Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
—Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2
When they were children, Hamlet snuck food from the kitchen and they would eat it in their special hiding place in a disused store-room. The best was Easter Sunday, when the icing of the hot cross buns ran down their palms and they giggled and cried out in pain from the steam. Fall was roasted apples, sometimes spiced with clove, if they were lucky. Late winter was dismal, an unending litany of pies, but the first fresh snows always meant the cooks would slaughter a chicken, or if they could get it, a deer. Christmas morning meant white fields, hot spiced wine, and licking rosemary from their fingers as they tore apart a stolen piece of meat.
Ophelia would look up through her eyelashes at Hamlet, and sometimes she would lick the rosemary from Hamlet’s fingers, too.
How do you lace this?
Let me show you.
God send me fingers lithe and quick as yours.
They’re good for more than lacing, sweet.
Only once did Claudius try to send Hamlet home from war. They were in the tent, all of them, listening to Hamlet’s father—big even without his armor, hoary as winter and twice as fierce—and as they laid their plans for dawn, Claudius put a hand on Hamlet’s father’s arm, bringing it down to the blood-red cloth laid over the table. They shared a look. Then Claudius said, just loud enough for everyone to hear, Is this really the place for...? and looked, very pointedly, at Hamlet.
After a moment, Hamlet’s father replied: Where I go, so goes my heir. And no more was said, except for the arrangement of the cavalry.
Hamlet still hears that voice in dreams, sometimes. In the shifting golden tines of some imaginary forest, or seated on a steel throne impossibly high, Hamlet hears Claudius, doubting.
And Hamlet doubts, too, until the morning.
You’re looking elegant today, my—lord.
Think you so? I find it somber. But in all the trunks in the castle, there were only mourning weeds that fit me.
Well, it suits.
Mourning? I suppose it does.
The first battle Hamlet ever sees is bloody, rough, and poor, but still Horatio and Hamlet seize each other afterward with a shared urgency.
It happens in a nameless soldier’s tent, of all things, the nearest place to hand that doesn’t reek of gore. They are nearly frantic with the need to tear off the armor that moments ago barely seemed enough to keep the breath in their bodies—though, true enough, the more clothing falls, the harder it is to breathe. Their voices and cries carry throughout the camp, over the bodies of the victorious dead, and Hamlet does not care. Horatio spends his seed with the gasp my boy, and Hamlet is undone, undone, undone.
Come about the new wardrobe, m’lud Hamlet.
Your father ordered ‘em. May as well wear ‘em.
My father. Let me see.
A fine man’s clothes, these are, m’lud. The latest cuts, to fit your... slender waist. Clothes make the man, as they do say.
A fine man’s clothes.
Your father ordered ‘em, m’lud.
Hamlet used to watch Ophelia dress, when they were little. Sometimes the maids would help, fussing around the little girl, ignoring her solemn friend, folded like a prayer-book in the corner. Ophelia wore a linen smock and drawers, a corset—she’d come to adulthood early for her age, while Hamlet stayed small in every measure—a farthingale to hold her skirts out, if she was dressing for court, and a gown of some dark color with partlet and sleeves. With every layer, Ophelia would straighten just an inch, her secret laughter tucked and pinned away into each twist of fabric. Hamlet’s favorite thing was to be there when it was all unlaced and piled into a heap on Ophelia’s bed, and they would hide under it, giggling, until the maids tired of the game and took their fun away.
Sometimes the maids would look at Hamlet and say, Someday soon, you too, chuck, and smile their yellow-toothed smiles, and then something in Hamlet’s heart would sink, and Ophelia would kiss the tears away and they would tell stories of the woodland faeries until they fell asleep.
And it was then, too, that Horatio’s clothes went missing sometimes, and were returned in rather shabbier repair, sometimes torn, as if they had been worn by someone who did not know how a man’s clothes should fit.
I brought your needlework.
I haven’t time, mother, I must finish this reading before father returns.
Well, I suppose it’s none of my worry if you want to leave all your duties untended while he’s away. You haven’t practiced the harp in days, either, I see.
Mother. These are my duties now.
Hamlet wonders how things might have been different. There is little else in Hamlet’s thoughts now that Hamlet’s father is gone and Claudius sits smiling in his three-days’ crown. Perhaps there was no other ending to the story; perhaps the king's death was as inevitable as nightfall. As Hamlet walks out through the snowy yard, that inevitability seems as fragile a shield against grief as the few torches lighting the castle wall.
Hamlet wonders if Ophelia knows what she is giving up to be queen, and whether Horatio would have made a good king. Hamlet wonders why there are no other heirs to this cold and restless throne. What would they have done to hold it? And would they feel as Hamlet does in a prince’s garb—feel the triumph at last, taste the ashes of a pyrrhic victory?
The woods give no reply. The owls are silent. Hamlet sees the guard, and knows him for a friend, and climbs the parapet. These are old ghosts. Hamlet buttons up the coat that keeps them out, pulls on a man’s gloves, a man’s sword, and reaches the top of the stair. Horatio’s embrace is warm, shaping Hamlet into a prince, wordless and knowing. Hamlet remarks on the cold, and asks the hour, and waits for the king to come.
Pray you, let’s have no words of this; but when they
ask you what it means, say you this:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn’d his clothes,
And dupp’d the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
—Hamlet, Act IV, Scene 5