It was well past midnight by the time Horatio arrived at the gates to Elsinore. It had been a long day of travel, and the winter night’s air cut through his layers of clothing, making him desperately eager for the warmth of a bed. Well, soon he would have it.
A middle-aged guard bearing the insignia of a sergeant approached from some distance—his escort up the drive to the palace itself. He looked very nearly as tired as Horatio himself, but considerably less affected by the cold.
“Right this way, sir,” he beckoned gruffly, and Horatio gladly followed.
The drive was lined periodically with lamps, as were the entrances to the building itself, up ahead. A little further back from the lamps, on the vast stretches of browning grass, there were a number of trees decorating the lawn. The last of their leaves were long gone for the year, giving them the skeletal look that signified winter.
The stillness of the castle grounds was intensely disquieting. This was not Horatio’s first visit to the royal manse, but when he had been out and about the premises before, it had been daytime, and there seemed to always be people coming and going. At the very least, there would be audible activity from the building itself: preparations for this banquet or that hunting excursion, the arrival or departure of some dignitary or other.
But at whatever hour of the night it was by this point, there was simply the quiet. Even the birds and insects that surely lived on the grounds seemed intent on not saying a word. It gave Horatio the distinct—however absurd—impression that the animals themselves were taking pains not to be heard. As if they might wake something else that lived on the grounds.
Horatio shook off the thought immediately. He liked to think of himself as a rational man, but in truth he was as susceptible to superstition as anyone else. He kept these thoughts to himself. In any case, it looked as though his companion was in no more a mood for conversation than he himself was.
Adding to his fatigue was the fact that the previous semester at university had only just ended early that day. His few bags already packed, he took his final exam and then caught the very next train into Denmark. His friend and host, Prince Hamlet, would not be up to greet him at an hour like this, but a guest apartment had already been reserved in anticipation of Horatio’s visit. Horatio wondered whether Hamlet would expect him this soon after term.
But then, from what he could tell about Hamlet’s emotional state at the moment, Horatio wasn’t entirely sure the Prince even knew what day it was at all.
Such was the quiet that when Horatio let out a soft exhalation at the sight of two people sitting on the side of the road further up, his breath sounded positively noisy in the air. As they approached, he saw that they were reclined against a small rock formation, sharing a cigarette. There were shovels on the ground beside them, and their clothes were caked with mud. One was an older woman, and the other was probably a teenager, younger than Horatio himself.
“Hello, Marcellus,” the older one waved as they approached. Horatio’s escort waved back, slowing only slightly. “Who’s this, then?”
Marcellus slowed to a halt, seeming irritated at the notion of being dragged into conversation. “A guest of the Prince.”
Horatio gave a timid little wave. He inferred that this woman was the groundskeeper—or, a groundskeeper perhaps? Horatio’s working-class background meant he knew little for certain of how estates like this operated. In any case, she seemed to carry herself with the relaxed confidence of old authority, and certainly commanded Marcellus’ attention.
“How goes it tonight?” Marcellus inquired. The words were vague, but they were said with intention.
The woman cocked an eyebrow at him, a small smirk playing across her face. “You mean have I seen anything?”
Marcellus nodded. The groundskeeper’s young companion, tiny and looking to Horatio like a kindred soul in timidity, said nothing but was now listening intently, intensely, to the conversation.
“No ghosts on my watch,” she responded wryly. “But I’ll give you a shout if I see one.”
Horatio’s face must have shown his puzzlement, because the woman addressed him now. “A couple of guards, this one among them, believe themselves to have had an encounter with some… apparition the other night. How do you fancy that?” Her tone was casual and irreverent.
“I know what I saw,” Marcellus barked, defensive and gruff. “It was a figure walking about the grounds in military dress clothes. Francisco saw him too, last night.”
The old groundskeeper still spoke to Horatio. “Imagine what the captain would think if he heard that an intruder was waltzing around the grounds without being apprehended.”
“It was not an intruder,” Marcellus insisted. “We pursued him, and in the half second he was blocked from our sight, he disappeared entirely.”
“So it must have been a ghost?”
“I don’t know, but are you so sure it wasn’t?”
“No,” she admitted simply. “But I know which explanation makes more sense.”
Marcellus, agitated into talkativeness now, addressed Horatio, “I know how silly this must sound to you, but I swear on my life, that’s what we saw. At any rate, the guards are set to keep an eye out. I don’t know what we’d do if it were a ghost, but maybe we can at least get a glimpse of his face next time.”
The groundskeeper’s expression faded into wide-eyed solemnity in an instant. “Marcellus, I take it all back.” She jabbed a finger to a spot over Marcellus’ shoulder and cried out, “Oh my god, it’s real!”
Marcellus and Horatio spun around to look, Marcellus fumbling with his rifle as he did so, and the groundskeeper instantly burst out into a gale of laughter. There was nothing there.
“I am sorry, good man. I simply couldn’t help myself.”
Marcellus shot her the dirtiest of looks. Her subsiding laughter echoed strangely across the grounds.
Though he was not the direct object of this prank, Horatio felt himself go a bit red in the face, and he turned away in embarrassment.
And that’s when he saw something.
In the trees further over, there most definitely did stand a figure. A man. The exact thing Marcellus had described. Horatio turned to see if any of the others noticed him, but the figure was out of their sight lines. When Horatio looked again, the figure was gone.
For reasons Horatio himself could not quite explain, he said nothing. Marcellus marched grumpily onward toward the mansion, and Horatio followed meekly, his mind reeling from what he’d just seen.
The ghost—or whatever it was—had almost glowed in the darkness. It was as if it were illuminated by some other, invisible light source, much stronger than the lamplight. that affected nothing but the figure itself. And what was more, it had been facing towards Horatio. Not merely that, but looking directly at him. That face… it was so familiar, and yet Horatio could not place it.
These thoughts churned in his mind as his feet took him thoughtlessly to the entrance of the guest apartments. Marcellus let him inside, and showed him to his room midway down the eastern hallway on the second floor. These were smaller apartments, not for the foreign dignitaries, but for less glamorous guests such as himself, but even for that they were perfectly comfortable. Horatio dumbly accepted the key Marcellus handed him, and thanked him reflexively as the guard walked away.
Horatio knew that he had to sleep. He needed to be available to support Hamlet as soon as he could, as soon as the arrival of morning permitted. But his would not be a restful sleep.
The thing was, Horatio suddenly remembered why he knew that face. That face was staring at him from the end of the hall, hung over the doorway, detailed by a painter’s brush-strokes in a regal portrait. He had only met the man very briefly once, seen his picture on a few other occasions, and so it took him a second to realize it.
It was the recently deceased King of Denmark. Hamlet’s father.
His father had always held the world to be a largely contemptible place. What was worthy and noble about the human race had, in this more civilized age, given way to our weaker natures.
In death, Hamlet was more certain of the truth in these words than ever.
These past months, he felt as if he had passed into another world, a world where nothing meant what it meant in his own world. It was a mirror world, a world where the absurd, the obscene, the entirely unthinkable were treated as matter-of-fact. In this world, it only made sense that little more than two months following the death of his father—the King of Denmark, respected and revered by all, one of the great men of his time—his mother should re-marry with another man.
No, not just another man, but her own brother-in-law. Claudius, his uncle, had been chosen by the electorate to succeed his elder brother on the throne, and had been chosen by Queen Gertrude to succeed his elder brother in her bed.
His father and his King, replaced in both faculties in a matter of months. What show of grief was this? Hamlet himself for his part had still not been able to bring himself to return to Wittenberg to continue his studies, such was his mourning. His mother had even encouraged his continued leave, mere days before announcing that she was to be re-marrying in such despicable haste.
This was sickening enough, but what was worse was the fact that nobody seemed to recognize it for the travesty it was.
There had been a time when Hamlet thought—hoped, really—that the lack of outrage over such an outrageous course of events could be attributed to dissenters choosing to remain quiet for fear of political retaliation. Perhaps they thought that at least in the Prince’s hearing (though much of his surveillance was covert) that it was more prudent to seem approving. But time passed, and Claudius settled in as King, and he and Gertrude announced their marriage, and their wedding took place, and in the many ensuing weeks, it became increasingly obvious to Hamlet that courtiers, servants, and guests alike all seemed genuinely amenable to the current state of affairs. Surely such a potency of feeling could not be restrained so well for so long, could it? Even with discipline, surely their true disgust at the situation must have shown through by now? But people spoke at length about the sad state of the nation in the wake of the King’s death, and yet they were blind to the abortion of justice happening before their eyes.
So Hamlet could only pass his mourning in private. His days and nights were spent in his room, door locked. He slept a lot—or rather, he tried to sleep a lot, with limited success. In sleep he could find some modicum of peace. His waking hours were soaked in helplessness. His father was dead, his mother had betrayed him, and there was nothing he could do. He distracted himself with games, and numbed himself with medicine (of one variety or another), but his mind was still too close to the world he lived in. Some days he would go without uttering a single syllable, some he would talk to himself incessantly, running verbal circles on the sad state of his life without being able to find any way out, any way to change any of it.
When he did venture into the rest of the palace, it was either to feed himself from the kitchens on the off-hours, or it was to eavesdrop on conversations in the vain hope to find others privately expressing their distaste for the new king and his offensive marriage to Hamlet’s mother.
Having spent his entire childhood in the castle, Hamlet was well aware of the nooks and crannies and less-travelled passages he could use to get around without attracting attention. As palaces went, Elsinore was not large, but those standards ran quite lenient in this way, and there was still enough space to ensure that there were always at least two ways to get anywhere. He hated people; it was mercifully easy to avoid direct contact in a place this big.
The only person it gave him any pleasure to see during this time was Ophelia, but those encounters were few and far-between. Theirs had always been a friendship built on small moments, on stolen parcels of time when other people weren’t making demands on either of them. But things were different now.
Shortly after his return to Elsinore in the wake of his father’s death, Hamlet became aware that Polonius, the State Chancellor and Ophelia’s father, had seemed to discourage her from spending time alone in the Prince’s company. Although Ophelia hadn’t told him herself—she rarely ever said anything outright—she seemed to be more tense than usual when they were together lately, looking over her shoulder as if afraid of being caught. When one time they were “caught”, simply talking in a corridor, it was by one of Polonius’ little toadies, who specifically reprimanded Ophelia that her father had taken issue with her absence, which sent her running off nervously.
It would be just like the old fart to boss around his grown daughter in such a high-handed manner. Despite his lofty position as chancellor and steward, Polonius was a doddering, hopelessly old-fashioned windbag. He could talk for hours about the things he knew—tedious things, matters of decorum and minutiae of state administrative workings—but he seemed incapable of forming an original train of thought for himself. It was little surprise to Hamlet, then, that since his uncle’s coronation, Polonius’ prominence as an advisor seemed to have swollen. No doubt Claudius enjoyed having a thoughtless little yes-man around all the time to stroke his ego. Weak leaders always required the validation of weaker counsel.
Sometimes Hamlet wondered how on earth a fool like Polonius ever reached such a lofty position under the reign of Hamlet’s father. Certainly his father had no use for sycophantic windbags. Right? His father was a strong man and a strong leader. He was nothing like Claudius.
His father had been an exemplar of royal, masculine majesty. His eye was steel and his face was granite. He looked the way one imagined Zeus might look—straight and tall and imposing, with a simple, economical deliberation to every move he made. His bearing commanded the respect of any man he might come across. His smiles were few and far between—only to be truly earned, never given out of some social expedience.
For all that Claudius shared his brother’s blood, he was sorely lacking in his brother’s finer qualities. Claudius was softer, smoother. He was a seducer by his very nature. Even at the age of forty, even under the beard he had grown during his kingship, his face had a boyish quality; he looked far more the boyish ingénue than the proud patriarch. He charmed people with his sensual energy and his easy way with frivolous conversation and flattery; the witless courtiers and politicians seemed to like him sure enough, but Hamlet could not possibly imagine that any of them truly respected him. Not like they had Hamlet’s father.
And what about his mother? She loved him. At first Hamlet had been charitable in his interpretations—surely there must be some political necessity. It wasn’t pretty, but her own influence as a widow was limited, and the instability in the rest of Europe was a thing rightly to be feared should it spur instability in Denmark. She could be forgiven for securing her future and the future of the crown, surely.
However hard Hamlet tried to nurture this thought, however, by the time of their wedding it had become clear that her feelings for his uncle were genuine and passionate. His mother was happier than he’d ever seen her. When the day of her second wedding came, she was positively glowing. Were it any other people in the world, it would have been such a beautiful ceremony.
Hamlet was the only one not happy to be there. He went still clad in the black of mourning—the greatest protestation he felt he could make under the circumstances. Only obligation kept him there, and at the reception banquet, which he spent in the corner, desperately avoiding eye contact.
Claudius had had the nerve to confront him during the reception. He sidled delicately up to his nephew, now also his stepson, and took the vacant chair next to him. For a few seconds neither had said anything—indeed, Hamlet was insistent on not saying anything after any amount of time. Eventually, Claudius spoke.
“Listen, Hamlet, I understand how you feel. Truly, I do. This isn’t the easiest situation to come to terms with, and you still need time to process these things. I know I’m probably the last person you want to talk to right now, but should you change your mind, I’ll be waiting. I know I’m not your father, but I am your family, and I do love you like a son.”
Hamlet hadn’t wanted to give Claudius even the barest satisfaction of turning to look him in the eye, and yet somehow Hamlet found himself doing just that. His uncle’s eyes were soft and gentle and sympathetic. Something in them cut deep into Hamlet, and from that cut, Hamlet felt a seething anger bubbling up. He kept his face impassive, but he stared into those eyes as though, if he stared hard enough, he could pluck them out. If Claudius thought he could charm Hamlet the way he charmed everyone else, with his smooth words and his tender manner, he had made a grievous error.
Eventually, it seemed, Claudius accepted this, and got back to his feet, leaving the Prince there in his lonely chair.
That was when he decided that no sense of obligation would keep him at the reception a second longer.
Hamlet refused to be seduced by Claudius the way his mother had. He was a man, and not just any man, but his father’s son. He could, and must, see to the truth of things.
Gertrude was, beyond her warmth and her compassion, also a smart woman—she must have been, else she would not have been his father’s wife—and yet she could not see through the smooth and appealing veneer Claudius wore to conceal his weak nature. Hamlet’s father would have said it was a matter of sex—both, as one, in the sense of Gertrude’s sexual appetite, and her own sex as a woman.
Hamlet had refuted his father’s opinions on the weakness of women. He had seen the superior strength of the female spirit exhibited, and he’d read about systems of thought asserting their frailty in an attempt to control them. Every word had resonated very deeply with him. Nevertheless, his father was older and wiser, and sometimes when one’s elders believe something it is because they know better. Seeing the way Gertrude fawned over Claudius, Hamlet couldn’t help but feel his father must have been right after all.
It made more sense anyway, didn’t it? His father was right about so many things. Even if so few of them made sense to Hamlet. But truth did not require his understanding in order to be truth. Was he to trust the weakness of his own mind, or the proven wisdom of his father?
What about when the proven wisdom was unproven? That was a notion that weighed heavily on Hamlet’s mind lately.
Hamlet had always been taught—always believed, at least on some level—that the world was an ultimately just place. Not “fair”.
“Fairness” didn’t enter into it. “Fairness” was rigging the game to favor the weak, or so his father said. In practice it was a simple matter of perspective. People got what they earned. You had to put up a fight. Some people fought for more, some fought for less, some were better or worse at the fighting itself, and some battles were easier or harder than others. If you could rightfully get something, it belonged to you. The strong, the skilled, the decisive, they were rewarded with fruits of their labors. It was simple cause and effect, and it was the closest thing we had to a natural order.
Could Hamlet still believe that? Was his father’s death a simple matter of cause and effect? Was this just the way things went?
“M’lord,” came a timid voice from somewhere beside him.
Even before his mourning depression, Hamlet often got lost in thought. He would walk long circles around the castle, or the campus of his university, or anywhere, and lose track of everything but the machinations of his mind. Sometimes he would come to and scarcely remember where he had come from.
When he was addressed in that moment, he was walking through the entrance hall. Probably going back up to his room from… somewhere. It didn’t matter. No matter where he had been, or was going, he was going to be alone now.
That was what mattered.
Hamlet gave the barest inclination of the head in acknowledgement of whoever was addressing him and kept walking, making several strides away before something clicked in his brain and he realized who had been talking to him.
“Horatio?” He spun in place and saw his dear friend standing there, his humble, gentle person seeming so strange in the grandeur of the palace setting. Horatio wore a small, sweet smile. It had a warmth to it that could reach into you. It reached into Hamlet and pulled a smile from his sad soul to adorn his own face.
Without thinking, he came forward and hugged Horatio tightly. Perhaps too tightly. Regaining his composure, Hamlet took a step back.
“I didn’t realize you had arrived.”
“It was late last night.”
Hamlet nodded briefly, unconsciously. His father’s death had come at the beginning of term, and Hamlet had been absent from university ever since. It had been several months since he had seen Horatio, and he realized now how much worse his sadness had been for Horatio’s absence.
But while a part of him felt soothed to have his friend back, another part of him squirmed at the boy’s presence. He could feel it reawakening demons that had lain dormant these months. On the surface, there was happiness, but he found that deep down, he wasn’t sure exactly how he felt. The sensation crawled through his body and for a second he was overtaken with vertigo.
All this he kept inside. All this was not for the world to see.
Not even Horatio.
“Is term over at Wittenberg already?” Hamlet tried to push past into comfortable conversation.
“Yes,” Horatio answered simply.
“These past months have gone by very strangely,” Hamlet contemplated.
“I’m so sorry about your father.” Horatio had sent a letter a while back to that effect, but Hamlet couldn’t “I wish I could have been here for the funeral.”
“Think nothing of it,” Hamlet said kindly, although his expression began to take on a darker tint. “You had to be at your studies. It’s funny though, you did only miss my mother’s wedding by a narrow margin.”
Horatio said nothing for quite a while. Hamlet didn’t expect him to, though. There was nothing a good man could say about the matter that Hamlet hadn’t already said a thousand times to himself, and surely Horatio could tell that. He relieved Horatio of the burden by continuing. “I’m very glad you’re here, Horatio. I’ve been in need of some good company. Everyone here is…” He bit back cruel words, a part of him reluctant to sound so hateful and bitter in front of such a sweet person as Horatio. “It’s been lonely since my father died. What I wouldn’t give just to be able to talk to him again.”
Horatio still looked tense. He was preoccupied with something.
“M’lord, I think I…” he broke off, but he had Hamlet’s attention already. “I think I saw your father last night.”
When Hamlet first met Horatio at the University of Wittenberg, he had already been enrolled for longer than it took most students to graduate. Between several changes in his field of study, and a number of classes failed due to nervous breakdowns halfway through the semester, he had spent rather a lot of time at that university. Whenever he was home, he could his father’s resigned disappointment over this fact in every syllable he uttered.
Horatio was in his first semester, and it was random chance that brought him into Hamlet’s life. Friends of friends had invited them both out for drinks at the pub. The circle of friends was loose, and Hamlet’s friendship was one that was not easy to maintain, not merely because of Hamlet’s royal heritage back in Denmark. He was well aware of how difficult he could be; he was insufferably indecisive, and insufferably smart, at least in the judgment of many less intelligent students.
Yet he and Horatio seemed made to befriend each other. To others, the logic of it was as obvious as “Horatio is a great listener, and Hamlet is a great talker,” but that was a simplification. Horatio was thoughtful and sensitive, with a stability of mind that Hamlet envied enormously. He was a man of great concentration. And although he never made the slightest pretensions to being “wise”, he could always be counted as a voice of reason. Hamlet could wax on about philosophy or history or art to anyone who gave him the excuse, but Horatio was one of the few people he could trust to talk about his feelings with. He was, in fact, one of the only truly trustworthy people Hamlet had ever met.
So it was that when Horatio told Hamlet what he had witnessed the previous night, the prince found that he had no choice but to believe it.
As Horatio’s brief story came to a close, Hamlet felt a crawling and insistent need to be outside. He led Horatio around the grounds, in a winding path with no rhyme or reason, merely a path for their feet to tread while their minds were at work.
“I…” Hamlet made his first statement following Horatio’s story, “You are absolutely sure it was my father?”
“To be honest, m’lord—”
“Hamlet,” he corrected shortly. “Please.”
“Right, I’m sorry, it’s just my natural instinct when I’m here.” He began again. “At first I didn’t know who it was. He looked familiar, but it was some distance away, and only for a second. And then I saw a portrait of your father in the hall where I’m lodged, and… all at once, I knew for certain. Beyond the shadow of a doubt. I understand that doesn’t exactly make sense, and I would hate to tell you something that was just my mind playing tricks on me. But that is what I experienced.”
Hamlet had never had a particular conviction in the reality of ghosts; his father dismissed such things out of hand. Speculation on the supernatural was pointless, he said. No matter how Hamlet had tried to take his lesson to heart, however, he found that he could not help but speculate, all the same. Such things were unproven, but that did not mean they could not be. His imagination was quite capable of running away with him on these subjects.
In the early days of their friendship, Horatio had expressed a similar open-minded perspective on the world. He was by no means superstitious, but he acknowledged the limits of his own understanding (in kind with human understanding as a whole), which was one of the things that drew Hamlet to him.
“If you say you saw something, I believe you,” Hamlet said, eventually. He hadn’t needed to think over that statement before he said it, he simply… got lost in his own thoughts. Horatio was certainly used to his habit of slightly delayed answers by this point in their friendship. “Whatever it was, we need to find out.”
“Right,” Horatio said. “Of course. But, how?”
Hamlet had a million theories and notions ready to take root in his mind, but he resisted all of them. At the end of the day, he knew the only reasonable course of action. “I need to go looking for him.”
Hamlet hadn’t made eye contact with Horatio for some time, but Horatio was staring intently at Hamlet.
“If there’s some more mundane explanation behind what you saw, or if it really is a ghost—either way the first step is to go looking for it. And if it is a ghost, then perhaps he’ll speak to me.”
Horatio nodded solemnly.
Hamlet and Horatio agreed to say nothing of this to anyone else, and so it was with one mind that they returned to the palace itself and pretended that nothing was amiss, as best they could. Several courtiers politely welcomed Horatio back to the palace—apparently they had been introduced to Horatio on his previous visit, not that Hamlet had taken note of it—and then left with little bows and murmured “m’lord”s at Hamlet. They, like many others, had grown wary of him given his recent moods. They, like all the others, meekly accepted the ascension of the new King.
For a while, the pair of them attempted to talk about other things. Hamlet asked if anything had happened at Wittenberg in the time he’d been away. Horatio said there was nothing worth reporting, and Hamlet wasn’t really interested anyway. They both knew that with what they had looming over them, normal conversation was going to be an uphill battle.
Horatio tried gamely to downplay what he saw, imploring Hamlet not to take his story at face value. It was sweet of him, but they both knew that the question, the very fact that they did not know what was going on, was too much to dismiss like that. Maybe it could have been dismissed, but Horatio had let it gestate in his mind. The sight of this thing that seemed to bear Hamlet’s father’s face, regardless of fact, was real enough in Horatio’s mind for him to tell Hamlet, and that made it real enough.
Hamlet thanked his friend—for what, he didn’t say, and couldn’t fully articulate it if he tried—and they parted ways until the evening.
Winter had long since come to Elsinore, and it was as unrelentingly bitter as it had ever been. The days were still sunny, for the most part. The deepest and coldest was yet to come, but the nights betrayed their approach.
Hamlet hated the cold, yet was also drawn to it. Some nights he would open his window and step out against the railing on his balcony, exposing his bare body to the frigid air. The wind would strike at his skin, burying a thousand tiny needles into his skin. With every deep breath he took, the freezing air entered his lungs and left them aching and withered, as if it had sucked the very life out of them.
Some nights he went out there with the idea in his head that he would stay for hours. Despite his constant state of exhaustion, sleep did not come easy, and the idea of testing whether or not he could stay the entire night naked and exposed to the elements was tempting. It was pain, but at least he felt something.
In practice, though, Hamlet could never stand the bitter chill for more than a few minutes, and he always closed the window sooner or later, and returned to bed.
The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak.
But as he lay in bed, Hamlet pondered the implications of the maxim. Could the spirit and the flesh be separated so distinctly as to say that one was responsible for a thing rather than the other?
A professor of his at Wittenberg, preaching against the notion of divine intervention in human lives, had said that the soul was not divisible from the body. That our revelations, our philosophical crises, our deepest desires and fears, were rooted in these sacks of meat we inhabited. He also attested that this was the only true difference between man and woman—women are reminded constantly, monthly in fact, of their connection to and reliance on the physical world.
Hamlet wasn’t sure how much he believed what the professor had said. If he were honest with himself, he wasn’t sure what he believed about most things. Oftentimes he would find himself sincerely and unintentionally offering contradictory arguments to ones he had made days before. He saw many things, but any definite truth, anything that felt real to him… that eluded his grasp. At any rate, he thought a lot about his professor’s words.
These were the nights the Prince spent. The cold, the restlessness, the thoughts that took him round and round and kept him from his sleep—they were his constant companions.
This night he had a new companion: anticipation. He hid himself away in his room as normal, keeping him from the curious eyes of his mother and his uncle and the old fool Polonius, and any number of others. He waited until late, when most of the castle would be sleeping and he and Horatio would be less likely to be disturbed on their search. They couldn’t hope to escape notice of the guards, but guards were unlikely to accost the Prince for taking a leisurely stroll around his own grounds. Besides, the way Horatio had told it, at least one of the guards had seen this thing himself; perhaps they could prove helpful.
Hamlet was ready for tonight. He didn’t know what awaited him, but he knew he needed it. He felt its urgency coursing through his body. This was the night. Something had to give. Something was going to change.
They walked the grounds and battlements for several hours. Horatio led Hamlet first to the spot at which he had seen something the other night, and for a while they circled, but nothing appeared. In the Eastern gardens, they met with an older officer, Marcellus. He had been Horatio’s escort up to the palace the night Horatio saw the apparition, and had mentioned seeing such a thing before as well. After some gentle prodding—Hamlet skirted around his interest in the question—Marcellus revealed to the two of them where he had seen… whatever it was that he had seen.
From there, they made their way to the spot Marcellus had mentioned, tracing a path along the rear terrace. They continued to see nothing, but Hamlet was damned if he was going to stop looking. He insisted they wait for a while. Horatio had arrived at a later hour than this; perhaps this thing only appeared after a certain time of night.
He could faintly hear the rest of the court carousing in the distance. State dinners and parties had certainly gotten more frequent in the wake of Claudius’ ascension to the throne. It was frivolous pageantry, meant to distract the court from the problems facing the country—the kind of thing Hamlet’s father would never have indulged. Hamlet spat on their festivities, and was glad to see that Horatio seemed to have no interest in joining them as well. He was always happy to have Horatio by his side.
They said very little apart from utilitarian exchanges regarding what they saw, or rather, did not see. The oppressive cold of the evening made speaking difficult, as did the unease of their purpose. What would they find? What could they find? Occam’s razor would have them believe that Horatio merely imagined seeing the likeness of Hamlet’s father, but if that were their hypothesis, then there was nothing they could find to prove it so. The evidence for that could only lie in the absence of evidence to the contrary. They certainly had found a great absence, but at what point could a person say they had witnessed a complete enough absence to rule it out entirely.
If they found no evidence, that gave them nothing to settle their minds. If they did find evidence, it could only point to something strange, and most likely, unpleasant.
The thicket of mist shrouded the grounds before them. On this night, the grounds were as dark and forbidding to Hamlet as they had been when he was a child. He loved exploring as a small boy, but when the sun set, he was quick to return to the safety of the castle and his mother’s arms. He never spoke his fear of the wild darkness to his father for the even greater fear of his rebuke. There was some poetry, he supposed, to his wandering the cold, fog-laden grounds for his father’s sake.
Hamlet was too consumed with curiosity to feel foolish, even though he supposed he ought to, standing out here for over an hour in the cold and dark, chasing ghosts on the evidence of a tired friend and a superstitious old guard.
And then there was a figure, down in the garden. The mist seemed to make room for him—rather than concealing, it parted just enough to surround the figure, like an unearthly glow. Yet the figure was still indistinct. Hamlet and Horatio held their collective breath, poised on the edge of action.
Whatever—whoever—it was shifted slightly, and Hamlet was certain he saw his father’s face.
“Father,” Hamlet had meant to cry out, but his voice faltered with shock and it came out as a hoarse gasp.
But the figure heard him.
Then it turned and began to walk slowly to the other edge of the garden, towards the path into the woods.
Hamlet’s feet were rooted to the ground for a second, but they soon regained their feeling, and Hamlet made his way hastily down the steps.
Horatio pursued for a short distance, but was clearly reticent to go much further. “Hamlet, be careful,” he gasped.
“I have to speak to it, Horatio.”
By this point the figure was just barely visible as it entered the path leading out of the grounds. Hamlet took off in full pursuit.
Horatio called out to him, but Hamlet ignored his friend’s cries. Horatio’s cautious nature had its merits, but it was worthless here and now. He didn’t expect or need for Horatio to understand. It was his father, not Horatio’s. This was his destiny.
He followed the apparition into the woods. One thing was for sure: he was not following a person. There were no footprints marking a trail before him in the light snowfall blanketing the ground. There came no sounds of nature being disturbed by the passage of a human traveller. The only way Hamlet even knew where he was going was an occasional glimpse of a figure walking the woods ahead of him. It was only ever visible for a second, only ever just enough to let him know which direction to go.
Hamlet pursued the apparition so relentlessly, so devotedly, that he lost even the path he taken to get here. He had no idea how he would get back to the castle, and in the moment he didn’t care in the slightest. His only thought was on what awaited him at the end of his journey through these woods
The path ended when Hamlet’s glimpse of the apparition became more than just a glimpse. The figure had stopped. It didn’t move, and it didn’t disappear, and it waited for Hamlet to approach. It was a spot in the woods like any other, but here was where it stopped, and here was where Hamlet stopped.
There was no mistaking it—it was the absolute likeness of his father. Hamlet felt his knees weaken, but he kept himself up right. He would not show weakness.
“Father?” The word escaped from Hamlet’s mouth, and he feared it betrayed his faintness of heart.
“Heed my words.”
The voice was his father’s as well, but it did not seem to come from the apparition itself. His lips moved in perfect synch with the words, but the sound of them seemed to emanate from somewhere else—perhaps from beneath the ground, un-muffled but as deep and booming as anything.
“Do not scream. Do not call out. Do not say anything. Just listen to me.”
Hamlet didn’t know what he could bring himself to say if he wanted to. He felt as if icy cold hands were seizing his body all over, gently but firmly holding him in his place.
“I am who I appear to be. I am… what is left of your father. Most of my power is gone now, but this is what I have left, and I am using it to set things right. You have been told that I fell to my death while walking the edge of the valley at the end of our castle grounds. This is not the truth. My fall was no accident, a fact which should be more obvious to those who knew me than it seems to be. I was murdered, Hamlet. I was murdered by my own brother Claudius.”
The feeling had dropped out of Hamlet’s body. He was a consciousness floating in space.
The ghost stared intently at Hamlet, as if studying him. “Can you imagine the indignity? The shame of it? I think you can, Hamlet. My brother has never been worthy of our family name—he has always been a simpering, preening excuse for a man, making his way through the world with low cunning. But this… I never dreamed he was capable of this depravity. To murder a brother. And then what’s more, to claim that brother’s crown, to seduce that brother’s wife. Yes, I also never dreamed that your mother was capable of such sluttish weakness, but that is another matter. I have not come to talk to you about your mother’s trespasses. I’ve come to talk to you about the greater crime committed by your uncle.
“I’ve come to tell all of this to you, son, because it is your duty to right this wrong. You must avenge me: kill Claudius, and take your rightful place on my throne.”
The great and terrible power of his father’s countenance was never stronger than it was in that moment. His eyes held his gaze, and yet staring into them was like staring into the sun. Hamlet felt his mind burning. Those eyes had him, and would not release them.
“This you must do, Hamlet. Do not dishonor me.”
And then he was gone.
Hamlet didn’t see him disappear, couldn’t describe the moment that his father was no longer visible. He was simply there, and then not.
For an amount of time, Hamlet simply stood there and tried to process his reality. He couldn’t say for how long. He wanted to say it felt like a dream, but it didn’t. It felt unreal. It felt as if he were inhabiting someone else’s body. It felt like a spell had been cast, if he could describe a spell from his imagination. He reached out and grabbed the nearest tree, touching every inch of the bark, desperate to hear its words; he longed for it to tell him that it was real, that the ground beneath his feet was real, and that the physical world was what it always was. There came no words, but slowly there did come certainty.
He was not dreaming. This was real. Things were what they always were, but now they were laid bare. A veil had fallen.
It was only once this idea started to sink it that Hamlet noticed that Horatio was there, and was speaking to him, and had been doing so for at least a few seconds.
Hamlet looked in his friend’s face, and saw a great unease there. His own face probably looked much the same.
“Hamlet?” Horatio laid a hand on his shoulder, stopping short of shaking Hamlet out of his trance.
“Yes,” Hamlet breathed.
“Hamlet, what happened?”
“I… I can’t…” Hamlet stammered. He wasn’t ready to tell Horatio yet. He wasn’t even sure he had the words yet, at least not words that could properly describe what he’d just been through.
Horatio stared, eyes wide in alarm, pleading for answers from Hamlet.
“I can’t explain yet. I’ll tell you soon, just, just not yet.”
His hand cupped Horatio’s face in a gesture of comfort—one Hamlet immediately judged to be too far and withdrew.
But yes, he would tell Horatio. He wanted to tell Horatio. He also wanted to tell it properly. It was important that Horatio understood, and believed him.
“I can’t say anything now. I’m not…” He trailed off again. “I’ll tell you everything. But later. Not now. Soon.”
Horatio’s face didn’t stop protesting, but he said, “All right,” and left it at that.
Hamlet didn’t know what else he could say to his friend. His mind was elsewhere. What part of it he could spare prayed for Horatio to understand, and Hamlet turned down the path toward the castle.
Hamlet did not sleep, nor did he try.
How could he possibly, after what he had seen?
Instead he lay upon his bed and let the evening’s events replay themselves over and over in his head. He didn’t touch his models or puzzles. Playing chess with himself was pointless. He wasn’t trying to distract himself, or to dull the noise in his head, as he so often did. The noise was all he lived for right now. He needed to get things straight.
Although he had been so certain of the reality of his encounter at the time, his perspective fluctuated wildly the more he thought of it. It could have been a hallucination. It could have been some kind of trick. Maybe his father faked his own death? But then how could he appear in such a supernatural fashion? Perhaps he had been drugged. But why? Why would his own father do that? Perhaps he was drugged, but it was a political maneuver by one of Denmark’s enemies to further weaken the crown. If it was his father, was it a test? And if it was really supernatural in nature, then who was to say it was actually his father’s ghost? If you accepted the existence of ghosts, then why not demons or spirits who took the guise of people’s loved ones?
In this manner Hamlet’s thoughts bombarded him through the rest of the night. It was difficult to focus, so very difficult to determine which line of thinking was correct.
Part of him knew—was absolutely certain, on some basic, instinctual level—that he had truly seen his father’s ghost, and that the ghost had told him the truth about his death. The thing that stood in his way, the thing that had to be wrestled into submission, was denial.
If it were true, that meant that he had to take action.
If all of this were really happening, that meant he had to kill his uncle.
Horatio was silent the entire time Hamlet spoke. He listened, wide-eyed, even as Hamlet stumbled and struggled to find words. When he was done relating the encounter, Hamlet stood in the middle of Horatio’s room; it felt foolish and awkward, but he was too agitated to stand.
Hamlet thought there were tears starting to well up in Horatio’s eyes. He wanted none of that right now, and yet he could not help feel a sudden swell of pity for his friend. Horatio was still so young. And after the events of the previous night, Hamlet felt even younger. Hamlet felt like a child thrust unceremoniously into adulthood.
“Do you believe me?" Hamlet asked his silent friend.
Horatio looked almost as lost as Hamlet felt. “Of course, I believe you,” he murmured helplessly. “But it’s…”
Hamlet nodded. “I know,” he said, although he was not actually sure what Horatio was going to say.
“What are you going to do?” Horatio asked in a small voice.
“What I have to do.”
The following evening, Hamlet found himself at dinner with his family. He didn’t know why he decided to go. Now more than ever, the notion of being in the same room as Claudius made him sick to his very soul. How on Earth could he sit across the dinner table from the man who murdered his father?
Nevertheless, he was there. It was a quiet dinner, as they usually were. Polonius was there as well, as was Ophelia. Hamlet didn’t know why, and didn’t ask. Ophelia avoided looking at him much, her father being so near. Polonius droned on and on, and carried most of the conversation. In fact, he seemed to be the only person not uncomfortable in this situation. Claudius and Gertrude had gradually become wary around Hamlet in the last few weeks, treating him as if he were some sort of bomb that might go off if they said just the wrong thing. Hamlet had tried to glean some satisfaction out of this by interpreting it as a sign of repressed shame on their behalf, but it hadn’t stuck.
And now such a thought barely mattered to him any more. What he thought had been one ugly thing had revealed itself as something even uglier, and he was busy turning over assumptions he had already let settle and harden.
His focus was entirely on Claudius, and yet he couldn’t bear to even look at the man. His eyes found anything else to look at during dinner—generally fixing on the food he was barely touching—but his mind was a whirlwind of horrible thoughts, at the center of which was the man who sat at the other end of the table. The man he could barely stand to look at.
And then a serrated knife was set down within his reach.
He had been so caught up in his own thoughts that he hadn’t even noticed how it had got there. Had a servant set it down by mistake? Was it part of the actual meal? Surely not, of course. Any actual cutting required for a meal in this company would have been done beforehand. Right?
However, none of this was to the point. The point, as it slowly dawned on Hamlet, was that within his reach now lay both the man he was set to make his revenge upon, and the instrument of that revenge.
He could do it. His eyes darted briefly upward. The nearest footman was at the door some twenty feet to his right. And no one here suspected a thing. He could make it.
He would grab the knife subtly at first, slowly rise to his feet, and then make his dash. He’d circle around the opposite side of the table from the footman. It was only two women and an old man at the table to get in his way—they were not a large figure in the equation. It was about himself, Claudius, and that footman.
He’d keep the knife down at first, moving briskly around but not obviously rushing in such a way as to create a panic response too soon, nor to allow himself opportunity to trip on something in his haste. It was important that the table’s initial moment of puzzlement at his behavior be hesitant enough to last until he could get to Claudius.
Once at his uncle’s side, he would go immediately for the throat. The collar he was currently wearing was lower than the customary formal outfits, this being a (mostly) private family dinner, and so his neck was exposed. He would slice first, and then stab into it several times, including once into the small space between the neck proper and the sternum, to create the most mess he could there. The King would be attended to quickly in his emergency, so he would need to make every strike count.
Claudius himself would, or at least should, be of little resistance, since he would have only a small moment of alarm before his physical energy would be spent gasping for air. The women and Polonius, however, would be attempting to tear Hamlet away at this point. Due to the setting of the table and chairs, they would not be immediately in an advantageous position to exert effort on him collectively. They could be pushed away as needed, preferably with his other arm or his shoulders or even his legs. The knife hand should not come near them, no, not even Polonius.
Following his strike to that area of the throat, he would move downward simply to cause as much chaos as he could to complicate things for the doctors trying to keep him alive. He would stab all over the stomach, constantly, repeatedly, over and over piercing into his flesh, or through the cloth of his shirt if need be until at some point he would be dragged away. But surely so much carnage so suddenly to two separate and vital areas of the body could not be recovered from, or even stabilized. They’d try for a few minutes, but it would end with being too much for them to fix. On some level he knew it was a gamble, but it didn’t feel like one in that moment. He could do it.
He could do it.
All he needed to do was grab that knife in front of him and have at it, and then his vengeance would be enacted. Justice would be done, the ghost could be put to rest, and Hamlet would finally have proven himself a man to his father—
Claudius was speaking to him from across the table, and suddenly Hamlet’s focus was broken. He looked at his uncle, the one who existed in reality, whole and healthy, rather than the fatally wounded one in his imagination. “Is something wrong?”
Hamlet’s reverie had caused him to draw attention to himself. Perhaps he could still do it, if he acted right then, but confronted with reality, he found himself frozen.
For a very long moment, Claudius eyed him, with apprehension, and something else. Was it concern? Genuine, compassionate concern? Claudius’ gentle gaze fixed on him, and Hamlet’s insides felt hollowed out and cold.
Perhaps he still could have done it. Perhaps Claudius was not suspicious of him at all. Perhaps there was still time in that instant to seize the knife and take his revenge.
But Hamlet did not.
Hamlet had spent the past weeks in a depressive daze. He spent his days from this point on in a very different sort of manner. He found himself even more temperamental than before, and his own moods were as foreign to him as the ones of the people around him. Some days he would find himself ravenously hungry, and others he could not bring himself to eat a bite. The cool, gloomy quiet he maintained around his family would sometimes break into a game of passive-aggressive remarks (“Mother, surely you don’t want any more of that ham, it’s been out here for so long. Bring out a new pig to marry—I mean, eat”) which Hamlet regretted as soon as they were spoken—not that he cared what implications he made about his mother or uncle’s moral character anymore, but the last thing he wanted to do was draw attention to himself.
He was still planning on murdering his uncle, after all. Surely no one suspected of planning that exact thing, but the more suspiciously he acted, the more scrutiny he was under, the harder that would make his task.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t have obstacles enough inside his own mind.
At any rate, others noticed this change in Hamlet’s behavior, and Hamlet noticed them noticing. Polonius was not as subtle as he surely thought himself when one day he accosted the Prince pacing through the hallways, and inquired after his health.
“And how is my lord this fine day?” he asked unctuously.
Hamlet was so taken aback by being this abruptly addressed that he merely muttered, “Fine,” before his mind could adjust to the right headspace for interacting with others.
“Oh?” Polonius went on, as if Hamlet’s reply merited follow-up questioning. “I am happy to hear it.” He smiled falsely at Hamlet, which Hamlet returned with a simpering smirk; if Polonius caught the mockery in Hamlet’s face, he disguised his recognition well. He went on: “I thought I might go for a walk in the grounds today, before it gets dark. It has been terribly cold out these last few nights, hasn’t it?”
“Or, perhaps your highness has not been going for nighttime walks outside lately?”
“Oh, I’ve been everywhere lately,” Hamlet replied, wanting to charge headlong into mockery, but a part of himself held the rest back. “Like you’ve said, it’s been cold. If you don’t mind, I was actually just going back to my room, to rest in my warm bed. So…” he trailed off, his meaning clear, and didn’t wait for Polonius to respond before he started to back away and then turned off down the hallway.
It was only once he’d gone that a thought had occurred to him. Polonius’ odd question about Hamlet being out walking at night—did he know, or suspect, something? Hamlet trusted Horatio entirely, but any of the guards might well have told the Chancellor that the Prince had been out and about the castle grounds the other night. And there was one other person who knew that Hamlet had left his bedroom the other night. One person, a person he had also trusted as completely as he did Horatio, might very well have told Polonius everything.
The truth is, Horatio was not the first person he tried to tell about his father’s ghost. Hamlet wanted to tell Horatio first. Once he had collected his thoughts, and the turbulence in his mind had settled just enough to where he could find words, he wanted to run down to the guest quarters and fall into Horatio’s arms and tell him everything. He wanted to cry and to scream, and he wanted a friend there to comfort him, and to tell him what to think. But the specter of his father was fresh in Hamlet’s mind, and he knew what his father would have to say about such womanly displays, especially with another man.
If he wanted comfort, there was someone else he could go to for it. Ophelia. He wasn’t sure how he felt about trying to tell her what he’d just seen and heard, but… surely it was a possibility. They were friends from childhood. They understood each other, at least better than their families did. They were kindred spirits, both outsiders to this regal political circus, and yet both right in the center of it. Ophelia wouldn’t have any answers, but she would have comfort to give, and at that moment the most important thing Hamlet needed was to feel like the world wasn’t crashing down around his head.
Ophelia was not conventionally beautiful. She had a stout figure, and a rounded face. She did not hold herself with any kind of grace. The delicacy she had was less a result of the ladylike poise that was expected of her and more to do with her exceedingly shy manner. She was not waifish, but she had a way of making herself look as small as possible in a different kind of way.
Hamlet still thought she looked pretty. Of course, he also did not always understand the way other people spoke of beauty, as if it were something that could be measured in the proportions of people’s features. It was about knowing the person, and perceiving how the person’s character animated their features—that was were a person’s beauty could be measured.
Regardless of her looks, however, Hamlet knew the way others looked as his friendship with her. His mother saw Ophelia as a sweet young thing with whom Hamlet would practice the fine manners of wooing before political dignity saw him settle down with a foreign princess. Polonius saw Hamlet as a predatory young man out to sacrifice his daughter’s precious virginity at the altar of the young man’s lust. His father… well, whoever could tell what his father thought of her?
In reality, theirs was a friendship between two outcasts. Neither of them felt at home in the royal court. They were both of them delicate, Hamlet in spite of his father’s desires, Ophelia in accordance with her father’s parenting. Growing up of an age, they were each the other’s only close friend for many years. Hamlet had a pair of chums some years ago, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, first-born sons of noble families, but as fun a distraction as it was making mischief with those boys, he could never relax around them as much as he could Ophelia.
They never really talked about how they felt in any great detail. Perhaps it was that their problems—the pressures of living in public, and the pressures of their father’s expectations—were just similar enough that they managed to understand as much of each other’s pain as they needed to without words. Their intimacy was of the mind, but they had never grown to a physically mature, or sexual, place.
There was a night when Hamlet and Ophelia had gone exploring the castle together. It was quite a few years ago now. They were only perhaps fourteen, and still curious about their home—what secrets did it hide? The truth they interpreted from their experiences that night was “not much”. They found the wine cellar and helped themselves to some libations. Even though Hamlet’s parents wouldn’t deny him wine, and Polonius would not deny Ophelia wine if it were the royal family offering it, the eternal allure of the unsanctioned and surreptitious just made it more fun to sneak a bottle than ask for one.
The cellar was dark and a little musty, but it was also unexpectedly cozy. In the cool, dim privacy there, the two teenagers had curled up together with the bottle between them, and shared their first kiss. Their breaths reeked of alcohol, but neither cared. Hamlet’s heart had been pumping furiously, and if he had dared to touch Ophelia’s chest, he probably would have found hers doing the same.
Hamlet could have had his way with her right there and then; his father would have approved. She kissed him and clutched at him with such ardor; she probably wanted him desperately. He was certain Father would have said so. And why not? Father’s voice said in his imagination. You are a prince.
But Hamlet did not ravish Ophelia that evening. Sometimes he cursed himself for not asserting his budding manhood on such an eager girl. Sometimes he felt relief at his good judgment. It was a little barbaric, after all, wasn’t it? Such an aggressive display, in this dingy place. It felt animalistic. Maybe that was how it should be—but in the moment, at least, it didn’t feel like the thing to do. Hamlet felt very tenderly toward the girl in that moment, but the lust simply was not there. He told himself the moment wasn’t right.
Maybe one day the right moment would come. She was a girl, and attractive, and clearly felt affectionate towards him. He didn’t need to marry her or anything. It was just sex. He was a boy, and a prince; he was expected to take his pleasure plenty before settling down. The moment would come when he would take Ophelia to bed.
For whatever reason, that moment never came.
Ophelia still shared an apartment with her father—though both had separate bedrooms, one on either side of the living room of their little home in the East wing of the castle. As such, the only way to get to Ophelia’s bedroom without potentially waking old Polonius was to knock at her bedroom window. This Hamlet did, after hours of restless turning over of the night’s events in his head. He didn’t even bother to re-dress for the cold as he walked in the frigid night air to the end of the castle. His body was something far away from him in the midst of his frenzied thinking; its pain was distant and irrelevant. So in his over-large shirt and sleeping pants, he arrived at Ophelia’s windowed patio door and tapped at it frantically. It was still an hour or so from dawn, and Ophelia should have been fast asleep, yet she seemed to wake with unusual promptness, and came to let Hamlet inside. His feelings had been simmering inside of him for so long to that point that, when finally confronted with the prospect of telling Ophelia what had happened, something within him broke, and he practically fell into her arms, body wracked with dry sobs.
Ophelia’s arms did not stay to support him, though. Instead, she stood him up and pushed him away. There was something strange and inscrutable in her face—a mixture of pain and distaste and other things Hamlet could not identify. Looking back on it, Hamlet did not even remember the words coming from her mouth, but he knew their meaning. He knew that she wanted him out of her room. He was being told that he had crossed some line, had overstepped his boundaries.
He left in a daze, numbing him somewhat to the cold outside as his agitation had done on his way over. It was a thing to puzzle at, but not for long. The fact was, he had wanted to open up to her, had even started to say the words, but she rejected him out of hand. Had her father’s meddling finally gotten to her? He knew how the old man guarded his daughter as if she were some fragile antique, never to be touched but only kept pristine and preserved for people to gawk at. Had Polonius somehow worked his way into Ophelia’s mind, and soured her and Hamlet’s friendship?
Or was it simply that the two of them were never as close as Hamlet thought they had been? Had he simply underestimated how much he could trust her? Had the time he’d spent away at university created a rift between the two of them that was not to be bridged again?
Whatever the truth was, it hurt. Whatever the truth, his heart was broken.