On his birthday, Hamlet writes to Horatio, “I’m getting older and I have nothing to do. Nothing to show for it.” As if he hasn’t just been heroically dragged offstage. As if he hasn’t played his role perfectly. Horatio only sighs and writes a few lines of consolation – his only job, it seems, these days. Ophelia, still abroad after her surreptitious exit, would know how to deal with the prince’s moods more effectively, but she refuses to send even so much as a picture postcard with a cathedral or a monument on it. She needed some time to be a hermit, she’d said before she left.
Hamlet and his friends
Soon after their first acquaintance at Wittenberg, Hamlet writes Horatio an instruction manual containing all the rules necessary for a good friendship. The rules apply to them both, he says. Don’t gossip about each other. Do treat vows of undying love with the seriousness they deserve. Don’t turn a blind eye to self-destructive habits, like drinking or reading romantic novels. Do remember the phrase “contra mundum.” Don’t wear a mask. Don’t break your friend’s heart. Don’t flinch when your friend breaks yours. Horatio reads the entire thing, scribbles wry comments in the margins, learns the precepts by heart. To Ophelia, Hamlet sends a book about mysticism – its seven chapters have titles like “Vengeful Ghosts,” “Tricks of the Light,” and “Secret Societies.” He tells her not to read it in order, but to open it at random and see what meanings reveal themselves to her. She follows his advice and comes across a passage on plant symbolism. How curious, she thinks, that so many different flowers signify loyalty. That night, the three of them all have the same dream: they’re in a garden, kissing each other.
Hamlet in Italy
This is what the three of them do when they travel to Italy. Ophelia tears up a garden, thieving every single violet and lilac, deaf to the hotelier’s protestations. Horatio, his nose in a book, falls into a canal. Hamlet casts his nighted color off and buys an embroidered suit. Ophelia makes Hamlet a nosegay from her stolen flowers. Horatio considers running off with the proprietor of an antique shop. Hamlet puts the flowers in his pocket, their petals peeking out over the fabric like eyes. Ophelia insults a priest during high mass thanks to a shoddy phrasebook. Horatio is found fondling a bust of Marcus Aurelius. Hamlet throws the flowers into a canal. Ophelia kisses Horatio on the mouth and wonders what it would be like if he were a woman. Horatio forgets all about the ancient ruins he saw that day. Hamlet sits for a portrait in his new suit, his hand positioned on a table as if ready for a bloodletting. Hamlet gets marvellously drunk and tells a ghost story. Hamlet finds out Laertes is staying in the same hotel. Hamlet challenges Laertes to a duel during breakfast, which consists of lemon biscotti and black tea. Hamlet hears the duel’s been called off. Hamlet and Laertes laugh about it and get drunk together. Hamlet loses his luggage at the train station. Ophelia breaks a window. Horatio burns his travel diary. Hamlet receives a letter edged in black.
Hamlet and family
When Hamlet meets Horatio’s family, he’s struck by how very ordinary love is. A cup of tea is offered with extra sugar for no reason other than that sugar is sweet. There are flowers on the windowsill and it doesn’t seem to matter that soon they will wilt. Nobody in this family feels the need to dig up secrets: and so there are no secrets. The caged parrot in the parlor sings words of reassurance. Horatio’s mother opens the golden latch; the bird flies out and away into the garden. It always comes back. Hamlet is amazed. Like a traveler in a faraway land, he finds himself getting used to the strange customs and manners here – small smiles, evenings together by the fireplace, little notes passed back and forth, no dissembling. He wants to stay here forever. He can’t.
Hamlet’s new hobby
He needs something to while away the long nights at Elsinore, so Hamlet takes up building miniature castles. Each one is an exercise in fancy: each window no bigger than an eye, each ballroom small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. He paints the castles with a tiny brush, hands never shaking though he’s hardly slept. He wonders if this is what it feels like to be a god. Did the demiurge entrusted with the creation of all the fragile things in the world also stay up late like this, minutely toiling away through the night? How did it decide which paint to use? Did it, too, feel sad that it could never see its handiwork from the perspective of a toy soldier?
Hamlet and his elders
The king and the queen are so alike, they might as well be the same person. This is a change that Hamlet had not foreseen, but perhaps it’s a natural consequence of marriage. His mother now takes her coffee black like his uncle does; his uncle’s acquired his mother’s habit of descending staircases with extraordinary slowness like an aging tragedienne. Gertrude now has a permanent predatory twinkle in her eye, inspects the regiments every morning, wears epaulettes and gleaming black boots, sleeps with every officer in the kingdom. Claudius now drinks less, makes plans to open a school for intelligent bourgeois girls who are down on their luck, uses words like “motherland” in his speeches to the senate, kisses Hamlet on the cheek. No, they’re not the same person – rather, they’ve exchanged natures. How far will this misrule go? Hamlet worries that soon he won’t be able to tell the difference between himself and Laertes, of all people.
Hamlet visits the capital
The manager of the theater flat out refuses to put on any revenge tragedies while the prince is in the capital. He says the idea of such a performance would be a bigger spectacle than the show itself – good for ticket sales, maybe, but not for politics. Bookshops, too, replace all their Gothic novels with pamphlets on Stoic philosophy. Public monuments are covered up with tarp. Even the fountains in the parks are drained, now nothing but heaps of dry marble. People are advised to stay indoors. It’s as if another great plague is coming to the city. In spite of this, crowds of children, actors, fishwives, and gravediggers fill the streets to get a glimpse of Hamlet. He takes hand after hand, answers each breathless greeting with a smile. This is how his uncle must feel when he goes on a royal progress through the country. Horatio stays close to Hamlet, glasses askew. Ophelia, draped in green silk, dances in a circle with a gaggle of prostitutes – silly girls who can’t possibly be older than she is. Because all the church bells have been dismantled in anticipation of Hamlet’s visit, nobody knows what time it is until the night watchmen show up.
Hamlet goes to war
Ophelia laughs at him for going. She guesses it’s all part of some scheme of his to be more like Fortinbras, but she simply can’t imagine Hamlet marching to the beat of a drum, a rifle on his shoulder, unflinching as he trudges through snow. War won’t chase the bad dreams away, she says. He knows this. He goes anyway. It’s only when she sees him putting on his uniform that Ophelia realizes he’s serious – she chases him all the way to the barracks, silk shawl unfurling like a flag, still laughing through her tears but begging him to stay. Horatio worries himself sick. He pores over maps and Roman military manuals, listens for gunshots, writes Hamlet three letters a day. When he returns, Hamlet puts all his toy soldiers in a box.
At what point does Prince Hamlet become Julius Caesar? How many times should he refuse the crown? Should he take a different regnal name, so as to avoid being compared to his father in odes and elegies alike? Horatio will come with him, of course, but will Ophelia be there? Can he bring a sword into the cathedral, or will he have to leave it by the door? How long until his subjects give him a subversive nickname? How long until his subjects see who he really is? How long until his subjects decide they don’t like him? Is chivalry still relevant? If at some point he finds he’s turned into Julius Caesar, which of his friends will play Brutus?
The death of Hamlet
Many years have passed since the death of Hamlet. He doesn’t remember his last lines – only that he was betrayed. Only that he never got to grow old, that he was never crowned, that for a few wild moments he held a sword in each hand, that one of the swords was envenomed. He doesn’t remember if he became a ghost afterwards. He doubts it; he isn’t the haunting type. The miniature castles gather dust in his study. The embroidered suit, immaculate except for a bloodstain near the heart, lies folded in a chest. All the letters he ever received are locked in a drawer somewhere. He can’t bring himself to throw all these useless things away.
published in the spring 2020 issue of jabberwocky (umass amherst)