« ZurückWeiter »
suddenly illuminate everything in it which is obscure. The obscurity itself is a vital part of the work of art which deals not with a problem but with a life; and in that life, the history of a soul which moved through shadowy borderlands between the night and day, there is much (as in many a life that is real) to elude and baffle inquiry. It is a remarkable circumstance that while the length of the play in the second • quarto considerably exceeds its length in the earlier form of 1603, and thus materials for the interpretation of Shakspere's purpose in the play are offered in greater abundance, the obscurity does not diminish, but, on the contrary, deepens, and if some questions appear to be solved, other questions in greater number spring into existence. ...
Goethe, in the celebrated criticism upon this play in his Wilhelm Meister, has only offered a half interpretation of its difficulties; and subsequent criticism, under the influence of Goethe, has exhibited a tendency too exclusively subjective. “To me," wrote Goethe, “it is clear that Shakspere meant ... to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it," etc. (see p. 15 above).
This is one half of the truth; but only one half. In several of the tragedies of Shakspere the tragic disturbance of character and life is caused by the subjection of the chief person of the drama to some dominant passion essentially antipathetic to his nature, though proceeding from some inherent weakness or imperfection,-a passion from which the victim cannot deliver himself, and which finally works out his destruction. Thus Othello, whose nature is instinctively trustful, and confiding with a noble childlike trust, a man
“Of a free and open nature That thinks men honest that but seem so," a man “not easily jealous"-Othello is inoculated with the poison of jealousy and suspicion, and the poison maddens and destroys him. Macbeth, made for subordination, is the
victim of a terrible and unnatural ambition. Lear, ignorant of true love, yet with a supreme need of loving and being loved, is compelled to hatred, and drives from his presence the one being who could have satisfied the hunger of his heart. . . . We may reasonably conjecture that the Hamlet of the old play—a play at least as old as that group of bloody tragedies inspired by the earlier works of Marlowe - was actually what Shakspere's Hamlet, with a bitter pleasure in misrepresenting his own nature, describes himself as being, “ very proud, revengeful, ambitious.” ... But Shakspere, in accordance with his dramatic method, and his interest as artist in complex rather than simple phenomena of human passion and experience, when re-creating the character of the Danish Prince, fashions him as a man to whom persistent action, and in an especial degree the duty of deliberate revenge, is peculiarly antipathetic. Under the pitiless burden imposed upon him Hamlet trembles, totters, falls. Thus far Goethe is right.
But the tragic nodus in Shakspere's first tragedy-Romeo and Juliet—was not wholly of a subjective character. The two lovers are in harmony with one another, and with the purest and highest impulses of their own hearts. The discord comes from the outer world ; they are a pair of“ starcrossed lovers.” ... The world fought against Romeo and Juliet, and they fell in the unequal strife. Now Goethe failed to observe, or did not observe sufficiently, that this is also the case with Hamlet:
“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!” Hamlet is called upon to assert moral order in a world of moral confusion and obscurity. ... All the strength which he possesses would have become organized and available had his world been one of honesty, of happiness, of human love. But a world of deceit, of espionage, of selfishness, sur
rounds him ; his idealism, at thirty years of age, almost takes the form of pessimism ; his life and his heart become sterile; he loses the energy which sound and joyous feeling supplies ; and in the wide-spreading waste of corruption which lies around him, he is tempted to understand and detest things rather than accomplish some limited practical service. . . .
If Goethe's study of the play, admirable as it was, misled criticism in one way by directing attention too exclusively upon the inner nature of Hamlet, the studies by Schlegel and by Coleridge tended to mislead criticism in another by attaching an exaggerated importance to one element of Hamlet's character. “The whole,” wrote Schlegel,“ 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.” It is true that Hamlet's power of acting was crippled by his habit of “thinking too precisely on the event ;” and it is true, as Coleridge said, that in Hamlet we see “ a great, an almost enormous intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it.” But Hamlet is not merely or chiefly intellectual; the emotional side of his character is quite as important as the intellectual; his malady is as deep-seated in his sensibilities and in his heart as it is in the brain. If all his feelings translate themselves into thoughts, it is no less true that all his thoughts are impregnated with feeling. To represent Hamlet as a man of preponderating power of reflection, and to disregard his craving, sensitive heart, is to make the whole play incoherent and unintelligible.
It is Hamlet's intellect, however, together with his deep and abiding sense of the moral qualities of things, which distinguishes him, upon the glance of a moment, from the hero of Shakspere's first tragedy, Romeo. If Romeo fail to retain a sense of fact and of the real world because the fact, as it were, melts away and disappears in a solvent of delicious emotion, Hamlet equally loses a sense of fact because with him each object and event transforms and expands itself into an idea. When the play opens he has reached the age of thirty years — the age, it has been said, when the ideality of youth ought to become one with and inform the practical tendencies of manhood -and he has received culture of every kind except the culture of active life. During the reign of the strong-willed elder Hamlet there was no call to action for his meditative son. He has slipped on into years of full manhood still a haunter of the university, a student of philosophies, an amateur in art, a ponderer on the things of life and death, who has never formed a resolution or executed a deed.
This long course of thinking, apart from action, has destroyed Hamlet's very capacity for belief; since in belief there exists a certain element contributed by the will. Hamlet cannot adjust the infinite part of him to the finite; the one invades the other and infects it ; or rather the finite dislimns and dissolves, and leaves him only the presence of the idea. He cannot make real to himself the actual world, even while he supposes himself a materialist; he cannot steadily keep alive within himself a sense of the importance of any positive, limited thing,-a deed, for example. Things in their actual, phenomenal aspect Alit before him as transitory, accidental, and unreal. And the absolute truth of things is so hard to attain, and only, if at all, is to be attained in the mind. Accordingly Hamlet can lay hold of nothing with calm, resolved energy ; he cannot even retain a thought in indefeasible possession. Thus all through the play he wavers between materialism and spiritualism, between belief in immortality and disbelief, between reliance upon Providence and a bowing under fate. ...
Yet it has been truly said that only one who feels Hamlet's strength should venture to speak of Hamlet's weakness. That in spite of difficulties without, and inward difficulties, he still clings to his terrible duty-letting it go indeed for a time, but returning to it again, and in the end accomplishing it-implies strength. He is not incapable of vigorous action,-if only he be allowed no chance of thinking the fact away into an idea. He is the first to board the pirate ; he stabs Polonius through the arras; he suddenly alters the sealed commission, and sends his schoolfellows to the English headsman ; he finally executes justice upon the king. But all his action is sudden and fragmentary; it is not continuous and coherent. ....
Does Hamlet finally attain deliverance from his disease of will ? Shakspere has left the answer to that question doubtful. Probably if anything could supply the link which was wanting between the purpose and the deed, it was the achievement of some supreme action. The last moments of Hamlet's life are well spent, and for energy and foresight are the noblest moments of his existence: he snatches the poisoned bowl from Horatio, and saves his friend; he gives his dying voice for Fortinbras, and saves his country. The rest is silence :
“ Had I but time-as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest–0, I could tell you !"
But he has not told. Let us not too readily assume that we “know the stops” of Hamlet, that we can “pluck out the heart of his mystery.”
One thing, however, we do know—that the man who wrote the play of Hamlet had obtained a thorough comprehension of Hamlet's malady. And assured, as we are by abundant evidence, that Shakspere transformed with energetic will his knowledge into fact, we may be confident that when Hamlet was written Shakspere had gained a further stage in his culture of self-control, and that he had become not only adult as an author, but had entered upon the full maturity of his manhood.