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What! another book on 'Hamlet !'” I seem to hear many, both critics and students of Shakespeare, exclaim with somewhat of a jaded air. “What can you have that is new to say about 'Hamlet ?” they ask-not unreasonably. My answer is that I hope I have something to say which is worth hearing, whether it be quite new, or whether it be old truths presented in a new guise; though I must confess I have not hazarded any theories, or indulged in any criticisms, simply because I thought they were new. To those who seek for abstruse verbal commentaries, or for ingenious, but, to my mind, paltry attempts to nibble away our greatest poet's reputation, this book will not be welcome. I leave to others the task of treating our author like a prisoner arrested for felony, of turning his pockets inside out, and stripping him to the skin, in order to see if they can discover a rag or two which might have belonged to some one else.
Those I would fain have as my readers are those who love Shakespeare as one who has added to the beauty and happiness of life; who reverence his mind as one of those precious gifts of God to this world, whence beings, born of Fancy indeed, but none the less real in their nobleness and purity, may spring, to gladden the hearts of those whose earthly lot it is to find few friends save in the realms of imagination. These persons
will grudge neither time nor trouble if, by their own efforts, or by the aid of others, they can gain a clearer insight into the beauties of Shakespeare's creations.
This book had its origin in a lecture which I was asked to give before the Catholic Young Men's Association. I chose “Hamlet” for my subject; but I found it impossible to say what I wanted to say in the space even of two lectures. The greater portion of the First and Second Parts of this work formed the matter of those lectures. It was always my ambition to give a series of lectures on Shakespeare, accompanied with readings; but I have learnt to doubt my capacity for such a task. Though I have studied “Hamlet” more or less for the last fourteen years, I never knew, till I began seriously to finish this work, how scanty was my knowledge of the grand subject I had undertaken to illustrate. One of my principal objects will have been gained, if I can induce any of my readers to study the text of Shakespeare's plays more carefully, and with a higher aim than mere verbal criticism; they will find that he is himself his best commentator, and that such study will open to them new fields of enjoyment.
I have made frequent allusions to the acting of three of the most distinguished representatives of Hamlet on the stage that I have had the pleasure of seeing-namely, Tommaso Salvini, Ernesto Rossi, and Henry Irving. I had intended to have entered into a somewhat elaborate comparison of their respective interpretations of the character ; but for many reasons, some of which I will mention, I thought it better not to do so. Signor Salvini has as yet only appeared in a version of the play, so unsatisfactory to an English student of Shakespeare, that it would be scarcely possible to do justico to his great talents as displayed in the part of Hamlet; the more especially as he intends to give us the privilege of seeing him in a fuller and more faithful translation. Signor Rossi has yet to appear before an English public; he also may be enabled to correct soine of the deficiencies of the
version, which he uses in Italy, before he encounters the criticism of Shakespeare's countrymen. Mr. Irving has exchanged Hamlet for another Shakespearian rôle, after having given the almost incredible number of two hundred consecutive representations of the part : it was inevitable that his porformance should suffer from so fatigning a persistence in it, and I trust, for the sake of art, such a call may never again be made on his strength. Acting is an art which cannot be preserved in any perfection, unless the actor has the opportunity of changing, not unfrequently, the character which he represents. If a painter were to spend a year in painting the same subject over and over again, he would lose most of whatever skill he ever possessed; his delicacy of touch would be seriously impaired ; his colouring would be apt to grow coarse and careless; while his artistic perception would be diminished, and his power of execution would be worn away by very weariness. Art must have variety, or it pines and becomes cramped. I have ventured to make these remarks because the opinion I have incidentally expressed, in different parts of this work, of Mr. Irving's Hamlet was formed in the course of his first twenty performances; and, judging by the portion that I saw of his two-hundredth performance, I should say that the prolonged strain on his powers had told prejudicially on his execution of what was, undeniably, a singularly fine conception of the character. The charming grace, and melodious elocution, of Signor Salvini could not be obscured by the fact that he was under the disadvantage of speaking a language, with which but very few of his audience were familiar: he has, by his performance of Othello and Hamlet, won a position among Englishmen, as an interpreter of Shakespeare, which few of our own countrymen have gained. Ernesto Rossi, whose style is totally different *
* A writer in the Times, speaking of Rossi's Othello, as given in Paris, said that the two great Italian actors were as similar in style as Phelps from that of Salvini, though he is in grace and talent his most worthy rival, will be sure of a generous welcome : his appearance amongst us will stimulate that revived interest in Shakespeare's plays which has been such a marked feature of the last year. As far as regards the Hamlet of the three great actors I have named, I should say that Salvini's interpretation was the most tender, Rossi's the most passionate, and Irving's the most intellectual.
Now that it has been proved that the plays of Shakespeare can be made to bring money as well as glory to the managers, I live in the hopes of seeing some performances of our greatest dramatist's masterpieces worthy of the honour in which we hold him.
I do not mean as regards scenery and dresses, but as regards the representation of the characters themselves; one good actor cannot make an efficient cast; and unless the minor characters in Shakespeare's plays are adequately represented, it is impossible to form any just conception of the excellence of his work. This can only be effected by actors, managers, and audiences, uniting together in making greater sacrifices to Art than they have hitherto seemed willing to do.
The text from which I have quoted throughout is the “Cambridge Shakespeare." All the references are to that edition, which I cannot praise too highly. The text of the Quarto 1603, which I have used, is that contained in Allen's Reprint, entitled "The Devonshire ‘Hamlets,'” in which the Quartos of 1603 and 1604 are exactly reprinted in facsimile side by side. It is a most valuable book. I have exercised all possible care in the revision of the letterpress, especially of the quotations. For what few mistakes have still crept in I crave pardon.
and Macready. I never saw Macready, but I am sure that all, who have seen Rossi and Salvini in the part, will admit that there could scarcely be two more dissimilar interpretations of Hamlet.