Hamlet: Prince of Denmark
Hamlet: The Play Hamlet: The History Hamlet: The Characters Hamlet: The Criticism More Hamlet
It Is We Who Are Hamlet
The following article was originally published in Studies of Shakspere. Charles Knight. London: Charles Knight, 1849.

The comprehension of this tragedy is the history of a man's own mind. In some shape or other, "Hamlet the Dane" very early becomes familiar to almost every youth of tolerable education. He is sometimes presented through the medium of the stage; more frequently in some one of the manifold editions of the acted play. The sublime scenes where the ghost appears are known even to the youngest school-boy, in his 'Speakers' and 'Readers;' and so is the soliloquy, "To be, or not to be." As we in early life become acquainted with the complete acted play, we hate the King--we weep for Ophelia--we think Hamlet is cruel to her--we are perhaps inclined with Dr. Johnson to laugh at Hamlet's madness, ("the pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth,") we wonder that Hamlet does not kill the King earlier--and we believe, as Garrick believed, that the catastrophe might have been greatly improved, seeing that the wicked and the virtuous ought not to fall together, as it were by accident.

A few years onward, and we have become acquainted with the Hamlet of Shakespeare, not the Hamlet of the players. The book is now the companion of our lonely walks--its recollections hang about our most cherished thoughts. We think less of the dramatic movement of the play than of the glimpses which it affords of the high and solemn things that belong to our being. We see Hamlet habitually subjected to the spiritual part of his nature--communing with thoughts that are not of this world--abstracted from the business of life--but yet exhibiting a most vigorous intellect and an exquisite taste. But there is that about him which we cannot understand. Is he essentially "in madness," or mad "only in craft?" Where is the line to be drawn between his artificial and his real character? There is something altogether undefinable and mysterious in the poet's delineation of this character--something wild and irregular in the circumstances with which the character is associated--we see that Hamlet is propelled, rather than propelling. But why is this turn given to the delineation? We cannot exactly tell. Perhaps some of the very charm of the play to the adult mind is its mysteriousness. It awakes not only thoughts of the grand and the beautiful, but of the incomprehensible. Its obscurity constitutes a portion of its sublimity. This is the stage in which most minds are content to rest, and, perhaps, advantageously so, with regard to the comprehension of Hamlet.

The final appreciation of the Hamlet of Shakespeare belongs to the development of the critical faculty--to the cultivation of it by reading and reflection. Without much acquaintance with the thoughts of others, many men, we have no doubt, being earnest and diligent students of Shakespeare, have arrived at a tolerably adequate comprehension of his idea in this wonderful play. In passing through the stage of admiration, they have utterly rejected the trash which the commentators have heaped upon it, under the name of criticism--the solemn commonplaces of Johnson, the flippant and insolent attacks of Steevens. When the one says, "the apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose" and the other talks of the "absurdities" which deform the piece, and "the immoral character of Hamlet," the love for Shakespeare tells them that remarks such as these belong to the same class of prejudices as Voltaire's "monstruosites et fossoyeurs." But, after they have rejected all that belongs to criticism without love, the very depth of the reverence of another school of critics may tend to perplex them. This is somewhat of our own position. The quantity alone that has been written in illustration of Hamlet is embarrassing. Goethe, Coleridge, Schlegel, Lamb, Hazlitt, and we may add Mrs. Jameson--besides anonymous writers out of number, and some of the very highest order of excellence--have brought to the illustration of this play a most valued fund of judgment, taste, and aesthetical knowledge. To condense what is most deserving of remembrance in these admirable productions, within due limits, would be impossible. We must endeavour, therefore, to feel ourselves in the condition of one who has, however imperfectly, worked out in his own mind a comprehension of the idea of Shakespeare; occasionally assisting our development of this inadequate comprehension by a few extracts from some of the eloquent pages to which we have adverted.

The opening of Hamlet is one of the most absorbing scenes in the Shakespearian drama. It produces its effect by the supernatural being brought into the most immediate contact with the real. The sentinels are prepared for the appearance of the ghost--Horatio is incredulous--but they are all surrounded with an atmosphere of common life. "Long live the King"--"Get thee to bed"--"'Tis bitter cold"--"Not a mouse stirring"--and the familiar pleasantry of Horatio, "a piece of him"--exhibit to us minds under the ordinary state of human feeling. At the moment when the recollections of Bernardo arise into that imaginative power which belongs to the tale he is about to tell, the ghost appears. All that was doubtful in the narrative of the supernatural vision--what left upon Horatio's mind the impression only of a "thing"--becomes as real as the silence, the cold, and the midnight. The vision is then "most like the King."

"Such was the very armour he had on."

The ghost remains but an instant; and we are again amongst the realities of common life--the preparations for war--the history of the quarrel that caused the preparation. The vision, in the mind of Horatio, is connected with the fates of his "climatures and countrymen." When the ghost reappears, there is still a tinge of scepticism in the soldiers:

"Shall I strike at it with my partisan?"

But their incredulity is at once subdued; and a resolution is taken by Horatio upon the conviction that what he once held as a "fantasy" is a dreadful thing of whose existence there can be no doubt:

"Let us impart what we have seen tonight
Unto young Hamlet: for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him."

We have here, by anticipation, all the deep and inexplicable consequences of this vision laid upon young Hamlet; it is his destiny--it is to him the--

"Prologue to the omen coming on."

Goethe, in his Wilhelm Meister, has made his hero describe the mode in which he endeavoured to understand Hamlet. "I set about investigating every trace of Hamlet's character, as it had shown itself before his father's death. I endeavoured to distinguish what in it was independent of this mournful event; independent of the terrible events that followed; and what most probably the young man would have been, had no such thing occurred." In this spirit he tells us that he was pleasing, polished, courteous, united the idea of moral rectitude with princely elevation, desirous of praise, pure in sentiment, tasteful, calm in his temper, artless in his conduct, possessing more mirth of humour than of heart. This is ingenious, but it appears to us to refine somewhat too much. In Shakespeare's dramas, the characters, as they are developed by the incidents, expound themselves, and in the order in which the exposition becomes necessary. Wilhelm Meister's preliminary analysis of Hamlet's character stands only in the place of the description by which dramatists inferior to Shakespeare present a character to an audience. Our poet first shows us what Hamlet is, before his mind is laid under the terrific weight and responsibility of a revelation. His moral sense is outraged by the indecent marriage of his mother. We have a slight intimation that his honourable ambition was disappointed in the election of his uncle to the sovereignty. The sudden death of his father had called forth all the sensibilities that belonged to a deeply meditative nature:

"I have that within which passeth show."

It is in this period that his own wounded spirit compels him to look with a jaundiced eye upon "all the uses of this world," and to indulge a wish, restrained only by a sense of piety, that the "unweeded garden" might be left by him to be possessed by "things rank, and gross in nature." But he communes with himself in a tone which bespeaks the habitual refinement of his thoughts; and his words shape themselves into images which belong to the high and cultivated intellect. The mode in which he receives Horatio shows that his dejection is not habitual. It has been impressed on his nature by a sudden blow--a father dead--a mother disgracefully married--a crown snatched from him. He welcomes his old friend with the warmth and frankness of the gentleman; but the abiding sorrow in a moment comes over him:

"I pray thee, do not mock me, fellow student."

The disclosure of Horatio's purpose in his visit is admirably managed in its abruptness. Nothing, it appears to us, within the power of language, can produce the effect of the questions which Hamlet puts to Horatio; and his answer to the somewhat commonplace remark, "It would have much amaz'd you"--"very like, very like" is something beyond art; it looks like an instinctive perception of the most complex mental processes.

Coleridge calls the next scene, that between Laertes, Ophelia, and Polonius, "one of Shakespeare's lyric movements"; and he elegantly adds, "you experience the sensation of a pause without the sense of a stop." It was necessary to interpose a scene between Horatio's narrative and the appearance of the ghost to Hamlet; and the scene before us carries out the dramatic characters which are essential to the plot, without interrupting the main interest. But the hour of Hamlet's trial is come. The revelation is to be made. He is to endure on ordeal which is to shake his disposition

"With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls."

The vision which, even when his incredulity has passed away, seems to Horatio only a "thing majestical" is to Hamlet "king, father, Royal Dane." From the first word of Horatio's narrative to this moment of the real presence of the apparition, Hamlet has no doubts. The excited state of his mind had prepared him to welcome the belief that "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy." Beautifully characteristic is his determination to follow the vision; and when the revelation comes, who could have managed it like Shakespeare! The images are of this world, and are not of this world. They belong at once to popular superstition, and to the highest poetry. Nothing can be more distinct than the narrative of the vision; nothing more mysterious than the "eternal blazon" that "must not be to ears of flesh and blood." How exquisite are the last lines of the ghost--full of the poetry of external nature, and of the depth of human affections, as if the spirit that had for so short a time been cut off from life, to know the secrets of the "prison-house," still clung to the earthly remembrance of the beautiful and the tender that even a spirit might indulge:

"The glow-worm shows the matin to be near,
And 'gins to pale his ineffectual fire:
Adieu, adieu, Hamlet! remember me."

The modes in which Hamlet thinks aloud, after the spirit has faded away, suggests this subtle illustration to Coleridge: "Shakespeare alone could have produced the vow of Hamlet to make his memory a blank of all maxims and generalized truths that 'observation had copied there'--followed immediately by the speaker noting down the generalized fact

'That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.'"

Coleridge, of course, means to offer this as a trait of the disturbance of Hamlet's intellect (not madness, even in the popular sense of the term--certainly not madness physiologically speaking, but unfixedness, derangement, we would have said, had not that word become a sort of synonym for madness) which Shakespeare intended, as it appears to us, to exhibit as the result of his supernatural visitation. Goethe says, "To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it." Coleridge, in speaking of that part of the scene after the interview with the ghost, in which Hamlet assumes what has been called "an improbable eccentricity," attributes to Hamlet "the disposition to escape from his own feelings of the overwhelming and supernatural by a wild transition to the ludicrous, a sort of cunning bravado, bordering on the flights of delirium." He adds, "For you may perhaps observe that Hamlet's wildness is but half false." It is under the immediate influence of this "disorder of his soul"--this "shaking and unsettling of its powers from their due sources of action," [1] that Hamlet takes the instantaneous resolution of feigning himself mad. He feels that his mind is horribly disturbed with thoughts beyond mortal reach; but he believes that the habitual powers of his intellect can control this disturbance, and even render it an instrument of his own safety. The very able writer from whose anonymous paper we have just quoted says, "If there be anything disproportioned in his mind, it seems to be this only--that intellect is in excess. It is even ungovernable, and too subtle. His own description of perfect man, ending with 'In apprehension how like a god!' appears to me consonant with that character, and spoken in the high and overwrought consciousness of intellect. Much that requires explanation by this predominance and consciousness of great intellectual power. Is it not possible that the instantaneous idea of feigning himself mad belongs to this?"

It is here, then, that the complexity of Hamlet's character begins. It is in the description of Ophelia that he is first presented to us, at some short period after the supernatural visitation:

"He took me by the wrist, and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face,
As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;
At last--a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down--
He rais'd a sigh so piteous and profound,
That it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being: That done, he lets me go:
And, with his head over his shoulder turn'd,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
For out o' doors he went without their help,
And, to the last, bended their light on me."

This was not the "antic disposition" which Hamlet thought meet to put on. It was not the "ecstasy of love" produced by Ophelia's coldness, according to Polonius. But it was the utterance, as far as it could be uttered, of his sense of the hard necessity that was put upon him to go forth to a mortal struggle with evil powers and influences--to cast away all the high and pleasant thoughts that belonged to the cultivation of his understanding--to tear himself from all the soothing and delicious fancies that would arise out of the growth of his affection for that simple maid upon whom he bestowed "a sigh so piteous." Under the pressure of the one absorbing "commandment" that had been imposed upon him, he had vowed that it should live "within the volume of his brain, unmixed with baser matter." All else in the world had become to him mean and unimportant. Love was now to him a "trivial fond record"--the wisdom of philosophy, "the saws of books." All "that youth and observation copied" was to be forgotten in that dread word, "remember me." But Hamlet had put the "antic disposition on." The King had seen his "transformation." The courtiers talked familiarly of his "lunacy." The disguise which he had adopted was not accidentally chosen. The subtlety of his intellect directed him to that tone of wayward sarcasm in which, while he appeared to others to be merely wandering, the bitterness of his soul might be relieved by the utterance of "wild and hurling words." But even in this disguise his intellectual supremacy is constantly manifested. "He is far gone, far gone," says Polonius; but "how pregnant his replies are" very quickly follows. In the scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the natural Hamlet instantly comes back. They were his school-fellows; they ought to have been his friends. To them, therefore, he is the Hamlet they once knew; the gentleman--the scholar. He even discloses to them a glimpse of the deep melancholy with which his soul laboured: "O God! I could be bounded in a nut-shell, and count myself a king of infinite space; were it not that I have bad dreams." But he goes no further--he sees through their purpose; "nay, then I have an eye of you." They were to be spies upon him; and from that moment he hates them. They stood, or they appeared to stand, between him and the great purpose of his life. But he suppresses his feelings, and bursts out in that majestic piece of rhetoric which could only have been conceived by a being of the highest intellectual power, in the full possession of that power: "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action, how like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god!" The writer in Blackwood truly says that this is "spoken in the high and overwrought consciousness of intellect." Hamlet has described his melancholy to his old school-fellows--the indifference with which he views "this visible world." Here again, unquestioningly, he is not feigning. He knows that the admission of his melancholy will put the spies upon a false scent. Burton's 'Anatomy' was not published when Shakespeare wrote this play; and yet how consonant is the following passage of that book with Shakespeare's conception of the melancholy of Hamlet: "Albertus Durer paints Melancholy like a sad woman, leaning on her arm with fixed looks, neglected habit, &c., held therefore by some proud, soft, sottish, or half-mad, as the Abderites esteemed of Democritus: and yet of a deep reach, excellent apprehension, judicious, wise, and witty." In the scene with the players Hamlet is perfectly at ease, "judicious, wise, and witty." He has escaped for a moment, out of the dense clouds of the one o'ermastering thought, into the sunny region of taste and fancy in which he once dwelt. But even here the one thought follows him: "Dost thou hear me, old friend; can you play the murder of Gonzago?" Then comes, "Now I am alone;" and, as Charles Lamb has beautifully expressed it, "the silent meditations with which his bosom is bursting are reduced to words, for the sake of the reader." But, in the midst of his paroxysm, his intellectual activity predominates: "About, my brains;" and he escapes from the thought--

"I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal,"

into--

"I'll have grounds
More relative than this: The play's the thing."

The indecision of Hamlet is thus described by Goethe: "A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and must not cast away." The writer in _Blackwood's Magazine_ takes another view of this indecision, which, to our minds, is more philosophic: "He sees no course clear enough to satisfy his understanding." Hamlet, be it observed, is not without nerve. Let us recollect: "I will watch tonight"--and,

"My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve."

He is not without nerve. But his will is subject to higher faculties. He would have been greater had he been less great.

We are scarcely cognizant of the depths of Hamlet's meditations. Under the first pressure of his wounded sensibilities we have heard him exclaim--

"Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt;"

but he has since communed with unearthly things, and he now fearlessly approaches the great questions that have reference to the "something after death," as if the mystery could be pierced by the eye of reason. Of the soliloquy, "To be, or not to be," Coleridge remarks, "This speech is of absolutely universal interest--and yet to which of all Shakespeare's characters could it have been appropriately given but to Hamlet?" But we must mark the period of its introduction. It immediately precedes the scene of Hamlet's abrupt behaviour to Ophelia. It does so in the original sketch. She comes upon him with

"My lord, I have remembrances of yours,"

at a moment when his mind had surrendered itself to a train of the most solemn thought, induced by following out all the mysterious and fearful circumstances connected with his own being, and the awful responsibilities that were imposed upon him. It appears to us, that his rude denial of having given Ophelia "remembrances," and his "Ha, ha! are you honest?" with all the bitter words that follow, are meant to indicate the disturbance which is produced in his mind by the clashing of his love for her with the predominant thought that now makes all that belongs to his personal happiness worthless. His invective against women is not more bitter than his invective against himself: "What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth!" His bitterness escapes in generalizations: it is not against Ophelia, but against her sex, that he exclaims. To that gentle creature, the harshest thing he says is, "Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny." Coleridge thinks that the "certain harshness" in Hamlet's manner is produced by his perceiving that Ophelia was acting a part towards him and that they were watched. We doubt whether Shakespeare intended Hamlet to be here feigning. The passionate words are merely the exponents of the contest within--the contest between his love and the purpose which appeared to him to exclude all other thoughts. There was a real disturbance of his soul, which could only recover its balance by such an outbreak. The character of the disturbance is indicated by the contradictions of "I did love you once," and "I loved you not;" and, perhaps, as Lamb expresses it, these "tokens of an unhinged mind" are mixed with a profound artifice of love, to alienate Ophelia by affected discourtesies, so to prepare her mind for the breaking off of that loving intercourse which can no longer find a place amidst business so serious as that which he has to do." At any rate, the gentle and tender Ophelia is not outraged. Her pity only is excited; and, if the apparent harshness of Hamlet requires a proper appreciation of his character to reconcile it with our admiration of him, Shakespeare has at this moment most adroitly presented to us that description of him which Goethe anticipated--

"The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state."

Hamlet recovers a temporary tranquility. He has something to do; and that something is connected with his great business. It is more agreeable that it postpones that one duty, while it seems to lead onward to it. He has to prepare the players to speak his speech. Those who look upon the surface only may think these directions uncharacteristic of Hamlet; but nothing can really be more appropriate than that these rules of art, so just, so universal, and so complete, should be put by Shakespeare into the mouth of him who had pre-eminently "the scholar's tongue." Hamlet revels in this lesson; and it has produced a calm in his spirits, which is displayed in that affectionate address to Horatio, in which he appears to repose upon his friend as one

"Whose blood and judgment are so well comingled--"

to be, as it were, a prop to his own "weakness and melancholy." Be it observed that this is the first indication we have had that he has admitted Horatio into his confidence:

"There is a play tonight before the king:
One scene of it comes near the circumstances
Which I have told thee of my father's death."

The satisfaction he takes in the device of the "one scene"--the hopes which he has that his doubts may be resolved--lend a real elevation to his spirits, which may pass for his feigned "madness." He utters whatever comes uppermost; and the freedoms which he takes with Ophelia, while they are equally remote from bitterness or harshness, are such as in Shakespeare's age would not offend pure ears. The mixture in his wild speeches of fun and pathos is nevertheless most touching. "What should a man do, but be merry?" comes from the profoundest depths of a wounded spirit. The test is applied; the King is "frighted with false fire"--his "occulted" guilt has unkennelled itself. The elation of Hamlet's mind is at its height. His contempt of the King is openly pronounced to his creatures--Rosencrantz and Guildenstern quail before his biting sarcasm--Polonius is his butt. All this is, as he thinks, the coruscations of the cloud before the deadly flash. "Now could I drink hot blood," is the feeling that is at the bottom of all. Then comes the scene in which the King prays, and Hamlet postpones his revenge, with an excuse almost too dreadful to belong to human motives. They were not his motives. Coleridge discriminates between "impetuous, horror-striking fiendishness," and "the marks of reluctance and procrastination;" and it is sufficient to note this distinction, without entering into any refutation of opinions which show that it is easier to write mouthingly or pertly, as some have done, than to understand Shakespeare. It is in the scene with the Queen that Hamlet vindicates his own sanity--

"It is not madness
That I have uttered: bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word; which madness
Would gambol from."

This is 'Shakespeare's Test of Insanity'--the title of an essay by Sir H. Halford, in which he illustrates from his experience the accuracy of our great poet's delineations of the phenomena of mental disorder. [2]

Hamlet abstained from killing the King when he was "praying." This was a part of his weakness. But he did not abandon his purpose. The forced devotion of the guilty man--the "physic", as Hamlet calls it, did but prolong his "sickly days." Polonius falls by an accident, instead of his "betters." The "wretched, rash, intruding fool" was sacrificed to a sudden impulse, which stood in the place of a determined exercise of the will. Hamlet scarcely regrets the accident: "take thy fortune." His mind is eased by his colloquy with his mother. The vision again appears to whet his "almost blunted purpose" but nothing is done. His intellect is again at its subtleties:

"There's letters seal'd: and my two school-fellows--
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd--
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way,
And marshall me to knavery: Let it work;
For 'tis the sport, to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petar: and 't shall go hard,
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon."

He casts himself like a feather upon the great wave of fate--he embraces the events that marshalled him "to knavery." Dangerous as they be, they are better than doubt. He believes that he pierces through the darkness of his fate: "I see a cherub, that sees him." He leaves for England; not forgetting him whose

"Form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable;"

but still meditating instead of acting. It would be a curious problem to be solved, but it will never be solved, whether Shakespeare himself obliterated the scene which only appears in the second quarto, in which the workings of Hamlet's mind at this juncture are so distinctly revealed to us. That he meant the character to be mysterious, though not inexplicable, there can be no doubt. Does it become too plain when Hamlet's meeting with the Norwegian captain leads him into a train of thought, at first made up of generalizations, but in the end most conclusive as to the cause of his indecision?

"Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event--
(A thought, which, quarter'd, hath but one part wisdom,
And ever, three parts coward)--I do not know
Why yet I live to say, 'This thing's to do;'
Sith I have caus, and will, and strength, and means,
To do 't."

It was not "bestial oblivion." Oh, no. The eternal presence of the thought-- "this thing's to do," made him incapable of doing it. It was the "thinking too precisely on the event" that destroyed his will. It was in the same spirit that his will had been "puzzled" by the "dread of something after death"--that his conscience--(consciousness)--"sicklied o'er" his "native hue of resolution." The "delicate and tender prince" exposed what was mortal and unsure to fortune, death, and danger, even for an eggshell. Twenty thousand men, for a fantasy and trick of fame, went to their graves like beds. But, then, the men and their leader made "mouths at the invisible event." The "large discourse" of Hamlet, "looking before, and after," absorbed the tangible and present. In actions that appear indirectly to advance the execution of the great "commandment" that was laid upon him, he has decision and alacrity enough. His relation to Horatio (we are somewhat anticipating) of his successful device against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would appear to come from a man who is all will. His intellectual activity revels in the telling story. Coleridge has admirably pointed out, in 'The Friend,' how "the circumstances of time and place are all stated with equal compression and rapidity;" but still, with the relater's general tendency to generalize. The event has happened, and Hamlet does not think too precisely of its consequences. The issue will be shortly known.

"It will be short: the interim is mine;
And a man's life no more than to say--one."

This looks like decision, growing out of the narrative of events in which Hamlet had exhibited his decision. But, even in his own account, the beginning of this action was his "indiscretion," proceeding from sudden and indefinable impulses--

"Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep."

Wonderfully, indeed, has Shakespeare managed to follow the old history--"How Fengon devised to send Hemlet to the king of England with secret letters to have him put to death, and how Hamlet, when his companions slept, read the letters, and, instead of them, counterfeited others, willing the king of England to put the two messengers to death"--without destroying the unity of his own conception of Hamlet.

Mrs. Jameson, in her delightful 'Characteristics of Women,' has sketched the character of Ophelia with all a woman's truth and tenderness. One passage only can we venture to take, for it is an image that to our minds is far better than many words: "Once at Murano, I saw a dove caught in a tempest; perhaps it was young, and either lacked strength of wing to reach its home, or the instinct which teaches to shun the brooding storm; but so it was--and I watched it, pitying, as it flitted, poor bird! hither and thither, with its silver pinions shining against the black thunder-cloud, til, after a few giddy whirls, it fell, blinded, affrighted, and bewildered, into the turbid wave beneath, and was swallowed up forever. It reminded me then of the fate of Ophelia; and now, when I think of her, I see again before me that poor dove, beating with weary wing, bewildered amid the storm." And why is it, when we think upon the fate of the poor storm-striken Ophelia, that we never reproach Hamlet? We are certain that it was no "trifling of his favour" that broke her heart. We are assured that his seeming harshness did not sink deep into her spirit. We believe that he loved her more than "forty thousand brothers"--though a very ingenious question has been raised upon that point. And yet she certainly perished through Hamlet and his actions. But we blame him not; for her destiny was involved in his. We cannot avoid transcribing a passage from the article in Blackwood's Magazine, which we have already mentioned: "Soon as we connect her destiny with Hamlet, we know that darkness is to overshadow her, and that sadness and sorrow will step in between her and the ghost-haunted avenger of his father's murder. Soon as our pity is excited for her, it continues gradually to deepen; and, when she appears in her madness, we are not more prepared to weep over all its most pathetic movements than we afterwards are to hear of her death. Perhaps the description of that catastrophe by the Queen is poetical rather than dramatic; but its exquisite beauty prevails, and Ophelia, dying and dead, is still the same Ophelia that first won our love. Perhaps the very forgetfulness of her, throughout the remainder of the play, leaves the soul at full liberty to dream of the departed. She has passed away from the earth like a beautiful air--a delightful dream. There would have been no place for her in the agitation and tempest of the final catastrophe."

Garrick omitted the grave-diggers. He had the terror of Voltaire before his eyes. The English audience compelled their restoration. Was it that "the groundlings" could not endure the loss of the ten waistcoats which the clown had divested himself of, time out of mind?--or, was there in this scene something that brought Hamlet home to the humblest, in the large reach of his universal philosophy? M. Villemain, in his Essay on Shakespeare, appears to us utterly to have mistaken this scene: "Strike not out from the tragedy of 'Hamlet,' as Garrick had attempted to do, the labours and the pleasantries of the grave-diggers. Be present at this terrible buffoonery; and you will behold terror and gaiety rapidly moving an immense audience.... Youth and beauty contemplate with insatiable curiosity images of decay, and minute details of death; and then the uncouth pleasantries which are blended with the action of the chief personages seem from time to time to relieve the spectators from the weight which oppresses them, and shouts of laughter burst from every seat. Attentive to this spectacle, the coldest countenance alternately manifest their gloom or their gaiety; and even the statesman smiles at the sarcasm of the grave-digger who can distinguish between the skull of a courtier and a buffoon." This may be the Hamlet of the theatre; but M. Villemain should have looked at the Hamlet of the closet. The conversation of the clowns before Hamlet comes upon the scene is indeed pleasantry intermixed with sarcasm; but the moment that Hamlet opens his lips, the meditative richness of his mind is poured out upon us, and he grapples with the most familiar and yet the deepest thoughts of human nature, in a style that is sublime from its very obviousness and simplicity. Where is the terror, unless it be terrible to think of "the house appointed for all living;" and what is to provoke the long peals of laughter, where the grotesque is altogether subordinate to the solemn and the philosophical? It is the entire absorption of the fellow who "has no feeling of his business," by him of "daintier sense" who considers it "too curiously," that makes this scene so impressive to the reader.

Of Hamlet's violence at the grave of Ophelia we think with the critic on Sir Henry Halford's Essay, that it was a real aberration, and not a simulated frenzy. His apparently cold expression, "What, the fair Ophelia!" appears to us to have been an effort of restraint, which for the moment overmastered his reason. In the interval between this "towering passion" and the final catastrophe, Hamlet is thoroughly himself--meditative to excess with Horatio--most acute, playful, but altogether gentlemanly, in the scene with the frivolous courtier. But observe that he forms no plans. He knows the danger which surrounds him; and he still feels with regard to the usurper as he always felt:

"Is 't not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm?"

But his will is still essentially powerless; and now he yields to the sense of predestination: "If it be now, 't is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all." The catastrophe is perfectly in accordance with this prostration of Hamlet's mind. It is the result of an accident, produced we know not how. Someone has suggested a polite ceremonial on the part of Hamlet, by which the foils might be exchanged with perfect consistency. We would rather not know how they were exchanged. "The catastrophe," says Johnson, "is not very happily produced; the exchange of weapons is rather an expedient of necessity than a stroke of art. A scheme might easily be formed to kill Hamlet with the dagger, and Laertes with the bowl." No doubt. A tragedy terminated by chance appears to be a capital thing for the rule-and-line men to lay hold of. But they forget the poet's purpose. Had Hamlet been otherwise, his will would have been the predominant agent in the catastrophe. The empire of chance would have been over-ruled; the guilty would have been punished; the innocent perhaps would have been spared. Have we lost anything? Then we should not have had the Hamlet who is "the darling of every country in which the literature of England has been fostered;" then we should not have had the Hamlet who is "a concentration of all the interests that belong to humanity; in whom there is a more intense conception of individual human life than perhaps in any other human composition: that is, a being with springs of thought, and feeling, and action, deeper than we can search;" then we should not have had the Hamlet of whom it has been said, "Hamlet is a name; his speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet's brain. What, then, 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." [3]

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  1. Blackwood's Magazine. vol. ii. page 504.
  2. Our readers will find a very able article on this Essay in The Quarterly Review, vol. xlix. p. 181.
  3. "Hamlet." The Miscellaneous Works of William Hazlitt. Philadelphia: Carey and Hart, 1848.
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