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infirmities; and I have always supposed, that if the character of Sir Roger de Coverley had been left untouched by Steele, it would have exhibited some interesting traits of this nature.
As it now appears, we see nothing more than occasional absence of mind; and the peculiarities of an humourist, contracted by retirement, and by the obsequiousness of his dependants.
“ It has often occurred to me, 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 book, 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.
Essay on the Theory of Apparitions, pp. 111-115.— The following very curious instance of a striking renewal of terrific impressions, is given by the Doctor in this entertaining little work: it was communicated to him, he tells us, by the gentleman who underwent the deception :
“ He was benighted, while travelling alone, in a remote part of the Highlands of Scotland, and was compelled to ask shelter for the evening at a small lonely hut. When he was to be conducted to his bed-room, the landlady observed, with mysterious reluctance, that he would find the window very insecure. On examination, part of the wall appeared to have been broken down, to enlarge the opening. After some enquiry, he was told, that a pedlar, who had lodged in the room a short time before, had committed suicide, and was found hanging behind the door, in the morning. According to the superstition of the country, it was deemed improper to remove the body through the door of the house; and
Dr. Alderson, alluding to the common but cogent argument against a belief in Ghosts, “ that only one man at a time ever saw a ghost, therefore, the probability is, that there never was such a thing,” adds, in reference to the character of Hamlet, and to Shakspeare's management of his supernatural machinery, the following observations: “ From what I have related, it will be seen why it should happen, that only one at a time ever could see a ghost; and here we may lament, that our celebrated poet, whose knowledge of nature is every Englishman's boast, had not known such cases, and their causes as those I have related; he would not then, perhaps, have made his ghosts visible and audible on the stage. Every expression, every look in Macbeth and Hamlet, is perfectly natural and consistent with men so agitated, and quite sufficient to convince us of what they suffer, see, and hear; but it must be evident, that the disease being confined solely to the individual, such objects must be seen and heard only by the individual. That men so circumstanced as Macbeth or Hamlet, Brutus and Dion, should see phantoms and hold converse with them, appears to me perfectly natural; and, though the cases I have now related owe their origin entirely to a disordered state of bodily organs,
be evidently inferred by the history of their rise, and the result of their cure, yet, with the knowledge we have of the effects of mind on the body, we may be fairly led to conclude, that great mental anxiety, inordinate ambition, and guilt may produce similar effects.”*
to convey it through the window was impossible, without removing part of the wall. Some hints were dropped, that the room had been subsequently haunted by the poor man's spirit.
“ My friend laid his arms, properly prepared against intrusion of any kind, by the bedside, and retired to rest, not without some degree of apprehension. He was visited, in a dream, by a frightful apparition, and awaking in agony, found himself sitting up in bed, with a pistol grasped in his right hand. On casting a fearful glance round the room, he discovered, by the moon-light, a corpse, dressed in a shroud, reared erect, against the wall
, close by the window. With much difficulty, he summoned up resolution to approach · the dismal object, the features of which, and the minutest parts of its funeral apparel, he perceived distinctly. He passed one hand over it; felt nothing; and staggered back to the bed. After a long interval, and much reasoning with himself, he renewed his investigation, and at length discovered that the object of his terror was produced by the moonbeams, forming a long, bright image, through the broken window, on which his fancy, impressed by his dream, had pictured, with mischievous accuracy, the lineaments of a body prepared for interment. Powerful associations of terror, in this instance, had excited the recollected images with uncommon force and effect.” Pp. 24–28.
If Shakspeare, more philosopher than poet, had pursued the plan which Dr. Alderson has recommended, he would have injured his tragedy, and wrecked his popularity. We could have spared, indeed, any ocular demonstration of the mute and blood-boultered ghost of Banquo in Macbeth, but had the ghost in Hamlet been invisible and inaudible, we should have lost the noblest scene of grateful terror which genius has ever created.
Nor was it ignorance on the part of Shakspeare which gave birth to the visibility of this awful spectre, for he has told us, in another place, that
“ Such shadows are the weak brain's forgeries." +
and, even in the very play under consideration, he calls them “ the very coinage of the brain," and adds, –
“ This bodiless creation ecstacy.
Is very cunning in;" 1
but he well knew, that as a dramatic poet, in a superstitious age, it was requisite, in order to produce a strong and general impression, to adopt the popular creed, the superstition relative to his subject; and, as Mrs. Montagu has justly observed, “the poet who does so, understands his business much better than the critic, who, in judging of that work, refuses it his attention.—Thus every operation that developes the attributes, which vulgar opinion, or the nurse's legend, have taught us to ascribe to “such a preternatural Being,' will augment our pleasure; whether we give the reins to our imagination, and, as
Essay on Apparitions, annexed to the fourth edition of his Essay on the Rhus Toxicodendron, pp. 68, 69. + Rape of Lucrcce, vide Malone's Supplement, vol. i. p.
500. # Reed's Shakspeare, vol. xviii. p. 250, 251.
spectators, willingly yield ourselves up to pleasing delusion, or, as * judicious' Critics, examine the merit of the composition.” *
That an undoubting belief in the actual appearance of ghosts and apparitions was general in Shakspeare's time, has been the assertion of all who have alluded to the subject, either as contemporary or subsequent historians. Addison, at the commencement of the eighteenth century, speaking of the credulities of the two preceding centuries, observes, that “our Forefathers looked upon Nature with reverence and horror that they loved to astonish themselves with the apprehensions of witchcraft, prodigies, charms, and enchantments. - - There was not a village in England that had not a ghost in it — the churchyards were all haunted - every common had a circle of fairies belonging to it—and there was scarce a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit of;" and Bourne, who wrote about the same period, and
a ተ; expressly on the subject of vulgar superstitions, tells us, that formerly " hobgoblins and sprights were in every city, and town, and village, by every water, and in every wood.—If a house was seated on some melancholy place, or built in some old romantic manner; or if any particular accident had happened in it, such as murder, sudden death, or the like, to be sure that house had a mark set on it, and was afterwards esteemed the habitation of a ghost. Stories of this kind are infinite, and there are few villages, which have not either had such an house in it, or near it."
Such, then, being the superstitious character of the poet's times, it was with great judgment that he seized the particulars best adapted to his
purpose, moulding them with a skill so perfect, as to render the effect awful beyond all former precedent. A slight attention to the circumstances which accompany the first appearances of the spectre to Horatio and to Hamlet, will place this in a striking point of view.
* Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakspeare. 8vo. 5th edit. pp. 162. 165. + Spectator, No. 419.
# Bourne's Antiquities of the Common People, 1725, edition apud Brand, pp. 119. 122, 123.
The solemnity with which this Royal phantom is introduced is beyond measure impressive: Bernardo is about to repeat to the incredulous Horatio what had occurred on the last apparition of the deceased monarch to Marcellus and himself, and thus commences his narrative :
“ Last night of all,
This note of time, the traditionary hour for the appearance of a ghost, and, above all, the mysterious connection between the course of the star, and the visitation of the spirit, usher in the “ dreaded sight" with an influence which makes the blood run chill.
A similar correspondence between a natural phenomenon in the heavens, and the agency of a disembodied spirit, occurs, with an effect which has been much admired, in a late poem by Lord Byron, where the shade of Francesca, addressing her apostate lover, and directing his attention to the orb of night, exclaims,
“ There is a light cloud by the moon
'Tis passing, and will pass full soon
The adjuration and interrogation of the ghost by Horatio and Hamlet, are conducted in conformity to the ceremonies of papal superstition ; for it may be remarked, that in many things relative to religious observances, or to the preternatural as connected with religion, Shakspeare has shown such a marked predilection for the imposing
• The Siege of Corinth, p. 34.