Page images
[ocr errors]

things in it, this hinders not that we distinguish between them. The puddle, and the weed, and the rank swamp may form part of the sublimest scene one knows; they may even belong to that very wildness that charm us; but they cannot be individually attractive: one must wish they had not been there. No; we are not afraid, as M. Victor Hugo objects to the lovers of "sobriety," of too great a profusion of what is beautiful. "Henceforth," he says, "the rose-tree shall be compelled to count its roses. The prairie shall be requested not to be so prodigal of daisies; the spring shall be ordered to restrain itself. The nests are rather too prolific. The groves are too rich in songsters. The Milky Way must moderate the profusion of its stars-they are very numerous." Too many roses, too many stars, we know of no one who has complained of.

At such a time as this, when foreigners as well as natives are shouting a hymn of triumph to our great dramatist, it would be discordant, out of season, and altogether vain, to attempt a candid estimate of the defects as well as merits of Shakespeare. Indeed, we have felt, any time this last twenty years, that it was impossible to say a temperate word on our great national poet. It was not enough to admire all his well-known excellences, his fertility of invention, his powerful expression of the various passions of mankind, his tenderness and poetic imagination, which so often fling a lyric into the dialogue, and make of some single speech a perfect poem of itself. It was not enough to recognise the marvellous union of thought, passion, and imagination there was in this man. We were required to see the consummate artist in all he did, and a perfect consistency in all the characters he delineated, or at least in the characters of his chief plays. The English language reached its climax in the happiest efforts of Shakespeare; sentences more lucid, more melodious, more laden with

meaning, direct and indirect, and yet more simple (flowing easily, like a river in the light), never were composed. But our Shakespeare had two styles, and, what is strange, he seems to have prided himself as much on one as the other. Such involved construction, such distraction of conflicting metaphors, such elaborate obscurity, such extravagant thought, as well as violent and distorted diction, as we sometimes meet with, has hardly a parallel in any other writer. This also is as peculiar to him as his exquisite transparency and purity of speech. Our Shakespeare revolves before us, like the earth itself, half in light, half in darkness. But we may say this of the earth, not of Shakespeare: in his case we must not admit the night.

There has been, in particular, a sort of study of the characters of Shakespeare, which appears to us quite preposterous; as if we had the facts of nature or history before us, and not the utterances of a dramatist on whom the exigencies of the stage, and the necessity to amuse an audience, were constantly pressing. Some of our most distinguished critics proceed on the supposition that Shakespeare, before writing his dialogue, formed for himself a complete conception of the character he was about to portray. It is this conception the critic has to seize upon and secure. Now, we venture to assert that it is very seldom that any dramatist has proceeded in this manner. We feel persuaded that Shakespeare did not. He took some well-known story, and the inevitable passions of the agents in it, and by developing these a character was necessarily developed also. But the character was the result of the story and the passion; it was no separate preconception. The story was not invented to display the character, but the story was there, and the character grew out of it, and was made to accommodate itself to all its turns and windings. Shakespeare never seems to have given himself the

trouble to think whether the men and women he brought upon the stage, and to whom he gave his marvellous dialogue, or whether any human beings whatever, could have acted in the manner which his story says they did. He does not ask himself whether King Lear, unless he were already mad, could have made the distribution of his kingdom which the story relates, and, for no offence whatever, have banished his beloved Cordelia from his affections. He found all this in the story, adopts it without hesitation, and, starting from this gross improbability, he proceeds to throw his whole soul into the passion of Lear. And by so doing this master of human passion has produced a tragedy, or at least a tragic personage, of the very grandest order. We are all borne irresistibly away by the rage and anguish of Lear; but if we persist in the attempt to form some conception of a man who could have done and said all that King Lear said and did in the play, we shall never succeed. Shakespeare had troubled himself to form no such conception.

It sometimes happens that Shakespeare, by throwing the wealth of his own highly reflective mind on the characters he portrays, produces an incongruity between them and the actions which, according to the story, he has to ascribe to them. He takes up the story of a Moor who marries a Christian lady, and who puts her to death with his own hands in a fit of jealousy. There is nothing improbable in this. But as our poet proceeds to develop the plot, he gives to Othello so many noble sentiments, animates him with so pure and tender a love, approximates him so closely to the ideal standard of a high-minded European (who, if he is jealous, kills the man who has wronged him, but not the woman), that the action of Othello becomes as incongruous as it is revolting. So stately a form does Othello assume under the hands of Shakespeare, that some of our refining critics have

determined that he was not even a jealous man-not jealous by temperament-that he yielded to overwhelming evidence. Coleridge, we believe, started this last subtlety of interpretation; so that Coleridge, and the critics who follow him, must have brought themselves to the conclusion that when, with this story before him, Shakespeare sat down to write his drama of 'Othello,' he intended to portray the character of a Moor not jealous by temperament!

Our most ingenious critics have differed in their interpretations of such characters as Othello, Macbeth, Hamlet, and others. Is it likely that this would be the case if the poet had formed for himself some one definite conception to which he had studiously adhered? But it is what would inevitably happen if the poet, starting from the point of view his story gave him, allowed himself afterwards full scope in expressing whatever passions or sentiments the various scenes or situations of the play suggested. The character being, as it were, the final resumé of all the eloquence, or wit, or pathos, which the poet had gathered round it during the five acts, could hardly fail to offer incongruities which ingenious men would explain or resolve each after his own fashion.

Was Macbeth a cruel man? Was he a tyrant by temperament? Was he superstitious? Had he that overweening pride which, in common parlance, is dignified with the name of ambition? How far was he led to the murder of Duncan by the prophecy of the witches?-how far by the incentives of his diabolical wife? Questions like these our analytic school of critics agitate, and on the solution of such questions they bring to bear those noble and pathetic speeches which, especially towards the close of the drama, Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Macbeth. But the almost tender eloquence which the poet takes this opportunity to utter, and the murder which only a savage

could commit, are simply incompatible. Shift your point of view how you will, you can never get these in the same line of vision, so as to harmonise them together. The Macbeth of the story, and the Macbeth who utters Shakespeare's thoughts, are not to be reconciled. But the pleasure of the reader is, after all, very little disturbed by this incongruity, because, in fact, it is the Macbeth who speaks and thinks who absorbs our attention, and this to such a degree that it is the murderer, and not the sons of the murdered Duncan, to whom we give our sympathies: no one has a horror of Macbeth. We admit the justice of his fate, but regret it at the same time.

It is on the character of Hamlet above all that our subtilising critics have laboured most pertinaciously. Two men of pre-eminent genius, Coleridge and Goethe, have here set the example. "I set about," says Goethe, speaking through Wilhelm Meister-"I set about investigating every trace of Hamlet's character, as it had shown itself before his father's death. I endeavoured to distinguish what in it was independent of this mournful event; independent of the terrible events that followed; and what most probably the young man would have been had no such thing occurred." A very unprofit able mode of study, we should say. Goethe, who was himself a dramatist, must have very well known that Shakespeare never thought of any other Hamlet than the Hamlet who saw the ghost of his murdered father, and who undertook to revenge his death. Goethe's description of the character of Hamlet has been very generally received as accurate; it could not fail to be accurate in some points; it could not fail to be itself a vivid and interesting picture; but it will satisfy the reader only while he confines himself to just such recollections of Shakespeare's play as the critic skilfully awakens. Any one who, after some interval,

takes down his Shakespeare from the shelf, and, without any preconception, reads through the play of 'Hamlet,' will have before him something very different from the pensive and refined portraitures of either Coleridge or Goethe. Both rest far too much on the indecision or want of will that so often accompanies the habit of meditative thought. Goethe says, "To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it." Hamlet is no doubt the meditative man; he is a melancholy man. Shakespeare has clad him in the sombre garment of his own solitary thoughts; but he certainly does not represent him as a weak man, as one generally incapable of action. There is one conspicuous passage in which he chides himself for his delay, but procrastination of such an act as he had to perform is in itself no sign of habitual indecision or irresolution; on the contrary, a very resolute man as well as a very weak man might be found under such circumstances chiding himself for delay, and girding himself up for action. Hamlet is described throughout as very capable of action, of very violent action, and, what is more, of being very little troubled by delicate scruples of conscience. He sees the arras stir, and whips out his rapier and runs the king, as he thinks, through the body. The action is quick and decided enough, and when he drags forth the old Polonius and discovers his mistake, he has not a word of remorse.

"Thon wretched, rash, intruding fool,


I took thee for thy betters; take thy fortune!

Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger."

Hamlet is sent to England in the company of Guldenstern and Rosencranz. Read the account which he gives to Horatio of the manner in which he extricated himself from his dangerous predicament: it was prompt enough, and unscrupulous


cranz were the mere tools of the king, and probably knew nothing of the object of their journey to England. Hamlet sends them to the fate which the king had destined for him—a wild sort of justice. He adds,

"They are not on my conscience."

Guldenstern and Rosen- thinks he has it, in order to frame for himself an excuse for his " reluctance and procrastination." So willingly has this gloss been received, that Mr Knight, in his edition of Shakespeare, speaks quite contemptuously of any one who could possibly understand the speech in its direct natural meaning. Of course, some such gloss must be accepted if we are to hold to Goethe's view-"a lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinking beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and must not cast away."

This idea—that a meditative man is unfit for action-belongs more to the nineteenth century than it did to Shakespeare's time. He wrote at a time when the weakness of confirmed irresolution would hardly have been excused on the plea that the strength of the man had gone forth in thinking. He wrote in the times of Bacon and of Raleigh, when men were rather familiarised with the

union of the contemplative and the active in life. Raleigh had a good deal of Hamlet in him; he could muse over the history of the world, and touch pathetically on human life and the usual themes of moral ists, and he nevertheless had the bold spirit of the adventurer, the warrior, the discoverer. So far from Hamlet being the delicate and introspective spirit which a Coleridge or a Shelley would in their own poetry have been tempted to portray, he unites with his profound melancholy a most ferocious spirit of revenge. He lets pass the only opportunity which, so far as we know, is presented to him of killing the king-why? Because the king is at his prayers, and he will have a more terrible and complete revenge

[ocr errors]

Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent!

When he is drunk, asleep, or in his rage, about some act

That has no relish of salvation in it." This is so utterly revolting in its simple, straightforward meaning, that our more refined age has will ingly followed Coleridge in his gloss upon the passage. According to our subtle critic, Hamlet, in this terrible speech, is in reality only deluding himself; he has not this motive of almost diabolical revenge; but in this soliloquy he says and

Have we any new reading to offer of the character of Hamlet? None whatever. We are not blind, we hope, to the many exquisite and subtle observations to which the study of this play has given occasion. But to us it seems that a critic who should sit down to portray a character of Hamlet, which shall be in keeping with all Hamlet says and does in the play, will find that he has undertaken an impossible task. Shakespeare took up of Denmark to whom his father's a well-known story of some prince ghost had appeared. Some commentators think it clear that the subject had already been dramatised, and that there was an older play which Shakespeare used as a sort of skeleton; others refer us to an English translation of the story extracted from Saxo Grammaticus, as the direct source of Shakespeare's plot. However that may be, Shakespeare finds the story ready made to his hand, and proceeds to fashion it, or re-fashion it, for the stage. In doing this he throws his own meditative spirit into the part of Hamlet. He thus constructs a Hamlet quite his own, who has to move about and act in scenes already prescribed for him. What wonder that the melancholy, reflective Hamlet, that has grown up half out of the story and half out of the brooding thoughts of the poet, should be a somewhat incongruous result? The character is distorted by the

necessity to accommodate it to the already determined plot, or by the necessity to retain much of the dialogue that belonged to the Hamlet of the story. The incongruities are there, and cannot be effaced. Shakespeare does not here work from "within to without," as it is said from the character to the conduct; but the conduct is given, and the character on which he continues to refine must accommodate itself to the prescribed course of action how it can.

Bear in mind the exigencies of the theatre. They were never, we may be sure, out of the mind of Shakespeare. The ghost appears in the first act; the execution of the ghost's revenge is to be accomplished at the end of the fifth. How is the interval to be filled up? One expedient, and a very successful one, was the production of a play within the play-a play to be acted before the king, of such a nature that the king, in witnessing it, should betray his own guilt. But how could Hamlet, who had seen and heard his father's ghost, need any such expedient? How could it confirm his belief in the king's guilt? Besides, although the expedient did answer, it could not have been expected to answer. A man of any nerve would have quietly sat out the play, let the players have delivered their speeches with what pathos they might, without any selfbetrayal. But the play was wanted; and Hamlet is made, after his solemn vows to his father's ghost, to suspect that ghost of being possibly a devil in disguise, coming "out of my weakness and my melancholy to damn me." Now we, in this age, are willing to believe Hamlet undecided and procrastinating, but we are not willing to attribute to him this vulgar superstition. We make the same sort of interpretation as on the occasion when Hamlet desires not only the death but the damnation of his uncle. The accepted gloss is, that Hamlet does not really think the ghost might have been the devil, but he says this

to himself to give himself an excuse for his indecision and delay.

Hamlet is not an amiable man if we judge him by his conduct. His cruelty to Ophelia, after all the eloquent excuses that have been made for it, is felt to have been unnecessary. In fact, it did not grow out of Hamlet's character, it was there in the story. The story told “how Hamlet counterfeited the madman to escape the tyranny of his uncle, and how he was tempted by a woman (through his uncle's procurement), who thereby thought to undermine the prince, and by that means to find out whether he counterfeited madness or not." The


woman who tempted him" grew up, under the tender imagination of Shakespeare, into the lovely and loving Ophelia, whom her father Polonius and the king do make, in some way, subservient to their policy. She herself has no other policy but simply to love Hamlet. But Hamlet is still made, in his intercourse with Ophelia, to have no other object or anxiety than to sustain his counterfeit of madness. For he not only wipes out his love for Ophelia with other "fond records," but in her presence he is always the madman; acting, by the way, in this case, with decision enough. The poet again contrives, out of this desertion of Ophelia, to obtain the most touching episode in the piece. The plot prospers, but at some expense to the character of Hamlet.

This counterfeited madness is adopted from the story, and most skilfully used to keep up an interest in the piece, and more especially to vary the dialogue by the introduction of a most captivating wildness of speech; but no attempt is made to give it a rational place in Hamlet's designs. Dr Johnson long ago observed that he does nothing throughout the play which he might not have done as well with the reputation of sanity. Against this it has been urged, that it was not as part of any plan for the assassination of his uncle that he feigned madness; it was a measure of self-protection.

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »