Dreams of Hamlet

“To be or not to be– that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep…”

And did Daniel ever want to sleep.  Line after line of Shakespeare’s Hamlet floated in front of his eyes, blurring together in a haze of Elizabethan English.  Somehow he had made it through the first two acts with a general idea of who was who and what was what, but even that was slowly slipping from his mind.  Daniel had been told by his Grade 12 English teacher that when he read Shakespeare, he would be overcome by the sheer weight of Shakespeare’s genius.  So far, he was only overcome by the sheer weight of his sagging eyelids that fell further and further by the line until they closed…

“To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause…”

When Daniel became aware of himself again, he did not know where he was.  He seemed to be in a hallway, the walls were dark stone which was a sharp contrast to the white walls of his bedroom that were covered in posters of bikini-clad supermodels.  In the corners there were rat droppings and in certain places stains left by rivulets of water steadily tracking the same course day after day and year after year.  All around Daniel was darkness, the walls were unadorned: no pictures, windows, just a few dying torches casting just enough light.  It was strange: Daniel usually dreamed of beaches or sports fields, not dark hallways.

And yet he could not wake up.  He had assumed that this was a simple dream, something fleeting and meaningless, but, try as he might to wake up or even dream of something better, Daniel could not change his surroundings.  He appeared to be trapped in this dank, dark construction of his subconscious.

However, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.  Scoffing at the notion that a light at the end of the tunnel meant he was on his way to heaven, Daniel thought to himself, “Well, I’m here, wherever here is, I might as well get out of the darkness,” and started walking towards the light.  As Daniel went nearer, it became clear that there was a door standing slightly ajar, allowing for a crack of light to creep gently into the hallway.

When Daniel got to the door he heard voices.  Not wanting to stumble upon something dangerous, he stopped and listened.  A man spoke.

“ The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,”

Daniel peered through the crack to see two figures standing alone in the room.  The first, the speaker, was a young man dressed in a shirt with ruffles about the collar and ballooning sleeves, tights, and boots that came almost up to his knee.  Daniel could only assume that he was handsome: his dark hair rippled out from under a feathered cap perched jauntily upon his head.  His counterpart, a woman, seemed to be listening to his speech intently, barely breaking eye contact for an instant.  She was dressed in a bulky dress, but her hair hung down freely, unencumbered by decoration.

Somehow these people were familiar to Daniel, but he couldn’t pinpoint exactly why they seemed so.  They weren’t famous movie stars or athletes; Daniel would have recognized them instantly.  Nevertheless, they seemed harmless: neither crazy nor suicidal.  Silently, Daniel opened the door and entered the room.

“Excuse me,” Daniel said, “could either of you help me?  I seem to be lost.”

Startled, the young man turned, “Who are you?” he asked, “I have never seen you before.  You should not be here.”

“My name is Daniel and I could ask you the same question.  For all I know, this is my dream and you are in it.”

“Most certainly not,” the young man replied, “My name is Hamlet and I am the Prince of Denmark, whose royal castle you currently find yourself in.”

Daniel’s jaw dropped in surprise, “Hamlet,” he thought, “How am I in Hamlet?”  Before he could stop himself he had asked, “Hey, if you’re Hamlet, how come you don’t talk in iambic pentameter?”

“Don’t be silly,” Hamlet replied, “we only speak in verse when delivering our set lines.”

“Okay.  Let me get this straight.  You’re Hamlet, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  This is Denmark’s royal castle.  ‘Cause just a minute ago I was reading the play Hamlet and I’m pretty sure I fell asleep.”

“Well, regardless of your provenance, this castle and its inhabitants are very real.  I have lived here my entire life.”

“Indeed,” added the woman, the first sound she had made since Daniel had appeared.

“Sorry, this is Ophelia,” Hamlet said, gesturing from Ophelia to Daniel.  “She and I are to be wed.”  Ophelia batted her eyelashes shyly and wrung her hands at the suggestion.

“But, I mean, you’re fictional.” Daniel mused, still struggling with his whereabouts.  “You know, not real.  This guy named Shakespeare wrote this story about characters named Hamlet and Ophelia and how they all died.  This cannot actually be real.”

“Shakespeare did indeed write a story,” said Hamlet.  “And indeed it was about us.  And indeed it was about our deaths.  But that does not make this any less real.”  At this he started to pace impatiently about the room, hands clasped behind his back.

“But I know that you’re not real,” protested Daniel.  “I know that you’re just characters in a book.”

Hamlet stopped pacing and faced Daniel.  “Pray tell how you came to that conclusion.”

“Well, isn’t it obvious?  Shakespeare wrote a play about you guys in the real world and since I was reading the play when I fell asleep I am dreaming that I’m having this conversation.”

“How do you know that this is not the real world?  It is as real to us as the thing you refer to as the ‘real world’ seems to be to you.”

“I know because the other world is real and this one isn’t.  This isn’t really a world anyways.  I’m just dreaming that all this happened.  I probably won’t remember any of it when I wake up.”

“That is a rather large assumption to make,” said Hamlet as he began to pace again, “seeing as our perceptions of what is real cannot be separated from our own vantage point.”

Daniel rubbed his temples.  “Great,” he thought, “I’m dreaming in philosophy.  Dreaming in Shakespeare was bad enough.”  “What do you mean?” he asked aloud.

“I am saying,” replied Hamlet, “That to you wherever you came from seems real because you are from there and that’s all, up to this point, that you’ve ever known.  Just as all I’ve ever known is Denmark and this castle.  We can only know the things that we experience.  You see something, touch something, taste something and you assume that it’s real because you don’t know any better.”  In the background Ophelia nodded along vigorously.

“So, assuming that I believe that you’re actually Hamlet and this is actually Ophelia, how did I get here?  I was just reading Hamlet, fell asleep, and ended up here.”

“Unfortunately, I have no idea,” replied Hamlet.

“Neither do I,” said Ophelia.  Hamlet and Daniel jerked their heads around to look at her, surprised at her contribution to the conversation.  Ophelia herself seemed rather surprised as well.  She lowered her eyes and started to trace patterns on the floor with the toe of her shoe.

“But I know I was reading and I know that I fell asleep,” Daniel said.  “That means that I’m dreaming.  There’s the real world and the dream world and that’s it.  There’s no other possibility.”

“And that is yet another assumption that you cannot be sure of,” Hamlet countered.

“How can I not be sure of it?  I’m either awake or I’m dreaming, there’s not some weird in-between thing or anything.”

“That’s not entirely true, or at least has not been proven entirely true.  Just because a person is ignorant of the possibility does not mean that it is not possible.”

“Are you saying that there are other worlds then?  That’s pretty huge.”

“I’m not making any claim other than you can’t close off your mind so quickly.  You naturally assume that because you have been taken out of your usual reality that you must be dreaming without acknowledging the possibility of there being another explanation.”

“So what other explanation is there?  I don’t see one.”

“Let us assume that you are dreaming.  If you are dreaming, then you are the master here.  Your subconscious would make of this ‘world’ a plaything.  In fact, once you were to leave this ‘world’ the ‘world’ and everything in it would cease to exist, including me.  I would be an entity wholly dependent on the provenance of your mind.  I would not exist before you started dreaming and would not exist after you stopped.”

Daniel leaned back against one of the damp walls and ran his fingers through his hair.  “That makes sense,” he said.

“But I remember existing before your dream.  I remember years.  I remember doing things other than being in this room speaking with you.”

“And I remember when we first met,” said Ophelia, grabbing on to Hamlet’s arm at the elbow.  “I remember things too.”  Hamlet looked down at her fondly and patted her hand.

“But could that have been while I was dreaming, but before I found you?  Time moves funny in dreams.”

“What have you done so far in your ‘dream’?”

“The first thing I saw was this hallway.  It was dark.  Then I saw a light at the end of it.  I walked towards it.  It was this room.  I came in and asked you where I was.  But that’s only the part I’ve been conscious of, I could have been unconsciously dreaming for a long time.”

“That slight possibility aside, the point is that I have existed in some fashion prior to your dreaming.  I have lived a life independent of your thought.  As if that isn’t enough, I can be almost certain that I will still exist when you stop being here and wake back up in your reality…if you ever do.”

“So basically, I am stuck here, in this castle, until I wake up…possibly forever?”

“Maybe,” said Ophelia, “it is not in our power to know.  We are but players on this earthly stage.”

“This isn’t a common occurrence,” Hamlet added, looking at Daniel’s Nike t-shirt and board shorts as if they had just appeared to him, “I have never seen anyone here wearing such ridiculous clothing or speaking in an accent like yours.  This is as new to us as it is to you.”

“In that case, what am I supposed to do?  I’ve tried to wake up, but that didn’t work.”

“As I said, this is new to us.  We can’t help you other than to tell you to stay out of the way.  As long as you don’t interfere with what people are doing, no one should notice that you’re here.  It’s probably best to stay hidden or get some clothes to blend in with everyone else.  There are plenty of spare garments around the castle; it shouldn’t be too hard for you to find something.”  Hamlet bowed to him and Ophelia dropped a slight curtsy.  They then turned to each other and began to talk quietly.

Daniel took that as his cue to leave.  He slowly walked through the door opposite to the one that he came in through, waving to Hamlet and Ophelia.  They returned his wave almost half-heartedly before Daniel slipped out of the room.

Once on the other side of the door, Daniel paused.  He was finding it very hard to believe that he wasn’t just dreaming that he was in Hamlet.  The man named Hamlet had said that this wasn’t a dream, but Daniel could not be sure.  After all, the last thing he remembered before this was drifting slowly off to sleep.  But surely there must be something to do besides wander the castle looking for new clothes.  “But I will need new clothes,” he thought, “I’ll be in a lot of trouble if someone else finds me like this.”  However, after a second, Daniel heard Hamlet’s voice again.

“Well, I must go pay a visit to my mother, the Queen.  The holy spirits alone know what she wants.  Goodbye, Ophelia.”

That sounds interesting,” Daniel thought, “God knows I need something to do and the Queen’s rooms shouldn’t be too hard to find.”

Daniel took off down dark stone hallway after dark stone hallway.  “I don’t remember reading about any of these,” he thought.  “And if I haven’t read about them I don’t think I could dream about them.  But would that really matter in a dream?  The only way it would matter if I read about these halls is if they were real and I was remembering them.  If I’m dreaming it doesn’t matter whether I’ve read about them or not.”

He climbed stairs first going up and then going down.  Each set was a little dingier than the last.  Occasionally rivulets of water would course down through grooves in the stone, and Daniel could see markings where a foot had stepped and splashed the water about.  He bounded up the stairs two at a time, moving quickly in hopes that he wouldn’t be caught.

Suddenly, his foot slipped on a wet patch of stair and the stone came up quickly to meet him.  Daniel held out his arms to break his fall, scraping them in the process.  He rolled himself over and sat on the step, looking down at his forearm to assess the damage.  A thin trail of blood inched its way down towards his elbow.  Cursing under his breath, Daniel wiped it off on his shorts, the blood blending in with the dark material.  “Would I be bleeding if I was dreaming?” he thought.  “I would certainly be bleeding if this was real, but I’ve never bled in a dream before…at least not that I remember.”  Daniel held his arm against the shorts for a few more moments, trying to stop the flow enough that he wouldn’t leave a trail all around the castle.  After he was satisfied that he could proceed, he got back to his feet and continued up the stairs.

Carrying on, Daniel passed down one hallway that was completely in the dark.  The torches that lined the walls had long burnt out and no one had come to replace them.  Unfamiliar with his surroundings Daniel looked this way and that before entering.  Swallowing, he hurried down the corridor, moving quicker by the step as his footfalls echoed slightly off the walls.  Fortunately, turning the corner at the end of the hallway lead into a corridor that was well lit, calming Daniel’s fraying nerves.

After another series of halls and stairs he happened upon what appeared to be the servant’s quarters.  Garments and equipment were strewn about willy-nilly, as if their owners had other tasks that had taken priority to putting things back in their proper place.  Daniel looked around furtively, trying to see if there was anyone inside.  The coast was clear.

Ducking inside one of the rooms he spotted a set of castle livery.  Daniel figured it would do just fine until he got out of this place.  Quickly, he jumped out of his clothes, which he stashed under a bed, and into his new uniform.  Just as he finished, someone else entered the room.  He was dressed in similar livery to what Daniel had just hastily climbed into.  The man was rather stocky-looking, with a healthy stomach stretching out the cloth material.

“Halt,” he said, “Who goes there?”

Daniel paused, should he answer as a servant or as himself?  “Me,” he said, “Just getting ready for duty.”  Daniel gave a quick bow, not too low, wishing that he had paid more attention to the servants in Shakespeare.

“Ok then, carry on.”  The other man turned to exit the room, satisfied that Daniel was a servant.

“Wait,” Daniel said, “can you tell me the quickest way to the Queen’s chambers?  I’ve been posted there for the first time and I seem to have forgotten the way.”

“Of course,” the other man replied.  Daniel listened closely and after a few more hallways and stairs, he emerged into the Queen’s chambers.  “I probably shouldn’t be doing this, but hopefully I’ll get out of here soon.  That was too close back there for my liking.”

The room Daniel found himself in was small.  There wasn’t much furniture, just a single desk with some papers, a chair in front of it, and on one wall hung a curtain that covered the entire wall.   “This isn’t how I pictured the Queen’s chambers,” Daniel thought, “In the movie there was a bed.  Maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention.”  Daniel hadn’t closed the door behind him and he could now hear voices coming from down the hall.  They were getting closer, so he ducked behind the curtain and stood still.

“He will come straight. Look you lay home to him:
Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with,
And that your grace hath screen’d and stood between
Much heat and him. I’ll silence me e’en here.
Pray you, be round with him,” said one of the voices, a man.

From farther away came a call, “Mother, mother, mother!”  Daniel thought he recognized Hamlet’s voice, but he couldn’t be sure.

“I’ll warrant you:” said a woman’s voice,

“Fear me not:—withdraw Polonius; I hear him coming.”

The curtain rustled briefly as Polonius also hid himself behind it.  Daniel tried to stop himself from breathing heavily and giving himself away.  Somehow he was able to stay still and Polonius did not see him.

“Now, mother, what’s the matter?”  Now that the voice was closer, Daniel knew it was Hamlet, which would make the woman the Queen.

“Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.”

“Mother, you have my father much offended.”

“Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.”

“Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.”

Daniel didn’t really understand what was happening, but by the tone of the voices he assumed they were fighting.  Daniel had fights like this with his own mother before and hearing it again was boring him, although there wasn’t much he could do about it being trapped behind the curtain.  He heard Hamlet continue.

“Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.”

“What wilt thou do? thou wilt not murder me?—
Help, help, ho!”

Polonius’ voice burst from behind the curtain, “What, ho! help, help, help!”  Hamlet swore.

“How now? a rat?”  Daniel heard a ringing sound as Hamlet drew his blade.
“Dead for a ducat, dead!”

Daniel felt a stabbing pain in his chest.  His eyes quickly closed against his will and he fell forward into the curtain…

“O me, what hast thou done?”

“Nay, I know not: is it the king?”

“O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!”

“A bloody deed!—almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother.”

“As kill a king!”

“Ay, lady, ’twas my word.—
Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!”

And when Daniel opened his eyes again, he was awake.  It took him a moment to realize that he didn’t have a sword sticking out of his chest and that he was actually alive.  The dream, and the pain, was over.  He looked at his arm.  There was no mark from where he remembered cutting it on the stairs.

He picked up his copy of Hamlet that had dropped to the floor when he fell asleep.  It was open to the scene in which Hamlet speaks with the Queen in her chambers.  Daniel began to read the lines, recalling them from his dream.  “But was it really a dream?” he thought.  “Everything I experienced follows the play exactly.”  Even awake he couldn’t be sure as it all seemed so real.  He reached the line, “How now? a rat?” and stopped.  He remembered the burst of pain as the sword stabbed through the curtain.

And it struck him: Hamlet killed him instead of Polonius.  Instead of following the course of the play things had changed.  “Now we’ll find out whether I was dreaming or not.  I died in Polonius’ place.  If it was a dream nothing will change, but if not Hamlet could be changed forever.”

Daniel leaned forward, determined not to let line after line of Elizabethan English blur together.  He wanted to understand.

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