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upon whom devolved the office of giving to the world the accumulated labors of Malone's latter years, devoted to the illustration of Shakspeare.
The character of Hamlet has been frequently discussed, and with a variety of contradictory opinions. Johnson and Steevens have made severe animadversions upon some parts of his conduct. A celebrated writer of Germany has very skilfully pointed out the cause of the defects in Hamlet's character, which unfit him for the dreadful office to which he is called. "It is clear to me (says Goëthé) that Shakspeare's intention was to exhibit the effects of a great action, imposed as a duty upon a mind too feeble for its accomplishment. In this sense I find the character consistent throughout. Here is an oak planted in a china vase, proper to receive only the most delicate flowers. The roots strike out, and the vessel flies to pieces. A pure, noble, highly moral disposition, but without that energy of soul which constitutes the hero, sinks under a load which it can neither support nor resolve to abandon altogether. All his obligations are sacred to him; but this alone is above his powers! An impossibility is required at his hands; not an impossibility in itself, but that which is so to him. Observe how he shifts, turns, hesitates, advances, and recedes! how he is continually reminded and reminding himself of his great commission! which he, nevertheless, in the end, seems almost entirely to lose sight of; and this without ever recovering his former tranquillity."*
Dr. Akenside suggested that the madness of Hamlet is not altogether feigned; and the notion has of late been revived. Dr. Ferriar, in his Essay towards a Theory of Apparitions, has termed the state of mind which Shakspeare exhibits to us in Hamlet,- -as the consequence of conflicting passions and events operating on a frame of acute sensibility,— latent lunacy.
"It has often occurred to me (says Dr. F.) that Shakspeare's character of Hamlet can only be understood on this principle:-He feigns madness for political purposes, while the Poet means to represent his understanding as really (and unconsciously to himself) unhinged by the cruel circumstances in which he is placed. The horror of the communication made by his father's spectre, the necessity of belying his attachment to an innocent and deserving object, the certainty of his mother's guilt, and the supernatural impulse by which he is goaded to an act of assassination abhorrent to his nature, are causes sufficient to overwhelm and distract a mind previously disposed to weakness and to melancholy,' and originally full of tenderness and natural affection. By referring to the play, it will be seen that his real insanity is only developed after the mock play. Then, in place of a systematic conduct, conducive to his purposes, he becomes irresolute, inconsequent; and the plot appears to stand unaccountably still. Instead of striking at his object, he resigns himself to the current of events, and sinks at length, ignobly, under the stream."+
* William Meister's Apprenticeship, b. iv. ch. 13.
A comedian of considerable talents has entered at large into the question of Hamlet's madness, and has endeavored to show that the Poet meant to represent him as insane.* Mr. Boswell, on the contrary, in a very judicious and ingenious review of Hamlet's character, combats the supposition, and thinks it entirely without foundation. He argues that "the sentiments which fall from Hamlet in his soliloquies, or in confidential communication with Horatio, evince not only a sound but an acute and vigorous understanding. His misfortunes, indeed, and a sense of shame, from the hasty and incestuous marriage of his mother, have sunk him into a state of weakness and melancholy; but though his mind is enfeebled, it is by no means deranged. It would have been little in the manner of Shakspeare to introduce two persons in the same play whose intellects were disordered; but he has rather, in this instance, as in King Lear, a second time effected what, as far as I can recollect, no other writer has ever ventured to attempt-the exhibition, on the same scene, of real and fictitious madness in contrast with each other. In carrying his design into execution, Hamlet feels no difficulty in imposing upon the king, whom he detests; or upon Polonius, and his school-fellows, whom he despises: but the case is very different indeed in his interviews with Ophelia; aware of the submissive mildness of her character, which leads her to be subject to the influence of her father and her brother, he cannot venture to entrust her with his secret. In her presence, therefore, he has not only to assume a disguise, but to restrain himself from those expressions of affection, which a lover must find it most difficult to repress in the presence of his mistress. In this tumult of conflicting feelings, he is led to overact his part, from a fear of falling below it; and thus gives an appearance of rudeness and harshness to that which is, in fact, a painful struggle to conceal his tenderness."†
Mr. Richardson, in his Essay on the Character of Hamlet, has well observed that "the spirit of that remarkable scene with Ophelia, where he tells her, 'Get thee to a nunnery,' is frequently misunderstood; and especially by the players. At least, it does not appear to have been the Poet's intention that the air and manner of Hamlet, in this scene, should be perfectly grave and serious; nor is there any thing in the dialogue to justify the grave and tragic tone with which it is frequently spoken. Let Hamlet be represented as delivering himself in a light and airy, unconcerned and thoughtless manner, and the rudeness so much complained of will disappear." His conduct to Ophelia is intended to confirm and publish the notion he would convey of his pretended insanity, which could not be marked by any circumstance so strongly as that of treating her with harshness or indifference. The sincerity and ardor of his passion for her had undergone no change; he could not explain himself to her; and, in the difficult and trying circumstances in which he was placed, had, therefore, no alternative.
*On the Madness of Hamlet, by Mr. W. Farren.-London Magazine, for April, 1824. Boswell's edition of Malone's Shakspeare, vol. vii. p. 536.
The Poet, indeed, has marked with a master hand the amiable and polished character of Hamlet. Ophelia designates him as having been
the glass of fashion, and the mould of form;"
and, though circumstances have unsettled him, and thrown over his natural disposition the clouds of melancholy, the kindness of his disposition, and his natural hilarity, break through on every occasion which arises to call them forth.
Mr. Boswell has remarked, that "the scene with the grave-diggers shows, in a striking point of view, his good-natured affability. The reflections which follow afford new proofs of his amiable character. The place where he stands, the frame of his own thoughts, and the objects which surround him, suggest the vanity of all human pursuits; but there is nothing harsh or caustic in his satire; his observations are dictated rather by feelings of sorrow than of anger; and the sprightliness of his wit, which misfortune has repressed, but cannot altogether extinguish, has thrown over the whole a truly pathetic cast of humorous sadness. Those gleams of sunshine, which serve only to show us the scattered fragments of a brilliant imagination, crushed and broken by calamity, are much more affecting than a long, uninterrupted train of monotonous woe."
"Ophelia is a character almost too exquisitely touching to be dwelt upon. O rose of May! O flower too soon faded! Her love, her madness, her death, are described with the truest touches of tenderness and pathos. It is a character which nobody but Shakspeare could have drawn in the way that he has done; and to the conception of which there is not the smallest approach, except in some of the old romantic ballads.”*
* Hazlitt's Characters of Shakspeare's Plays, p. 112.
CLAUDIUS, King of Denmark.
HAMLET, Son to the former, and Nephew to the present, King.
POLONIUS, Lord Chamberlain.
HORATIO, Friend to Hamlet.
LAERTES, Son to Polonius.
GERTRUDE, Queen of Denmark, and Mother to Hamlet.
Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, Players, Grave-diggers, Sailors, Messengers, and other Attendants.
HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK.
SCENE I. Elsinore. A Platform before the Castle.
FRANCISCO on his post. Enter to him, BERNARDO.
Bernardo. WHO's there?
Nay, answer me;' stand, and unfold
Ber. Long live the king!
Fran. You come most carefully upon your hour.
Fran. For this relief, much thanks; 'tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart.
Ber. Have you had quiet guard?
Ber. Well, good night.
Not a mouse stirring.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
1 i. e. me, who have a right to demand the watchword; which appears to have been, "Long live the king."
2 Shakspeare uses rivals for associates, partners; and competitor has the same sense throughout these plays. It is the original sense of rivalis.