Hamlet: Prince of Denmark
Hamlet: The Play Hamlet: The History Hamlet: The Characters Hamlet: The Criticism More Hamlet
The Theological Basis of Hamlet
The following article was originally published in Shakespeare Studies. Ed. Charles Elbert Rhodes. Buffalo: The Literary Clinic, 1916.

The fundamental idea of this immortal play is the greatness of action. The dramatist teaches that consideration robs action of its power. "The native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." The basis of Hamlet is profoundly theological. Divine will and human freedom perpetually interplay. The problem of life is presented before us like a vast landscape. Secret guilt is also portrayed with a power excelled only in Macbeth. "Foul deeds will rise though all the earth o'erwhelm them to men's eyes."

Gervinus ingeniously declares that the drama has two moral themes: "that intentions, conceived in passion, vanish with the emotions; and that the human will changes and is influenced and enfeebled by delays."

There have been four views concerning the play; first, that Hamlet's delay was due to external causes. This falls down, for there is no reference to it, and he planned the play scene to convince himself; second, that he was restrained by conscience from revenge, but against this in Act V, scene 2, line 63; third, that a lovely nature without strength of nerve sinks under a great burden; this is inadequate; fourth, Coleridge's view that Hamlet is the tragedy of reflection, that irresolution is the cause of his delay, and that this is the result of speculation in an introspective mind. Coleridge first brought this explanation forward and it is now generally accepted. If we add an inherited melancholy and exquisite sensibility, the drama is as wide as humanity and as enduring as time.

The style is that of Julius Caesar, very weighty and solemn. The play contains 3,924 lines. Macbeth is the shortest of the tragedies. The scene of Hamlet in Elsinore, a seaport of Denmark, on the island of Zealand, not far from Copenhagen, where a statue to Hamlet may be seen. Scarlet was the royal color and hence the Queen and Claudius oppose the appearance of Hamlet in black. Alone among Shakespeare's plays _Hamlet_ has a northern atmosphere. The dramatist loved the warmth and beauty of southern climes, and the melancholy Dane alone is set beneath gray skies and cloudy nights.

The first Act discloses Denmark's condition, Hamlet appears and utters his first soliloquy, Ophelia enters, Polonius gives his wonderful advice to his son, and Hamlet meets the ghost.

The second Act shows Hamlet's influence on Ophelia, he has put the antic disposition on, the players arouse his determination, Ophelia thinks his brain unhinged by love, he plans to test the guilty king, he lashes himself into fury, and a night passes before the crisis.

The third Act gives the great soliloquy, which is the finest debate on man and suicide in all literature; Hamlet talks with Ophelia, he goes to his mother's chamber and finds the king praying, he kills old Polonius, gives his advice to the players, and the court play follows.

The fourth Act shows Hamlet leaving for England; we have the third soliloquy; Ophelia is now insane, she dies; and the King and Laertes conspire against Hamlet.

The fifth Act gives the grave-digging scene, Hamlet is prostrated, but "there's a divinity that doth shape our ends rough hew them how we will"; Hamlet and Laertes meet, they fence, Hamlet is struck down, but kills the King; the Queen drinks the poisoned cup by mistake; Laertes dies, then Hamlet, and the tragedy ends. Some think that the entire action included but ten days.

This play shows SHakespeare's great knowledge of mental philosophy. The pangs of despised love, the law's delay, the insolence of office, and the spurns which patient merit of the unworthy takes--these are still the source of melancholy and the cause of madness. Will is fate, and when will abdicates, chance rules. We have the nothingness of reflection. The great monologue on suicide and doubt is followed by another equally remarkable on reason and resolution. Tennyson thought Hamlet the first creation in all literature. Thinking creates more problems than it solves. Enormous intellectual activity and aversion to real action are here combined with exquisite power.

The soliloquy in the graveyard is the best of sermons on the vanity of life. And where else is conscience so portrayed? Hamlet knew the force of conscience and instructed the players; he watched the features of the guilty monarch. The voice of his brother's blood cries to him from the ground. "O my offense is rank and smells to heaven." The Queen shudders as Hamlet holds up before her his father's picture. The criminal lawyer who would force a confession from the accused, can have no better textbook than this play. And we are taught that thinking without action destroys belief. Hamlet lays hold of nothing with energy. His very faith becomes clouded and transitory, because he never acts. He is the type of thousands who waver between immortality and despair.

This great play alone reveals the indebtedness of the King James version of the Bible to Shakespeare. He came when the Bishop's Bible was in use and he used it freely; indeed all the secular authors in the world combined do not give so much evidence of the reading of the sacred volume as the great dramatist alone. "It hath the primal eldest curse upon't, a brother's murder" is the curse of Cain. The noble apostrophe to man in Act II is almost a paraphrase of the Psalms. "There's a divinity that shapes our ends rough hew them how we will," is an echo of Romans and its doctrines. "The world is weary, stale, flat and unprofitable" recalls Ecclesiastes. All the functions of repentance are given in that speech of the king in Act III. The soul is called immortal. Jepthah and his daughter illustrate Act II. We hear of a time in Rome when the graves stood tenantless as in Jerusalem. There is a "special providence in the fall of a sparrow" is a direct quotation from our Lord. The Ghost confined to fast in fires till the foul crimes are burnt and purged away, is a conception of Purgatory. Hamlet's cry on seeing the apparition, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us," is from the Book of Hebrews. "The devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape," is an echo of St. Paul who says, "Satan can transform himself into an angel of light." Polonius' familiar advice to his son is the practical wisdom of St. James. "We are arrant knaves all," said Hamlet to Ophelia.

The Scriptures assure us that all have sinned. Conscience does make cowards of us all. Nowhere are the efficacy and purpose of prayer better delineated than in this play. "Words without thoughts never to heaven go." "There's nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so," what is that but "as a man thinketh in his heart so is he?" "The undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns," shows that Shakespeare was thinking of Job--"I go whence I shall not return even to the land of darkness and the shadow of death." Hamlet calls the human body a temple as does St. Paul. "O shame! where is thy blush," is a skillful turn of the sublime, "O death where is thy sting?"--Our literature will never regain body and force and majesty until men drink long and deep of the English Bible, the source of power and beauty in Shakespeare, Byron, De Quincey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Ruskin.

In Claudius the King we have a man regal, dignified, with lofty manners and never small; yet treacherous, faithless, and untrustworthy. The Ghost calls him seductive. When Hamlet meets him, his denunciations dissolve. He is a large and attractive man, yet lives in dread of death and makes his way by murder. He is the Cain of Shakespeare. Polonius is a type of the politician in his dotage, a statesman out of repair, a man of intrigue and self-interest, to whom Hamlet is a constant mystery. He is always hunting for some plot to guide. Hence he perpetually trips himself. No trace of the real diplomatist is in him. He agrees with everyone and cannot see when he is justly ridiculed. His famous advice to his son partially redeems this hesitating and negative character. Here Shakespeare is rivalled only by Burns in his lines to a young friend.

Horatio is a very Apollo in moral beauty. Disinterested, loyal, prompt, fearless, of deep feeling, true to his convictions, ready to warn Hamlet at his own risk, utterly unselfish, just, tender, strong, and yet of surpassing modesty. Shakespeare seems to have drawn in him the ideal friend: one who indeed "is not passion's slave and who in suffering all suffers nothing, with no revenue but his good spirits," and well does Hamlet wear him in "his heart's core."

Laertes lives close to the earth. He is a pure materialist. "Be wary, best safety lies in fear," he says. He is economical: "And for my means, I'll husband them so well they shall go far with little." Trained in France, he is a man of the world, destitute of spirituality, fond of music and fencing, false to his friends, ungenerous, unreflective, but of prompt energy and decision. In the whole play he is the only opposite of Hamlet. This shows Shakespeare's wisdom.

Weakness, irresolution, a willingness to buy stolen goods, the puppet of the King, having a flexible conscience, and incapable of lasting repentance--such is the Queen. We are ever disappointed in this woman of paste. Yet she surprises us once when she nobly addresses Ophelia, scattering "sweets to the sweet" on her grave. And she is Hamlet's mother and the more's the marvel. We are not told her share in the awful crime. Her weakness crowns her son's sorrow.

"A bloody deed, almost as bad, good mother; as kill a king and marry with his brother!"

Poor Ophelia! In all the list of Shakespeare's women where is there one so pathetic? Too good for earth, too pure for life, never disclosing her love, and ending her spotless career in madness; she is too delicate and unworldly to analyze, a fragile shell, a momentary dream. Her wreck is the climax of sadness. Her hopes bud only to droop. Her mind disintegrates like Prospero's vision. Perhaps no character in literature has so awakened pity. She cannot rise from calamity, like Hero; but sinks beneath it, like a sensitive plant.

And what of Hamlet? Is he not Shakespeare's riddle? Confessedly his master creation, he has attracted, enthralled, and puzzled the first intellects of the world. "Hamlet is Shakespeare," says Taine. "Hamlet is Hamlet," says Hebler. "It is we who are Hamlet," says Hazlitt. At the beginning, and before his mind has been shocked by his father's apparition, he ponders on the emptiness of this life and the solemn mysteries of the life to come. "O that this too too solid flesh would melt!" This is the natural outcome of his reflective soul. In the earliest passage in which he communes with himself, he broods on the advisability of suicide. He was marvelously sensitive to all the miseries of life. "O that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon 'gainst self-slaughter." To him it was a hollow pageant: "how weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, seem to me all the uses of this world."

Out of the dim unknown streamed the influences to which he was singularly responsive. Open is he to all those occult forces--"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." Brooding melancholy, the poetic temperament, a spiritualized intellect, a womanly softness, an enfeebled will, a princely grace, a piteous humor, and a mighty heart: all meet in this most subtle creation of the world's most gifted mind. Grief breaks his heart. He is charged with a filial duty for which his will is inadequate. As Goethe said, "he is an acorn planted in a vase." His outlook of the universe is so vast that his sense of responsibility is paralyzed and his ability for action is arrested. Great is his thinking, but it is without purpose. He roams in the twilight between reason and madness. Heaven enraptures him, and Hell haunts him. No character, it is said, since Christ, has ever formed an object of such absorbing interest to men. Apart from his setting he would still be Hamlet. Grand in his conceptions, lonely in his grandeur, desolate in his pain, he is the eternal mouthpiece for all men who confess the universe a complexity, a paradox, a puzzle. "To be or not to be."

No sadder feature in Hamlet appears than his inability to find solace in love. Ophelia is incompetent to understand him, and loneliness again is his atmosphere. Men to him stand self-revealed. "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action--hold the mirror up to nature," these words are the model for the stage. He pulls off men's disguises as easily as he casts aside his own cloak. In passages that defy criticism, he uncovers motives, ends, hopes, fears, virtues, defects, and somehow our experience always throbs "yes" in response. Hamlet is never at rest. All things to him are shadows. Like Paul, he saw that the things which are seen are temporal. Yet his spirit is indomitable. Distracted and irresolute, he never surrenders. He stands, a lofty soul, perplexed by life's mystery, depressed by affliction, awed by the nearness of the other world, yet confronted by the stern duties of the hour. The parting from Ophelia is desolate and tragic, and flashes a light into his inner heart. "I loved Ophelia, forty thousand brothers could not make up my sum."

Beneath all of Hamlet's words, like the rocks beneath the soil, we may discover a great mental force and a courtly elegance, as native to him as beauty to the rose. Sometimes he is dull and inert; again he is all life. Grief corrodes his grandeur. In the Ghost-scene he is superstitious: "I'll watch tonight, perchance 'twill walk again." With Ophelia he is tender; when Polonius dies, he is furious; "How now! a rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!"; at Ophelia's grave he is in despair. Predisposed to meditation on the vanity of life, his soul was crowded with august and portentious fancies, weird as the witches in Macbeth; and he sways like a balloon when he is in touch with these unearthly powers. "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!" Princely in action, exalted in manner, tearful in humor, incomparable in thought, his power to execute is completely benumbed, and fate reigns over will.

No real thinker can study Hamlet and remain an agnostic. Thee is patient sweetness. There is wonderful pathos. There is vital attachment to Horatio. There is love for his father's memory. There is a sense of earth's misery, of the instability of all things about us, that almost remind one, at times, of Christ's lament over Jerusalem. He is man at the apex of his development, disappointed, unsatisfied, shrouded in doubt, struggling for light, with a tender heart, a vacillating purpose, a comprehensive vision, and a paralyzed will.

And Hamlet is conscious of his own defects. He is forever analyzing his emotions. He gazes into his conscience and says: "Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all." The engine works, but the driving wheel is still. He is never spontaneous, exuberant, healthy. He is always self-conscious, introspective, morbid. Thought replaces action. He sees the good in evil and the evil in good so clearly that he makes no choice between them.

He is a warning to every man in whom reflection has usurped duty, and who conceives that talking is activity. Such men are not rare. The real world, to Hamlet, is obscured by the mental haze in which he moves. Indifference leads to feebleness, feebleness to inability, and inability to disaster. Notice that his continual declaration of his resolution shows that he has none. Never was the critical instinct so carefully and exactly developed. Iago is critical, but he has purpose; Laertes raises a mob and destroys the security of a palace, but Hamlet only ponders. He lives in the future only. He is a great sceptic because he has no faith in himself. Moreover, soon after he sees his father's spirit he doubts immortality. He doubts even Horatio, and swears him to secrecy at the sword's point. He doubts Ophelia and asks: "Are you honest?"

Mr. J. R. Lowell has noticed Hamlet's irony. It is like the irony of Socrates and is the result of his temperament. He wonders if men are not made in jest. He talks of suicide but cannot kill himself; he refuses to kill the king while praying, for fear his soul will therefore be saved. He goes to England for no reason but removal from a disagreeable duty. Chance alone brings him to his end. He is a man of genius, per se, and has all the eccentricity of his class. The philosophical spirit in him is supreme. He foresees, analyzes, and describes every movement of his enemies, and this gives him great delight.

"The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!"

And he goes no further to set it right. How many Hamlets there are in morals, in politics, in business, in religion--perpetually in the bloom of critical conviction, ever budding caustic criticism, sitting in judgment on other men, yet lifting not so much as a hair's weight to relieve humanity, or to purge it of its faults. Hamlet would have made a good editor, or a political disclaimer, or a general pessimist at large. Salvini thought that in Hamlet the intellect completely took the place of the will.

Was Hamlet's madness real or assumed? Polonius, a shrewd observer, says: "Tho this be madness, yet there's method in't." One thing is certain: if Hamlet is irresponsible the whole play is a farce. Gervinus thinks that his madness was feigned. If he was mad, then he and three-fourths of men are alike. Taine says that "the hinges of his mind were twisted, not broken." We must confess that he acts his part well, for he deceives even his examiners by telling them unwelcome facts. Edgar, in King Lear, pretended insanity, and so did Hamlet, says Lowell. If so, this course permitted him to drift along in the channel of his inactivity, and shows the profound subtlety of his mind.

Edwin Booth believed Hamlet fitfully insane, that this was his recurring cloud, allowing him the clearest and loveliest vision, only to be followed by the most melancholy depression. Granting this, he is a type of thousands, for Voltaire tells us that "insane asylums were designed to prove the rest of the world sane." Hamlet said to the Queen, "Essentially I am not in madness, but mad in craft." Thus the character baffles us at every turn. But surely the great soliloquy was uttered in a sane moment, else the play is bedlam and has no force. Hamlet walks the borderland of Dryden:

"Great wit to madness surely is allied,
And thin partitions do their bounds divide."

Hamlet lies close to Shakespeare's heart. It gives us the dramatist's view of the stage, of life, of men, as does no other of his plays. No play is so often quoted, and none has so universally affected mankind. To select any one line is like selecting one rose from a thousand. It is the tragedy of thought. No commentator on this play, among the hundreds who have written, has risen to its true level. Perhaps if anay had we should have had a second Shakespeare. Hamlet was produced when the master had passed the daydreams of his life, and was musing on its perplexities and sorrows. It is not golden but dark.

The French have never understood it. The Germans have most deeply appreciated it. Not until Coleridge threw upon it the searchlight of his genius, did the English rise to its true worth. If Lear teaches the difference between justice and generosity; if Macbeth shows the eternal Nemesis that follows secret sin; if Othello reveals the abyss into which jealousy may plunge a noble mind; then Hamlet, Shakespeare's masterpiece, teaches men that sands no more surely glide through a glass, than the best intentions through a paralyzed purpose. As the centuries pass he sounds to them the danger of delay.

If Hamlet is the consummate flower of the world's greatest mind, it is as truly the perfection of the actor's art. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Betterton, when acting Hamlet, turned from a ruddy hue to unnatural white, and made his audience shudder in their seats on seeing the Ghost. Talma, in Paris, was so vivid in his delineation of the character that women fainted and screamed. Robert Wilkes, David Garrick, John Kemble, Edmund Kean, Tommaso Salvini, these were all great representatives of Hamlet.

But it was reserved for our own land and time to witness an impersonation of the character that has never been surpassed. In all the elements of intellect, fancy, grandeur, tenderness, mystery, delirium and grace, the Hamlet of Edwin Booth was the very crown of that great actor's art. Sustained power, marvellous variety, matchless eloquence, facial play, spontaneous delivery, refined gesticulation, all combined to form an impression that once seen could never be effaced. The poetic imagination, the reflective mind, and the melancholy temperament of the Dane, precisely fitted Booth's genius, and he gave it an individuality quite his own. His exquisite tenderness to Ophelia; his weird meeting with the Ghost; his quiet study of the king's face in the play; his unrivalled rendering of the soliloquies; his manly love for Horatio--these were and will ever remain the priceless glory of the American stage.

Booth was Hamlet. He revealed its spiritualized intellect, its feminine softness, its autumnal gloom, perhaps more than any man before him. There was a pathetic emotion, an awful reality, a poignant suffering, and, above all, an indefinable dreaminess that charmed while it subdued. There was no bald realism, no spectacular frenzy, no gaudy glitter, about it; it was the portrayal of a great mystery, spiritualized, illumined, inspired, and shot through and through with rare sentiment that played upon the text like light upon the lawn. There were flashes of great energy, when the hearers sat transfixed with terror; there were silvery notes of sadness, that melted men to tears; there were passages of awful power, when the audience were amazed: and there were colossal explosions, when the whole house rose and cheered. You felt that Booth's spirit was a mirror that reflected every varying mood of Hamlet's complex personality, and that when you saw him you saw the very character itself. From the first, his imagination was haunted, the Ghost scene transfigured him into horrible suspense, his cry on killing Polonius froze the soul, and the desolate calm as he stood over Ophelia's grave was well beyond all limitation or description. It fascinated all men everywhere, and once ran one hundred nights successively with an interest that never flagged. To all who have seen this immortal representation, each subsequent Hamlet fades from the eyes, and the great American tragedian walks the stage once more.

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