from let me tell you

Paul Griffiths


I do not know, now, how all this will end. You will see, in what follows, what Ophelia will have to say of her life before the start of our play. You will hear her speak of her father, Polonius, and of her brother, Laertes. They were with us all the time, so you will hear her speak of me, of my wife, Gertrude, and of the son Gertrude had with my brother: Hamlet. And all this Ophelia will speak in her own words, those words alone. She is like the rest of us; we all have no more than the words that come to us in the play. We go on with these words. We have to. But if we should break them up, as Ophelia does here, what then? And look: I too have gone from my part. I begin to fear. I have loved my life as it is, say what you will.

—— The King


So: now I come to speak. At last. I will tell you all I know. I was deceived to think I could not do this. I have the powers; I take them here. I have the right. I have the means. My words may be poor, but they will have to do.

What words do I have? Where do they come from? How is it that I speak?

There will be a time for me to think of these things, but right now I have to tell you all that I may of me—of me from when I lay on my father’s knees and held up my hand, touching his face, which he had bended down over me. That look in his eyes....

My father.

Well, I have done what I could. And I believe, by now, I have done all that I could. That’s the reason there’s this difference in me now, that I may speak my thoughts as I wish.

Still, it’s hard. I see that face of his. What would he wish me to do?

That face. What does it say?
There may be some will tell me I cannot remember from being so little, and they may be right. Some of these may be false remembrances, things my father would say to me, and say again, time upon time, as was his way, so that I think I remember them. I must do all I may to find from them what is truly mine, now that I have made up my mind to speak to you like this.

There are so many of these things. It’s as if I held a glass in my hand and could see them all, there in the glass, the things I remember, remembrances all tumbled one upon another, some before they should be, some late, all out of time—the sun over the cold green mountain, a scholar with a hard look in his eyes, my father shaking as he rose to give a speech, my brother with flowers in his hand and he would not say what for, a lost sandal, a music lesson—and it’s up to me to be patient and lay them down the right way.

There are things, as well, I do not see, things that come to me as speech, and some as music. A call.

‘O, please come now! Now!’

Is this my father? No.

‘O, how long must I be down here without you?’

I see the young me, up the cold green mountain, down on the grass, one hand on—what is it?—some little herb. And still that call. She cannot let me be.

‘O, come now! Right away! You should be here with me!’
I lay still. It’s as if I was held by what was in my hand, by what my hand was touching. It’s as if I had been locked there, locked to the mountain, with my eyes quite still, on my hand and the herb in the grass. And all the powers in hell could not have made me go from there.

But I, such a little nothing as I was, I could make me go—did make me go.

‘O, now! Do you—?’

She—this young me—I see look up, but not at these words. My arm rises to keep my eyes from the sun. I see it. This is indeed as it was. I remember. An arm rises to the sun, a head from what thoughts it had, two knees from the grass. There was that call, but it seemed to come from a long way away, whilst in my head was another call, no words this time—the call of my thoughts. What should I do? Which path should I take? This way, that way?

‘O, please, you cannot go away by yourself!’

I look at me now as I was then. This is like being one of my own observers, but with no powers over what is observed. It all must go as it does. All I may do is see what this little I will do. I look in the glass to do so: I raised my head. My hand let go the herb. I have gone, down the mountain. I have gone.

What was I then? Two? Two up the mountain, two as this little I goes down the mountain with a good grace, as she answers the call that had come?

Let time be turned from here. Let these little treads I make down the mountain go up again, restore that right hand to the herb it held, that head to the patient perusal it made. Let little I be there again in the grass, and from here go on and on to before all this, to where she—I—had come from.
This is it. Let me go right away, now, whilst it is still not late, to before all this—to before the mountain and the unbraced out-doors and the little me in it all, with my hand touching the herb and my head in the heavens, to before the time these eyes of mine look up, as I see them look up now, to before that last call to come in.

‘O, that’s right! Come here. Down to me. See what I have for you.’

Do not fear: that’s what I would say to this little me now. The time will come when you do not have to go down there, when you do not have to do what she will ask, when you may please yourself.

This is it, now, that time. It’s come.

So let’s go on to before, all the way to the end of my memory, to what was for me Day One. Let’s come to that day she bore me, the day I draw breath.

It’s like this. It is morning. The sun is pale; it’s a cold morning.

There she is, on the bed. She does not look at the window, to the sun, but away, to the door, as if in expectation that some one would come in. I see all this, for some reason, as if from by the window.

There’s another one there. Right. My father. The pale morning sun stole from the window over the bed and over the bed clothes, and now it falls in my memory on them: she on the bed, my father, and no doubt another they would have had there to be a help.

He—my father—could never keep still. He comes and goes from one end of the chamber to the other—one way, then the other, his eyes down. And she, she does not look at him but still at the door, never but at the door. They do not speak. There is no more than this: his treads on the stone, up and down.

But let all this go, for how could I remember this day? How could I remember a time when I was not?

I have to think more before I go on like this. False memory may speak, I find, as well as true. I have to know the difference. And I have to see to it that I do not make things up. It’s hard. Indeed, it may well seem hard for all of us, to know what it is that we truly know—and what it is that we know to be true. Another difference, it may be. There is more in my mind than I know. I must look hard at what comes to me, cast away the grass and keep the flowers.

I know I have it in me to say things that are not so and have never been so, but that I wish had been so. There are, as well, things in my head that I cannot remember and never will remember. They are not in my memory; they are in me.

But now and again words come to me as if it rained words in my head—words given me by some other, as if I had no hand in what I say, as if all I may do is give speech, let the words come and come, and go on and on, and whilst they go on I cannot say what I would truly wish to say. I may do nothing, held still by my own words—if they are my own. My words go on, but I cannot speak.

I have to make it so that my face cannot speak without my mind, that my words do not take form other than as I wish.

I will do so. Mark my words.

So on with it. That mountain: it was a green sandal loosed from the heels of heaven.

I remember it well. My hand touching that herb. A shirt, held out of a window, shaking in the morning sun. The way the maid’s head was raised as if to sing, but then she goes on with the sewing. And over all the cold green mountain.

Each morning the sun would come up over the mountain, and we would pray, my father and I, and then with my brother as well, pray for a good day, and pray at the end of the day for a good night.

This was when she had gone. She left when I was little, but that’s one of the things I’ll come to. If things still come out of my jangled memory here and there before they should, that could be for woe, but then again it could be for joy—if not for the two, hand in hand. But I will do all I may to have things right from here on.

The day I have to find in my memory now is another day, and a day of joy this one was, the day when I was given my brother.

This is something I do indeed remember—and this is where that false memory comes from, of the one on the bed, and the pale morning sun, and the bed clothes, and the head turned away, and my father as he made his way up and down.

I would have been still little when she bore him, but more than I was in that other memory, of being up the mountain.

As I remember, hard as this may be to believe, I was there, there on the bed, my little hand touching that face. She and I. (This is not something I like to remember at all. That means it must be true.)

And no, my father was not there. There must have been other treads of his that go on in my mind.

My father was not with us for some reason. It could be that he had to be with His Majesty that morning, for—and no doubt it would have been better to say this before—he was one of the king’s right-hand men. He was at the king’s call, day and night. He is now, he is still. Do this, do that.

But no, it’s not quite like that. My father is the king’s shoulder: that’s how it is. The two of them know each other so well that my father does not have to think what the king will say. Indeed, he could almost speak for the king, and the day may come when he will have to, if the king’s not better before long.

So it was with the king as was, at the time I now speak of, that my father was held in honour and had to go all over for him. Then we, my brother and I, would have to do without him whilst he was away. She, at such a time, was the one we had to go to.

But again I go on before I should. I’ll come to all this, of my father, and the counsel he would give the king—the king as was and the king we have now. This will all come out at the right time.

As for now, there we are, on the bed in the pale morning: she and me. That’s what I remember. That’s how it was.

No, that’s still not right, cannot be. There was another. I have it. The maid. The maid’s here with us as well, by the bed. How could I not remember that the maid was there?

And then there he was: my brother. The maid took him up by the heels. I see this. To me he had a puffed-up look—‘bonny’, the maid would say. He sucked in one breath, and with that my love, little as I was. He did not weep, not at all, but let out something like a little moan, as if—so it seemed to me—he could say ‘O’. And he turned his eyes to look at me.

So now there are two of us. That’s good. It was good not to be by yourself with such a one as she was. We had each other now. My brother and I had each other.

The maid held him—my brother—close with one hand before she had to lay him down on the bed. There I could look and look at him.

Then she took him away again, to redeliver him to us in a long shirt (the one they would christen him in). Now he was right by me. I remember a little ankle, remember touching a little ankle. I remember touching his face with my tongue.

He was still. All was still. All is still.

And out of that still morning I seem to remember how the maid would sing to us. Was it then? Most of the time she would sing to us at night, as she took us to bed.

There was a lady all in green,
Nony the nony no no,
Was locked away and was not seen,
Nony the nony no no.
Quoth she: ‘I cannot find my tear,
The tear that falls each morning here,
The tear of grace, the tear of fear,
The tear that falls upon the bier’,
Nony the nony no no.

A young lord by the window stayed,
Nony the nony no no,
And bended to this speech she made,
Nony the nony no no.
He left that day to find the tear,
The tear of grace, the tear of fear,
The tear that falls each morning here,
The tear that falls upon the bier,
Nony the nony no no.

He did not look down to the grass,
Nony the nony no no,
He did not see the rose of glass,
Nony the nony no no.
The rose of grace, the rose of fear,
The rose that falls each morning here,
The rose of glass that was the tear,
The rose that falls upon the bier,
Nony the nony no no.

There’s more I have to say of the maid—more I would wish to say of the maid—and let me say it now here, all of it.

She was not young. But to a little one that means nothing. What meant all to us was that, without being quite one of us, she was with us. If there was one lesson we took from the maid, it was to know what you are—to know what you are in yourself, and all you may be. She did not take a command well, not from me and not from my brother. Never. But if you would ask, there was nothing she would not do for you.

She honoured my father.

What she may have been like to the other when no-one was there with them, I do not know.

To us two, my brother and I.... Well, she blasted us with love, day upon day.

She held us, one in each arm, and held us to each other. She would look down at us and say nothing—say nothing but look and look, harsh with love.

I remember that breath on my face. I remember that look: harsh indeed, but sweet as well. And the more I think of it, what I remember most of all is a long-lost perfume: the perfume of being held, of clothes on my face.

This is the maid, in my memory, as she was, the one that held us. She comes from some way away, from over the mountain. She does what she must, and more. Nothing does she say, not to us, most of the time. But we look as she goes from one chamber to another. We do not know if she’ll mind that she’s being observed: we are young and do not think of that. And if she does know we are there, she does not let on. We go where she goes. We, that know what it is to be patient observers, look on as she does what she does.

She would go to the well each morning. I see a hard cold hand.

On the day when the baker would come to the door, she would ask us what we would wish for—‘wish for’, she would say. Ask us, not my father, and not the other.

We would go to see them at the door, my brother and I. We would look at them, the maid and the baker, for as long as they stayed there. We could not tell, from where we lay, what these two would say to each other. But we could see. There would be a difference in the maid’s face.

Other things.

She did not blame us when it rained and a glass of pansies (I think) by the window—indeed, pansies they must have been, from by the path—was blown over.

She took us out one night to see an owl. My father did not know of this. She did not tell us what we would see, but raised a hand to show us the owl, pale in the night like a saint.

When she did speak, it was in the way of over the mountain. ‘See’ would be more like ‘say’, and ‘say’ like ‘sigh’. ‘Fair’ and ‘fare’ would be more like ‘fear’. There was, as well, something hard in this breath-cast speech. It was as if she did not wish to speak, longed never to speak at all, and so words—when indeed words would come—would have to come out all at one go.

One day we, my brother and me, made it seem we had lost all powers of speech and would have to speak by means of letters. (When you are little you do these things.) I remember how, at the table, with my brother close by, I held that hard cold hand to help the maid form some words. Little madam that I was!

But the ‘A’ she made was more like an ‘S’, and my brother had to say ‘No, that’s not it at all’, and right away she was up from the table, and the lesson had come to an end.

That look as she left: I see it now.

She was no beauty, not at all, but to me she was beauteous—to me and to my brother. Beauteous: it’s one of the words that, to me, goes with the maid and no other. And beauteous she must have been to the baker, for there comes the day when she goes away with him, over the mountain again. She did not tell us she was to go. Did she think that, had she done so, she could have been stayed by us, held there by us? We go down one morning to find she’s gone. That was that.

It was a late love for the two of them. It was a love we had observed but not seen. It was a love that was for them, for the two of them, of each for the other, not for us to know.

As I think of the maid, the remembrances come one upon another: a look that could say more than words, a hand on my arm. And this: the grace that made, I will now say, a home.


Last night I made up my mind: I must go. Now indeed I have done what I could. Now I truly have done all I could.

And what was that? End something. Go over all there was up to now, restore it all to my mind one last time, and so end it. I had to do that, so it seemed. I had to come to an end before I could find the path to take on from here. I had to look again at what they had given me, all of it. I had to take it in my hand and shatter it, shatter the mould. I have come to see that my path up to now was a path made for me—and it could go on. I do not like it, and I will not take it. More and more I know where it goes.
I have to make another way. I have to find another way. And now I have the powers to do that. I could not do it without help. Help is here: the help I have, now that there is another with me—with me and in me, one that may see with my eyes and give with my hand. I know that what was me will have to come to an end, an end that I will have made. Not death! By no means. But this: I will have left that ‘me’ and gone.

Up to now my father and my brother have given me the reason I stayed, but the grace that I have seen come over my brother of late—that grace of love, which with him will come to be more—lets me think he could keep an eye on my father as well as I would. It was good, these last months, to see them find one another again a little. Now they may go on from here, and may do so all the better for my being away.

As for him, the young lord, there’s no more I may do. I have been sucked in over-long, and I may have done him no good by that. Now he, as well, may find himself. Now he may take his play another way. I wish him well.

No doubt it will be more hard for me to let go of my brother and, most of all, my father—but not as hard as it would be to go on here, as a ‘me’ I now know to be false. It was not false before: it was right, and true, and good. But that’s over. And I’ll go without some fare-well speech. When I go from this home—a home that again now is no home to me, no more than the memory of a home—it will not be with a tear in my eye and a piteous look but with joy. And how could I have my father think the joy is at being gone from him?

The command I obey is love’s, but it is, as well, mine. Love will be patient, but not for long. Love will look for tomorrow, but wish it here now. I will make my tomorrow now; I will go, in time that love’s bended to my will—in love that time’s bended to my will, in will that love’s bended to my time.
But how should I tell my father, then? By letters? No. And I cannot tell my brother and ask him to speak for me, for that would be worse than nothing. So I have held my tongue with the two of them and come now to see another two—two that by their own love will, I hope, see the reason I have to go: the king and his lady. If I may say what I have to say to them, then they will know what to say to my father. Let my father see nothing of what I will be. I would wish him left with the memory of what I was—left to remember and to know I was what I was for him, and for that to be, in his mind, all of me.

I have come to their home, and have with me the things I wish to take: some remembrances of my father, a speech of his in his own hand, a glass that was one of my brother’s gifts to me, some clothes.

I know that I will not see my father and brother again. For me to do so, they would have to go as well: each of them would have to look for another path, and I do not believe they will. I wish they would. But I cannot make them, for then the path would not be their path.

When I went from them, they did not look up from the letters they had before them on the table—things to which they had to give some perusal. I went down, my things in one hand. My father could do nothing but redeliver my ‘Good morning’ to me; my brother’s thoughts must all have been with what was in his hand. Then they went on, each to himself more than to the other, lost in thoughts:

‘I may not now remember what I call....’

‘I would like to think we could have A Little Night Music again some time....’

I could go with a light heart. And I did.

One last time I went up the mountain—to where I had gone so long before with my brother time upon time, but now to think—and from there I have come here, to the king’s. The watchman at the door, a pale young soldier in state green, was one I know, and he let me in before I had time to ask. I went from chamber to chamber to look for them, touching door upon door (for the lay-out I know), knocking for fear I would come upon them without their expectation of it—for fear, as well, I would come upon the young lord, which I had no wish to do—and at last I did find them. No other was with them. It’s been the young lord’s way, these last months, to keep to himself.

As I went in, before they could quite see me, I took a look at them. There they are. They face each other quite still, as if lost in doubt of one another. What are you? Where have we come from, we two? What have we done? But it could be that all this comes from my own thoughts, as I look at them. Then, as they see me, the doubt falls from each face and the king rises. He does seem quite better now.

‘How good it is to see you! Come here to us and be with us! Good, good! Would you like something?’

At this he turned to his lady: ‘My sweet, what do we have that would not speak woe of the king’s table? Is there still some of what we had?’

She: ‘The does’ eyes?’

He: ‘Indeed, the does’ eyes.’

‘Thank you, my lord, but no’, I say. ‘I had something at home. That’s quite all right, my lord. Truly.’

‘As you wish’, from the king. ‘So.’

It would seem he cannot think what to say, so it’s over to the lady, and she goes right to what’s on my mind—almost.

‘Have you come here to speak of your father?’

I think what to say for a little time, and she goes on: ‘It’s so good to see him look so well now—is it not, my sweet? And no fear as to his....’

‘Memory’ (the king).

‘Indeed, my sweet’, the lady goes on again. ‘And how is your good....’ She cannot see where to lay down that glass.

‘My brother, madam?’ I say. ‘He is well, madam.’

That would seem to draw an end to these little remembrances, and there is nothing more we have to say to one another. They cannot think what my reason could have been to come here. I, by now, wish I had never done so. But I see that I must do what I have come to do, and so I speak again.

‘I have come to you on this cold morning to tell you that by the end of the day, when the sun goes down, I will have gone from here. Please do not speak of this to my father, and do not speak of it to my brother—not before I will be well away. I must ask that you do not let them know that I have gone—and gone for good, as it will be—before there could be no hope they would find me.’

The king, with one hand on his beard: ‘Gone for good, you say?’

The lady, with one hand shaking in the other: ‘Where, but where, my sweet love? And not with your father’s wish? O no! No, no! Please, you have to obey! Do as you have been made to do! It is indeed cold out there. You must be here with us to the end! I had it in my heart that you would be the one to—’

But she is held by a look from the king and cannot go on. At that look she becomes cast down, and the effect on me is to make me think I must do something. I take the lady’s arm and we go to the window. As we go, I say this: ‘Madam, you must know what it’s like for me here. Draw the lesson from your own words: obey, do as you have been made. Is that all there is to it? Do you not think—will it never have seemed to you—that we could find other words for what we are? What reason to obey? What reason to be patient and do what another will ask? What reason do you yourself have not to go?’
Whilst I speak she’s turned to look at the king again, but we are at the window now, and I have my hand held out, and she cannot but look where I wish.

‘Look at the powers before us,’ I say, ‘on the ground before us. Look down at them, on this morning of sun and turf and hope.’

‘I do, I do.’ And indeed the lady’s eyes look keen.

‘Look at them’, I go on. ‘What may we see? There is a holy father waving his hand. Over there a youth in a green shirt. And that little one by him that may be his brother, touching his brow as he rises now from the grass and lets go of the flowers he had held. A mountain soldier with a beard, and his daughter. Some men over there on their own: they seem lost. A scholar with a long face. They have all come. They do not know what for, but they have come: give them that. Their eyes are raised in expectation. They have stayed up all night for us, some of them. They look at us. They do not speak, for they have no words. Their eyes ask. What will this be? What will this be now?’

But, as we look, two do indeed speak—two we cannot see. Their words come to us, and I see the lady look up as well. They come as if from a long way away, and they are grave and profound, the words of watchmen. ‘What goes there?’ ‘Nay,’ the other answers, ‘show yourself.’

They make me wish to go right away, these words. They seem like words come to receive me in to something I do not wish for. They seem like the words of vows I do not wish to make, and I let go of the lady’s hand. But she, with eyes on what I show, cannot give mind to this.

‘I see, I see!’ She’s turned to me. ‘There’s a bore out there with a look of your father!’

I shatter the glass.

They are gone now—they that had been no more than a form on the glass, made of light. Cold comes in.

‘See, lady! There’s nothing there! Nothing and no-one! Out there snow falls!’

‘No.... No....’ She cannot look; she is shaking that not so noble head.

And then in no time at all she’s with the king again, and they do something that was not at all in my expectation of how this morning would go: They sing. Indeed, they do—as if we could have music again, as if there was no reason not to. They sing as one, the king waving a one-two with his right arm.

There’s nothing I would not do
To have you with us here,
But it must be up to you:
These words are not to fear!
Alas, alas, death will come to us all,
But look: you’ll have remembrance in the grave!

‘You cannot play with me’, I say. ‘For me that’s all over. What comes now I do not know.’
Then, out of no where, I go up to the lady and say this:

There was a time when I held you to be
One I could some day tell my in-most heart,
But now I know that day will never come:
The light is on but there’s no-one at home.

But I do not wish to speak thus. It’s as if she will draw me in, and I have to come away again to the window and close my eyes so that I may go on with what I wish to say: ‘But this I do know: that what comes will be mine and will be true.’

The king lets go of his lady and comes up to me.

‘What is true?’
Before I could say something, he’s turned to his lady: ‘My sweet, would you let us have some words, O and I, one on one? Thank you.’

The lady goes, and his eyes are on me again when the words of the two watchmen come another time. ‘What goes there?’ ‘Nay, show yourself.’ I look hard at the king. He’s given nothing away, but I know, as truly as I may see him, that the two watchmen did speak again. Their words make me fear the more. This is the time to go. This is the time when I must go. Another night here and the time will be over.
‘Do you not like it here?’

‘This was my home, my lord, as you know. That’s all there is to say. For each of us there comes a day when home, where we have been raised, becomes something to which and in which we are locked. For many that will be all well and good. But not for me. I find I now have in my hand a key.’

‘I think I know him.’

‘The key, my lord, is not a he and not a she—which is not to say that love may not be a help.’

‘You cannot love and still be here with us?’

His hand is on my wrist. His speech is like a sigh.

‘You cannot love—no, my little fair one—you cannot love that youth of my lady’s—that lady the two of us have had, my brother and me, one before the other—if not the two at one time. Ha! Think of that!’

His hand now comes up my arm as he goes on.

‘If I did, before all this, take some joy in this lady, that day is done—and that night long, long done. I took the lady for reason of state. Are you with me?’

‘My lord,’ I say, ‘all I have come here for is to tell you I must go. You cannot say me nay. What I would ask is for you to speak with my father. Tell him I go on my own, and of my own will. Tell him my mind is made up, as never before. Tell him I know what I face. Tell him I love him, and could never have left if I did not have to. I know how he’ll be, but some words from you would be a help.’

‘I would have you wish for more—and not for your father but for yourself. Then I would give you more and more and more.’

His hand is on my shoulder, his breath on my face.

‘I think, my lord, that I had better go right away.’

Now he’s turned from me, and there’s a difference in his speech, which comes at me like an oath—harsh, blown.

‘You speak of nothing but yourself, to no-one but yourself. You’ll never find the one you look for: he’s no more than a play of thoughts in your mind. But we cannot tell you this, for some reason. You will not take it from us.

‘You think you may come here and tell me of love’— God, let me not remember the face he made at this! — ‘Take a good look at yourself. See if what you think is love is not something you could have better right here.

‘You are a poor little lost soul’, he goes on. ‘You will go out from here and you will find nothing, nothing, nothing, for there is nothing out there for you to find. We are all there is. There is no other “way” you may look for. There is no heaven out there made for you.’

‘Be it heaven, be it hell’, I say, ‘I will find it.’

I know I have to keep my eyes on his; I cannot look away.

‘Go then. There’ll be no remembrance of you here. It will be as if you had never been. The effect of O.’

But now I have turned to go.

I say no more. I have left that chamber of horrors. All I have to do now is find the way by which I had come in, but one does not have to look long for a door—not if a door is what one would wish for more than all other things.

Look: the door is here, where my hand is.

Look: my hand is on the door.

And look: I have gone out.

These are excerpts from a narrative in which the Ophelia of Shakespeare's Hamlet tells her story in her own words – literally, in that she is restricted to the 481 different words she speaks in the play (including both quartos as well as the First Folio text). Where other characters from the play speak, they are similarly confined to the words Shakespeare gave them. Gertrude, for example, can use only Ophelian words present also in her own language. The one exception is the prefatory statement, whose author has full access to his play vocabulary.

– P. G.