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always inward and remote. It resembles the talk of a man who is talking to himself. His words are non-responsive to his interlocutor, but interesting to us because we know what the subject of his thought really is. This banter emphasizes the chasm of contemplation in which Hamlet is sunk. He is alone, and his solitude is dramatized by every word he speaks. You have, next, those great soliloquies, in which the spiritual isolation of the man is articulated with such accuracy of analysis and such eloquence that they have become Biblical. They take rank with the Psalms in the popular life of the world as the cry of a solitary spirit. These soliloquies are so wonderful that we hardly notice that they are replicas of one another. Let anyone read the soliloquy (Act IV, Scene 4) on a plain in Denmark, and find an idea which has not been more hotly and convincingly expressed in "O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” This scene on the plain has been planned as a setting for this soliloquy. It has no other function. It is not wholly successful, because the soliloquy is too purely a repetition.
You have, next, the scenes showing Hamlet's relations with Ophelia, which are certainly the most moving scenes in the play. They have an appeal in them, and a kind of poetry which is entirely their own. Hamlet is isolated even from Ophelia. Some people think that this is due to the shock he received by the Ghost's revelations. But the cause is deeper; that shock only revealed his native and almost accursed isolation. He seems to think he might have loved Ophelia. When, later, he jumps into the grave, he says he had loved her; but he never mentions her
thereafter. Then again, in the interviews with Horatio, Hamlet shows a deep and somewhat feminine pathos about himself; a distinct, new poetic note is sounded in these scenes and nowhere else. In spite of Hamlet's tremendous emotionalism about his parents, and in spite of his love for Horatio, there is a certain lack of heart in him. He is pathetic and a little monstrous. We pity, but can hardly love the isolated man.
Whatever may be the reason, the play of “Hamlet” makes a different and more personal appeal than any other play. Everyone fancies himself a Hamlet. There is, indeed, some shadow of Hamlet in everyone; and this is the shadow that Shakespeare has been casting upon the cloudy air. He has seen it among the elemental forces in his own mind it is the Contemplator.
Consider what happens daily to us all. Between contemplation and action there comes normally a change of mood; a lever is pulled, a new gear is brought into play. With Hamlet the lever is pulled and nothing happens : a lobe of his brain is missing. When he is knocked down by a fact, he is like a horse that cannot get up again. After his interview with the Ghost he knows only one thing. He will do nothing. He will not reveal anything; he must wait. And so on: every time that Hamlet shies at a resolution or baulks at a conclusion, the drama is intensified.
Had Hamlet been represented as a bad man or a cynic, no one would have been mystified by him. Everyone would have said, “His incapacity is the punishment of sin.” But Hamlet is good. The play does not concern the hiatus between Good and Evil, but between Mind and Will. The problem is subtle, yet the elements are as universal as the devil himself. Hence the wide appeal made by the play.
The theme of “Hamlet” is grief — for all of Hamlet's feelings turn to grief: his love is grief; his friendship is grief; his humor is grief. It is a peculiar, withering sort of grief — perhaps unmanly grief; at any rate, the kind of grief that closes the petals of the heart and holds them shut till the soul is dead. In the last two scenes of the drama, Hamlet has lost his charm. He is washed out, spiritless, uninteresting. Does Shakespeare intend this ? I hardly think so. I think that, in the long scene in which Hamlet gives Horatio an account of his English trip, Shakespeare is trying to entertain the audience; and that in the following very dreary scene, when Hamlet banters Osric, Shakespeare is trying to be amusing. In the final duel-and-death scene, , Shakespeare makes a haggard attempt at a brilliant ending. But alas, the skyey influences will not have it so. They have already blown the theme into the sere and yellow. They have flapped the life out of his hero. Too well, too powerfully has the Muse whispered her inspiration to the poet and breathed into him the vision of a soul killed by inactivity and an enterprise sicklied o'er by a pale cast of thought. The tragedy is finished before the play ends. The tail-piece of the melodrama has no one's passion to support it, and there survives in Hamlet himself nothing but a few drops of weak pathos about his own fate.
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
“THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR" has an interest of its own, because it belongs to an inferior variety of play and is unique among Shakespeare's dramas. It is a comedy of manners, not a romantic drama. The tradition that this play was written in two weeks, and at the request of Queen Elizabeth, for the sake of showing Falstaff in love, is quite probable, for both its plot and its characters are mechanical. Falstaff, Bardolph, The Hostess, etc. had been created by Shakespeare in “Henry IV, Part 1,” and some of them had reappeared in “Henry IV, Part 2.” They came into existence as makeweights, figures of low-comedy intended to balance the feudal romance of the main characters. As such, they had a life-glory of their own. They are spontaneous, inimitable, and they evidently became popular favorites immediately. In the “Merry Wives of Windsor” these same names are given to a set of mannequins who are put through their paces in a comedy, or farce, of intrigue.
The influence of court life thus hangs over the “Merry Wives,” and that is why the story about Queen Elizabeth, whether true or false, has clung to the play. In reading it one cannot help realizing that the chief blessing of Shakespeare's destiny was that during his lifetime the stage was not taken seriously by the court. Lords and ladies have need of sophisticated amusements, conventional, wellunderstood entertainments, which are witty, smooth, and safe. The command of a sovereign is ever that a playwright repeat himself; and in this process of repetition a standard theatre comes into existence. And something, too, goes out of the playwright during the experience. The “Merry Wives of Windsor” bears to “Twelfth Night” the relation that a thing done to order bears to a thing that a man has done to please himself. The craftsman's part is admirable, but the poetry has gone out of the work. The “Merry Wives” is crammed with wit, and yet there is no charm in it, and the only bit of the old romantic drama it contains is the fairy scene at the end. Consider the Falstaff of the “Merry Wives,” how shorn he is of that incredible spontaneity and surprise - the surprise to the man himself — that radiates through all of Falstaff's talk in “Henry IV.” Consider Dame Quickly, the Hostess, who, in the “Merry Wives,” is as clever and base-minded as ever; but she has become a type, and is no longer an individual, as she was in “Henry IV.” Ford, the jealous husband, is a thing hacked out with a jackknife; Shallow has lost his pathos; he repeats his old leads out of "Henry IV," where they were so beautiful, and brags of his youthful prowess, but without arousing our interest.
The whole play shows the influence of a disturbing force, and lurches toward the later comedy. It is as if Paul Veronese, being asked by a pope for an easelpiece, had done something in the style of Nicholas Poussin. It is as if Sophocles had written a play in the style of the later Greek Comedy of Manners.