(It began with a disagreement. We dithered over Fortinbras, Claudius, who of them made the better Prince: Reference Machiavelli, read strategy, but Hamlet’s line? . . . snuffed out.)
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.
We talked late into the night, what if, Ophelia HAD conceived, what if, there had been a child. It was never enough (for me) that Prince Hamlet had nearly wasted the ghost’s gray hours, or had whipped so many corpses into their holes. He had perhaps fathered an heir. “Could this have been?” “Which scene?” “Would there have been time?” The doubled sharpness of lines in the margins–“You are keen, my lord, you are keen,” and “It would cost you a groaning to take off my edge.” What groaning could she lay claim to, his playing with her, at her expense, no matter how preoccupied his mind with revenge and fury? No–I stay close to my greater mistress, the child-made-mother by his majestic play, and his toying embraces. Ophelia–my Ophelia.
Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a
breeder of sinners?
(We manufactured this plotline–beautiful–the gravedigger raised the young girl, cropped her hair, [what with so many Norwegians occupying Denmark in the years after Laertes and our sweet prince came together at Elsinore].) Long after her mother drowned herself, having not taken her fullness to a nunnery where she could have concealed in habit the child she had in secret. Ophelia did not go, not quickly enough, and as her temple waxed, what quickening she might have found in all the herbs meant not for poesy, but abortifacients, every one, each one gone wrong and her pale face drowned, never knowing the thing lived past one sad dusk. Mad? Of course she was, no waffling here; to be or not to be pregnant is no question for pondering. Only that she was, and if her dress was unkempt, it was fortuitous concealment, if her face puffy and dazed, no wonder. Fatherless, fatherless, either way, all of us.
The midwife would have known the way to the cemetery, and undertaken many a night burial in those days, when too many women birthed in darkness or in secret, their orphaned fairy-children bound for the crossroads, or these little lumps of flesh barely formed, who would never have had a chance anyway; well she knew the stone path to the grave-maker’s house, the “First Clown” of the bard’s Mouse-Trap, to catch us all unawares, and absolute, as each character might be any one of us. Which one of us?
To be or not to be. The bundle the woman would have given the clown might have been bloodied, might have been washed, but either way it would have been sheer chance that this thing die or live, too early born to blistering mad and unknowing mother and father, each in their separate spheres. “A rat, a rat!” of a grandfather freshly entombed, no chance that her mother live after what she had done, but only picking flowers now for a grave she was speeding toward herself, under the willow boughs. No one’s seed had made her child form in no one’s womb, and still, Beckett many centuries off and later, claiming: “They give birth astride a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. On!”
The Maker of Houses built the little den of stone found on the edges of newly erected tombs and had there a wife perhaps, more likely not. A man cannot live with death for very long before he makes conversation with it. He might have lain his little unwillingly claimed bundle on the hearth, merely waiting out the process that would signal a return to his work, but it didn’t come. When she cried, he brought warm buttermilk up along the rag-thumb and suckled her, surprised by her strength. And when she passed the filthy meconium he buried that instead (like the milt of a foal’s tongue), careful into the earth, as some passage fare for her to live, for by now he had become fond of her, made peace with her strong will.
The Midwife speaks: “That corpse-child lives while her mother makes exchange of her soul. You’ve been made a gift, one I cannot take back. It was me who made the mix who brought her forth and I won’t have such a reminder in my house of all the days I’ve made women of children by making death happen in their wombs. You keep your token, architect. Make my house fine when I leave soon enough. But know that the grave you dig on the morrow is the mother of your whelp.”
In youth when I did love, did love . . . he sang, all the while too aware of what silence could not remain. One day he’d have to tell her, too far away to imagine. He dug and drank deep of the stoup his helper brought, and in a pause, let dribble some into the earth. The dead woman would have that, in exchange for the new box in the corner of his home where a secret slept.
Hold off the earth awhile. The digger had seen many go into the graves without such a scene as this, brother battling lover, but watching and working were not the same thing, just as these men who bore some relation to the woman were not the same thing–but surely, the gravedigger wondered–the mad Hamlet, father? So struck upon this corpse and conversant with her that he could announce before the royal court “I loved Ophelia?” She had a name. Nothing that he could have done then but watch, lone eye of a sorry spectacle. Still, he privately worried–the babe’s soiling cloths would need tending to, her feeding time close. Who cared whether these royals understood the value of life? They scrapped in plots over this affection or that love when such proof lived in the graver’s mansion. Hurry now, the babe will be hungry. Hurry now, cast your flowers down.
The readiness is all. Of all places, just before the duel, the opportunity for our Dane to slip his signet ring into Horatio’s palm. (“Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?”) Horatio, who would have understood enough to hear the fatal going of his dear friend. He would know that were Hamlet to survive, this ring’s return would be an afterthought, though a man’s heart was in it. Hyperion to a satyr aside, royalty would understand the press of this image against the wax, the shapelessness of plots and plots . . .
News of the deaths spread, and the digger was busier that week than ever. He planted into the earth all parents and uncles and granddames to the child he knew, and considered them each well gone. Now no one could claim her, and her stay was bought in blood. She would remain, grow stronger, little Danish abiku. Still there was the trouble of eyes and Norwegians and soldiers, longer in Denmark than just a passing through. Progress made to Poland could be delayed–there was an unpeopled throne.
(Here it is, the trouble: “She is Hamlet, Queen of Denmark,” I say, unwilling to lose the name. “Hamlet II” and then, “Hamlet III” then back to “Hamlet II: The Rest is Not Silence . . .” We imagine voiceovers and movie contracts, copyrights and action figures. Soon we have become absurd.)
“Help me Horatio, you’re my only hope. You served my father well in the Polack Wars.” (O dear o dear o dear.) Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica collide and we consider Starbuck a model for our young Hamlet, a short-haired girl raised to fence, to boyishly study the bawdy language of soldiers under the care of a wearied graves-man, a girl who will eventually seek out Horatio in her twenty-fifth year. What better way to make good on a father’s request?
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
(“It must be done right, that’s the main,” among our battalion of concerns. A novel. A screenplay. “You keep seeing this as a movie?” Go ahead. “Let’s do short pieces.” NO, NO, NO. Fine. I’ll write it.)
Sweets for the sweet. But look here, this is what I keep seeing. Horatio’s attendance to the sites of memories in years previous, his obligation to Fortinbras fulfilled, his planned journey back to school, to Wittenberg. He walks his farewell among the cemetery scene where he sees a child play free within the stones. “You boy, come here.” (Or something like this, some drawing near of friend and friend concealed.) “What grave is this?” “Why no grave at all, Lord, but a bed.” “A bed?” “For man and woman to lie upon when all their lies are past.” And some deep remembrance still further to Horatio who feels low in his bones a familiarity he cannot fathom, till the aging gravedigger surprises him in greeting. “The child is yours?” And a suspicious glance. “Who wonders?” (“Go child, take this packet to the maid at the meadow’s edge.”) Horatio’s worry: “I will be gone a long time and cannot tend these beds–I knew them well.”
Even while men’s minds are wild; lest more mischance
On plots and errors, happen.
(Here we break ways, my love to his home, several hours away. I to my work and son, alone these ten nights. Who will write it? And did we ever decide how it is that Horatio becomes aware of the child? How it is that she gains the signet ring?) There are other matters–of Fortinbras, of an occupation, for it was his own father’s land taken in duel between Prince Hamlet’s father and Old Fortinbras that so distributed the lands of Elsinore. We cannot leave this plot unmanaged: there is an occupying army and a bastard child to the throne. Oh Shakespeare would be pleased, or not, though there is nothing like resolution, dénouement when badly sought. Some end to this tragedy, perhaps enough that the fathers and sons have their work behind them. But of the daughters? I want to understand the unraveling of Ophelia’s fate to drown indirect from Hamlet’s imperious fury, to suffer so much for her father’s death. It would be her daughter’s inheritance, this unavenged accident-murder of a grandfather by hand of the father. What awesome parentage! Only the house of Atreus could outstrip this soured and repetitive wheel.
Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears
“She was a mother to that’n, and there be the father fifty paces yon in royal house, the finest. His was the greater train. This’n was mad in heart, not mind, and found her edge by the willow bank. This child is of ‘em, and still strangely, the very light of me. But my lord, you know her future better, take her on. I am a poor man.”
But Horatio could not have thought too long on her circumstances. What madness had he already seen? Too many years past, and what might have been the truer intuition he might have blamed on wishing; he could not believe a man who might have reason to lie. Is it money, old man? Do the pockets of the dead carry little freight in these late days of peace in Denmark? I cannot have a child where I am going, I do not have the time. But his words caught in his throat before he could say them, perhaps because he sensed something greater at stake, or recalled a jollier frame, of a joking clown at work on a grave that was, for a few minutes the last spectrum of a good friend’s wit and gaiety. This man had been the same, now he is sure, who parried words with a prince and managed some cuts, but now, stony dullness to his play, which was not play, and all gravity.
“If it be her wish to know, send her to Wittenberg to seek Horatio. I will see her grown and given the message of her origin. But take this. Do not sell it, nor allow any to see it until she is master of her silences. You would be killed for having it– this you know. This purse is on account–her passage to seek me. I will see it done that a stipend is set for you in my absence. You have served Elsinore these years enough, dug enough graves. Some pardon from death’s company, to tend a better home?”
And so it could be that fifteen or more years pass. Many years.
Years and years.
HURRY UP PLEASE IT IS TIME
But you stopped calling and there were no letters. We let this sit in some file or another, waiting. I packed up my things and moved. Then I moved again. You never came. I wondered why. Memory and desire. I began to write you every day.
(I guess this is what happens when professionals fall in love: the critiques overwhelm the art. We begin to edit one another out of our too busy schedules.) So I’ll have to write your sections for you, though I can do no justice to the “sledding Polacks” of your imagination; you’ve always fancied yourself a Hamlet, but I too have seen myself in mode of a Dane, and just to be fair, Ophelia needs some second life beyond the watery silence, one that makes sense, some exchange.
Was it enough? The night you and I imagined a second part, it was to find a way out of our own impossible love. (Harp lager with lime.) Queen Hamlet was our child as much as she was Ophelia’s, or Hamlet’s. Who plays what part and why do neither excite? This freakish third is our Hegelian synthesis. The “could be” and “could have been.” This is why we’ll never finish our novel, why there will be no new play. Potential, potential, potential–this is what I whisper in my empty bed while you are hours away. We might as well be one mad in Denmark and the other stowed in England. A cold, unfinished exile.
We’ll never get to the rest–the great battle between the rightful Queen Hamlet (who learnt fencing from Norwegian soldiers, recall) and Fortinbras, after his attempt to marry his way to the Danish throne. The love of Horatio for the young queen, her willingness to know him, a return of love befitting her father’s daughter for his dearest friend. May and September: Here is Freud before Freud, anticipating what we know about human hearts and tragedy. We all want to make up for mistakes that were not ours by loving our mothers and fathers. Just as I believed that you and I could be for one another what no one else was ever–mother, father–the midwifery of foolish dreams. Were I Eliot, and you, Pound, or you, Eliot, and I Pound, we could make no land but only waste of this mess. Without the homoerotic parity–what?–this we can never know. I’m only Ophelia, Ophelia forever, and my gender makes it so, despite my wild imaginings.
And whether there is a spring to speak of, for Horatio, for the victorious queen, neither of us can say. This is our game, and no one wins. We’ve all poisoned the tips of our pens, each for one another. And there will always be the same result–a pile of corpses, a pile of pages, and a terrible, fluttering wind.