Page images

King and Queen were present; and, by such an outrage to decency, renders it still more necessary for the usurper to lay a second stratagem for his life, though the first had proved abortive. He insults the brother of the dead, and boasts of an affection for his sister, which before he had denied to her face, and yet at this very time must be considered as desirous of supporting the character of a madman, so that the openness of his confession is not to be imputed to him as a virtue. He apologizes to Horatio afterwards for the absurdity of this behaviour, to which, he

says, he was provoked by that nobleness of fraternal grief; which, indeed, he ought rather to have' applauded than condemned. Dr. Johnson has observed that to bring about a reconciliation with Laertes, he has availed himself of a dishonest fallacy; and to conclude, it is obvious to the most careless spectator or reader, that he kills the King at last to revenge himself, and not his father.

Hamlet cannot be said to have pursued his ends by very warrantable means; and if the poet, when he sacrificed him at last, meant to have enforced such a moral, it is not the worst that can be deduced from the play; for, as Maximus, in Beaumont and Fletcher's Valentinian, says

“ Although his justice were as white as truth,

“ His way was crooked to it; that condemns him." The late Dr. Akenside once observed to me, that the conduct of Hamlet was every way unnatural and indefensible, unless he were to be regarded as a young man whose intellects were in some degree impaired by his own misfortunes; by the death of his father, the loss of expected sovereignty, and a sense of shame resulting from the hasty and incestuous marriage of his mother.

I have dwelt the longer on this subject, because Hamlet seems to have been hitherto regarded as a hero not undeserving the pity of the audience; and because no writer on Shakspeare has taken the pains to point out the immoral tendency of his character.

STEÉVENS. Mr. Ritson controverts the justice of Mr. Steevens's strictures on the character of Hamlet, which he undertakes to defend. The arguments he makes use of for this purpose are too long to be here inserted, and therefore I shall content myself with referring to them. See Remarks, p. 217 to 224. Reed.

Some of the charges here brought against Hamlet appear to me questionable at least, if not unfounded. I have already observed that in the novel on which this play is constructed, the ministers who by the king's order accompanied the young prince to England, and carried with them a packet in which his death was concerted, were apprized of its contents; and therefore we may presume that Shakspeare meant to describe their representatives, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as equally criminal; as combining with the King to deprive Hamlet of his life. His procuring their execution therefore does not with certainty appear to

have been unprovoked cruelty, and might have been considered by him as necessary to his future safety; knowing, as he must have known, that they had devoted themselves to the service of the King in whatever he should command. The principle on which he acted, is ascertained by the following lines, from which also it may be inferred that the poet meant to represent Hamlet's school-fellows as privy to the plot against his life:

“ There's letters seal'd: and my two school-fellows
“Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d,
“ They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way,
“ And marshall me to knavery: Let it work,
“ For 'tis the sport, to have the engineer
“ Hoist with his own petar; and it shall go hard,
“ But I will delve one yard below their mines,

And blow them to the moon." Another charge is, that “ he comes * to disturb the funeral of Ophelia : " but the fact is otherwise represented in the first scene of the fifth Act : for when the funeral procession appears, (which he does not seek, but finds,) he exclaims

“ The queen, the courtiers : who is this they follow,

And with such maimed rites ? " nor does he know it to be the funeral of Ophelia, till Laertes mentions that the dead body was that of his sister.

I do not perceive that he is accountable for the madness of Ophelia. He did not mean to kill her father when concealed behind the arras, but the King: and still less did he intend to deprive her of her reason and her life : her subsequent distraction therefore can no otherwise be laid to his charge, than as an unforeseen consequence from his too ardently pursuing the object recommended to him by his father.

He appears to have been induced to leap into Ophelia's grave, not with a design to insult Laertes, but from his love to her (which then he had no reason to conceal), and from the bravery of her brother's grief, which excited him (not to condemn that brother, as has been stated, but) to vie with him in the expression of affection and sorrow :

“Why, I will fight with him upon this theme,
“ Until my eyelids will no longer wag:-
“ I lov'd Ophelia : forty thousand brothers
“ Could not with all their quantity of love

“ Make up my sum." When Hamlet says, " the bravery of his grief did put me into a towering passion," I think, he means, into a lofty expression (not of resentment but) of sorrow. So, in King John, vol. xv. p. 256, n. 4.

- he comes -] The words stood thus in edit. 1778, &c.


[ocr errors]

“ She is sad and passionate at your highness' tent."
Again, more appositely in the play before us :

“ The instant burst of clamour that she made,
“ (Unless things mortal move them not at all,)
“ Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven,

“ And passion in the gods.”

may also add, that he neither assaulted, nor insulted Laertes, till that nobleman had cursed him, and seized him by the throat.

Malone. So far from being satisfied with the doubtful and hesitating reply of Mr. Malone to Mr. Steevens's note, I will venture to contend that the charges which that gentleman has brought against this drama in the present, and many other preceding notes, and which he has expressed with as much asperity as if he had had a personal quarrel with the author, are altogether without foundation. Nor is it a question of slight importance to our great poet's fame. His power in the delineation of character has placed him, in the opinion of his admirers, far above all other poets in this important respect. But that praise, if it is not altogether denied, must at least be subject to very considerable deductions ; if in one of the noblest efforts of his muse, he has so completely failed, that the reader requires to be warned against the immoral tendency of a character which he evidently endeavoured to exhibit in an amiable point of view, and has closed his play with that affectionate tribute to its virtues in the mouth of Horatio, which has called down Mr. Steevens's indignation. As I may, perhaps, in some points have formed notions as to the poet's idea of Hamlet not altogether agreeing with my predecessors, I shall attempt shortly to state what impression it has made upon my mind, as it is developed in the progress of the drama. Hamlet, if I understand him rightly, is an amiable and accomplished prince, with ardent feelings and acute sensibility, of a benevolent disposition, and of a temper naturally gay till his spirit was broken by misfortune : but in his gaiety there was nothing frivolous; it was combined (as we often find it in men of genius) with habits of deep reflection, Hamlet is a man of highly cultivated genius ; but the defect in his character, which furnishes us with a clue to his conduct, is a want of strength of mind and firmness of purpose. At the commencement of the play, the sudden death of his father, the seizure of the crown by his uncle, and the disgraceful marriage of his mother, have sunk him into a state of depression which unfits him for all the uses of this world. In this enfeebled state of mind he is informed by the awful vision of his father's spirit of the crime which had led to his death, and instigated to take vengeance on the murderer. His affection as a son makes him promptly and even enthusiastically undertake this office; but a consciousness of his own unfitness for it, almost instantly obtrudes itself on his mind:

" The time is nut of joint; oh, cursed spight,

“ That ever I was born to set it right !" Of the feigned madness of Hamlet (says Johnson) there appears no adequate cause. With all my reverence for that great writer, I cannot but think that the cause is obvious. His father's spirit communicating such dreadful intelligence could not fail to throw him into a state of agitation which would have exposed him to the prying eyes of suspicious guilt, and might by the examination of Marcellus and Bernardo, whom it is plain he did not trust, have occasioned a disclosure which would have led to his destruction : but his feigned insanity serves to account for whatever is extraordinary in his demeanour. Whatever reasons can be assigned for the elder Brutus assuming a “cloak of folly," will serve much more strongly to explain the design of Hamlet. It has been suggested by Dr. Akenside, as Mr. Steevens observes, and the notion has of late years been revived, that the madness of Hamlet is not allogether feigned: but this I think entirely without foundation. The sentiments which fall from him 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 bas even 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 schoolfellows, 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.

In the mean time the arrival of the players at the court of Elsineur affords the poet an opportunity of giving us a retrospective sketch of Hamlet as he might have been seen in his happier days, when he was, as Ophelia describes him, the glass of fashion.

Reminded by their approach of an amusement, to which Shakspeare, with a natural fondness for his own art, represents this accomplished prince as being strongly attached, he forgets, for a moment, his calamities, and gives himself up to the recollection of former pleasure. He accosts them with joyous hilarity, and at the same time shows the kindness of his nature (a circumstance I think never lost sight of) by the interest which he takes in their concerns, which he evinces by his minute enquiries ; but the dreadful subject which generally engrosses his mind, resumes its sway, and he proceeds to turn this incident into a means of ascertaining his uncle's guilt. Even the solemn communication which he has received from the dead can scarcely persuade him that so enormous a crime has been committed ; for a benevolent and virtuous mind is slow to helieve in the depravity of others. The opportunity which is presented to him of taking vengeance after his doubts have been removed, exhibits again that irresolution which forms so marked a part of his character: but he endeavours to impose upon himself; and attempts by a pretended refinement in revenge, to hide from his own knowledge his incurable habits of procrastination, and turns to an object much more congenial with the mildness of his character; an effort to awaken the conscience of his mother. Polonius behind the arras is mistaken for the king, who, he supposes, had placed himself there to detect him. A sense of immediate danger, united with indignation at the treachery which has been practised, supply that strong stimulus which is necessary to rouse him to exertion, and the poor old Lord Chamberlain receives the blow which was destined for his master. His rage at his disappointment suspends at first the softer feelings of his nature, but they soon return. “ He weeps for what is done." The king, alarmed at this new act of violence, enforces his orders that Hamlet should repair to England. A hero of romance would not have submitted ; but Shakspeare has no heroes of romance. The prince knowing that resistance would be fruitless, yields to necessity, and embarks. The manner in which he escapes from the plot, which was formed against him by his uncle, has drawn forth the heaviest censure of Mr. Steevens. He maintains, p. 483, n. 4, that from Shakspeare's drama no proofs of the guilt of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be drawn. Mr. Malone has produced the old black letter history as expressly asserting their participation in the usurper's plans, and Hamlet's knowledge of that fact. To this it is replied that a critick and a juryman are bound to form their opinions on what they see and hear in the cause before them : and Mr. Steevens goes on to assert that it is not a commentator's office to interpret the plays of Shakspeare according to the novels on which they are founded. How far this position is well founded, may be a question with those who recollect how often the poet has left circumstances to be supplied by his readers, who were supposed to be familiarly acquainted with those popular story-books or histories

« PreviousContinue »