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his mother had shown herself so forgetful to his father's memory; and
such a father! who had been to her so loving and so gentle a husband!
and then she always Appeared as loving and obedient a wife to him, and
would hang upon him as if her affection grew to him: and now within two
months, or as it seemed to young Hamlet, less than two months, she had
married again, married his uncle, her dear husband's brother, in itself
a highly improper and unlawful marriage, from the nearness of
relationship, but made much more so by the indecent haste with which it
was concluded, and the unkingly character of the man whom she had
chosen to be the partner of her throne and bed. This it was, which more
than the loss of ten kingdoms, dashed the spirits and brought a cloud
over the mind of this honourable young prince.

In vain was all that his mother Gertrude or the king could do to
contrive to divert him; he still appeared in court in a suit of deep
black, as mourning for the king his father's death, which mode of dress
he had never laid aside, not even in compliment to his mother upon the
day she was married, nor could he be brought to join in any of the
festivities or rejoicings of that (as appeared to him) disgraceful day.

What mostly troubled him was an uncertainty about the manner of his
father's death. It was given out by Claudius that a serpent had stung
him; but young Hamlet had shrewd suspicions that Claudius himself was
the serpent; in plain English, that he had murdered him for his crown,
and that the serpent who stung his father did now sit on the throne.

How far he was right in this conjecture, and what he ought to think of
his mother, how far she was privy to this murder, and whether by her
consent or knowledge, or without, it came to pass, were the doubts
which continually harassed and distracted him.

A rumour had reached the ear of young Hamlet, that an apparition,
exactly resembling the dead king his father, had been seen by the
soldiers upon watch, on the platform before the palace at midnight, for
two or three nights successively. The figure came constantly clad in
the same suit of armour, from head to foot, which the dead king was
known to have worn: and they who saw it (Hamlet's bosom friend Horatio
was one) agreed in their testimony as to the time and manner of its
appearance: that it came just as the clock struck twelve; that it
looked pale, with a face more of sorrow than of anger; that its beard
was grisly, and the colour a sable silvered, as they had seen it in his
lifetime: that it made no answer when they spoke to it; yet once they
thought it lifted up its head, and addressed itself to motion, as if it
were about to speak; but in that moment the morning cock crew, and it
shrunk in haste away, and vanished out of their sight.

The young prince, strangely amazed at their relation, which was too
consistent and agreeing with itself to disbelieve, concluded that it
was his father's ghost which they had seen, and determined to take his
watch with the soldiers that night, that he might have a chance of
seeing it; for he reasoned with himself, that such an appearance did
not come for nothing, but that the ghost had something to impart, and
though it had been silent hitherto, yet it would speak to him. And he
waited with impatience for the coming of night.

When night came he took his stand with Horatio, and Marcellus, one of
the guard, upon the platform, where this apparition was accustomed to
walk: and it being a cold night, and the air unusually raw and nipping,
Hamlet and Horatio and their companion fell into some talk about the
coldness of the night, which was suddenly broken off by Horatio
announcing that the ghost was coming.

At the sight of his father's spirit, Hamlet was struck with a sudden
surprise and fear. He at first called upon the angels and heavenly
ministers to defend them, for he knew not whether it were a good spirit
or bad; whether it came for good or evil: but he gradually assumed more
courage; and his father (as it seemed to him) looked upon him so
piteously, and as it were desiring to have conversation with him, and
did in all respects appear so like himself as he was when he lived,
that Hamlet could not help addressing him: he called him by his name,
Hamlet, King, Father! and conjured him that he would tell the reason
why he had left his grave, where they had seen him quietly bestowed, to
come again and visit the earth and the moonlight: and besought him that
he would let them know if there was anything which they could do to
give peace to his spirit. And the ghost beckoned to Hamlet, that he
should go with him to some more removed place, where they might be
alone; and Horatio and Marcellus would have dissuaded the young prince
from following it, for they feared lest it should be some evil spirit,
who would tempt him to the neighbouring sea, or to the top of some
dreadful cliff, and there put on some horrible shape which might
deprive the prince of his reason. But their counsels and entreaties
could not alter Hamlet's determination, who cared too little about life
to fear the losing of it; and as to his soul, he said, what could the
spirit do to that, being a thing immortal as itself? And he felt as
hardy as a lion, and bursting from them, who did all they could to hold
him, he followed whithersoever the spirit led him.

And when they were alone together, the spirit broke silence, and told
him that he was the ghost of Hamlet, his father, who had been cruelly
murdered, and he told the manner of it; that it was done by his own
brother Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, as Hamlet had already but too much
suspected, for the hope of succeeding to his bed and crown. That as he
was sleeping in his garden, his custom always in the afternoon, his
treasonous brother stole upon him in his sleep, and poured the juice of
poisonous henbane into his ears, which has such an antipathy to the
life of man, that swift as quicksilver it courses through all the veins
of the body, baking up the blood, and spreading a crustlike leprosy all
over the skin: thus sleeping, by a brother's hand he was cut off at
once from his crown, his queen, and his life: and he adjured Hamlet, if
he did ever his dear father love that he would revenge his foul murder.
And the ghost lamented to his son, that his mother should so fall off
from virtue, as to prove false to the wedded love of her first husband,
and to marry his murderer, but he cautioned Hamlet, howsoever he
proceeded in his revenge against his wicked uncle, by no means to act
any violence against the person of his mother, but to leave her to
heaven, and to the stings and thorns of conscience. And Hamlet promised
to observe the ghost's direction in all things, and the ghost vanished.

And when Hamlet was left alone, he took up a solemn resolution, that
all he had in his memory, all that he had ever learned by books or
observation, should be instantly forgotten by him, and nothing live in
his brain but the memory of what the ghost had told him, and enjoined
him to do. And Hamlet related the particulars of the conversation which
had passed to none but his dear friend Horatio; and he enjoined both to
him and Marcellus the strictest secrecy as to what they had seen that

The terror which the sight of the ghost had left upon the senses of
Hamlet, he being weak and dispirited before, almost unhinged his mind,
and drove him beside his reason. And he, fearing that it would continue
to have this effect, which might subject him to observation, and set
his uncle upon his guard, if he suspected that he was meditating
anything against him, or that Hamlet really knew more of his father's
death than he professed, took up a strange resolution, from that time
to counterfeit as if he were really and truly mad; thinking that he
would be less an object of suspicion when his uncle should believe him
incapable of any serious project, and that his real perturbation of
mind would be best covered and pass concealed under a disguise of
pretended lunacy.

From this time Hamlet affected a certain wildness and strangeness in
his apparel, his speech, and behaviour, and did so excellently
conterfeit the madman, that the king and queen were both deceived, and
not thinking his grief for his father's death a sufficient cause to
produce such a distemper, for they knew not of the appearance of the
ghost, they concluded that his malady was love, and they thought they
had found out the object.

Before Hamlet fell into the melancholy way which has been related, he
had dearly loved a fair maid called Ophelia, the daughter of Polonius,
the king's chief counsellor in affairs of state. He had sent her
letters and rings, and made many tenders of his affection to her, and
importuned her with love in honourable fashion: and she had given
belief to his vows and importunities. But the melancholy which he fell
into latterly had made him neglect her, and from the time he conceived
the project of counterfeiting madness, he affected to treat her with
unkindness, and a sort of rudeness: but she good lady, rather than
reproach him with being false to her, persuaded herself that it was
nothing but the disease in his mind, and no settled unkindness, which
had made him less observant of her than formerly; and she compared the
faculties of his once noble mind and excellent understanding, impaired
as they were with the deep melancholy that oppressed him, to sweet
bells which in themselves are capable of most exquisite music, but when
jangled out of tune, or rudely handled, produce only a harsh and
unpleasing sound.

Though the rough business which Hamlet had in hand, the revenging of
his father's death upon his murderer, did not suit with the playful
state of courtship, or admit of the society of so idle a passion as
love now seemed to him, yet it could not hinder but that soft thoughts
of his Ophelia would come between, and in one of these moments, when he
thought that his treatment of this gentle lady had been unreasonably
harsh, he wrote her a letter full of wild starts of passion, and in
extravagant terms, such as agreed with his supposed madness, but mixed
with some gentle touches of affection, which could not but show to this
honoured lady that a deep love for her yet lay at the bottom of his
heart. He bade her to doubt the stars were fire, and to doubt that the
sun did move, to doubt truth to be a liar, but never to doubt that he
loved; with more of such extravagant phrases. This letter Ophelia
dutifully showed to her father, and the old man thought himself bound
to communicate it to the king and queen, who from that time supposed
that the true cause of Hamlet's madness was love. And the queen wished
that the good beauties of Ophelia might be the happy cause of his
wildness, for so she hoped that her virtues might happily restore him
to his accustomed way again, to both their honours.

But Hamlet's malady lay deeper than she supposed, or than could be so
cured. His father's ghost, which he had seen, still haunted his
imagination, and the sacred injunction to revenge his murder gave him
no rest till it was accomplished. Every hour of delay seemed to him a
sin, and a violation of his father's commands. Yet how to compass the
death of the king, surrounded as he constantly was with his guards, was
no easy matter. Or if it had been, the presence of the queen, Hamlet's
mother, who was generally with the king, was a restraint upon his
purpose, which he could not break through. Besides, the very
circumstance that the usurper was his mother's husband filled him with
some remorse, and still blunted the edge of his purpose. The mere act
of putting a fellow-creature to death was in itself odious and terrible
to a disposition naturally so gentle as Hamlet's was. His very
melancholy, and the dejection of spirits he had so long been in,
produced an irresoluteness and wavering of purpose which kept him from
proceeding to extremities. Moreover, he could not help having some
scruples upon his mind, whether the spirit which he had seen was indeed
his father, or whether it might not be the devil, who he had heard has
power to take any form he pleases, and who might have assumed his
father's shape only to take advantage of his weakness and his
melancholy, to drive him to the doing of so desperate an act as murder.
And he determined that he would have more certain grounds to go upon
than a vision, or apparition, which might be a delusion.

While he was in this irresolute mind there came to the court certain
players, in whom Hamlet formerly used to take delight, and particularly
to hear one of them speak a tragical speech, describing the death of
old Priam, King of Troy, with the grief of Hecuba his queen. Hamlet
welcomed his old friends, the players, and remembering how that speech
had formerly given him pleasure, requested the player to repeat it;
which he did in so lively a manner, setting forth the cruel murder of
the feeble old king, with the destruction of his people and city by
fire, and the mad grief of the old queen, running barefoot up and down
the palace, with a poor clout upon that head where a crown had been,
and with nothing but a blanket upon her loins, snatched up in haste,
where she had worn a royal robe; that not only it drew tears from all
that stood by, who thought they saw the real scene, so lively was it
represented, but even the player himself delivered it with a broken
voice and real tears. This put Hamlet upon thinking, if that player
could so work himself up to passion by a mere fictitious speech, to
weep for one that he had never seen, for Hecuba, that had been dead so
many hundred years, how dull was he, who having a read motive and cue
for passion, a real king and a dear father murdered, was yet so little
moved, that his revenge all this while had seemed to have slept in dull
and muddy forgetfulness! and while he meditated on actors and acting,
and the powerful effects which a good play, represented to the life,
has upon the spectator, he remembered the instance of some murderer,
who seeing a murder on the stage, was by the mere force of the scene
and resemblance of circumstances so affected, that on the spot he
confessed the crime which he had committed. And he determined that
these players should play something like the murder of his father
before his uncle, and he would watch narrowly what effect it might have
upon him, and from his looks he would be able to gather with more
certainty if he were the murderer or not. To this effect he ordered a
play to be prepared, to the representation of which he invited the king
and queen.

The story of the play was of a murder done in Vienna upon a duke. The
duke's name was Gonzago, his wife Baptista. The play showed how one
Lucianus, a near relation to the duke, poisoned him in his garden for
his estate, and how the murderer in a short time after got the love of
Gonzago's wife.

At the representation of this play, the king, who did not know the trap
which was laid for him, was present, with his queen and the whole
court: Hamlet sitting attentively near him to observe his looks. The
play began with a conversation between Gonzago and his wife, in which
the lady made many protestations of love, and of never marrying a
second husband, if she should outlive Gonzago; wishing she might be
accursed if she ever took a second husband, and adding that no woman
did so, but those wicked women who kill their first husbands. Hamlet
observed the king his uncle change colour at this expression, and that
it was as bad as wormwood both to him and to the queen. But when
Lucianus, according to the story, came to poison Gonzago sleeping in
the garden, the strong resemblance which it bore to his own wicked act
upon the late king, his brother, whom he had poisoned in his garden, so
struck upon the conscience of this usurper, that he was unable to sit
out the rest of the play, but on a sudden calling for lights to his
chamber, and affecting or partly feeling a sudden sickness, he abruptly
left the theatre. The king being departed, the play was given over. Now
Hamlet had seen enough to be satisfied that the words of the ghost were
true, and no illusion; and in a fit of gaiety, like that which comes
over a man who suddenly has some great doubt or scruple resolved, he
swore to Horatio, that he would take the ghost's word for a thousand
pounds. But before he could make up his resolution as to what measures
of revenge he should take, now he was certainly informed that his uncle
was his father's murderer, he was sent for by the queen his mother, to
a private conference in her closet.

It was by desire of the king that the queen sent for Hamlet, that she
might signify to her son how much his late behaviour had displeased
them both, and the king, wishing to know all that passed at that
conference, and thinking that the too partial report of a mother might
let slip some part of Hamlet's words, which it might much import the
king to know, Polonius, the old counsellor of state, was ordered to
plant himself behind the hangings in the queen's closet, where he might
unseen hear all that passed. This artifice was particularly adapted to
the disposition of Polonius, who was a man grown old in crooked maxims
and policies of state, and delighted to get at the knowledge of matters
in an indirect and cunning way.

Hamlet being come to his mother, she began to tax him in the roundest
way with his actions and behaviour, and she told him that he had given
great offence to his father, meaning the king, his uncle, whom, because
he had married her, she called Hamlet's father. Hamlet, sorely
indignant that she should give so dear and honoured a name as father
seemed to him, to a wretch who was indeed no better than the murderer
of his true father, with some sharpness replied: 'Mother, you have much
offended my father.' The queen said that was but an idle answer. 'As
good as the question deserved,' said Hamlet. The queen asked him if he
had forgotten who it was he was speaking to? 'Alas!' replied Hamlet, 'I
wish I could forget. You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife;
and you are my mother: I wish you were not what you are.' 'Nay, then,'
said the queen, 'if you show me so little respect, I will set those to
you that can speak,' and was going to send the king or Polonius to him.
But Hamlet would not let her go, now he had her alone, till he had
tried if his words could not bring her to some sense of her wicked
life; and, taking her by the wrist, he held her fast, and made her sit
down. She, affrighted at his earnest manner, and fearful lest in his
lunacy he should do her a mischief, cried out; and a voice was heard
from behind the hangings: 'Help, help, the queen!' which Hamlet
hearing, and verily thinking that it was the king himself there
concealed, he drew his sword and stabbed at the place where the voice
came from, as he would have stabbed a rat that ran there, till the
voice ceasing, he concluded the person to be dead. But when he dragged
for the body, it was not the king, but Polonius, the old officious
counsellor, that had planted himself as a spy behind the hangings. 'Oh
me!' exclaimed the queen, 'what a rash and bloody deed have you done!'
'A bloody deed, mother,' replied Hamlet, 'but not so bad as yours, who
killed a king, and married his brother.' Hamlet had gone too far to
leave off here. He was now in the humour to speak plainly to his
mother, and he pursued it. And though the faults of parents are to be
tenderly treated by their children, yet in the case of great crimes the
son may have leave to speak even to his own mother with some harshness,
so as that harshness is meant for her good, and to turn her from her
wicked ways, and not done for the purpose of upbraiding. And now this
virtuous prince did in moving terms represent to the queen the
heinousness of her offence, in being so forgetful of the dead king, his
father, as in so short a space of time to marry with his brother and
reputed murderer: such an act as, after the vows which she had sworn to
her first husband was enough to make all vows of women suspected, and
ail virtue to be accounted hypocrisy, wedding contracts to be less than
gamesters' oaths, and religion to be a mockery and a mere form of
words. He said she had done such a deed, that the heavens blushed at
it, and the earth was sick of her because of it. And he showed her two
pictures, the one of the late king, her first husband, and the other of
the present king, her second husband, and he bade her mark the
difference; what a grace was on the brow of his father, how like a god
he looked! the curls of Apollo, the forehead of Jupiter, the eye of
Mars, and a posture like to Mercury newly alighted on some
heaven-kissing hill! this man, he said, had been her husband. And then
he showed her whom she had got in his stead: how like a blight or a
mildew he looked, for so he had blasted his wholesome brother. And the
queen was sore ashamed that he should so turn her eyes inward upon her
soul, which she now saw so black and deformed. And he asked her how she
could continue to live with this man, and be a wife to him, who had
murdered her first husband, and got the crown by as false means as a
thief - and just as he spoke, the ghost of his father, such as he was in
his lifetime, and such as he had lately seen it, entered the room, and
Hamlet, in great terror, asked what it would have; and the ghost said
that it came to remind him of the revenge he had promised, which Hamlet
seemed to have forgot; and the ghost bade him speak to his mother, for
the grief and terror she was in would else kill her. It then vanished,
and was seen by none but Hamlet, neither could he by pointing to where
it stood, or by any description, make his mother perceive it; who was
terribly frightened all this while to hear him conversing, as it seemed
to her, with nothing; and she imputed it to the disorder of his mind.
But Hamlet begged her not to flatter her wicked soul in such a manner
as to think that it was his madness, and not her own offences, which
had brought his father's spirit again on the earth. And he bade her
feel his pulse, how temperately it beat, not like a madman's. And he
begged of her with tears, to confess herself to heaven for what was
past, and for the future to avoid the company of the king, and be no
more as a wife to him: and when she should show herself a mother to
him, by respecting his father's memory, he would ask a blessing of her
as a son. And she promising to observe his directions, the conference

And now Hamlet was at leisure to consider who it was that in his
unfortunate rashness he had killed: and when he came to see that it was
Polonius, the father of the lady Ophelia, whom he so dearly loved, he
drew apart the dead body, and, his spirits being now a little quieter,
he wept for what he had done.

The unfortunate death of Polonius gave the king a presence for sending
Hamlet out of the kingdom. He would willingly have put him to death,
fearing him as dangerous; but he dreaded the people, who loved Hamlet,
and the queen who, with all her faults, doted upon the prince, her son.
So this subtle king, under presence of providing for Hamlet's safety,
that he might not be called to account for Polonius' death, caused him
to be conveyed on board a ship bound for England, under the care of two
courtiers, by whom he despatched letters to the English court, which in
that time was in subjection and paid tribute to Denmark, requiring for
special reasons there pretended, that Hamlet should be put to death as
soon as he landed on English ground. Hamlet, suspecting some treachery,
in the night-time secretly got at the letters, and skilfully erasing
his own name, he in the stead of it put in the names of those two
courtiers, who had the charge of him, to be put to death: then sealing
up the letters, he put them into their place again. Soon after the ship
was attacked by pirates, and a sea-fight commenced; in the course of
which Hamlet, desirous to show his velour, with sword in hand singly
boarded the enemy's vessel; while his own ship, in a cowardly manner,
bore away, and leaving him to his fate, the two courtiers made the best
of their way to England, charged with those letters the sense of which
Hamlet had altered to their own deserved destruction.

The pirates, who had the prince in their power, showed themselves
gentle enemies; and knowing whom they had got prisoner, in the hope
that the prince might do them a good turn at court in recompense for
any favour they might show him, they set Hamlet on shore at the nearest

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Online LibraryCharles LambTales of Shakespeare → online text (page 20 of 23)