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in the denouement. In the Hystorie Hamlet, after his uncle's death, becomes king of Denmark, visits England again, marries two wives, by one of whom he is betrayed into the power of his maternal uncle Wiglerus, and is finally slain in battle.*
It may be added that Belleforest got the story from the Historia Danica of Saxo Grammaticus, written about the close of the 12th century, though the earliest existing edition of it is that of Paris, 1514.
III. CRITICAL COMMENTS ON THE PLAY.
[From Goethe's "Wilhelm Meister.” t] I sought for every indication of what the character of Hamlet was before the death of his father ; I took note of all that this interesting youth had been, independently of that sad event, independently of the subsequent terrible occurrences, and I imagined what he might have been without them.
Tender and nobly descended, this royal flower grew up under the direct influences of majesty ; the idea of the right and of princely dignity, the feeling for the good and the graceful, with the consciousness of his high birth, were unfolded in him together. He was a prince, a born prince. Pleasing in figure, polished by nature, courteous from the heart, he was to be the model of youth and the delight of the world. ...
Figure to yourself this youth, this son of princes, conceive him vividly, bring his condition before your eyes, and then observe him when he learns that his father's spirit walks ; stand by him in the terrible night when the venerable Ghost itself appears before him. A horrid shudder seizes him; he. speaks to the mysterious form; he sees it beckon him; he
* Elze (see Furness, vol. ii. p. 89) gives some very plausible reasons for supposing that the Hystorie is of later date than the old play of Hamlet.
† Carlyle's translation, as quoted with slight variations by Furness in his Hamlet, vol. ii. p. 272 fol.
follows it and hearkens. The fearful accusation of his uncle rings in his ears; the summons to revenge and the piercing reiterated prayer, “Remember me.”
And when the Ghost has vanished, who is it we see standing before us? A young hero panting for vengeance? A born prince, feeling himself favoured in being summoned to punish the usurper of his crown? No! Amazement and sorrow overwhelm the solitary young man; he becomes bitter against smiling villains, swears never to forget the departed, and concludes with the significant ejaculation :
“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right !"
In these words, I imagine, is the key to Hamlet's whole procedure, and to me it is clear that Shakespeare sought to depict a great deed laid upon a soul unequal to the performance of it. In this view I find the piece composed throughout. Here is an oak-tree planted in a costly vase, which should have received into its bosom only lovely flowers; the roots spread out, the vase is shivered to pieces.
A beautiful, pure, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which makes the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off ; every duty is holy to him,—this too hard. The impossible is required of him,—not the impossible in itself, but the impossible to him. How he winds, turns, agonizes, advances, and recoils, ever reminded, ever reminding himself, and at last almost loses his purpose from his thoughts, without ever again recovering his peace of mind. ...
It pleases, it flatters us greatly, to see a hero who acts of himself, who loves and hates us as his heart prompts, undertaking and executing, thrusting aside all hindrances, and accomplishing a great purpose. Historians and poets would fain persuade us that so proud a lot may fall to man. In Hamlet we are taught otherwise ; the hero has no plan, but the piece is full of plan. Here is no villain upon whom vengeance is inflicted according to a certain scheme, rigidly and in a peculiar manner carried out. No, a horrid deed occurs; it sweeps on in its consequences, dragging the guiltless along with it; the perpetrator appears as if he would avoid the abyss to which he is destined, and he plunges in just then when he thinks happily to fulfil his career. For it is the property of a deed of horror that the evil spreads out over the innocent, as it is of a good action to extend its benefits to the undeserving, while frequently the author of one or of the other is neither punished nor rewarded. Here in this play of ours, how strange! Purgatory sends its spirit, and demands revenge ; in vain! Neither earthly. nor inferpal thing may bring about what is reserved for Fate alone. The hour of judgment comes. The bad falls with the good. One race is mowed away, and another springs up. ...
Hamlet is endowed more properly with sentiment than with a character; it is events alone that push him on; and accordingly the piece has somewhat the amplification of a novel. But as it is Fate that draws the plan, as the piece proceeds from a deed of terror, and the hero is steadily driven on to a deed of terror, the work is tragic in its highest sense, and admits of no other than a tragic end.
[From Schlegel's “ Dramatic Literature."*] Hamlet is singular in its kind: a tragedy of thought inspired by continual and never-satisfied meditation on human destiny and the dark perplexity of the events of this world, and calculated to call forth the very same meditation in the minds of the spectators. This enigmatical work resembles those irrational equations in which a fraction of unknown magnitude always remains, that will in no way admit of solution. Much has been said, much written, on this piece, and yet no thinking man who anew expresses himself on it will (in his view of the connection and the signification of all the parts) entirely coincide with his predecessors. ...
* Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature, by A. W. Schlegel; Black's translation, revised by Morrison (London : 1846), p. 404 fol.
The only circumstance from which this piece might be judged to be less suited to the stage than other tragedies of Shakespeare is that in the last scenes the main action either stands still or appears to retrograde. This, however, was inevitable, and lay in the nature of the subject. The whole is intended to show that a calculating consideration, which exhausts all the relations and possible consequences of a deed, must cripple the power of acting; as Hamlet himself expresses it:
“ And thus the native hue of resolution
And lose the name of action.” With respect to Hamlet's character, I cannot, as I understand the poet's views, pronounce altogether so favourable a sentence upon it as Goethe does. He is, it is true, of a highly cultivated mind, a prince of royal manners, endowed with the finest sense of propriety, susceptible of noble ambition, and open in the highest degree to an enthusiastic admiration of that excellence in others of which he himself is deficient. He acts the part of madness with unrivalled power, convincing the persons who are sent to examine into his supposed loss of reason merely by telling them unwelcome truths and rallying them with the most caustic wit. But in the resolutions which he so often embraces and always leaves unexecuted, his weakness is too apparent: he does himself only justice when he implies that there is no greater dissimilarity than between himself and Hercules. He is not solely impelled by necessity to artifice and dissimulation : he has a natural inclination for crooked ways; he is a hypocrite towards himself; his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his want of determination : thoughts, as he says, on a different occasion, which have,
- “but one part wisdom And ever three parts coward.” He has been chiefly condemned both for his harshness in re. pulsing the love of Ophelia, which he himself had cherished, and for his insensibility at her death. But he is too much overwhelmed with his own sorrow to have any compassion to spare for others; besides, his outward indifference gives us by no means the measure of his internal perturbation. On the other hand, we evidently perceive in him a malicious joy, when he has succeeded in getting rid of his enemies, more through necessity and accident, which alone are able to impel him to quick and decisive measures, than by the merit of his own courage, as he himself confesses after the murder of Polonius, and with respect to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet has no firm belief either in himself or in anything else: from expressions of religious confidence he passes over to sceptical doubts; he believes in the ghost of his father, as long as he sees it, but as soon as it has disappeared, it appears to him almost in the light of a deception. He has even gone so far as to say, “ there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so ;" with him the poet loses himself here in labyrinths of thought, in which neither end nor beginning is discoverable. The stars themselves, from the course of events, afford no answer to the question so urgently proposed to them. A voice from another world, commissioned, it would appear, by Heaven, demands vengeance for a monstrous enormity, and the demand remains without effect; the criminals are at last punished, but, as it were, by an accidental blow, and not in the solemn way requisite to convey to the world a warning example of justice ; irresolute foresight, cunning treachery, and impetuous rage hurry on to a common destruction; the less guilty