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“ 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 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 graciousness; probing 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 fresh. ness and originality. His meditations in the churchyard 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 ever preached against the vanities of life.
“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 Guilderstern, whom ha sends to sudden death, not shriving-time allowed.' He has ok these, and indeed on all occasions, a short and absolute way which only belongs to resolute souls. The features developed in his very hesi. tation 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 wants, it is clear, neither will nor nerve to strike the blow. There is, perhaps, but one supposition that will satisfy all the phenomena. His uncle, after all, is his 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 had disgraced his family and disappointed his ambition, gives him personal inducements to revenge.
which further blunts 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, o all you host of Heaven! 0 Earth! What else ? and shall I couple Hell? O fie!' But the Hell, whose support he rejects, is for ever returning to bis 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 contemplates 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 for ever have halted between two opinions, if the King himself, by filling up the measure of his iniquities, had not swept away his scruples.”
This play is surpassingly rich both in variety and completeness of characteristic delineation. For Hamlet's character, though it fills and may almost be said to form the whole drama, is notwithstanding of such a nature as rather to invite the others into free development than to repress them. Accordingly all the persons, from the hero down to the Grave-diggers, are rounded out, each in perfect distinctness of individuality, The King, the Queen, Horatio, Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, and Osric, all are traced with such punctual and firm-handed portraiture, that we grow to a sort of personal acquaintance with them. Nor are these minor characters without plenty of salient points for analytic discourse : in particular, Ophelia is so lovely in herself, and so moving in the inexpressible pathos of her part, that it is not easy to pass her by in silence; but so much space has necessarily been devoted to Hamlet, that this Introduction is already in danger of overdrawing its length. Besides, the other characters, except Polonius, are, for the most part, so clear and simple in their personal complexion and their springs of action, as to offer little or no perplexity to average students of the Poet. I will therefore dismiss the theme with Dr. Johnson's capital remarks on the old politician:
“Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with observation, confident in his knowledge, proud of his eloquence, and declining into dotage. His mode of oratory is truly represented As designed to ridicule the practice of those times, — of those prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest is natural. Such a man is positive and confident, because he knows that his mind was once strong, but knows not that it has become weak. Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the particular application. He is knowing in retrospect, and ignorant in foresight. While he depends upon his memory, and can draw from his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel ; but, as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to sudden dereliction of his faculties; he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading principle, and falls again into his former train. This idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom will solve all the phenomena of the character of Polonius
HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK.
CLAUDIUS, King of Denmark.
MARCELLUS, HAMLET, his Nephew, Son of the former BERNARDO, King.
FRANCISCO, a Soldier. POLCNIUS, Lord Chamberlain.
REYNALDO, Servant to Polonius. HORATIO, Friend to Hamlet.
A Captain. Ambassadors. LAERTES, Son of Polonius.
The Ghost of Hamlet's Father. VOLTIMAND,
FORTINBRAS, Prince of Norway. CORNELIUS,
Two Grave-diggers. ROSENCRANTZ,
GERTRUDE, Mother of Hamlet, and OSRIC, a Courtier.
Queen. Another Courtier.
OPHELIA, Daughter of Polonius. A Priest.
Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, Players, Sailors, Messengers, and Attendants.
ACT I. SCENE I. Elsinore. A Platform before the Castle.
FRANCISCO on his Post. Enter to him BERNARDO. Ber. Who's there? Fran. Nay, answer me:1 stand, and unfold yourself. Ber. Long live the King ! Fran. Bernardo ? Ber. He. Fran. You come most carefully upon your hour. Ber. 'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
Fran. For this relief much thanks : 'tis bitter cold,
Ber. Have you had quiet guard ?
Not a mouse stirring.
Fran. I think I hear them. - Stand, ho! Who is there?
1 Answer me, as I have the right to challenge you. Bernardo then gives in answer the watch-word, “ Long live the king!"
2 Rivals are associates or partners. A brook, rivulet, or river, rivus, being a natural boundary between different proprietors, was owned by them in common; that is, they were partners in the right and use of it. From the strifes thus engendered, the partners came to be contenders : hence the ordinary sense of rival.
Enter HORATIO and MARCELLUS.
And liegemen to the Dane.
O, farewell, honest soldier: Who hath reliev'd you? Fran.
Bernardo has my place. Give you good night.:
Holla! Bernardo !
A piece of him.
Mar. Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
Hor. Tush, tush, 'twill not appear.
Sit down awhile;
Well, sit we down,
Ber. Last night of all,
Mar. Peace, break thee off; look, where it comes again!
8 This salutation is an abbreviated form of, “May God give you a good night;” which has been still further abbreviated in the phrase, Good night.”
4 There is a temperate scepticism, well befitting a scholar, in Horatio's has this thing appeared again to-night." Thing is the most general and indefinite substantive in the language. Observe the gradual approach to what is more and more definite. “Dreaded sight” cuts off a large part of the indefiniteness, and “this apparition” is a further advance to the particular. The matter is aptly ordered for what Coleridge calls“ credibilizing effect."
5 That is, make good our vision, or prove our eyes to be true. Approve was often thus used in the sense of confirm.
8 Of course the polar star, or north star, is meant, which appears to stand still, while the other stars in its neighborhood seem to revolve around it. Note the use of his for its.
Enter the Ghost.
Ber. In the same figure, like the King that's dead.
Question it, Horatio.
Mar. It is offended.
See, it stalks away!
[Excit Ghost Mar. 'Tis gone, and will not answer.
Ber. How now, Horatio ! you tremble and look pale:
Hor. Before my God, I might not this believe
Is it not like the King ?
Mar. Thus, twice before, and jump at this dead hour, 20
Hor. In what particular thought to work I know not ; But in the gross and scope of mine opinion
7 It was believed that a supernatural being could only be spoken to with effect by persons of learning; exorcisms being usually practised by the clergy in Latin. So, in The Night Walker of Beaumont and Fletcher: " Let's call the butler up, for he speaks Latin, and that will daunt the Devil.”
8 To harrow is to distress, to vex, to disturb. To harry and to harass have the same origin. Milton has the word in Comus: "Amaz'd I stood, harrow'd with grief and fear.” – “Question it,” in the next line, is the reading of the folio; other old copies have “ Speak to it.”
9 Polacks was used for Polanders in Shakespeare's time. Sledded is sledged; on a sled or sleigh. — Parle, in the preceding line, is the same as parley.
10° So all the quartos. The folio reads just. Jump and just were synonymous in the time of Shakespeare. So in Chapman's May Day, 1611: “ You appointment was jumpe at three with me."