Chapter IV: Hamlet Makes a Suggestion
It was a beautiful night on the Styx, and the silvery surface of that
picturesque stream was dotted with gondolas, canoes, and other craft to
an extent that made Charon feel like a highly prosperous savings-bank.
Within the house-boat were gathered a merry party, some of whom were on
mere pleasure bent, others of whom had come to listen to a debate, for
which the entertainment committee had provided, between the venerable
patriarch Noah and the late eminent showman P.T. Barnum. The question
to be debated was upon the resolution passed by the committee, that "The
Animals of the Antediluvian Period Were Far More Attractive for Show Purposes
than those of Modern Make," and, singular to relate, the affirmative was
placed in the hands of Mr. Barnum, while to Noah had fallen the task of
upholding the virtues of the modern freak. It is with the party on mere
pleasure bent that we have to do upon this occasion. The proceedings of
the debating-party are as yet in the hands of the official stenographer,
but will be made public as soon as they are ready.
The pleasure-seeking group were gathered in the smoking-room of the club,
which was, indeed, a smoking-room of a novel sort, the invention of an
unknown shade, who had sold all the rights to the club through a third
party, anonymously, preferring, it seemed, to remain in the Elysian world,
as he had been in the mundane sphere, a mute inglorious Edison. It was
a simple enough scheme, and, for a wonder, no one in the world of substantialities
has thought to take it up. The smoke was stored in reservoirs, just as
if it were so much gas or water, and was supplied on the hot-air furnace
principle from a huge furnace in the hold of the house-boat, into which
tobacco was shoveled by the hired man of the club night and day. The smoke
from the furnace, carried through flues to the smoking-room, was there
received and stored in the reservoirs, with each of which was connected
one dozen rubber tubes, having at their ends amber mouth-pieces. Upon
each of these mouth-pieces was arranged a small meter registering the
amount of smoke consumed through it, and for this the consumer paid so
much a foot. The value of the plan was threefold. It did away entirely
with ashes, it saved to the consumers the value of the unconsumed tobacco
that is represented by the unsmoked cigar ends, and it averted the possibility
Enjoying the benefits of this arrangement upon the evening in question
were Shakespeare, Cicero, Henry VIII, Doctor Johnson, and others. Of course
Boswell was present too, for a moment, with his note-book, and this fact
evoked some criticism from several of the smokers.
"You ought to be up-stairs in the lecture-room, Boswell," said Shakespeare,
as the great biographer took his seat behind his friend the Doctor. "Doesn't
the Gossip want a report of the debate?"
"It does," said Boswell; "but the Gossip endeavors always to get the
most interesting items of the day, and Doctor Johnson has informed me
that he expects to be unusually witty this evening, so I have come here."
"Excuse me for saying it, Boswell," said the Doctor, getting red in the
face over this unexpected confession, "but, really, you talk too much."
"That's good," said Cicero. "Stick that down, Boz, and print it. It's
the best thing Johnson has said this week."
Boswell smiled weakly, and said: "But, Doctor, you did say that, you
know. I can prove it, too, for you told me some of the things you were
going to say. Don't you remember, you were going to lead Shakespeare up
to making the remark that he thought the English language was the greatest
language in creation, whereupon you were going to ask him why he didn't
"Get out of here, you idiot!" roared the Doctor. "You're enough to give
a man apoplexy."
"You're not going back on the ladder by which you have climbed, are you,
Samuel?" queried Boswell, earnestly.
"The wha-a-t?" cried the Doctor, angrily. "The ladder — on which I climbed?
You? Great heavens! That it should come to this! . . . Leave the room — instantly!
Ladder! By all that is beautiful-the ladder upon which I, Samuel Johnson,
the tallest person in letters, have climbed! Go! Do you hear?"
Boswell rose meekly, and, with tears coursing down his cheeks, left the
"That's one on you, Doctor," said Cicero, wrapping his toga about him.
"I think you ought to order up three baskets of champagne on that."
"I'll order up three baskets full of Boswell's remains if he ever dares
speak like that again!" retorted the Doctor, shaking with anger. "He — my
ladder — why, it's ridiculous."
"Yes," said Shakespeare, dryly. "That's why we laugh."
"You were a little hard on him, Doctor," said Henry VIII. "He was a valuable
man to you. He had a great eye for your greatness."
"Yes. If there's any feature of Boswell that's greater than his nose
and ears, it's his great I," said the Doctor.
"You'd rather have him change his I to a U, I presume," said Napoleon,
The Doctor waved his hand impatiently. "Let's drop him," he said. "Dropping
one's biographer isn't without precedent. As soon as any man ever got
to know Napoleon well enough to write him up he sent him to the front,
where he could get a little lead in his system."
"I wish I had had a Boswell all the same," said Shakespeare. "Then the
world would have known the truth about me."
"It wouldn't if he'd relied on your word for it," retorted the Doctor.
"Hullo! Here's Hamlet."
As the Doctor spoke, in very truth the melancholy Dane appeared in the
doorway, more melancholy of aspect than ever.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Cicero, addressing the new-comer.
"Haven't you got that poison out of your system yet?"
"Not entirely," said Hamlet, with a sigh; "but it isn't that that's bothering
me. It's Fate."
"We'll get out an injunction against Fate if you like," said Blackstone.
"Is it persecution, or have you deserved it?"
"I think it's persecution," said Hamlet. "I never wronged Fate in my
life, and why she should pursue me like a demon through all eternity is
a thing I can't understand."
"Maybe Ophelia is back of it," suggested Doctor Johnson. "These women
have a great deal of sympathy for each other, and, candidly, I think you
behaved pretty rudely to Ophelia. It's a poor way to show your love for
a young woman, running a sword through her father every night for pay,
and driving the girl to suicide with equal frequency, just to show theatre-goers
what a smart little Dane you can be if you try."
"'Tisn't me does all that," returned Hamlet. "I only did it once, and
even then it wasn't as bad as Shakespeare made it out to be."
"I put it down just as it was," said Shakespeare, hotly, "and you can't
"Yes, he can," said Yorick. "You made him tell Horatio he knew me well,
and he never met me in his life."
"I never told Horatio anything of the sort," said Hamlet. "I never entered
the graveyard even, and I can prove an alibi."
"And, what's more, he couldn't have made the remark the way Shakespeare
has it, anyhow," said Yorick, "and for a very good reason. I wasn't buried
in that graveyard, and Hamlet and I can prove an alibi for the skull,
"It was a good play, just the same," said Cicero.
"Very," put in Doctor Johnson. "It cured me of insomnia."
"Well, if you don't talk in your sleep, the play did a Christian service
to the world," retorted Shakespeare. "But, really, Hamlet, I thought I
did the square thing by you in that play. I meant to, anyhow; and if it
has made you unhappy, I'm honestly sorry."
"Spoken like a man," said Yorick.
"I don't mind the play so much," said Hamlet, "but the way I'm represented
by these fellows who play it is the thing that rubs me the wrong way.
Why, I even hear that there's a troupe out in the western part of the
United States that puts the thing on with three Hamlets, two ghosts, and
a pair of blood-hounds. It's called the Uncle-Tom-Hamlet Combination,
and instead of my falling in love with one crazy Ophelia, I am made to
woo three dusky maniacs named Topsy on a canvas ice-floe, while the blood-hounds
bark behind the scenes. What sort of treatment is that for a man of royal
"It's pretty rough," said Napoleon. "As the poet ought to have said,
'Oh, Hamlet, Hamlet, what crimes are committed in thy name!'"
"I feel as badly about the play as Hamlet does," said Shakespeare, after
a moment of silent thought. "I don't bother much about this wild Western
business, though, because I think the introduction of the bloodhounds
and the Topsies makes us both more popular in that region than we should
be otherwise. What I object to is the way we are treated by these so-called
first-class intellectual actors in London and other great cities. I've
seen Hamlet done before a highly cultivated audience, and, by Jove, it
made me blush."
"Me too," sighed Hamlet. "I have seen a man who had a walk on him that
suggested spring-halt and locomotor ataxia combined impersonating my graceful
self in a manner that drove me almost crazy. I've heard my 'To be or not
to be' soliloquy uttered by a famous tragedian in tones that would make
a graveyard yawn at mid-day, and if there was any way in which I could
get even with that man I'd do it."
"It seems to me," said Blackstone, assuming for the moment a highly judicial
manner — "it seems to me that Shakespeare, having got you into this trouble,
ought to get you out of it."
"But how?" said Shakespeare, earnestly. "That's the point. Heaven knows
I'm willing enough."
Hamlet's face suddenly brightened as though illuminated with an idea.
Then he began to dance about the room with an expression of glee that
annoyed Doctor Johnson exceedingly.
"I wish Darwin could see you now," the Doctor growled. "A Kodak picture
of you would prove his arguments conclusively."
"Rail on, O philosopher!" retorted Hamlet. "Rail on! I mind your railings
not, for I the germ of an idea have got."
"Well, go quarantine yourself," said the Doctor. "I'd hate to have one
of your idea microbes get hold of me."
"What's the scheme?" asked Shakespeare.
"You can write a play for ME!" cried Hamlet. "Make it a farce-tragedy.
Take the modern player for your hero, and let me play him.
I'll bait him through four acts. I'll imitate his walk. I'll cultivate
his voice. We'll have the first act a tank act, and drop the hero into
the tank. The second act can be in a saw-mill, and we can cut his hair
off on a buzz-saw. The third act can introduce a pile-driver with which
to drive his hat over his eyes and knock his brains down into his lungs.
The fourth act can be at Niagara Falls, and we'll send him over the falls;
and for a grand climax we can have him guillotined just after he has swallowed
a quart of prussic acid and a spoonful of powdered glass. Do that for
me, William, and you are forgiven. I'll play it for six hundred nights
in London, for two years in New York, and round up with a one-night stand
"It sounds like a good scheme," said Shakespeare, meditatively. "What
shall we call it?"
"Call it Irving," said Eugene Aram, who had entered. "I too have suffered."
"And let me be Hamlet's understudy," said Charles the First, earnestly.
"Done!" said Shakespeare, calling for a pad and pencil.
And as the sun rose upon the Styx the next morning the Bard of Avon was
to be seen writing a comic chorus to be sung over the moribund tragedian
by the shades of Charles, Aram, and other eminent deceased heroes of the
stage, with which his new play of Irving was to be brought to an appropriate
This play has not as yet found its way upon the boards, but any enterprising
manager who desires to consider it may address
He is sure to get a reply by return mail, unless Mephistopheles interferes,
which is not unlikely, since Mephistopheles is said to have been much
pleased with the manner in which the eminent tragedian has put him before
the British and American public.