|Painting of Ophelia by John Everett Millais
The Sister's Story
by Katherine Tomlnison
Prince Hamlet had been away at university for almost a year when his father died.
Ironically, he was on the road home to Elsinore when news of his father’s illness reached him.
It was far too late for him to send his companion away, so when the prince arrived to find the court in mourning, his friend was thrown into the midst of the maelstrom along with him.
It was a peculiar situation.
The old king had died of a stomach ailment and even though the prince was of age, the title had passed to the king’s brother, Claudius instead of him.
Odder still, the prince’s newly widowed mother had already married her former brother-in-law.
When Hamlet’s friend Horatio remarked upon the somewhat unseemly haste of the nuptials, Hamlet rebuked him saying that he admired the economy of the measure, which allowed the kitchen to serve the funeral’s baked meats sliced cold at the marriage feast.
In truth, Hamlet cared little for the crown itself—he was a scholar, not a fighter, and Prince Fortinbras of Norway had often been known to mock him as “the student prince.” Claudius was rooted from more martial stock, and eager to send the Norwegian prince threatening our borders back to his own kingdom without tribute or treasure.
King Hamlet had favored diplomacy in dealing with the Norse-men, a policy Claudius had openly disdained.
As soon as he was king, Claudius ordered the Danish army to prepare for war. My brother Laertes was ordered back from Paris to lead the troops that would protect the land between the border and Elsinore. If Hamlet felt the slight of his uncle’s favor passing him by, he did not show it.
In fact, if he had any feelings at all, he did not express them—not to me, not to Horatio, and certainly not to the two fools who were his best friends at court, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
I was surprised that Hamlet did not turn to me; surprised and somewhat hurt.
We had been lovers since I turned 15 and it was commonly assumed that one day we would marry. My brother opposed this idea, mostly because he did not like the prince (Rosencrantz once joked that Laertes opposed the match and I had overheard Rosencrantz say that his objections were not because he disliked the prince, but that he liked him a little too much. Guildenstern had countered this witticism with an observation of his own suggesting that perhaps Laertes wanted to keep me for himself.
Both gibes had enraged my brother and vastly amused the court, fueling speculation that was not kind to Laertes.
My father was giddy with the possibility of my marrying the prince, despite his public protestations to the contrary. My father was a noble by birth, but a minor noble and despite his title of “Lord Chamberlain,” his function at court was as only slightly more important than that of the king’s Master of Hounds. Being father-in-law to the future king was a prospect that thrilled him.
And there was no doubt that Claudius would name Hamlet his heir. The king had no children of his own and Queen Gertrude was well past child-bearing age.
I’d always assumed Hamlet’s parents found me…adequate…as a potential mate for their son. I am a pretty woman from a noble family and really, all the only thing they really required of a princess bride was a brood mare of sufficiently impressive bloodstock that the royal spawn would not be born with a crooked back or a cloudy eye.
I’m certain my father wanted to broach the subject with Claudius, but the new king seemed disinclined to discuss it. Instead he focused his attention on Fortinbras’ advancing army. He was also distracted by the gossip that followed a palace guard’s assertion that he’d seen the ghost of old King Hamlet grimly stalking the castle parapets at midnight.
Claudius scoffed at these reports, suggesting that it was far more likely that the phantasm was a product of over-indulgence in the potent ale brewed in Elsinore, but ghosts make for much better stories than drunkards.
“It’s not just Bernardo that’s seen the ghost,” my maid Gytha confided in me one morning as she dressed my hair. “Marcellus has seen him too.”
Marcellus? Now that was interesting. Because Marcellus was a sober veteran of the King’s Guard, a man not given to fancy.
“Did the ghost say anything to Marcellus?” I asked, curious to know how elaborate the story had gotten since it had first been whispered.
Gytha had looked around and lowered her voice then, leaning toward me as if imparting a great secret. “They say the King is waiting to speak to Prince Hamlet.”
In the mirror, I saw Gytha cross herself as she said this.
Poor little superstitious peasant.
Hamlet, meanwhile, showed no signs of curiosity at all and no desire to treat with the ghost. He’d always been prone to melancholy and his father’s death had sent him to an unknown country of the mind and all around him feared he would never return.
He became convinced Claudius was spying on him, that the king was paying Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to report his every movement. When the two courtiers disappeared from Elsinore, we all feared the worst for them.
Hamlet’s paranoid fantasies deepened and he began voicing his suspicions in near-incoherent rants that showed he had little understand of (or appreciation for) the tidal surge of politics and the eddies and undercurrents of courtly life.
Of course Gertrude and Claudius had cuckolded King Hamlet.
I know my father knew the truth of it and if he knew, then Laertes knew.
And if the nobles knew, then the servants who changed the royal bed linens and washed the royal clothes knew the truth of it as well.
Beyond adultery, Hamlet suspected something even darker and he was not quiet in his accusations of murder.
The king began to lose his patience with Hamlet, whose behavior was becoming so erratic that his mother was first disquieted and then alarmed.
My father asked me to speak with the prince, and so for the first time since he’d returned to Elsinore, I sought him out.
We met the next day, as though by chance, in a corridor between the hall of state and the royal chambers.
I greeted the prince with a curtsey and asked after his health as if he were a stranger, for in truth, he had become a stranger to me.
He knew well enough that I had confronted him at my father’s bidding and with a mocking smile on his lips, he asked, “Where’s your father?”
“At home my lord.”
Hamlet nodded thoughtfully. “Let the doors be shut upon him, that he may play the fool nowhere but in his own house.”
His words were said with such scorn that I almost felt them like blows. When Hamlet realized I hadn’t stepped aside to let him pass, he dismissed me with a curt, “Farewell.”
“God help you,” I said and turned to leave. But his mercurial mood had shifted and now he was angry as well as contemptuous.
He grabbed my arm tightly and thrust his face so close to mine that when he spoke I felt the spittle on my skin.
“Are you honest?” he asked.
“My lord?” I replied because in truth I had no idea how to answer him.
“Are you fair?”
I must have looked bewildered for Hamlet them began a rambling discourse upon the nature of beauty and honesty that I could make no sense of.
Finally he said, “I did love you once.”
My heart dropped at the past tense but I swallowed and said, steadily enough, “Indeed my lord, you made me believe so.”
He shook his head as if in disappointment. “You should not have believed me,” he said. “I loved you not.”
He smiled as he said it but it was a demented smile, a crooked expression filled with mindless malice.
I jerked my arm from his grasp. “I was the more deceived,” I said, with as much dignity as possible.
“I would have given you children,” I added, and then I turned away from him again.
He stopped me with a gesture. “Why would you be a breeder of sinners?”
I simply shook my head, not trusting myself to answer.
“Go,”’ he said then and when I did not immediately obey him, he followed his order with a blow.
The blow stung, but I felt it more in my heart than on my flesh.
It was a blow I could not forgive, no matter how deep in mourning he was sunk.
I avoided the prince after that. No man has ever struck me.
No man ever will again.
Some days later, a troupe of traveling players came to Elsinore, offering entertainment and a respite from the tensions gathering inside.
I might have stayed in my own rooms the night of their performance in order to avoid the prince’s presence, but the entire court had been commanded to attend.
The evening commenced with a rather tiresome pantomime followed by a musical interlude.
The Queen appeared to be dozing in her seat until the Player King stepped forward to announce that they were about to enact a melodrama entitled “The Murder of Gonzago.”
I’d seen the play before, of course, and neither its stilted language nor its lurid plot of regicide were to my taste. To my right, though, I saw Hamlet lean forward, as if in anticipation.
And as the play neared its climax, I realized that the players had inserted new lines into their text, lines that seemed to point to the betrayal of Gonzago by his wife, the queen.
At the climactic moment when Gonzago is murdered by poison poured into his ear, King Claudius abruptly pushed back his chair and left the room.
A murmur buzzed around the audience but Queen Gertrude gestured for the play to continue.
I saw Hamlet smile to himself in satisfaction as if he had accomplished some dark purpose.
I returned to my rooms with a headache but was awakened in the middle of the night by Gytha, who brought me the news that my father was dead, killed by Hamlet who had found him spying on a conversation he was having with his mother.
I dressed and hurried to the hall of state where a hastily convened council was taking place. Hamlet was there, under guard, and when I arrived the near-hysterical Gertrude was recounting her tale.
She and her son had been arguing, she said, when Hamlet noticed a tapestry twitching.
Yelling, “Usurper,” he’d run it through with his sword.
Much to Gertrude’s horror, she said, my father had fallen into her room, mortally wounded.
He’d died without a word of explanation or protest.
When Claudius turned to Hamlet, the prince had chosen to remain silent.
He listened impassively as the king decreed that he should meet my brother in in a judicial duel as soon as Laertes returned from Paris.
Claudius then sent Hamlet away and dismissed the rest of us.
By the time I returned to my rooms, I knew what I must do.
For Claudius, a duel between Hamlet and Laertes would solve many of his problems. If Laertes killed Hamlet, it would quiet the whispers of murder that were getting louder by the day. If Hamlet killed Laertes, then Claudius could send the prince to the border to fight Fortinbras and his troops.
The king was ridding himself of troublesome people and I knew that sooner or later, his attention would turn to me.
I found Gytha waiting in my chambers. I could tell she was weary but her duty was to attend to my needs before her own.
She was not fair of face and life held little sweetness for her. And therefore when I asked her to stay and have some wine with me, her face opened like a flower to the spring rain.
She drank the wine eagerly and never noticed that the last cup held a measure of poison.
“Are you sleepy child?” I asked, though Gytha was only a few years younger than myself.
“Oh no, my lady,” she protested.
“I think you are,” I laughed. “Stay here and sleep,” I invited, knowing that the room where she slept had bare stone walls and was always cold.
“You are too kind, my lady,” she protested.
“Nonsense,” I replied. I kissed her on the forehead and then I kissed her on the lips.
Poor child had never been kissed that way before.
Poor little virgin. She died with a smile.
Afterwards, I stripped her of her clothes and dressed her in one of my own gowns, a dress of golden silk sewn with beads of amber from the Baltic. Her hair was longer than mine but the same shade, so I cut it and brushed it until it shone.
She was a slight thing but dead, she was heavy and so I had to drag her through the hallway that led to the outside of the castle.
In ordinary times I would have been observed in this task but with my father dead and my brother still on his way back from Paris, there was no one to witness or hinder my actions.
I dragged Gytha face first down the stone steps leading to the river, which battered her face, a circumstance that suited my needs very well.
She hardly made a splash as I rolled her into the water.
I was sorry to waste such a lovely dress that way, but it was known to be one of my favorite gowns and that little detail would make my fabricated death that much more plausible.
I returned to my rooms and in a deliberately shaky hand, I wrote out a suicide note. In it I explained that I could not live after being rejected by the only man I’d ever loved.
I considered saying that I was distraught over my father’s death as well, but no one would have believed me. My father had been a pompous old fool and we weren’t close.
Afterwards, I dressed in my brother’s clothes and slipped out of the castle with a bag filled with enough gold to pay my passage to England. I knew the language well enough, and for a while at least, I could let my coin do my talking.
I had skills enough to make my way without prostituting myself or working as a servant and I soon caught the eye of a nobleman in need of an educated wife.
We were at breakfast, my husband and I, when word came of the tragedy of Hamlet the Dane.
Prince Fortinbras had marched straight from the border to Elsinore and there in the castle he had found a bloody tableau.
King Claudius was dead, stabbed by his stepson.
Queen Gertrude was dead, apparently of poison.
Laertes was dead at Hamlet’s hand and Hamlet himself had lived only long enough to bequeath his kingdom to the Norse prince.
Of my own death, there was no whisper. After a day in the water, one dead girl’s body looks much like another’s, I imagine, and I had taken care to make certain Gytha’s face was not recognizable.
I had told my husband that I came from the state of Rus in the Byzantine Empire and as he had no ear for accents, he believed me. And so there were no questions about how I might feel about the kingdom of Denmark changing rulers.
“So sad,” I murmured.
“It’s the cold,” my husband said, “it drives everyone mad.”
I smiled at him then. He was such a simpleton, but congenial. He had never raised a hand to me, nor never would.