Christina, the Swedish ambassador to Denmark
Claudius, a prince of Denmark, the elder Hamlet’s brother, the younger Hamlet’s uncle, Gertrude’s brother-in-law
Eric, Claudius’s servant
Fortinbras, the prince of Norway
Gertrude, the queen of Denmark, the younger Hamlet’s mother, the elder Hamlet’s wife, Claudius’s sister-in-law
Hamlet the elder, the king of Denmark, Prince Hamlet’s father, Claudius’s brother, Gertrude’s husband
Hamlet the younger, a prince of Denmark, King Hamlet’s son, Claudius’s nephew, Gertrude’s son
Horatio, a friend of Prince Hamlet, Ophelia and Laertes who works in the royal stable
Laertes, Ophelia’s brother, Polonius’s son
Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter, Laertes’s sister
Polonius, the lord chamberlain of Denmark, Ophelia and Laertes’s father
As soon as Fortinbras learned Ophelia was still alive, he sent her a message asking if he could pay her a visit. He surprised her when he arrived at her cottage. He wore a shirt and trousers a farmer would wear. He was on a horse he’d ridden from Elsinore Castle alone.
He dismounted without taking his eyes off her. “I was told you’d thrown yourself into a river and drowned. People said you must’ve washed out to sea. That’s why nobody found your body.”
Ophelia gave her guest a wan smile. “That was the story people told about me. I’m glad, of course, it wasn’t true.”
“There was talk you were despondent because your brother and father and Prince Hamlet had been killed.”
“That was the story people told.”
The summer day Fortinbras had chosen for his visit was warm and sunny. Ophelia invited him to sit with her on a bench in the shade of an apple tree at the edge of her orchard. They had a view of a pasture enclosed by a wooden fence. Fortinbras’s horse, tethered to the tree, munched on the orchard grass behind them.
When Ophelia was a child, other youngsters at the castle often told her she and her brother Laertes didn’t look like Danes. With their dark brown hair, almond eyes and slender physiques, they could’ve passed for children of the servants who attended the ambassadors from Greece, Italy and Spain.
Ophelia doubted anybody ever questioned whether Fortinbras was a true Scandinavian. He was blond, blue-eyed and tall. He was as fit, at thirty-six, as the soldier he used to be—a soldier who trained, by all accounts, every day between battles.
“I often wonder,” he said, “about that awful business involving your family and the royal family. I’ve heard the story that goes around. But it raises so many questions. To be honest with you, I find it difficult to believe six people—two kings, a queen, a prince and two lord chamberlains—got killed the way the story says they did.”
Ophelia had imagined Fortinbras would have any number of questions for her regarding that awful business.
“For one thing,” he said, “I’ve never been able to figure out Prince Hamlet’s uncle.”
Ophelia looked at the hayfield beyond the pasture and frowned. “What can’t you figure out about him?”
“Everybody tells me Claudius poisoned his older brother, the king, Hamlet’s father.”
“That’s the story people tell.”
“But why did Claudius suppose he could get away with a crime so obvious? Why didn’t he stop to think Prince Hamlet would surely seek revenge for the murder of his father?”
Ophelia remained silent.
“Is it possible,” Fortinbras asked, “somebody else killed the king?”
Remembering all too well the death of Hamlet’s father and the horrific events that followed it ten years ago, Ophelia shuddered as if she were in a dream from which waking could provide no escape.
Ophelia’s Story: Seventeen Years before the Visit
In his childhood, Prince Hamlet had three close friends. Quiet, studious, well-behaved Horatio was an orphan whose parents had been servants at Elsinore Castle. The far more exuberant Laertes and Ophelia were the only children of Polonius, the lord chamberlain. Their mother had died when Ophelia was five years old and Laertes six.
The prince and his three friends roamed the castle and its grounds without any apparent restriction. They were familiar with the servants to an unusual degree. They called them by their names and knew what they did and how they did it.
Polonius couldn’t conceal how pleased he was that his son and daughter were special friends of the prince, who was the only royal child in the kingdom. At the same time, though, the lord chamberlain made no attempt to hide his irritation that Horatio had somehow become, like a weed in an otherwise flawless garden, a member of their group.
One afternoon Polonius overheard Laertes complain he was too hungry to concentrate on the history lesson the royal tutor was attempting to teach the prince and his friends. Hamlet and Laertes were twelve years old. Ophelia and Horatio were eleven.
Polonius interrupted the class and told Horatio to go to the royal kitchen and bring back some food. “Like an obedient and useful servant,” he chose to add.
The lord chamberlain’s demand and remark incensed his daughter. “Horatio isn’t our servant,” she said. “When we need something to eat, we’ll go get it ourselves. We know where the kitchen is. We know the cooks.”
Laertes laughed. “They give us whatever we ask for.”
“Ophelia’s right,” Hamlet said. “Horatio isn’t our servant. He’s our friend.”
What could Polonius say after that? Hamlet was, after all, the prince.
“Who are the people in the hayfield?” Fortinbras asked.
Ophelia smiled. “My husband and our children. They’re bringing in the second crop of the season. We cut it two days ago. Our timing was good. It dried out beautifully yesterday.”
Ophelia’s husband and children were forking the hay onto a low wagon a horse pulled.
“Would you be helping them,” Fortinbras asked, “if I hadn’t come to see you?”
Ophelia nodded. “You needn’t worry about that, though. They gave me the afternoon off. They agreed I had something more important to do.”
“How old are your children?”
“The older girl is nine. The boys are seven and six. The younger girl will be three by the end of the year. The others take turns watching her.”
Ophelia’s Story: Sixteen Years before the Visit
When Hamlet and Laertes were thirteen, and Ophelia and Horatio twelve, talk of a possible wedding a few years in the future began.
Polonius repeated the gossip with the glee of a child opening birthday presents.
“The prince and my daughter,” he often said, “I can’t imagine a more perfect marriage.”
Laertes, on the other hand, insisted the thought of his friend and sister in bed together doing what a husband and wife did made him sick to his stomach.
Another Elsinore Castle assumption of many years standing by then was that Laertes would succeed his father as lord chamberlain.
“If you marry Hamlet,” Horatio told Ophelia one day while they were riding on a clifftop above the sea, “you’ll outrank your older brother.”
Ophelia was on her horse. Horatio rode, as he often did, Hamlet’s.
Other children never questioned whether Hamlet and Horatio were true Danes. They both had the height, stature and blond hair to prove it. Horatio’s eyes were as dark as Ophelia’s, and often as brooding, but nobody held that against him.
“Your brother,” he said, “will have to bow down to you the same as the rest of us will. He admitted to me he’ll never feel right doing that.”
Ophelia laughed. “That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. If I married Hamlet, Laertes and I would still be brother and sister.”
“But would you favor him?”
“Just because he was my brother? Absolutely not.”
Ophelia rode off on her white horse at a gallop.
Horatio continued trotting his. He and Ophelia both knew he wasn’t the rider she was. Somewhere along the way, they also knew, she’d stop, view the waves crashing against the rocks below the cliff, and wait for him to catch up with her. She especially liked one spot where she could watch wave after wave enter a cavern in the rocks and come spilling out again.
Fortinbras gestured toward the cattle, sheep and goats grazing in the pasture. “I was told you’d become a farmer.”
Ophelia nodded. “My aunt, my mother’s sister, left me this farm. She never married or had any children of her own. After my mother died, my aunt moved to Elsinore to raise Laertes and me. She and my father, though, despised one another. Soon after the war began, she came back here to live.”
Fortinbras closed his eyes and shook his head. “That war.”
“That stupid, horrible war.”
Hamlet’s father, himself called Hamlet, had begun the war when Ophelia was nine years old. He did it after the king of Norway, Fortinbras’s father, had rejected the Danish demand that he give up certain territories his royal ancestors had supposedly stolen from Denmark.
Fortinbras sighed. “If the kings of Denmark ever ruled those territories, it must’ve been an awfully long time ago. The people living in them have spoken Norwegian for many generations now.”
Ophelia nodded. “The king and my father had a plan to deal with that. They were going to throw your Norwegians out and replace them with Danes. That’s how they got the lords to agree to fight the war. The king promised he’d divide the new territories among them after your Norwegians were gone.”
“Our people living in those parts assumed that would happen. That’s why they put up such fierce resistance. They told one another they had to help our army fight off the Danish invaders. Otherwise, they’d end up in the sea.”
“We heard about that. The Norwegians our army tried to uproot did every sneaky thing they could to stop us. They hijacked our supply wagons in the forests. They shot flaming arrows into our encampments and set them on fire. But the king and my father refused to listen when our commanding officers complained. My father told them the common people, especially the Norwegians, could never be a threat to a well-trained, well-led army.”
Fortinbras laughed. “Especially the Norwegians?”
Ophelia’s Story: Fifteen Years before the Visit
The fourteen-year-old prince and Laertes and thirteen-year-old Ophelia and Horatio were at the farm the summer day five mounted knights showed up.
Ophelia’s aunt had taught Ophelia and Horatio how to milk her cows, ewes and nannies and make the cheese she sold.
The war had gone on then for more than four years, like an illness beyond hope of either recovery or death.
The captain of the knights, still on his horse, spoke with Ophelia’s aunt not far from the bench beneath a young apple tree. “We’ve got orders for two of your steers.”
Ophelia’s aunt nodded. “I’ve got two steers I planned to take to market next week. Will you pay me what I’d get for them there?”
The captain shook his head. “We’ve got no money to pay you for your steers.”
As if she were mimicking the captain, Ophelia’s aunt shook her head. “You’ll have to leave then without the steers.”
“We’ve got orders,” the captain said, “to take two of your steers. They’ll go to Norway. We need them to feed our comrades who’re fighting and dying there.”
Ophelia’s aunt shook her head again. “You’ll need to pay me for them.”
“We’re taking steers from all the farmers in this area,” the captain said. “You and your neighbors can consider them your contribution to the war effort.”
Ophelia stepped forward. “What if my aunt doesn’t want to make a contribution to the war effort? What if she thinks we should let the Norwegians be and bring your comrades home to Denmark safe and sound?”
“Then your aunt’s a traitor,” the captain replied, “and deserves to have her head chopped off.”
The captain turned to Ophelia’s aunt. “Now show us those two steers you were thinking of taking to the market. Those are the ones we need for our comrades in Norway.”
The knights rode to the nearest gate to the pasture, which wasn’t far from the apple tree. Two of them dismounted and opened the gate.
Ophelia motioned to Hamlet, Laertes and Horatio to follow her. She and they ran around the knights, through the gateway and into the pasture.
In an attempt to keep the knights from confiscating the steers, they placed themselves between the swordsmen and the cattle herd.
“You aren’t taking steers from this farm,” Ophelia declared.
“I’m the prince,” Hamlet informed the knights.
“I’m the lord chamberlain’s son,” Laertes said.
“And I’m the lord chamberlain’s daughter,” Ophelia said. “Our fathers would never permit this to happen.”
The captain and the other knights drew and brandished their swords.
“Your fathers,” the captain said, “told us themselves we’re to take the steers.”
“And anybody who gets in our way,” one of the other knights said, aiming his sword at Ophelia, “we’re free to kill as a traitor.”
Ophelia spat at the sword. “You aren’t going to kill the prince as a traitor. You aren’t going to kill the lord chamberlain’s son and daughter as traitors.”
The captain aimed his sword at Horatio. “Who are you?”
“He’s Horatio,” Ophelia said. “He’s our friend.”
“Ophelia,” her aunt called to her, “step aside. All of you, step aside. Let the knights take the steers. They have swords. We don’t.”
Ophelia stepped aside. She realized, as her aunt had, the knights could kill Horatio and teach the prince and the lord chamberlain’s son and daughter a damned good lesson about what their fathers’ swordsmen could and would do.