmark to a room of Elsinore castle, with Ophelia waiting in the wing. Hamlet and her lingered as they passed, touched hands passionately, eyes betraying every fear that this might be her end. After this scene, she was dead to the world of the play, drowned in a river of insanity. Hamlet heard a rifle cock, and while he wished to remain by her side, but he needed to attend to the rest of his allies. "My friends, you must hide in the cast. If a guard approaches, slide away." They nodded at his instructions, and slipped into the crowd. They looked at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as if they were plague victims, trying to stay safely away, but as they distanced themselves slightly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern adjusted. The head of the guards pushed through the mass of bodies, and as he approached, more people moved around, and in response, more moved. It was a game of cat and mouse, but a futile one. The head of the guards caught Guildenstern, and threw him to the ground, the cast parted and the part revealed Rosencrantz. The captain of the guard nodded, and the guard with the rifle shot Rosencrantz once, expertly. He fell to the floor, landing with his still eyes looking back at Guildenstern. The shot rang through the theater, the action on stage stopped, and the silence shocked everybody. The head of the guards looked out on stage, and unsnapped the top of the holster for his service revolver. They didn't need another hint to keep going with the play. Fortinbras felt his broken cheekbone, and the anger rose in him beyond a point of control. He charged the guard, knocking down several of the cast on the way. The head of the guards saw this happening, drew his revolver and fired. Fortinbras fell, heaved a couple of times in trying to get to the first guard, but then collapsed. The audience wondered what was happening backstage. More guards rushed from the house to the backstage area. Hamlet jumped out in the parting of the crowd.
19 "No, stop. I need Guildenstern for the last scene. He lives." Guildenstern looked up, hopeful for the ruse. The head of the guards turned. "I have instructions. I know who dies and when. When we have no more use for you, we will be carrying out your sentences." "Who gave you this knowledge of the play? Nobody here knows the play but us," Hamlet countered. "The organizers remembered the story. They have given us instructions." "They are not remembering correctly. I bring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to my side, I marry Ophelia, Denmark has a new king, a new ruling family," Hamlet thought quickly. He had to put it into terms that a party devoted soldier would understand. "It is like the revolution. The side of right wins." Claudius stood up. He had no knowledge of the future of the play. He existed only in the now. His internal monologue focused on consolidating his power, and securing Denmark. "I have put Hamlet to death. The matter will be over soon. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will see to it." "We shall see," the captain said. The commotion was a welcome diversion for Hamlet and Ophelia, and it worked in their favor. The guards had missed the bulk of the madness scene, and they didn't know to kill her. He directed the guards who had arrived to remove the bodies. They carried them out to the house, past the audience for their viewing pleasure. The actors on stage watched as they were carried past. Claudius walked on stage. The cast began to think of their situation. Some felt they might be able to survive if they played their roles right, and looked after their own needs in the play. Other felt that it might be better to die than to be amusement for the regime like this, or die slowly in the prison camps. They made their decisions in enforced silence, deciding to follow Claudius or Hamlet. Hamlet slowly made his way to the gravediggers. "I want you to alter your text for me." "Anything," one whispered. "You do not bury Opehlia. Juliet or Desdemona, anybody but Ophelia." "Silence!" the head guard yelled. The gravediggers nodded. It was clear that this audience wanted nothing but blood. Hamlet quietly crept to Ophelia and took her hand in his. No matter what happened, he wouldn't let go of her backstage. The gravediggers walked out on stage, and began their exchange. They hadn't changed their lines yet. Soon after Hamlet and Horatio entered, pulling Ophelia and Guildenstern along in tow. He wouldn't let her hand out of his. The first gravedigger broke into song. "In youth when I did love, did love, methought it was very sweet; to contract, O, the time for, ah, my behove, O, methought there was nothing
20 meet." "Has this fellow no feeling of his business, that he sings at gravemaking?" Hamlet asked in shock. "Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness," Horatio said. The gravedigger tossed a skull from his hole. "That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once: how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if ’twere Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder! This might be the pate of a politician, which this ass now o’erreaches; one that would circumvent God, might it not? The gravedigger continued digging and singing. The audience laughed. They were accustomed to the mockery of death. "Whose grave’s this, sir?" "Mine, sir." This got another laugh. "What man dost thou dig it for?" "For no man, sir." "What woman then?" "For none neither." "Who is to be buried in it?" "Rosalind sir, who you love but for a day once a time ago but, rest her soul, she’s dead." Hamlet picked this up and ran with it. This changed things, the funeral procession would not happen at all. The action would continue directly to the main hall. Hamlet began this scene with his assembled retinue, Guildenstern, Ophelia, and a number of courtiers who had gravitated to Hamlet's improvisations. His manipulations of the plot of the play, and the dialog were created to let the others know of his plans. Osric came in and announced the fencing match. It was all moving towards a climax quickly. The force of Claudius's performance, combined with the stress of the situation had brought many people to his side, who hoped to be able to find some revenge on the regime, be it only the ones in the room. Hamlet was on the stage with his side of things, and those that were to join his side of the fight slowly separated themselves from Claudius's side of the decision. The fencing challenge was made, as per the play, and the whole of the cast made for their entrances. "You will lose this wager, my lord," Horatio said to Claudius. "I do not think so; since he went into France I have been in continual practice: I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart: but it is no matter." "If your mind dislike anything, obey it: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit." "Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?"
21 The company made their way on stage, and the fencing foils were laid in front of Hamlet and Laertes. They too their moments preparing for the fight as they had times ago in their little house in a quiet neighborhood outside the capital city; just as they had the day the company of friends and neighbors had been arrested. "Come, Hamlet, come, and take this hand from me," Claudius said, leading Laertes to Hamlet. The two traded lines that meant little to anything anymore, but Hamlet could see behind Laertes’s eyes. Laertes was focused on nothing but survival, and he had violence on his mind. "Set me the stoups of wine upon that table," The king said. "If Hamlet give the first or second hit, or quit in answer of the third exchange, let all the battlements their ordnance fire; the king shall drink to Hamlet’s better breath; and in the cup an union shall he throw, richer than that which four successive kings in Denmark’s crown have worn. Give me the cups; And let the kettle to the trumpet speak, the trumpet to the cannoneer without, the cannons to the heavens, the heavens to earth, ’Now the king drinks to Hamlet.’–Come, begin:– And you, the judges, bear a wary eye." Hamlet and Laertes picked up their foils, only on inspection they were not the dull foils used for stage combat, but real sharpened swords. Hamlet looked back at the stage exits. Each had a guard with a gun, watching, ready. They expected Hamlet and Laertes to fight to the death. Hamlet felt a slight confidence in the advantage of having been the neighborhood's athlete, and he hoped that would be enough, as neither had any fencing experience. Laertes felt the weight of lethal steel in his hand, and with a weapon, opportunities opened up for him. He would kill Hamlet, the play called for it, and the commotion it would cause in both the cast and the house would be his ally. He imagined turning the sword to the guards, getting a gun, then many, ending this whole regime right now, or maybe making it to the street and escaping. He could survive if he could make it to the countryside. Either would suffice for him. There was just this one obstacle of Hamlet, a sacrificial lamb to set it all off. "Come on, sir," Hamlet said, standing in en garde. "Come, my lord." Hamlet and Laertes circled, each nervously sizing the other up. Their first strikes were weak, and non-threatening. Osric watched and waited for his line. The feeble strikes they were making at each other quickly enraged Laertes. He reached back for a large swipe. Ophelia shrieked, but Hamlet saw it coming, ducked the attack and came back with a quick thrust, which connected into Laertes's side. Red blood began to pour from it. "A hit! A very Palpable hit!" Osric called. "Shut up old man," Laertes said. He was angry and focused his eyes on Hamlet. "I will kill you, because you are supposed to die." Hamlet didn't say anything, he kept his eyes on the task.
22 "Stay, give me drink.–Hamlet, this pearl is thine; Here’s to thy health." He dropped the prop that had been given him into the goblet of wine. They had never had anything but a metal bearing to drop into it. This time, it was lighter, and dissolved on hitting the wine. "Give him the cup." Hamlet passed on it, there was no need for this when his life was on the line. The attendant set the goblet on the table near the queen. Hamlet presented his sword, and Laertes struck it in anger. The fight continued. Laertes was attacking faster and harder on this exchange, but each parry bore the awkward signs of two who had never held swords before in anything but a choreographed routine that they had long since forgotten. They slashed desperately at each other, but Hamlet took a more defensive strategy. Laertes took this as his advantage, and attacked hard. It pushed Hamlet back to the crowd at the back of the stage, and he tripped, bringing Laertes's inertia with him. He landed on the ground and Laertes got a hit in on Hamlet's arm. Laertes tried to get another hit in, but Hamlet kicked from the floor and got him in the knee, pushing him backwards. "A touch, a touch, I do confess," Hamlet said. He looked at his left arm, the wound was not deep, but it stung, and he didn't want to move that arm much. The Queen rose, and took the glass of wine, but did not drink from it. She knew better than that. "Gertrude, do not drink," the king said. "I will not, my lord," she replied. She hid the goblet from the cast near her throne, out of the way and safe from harm. Laertes was now furious, and he attacked with a great strength. He slashed at Hamlet with abandon, and Hamlet kept his ground defensively. Laertes swung harder and harder, and each swing took him farther off balance and took longer to recover. Soon Hamlet found his opening, and took the chance. He struck with a small, precise stab, and caught Laertes in the chest, the sword found its way through to his lung, and that was all it took. He was done for. He sucked, and blood came up from his throat as he fell. The audience applauded, the blood provided the spectacle they had expected. Claudius stood immediately. He was wide-eyed and horrified. "This isn't supposed to happen like this. This is all wrong. Laertes is supposed to kill Hamlet, and Gertrude the cup, and Guildenstern was dead and Ophelia, and where's Fortinbras?" The cast looked about themselves. They had no idea what to do, but if he went on they would all be killed. "This isn't supposed to happen like this," Claudius went on. Gertrude thought quickly. "You must calm down, my lord. Have some wine." She produced the cup from beside her throne. He nodded and drank deeply, calming himself. He twisted as the pain of the poison traveled through his body. He stepped forward, running offstage, but only made it
23 halfway before he collapsed, the audience applauded with even more thunder than before. Horatio knew this uncertain silence would only hold for so long. He stood, walked to the king's body, and removed the crown. He walked to Hamlet, who was being attended to by Ophelia. "Hamlet, the people's will is with you. You have taken back your rightful rule from the evil rule of Claudius. The people are triumphant." It sounded dumb in comparison to the words they’d learned, but the audience believed it. "Rise now, and take your proper place on the throne, so that our land may be free." Hamlet stood, crossed to the throne, and sat, Ophelia by his side. "By the power of the state of Denmark, I crown you King Hamlet," Horatio said. The cast applauded, Ophelia kissed him. The audience applauded. It had been a truly great spectacle. The curtain closed, and there was no curtain call. The guards began to round up the cast, and usher them to the dressing room. The head guard approached Hamlet. "It was a fine performance," he said. "Very inspirational." Hamlet hardly looked up. "Mend well, my friend. You play Caesar next. We’ll expect you to stay closer to the book." Hamlet looked up at that, but found only truth in the man's expression. The man lifted a flap that covered his uniform pocket. In it was a book, a frayed paperback of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. The audience stood and walked out of the theater. Collins waited through an interminable amount of congratulations delivered to the General before he asked for his car to be brought around. The Lieutenant retrieved it, pulled it up to the curb outside the Marquee of the theatre, the lights of which had been shut down. He held the door open for the General, and then walked around to the driver's seat. "What did you think of our entertainment, Lieutenant?" "There were not as many deaths as I thought there might be." "Oh, it did fine enough." From that point they drove in silence, but Lieutenant Collins reflected on what he had seen, and decided that the story was one of inspiration, and he would tell it to his children, a story about how the regime came to power, of political maneuvers, and by overtaking a corrupt government that did not stand for the rights of its people. End
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