« ZurückWeiter »
as of glory; but in a city where his Saviour had been crowned with thorns, the devout pilgrim rejected the name and ensigns of royalty; and the founder of the kingdom of Jerusalem contented himself with the modest title of Defender and Baron of the Holy Sepulchre.
30.—THE CHARACTER OF HAMLET.
HAMLET is one of Shakspeare's plays that we think of the oftenest, because it abounds most in striking reflections on human life, and because his distresses are transferred, by the turn of his mind, to the general account of humanity. Whatever happens to him we apply to ourselves, because he applies it to himself as a means of general reasoning. He is a great moralizer; and what makes him more attended to is, that he moralizes on his own feelings and experience. He is not a common-place pedant. If Lear is distinguished by the greatest depth of passion, Hamlet is the most remarkable for the ingenuity, originality, and unstudied development of character. Shakspeare has more magnanimity than any other poet, and he has shown more of it in this play than in any other. There is no attempt to force an interest; everything is left for time and circumstances to unfold. The attention is excited without effort; the incidents succeed each other as matters of course ; the characters think, and speak, and act, just as they might do if left entirely to themselves. There is no set purpose, no straining at a point. The observations are suggested by the passing scene; the gusts of passion come and go like sounds of music borne on the wind. The whole play is an exact transcript of what might be supposed to have taken place at the remote period of time fixed upon, before the modern refinements in morals and manners were heard of. It would have been interesting enough to have been admitted as a bystander in such a scene, at such a time, to have heard and witnessed something of what was going on. But here we are more than spectators. We have not only "the outward pageants and the signs of
we have that within which passes show.” We
read the thoughts of the heart, we “catch the passions living as they rise.” Other dramatic writers give us very fine versions and paraphrases of nature, but Shakspeare, together with his own comments, gives us the original text, that we may judge for ourselves. This is a great advantage.
The character of Hamlet stands quite by itself. It is not a character marked by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment. Hamlet is as little of the hero as a man can well be; but he is a young and princely novice, full of high enthusiasm and quick sensibility, the sport of circumstances, questioning with fortune, and refining on his own feelings, and forced from the natural bias of his disposition by the strangeness of his situation. He seems incapable of deliberate action, and is only hurried into extremities on the spur of the occasion, when he has no time to reflect, as in the scene where he kills Polonius; and again, where he alters the letters which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are taking with them to England, purporting his death. At other times when most bound to act, he remains puzzled, undecided, and sceptical; dallies with his purposes till the occasion is lost, and finds out some pretence to relapse into indolence and thoughtfulness again. For this reason he refuses to kill the king when he is at his prayers; and, by a refinement in malice, which in truth is only an excuse for his own want of resolution, defers his revenge to a more fatal opportunity.
31.-WIT AND HUMOUR.
Wit and humour have, I fear, an injurious effect upon the character and disposition. I am not speaking of wit where it is kept down by more serious qualities of mind, and thrown into the background of the picture, but where it stands out boldly and emphatically, and is evidently the master quality in any particular mind.
Profound wits, though generally courted for the amusement they afford, are seldom respected for the qualities they possess. The habit of seeing things in
a witty point of view increases, and makes incursions, from its own proper regions, upon principles and opinions which are ever held sacred by the wise and good. A witty man is a dramatic performer: in process of time he can no more exist without applause, than he can exist without air; if his audience be small, or if they be inattentive, or if a new wit defraud him of any portion of his admiration, it is all over with him he sickens and is extinguished. The applauses of the theatre on which he performs are essential to him, and he must obtain them at the expense of decency, friendship, and good feeling. It must always be probable, too, that a mere wit is a person of light and frivolous understanding. His business is not to discover relations of ideas that are useful and have a real influence upon life, but to discover the more trifling relations which are only amusing; he never looks at things with the naked eye of common sense, but is always gazing at the world through a Claude Lorraine glass, discovering a thousand appearances which are created only by the instrument of inspection, and covering every object with factitious and unnatural colours. In short, the character of a mere wit it is impossible to conwider as very amiable, very respectable, or very safe. So far the world, in judging of wit where it has swallowed
up other qualities, judge aright; but I doubt if they are sufficiently indulgent to this faculty where it exists in a lesser degree, and as one out of many other ingredients of the understanding. There is an association in men's minds between dulness and wisdom, amusement and folly, which has a powerful influence in decision upon character, and is not overcome without considerable difficulty. The reason is, that the outward signs of a dull man and a wise man are the same, and so are the outward signs of a frivolous man and a witty man; and we are not to expect that the majority will be disposed to look to much more than the outward sign. I believe the fact to be, that wit is very seldom the only eminent quality which resides in the mind of any man; it is commonly accompanied by many other talents of every description, and ought to be considered as a strong evidence of a fertile and superior understanding. Almost all the great poets, orators, and statesmen
of all times have been witty. Cæsar, Alexander, Aristotle, Descartes, and Lord Bacon, were witty men; so were Cicero, Shakspeare, Demosthenes, Boileau, Pope, Dryden, Fontenelle, Jonson, Waller, Cowley, Solon, Socrates, Dr Johnson, and almost every man who has made a distinguished figure in the House of Commons. I have talked of the danger of wit; I do not mean by that to enter into common-place declamation against faculties because they are dangerous; wit is dangerous, eloquence is dangerous, a talent for observation is dangerous, every thing is dangerous that has efficacy and vigour for its characteristics; nothing is safe but mediocrity. The business is, in conducting the understanding well, to risk something; to aim at uniting things that are commonly incompatible. The meaning of an extraordinary man is, that he is eight men, not one man; that he has as much wit as if he had no sense, and as much sense as if he had no wit; that his conduct is as judicious as if he were the dullest of human beings, and his imagination as brilliant as if he were irretrievably ruined. But when wit is combined with sense and information ; when it is softened by benevolence, and restrained by strong principle; when it is in the hands of a man who can use it and despise it, who can be witty, and something much better than witty; who loves honour, justice, decency, good nature, morality, and religion ten thousand times better than wit ;-wit is then a beautiful and delightful part of our nature. There is no more interesting spectacle than to see the effects of wit upon the different characters of men, than to observe it expanding caution, relaxing dignity, unfreezing coldness-teaching age, and care, and pain, to smile-extorting reluctant gleams of pleasure from melancholy, and charming even the pangs of grief. It is pleasant to observe how it penetrates through the coldness and awkwardness of society, gradually bringing men nearer together, and, like the combined force of wine and oil, giving every man a glad heart and shining countenance. Genuine and innocent wit like this is surely the flavour of the mind! Man could direct his ways by plain reason, and support his life by tasteless food; but God has given us wit, and flavour, and brightness, and laughter, and
perfumes, to enliven the days of man's pilgrimage, and to "charm his pained steps over the burning marle.” SYDNEY SMITH.
32.-FIELD SPORTS AND AGRICULTURE OF THE MIDDLE AGES. The favourite diversions of the Middle Ages in the intervals of war were those of hunting and hawking. The former must in all countries be a source of pleasure; but it seems to have been enjoyed in moderation by the Greeks and Romans. With the northern invaders, however, it was rather a predominant appetite than an amusement; it was their pride and their ornament, the theme of their songs, the object of their laws, and the business of their lives. Falconry, unknown as a diversion to the ancients, became from the fourth century an equally delightful occupation. From the Salic and other barbarous codes of the fifth century to the close of the period under our review, every age would furnish testimony to the ruling passion for these two species of chase, or, as they were sometimes called, the mysteries of woods and rivers. A knight seldom stirred from his house without a falcon on his wrist, or a greyhound that followed him. Thus are Harold and his attendants represented in the famous tapestry of Bayeux. And in the monuments of those who died any where but on the field of battle, it is usual to find the greyhound lying at their feet, or the bird upon their wrist. Nor are the tombs of ladies without their falcon; for this diversion, being of less danger and fatigue than the chase, was shared by the delicate sex.
It was impossible to repress the eagerness with which the clergy, especially after the barbarians had been tempted by rich bishoprics to take upon them the sacred functions, rushed into these secular amusements. Prohibitions of councils, however frequently repeated, produced little effect. An archbishop of York, in 1321, seems to have carried a train of two hundred persons, who were maintained at the expense of the abbeys, on his visitations, and to have hunted with a pack of hounds from parish to parish. The third council of Lateran, in 1180, had prohibited this amusement on such journeys, and restricted bishops to a train of forty or fifty horses.