The number of questions raised by Shakespeare's Hamlet have been legion; but there can be no question as to the remote source of the play. It was the Historie of Hamblet, attributed to Saxo Grammaticus, who wrote it as a chapter in the history of Denmark. It was translated into French by Belleforest, and "imprinted" in English "by Richard Bradocke, for Thomas Pauier," at his shop "in Cornehill, neere to the Royall Exchange," London, 1608. To students who yearn to get at the meaning of the play, who are more interested in Shakespeare's work than in what he read or knew, it is of little moment whether he found the story of Hamlet in French or in English, or whether he drew it from an older drama than the one we find in the first and second quartos and the first folio. "The play's the thing."
It is quite evident that Shakespeare's Hamlet owes almost everything, except illumination, the inexplicable synthetic quality of genius, to the Historie of Hamblet. A careful comparison will show this, though it will reveal the marvellous transformation which mere material takes in the hand of the artist; as an example of the relations of the chronicler to the poet, the power of compilation to that of imaginative synthesis, and life to literature, it is even more apt than the study of the Morte Arthure of Sir Thomas Malory in comparison with the Idyls of the King.
There can be no doubt that Hamlet is the study of a mind, a study--it seems absurd at this time in the life of the Tragedy to use an adjective to qualify it--a consummate study of a very delicate yet not unbalanced mind. But since Goethe wrote, after the faint praise of Dryden and the neglect of so many years, it has been so much the fashion to strive to reach beyond this complete and adequate study, that those of the public who read about Shakespeare without reading his works are justified in concluding that the author of Hamlet neglected his duty in not leaving a "key" to it. We have every reason to believe that the Elizabethans understood Hamlet; that they desired no lecturers to explain it before the scene at Elsinore opened; that it was not in their opinion a problem play. Why, then, should it be in our time obscure to so many who express such unbounded and even ecstatic love for it? The motive and the action are entirely clear when not mutilated in their expression to suit the demands of the modern theatre. Naturally, a change has taken place in the point of view. Auditors of today do not look on the divinity that formerly hedged a king as a quality of daily life, but they expect in literature and on the stage a condition of virtue and self-sacrifice--altruism is the word--which is not usual in their thoughts in dealing with their everyday relations with their neighbors. For instance, the millionaire who forecloses a mortgage on the land of a struggling farmer is a monster in a novel or on the stage, and poetry shudders at him; but in real life he dines with other persons who have hurled murderers to justice, pleaded in court for the vengeance of the law upon lesser offenders, and who would not hesitate to shoot in hot or cold blood the insulters or injurers of their fathers, mothers, wives, or children. Of Hamlet the Prince, whose father has been killed foully, whose mother has been stained and degraded in sight of his people, whose kingdom has been usurped, even by the election of the corrupt nobles and the connivance of that demoralized mother, the auditors of today demand, as a matter of course, an excessive altruism based on Christian principles seldom applied in modern life to actual conditions. Hamlet's plain duty, in the tragedy, is to obey the command of his father's spirit. The Elizabethans saw it in this way. It was clear, according to their ethics, that Hamlet's struggle was a struggle against duty, not a virtuous doubt as to whether it was right for him to destroy the clever, kingly, unscrupulous, and subtle villain whose sin in marrying his brother's wife, coupled with the rumor of a more horrible and secret crime, darkened and threatened to curse the whole State of Denmark. Miss Fredericka Beardsley Gilchrist, in a remarkably frank and original interpretation of The True Story of Hamlet and Ophelia, says of the reader of Shakespeare:
"He must be ready to believe that Shakespeare's text contains all the materials needed to make the play intelligible, and he must seek for the meaning of the text, without considering what this or that commentator thinks about it. At the same time he must remember that playgoers of Shakespeare's day probably comprehended the drama perfectly, for they possessed a help to its understanding which we have not--the actors who portrayed it knew what Shakespeare intended them to portray. This the modern student must discern for himself, remembering always that the text, unless it has been hopelessly distorted, is subject to the same interpretation now as then."
The modern student receives, as a rule, very little help from the modern actor, who arranges Shakespeare's plays to suit his special powers, and who does not hesitate to "adapt" speeches and to cut out such passages as he chooses. It is not to the theatre that the students must go fo aid, but to Hamlet itself, as seen in the text collated by the help of the two quartos and the first folio. He will find certain inconsistencies, some merely apparent because of his lack of ability to project himself into Elizabethan and Jacobean England. This lack of ability is not confined to the student, but to the commentators whom he, often in spite of his own better judgment, or rather his instinct, follows.
One of the most flagrant examples of this blind following of the opinions of others is shown in the varying comments on the position of the Ghost--a most important one in Hamlet. It did not surprise the English of the beginning of the seventeenth century that the murdered King should come back from the state of purgation in which many Englishmen still beleived. It is impossible to kill the vital beliefs of a nation by mere edicts; and the announcement of King Hamlet that he had been murdered without chance of confession, with his sins upon his soul, did not imply, as it would have implied to the Puritan mind, that he was either in heaven or hell. He was in the middle state, suffering terribly, knowing, too, that his beloved kingdom of Denmark was in the grip of a monstrous usurper, and that, if his son were not awakened to the danger of the moment, his dynasty must pass, perhaps forever, from the throne. The auditors, in Shakespeare's time, took the Ghost seriously. He was not merely a piece of perfunctory stage machinery; he was the better part of a good man--not a saintly man--and of a noble king. He had sinned, but he had not died in mortal sin; he was suffering in purging fire, with the torment of an awful secret upon him, fore-knowing that, as a kind and a patriot, he ought to reveal this secret to the Prince, his son. He must be mute by day, but at night he may speak, and he may not reveal too much. Let us observe how the mission and message of the Ghost are, as a rule, treated. King Hamlet is "necessary to the play," and that is all! The Ghost is a stock figure in the dramas of the group of writers to which Shakespeare belonged, and that is all! He demands revenge from a son too moral and "modern minded" to accept his dictum of spirit, and that is all. These conclusions are either frivolous or foolish. And yet, unless the character of the Ghost be made consistent with the Christian traditions of the time, they must be accepted. If we accept them, the drama becomes both frivolous and foolish; but as it is one of the most solemn and sublime emanations of human genius, they cannot be accepted.
The Ghost is not a mere theatrical figure. Hamlet is not a modern altruist, analyzing his mind from the point of view of Mr. Henry James and frightened by the bloodthirsty demands of his father. King Hamlet had been a creature of flesh and blood, and he spoke in deadly earnest, for the salvation of his kingdom, for the punishment of sin, to his son, the heir of that kingdom, the Prince of Denmark, who on his mother's death would be king. That other theory, that the Ghost was an illusion, is dispersed very carefully in the beginning of the play. With his usual skill in making the intention of the situation clear, Shakespeare converts Horatio from a doubter to a believer fully convinced. The Ghost might be the illusion of an overwrought mind, in the awful scene between the mother and son, when the example of Nero and Agrippina is only too near Hamlet's vengeful mind; but the whole spirit of the tragedy is against that supposition. Whatever might be said in its favor should, however, be considered; but the letter, the meaning, the movement of all the scenes in Hamlet leading to the revelation of the betrayed and assassinated King, in whose person the whole State of Denmark was betrayed and assassinated, show that the Ghost was a spirit, waiting, in suffering, to be cleansed of the stains of earth.
Saxo Grammaticus wrote the story of Hamlet in the twelfth century; the French translation appeared in 1570; the only edition we have of the English translation is put in 1608. Dr. Furnivall, in his preface to the "Leopold" Shakespeare, says, "We know well how all Scandinavian legend and history are full of the duty of revenge for a father's murder." This, however, would not have been enough to prevent the mission and message of the Ghost from shocking the moral sensibilities of the English people, who loved to read Hamlet, as we see by the number of printed editions, as well as to see it acted. The scene was not put in a pagan time, the sentiments of the play were not pagan; the tone was much more of the sixteenth century than of the sixth; therefore the fact that the duty of revenge for a father's murder was inculcated in Scandinavian literature would be insufficient, unless spacially emphasized from a pagan Scandinavian point of view, to arouse the unqualified sympathy of the English. It must be admitted that these Elizabethans, like their contemporary Spaniards and Italians, found nothing offensive in a mixture of Christian symbolism and pagan mythology in their poems and plays; but the spectacle of a Christian king, lamenting his sinfulness, demanding the blood of his murderer for having cut him off from the consolations and helps of religion, could scarcely have pleased auditors who were neither irreverent nor unintelligent, nor does anything in Shakespeare's work warrant the supposition that he would have presented such a contradiction. It has been suggested that Shakespeare's Hamlet, following the Historie of Hamblet, mixed the pagan with the Christian in matters more essential than mythological allusions; and it is true that the Hamblet of Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest had two wives; but then, his chronicler says, he had not yet received the light of the Gospel. The chronicler admires the Prince of Denmark extremely, though he was not a Christian, and he excuses his vengeance wreaked on his uncle Fengon (Shakespeare's Claudius) by examples from the Old Testament:
"If vengeance ever seemed to have any show of justice, it is then, when pity and affection constraineth us to remember our fathers unjustly murdered, as the things whereby we are dispensed withal, and which seek the means not to leave treason and murder unpunished: seeing David a holy and just king, and of nature simple, courteous and debonaire, yet when he died he charged his son Solomon (that succeeded him in his throne) not to suffer certain men that had done him injury to escape unpunished: Not that this holy King (as then ready to die, and to give account before God of all his actions) was careful or desirous of revenge, but to leave this example unto us, that where the Prince or Country is interested, the desire of revenge cannot by any means (how small soever) bear the title of condemnation, but is rather commendable and worthy of praise: for otherwise the good kings of Judah, nor others had not pursued them to death, that had offended their predecessors, if God himself had not inspired and ingraven that desire within their hearts. Hereof the Athenian laws bear witness, whose custom was to erect Images in remembrance of those men that, revenging the injuries of the Common wealth, boldly massacred tyrants and such as troubled the peace and welfare of the Citizens."
This is the apology of a Christian chronicler for a pagan prince, in which reasons of state, as well as filial piety, are cited. But the means by which Shakespeare's Hamlet discerns the murder and incest committed by his uncle are different from those named in the Historie of Hamblet. No ghost appears in the Historie, though it is hinted that Hamblet the pagan was wise in divination, and that "it would seem miraculus yt Hamblet shold divine in yt sort, which often prooued so true (yt as I said before,) the diuel had not knowledge of things past, but to grant it he knoweth things to come,"--this Hamblet having been instructed in the devilish art whereby "the wicked spirit abuseth mankind, and advertiseth him, (as he can) of things past."
In Shakespeare's Hamlet no such education in deviltry is suggested. Hamlet has thought deeply at Wittenberg, where free thought was the fashion, but he has not attempted, like Benvenuto Cellini, to raise spirits. And Shakespeare fills the Ghost with so much pathos, with such nobility, that it is evident that the spirit speaks not to deceive; he has no connection with the arts of the devil, though at times his son doubts him. To the eyes of the Christian,--let us take the position of the translators of the Historie, for example--the spectacle of a Christian son urged to personal vengeance by a Christian father, who hopes for heaven, would be abhorrent; and the Elizabethans, who, if we may judge by the dramas they loved best, insisted on high ideals, would not have tolerated it. Whatever may be said of the drama in general, one thing is certain--the successful play must have the sympathy of the audience. It is certain, then, that Hamlet, one of the most successful of Shakespeare's plays, had that sympathy; and that Shakespeare deliberately maintained it by exalting the mission of the Ghost to the utmost is equally certain.
In the Historie, Geruth--the Gertrude of Hamlet--has fallen before her husband's death; her crime is "incestuous," as it is with Shakespeare, who permits us to believe that Gertrude did not sin until after her husband's death. It is the same crime that Henry VIII, in his delicate scrupulosity, insisted that he had committed because his brother Arthur had been husband to Queen Katharine. The matter needed no explanation to the citizens of London under Elizabeth or James I. The whole subject had been, and still was, a matter of moment concerned much with the state of the realm. Both Church and State in England still held the Catholic traditions about marriage, though they had ostensibly rejected its sacramental character. The sin of Claudius and the Queen, the corruption of the court, the melancholy of the young Hamlet, the evil rumors of the taking off of the King--all these things prepared men's minds for strange apparitions, and even the valiant soldiers guarding the court were expectant that some solemn or horrible event, on which they had brooded during long winter nights, would happen, betokening evil, at Elsinore.
The soldiers, who fear nothing of flesh and blood, tremble at every shadow. There has been talk of a walking spirit--the spirit of a righteous king fearing some ill that threatens his kingdom. Francisco is on guard, just before the dawn, on this night in the late Winter. Mystery is in the air. The kingdom is alive with warlike preparations. Are the people about to rise against Claudius, who has wedded his brother's wife with unseemly and indecent haste, and been named king, doubtless at her request, with equally indecent haste? The Prince Hamlet, bereft of his rightful place, has proposed to lead no revolt (this his few intimates about the court knew), though many outside who love him would be ready to follow him. There are many, indeed, out of and in the court, ready to rid the country of the politic Claudius, who holds his throne by diplomacy and the favor of the Queen. Thinking of what may happen in this sin-stained land--for the marriage of Claudius and the Queen is incestuous, not only in the minds of the Danes, but in the minds of the auditors in London--Francisco stands, waiting for the guard to relieve him. Bernardo comes, and just then there is no glimpse of the moon through the darkened air. He is afraid of no earthly thing; but the figure of the sentinal panoplied in guise of war--for so King Hamlet has appeared--startles him. Instead of waiting for his comrade's challenge, he calls out, almost tremulously, "Who's there?" Francisco rebukes this breach of military usage. "Nay, answer me," he calls; "stand and unfold yourself." Much relieved by the sound of this human voice, he answers naturally, "Long live the King!" To which Francisco, who has doubless had his own fears, says doubtfully:
Francisco, no longer doubting, praises his promptness. Bernardo, the man on duty, says, with a sigh:
Hamlet, left alone, calls on the powers of heaven and earth. "And shall I couple hell?" he asks, and for the moment rejects the temptation. He believes that this is the spirit of his father, King and Royal Dane; but he accepts the mission as one of personal vengeance; he begins at once "to taint his mind" with thoughts of revenge, notonly on Claudius, but on Queen Gertrude; for the instant his thoughts are as hellish as those of Nero planning the death of Agrippina. He vows himself--sweeping away ambition, and the love of Ophelia, who cannot be pure since the noblest of women is impure--to vengeance. He is not the Prince, the heir of the kingdom, the savior of his country, but the wronged man threatening to return evil for evil. The Ghost can speak no more to him, for the morn is near. The wounded heart of the man had neutralized the cry for justice of the King; but it was too late: he could say no more, but only "Taint not thy mind." The action was now with Hamlet; and Hamlet,
Sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,--
of the philosophic doubt of Wittenberg, is not great enough to understand. He is "prompted to his revenge by heaven and hell," he says. Fortinbras looks on his mission as prompted by heaven, as part of his duty to a father slain. Horatio would have seen the welfare of the kingdom at stake, but doubt makes Hamlet weak. He trusts Horatio only; he has no faith in the love of the people for him--that very people waiting, as we see at the revolt of the ever-beloved Laertes, to follow any brave man against the incestuous King. Hamlet hesitates; the spirit may be the devil, who may have assumed this pleasing shape to lead him to damnation, as the evil one is potent with melancholy minds--and Hamlet fears his own weakness and melancholy.
He must have another test; he must prove the truth of the Ghost, for he is not strong enough to believe. That test he applies, all the while hanging on a revenge prompted alike by heaven and hell. Why should he have coupled hell with the duty of a prince and the sorrows of a son? The Ghost has not urged him to league himself with evil. He has not asked him to kill Claudius in hot blood or to compass his ruin by intrigues. The truth is that Hamlet is not noble enough to interpret the message of his father. It is folly to overload the situation of Hamlet with arguments drawn from the theologians. Shakespeare was not a scientific theologian. In the mood of men of his time, who hoped for heaven and feared hell, it was the duty of a man to bring the murderer of another to justice--much more so the duty of a prince to bring the assassin of a kingly father to justice. Claudius had placed himself beyond the law, and the pitiful heavens themselves shuddered at his crimes, which cried aloud for justice. As a person, Hamlet might have forgiven Claudius and bidden him go his way and sin no more, as the Ghost charitably forgives Gertrude, thinking only of the salvation of her "fighting soul." The Ghost has no doubt of his right to command his son to punish the monster who has deprived him of his human personality and who is corrupting the kingdom. The Ghost, to the auditors at the theatre in London, represented the State; he was the anointed king demanding justice for sacrilege, providing for the peace of the kingdom, and the life even of the rightful heir. The Ghost does not ask Hamlet to kill for the mere pleasure of killing; he does not desire the loss of the soul of his enemy, though his enemy has killed a king and married with his wife. The Ghost speaks as a king; his woe and agony are poured almost involuntarily into the ear of his amazed son; and, after he has cried out for vindictive justice, he remembers perhaps that he may be misunderstood, and whispers to the Prince,
Taint not thy mind.
That Hamlet's test by the play confirms the truth of the message of the Ghost we know, and that he delays action we know. We can imagine how Fortinbras or even the half-corrupted Laertes would have acted at this time. Horatio would have understood the Ghost's words as bidding him deprive the usurper of the throne and save the Queen from the worst in her. He would not have doubted nor would he have let hate so overmaster him as to desire to destroy the very soul of the usurper of the throne. It would have sufficed for him to know that Claudius was the regicide, the enemy of society, the outlaw, and he would have acted in accordance with the accepted principles of justice. Having received the perturbed spirit as that of the King, he would have doubted no more. Evidence he would doubtless have collected for its value to others, but he would have needed no other testimony to add to the avouchment of his own eyes. As to hell, or hatred which is of hell, or the satisfaction of this hatred, it would have been cast aside. Fortinbras would have attacked the King and his court at once with a band of resolutes; Laertes would have hated and raised the people. Hamlet, doubting still, hates and hesitates. He spares the King for fear that Claudius, dying at prayer, may not be damned; the powers of hell possess his soul; he forgets the noble part of the message. He rushes to his mother to accuse her.
- Let not ever
- The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
- Let me be cruel, not unnatural!