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15. HAMLET: 1597. That this tragedy had been performed before 1598 is evident from Gabriel Harvey's note in Speght's edition of Chaucer, as quoted by Mr. Malone; and, from the intimations of time brought forward by Mr. Chalmers, we are induced to adopt the era of this gentleman, placing the first sketch of Hamlet early in 1597, and its revision with additions in 1600. after which, namely, on the 26th of July, 1602, it was entered on the Stationers' book, the first edition hitherto discovered being printed in the year 1604.
No character in our author's plays has occasioned so much perplexity, as that of Hamlet. Yet we think it may be proved that Shakspeare had a clear and definite idea of it throughout all its seeming inconsistencies, and that a very few lines taken from one of the monologues of this tragedy, will develop the ruling and efficient feature which the poet held steadily in his view, and through whose unintermitting influence every other part of the portrait has received a peculiar modification. We are told, as the result of a deep but unsatisfactory meditation on the mysteries of another world, on "the dread of something after death," that Thus the native hue of resolution
Now this pale cast of thought and its consequences, which, had not Hamlet been interrupted by the entrance of Ophelia, he would have himself applied to his own singular situation, form the very essence, and give rise to the prominent defects of his character. It is evident, therefore, that Shakspeare intended to represent him as variable and indecisive in action, and that he has founded this want of volition on one of those peculiar constitutions of the mental and moral faculties which have been designated by the appellation of genius, a combination of passions and associations which has led to all the useful energies, and all the exalted eccentricities of human life; and of which, in one of its most exquisite but speculative forms, Hamlet presents us with perhaps the only instance on theatric record.
To a frame of mind naturally strong and contemplative, but rendered by extraordinary events sceptical and intensely thoughtful, he unites an undeviating love of rectitude, a disposition of the gentlest kind, feelings the most delicate and pure, and a sensibility painfully alive to the smallest deviation from virtue or propriety of conduct. Thus, while gifted to discern and to suffer from every moral aberration in those who surround him, his powers of action are paralysed in the first instance, by the unconquerable tendency of his mind to explore, to their utmost ramification, all the bearings and contingencies of the meditated deed; and in the second, by that tenderness of his nature which leads him to shrink from the means which are necessary to carry it into execution. Over this irresolution and weakness, the result, in a great measure, of emotions highly amiable, and which in a more congenial situation had contributed to the delight of all who approached him, Shakspeare has thrown a veil of melancholy so sublime and intellectual, as by this means to constitute him as much the idol of the philosopher, and the man of cultivated taste, as he confessedly is of those who feel their interest excited principally through the medium of the sympathy and compassion which his ineffective struggles to act up to his own approved purpose naturally call forth. It may be useful, however, in order to give more strength and precision to this general outline, to enter into a few of the leading particulars of Hamlet's conduct. He is represented at the opening of the play as highly distressed by the sudden. death of his father, and the hurried and indecent nuptials of his mother, when the awful appearance of the spectre overwhelms him with astonishment, unhinges a mind already partially thrown off its bias, and fills it with indelible apprehension, suspicion, and dismay. For though, on the first communication of the murder, his bosom burns with the thirst of vengeance, yet reflection and the gen
tleness of his disposition soon induce him to regret that he has been chosen as the instrument of effecting it,
"That ever he was born to set it right;"
and then, under the influence of this reluctance, he begins to question the validity and the lawfulness of the medium through which he had received his information, describing with admirable self-consciousness the vacillation of his will, and the tendency of his temper :
Here, therefore, on a structure of mind originally indecisive as to volition, on feelings rendered more than usually sensitive and serious by domestic misfortune, operate causes calculated, in a very extraordinary degree, to augment the sources of irresolution and distress. The imagination of Hamlet, agitated and inflamed by a visitation from the world of spirits, is lost amid the mazes of conjecture, amid thoughts which roam with doubt and terror through all the labyrinths of fate and superhuman agency; whilst, at the same time, indignation at the crime of his uncle, and aversion to the vindictive task which has been imposed upon him, raise a conflict of passion within his breast.
Determined, however, if possible, to obey what seems both a commission from heaven, and a necessary filial duty: but sensible that the wild workings of imagination, and the tumult of contending emotions have so far unsettled his mind, as to render his control over it at times precarious and imperfect, and that consequently he may be liable to betray his purpose, he adopts the expedient of counterfeiting madness, in order that if any thing should escape him in an unguarded moment, it may, from being considered as the effect of derangement, fail to impede his designs.
And here again the bitterness of his destiny meets him; for, with the view of disarming suspicion as to his real intention, he finds it requisite to impress the king and his courtiers with the idea, that disappointed love is the real basis of his disorder; justly inferring, that as his attachment to Ophelia was known, and still more so the tenderness of his own heart, any harsh treatment of her, without an adequate provocation, must infallibly be deemed a proof, not only of insanity, but of the cause whence it sprang; since though some reserve on her part had been practised, in obedience to her father's commands, it could not, without a dereliction of reason, have produced such an entire change in his conduct and disposition. And such indeed would have been the result, had Hamlet possessed a perfect command of himself; but his feelings overpowered his consistency, and the very part which he had to play with Ophelia, was one of the most excruciating of his afflictions; for he tells us, and tells us truly, that
consequently what he suffers on this occasion, on this compulsory treatment, as it were, of the being dearest to his heart, gives him one of the strongest claims upon our sympathy. With what agony he pursues this line of conduct, and how foreign it is to every feeling of the man, appears at the close of his celebrated soliloquy on the expediency of suicide, and just previous to the rudest and most sarcastic instance of his behaviour towards Ophelia. That hapless maiden suddenly crosses him, when, starting at her sight, and forgetting his assumed character, he exclaims, in an exquisite tone of solemnity and pathos
It is impossible, we think, to compare this passage, this burst of undistinguished emotion, with the tenour of the immediately subsequent dialogue, without the deepest commiseration for the fate of the unfortunate prince.
In this play, as in King Lear, we have madness under its real and its assumed aspect, and in both instances they are accurately discriminated. We find Lear and Ophelia constantly recurring, either directly or indirectly, to the actual causes of their distress; but it was the business of Edgar and of Hamlet, to place their observers on a wrong scent, and to divert their vigilance from the genuine sources of their grief, and the objects of their pursuit. This is done with undeviating firmness by Edgar; but Hamlet occasionally suffers the poignancy of his feelings, and the agitation of his mind, to break in upon his plan, when, heedless of what was to be the ostensible foundation of his derangement, his love for Ophelia, he permits his indignation to point, and on one occasion almost unmasked, towards the guilt of his uncle. In every other instance, he personates insanity with a skill which indicates the highest order of genius, and imposes on all but the king, whose conscience, perpetually on the watch, soon enables him to detect the inconsistencies and the drift of his nephew.
It has been objected to the character of Hamlet, whose most striking feature is profound melancholy, that its keeping is broken in upon by an injudicious admixture of humour and gaiety; but he who is acquainted with the workings of the human heart, will be far, very far indeed, from considering this as any deviation from the truth of nature. Melancholy, when not the offspring of an ill-spent life, or of an habitual bad temper, but the consequence of mere casualties and misfortunes, or of the vices and passions of others, operating on feelings too gentle, delicate, and susceptible, to bear up against the ruder evils of existence, will sometimes spring with playful elasticity from the pressure of the heaviest burden, and dissipating, for a moment, the anguish of a breaking heart, will, like a sun-beam in a winter's day, illumine all around it with a bright, but transient ray, with the sallies of humorous wit, and even with the hilarity of sportive simplicity; an interchange which serves but to render the returning storm more deep and gloomy. Thus it is with Hamlet in those parts of this inimitable tragedy in which we behold him suddenly deviating into mirth and jocularity; they are scintillations which only light us
Regions of sorrow,”
"to discover sights of woe,
for no where do we perceive the depth of his affliction and the energy of his sufferings more distinctly than when under these convulsive efforts to shake off the incumbent load.
Of that infirmity of purpose which distinguishes Hamlet during the pursuit of his revenge, and of that exquisite self-deceit by which he endeavours to disguise his own motives from himself, no clearer instance can be given, than from the scene where he declines destroying the usurper because he was in the act of prayer, and might therefore go to heaven, deferring his death to a period when, being in liquor or in anger, he was thoroughly ripe for perdition; an enormity of sentiment. and design totally abhorrent to the real character of Hamlet, which was radically amiable, gentle, and compassionate, but affording a striking proof of that hypocrisy which, owing to the untowardness of his fate, he was constantly exercising on himself. Struck with the symptoms of repentance in Claudius, his resentment becomes softened; and at all times unwilling, from the tenderness of his nature, and the acuteness of his sensibility, to fulfil his supposed duty, and execute retributive justice on his uncle, he endeavours to find some excuse for his conscious want
⚫ Paradise Lost, book i. 1, 64.
of resolution, some pretext, however far-fetched or discordant with the genuine motive, to shield him from his own weakness.
One remarkable effect of this perpetual contest in the bosom of Hamlet between a sense of the duty, enjoined as it were by heaven, and his aversion to the means which could alone secure its accomplishment, has been to throw an interest around him of the most powerful and exciting nature. It is an interest not arising from extrinsic causes, from any anxiety as to the completion of the meditated vengeance, or from the intervention of any casual incidents which may tend to hasten or retard the catastrophe, but exclusively springing from our attachment to the person of Hamlet. We contemplate with a mixture of admiration and compassion the very virtues of Hamlet becoming the bane of his earthly peace, virtues which, in the tranquillity either of public or private life, would have crowned him with love and honour, serving but, in the tempest which assails him, to wreck his hopes, and accelerate his destruction. In fact, the very doubts and irresolution of Hamlet endear him to our hearts, and at the same time condense around him an almost breathless anxiety, for, while we confess them to be the offspring of all that is lovely, gentle, and kind, we cannot but perceive their fatal tendency, and we shudder at the probable event.
It is thus that the character of Hamlet, notwithstanding the veil of meditative abstraction which the genius of philosophic melancholy has thrown over it, possesses a species of enchantment for all ranks and classes. Its popularity, indeed, appears to have been immediate and great, for, in 1604, Anthony Scoloker, in a dedication to his poem, entitled "Daiphantus," tells us, that his "epistles" should be "like friendly Shake-speare's tragedies, where the commedian rides, when the tragedian stands on tiptoe: Faith it should please all, like prince Hamlet."
We should bear in mind, however, that the favour of the public must, in part, have been attached to this play through the vast variety of incident and characters which it unfolds, from its rapid interchange of solemnity, pathos, and humour, and more particularly from the awful, yet grateful terror which the shade of buried Denmark diffuses over the scene.
That a belief in Spiritual Agency has been universally and strongly impressed on the mind of man from the earliest ages of the world, must be evident to every one who peruses the writings of the Old Testament. It is equally clear that, with little but exterior modification, this doctrine has passed from the East into Europe, flowing through Greece and Rome to modern times. It is necessary, however, to a just comprehension of the subject, that it be distinctly separated into two branches,-into the Agency of Angelic Spirits, and into the Agency of the Spirits of the Departed, as these will be found to rest on very dissimilar bases.
To the Agency of Angelic Spirits, both good and bad, and to their operation on and influence over the intellect and affairs of men, the records of our religion bear the most direct and undubitable testimony; nor is it possible to disjoin a full admission of this intercourse from any faith in its scriptures, whether Jewish or Christian.
"That the holy angels," observes Bishop Horsley, "are often employed by God in his government of this sublunary world, is indeed clearly to be proved by holy writ: that they have powers over the matter of the universe analogous to the powers over it which men possess, greater in extent, but still limited, is a thing which might reasonably be supposed, if it were not declared: but it seems to be confirmed by many passages of holy writ, from which it seems also evident that they are occasionally, for certain specific purposes, commissioned to exercise those powers to a prescribed extent. That the evil angels possessed, before the Fall, the like powers, which they are still occasionally permitted to exercise for the punishment of wicked nations, seems also evident. That they have a power over the human sensory (which is part of the material universe), which they are occasionally permitted to exercise, by means of which they may inflict diseases, suggest evil thoughts, and be the instruments of temptations, must also be admitted." *
Of a doctrine so consolatory as the ministration and guardianship of benevolent spirits, one of the most striking instances is afforded us by the Book of Job, perhaps the most ancient composition in existence; it is where Elihu, describing the sick man on his bed, declares, that—
"As his soul draweth near to the Grave,
And his life to the Ministers of Death,
and from the same source was the awful but monitory vision described in the fourth chapter of this sublime poem.
Subsequent poets have embraced with avidity a system so friendly to man, and so delightful to an ardent and devotional imagination. Thus Hesiod, repeating the oriental tradition, seems happy in augmenting the number of our heavenly protectors to thirty thousand, Τρὶς γὰρ μύριοί :
"Invisible the Gods are ever nigh,
Pass through the midst and bend th' all-seeing eye:
The upright judgments, aud th' unrighteous ways."
But, next to the sacred writers, and more immediately derived from their inspiration, has this heavenly superintendence been best described by two of our own poets: by Spenser, with his customary piety, sweetness, and simplicity:
"And is there care in heaven? and is there love
In heavenly spirits to these creatures base," &c. †
by Milton, in a strain of greater sublimity, and with more philosophic dignity and grace:
"Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep :" &c. ‡
But mankind, not satisfied with this angelic interposition, though founded on indisputable authority, and exercised on their behalf, has, in every age and nation, fondly clung to the idea, that the souls or Spirits of the Dead have also a communication with the living, and that they occasionally, either as happy or as suffering shades, re-appear on this sublunary scene.
The common suggestions and associations of the human mind have laid the foundation for this general belief; man has ever indulged the hope of another state of existence, feeling within him an assurance, a kind of intuitive conviction, emanating from the Deity, that we are not destined as the beasts to perish. It is true, says Homer.
""Tis true, 'tis certain, man though dead, retains
but to this mental immortality, which is firmly sanctioned by religion, affection,
Vide Good's Translation of Job, part v. chap. 33, ver. 22, 23 —I have ventured to alter the language, though I have strictly adhered to the import of the last line. Ministers of Death have also been substituted for Destinies.
• Vide Todd's Spenser, vol. iv. p. 1. 2, 3. Faerie Queene, book ii. canto 8. stanz. 1 and 2. Todd's Milton, vol. iii. p. 138, 139. Paradise Lost, book iv. 1. 677.-Shakspeare, it may be remarked, occasionally alludes to the same species of spiritual hierarchy, and, in the very play we are engaged upon, Laertes says
"A ministring angel shall my sister be,
When thou fiest howling,"
Pope's Iliad, book xxiii.
Act. v. sc. 1.