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Character of Hamlet
The following article was originally published in: Hazlitt, William. "Character of Hamlet." Short Essays Original and Selected. London: Moffatt and Paige, 1885.

Hamlet is a name: his speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet's brain. But are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader's mind. It is we who are Hamlet. This play is a prophetic truth which is above that of history.

Whoever has become thoughtful and melancholy through his own mishaps or those of others; whoever has borne about with him the clouded brow of reflection, and thought himself "too much i' th' sun;" whoever has seen the golden lamp of day dimmed by envious mists rising in his own breast, and could find in the world before him only a dull blank, with nothing left remarkable in it; whoever has known "the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, or the spurns which patient merit of the unworthy takes;" he who has felt his mind sink with him, and sadness cling to his heart like a malady; who has had his hopes blighted and his youth staggered by the apparitions of strange things; who cannot be well at ease, while he sees evil hovering near him like a spectre; whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought; he to whom the universe seems infinite, and himself nothing; whose bitterness of soul makes him careless of consequences: this is the true Hamlet.

We have been so used to this tragedy, that we hardly know how to criticize it, any more than we should know how to describe our own faces. But we must make such observations as we can. It is the one of Shakespeare's plays that we think of oftenest, because it abounds most in striking reflections on human life, and because the distresses of Hamlet are transferred, by the turn of his mind, to the general account of humanity. Whatever happens to him, we apply to ourselves; because he applies it so himself, as a means of general reasoning.

He is a great moralizer, and what makes him worth attending to is that he moralizes on his own feelings and experience. He is not a commonplace pedant. If Lear shows the greatest depth of passion, Hamlet is the most remarkable for the ingenuity, originality, and unstudied development of character. There is no attempt to force an interest: everything is left for time and circumstances to unfold. The attention is excited without effort; the incidents succeed each other as matters of course; the characters think, and speak, and act, just as they might do, if left entirely to themselves. There is no set purpose, no straining at a point.

The observations are suggested by the passing scene -- the gusts of passion come and go like sounds of music borne on the wind. The whole play is an exact transcript of what might be supposed to have taken place at the court of Denmark, at the remote period of time fixed upon, before the modern refinements in morals and manners were heard of. It would have been interesting enough to have been admitted, as a by-stander in such a scene, at such a time, to have heard and seen something of what was going on.

But here we are more than spectators. We have not only "the outward pageants and the signs of grief," but "we have that within which passes show." We read the thoughts of the heart, we catch the passions living as they rise. Other dramatic writers give us very fine versions and paraphrases of nature; but Shakespeare, together with his own comment, gives us the original text, that we may judge for ourselves. This is a great advantage.

The character of Hamlet is itself a pure effusion of genius. It is not a character marked by strength of will, or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment. Hamlet is as little of the hero as man can well be: but he is a young and princely novice, full of high enthusiasm and quick sensibility -- the sport of circumstances, questioning with fortune, and refining on his own feelings; and forced from the natural bias of his disposition by the strangeness of his situation.

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