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Storyteller

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Many years have passed since anyone asked you to tell the prince's story.

They demand stories, from you, of course. Stories have kept you alive all this time. Tales of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts, accidental judgments and casual slaughters, deaths put on by cunning and forced cause, and purposes mistook fallen on the inventors head. These, which you first promised Fortinbras in the wake of that first story, have become your bread and your butter.

You have forgotten when, exactly, you last told the prince's story, which is odd, because it is the sort of detail you would suppose to be tremendously important. When did your friend, your young prince, your Hamlet slip entirely out of your tales, to be replaced by another wronged prince, then a Roman noble, than a conflicted knight of Arthur's round table, even though you had never -- in spite of early vows, which were replaced by later intentions, which eventually gave way to vague notions -- made a journey to England. The prince had disappeared, the faithless queen given way to faithless women of another stripe and then to women who were not quite so entirely faithless after all. The King was easiest to move from one place to another; the smiling damned villain whose treachery was the first sin, the start of everything. Then one day, even he turned out not to be such a villain. You made your apologies to Prince Hamlet, but he did not answer. He never did.

"The rest is silence," Hamlet said as the breath slipped out of him. But since his bloodied head fell back in your lap, your life has been a continual torrent of words. You have been trying to prove the prince wrong, but he has worked just as hard to show himself right. And he is winning. Your words have flowed awry, at times -- have diverged from their course, have been dammed up or fallen back on themselves. But as for Hamlet -- Hamlet's silence has been relentless.

You wonder if he is punishing you for your lack of fidelity. You didn't intend to change the prince's story. You did it at first for the novelty, and then because your picture of the truth had changed, and then because it was the thing your hearers seemed to want -- although, once you gave it to them, it wasn't always what they wanted. Even Fortinbras, who became Hamlet's successor for lack of other living parties at the court, has not always received your stories kindly.

It was for Fortinbras' sake that you began to repeat the story in the first place. Hamlet requested it of you -- made you swear to it, as an alternative to the death you would eagerly have given yourself at that moment when all other breath in Elsinore was ceasing around you. But the prince's mandate required only a brief respite ("Absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw breath in pain, to tell my story"). It was Fortinbras who was needful of the telling, again and again. First for the council, to assure his succession, where you could truthfully tell of the prince's express wish that the Norwegian prince succeed to the Danish throne. You could also embellish this with what you knew of the Danish prince's personal regard for Fortinbras, and embellish you did. It was taken by some, as you knew it would be, as flattery to the Norwegian, whose claim was supported by force of arms, fresh from victory in war, while the Danish armies rested in a confusion of divided loyalties. You knew how this would be taken and you did not want to be a creature of the court, a servant of expediency. You had witnessed the bloody end of too many such careers to consider starting one at that time. You had a sword to hand, your sword had a sharp edge, and your ending should have come easily enough.

Hamlet's words, the prince's mandate, stayed with you. Certainly your obligation to tell Hamlet's story as he wanted it told transcended your other concerns. Still, it should have been a matter of days until your duty was done. The council abhorred indecision, which may have led to Claudius's doomed succession in the first place. Better a brother well-known than a son long absent. Better anything than a lack of certainty.

But you did not count on Fortinbras. You did not expect that his fascination with Hamlet would equal -- not your own, surely, but, at least, it mirrored Hamlet's own interest in the Norwegian prince. But that was subsumed by other more pressing concerns - his mother, his uncle, the Ghost, the duty to revenge. His madness, even, when you can bring yourself to call it that. (He was mad "in craft," your friend told you; he feigned insanity for the license it gave him, and at the time, his warm hand in yours, his trust to you proclaimed, you believed it; because he was your prince, and your friend, and because it comforted you to believe in his confidences, and because you were flattered. Later when you played it over in your mind -- and you had infinite chances to play it over -- your certainty shrank. You were the rational man, you were the philosopher; you could, perhaps, have been the man to advise the prince in good government, to guide his course, as Polonius tried and failed to do for his father and uncle).

Fortinbras had more time. Fortinbras had years to think about Hamlet, to dwell on the tragic figure whose throne he had stumbled into. Fortinbras ruled Denmark, and kings ruled by God's will. If God had willed Fortinbras to the throne, then God willed everything that came before. If Fortinbras was to study God's will, he must understand the story of Hamlet. At the convergence of a king deeply interested in what the story meant, and a participant, if a small one, going back to that moment (weeks, months, years before) to discover what could have been -- at this convergence, you discovered the profound need to solve Hamlet's story. Is it any wonder that the story began to change?

Not so many years have passed -- you are not such a very old man -- but there has been little call for the uncorrupted story, for the tale of things as they were. Your journey from philosopher to historian to fabulist is so complete, that few people you speak to remember there was a real Hamlet at the start of it. Sometimes, you find that you hardly remember him yourself.