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[From the London “ Quarterly Review."*] The universality of Shakespeare's genius is in some sort reflected in Hamlet. He has a mind wise and witty, abstract and practical ; the utmost reach of philosophical contemplation is mingled with the most penetrating sagacity in the affairs of life ; playful jest, biting satire, sparkling repartee, with the darkest and deepest thoughts that can agitate man. He exercises all his various faculties with surprising readiness. He passes without an effort" from grave to gay, from lively to severe,"— from his every-day character to personated lunacy. He divines, with the rapidity of lightning, the nature and motives of those who are brought into contact with him, fits in a moment his bearing and retorts to their individual peculiarities; is equally at home whether he is mocking Polonius with hidden raillery, or dissipating Ophelia's dream of love, or crushing the sponges with sarcasm and invective, or talking euphuism with Osric, and satirizing while he talks it; whether he is uttering wise maxims, or welcoming the players with facetious graciousnessprobing the inmost souls of others, or sounding the mysteries of his own. His philosophy stands out conspicuous among the brilliant faculties which contend for the mastery. It is the quality which gives weight and dignity to the rest. It intermingles with all his actions. He traces the most trifling incidents up to their general laws. His natural disposition is to lose himself in contemplation. He goes thinking out of the world. The commonest ideas that pass through his mind are invested with a wonderful freshness and originality. His meditations in the church-yard are on the trite notion that all ambition leads but to the grave. But what condensation, what variety, what picturesqueness, what intense unmitigated gloom! It is the finest sermon that was ever preached against the vanities of life.
* Vol. Ixxix. (1847), p. 333 fol.
So far, we imagine, all are agreed. But the motives which induce Hamlet to defer his revenge are still, and perhaps will ever remain, debatable ground. The favourite doctrine of late is, that the thinking part of Hamlet predominated over the active—that he was as weak and vacillating in performance as he was great in speculation. If this theory were borne out by his general conduct, it would no doubt amply account for his procrastination; but there is nothing to countenance and much to refute the idea. Shakespeare has endowed him with a vast energy of will. There could be no sterner resolve than to abandon every purpose of existence that he might devote himself unfettered to his revenge ; nor was ever resolution better observed. He breaks through his passion for Ophelia, and keeps it down, under the most trying circumstances, with such inflexible firmness that an eloquent critic has seriously questioned whether his attachment was real. The determination of his character appears again at the death of Polonius. An indecisive mind would have been shocked, if not terrified, at the deed. Hamlet dismisses him with a few contemptuous words as a man would brush away a fly. He talks with even greater indifference of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he sends “to sudden death, not shriving-time allowed.” He has on these, and, indeed, on all occasions, a short and absolute way which only belongs to resolute souls. The features developed in his very hesitation to kill the King are inconsistent with the notion that his hand refuses to perform what his head contrives. He is always trying to persuade himself into a conviction that it is his duty, instead of seeking for evasions.* He is
* His reasons for not killing the King when he is praying have been held to be an excuse. But if Shakespeare had anticipated the criticism, he could not have guarded against it more effectually. Hamlet has just uttered the soliloquy
“Now could I drink hot blood, And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on."
seized with a savage joy when the play supplies him with indubitable proof of his uncle's guilt. His language then to Horatio is
“Is 't not perfect conscience
To quit him with this arm?” He wants, it is clear, neither will nor nerve to strike the blow. There is perhaps one supposition that will satisfy all the phenomena, and it has, to us, the recommendation that we think it is the solution suggested by Shakespeare himself. Hamlet, in a soliloquy, charges the delay on
“Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th' event.” The oblivion is merely the effect of the primary cause—“the craven scruple”—the conscience which renders him a coward. His uncle, after all, is king; he is the brother of his father, and the husband of his mother, and it was inevitable that he should shrink, in his cooler moments, from becoming his assassin. His hatred to his uncle, who has disgraced his family and disappointed his ambition, gives him personal inducements to revenge, which further blunt his purpose by leading him to doubt the purity of his motives. The admonition of the Ghost to him is, not to taint his mind in the prosecution of his end ; and no sooner has the Ghost vanished than Hamlet, invoking the aid of supernatural powers, exclaims-
“ () all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell?_0 fie !" In this frame he passes his uncle's closet, and is for once, at least, equal to any emergency. His first thought is to kill him at his devotions; his second, that in that case Claudius will go to heaven. Instantly his father's sufferings rise into his mind; he contrasts the happy future of the criminal with the purgatory of the victim, and the contemplation exasperates him into a genuine desire for a fuller revenge. The threat relieves him from the reproach of inactivity, and he falls back into his former self.
But the hell, whose support he rejects, is forever returning to his mind and startling his conscience. It is this that makes him wish for the confirmation of the play, for evil spirits may have abused him. It is this which begets the apathy he terms oblivion, for inaction affords relief to doubt. It is this which produces his inconsistencies, for conscience calls him different ways, and when he obeys in one direction he is haunted by the feeling that he should have gone in the other. If he contemplated the performance of a deed which looks outwardly more like murder than judicial retribution, he trembles lest, after all, he should be perpetrating an unnatural crime; or if, on the other hand, he turns to view his uncle's misdeeds, he fancies there is more of cowardly scrupulosity than justice in his backwardness, and he abounds in self-reproaches at the weakness of his hesitation. And thus he might forever have halted between two opinions, if the King himself, by filling up the measure of his iniquities, had not swept away his scruples.
[From Dowden's “Shakspere."*] When Hamlet was written, Shakspere had passed through his years of apprenticeship, and become a master-dramatist. In point of style the play stands midway between his early and his latest works. The studious superintendence of the poet over the development of his thought and imaginings, very apparent in Shakspere's early writings, now conceals itself; but the action of imagination and thought has not yet become embarrassing in its swiftness and multiplicity of direction.t Rapid dialogue in verse, admirable for its combination of verisimilitude with artistic metrical effects, occurs in the scene in which Hamlet questions his friends respecting the appearance of the ghost (i. 2); the soliloquies of Hamlet are excellent examples of the slow, dwelling verse which Shakspere appropriates to the utterance of thought in solitude ; and nowhere did Shakspere write a nobler piece of prose than the speech in which Hamlet describes to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern his melancholy. But such particulars as these do not constitute the chief evidence which proves that the poet had now attained maturity. The mystery, the baffling, vital obscurity of the play, and in particular of the character of its chief person, make it evident that Shakspere had left far behind him that early stage of development when an artist obtrudes his intentions, or, distrusting his own ability to keep sight of one uniform design, deliber: ately and with effort holds that design persistently before him. When Shakspere completed Hamlet, he must have trusted himseif and trusted his audience ; he trusts himself to enter into relation with his subject, highly complex as that subject was, in a pure, emotional manner. Hamlet might so easily have been manufactured into an enigma, or a puzzle; and then the puzzle, if sufficient pains were bestowed, could be completely taken to pieces and explained. But Shakspere created it a mystery, and therefore it is forever suggestive ; forever suggestive, and never wholly explicable.
* Shakspere : a Critical Study of his Mind and Art, by Edward Dowden (2d ed. London, 1876), p. 125 fol.
† The characteristics of Shakspere's latest style are described by Mr. Spedding in the following masterly piece of criticism : “The opening of (Henry VIII.] . . . seemed to have the full stamp of Shakspere, in his latest manner : the same life, and reality, and freshness; the same
It must not be supposed, then, that any idea, any magic phrase, will solve the difficulties presented by the play, or rapid and abrupt turns of thought, so quick that language can hardly follow fast enough; the same impatient activity of intellect and fancy, which, having once disclosed an idea, cannot wait to work it orderly out; the same daring confidence in the resources of language, which plunges headlong into a sentence without knowing how it is to come forth; the same careless metre, which disdains to produce its harmoni. ous effects by the ordinary devices, yet is evidently subject to a master of harmony; the same entire freedom from book-language and common. place."