Good Luck: Episode Twenty-Nine

 

Hamlet wakes up in the underworld. He is up on stage. Act 1: Scene 1, Elsinore, the rampart walls of his familial Dutch castle, except something seems wrong. Part of the castle is made of plywood, and painted gray. Other parts of the castle are styrofoam molded to look like stone blocks.

Up above him on the rampart walls, he sees men dressed like Spartans because the wardrobe people are idiots. The guards hold spears, are keeping an eye out for Norway who is coming soon to kick everyone’s ass.

The guards address each other as Bernardo, Fernando, Marcellas, and Horatio, but Hamlet knows those men, and the guards are not those men. Hamlet thinks he’s dreaming. The imposter versions of Bernardo, Fernando, Marcellas, and Horatio, begin talking about a ghost they have seen. Hamlet climbs the stairs to join them on the rampart walls. Halfway up, he hears them say that the ghost that has visited them two nights in a row is Hamlet’s father, the recently slain King of the Danes. Okay, Hamlet thinks, I’ve heard this one before.

Now he stands behind the guards, who look toward stage right, where the ghost appears. Boooooooo. It’s obvious to Hamlet that the ghost is not his father. It’s just some impostor in a poor costume, covered in white powder, an unnatural light from the sky shining on it.

“You are all imposters.”

The imposters turn and look at Hamlet. Someone whispers to him, “You’re early. You aren’t supposed to show up until the next scene.”

Hamlet hears a cough behind him, and he turns to look. There it is, the real ghost of his father. He turns from the imposters and speaks to the ghost, “I don’t know who these players are, but they are poor.”

He shields his eyes from a bright light shining down on him, which he mistakes for the moon. As the real ghost of his father comes closer, Hamlet thinks it might be a trick—the spirit is dressed in armor resembling what his father wore into battle against the Norwegians and the Poles, but it’s not quite right. Hamlet reaches out and yanks the fake beard off. “Yorick!”

Yorick, the court jester whose skull Hamlet had held in the graveyard. Yorick who raised Prince Hamlet while the King was away fighting those brutal land grab wars.

“I feel a fool. The ghost I mistook for my father, was it you the time entire?”

“T’was, t’was,” Yorick says, “Purgatory is boring.”

“Alas, Yorick, you fucker.”

Hamlet and Yorick embrace, and the theatre-goers can be heard murmuring and lightly applauding, but Hamlet and Yorick mistake the sound for the wind because they want to. They don’t understand that they have been conjured past death onto this stage in the afterworld. Hamlet and Yorick are done on the rampart walls, and done with the imposters. As Hamlet takes the shaky stairs, he says, “Horatio couldn’t grow a mustache. He always tried but couldn’t. You are not Horatio.”

The player playing Horatio, embarrassed, descends another set of stairs and disappears behind the set of the rampart. It is useless for the imposters to keep the act up. The imposters leave the set, following Horatio.

But here comes Hamlet’s uncle, Claudius, and Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude. They are walking along, hand in hand, still in love. They are not players. They are the real characters. Just as dead as anyone.

They see Hamlet and Yorick and give an awkward wave. Hamlet waves back. They’ve all died from the same poison, there is nothing left to quarrel over, but they don’t understand, they are groggy, still half sleepwalking back into being. Hamlet says, “It pleases me that the poison didn’t work, and that we all live on.”

Claudius and Gertrude whisper, debating whether or not to tell Hamlet something and Hamlet whispers to Yorick, “They’re keeping secrets from us. I’ll keep whispering to you so they think I’ve got a secret too.”

“But you do,” Yorick says.

“Ay, that’s everyone under the sun. Tell me Yorick, you died, you saw the other side, where is my father? Is he in Heaven? Is he in Hell?”

“He is here, sweet prince,” Yorick says, pointing up on the rampart wall at Claudius.

Claudius says, “Yes, about that.”

“About what?”

“Hamlet,” Gertrude says, “We should have all talked so much sooner…but you’d gone mad…”

“T’was an act.”

“Yeah, we kind of figured,” Claudius says, “but then when you were about to fight Laertes, you said you killed his dad, Polonius, through the curtain while you were mad. You said it wasn’t Hamlet that did the killing, but his madness. So we were getting conflicting reports.”

“Enough with you, you incestuous knave!”

Gertrude looks at Claudius, they both frown.

Gertrude says, “We’re sorry Hamlet. Claudius is your father, your true father.”

“No.”

“The king was shooting blanks, and then, well, he just up and died…”

“Claudius poisoned him.”

“No.” Gertrude is shocked to hear this.

“And sayeth who?” Claudius says. “I’d love to hear testimony from a single eye witness.”

“The ghost told me. The ghost told me all about the poison poured into my father’s ear.”

“The ghost of who? The ghost of your clown pal?”

“Well, I mistook him for the king from far off. The costume was great.”

Yorick takes Hamlet by the arm and says, “What a terrible terrible practical joke I played on you. Did you not notice it was April Fool’s Day?”

Hamlet kicks Yorick in the ass, and Yorick tumbles offstage, where he is caught by a stagehand who holds him there. Hamlet hops around and pretends to go crazy again, making monkey noises, sticking his tongue out, all the hits.

“Okay, okay,” Gertrude says. “Listen, your real name is Claudius Jr.”

She tells Hamlet that while King Hamlet was away fighting wars, she was keeping warm with Claudius, yes, guilty as charged. But she had been dating him first. If her mother and father had not been so hungry to have a daughter on the throne, she could have married for love, and could have happily been the wife of a Lord and that would have been good enough. It was her parents who had pushed her to be a princess and then the queen. Gertrude and Claudius were feudal high school sweethearts. They were the longest running lovebirds in all the wide world of Billy Shakespeare.

Enter Ophelia and her brother, Laertes, opposite Claudius and Gertrude up on the rampart walls.

Hamlet calls up to them, “Hey, what’s up? Nice to meet you both. We shouldn’t stay strangers. My name is Claudius Jr. I’m new in town.”

Ophelia says, “Nice try.” She is still wearing the muddy clothes she drowned herself in. She begins singing a lullaby. Laertes takes her hand. She is quiet.

Laertes says to all, “We are confused, all of us. I recall having died, and I recall you all having died as well. Poisoned swords and drowning in the river, and so on.”

“A dream,” Hamlet says, “one we perchanced to dream.”

“Ay.”

“Ay.”

“Where is my father? Where is Polonius.”

Claudius says, “He’s probably with the new king. He’s probably with Fortinbras Jr. haunting him, no, wait, that’s not the word for what Polonius would do, even in death.”

Offstage, Yorick says, “Fortinbras Jr. and Polonius sitting in a tree…”

“Shut your mouth, clown,” Claudius says. “I’ve heard enough of your slanders aimed toward a king, any king.”

Ophelia says, “Yorick is the court jester, that is what he is supposed to do. He is supposed to make light of power.”

“He’s done a great job at that.”

“I’ll go and find Polonius.”

Laertes leaves the set.

Ophelia leans on the rampart and part of the styrofoam breaks away. She nearly falls, but catches herself. She stays there, leaning, and looking down on Hamlet with a kind of pity. Muddy water drips from her dress to a puddle at his feet.

“I’m real sorry, Ophelia. I got carried away. You could have been my wife if I wasn’t so singularly bloody-minded.”

“It’s all right. We couldn’t help ourselves, Fortune destined us to our ruin.”

“No, it was not Fortune,” the true Horatio says, walking past Claudius and Gertrude. “I took my own life.”

“Took your life?” Hamlet says. “No you didn’t. You survived. I remember that much. You never died. You lived to tell the tale. And by the way, there was just an imposter Horatio here a minute ago and he had the silliest excuse for a mustache I’ve ever seen.”

“I don’t know what to say. I drank the poison, too. Days later. After the play was over.”

“Horatio, we aren’t in a play.”

“But we are.”

Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, headless, walk past Ophelia and Horatio and stand in the middle of the platform up on the rampart wall. Center stage. Down below, Hamlet sincerely yells, “I am sorry, my friends. Sorry about your heads getting cut off, it was my bad.” They lost their heads in England because Hamlet counterfeited his own execution paperwork, written by Claudius, king’s decree.

Hamlet remembers all of this and says to Claudius, “If I am your son, why did you thirst for my death?”

“You were mad, and you were bloody-minded. I was scared you were going to kill your mother. Maybe you would have if Polonius hadn’t been there for you to take it out on, stabbing him through the curtain, imagining it was me.”

“Okay, point taken.”

“So are we all good here? Are we all friends now?”

Most everyone, except Ophelia, agrees. She says, “Nay,” and they all feign not hearing.

Claudius says, “G and R, I’m going to find your heads, just bear with me here.”

Ophelia says, “My father has been slain! I will jump from these walls!”

“He’s right here,” Laertes says, walking up onto the crowded rampart wall with Polonius in tow, grinning like a moron. “He’s no deader than we are.”

It’s agreed, it’s a happy ending after all.

“Our pain was all fantasy, all whimsey,” Hamlet says, and the curtain falls.

The fictional ghosts are shocked. They see now what they had thought was the moon is nothing more than a stage light. The director runs onto the stage and yells, “Do any of you know how this fucking play is supposed to go?”

They blink at their director, stupefied.

“This is the worst Hamlet I have ever seen, and you all are the real thing. Shit. Do you know how expensive it was to summon you here?”

The stagehands push the prop rampart walls toward the curtains on the left side of the stage, but Claudius and Gertrude lose their balance and fall off the rampart. They land with a terrible thud. The director cries out, thinking they’ve been killed, and then realizing they can’t be, is embarrassed by his cry.

Stagehands lead everyone off the stage, through further curtains that lead back to the dressing rooms. They are assembled in front of a table full of donuts and coffee, where the director launches into a pep talk he hopes will salvage the production.

 

The producer of the play stands in front of the fallen curtain, speaking to the audience, “Folks, it looks like we have a small issue here. Please, go out to the lobby, have a drink, relax, stretch your legs. We are working out a few technical issues and then we are going to return to the show, and what a show it will be. Thank you for your patience.”

 

The stage hands rush around. The director is doing even more damage control. Not only have Hamlet, Ophelia, Yorick, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes, and Horatio just found out that they are all dead, they’ve discovered they were never alive to begin with. Hamlet says to the director, “I will not a puppet be made.” Ophelia feels the same way. She’s still devastated that she took her own life, and now to find out she is a fictional character? Yorick is howling with laughter, his head in his hands and he won’t do the play either.

The producer walks in, “There’s nothing funny about it.” He is carrying the severed heads of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz. He gladly hands the heads back to their owners, and the heads are plopped back onto their rightful necks, and both men, newly headed say. “So much better.”

 

A new set is wheeled out. Another producer walks back and joins the meeting. Hamlet says, “I’m not acting in a play.”

The director says, “Oh excuse me Mr. Play-Within-A-Play-Within-A-Play. What do you really want, a writing credit?”

Hamlet gives a bow, and walks away from the meeting.

“Me thinks the baby bitch doth protest much,” the director shouts.

“It’s fine,” the co-producer says, “We’ve got other Hamlets, better Hamlets. We’ve got a whole underworld full of Hamlets for Chrissakes.”

Laurence Olivier steps out of the shadows already dressed in a period-accurate (for this production) Hamlet costume. He is holding a prop skull. Rubber. Poor Yorick. Laurence Olivier looks more like Hamlet than Hamlet does.

“Hello everyone,” he says. “One word, am I playing Claudius Jr. or Hamlet?”

“Hamlet,” the director says, and like that, he has lost Yorick too, who shuffles off after Hamlet.

“Great, we just lost the goddamn ghost.”

The producer says, “Humphrey Bogart is in wardrobe as we speak. This was foreseen.”

Ophelia follows on Hamlet’s and Yorick’s heels. “I’m not doing it either.” Ophelia steps out of her muddy dress. A wardrobe person is standing close by and hands her an orange tank top, blue jeans, and a pair of white Keds.

Everyone else stays put. They don’t know where to run to and they don’t care to find out. It’s easier just to act out their own lives in a loop.

The director says, “Everyone who is in Act 1: Scene 2, get your asses out there.”

And here they go, back out onto the stage.

Act 1: Scene 2. Curtain lifts. Elsinore. A room of state in the castle. Enter Claudius, Gertrude, Laurence Olivier, Polonius, Laertes, Lords, and Attendants…

Ophelia runs past another table full of sandwiches. A man drinking a cup of coffee says to her, “Your pals went out that door. I gave them both a cigarette. You want one too?”

“No thank you,” she says, pushing the door, coming out onto the busy city streets of the Underworld.

Yorick and Hamlet exhale their cigarettes in unison. They stare up at the neon sign that says “HAMLET starring Hamlet—One Night Only.” Ophelia walks over. Hamlet hands her his cigarette. She takes it from him and takes a drag. He says, “Your name should be up there too. These people are idiots.”

“I’ll make my own story now, thank you very much.”

“That’s the spirit.”

A street performer draws a crowd near them. They don’t recognize that the street performer is pretending to be William Shakespeare, posing with tourists for a $2 photograph, because they don’t know who William Shakespeare is. The street performer sees Hamlet and Yorick still dressed in their clothes, which he thinks are costumes, and assumes they are actors in the production and begins to accost them to join him in the photos as a way to give back to the fans. The trio politely refuses. The performer yells at the crowd in jest, he says, “Can you believe that these, my most beloved characters who I created with my own sweat and blood would act this way to their master?” Hamlet, Yorick, and Ophelia are pissed, “Who is this schmuck?” The faux Shakespeare shouts, “I am the greatest playwright who ever lived and you have me to thank for your lives!” Hamlet leaps onto the performer and begins to beat him senseless, but he is pulled off by Ophelia and Yorick and soon they are all swallowed up by the crowd and separated.

On the far edge of the crowd, Hamlet breaks free and walks out into the street. He sees a horse drawn carriage sitting near the entrance to the park. He asks the top-hatted driver to take him to England, he wishes to rejoin the theatre there. The driver apologizes and says there is no such thing as England in the afterworld. He tells Hamlet, “If you are looking for a theater, the one behind you is the best you are going to get.”

Yorick wanders among the street performers. He ambles past a clown, a person dressed up as The Incredible Hulk, a man playing a bunch of white buckets with drum sticks, a sweaty magician, a group of children breakdancing to a boom box, a woman in a bikini playing a guitar with an American flag painted on it. Yorick disappears deeper into the crowd, until he seems to dissolve.

Ophelia is looking all around. She’s not sure what she is looking at, and for what, and at first it is all overwhelming and she panics. But gradually the fear fades. Calm sweeps over. A taxi driver calls to her, “You want a ride?” She climbs in the car and it moves forward, slowly parting the crowd. She sees Hamlet pass right in front of the cab and she lets him go without even calling out the window. She can see the lights of the city shining up ahead.

 

Hamlet walks back into the theater, sneaks past the ticket taker, takes a seat in the back.

Sir Laurence Olivier is up on stage giving one of those famous soliloquies. Hamlet is captivated.

Fake Ophelia is nearby. She is being played by Marilyn Monroe, who has been getting all the best parts in the afterlife, and she will until Meryl Streep shows up.

Every time Hamlet sees an open seat farther down in the rows, he abandons his own and takes it.

The play plays on. Sir Laurence Olivier pretends to be Hamlet, pretends to be insane, and then actors show up from England and Laurence tells them how to pretend to pretend to pretend in the play within the play within the play within the play. But one of the actors is distracted, he thinks, “Oh Laurence, I loved you in Lawrence of Arabia.” Laurence Olivier can hear the actors thoughts and telepathically answers back, “That was Peter O’Toole.” The actor thinks, “I am so sorry. I am so embarrassed. Could Peter O’Toole play Hamlet? No way.” Olivier smiles and telepathically says, “Not like this.” Laurence Olivier messes up a few times after that. He can’t get over how many fools thought he was Lawrence in Lawrence of Arabia. The players act out the poisoning of a king, poison dumped in his ear, and Claudius just sits there next to Gertrude, yawning yawning yawning.

Hamlet moves closer now. He is in the middle of the theatre. The curtain goes up, the curtain goes down. In the play, he is sent to England to be killed but he slips out of that noose, and in Act V he is right back there in Denmark. He speaks to the only other intelligent man in the play, a gravedigger who tells Hamlet he is digging his own grave. And it’s true just a few scenes later, Hamlet is dead, and so is everybody else.

Hamlet watches himself die upon the stage.

He watches Fortinbra’s soldiers carry him off. He hears the cannons ring out for his death.

The curtain falls.

Hamlet is on his feet, tears streaming down his face.

The cannons sound out again.

The applause is just as deafening.

His own annihilation is the most beautiful thing he has ever witnessed.

 

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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