Uses of this World: Chapter 4

Claudius

Denmark 1926. The world is on a powder keg, the old world is in conflict with the new, still recovering from World War I. Jazz and flappers. Cocktails and parties. In this tumultuous time, the king of Denmark is found dead… but his spirit is not at rest.

Uses of this World is the tale of the people around the events of Hamlet, from the soldiers to the royal family. Each is tied to the outcomes around the crown. And the country, as well as the world, is waiting to see what happens next.

Previous Chapters

Chapter 4: World Take Note

“So much for him,” joked King Claudius, and with a smile he gave approval for laughter.  It was the signal the royal court was waiting for and they responded loudly. Even Claudius almost laughed… almost.

Many like to compare politics to Chess. Claudius never did. Chess is a game, he would argue, politics was something more.

It was art.

Claudius, if anyone bothered to ask him (and they didn’t), would compare politics to a symphony. For like a symphony, each different player was like a different instrument, in tone and style. Some were made to be soloists, lyrical and moving or bombastic; others only played well with similar instruments along, needing to harmonize to find their beauty. And at the front of that Danish symphony was Claudius, the maestro, directing and signaling each player in turn. He had the sheet music written out, and each of the members (knowing it or not knowing it) were following his direction, and only his.

Everything Claudius had done since his brother’s demise had been to cement his own grip on the monarchy. Even this, holding the morning assembly between him and the court in the portrait gallery helped emphasize that. Look at the history all around you, and then look at the new royal family getting their portrait painted. History and living history were alive here and no one in the court could deny the lineage from the ancestors in oil to the breathing family in front of them.

This was Danish royalty.

When the body of King Hamlet was discovered, his younger brother moved quickly. Before the prince was whisked away from whatever bar or bohemian bedroom he was currently calling home (Claudius dismissed bitterly), the maestro was already raising his baton.

A hint here.

A nod there.

Promises, promises, promises.

He was setting the tempo for the entire piece. And when Polonius, the chief counselor of the former king, approached him to speak the mind of the court, Claudius had to stop himself from laughing triumphantly outloud. It was as if he had almost entered too soon into the music.

“Transitional Monarchy.”

That was the expression they all agreed to. Claudius’s reign was to be a transitional monarchy. It appeased those that believed that the wild prince should be king (He will, the others argued, when he is ready), but for the time being, in these troubling days, isn’t it better to have a firmer and more experienced hand overseeing Denmark? And who was more ready than Claudius, the little brother and right hand of the deceased king?

The only snag that no one discussed, but Claudius knew too well, is that the one person who could decide that Prince Hamlet was ready was… well… Claudius. The same one sitting on the throne, wearing the royal uniform and the crown, and having his royal portrait painted.

Claudius held up his hand, silencing the laughter. It was back to business. He still had to do the job, and the politics around Europe were certainly frustrating. He continued. “…for bearers of this greeting to old Norway. Giving to you no further personal powers to business with the King more than the scope of these dilated articles allow.” He nodded to two ambassadors who stepped forward. “Farewell and let your haste commend your duty.”

They both bowed, saying in unison: “In that, and all things, will we show our duty.”

The “transitional” king nodded. “We doubt it nothing, heartily farewell.” They left quickly. His brother couldn’t have done it better, and he was groomed for the role. All Claudius could do throughout his life, was bitterly stand aside and watch. Bidding his time and wondering if he would ever have a chance.

Claudius glanced over at the painter, still frantically working on the canvas. Even from the throne, Claudius could hear his little sighs and complaints under his voice.

Artists.

Claudius turned back to the court and there was Polonius, his chief counselor now, approaching; his two children in tow behind him. They are Ophelia (age 18, educated in the castle, pretty, energetic) and Laertes (24, scholar with some questionable political ties). Claudius had always made it his point to know everyone and everything around him. His brother, when he was king, never bothered to learn names. He would joke about it often. That people knew who he was was always enough for him. He was stupid, Claudius argued in his mind. Knowledge is power and he made a point to know something about everyone in the court. Especially if they had children, which could always be considered a weakness.

Polonius bowed, his children doing the same.

Claudius knew what all of this was about, turning his attention immediately to the son. “And now Laertes, what’s the news with you?”

Some in the court laughed or smiled at the question. He even heard Gertrude, the queen (his queen, he reminded himself) snicker a little.

That was another thing that he was shocked turned out so well. It was a passing fancy really for him, a little coup. He was certain that she would have been at the front, arguing for Prince Hamlet to follow his father. Yet, there was silence from her. Just silence. It could have been mourning, but Claudius couldn’t be certain. They never seemed to have that deep a love. Didn’t the fact they only had one child say something about their passion?

He studied her at each dinner, watched her closely at the funeral, counting each tear.

What made him think she would consider him? They always had a nice relationship, friendly even. He was almost shocked as well, when he approached her a few weeks after the funeral and dropped to one knee.

She didn’t slap him. She didn’t even blink.

She nodded and that was that.

She even had no problem joining him in their wedding bed, the same bed she used to share with his brother. She wasn’t as creative or as passionate as the lasses he would have brought in from time to time when he was merely a lord, but she still was there, legs spread.

His queen.

Claudius shook his head quickly, getting his mind off the queen’s privates and turned back to the counselor and his groveling family. “You told us of some suit, what is it, Laertes? You cannot speak of reason to Dane and lose your voice. What wouldst thou beg, Laertes, that shall not be my offer, not thy asking? The head is not more native to the heart, the hand more instrumental to the mouth, than is the throne of Denmark is to thy father.”

Polonius blushed (he certainly does like praise, Claudius noted) and bowed his head again.

“What wouldst thou have, Laertes?”

Claudius studied Laertes carefully as he rose from his bow. That one might be trouble, Claudius thought. Someone to keep an eye on. Here in the court he played his role well, a little too well. “My dread lord, your leave and favor to return to France, from whence though willingly I came to Denmark to show my duty in your coronation, yet now I must confess, that duty done, my thoughts and wishes bend towards France, and bow them to your gracious leave and pardon.”

The king looked to his counselor. “Have you your father’s leave? What says Polonius?”

Polonius smiled. “He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave by laborsome petition, and at last upon his will I sealed my hard consent.”

The court laughed again. It was all like a well-acted play, so perfectly restrained and presented. You would never think that the continent was on the verge of war and political unrest was like a disease sickening the countries around Denmark. It was only a matter of time before the sick would be too much and impossible to hold back.

Polonius continued. “I do beseech you give him leave to go.”

Claudius began to rise from the throne, but a quick groan from the painter made him sit again. Fine, Claudius did want the painting to look good (at least better than the one of his brother). He reached out his hand to the son of Polonius instead. “Take thy fair hour, Laertes, time be thine, and thy best graces spend at thy will.”

A quick handshake, a nod and the family stepped back into the court again. Did Ophelia exchange a glance with the Prince? That was interesting.

Now came the moment that Claudius was not look forward to. He knew the court was expecting something. It was all too obvious. What was the expression? The elephant in the room? This elephant was all in black though. While the queen fell into her role perfectly in all ways (his mind returning to the bedroom), the prince was another matter. When he was growing up, Claudius found the prince fast-witted and smart. In many ways a worthy successor to the throne (after his reign, of course). These days all Claudius could think when he looked at Hamlet was “Lump.”

Lump.

Even now as they were being painted, he did not come in his royal attire, instead sticking with his black. Black pants, black suitcoat and even a long black trench coat. It was as if he was drenched in mourning.  And while the queen stood perfectly on his side of the throne, maybe even wearing the same great dress as in the painting she posed for with his brother (Claudius will have to check on that), Hamlet leaned against the throne as if he had trouble even holding up his own weight.

Lump.

The problem is that the prince had grown into a national embarrassment even before the death. Claudius wasn’t too upset of that then, it helped him create this “transitional monarchy” after all, but now that the throne was his it was bothersome. If Claudius can’t rule this, how can he rule the country?

Lump.

So how does someone fix a lump? You try to smooth it out of course. Claudius began, using the warmest tones he could, “But now my cousin Hamlet, and my son.”

The boy noticeably flinched at that. “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” the Lump mumbled loudly for everyone to hear. Claudius also caught the whiff of alcohol on his breath. So that explained it, and not too surprising really if the stories of him and the American and their adventures were true.

Claudius had dealt with more difficult political maneuvers than this before. This was his symphony after all. He took a quick breath and tried to begin again. “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?”

The Lump flinched again, it was as if each word was a slap to him, and spoke louder this time, “Not so, my lord, I am too much in the sun.”

Well he is still fast witted, even when he is drunk, Claudius thought. He was about to speak again when he felt a hand on his. The queen was telling him to let her try.  “Good Hamlet, cast thy knighted color off, and let thine eyes look like a friend on Denmark. Do not forever with thy vailed lids seek for thy noble father in the dust. Thou knowst ‘tis common, all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity.”

Those words touched the Lump. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Hearing from his mother also seemed to make him a little embarrassed. Claudius couldn’t help but think that marrying her was the best decision he had ever made. Yes, he would find his way into her bed chambers that night.

“Ay, madam, it is common,” the Lump replied with a slur in his voice.

“If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”

Claudius knew that soft voice she was using. They were family after all. She sounded like a mother comforting a child. If she had hoped it would ease her son and his emotions, it didn’t. It seemed to annoy him, and he looked up. There was a fire there. “Seems, madam? Nay, it is, I know not ‘seems.’”

The Lump staggered from his side of the throne. (Claudius wondered what time he had to start drinking to get to this state by 10 AM. Or did he simply not sleep.) “‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother, nor customary suits of solemn black, nor windy suspiration of forced breath. No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, nor the dejected havior of the visage, together with all forms, moods, shakes of grief, that can denote me truly.” He stopped in front of the throne, facing his mother. It was as if the entire court was not there, hanging on his every word. For him it was just a despondent son speaking to his mother. “These indeed seem, for they are actions that a man might play, but I have that within which passes show, these but the trappings and the suits of woe.”

It almost amazed Claudius that someone could feel something so deeply for his brother. He had known King Hamlet his entire life, been bullied by him as a child, scorned in court by him when he was a young king for being too interested in books and not enough in the real world. In so many ways, Claudius was like parts of the young Hamlet then. But this? This was all just bad form and it was starting to annoy Claudius. The last thing Claudius needed was whispers as his reign was just beginning.

Claudius took a deep breath and spoke with a clear voice so all could hear in the room. “‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet to give these mourning duties to your father. But you must know your father lost a father, that father, lost his, and the survivor bound in filial obligation for some term to do obsequious sorrow.” It was kind and true. Claudius definitely did play the role of a mourning son himself when his father died, but there was little love in it. His father already had an heir, Claudius was the spare just in case. An entire life feeling like a second.

Claudius turned his direction to the son again, having almost a hard time holding back his frustration. “But to persevere in obstinate condolement is a course of impious stubbornness, ‘tis unmanly grief, it shows a will most incorrect to heaven, a heart unfortified, or mind impatient, an understanding simple and unschooled. For what we know must be, and is common as any the most vulgar thing to sense, why should we in our peevish opposition take it to heart? Fie, ‘tis a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead, a fault to nature, to reason most absurd, whose common theme is death of fathers and who still hath cried from the first corse till he that died to-day, ‘This must be so.’”

Claudius took a breath (that speech was a little more than he planned it to be) and glanced around the room. The Lump might not have heard his words, but everyone else did. He had made an impression with that speech. This time was as good as any for the next stage in his steps to hold onto power. He could woo the queen; this seduction was a little trickier. “We pray you throw to earth this unprevailing woe and think of us as a father for let the world take note…” And here was the moment, “…you are the most immediate to our throne and with no nobility of love than that which dearest father bears his son do I impart towards you.”

In just one sentence, one, the word “transitional” was thrown away and no one had time to blink.

The applause began.

Claudius fought to hold back his smile. Fair and just, the lineage from the paintings to the breathing family was set before the ink was even dry. The queen touched his hand, and with the touch he knew the queen would welcome him in those bed chambers.

Yet, if Claudius truly wanted the people to believe in the family, some things would have to change, and that could not happen with the Lump drunkenly gallivanting around the continent. The grooming had to begin. (The grooming, Claudius thought bitterly, he never got) “For your intent in going back to school in Wittenberg, it is most retrograde to our desire, and we beseech you, bend you to remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye, our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.”

Claudius wasn’t certain if the Lump was shocked or about to vomit. It could have even been both. He had much to learn.

Gertrude stepped forward, her hand lightly touching her son’s face, leading him back to his position on the side of the throne. She was certainly good at her job. “Let not thy mother, lose her prayers, Hamlet, I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.” She took a handkerchief from a pocket and wiped the tears from his eyes. Claudius heard him sniffle like a child. It was all so pathetic in his opinion.

Hamlet gulped, looked down at Claudius on the throne and back at his mother, the queen. “I shall in all my best obey you, madam.”

The bastard, Claudius thought, the obstinate bastard. Did he have no idea what he had just given the child? Yet there he was, still bitter, still childish.

Claudius turned to his court, and realized his symphony was waiting for a signal from their conductor. He stroked his black mustache, smirked and then replied in his best royal voice. “Why, tis a loving and a fair reply. Be as ourselves in Denmark.”

The drunk Lump was too dangerous in Claudius’s opinion, he needed to end this little performance before something worse was said. He rose from the throne. The artist complained, but it took one sharp glance to shut his mouth. He held out his hand for the Queen. Unlike the artist and the Lump, she knew her part and took it gracefully, laying her hand gently on his. “Madam, come. This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet sits smiling to my heart.” A lie, a great lie. He continued, “In grace whereof, no jocund health that Denmark drinks today, but the great cannon to the clouds shall bruit again. Respeaking earthly thunder.”

And like a maestro ending a great piece, he waved his arms towards the doors motioning an end. “Come away.” The only thing missing was the applause, but Claudius did not need it. A true artist doesn’t need the accolades if they are wise enough to know what they have created.

He left first with the Queen, the court following behind, each knowing their role and place in his political orchestra. Even the artist left, leaving his incomplete canvas behind. One at a time, and not a single one nodding or referencing the drunk failure of a prince.

With the slam of the great doors, all that remained was the Lump, who collapsed on the throne, no longer able to hold his grief.

Hamlet was alone.

Enjoying the writing? Why not show your support by checking out my newest novel?Permanent Spring Showers

Permanent Spring Showers was published by 5 Prince Books. You can find out more about my novel as well as my other books (including A Jane Austen Daydream and My Problem With Doors) and grab a copy via my author page on Amazon.com here.

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