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Nor Woman Neither

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Ophelia was confused when Hamlet began to pay attention to her. He was a prince, he was handsome, he had foreign princesses and daughters of courtiers throwing themselves at him. Ophelia was only the quiet girl in the corner he had known and ignored since childhood. She remembered their mothers teasing that they would someday make a match of it, and she remembered how Hamlet had scowled and stamped his foot and declared that he would never marry. She also remembered how pleased Horatio had seemed at the outburst. That, she understood the day she caught herself staring at a visiting princess the same way Horatio had always stared at the prince. But Hamlet never stared at anyone.

One day, Hamlet kissed her. Ophelia had dreamed of kissing, with that princess, perhaps, or the soldier who winked at her when her father wasn’t looking. Somehow she had never imagined it with the prince. For a moment, it was wonderful. Ophelia pressed closer, reveling in the feel of another’s lips against her own.

Hamlet shoved her away and wiped his mouth. “You are like the rest,” he said.

“My lord?”

“You women are all flesh and filth. You want, you need, you do not think!”

“What should I think, my lord, when you kiss me?”

“Think of your place! Be as a woman should and follow where your lord leads. Do not presume to drag your prince into your pit!” Hamlet spat at Ophelia’s feet.

“Pardon me if I mistook your intentions,” said Ophelia. Her cheeks burned, but she held her head high. “I had thought that when one was kissed, one should kiss in return.”

“One should not.”

“Then why kiss at all?”

“I had to know. I thought perhaps you were worthy to become Denmark’s queen. You hid so from the world I thought you chaste, but now I see it is not so.”

“I am as chaste as maid may be, my lord!”

“Then lives no chastity in woman.”

“Nor in man, for women know well enough what monsters men are.”

“‘Tis true,” said Hamlet sorrowfully, “the world is all corrupt. Are Horatio and myself alone free from lewd desires?”

Despite herself, Ophelia laughed. “Horatio, my lord? Think you so?”

“Think you not?”

“I know not.”

“You cannot.”

“There is much one sees when hiding from the world. With his every breath, Horatio yearns for you.”

“You lie!”

“Ask Horatio if I am mistaken. He will not lie to you.”

Hamlet was quiet. “Only I?” he said at last. Ophelia was startled at the sudden terror in his eyes. “Only I in all the world?”

“Perhaps not, my lord. I do not know all the world.” Ophelia gently touched Hamlet’s shoulder.

He shook off her hand, scowling as he had in childhood. “You know nothing!” he said as he stomped away. “You are wrong about Horatio, and you know nothing!”

It was three days before Ophelia saw Hamlet again. He caught her arm as she was walking and pulled her into a hallway. She waited for him to speak, but he did not. “Well, my lord?”

“You were not wrong,” said Hamlet, looking at his shoes. “And it was I who knew nothing.”

“I am glad you can admit it, my lord.”

“Is this a jest to you? The world is not as I thought! How can I live now?”

“Why, as other men do.”

“How can I live as other men do when I am not like other men?”

“Indeed, my lord, you always thought yourself above the rest.”

“No longer,” said Hamlet. “Horatio- Horatio is above the rest. He has passions and makes himself their master. What virtue is there in denying a desire I do not feel?” He paused, blushing. “I should not speak so to a woman.”

“The woman spoke so to you first. I will listen.”

Hamlet nodded, then shook his head. “Now I know not what to speak. I know not what to do. Must I marry? Must I breed? Can I breed? What will my father think? What will the people think? Who would elect me were it known I could not sire the next Sire?” He grabbed Ophelia’s arms. “You must say nothing of this!”

“I will say nothing, my lord. None shall know from my lips.”

“From your lips,” Hamlet repeated, a bitter smile on his own. “Those lips that once I kissed.”

An idea crossed Ophelia’s mind, and she caught her breath. “Would you kiss them again, my lord?”

Hamlet glared at her. “You have heard nothing.”

“Nay, my lord, hear me,” said Ophelia. “If you were to kiss me in your father’s sight, would not your secret then be safe indeed?”

“Perhaps,” said Hamlet after a long moment. Ophelia could almost see his mind working behind his eyes. “But when it comes time to wed, what then?”

“Think you your father would have you marry one so lowly as I? Surely a better match will be arranged. And if you seem to pine for me, would not that give reason for your unwillingness to wed?”

“Ay, and after?”

“My lord,” said Ophelia dryly, “you are more educated than I by far. I trust you can find answers for yourself, while I do play my part.”

“Ay! Ay, forgive me. With time and thought, much may be done.” Hamlet paused and narrowed his eyes. “And what of you?”

“What of me, my lord?”

“Will not your hope of marriage be hurt if you seem won by me?”

“My father will not let it be so. If he hears that we have kissed but once, he will set his spies on me, that we may never be alone.”

“Never?” asked Hamlet.

“Never,” said Ophelia. “So you see, soon you need do nothing but send me longing looks.”

“But if I wish to speak to you unheard, may not that be?”

“Wish you so, my lord? I never knew you to care for my conversation.”

Hamlet ducked his head. “I never listened well enough, methinks. You have been kind to me, far kinder than I have been to you. I thought, perhaps, we could be friends.”

“Friends?” Ophelia considered, and smiled. Hamlet could be charming when he wanted to, and Ophelia had overheard fascinating scraps of his conversations with Horatio. “Perhaps we could. We need not kiss so soon.”

“Why then, shake hands with me instead,” said Hamlet.

Ophelia, still smiling, took the offered hand. It felt good to have a friend, good to step out of her corner and matter to someone. Perhaps, when Hamlet returned to school in Wittenberg, they could write to each other. And perhaps, when they were only friends and no longer feigned lovers, Ophelia could find someone else to matter to.

After all, there was no reason she had to be quiet in a corner alone.