« PreviousContinue »
cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.
Hamlet is, through the whole piece, rather an instrument than an agent. After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish bim; and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet had no part in pro. ducing
The catastrophe is not very happily produced; the exchange of weapons is rather an expedient of necessity, than a stroke of art. A scheme might easily be formed to kill Hamlet with the dagger, and Laertes with the bowl.
The poet is accused of having shown little regard to poetical justice, and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability. The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained, but by ihe death of him that was required to take it; and the gratification, which would arise from the destruction of an usurper and a murderer, abated by the untimely death of Ophelia, the young, the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious. Fohnson.
The levity of behaviour wbich Hamlet assumes immediately after the disappearance of the Ghost in the first Act (sc. v, ) has been objected to; but the writer of some sensible Remarks on this tragedy, published in 1736, justly observes, that the poet's object there was, that Marcellus “might not imagine that the Ghost had revealed to Hainlet some matter of great consequence to him, and that he might not therefore be suspected of any deep design."
“ I have heard (aclds the same writer) many persons wonder, why the poet should bring in this Ghost in complete armour.-I think these reasons may be given for it. We are to consider, that he could introduce him in these dresses only; in his regal dress, in a habit of interment, in a common habit, or in some fantastick one of his own invention. Now let us examine, which was most likely to affect the spectators with passions proper on the occasion.
“ The regal habit bas nothing uncommon in it, nor surprising, nor could it give rise to any fine images. The habit of interment was something too horrible; for terror, not horror, is to be raised in the spectators. The common habit (or habit de ville, as the French call it,) was by no means proper for the occasion. It remains then that the poet should choose some habit from his own brain: but this certainly could not be proper, because invention in such a case would be so much in danger of falling into the grotesque, that it was not to be hazarded.
“ Now as to the armour, it was very suitable to a king who is described as a great warrior, and is very particular; and consequently affects the spectators without being fantastick.
“ The king spirs on his son to revenge his foul and unnatural murder, from these two considerations chiefly; that he was sent
into the other world without having had time to repent of his sins, and without the necessary sacraments, according to the church of Rome, and that consequently his soul was to suffer, if not eternal daination, at least a long course of pennance in pur. gatory; which aggravates the circumstances of his brother's barbarity; and secondly, that Denmark might not be the scene of usurpation and incest, and the throne thus polluted and profaned. For these reasons be prompts the voung prince to revenge; else it would have been more becoming the character of such a prince as Hamlet's father is represented to have been, and more suitable to his present condition, to have left his brother to the divine punishment, and to a possibility of repentance for his base crime, which, by cutting him off, he must be deprived of.
“ To conform to the ground work of his plot, Shakspeare makes the young prince feign himself mad. I cannot but ihink this to be injudicious; for so far from securing himself from any violence which he feared from the usurper, it seems to have been the most likely way of getting himself confined, and consequently debarred from an opportunity of revenging his father's death, which now seemed to be bis only aim; and accordingly it was the occasion of his being sent away to England; which design, had it taken eflect upon his life, he never could have revenged his father's murder. To speak truth, our poet by keeping too close to the ground-work of his plot, has fallen into an absurdity; for there appears no reason at all in nature, why the young prince did not put the usurper to death as soon as possible, especially as Hamlet is represented as a youth so brave, and so careloss of his own life.
- The case indeed is this, Had Hamlet gone naturally to work, as we could suppose such a prince to do in parallel circumstances, there would have been an end of our play. The poet, therefore, was obliged to delay his hero's revenge: but then he should have contrived some good reason for it.
“ His beginning his scenes of Hamlet's madness by his behaviour to Ophelia, was judicious, because by this means he might be thought to be mad for her, not that his brain was disturbed about state atlairs, which would have been dangerous.
" It does not appear whether Ophelia’s madness was chiefly for her father's death, or for the loss of Hamlet. It is not often that young women run mad for the loss of their fathers. It is more natural to suppose that, like Chimene, in the Cid, her great sorrow proceeded from her father's being killed by the man she loved, and thereby making it indecent for her ever to marry him.
“ Laertes's character is a very odd one; it is not easy to say whether it is good or bad: but his consenting to the villainous contrivance of the usurper's to murder Hamlet, makes him much more a bad man than a good one. It is a very nice conduct in the poet to make the usurper build his scheme upon the generous unsuspicious temper of the person he intends to murder, and thus to raise the prince's character by the confession of his ene. my; to make the villain ten times more odious from his owņ
mouth. The contrivance of the foil ‘unbated, (i. e. without a button) is methinks too gross a deceit to go down even with a man of the most unsuspicious nature.
“Laertes's death and the Queen's are truly poetical justice, and very naturally brought about, although I do not conceive it so easy to change rapiers in a scuffle without knowing it at the time. The death of the Queen is particularly according to the strictest rules of poetical justice; for she loses her life by the villainy of the very person, who had been the cause of all ber crimes.
“Since the poel deferred so long the usurper's death, we must own that he has very naturally eflected it, and still added fresh crimes to those the murderer had already committed.
“Upon Laertes's repentance for contriving the death of Hamlet, one cannot but feel some sentiments of pity for him; but who can see or read the death of the young prince without melt. ing into tears and compassion? Horatio's earnest desire to die with the prince, thus not to survive his friend, gives a stronger idea of his friendship for Hamlet in the few lines on that occasion, than many actions or expressions could possibly have done. And Hamlet's begging him to draw his breath in this harsh world a little longer, to clear his reputation, and manifest bis innocence, is very suitable to his virtuous character, and the honest regard that all men should bave not to be misrepresented to posterity; that they may not set a bad example, when in reality they have set a good one: which is the only inotive that can, in reason, re. commend the love of fame and glory.
“ Horatio's desire of having the bodies carried to a stage, &c. is very well imagined, and was the best way of satisfying the request of his deceased friend: and he acts in this, and in all points, suitably to the manly honest character, under which he is drawn throughout the piece. Besides, it gives a sort of content to the audience, that though their favourite (which must be Hamlet) did not escape with life, yet the greatest amends will be made him, which can be in this world, viz. justice done to his memory.
Fortinbras comes in very naturally at the close of the play, and lays a very just claim to the throne of Denmark, as he had the dying voice of the prince. He in a few words gives a noble character of Hamlet, and serves to carry off the deceased hero from the stage with the honours due to his birth and merit.”
ACT II.....SCENE II.
The rugged Pyrrhus, he, &c.] The two greatest poets of this and the last age, Mr. Dryden, in the preface to Troilus and Cressida, and Mr. Pope, in his note on this place, have concurred in thinking, that Shakspeare produced this long passage with design to ridicule and expose the bombast of the play from whence it was taken; and that Hamlet's commendation of it is purely ironical.
This is become the general opinion. I think just otherwise; and that it was given with commendation to upbraid the false taste of the audience of that time, wbich would not suffer them to do justice to the simplicity and sublime of this production. And I reason, first, from the character Hamlet gives of the play, from whence the passage is taken. Secondly, from the passage itself. And thirdly, from the effect it had on the audience.
Let us consider the character Hamlet gives of it. The play I remember, pleased not the million; 'twas caviare to the general: but it was (as I received it, and others, whose judgement in such matters cried in the top of mine) an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember one said, there was no salt in the lines to make the matter savoury; nor no matter in the phrase that might indite the author of affection; but called it an honest method. They who suppose the passage given to be ridiculed, must needs suppose this character to be purely ironical. But if so, it is the strangest irony that ever was written. It pleased not the multitude. This we must conclude to be true, however ironical the rest be. Now the reason given of the designed ridicule is the supposed bombast. But those were the very plays, which at that time we kuow took with the multitude. And Fletcher wrote a kind of Rehearsal purposely to expose them. But say it is bom. bast, and that therefore it took not with the multitude, Hamlet presently tells us what it was that displeased them. There was no salt in the lines to make the matter savoury; nor no matter in the phrase that might indite the author of affection ; but called it an honest method. Now whether a person speaks ironically or no, when he quotes others, yet common sense requires he should quote what they say. Now it could not be, if this play displeased because of the bombast, that those whom it displeased should give this reason for their dislike. The same inconsistencies and absurdities abound in every other part of Hamlet's speech, supposing it to be ironical; but take him as speaking his sentiments, the whole is of a piece; and to this purpose. The play, I remember, pleased not the multitude, and the reason was, its being wrote on the rules of the ancient drama; to which they were entire strangers. But, in my opinion, and in the opinion of those for whose judgment I have the highest esteem, it was an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, i. e. where the three unities were well preserved. Set down with as much modesty as cunning, i. e. where not only the art of composition, but the simplicity of nature, was carefully attended to. The characters were a faithful picture of life and manners, in which nothing was overcharged into farce. But these qualities, which gained my esteem, lost the publick's. For I remember, one said, There was no salt in the lines to make the matter savoury, i. e. there was not, according to the mode of that time, a fool or clown, to joke, quibble, and talk freely. Nor no matter in the phrase that might indite the author of affection, i. e. nor none of those passionate, pathetick love scenes, so essential to modern tragedy. But he called it an honest method, i.e. he owned, however tasteless this method of writing, on the ancient plan, was to our
times, yet it was chaste and pure; the distinguishing character of the Greek drama. I need only make one observation on all this; that, thus interpreted, it is the justest picture of a good tra. gedy, wrote on the ancient rules. And that I have rightly interpreted it, appears farther from what we find in the old quarto,An honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more HANDSOME than FINE, i. e. it had a natural beauty, but none of the fucus of false art.
2. A second proof that this speech was given to be admired, is from the intrinsick merit of the speech itself; which contains the description of a circumstance very happily imagined, namely, Ilium and Priam's falling together, with the effect it had on the destroyer.
The hellish Pyrrhus, &c. "Repugnant to command.
“ The unnerved father falls, &c. To,
So after Pyrrhus' pause." Now this circumstance, illustrated with the fine similitude of the storm is so highly worked up, as to bave well deserved a place in Virgil's second book of the Æneid, even though the work had been carried on to that perfection which the Roman poet had conceived.
3. The third proof is, from the effects which followed on the recital. Hamlet, his best character, approves it; the player is deeply affected in repeating it; and only the foolish Polonius tired with it. We have said enough before of Hamlet's sentiments. As for the player, he changes colour, and the tears start from his eyes. But our author was too good a judge of nature to make bombast and unnatural sentiment produce such an effect. Nature and Horace both instructed him:
“Si vis me flere, dolendum est
“ Aut dormitabo aut ridebo." And it may be worth observing, that Horace gives this precept particularly to show, that bombast and unnatural sentiments are incapable of moving the tender passions, which he is directing the poet how to raise. For, in the lines just before, he gives this rule:
“ Telephus & Peleus, cùm pauper & exul uterque,
“ Projicit ampullas, & sesquipedalia verba.” Not that I would deny, that very bad lines in bad tragedies have had this effect. But then it always proceeds from one or other of these causes:
1. Either when the subject is domestick, and the scene lies at home; the spectators, in this case, become interested in the fortunes of the distressed; and their thoughts are so much taken up with the subject, that they are not at liberty to attend to the poet; who otherwise, by his faulty sentiments and diction, would have