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Graduate Seminar in Applied Necromancy; or, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead

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Thou art a scholar. Speak to it, Horatio.

Fall semester

Only five students had signed up for the Graduate Seminar in Applied Necromancy; and Wagner never spoke much. Wagner had lately been hired as Dr. Faustus’s research assistant, and he cultivated an aloof and silent air, giving the impression of one who had been initiated into deep secrets he had sworn never to unfold. Hamlet and Horatio privately decided this was a humbug. Undoubtedly, Faustus possessed such arcane knowledge, but it was well-known that Faustus conducted his experiments only at night, and that Wagner never dared to invade the professor’s study at that hour. Mostly, Wagner’s duties seemed to consist of fetching books from the University of Wittenberg library, and of perfuming the study with frankincense in the mornings. Despite his best efforts, a faint odor of brimstone still hung about the room at the hour of the seminar, and there were traces of a chalk circle with writing in it on the floor. At the second meeting of the seminar, Hamlet pretended to drop his quill so he could crawl under the table to inspect it more closely; but the only legible word was HAVOHEJ, which seemed singularly unenlightening.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern talked quite a bit, obviously vying with each other to impress Dr. Faustus. Faustus, unfortunately for them, never seemed very impressed with anyone, especially courtiers. (He tolerated Hamlet, and even allowed him to derail the seminar with theoretical speculations about the nature of death; but he made it clear that this was only because Hamlet was a true scholar. Had he not been one, being heir to all of Denmark would have earned him no particular credit with Faustus.)

Horatio tried not to be the sort of person who was trying to impress Faustus, but privately he felt the full power of the man’s charisma, all the more potently because Faustus was of humble birth, like himself. Horatio was a grocer’s son from Odense, who had found his way to Wittenberg through hard study and the notice of their parish priest; he still did not fully understand how, or why, he had become the favorite companion of a prince.

* * *

“What says Johannes Parvus?” asked Hamlet.

Horatio blinked at the page; the candlelight was making his eyes bleary, though one of the advantages of sharing rooms with a prince was that he never had to worry about the expense. They could read all night, if they wished, and often did. “He says there are four main reasons why a ghost should speak to the living; that some thing must be done on earth to give the spirit ease and rest; that it desires to warn the living of things to come, of which it has foreknowledge; that it has hidden some treasure in life, and wishes to communicate the place; or that it has been murdered, and seeks revenge.”

“Dost thou believe in such things, Horatio?”

“I know not, my lord. I have never seen a ghost, nor have I met anyone who says they have. ‘Tis always some friend of a friend of a friend, and never a man one knows and can speak to.”

“If thou wert to see a ghost, had’st rather it spoke to thee or that it be silent?”

Horatio closed the book and set it aside, next to the skull Hamlet liked to use as a paperweight. It was very late, and the prince’s conversation was always more interesting than the opinions of dead scholastics. “I think I had rather hear it speak, if Johannes Parvus is right in his accounting of their motives. It may have something of advantage to impart.”

“Duty,” said Hamlet thoughtfully, “knowledge, wealth, revenge. Are those the four motivations for all men do on earth, think’st thou?”

“It may be, very like,” said Horatio. “Now that you have said that – I suppose that means ghosts are surely not real, but invented by men in their own image. If they had truly returned from some other realm, I think their motives would be more … inscrutable.”

“Aye. Likely there’s no such thing.” Hamlet opened a bottle of ale, both scholars having tacitly agreed that their hours of study were over for the night. He took a deep swallow and passed it to Horatio. “Hast heard aught of Dr. Cornelius? He has not been in his rooms this many a day.”

“Valdes says he has gone to Paris.”

“He travels a great deal. They say he was physician at the English court for three years and more. I wonder what he is doing in Paris?”

Horatio shrugged; he was growing sleepy. Sometimes, having a roommate who asked questions about everything, all the time, was a little exhausting.

“It seems a pleasant life, being a scholar. Dr. Faustus spent his last sabbatical in Rome. If I had not … other obligations, I think I should like to stay in Wittenberg forever.”

“You could always not finish your doctorate,” suggested Horatio. “You seem well on your way to doing that anyway.”

Hamlet snorted, and sighed. “There are so many books to read,” he said, not without satisfaction, “and so little time. I am glad that the-king-my-father can spare me for another year here, but I dare not hope –”

There was a knock at the door.

“Who can that be, at this hour?” said Horatio, and went to open it.

“A letter, sir, for m’lord the prince,” said the messenger, not quite meeting either of their eyes. In a flash, as Hamlet opened the letter, Horatio took in the fact that the seal was the royal seal of Denmark, but the hand was not the hand of Hamlet’s father, who always wrote his own letters to his son.

“My lord?” he said, observing that the prince had gone very pale in the candlelight. “What is the matter?”

“The king my father,” said Hamlet, in quite a different tone than he’d said it a moment earlier. He crumpled the letter and tossed it aside. “I must go,” he said, as if the words had been wrung from him. “Home. Tonight.”

* * *

Horatio did not stay in Wittenberg much longer. Faustus’s seminar, and his other classes, suddenly seemed wholly irrelevant, and he had a feeling that Hamlet needed him. So he applied for an incomplete, and traveled to Elsinore.

But before he could be admitted to the prince’s company, he found himself confronted with a very troubling problem in applied necromancy indeed.

* * *

Meanwhile, in Wittenberg, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern volunteered to assist Faustus in an experiment, which was not quite completed before they, too, were summoned to Denmark. At that point, Faustus, his enrollment having been reduced to one, decided to adjourn the seminar until the following term.

Spring Semester

“I would like everyone to welcome our new fellow-scholar, Laertes,” announced Dr. Faustus on the first day of class, which had started rather later in the term than usual. “Laertes is a transfer student from the Sorbonne.”

Laertes – still dressed in deep mourning for his father and sister – looked distinctly ill at ease. Applied necromancy was not taught in Paris; and, Horatio supposed, it must be awkward being invited to greet your new fellow-scholars when you already knew four of them quite well, and you’d recently tried to murder one of them, who had done his best to return the favor.

Hamlet looked even more awkward. Hamlet actually had killed two of their classmates, who were, notwithstanding, sitting once again in their usual places on the other side of the seminar table. Horatio had courteously pulled out their chairs for them, as they seemed to be having some difficulty interacting with the physical world.

Dr. Faustus had brought a bottle of sherris-sack to mark the occasion, but nobody seemed much interested in drinking it. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, if Horatio understood Friar Bacon’s treatise on the subject correctly, couldn’t drink.

“Excuse me,” said Wagner timidly, “are you … ghosts?”

“We are spirits,” said Guildenstern, who appeared to regard the question as an insult. Horatio made a mental note of this; it was important to be tactful with courtiers, even dead ones.

“We were,” Rosencrantz admitted, “beheaded.”

“In England,” added Guildenstern.

“By King Guiderius,” said Rosencrantz, “although it seems he had his orders from … elsewhere.” He glared at Hamlet, as well as one could glare when one was translucent.

Wagner glanced from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Hamlet and Laertes, obviously trying to reconcile the evidence of his senses with the rumors that had been flying around Wittenberg. “Are you a spirit, my lord?” he ventured to ask Hamlet at last.

“I hope and trust that I am,” said Hamlet airily. “We are all spirits, are we not?” Horatio kicked him under the table; he felt reassuringly solid. “I seem to be clad in flesh at the moment, however, just as you are.”

“And are you still … the prince?”

“Always a prince, never a king. Unless by some chance I should outlive King Fortinbras, and he dies without an heir, which seems unlikely.”

“We elect our kings in Denmark,” Horatio explained. “The electors had already given their voices to King Fortinbras before he woke.”

Laertes looked at the floor.

I had already given my voice to Fortinbras,” said Hamlet firmly. “He has it, still. He is fitter for a kingdom than I am.”

More ambitious for a kingdom, at any rate, Horatio thought. The unexpected resurrection of the likely heir had threatened to plunge Denmark into civil war – until Hamlet had, even more unexpectedly, disclaimed all interest in the throne and returned to Wittenberg to finish his doctorate. Or possibly, not to finish it. The prince had never seemed to be in any great hurry to begin with, and now he no longer had to worry about whether the-king-his-father could spare him for another year.

“But,” said Wagner, looking once again from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to Hamlet and Laertes, “why are you living if they … are not?”

“I think you will need to ask Dr. Cornelius that,” said Hamlet. Laertes looked as if he wished the earth would open and swallow him; it was just as well he had not been in the seminar long, because Dr. Faustus claimed to know an incantation that would do exactly that.

Horatio drew Wagner aside. “Laertes met Dr. Cornelius by chance in Paris,” he explained. “He was in the market for poison, and it seems Dr. Cornelius is in the habit of watching for desperate people wanting to buy poison, and selling them powerful sleeping-draughts instead. He regards it as philanthropy.”

“Oh. I thought he was on a research trip.”

“Perhaps he was,” said Horatio, wondering whether Laertes would end up as a case study in one of Dr. Cornelius’s articles. He hoped there would not be identifying details. Laertes seemed honestly repentant, although that hadn’t stopped King Fortinbras from banishing him from the court with extreme prejudice. Wittenberg had taken him in; Wittenberg always did.

“But King Claudius is really dead?”

“He bought a second dose of poison elsewhere. Dr. Cornelius cannot be everywhere at once.”

“Laertes did? But I thought –”

King Claudius did. He was killed with his own poison. For heaven’s sake, Wagner, let the dead bury the dead; ‘tis best not spoken of too much.”

Wagner returned to the seminar table, and promptly asked Faustus whether it was physically possible for the dead to bury the dead. Faustus referred the question to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as resident experts.

Horatio reached for his glass of sherris-sack, which suddenly seemed very appealing after all.

* * *

“Well,” said Horatio, once they were safely in their own rooms once again, “that was … discomfiting.”

Hamlet cast off his cloak and flopped down on the day-bed Horatio had salvaged when Dr. Valdes had redecorated his study. “It will get better, I think,” he said, a little doubtfully. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot always bear a grudge. I do not bear one against Laertes.”

Horatio refrained from pointing out that in Hamlet’s and Laertes’ case, the killing had been mutual, and at any rate unsuccessful. Laertes’ rashness had cost Hamlet his chance at a kingdom, after all.

“Dr. Faustus seemed to be in good spirits, at any rate,” Horatio ventured. Their professor had enthusiastically approved their proposal for a joint seminar paper, “Spirit of Health or Goblin Damned? A Case Study in Using Theatrical Performance to Differentiate,” saying that it was ground-breaking and potentially publishable.

“He cannot but be pleased,” said Hamlet. “I doubt he has ever had so many students acquire so much practical experience between one term and the next.”

“Except poor Laertes,” said Horatio. “Verily, I thought he would faint when Faustus asked him about his research topic. I am sure he had never so much as thought about applied necromancy before.”

“He’ll catch up,” said Hamlet. “’Tis very hard, I think, to avoid applied necromancy in Wittenberg these days. Or he could always transfer to the potions practicum with Dr. Cornelius.”

“Thank God for Dr. Cornelius,” said Horatio earnestly.

“Aye. I owe him a very fine bottle of sherris-sack, or some other token of recompense for my life.”

Considering that Hamlet had said, not so long ago, that he did not set his life at a pin’s fee, Horatio supposed that valuing it at the rate of a fine bottle of sherris-sack was an improvement. “My lord?” he asked cautiously, thinking back over everything that had happened since the last time they had been students together, “will you be … content with this?”

“Content with what?”

Silently, Horatio waved a hand around their study: it was as they had left it, shabby furniture, scattered papers, the volume of Johannes Parvus and the skull now thickly coated with dust. They still had no need to worry about spending too much on books and candles, though; King Fortinbras understood that rival-monarchs ought to be pensioned off generously.

“I believe I will,” said Hamlet. “Our library is kingdom large enough; think’st thou not?”

I think so, my lord. But will you not miss the court, in time?”

“Why,” said Hamlet, “what is there to miss? We have all the time in the world.”