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GERTRUDE, Queen of Denmark, becoming a widow by the sudden death of King Hamlet, in less than two months after his death married his brother Claudius, which was noted by all people at the time for a strange act of indiscretion, or unfeelingness, or worse.
For this Claudius did no ways resemble her late husband in the qualities of his person or his mind, but was as contemptible in outward appearance as he was base and unworthy of disposition; and suspicions did not fail to arise in the minds of some, that he had privately made away with his brother, the late king, with the view of marrying his widow, and ascending the throne of Denmark, to the exclusion of young Hamlet, the son of the buried king, and lawful successor to the throne.
But upon no one did this unadvised action of the queen make such an impression as upon this young prince, who loved and venerated the memory of his dead father almost to idolatry, and being of a nice sense of honor, and a most exquisite practiser of propriety himself, did sorely take to heart this unworthy conduct
I From Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare.
of his mother Gertrude ; insomuch that, between grief for his father's death, and shame for his mother's marriage, this young prince was overclouded with a deep melancholy, and lost all his mirth and all his good looks. All his customary pleasure in books forsook him; his princely exercises and sports, proper to his youth, were no longer acceptable. He grew weary of the world, which seemed to him an unweeded garden, where all the wholesome flowers are choked up, and nothing but weeds could thrive.
Not that the prospect of exclusion from the throne, his lawful inheritance, weighed so much upon his spirits, though that to a young and high-minded prince was a bitter wound and a sore indignity; but what so galled him, and took away all his cheerful spirits, was, that his mother had shown herself so forgetful to his father's memory.
And such a father! who had been to her so loving and so gentle a husband! And then she always appeared as loving and obedient a wife to him, and would hang upon him as if her affection grew to him. And now within two months, or as it seemed to young Hamlet, less than two months, she had married again, married his uncle, her dead husband's brother, in itself a highly improper and unlawful marriage, from the nearness of relationship, but made much more so by the indecent haste with which it was concluded, and the unkingly character of the man whom she had chosen. This it was which, more than the loss of ten kingdoms, dashed the spirits, and brought a cloud over the mind of this honorable young prince.
In vain was all that his mother, Gertrude, or the king
could do to contrive to divert him. He still appeared in court in a suit of deep black, as mourning for the king his father's death, which mode of dress he never laid aside, not even in compliment to his mother upon the day she was married, nor could he be brought to join in any of the festivities or rejoicings of that (as it appeared to him) disgraceful day.
What mostly troubled him was an uncertainty about the manner of his father's death. It was given out by Claudius that a serpent had stung him ; but young Hamlet had shrewd suspicions that Claudius himself was the serpent, — in plain English, that he had murdered him for his crown, and that the serpent who stung his father did now sit on his throne.
How far he was right in this conjecture, and what he ought to think of his mother, how far she was privy to this murder, and whether by her consent or knowledge, or without, it came to pass, were the doubts which continually harassed and distracted him.
A rumor had reached the ear of young Hamlet, that an apparition exactly resembling the dead king, his father, had been seen by the soldiers upon watch, on the platform before the palace at midnight, for two or three nights successively.
The figure came constantly clad in the same suit of armor, from head to foot, which the dead king was known to have worn; and they who saw it (Hamlet's bosom friend was one) agreed in their testimony as to the time and manner of its appearance; that it came just as the clock struck twelve ; that it looked pale, with a face more of sorrow than of anger; that its beard was grizzly, and the color a sable silvered, as they had seen it
in his lifetime; that it made no answer when they spoke to it, yet once they thought it lifted up its head, and addressed itself to motion as if it were about to speak; but in that moment the morning cock crew, and it shrunk in haste away, and vanished out of their sight.
The young prince, strangely amazed at their relation, which was too consistent and agreeing with itself to disbelieve, concluded that it was his father's ghost which they had seen, and determined to take his watch with the soldiers that night, that he might have a chance of seeing it; for he reasoned with himself that such an appearance did not come for nothing, but that the ghost had something to impart; and though it had been silent hitherto, yet it would speak to him. And he waited with impatience for the coming of night.
When night came, he took his stand with Horatio and Marcellus, one of the guard, upon the platform, where this apparition was accustomed to walk; and it being a cold night, and the air unusually raw and nipping, Hamlet and Horatio and their companion fell into some talk about the coldness of the night, which was suddenly broken off by Horatio announcing that the ghost was coming.
At the sight of his father's spirit, Hamlet was struck with a sudden surprise and fear. He at first called upon the angels and heavenly ministers to defend them, for he knew not whether it were a good spirit or bad; whether it came for good or for evil; but he gradually assumed more courage; and his father (as it seemed to him) looked upon him so piteously, and as it were desiring to have conversation with him, and did in all respects appear so like himself as he was when he lived, that Hamlet could not help addressing him.
He called him by his name, Hamlet, King, Father! and conjured him that he would tell the reason why he had left his grave, where they had seen him quietly bestowed, to come again and visit the earth and the moonlight; and besought him that he would let them know if there was any thing which they could do to give peace to his spirit. And the ghost beckoned to Hamlet, that he should
with him to some more removed place where they. might be alone. And Horatio and Marcellus would have dissuaded the young prince from following it, for they feared lest it should be some evil spirit, who would tempt him to the neighboring sea, or to the top of some dreadful cliff, and there put on some horrible shape which might deprive the prince of his reason.
But their counsels and entreaties could not alter Hamlet's determination, who cared too little about life to fear the losing of it; and as to his soul, he said, what could the spirit do to that, being a thing immortal as itself? and he felt as hardy as a lion, and bursting from them, who did all they could to hold him, he followed whithersoever the spirit led him.
And when they were alone together the spirit broke silence, and told him that he was the ghost of Hamlet his father, who had been cruelly murdered, and he told the manner of it; that it was done by his own brother Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, as Hamlet had already but too much suspected, for the hope of succeeding him.
That as he was sleeping in his garden, - his custom always in the afternoon, — this treasonous brother stole upon him in his sleep, and poured the juice of poisonous henbane into his ears, which has such an antipathy to