by: E.K. Chambers

The following article was originally published in The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. Ed. E.K. Chambers. Boston: D.C. Heath & Co., 1895.

The criticism of Hamlet is apt to centre round the question, "Was Hamlet mad?" The problem is not merely insoluble; it cannot even be propounded in an intelligible guise. Psychology knows no rigid dividing line between the sane and the insane. The pathologist, indeed, may distinguish certain abnormal conditions of brain-areas, and call them diseased; or the lawyer may apply practical tests to determine the point where restraint of the individual liberty becomes necessary in the public interest. But beyond this you cannot go; you cannot, from any wider point of view, lay your finger upon one element here or there in the infinite variety of human character and say, "that way madness lies." Of this, however, we may be sure. Shakespeare did not mean Hamlet to be mad in any sense which would put his actions in a quite different category from those of other men. That would have been to divest his work of humanity and leave it meaningless. For the tragedy of Hamlet does not lie in the fact that it begins with a murder and ends with a massacre; it is something deeper, more spiritual than that. The most tragic, the most affecting thing in the world is the ruin of a high soul. This is the theme of Hamlet; it is a tragedy of failure, of a great nature confronted with a low environment, and so, by the perversity of things, made ineffective and disastrous through its own greatness. Keeping, then, this central idea in mind, let us attempt an analysis of the play in which it is set forth.

Hamlet is presented to us as a man of sensitive temperament and high intellectual gifts. He is no ordinary prince; his spirit has been touched to finer issues; his wit is keen-edged and dipped in irony; his delicacy of moral insight is unusual among the ruder Danes. He is no longer in his first youth when the play opens, but up to that moment his life has been serene and undisturbed. His father's unexpected death has called him back from the University of Wittenberg, where his time has been spent in an atmosphere of studious calm and philosophic speculation. His tastes are those of the scholar; he loves to read for hours together, and, like most literary men, he takes great delight in the stage, with whose theory and practice he is familiar. He is no recluse; he has the genius for friendship and for love; when at Elsinore he has been conspicuous in the gallant exercises of the age. He is the darling of the court and beloved by the people. But his real interest is all in speculation, in the play of the mind around a subject, in the contemplation of it on all sides and from every point of view. Such a training has not fitted him to act a kingly part in stirring times; the intellectual element in him has come to outweigh the practical; the vivid consciousness of many possible courses of conduct deters him from the strenuous pursuit of one; so that he has lost the power of deliberate purposeful action, and, by a strange paradox, if this thoughtful man acts at all, it must be from impulse.

Quite suddenly the dreamer finds himself face to face with a thing to be done. According to the ethics of the day it becomes his imperative duty to revenge his father's murder; a difficult task, and one whose success might well seem doubtful. But Hamlet does not shrink at first from recognizing the obligation; it is 'cursed spite' that the burden of setting the world straight should have fallen upon him, but he will not refuse to shoulder it. Only the habits of a lifetime are not to be thrown off so easily. As the excitement of the ghost's revelation passes away, the laws of character begin to reassert themselves. The necessity of "thinking it over" is potent with Hamlet. Instead of revealing all to his friends and enlisting their assistance, he binds them to secrecy and forms the plan of pretending madness that he may gain time to consider his position. Let us consider it with him.

In the first place, he is absolutely alone. The court at Elsinore is filled with quite ordinary people, none of whom can understand him, to none of whom he can look for help. This note of contrast between Hamlet and his surroundings is struck again and again. They are of another world than his, limited, commonplace, incapable of ideals. His motives and feelings, his scruples and hesitations, are hopelessly beyond their comprehension. And therefore--this is the irony of it--most of them are far more fitted to deal with a practical crisis in life than this high-strung idealist of a prince. There are "the good king and queen"; Claudius, shrewd and ready for an emergency, one who has set foot in the paths of villany and will not turn back, for all the dim visitings of momentary remorse; Gertrude, a slave to the stronger nature, living in the present, unable to realize her own moral degradation. There is Horatio, a straightforward upright soldier, one whom Hamlet intensely respects, comes even to envy, but who is not subtle enough to be of much use to him. There is Polonius, a played-out state official, vain and slow-witted, pattering words of wisdom which he does not understand and cannot put into practice. There are his son and daughter, Laertes and Ophelia: Laertes, a shallow vigorous young noble, quick with a word, and quick with a blow, but demoralized by the esprit Gaulois; Ophelia, a timid conventional girl, too fragile a reed for a man to lean upon. Hamlet loves her, and she loves Hamlet, but it is not a love that will bear him through the deep waters of affliction. The rest of the court are typified by Osric the waterfly, and by Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, of whom if you say Rosencrantz and Guildenstern it makes no difference; echoes, nonentities. With Hamlet on one side and these on the other, the elements of a tragedy are complete; the problem can work out to no satisfactory conclusion.

Once Hamlet has shrunk from immediate action, the possibilities of delay exercise an irresistible fascination over him. The ingenuity of his intellect exhausts itself in the discovery of obstacles; he takes every turn and twist to avoid the fatal necessity for action. At first he turns to Ophelia, the well-beloved. She will give him strength to accomplish his mission; but the scene in her closet, and still more the lie which she tells when her father is behind the arras, confess her weakness and compel him to renunciation. In the meantime he continues the assumption of madness. It serves a double purpose: he is free from the intolerable burden of keeping on good terms with Claudius and the rest; he can fight out the battle with himself in peace, while he mocks them with the ironies congenial to his mood. And what is more, he can let himself go; the strain of his overwrought mind relieves itself in bursts of an extravagance only half affected. He plays the madman to prevent himself from becoming one. But all the while he is no nearer the end. He has turned the whole matter over and cannot decide. His thoughts slip away from the plain issue and lose themselves in a bitter criticism of all created things. In this the speculative temper infallibly betrays itself; the interest of the universal, not of the particular, is always dominant with Hamlet; not his mother's sin, but the frailty of women, is his natural theme. And so it is with a pang that he constantly recalls himself to the insistent actual life, from the world in which he is a past-master to that wherein he gropes ineffectively. Of course he is fully aware of his own weakness; a deficiency of self-analysis is not likely to be one of his failings; but this does not give him power to throw it off, nor help him from his maze of recurring dilemmas. More than once he is on the point of cutting the knot of death, but even for that he has not the resolution.

At last the crisis comes. Hamlet has resolved that the play-scene shall decide once for all the question of the king's guilt. That guilt is made most manifest, and the opportunity for revenge is offered him. He does not take it. Covering his weakness with unreal reasons, he passes into the queen's chamber. After that it is too late. The impetuous murder of Polonius is the first link in a chain of calamities. Moreover it gives Claudius his chance. The king has never been wholly deceived by Hamlet's madness; he is sent to England, and only escapes that trap to fall into another. True, in the end the king dies by one impulsive stroke; but that cannot repair the ruin which Hamlet's want of purpose has caused. The infinitely sad fate of Ophelia; the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern; for all their faults, all these are a sacrifice on the alter of his infirmity. Only for Hamlet himself was the fatal blow "a consummation devoutly to be wished."

The ineffectiveness of the speculative intellect in a world of action, that is the key-note of the play. In Hamlet, as in Brutus, the idealist gets the worse of it, and we are left to wonder at the irony of things by which it is so. And just as the figure of Brutus is set between the two triumphant Philistines, Caesar and Antony, so Shakespeare is careful to provide a similar contrast for Hamlet. Partly this is to be found in Horatio and Laertes, but still more in the Norwegian, Fortinbras. The very existence of Fortinbras and the danger with which he threatens the state show the need for an iron hand in Denmark; Hamlet's reflections on his meeting with the Norwegian soldiers emphasizes the same point, and the final appearance of Fortinbras and his selection by Hamlet as the true saviour of society is fully significant. It is the lesson of Henry V, the lesson of the "still strong man in a blatant land". Only in Hamlet it is the other side that is apparent; not the political principle, but the human tragedy, the ruin of the great soul because it is not strong, practical.

It would be an interesting task to estimate how far the genius of Shakespeare has been impaired for a modern reader by the change in sentiments which the lapse of three crowded centuries has brought about. An Elizabethan dramatist could appeal with confidence to sympathies which are evanescent today. The Merchant of Venice, for instance, in spite of all its beauty and all its wit, yet bears an air of unreality to us, because its leading motive, that of the Judenhetze, no longer finds an echo outside the limits of Whitechapel. Probably Mr. Irving's histrionic instinct was right when it led him to convert a villain into a hero, and to present the play as an apology for toleration, though this was an idea foreign to Shakespeare and impossible on the boards of the Theatre. It is remarkable, however, that there is one tragedy at least in which the normal law is reversed, and which is more vivid, more intelligible to us than it could have been to our Elizabethan ancestors. Modern civilization has indeed discarded the ethics of the vendetta; the moral sentiment which holds revenge for a father's murder to be a binding duty upon the son no longer appears obvious and natural. An effort of the historic imagination is required to grasp its importance as a leading idea in the drama of Hamlet. But with the dominant figure, with Hamlet himself, it is otherwise. A prolonged study of the character leaves one with the startling sense that one out of the plenitude of his genius Shakespeare has here depicted a type of humanity which belongs essentially not to his age but to our own. There was, we know, an older Hamlet, a popular revenge play, pulsating, no doubt, like Titus Andronicus, with blood and fire. Into the midst of such a story the poet has deliberately set this modern born out of due time, this high-strung dreamer, who moves through it to such tragic issues. The key-note of Hamlet's nature is the over-cultivation of the mind. He is the academic man, the philosopher brought suddenly into the world of strenuous action. The fatal habit of speculation, fatal at Elsinore, however proper and desirable at Wittenberg, is his undoing. Cursed with the

"craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event",

He is predestined to practical failure, failure from which no delicacy of moral fibre, no truth and intensity of feeling, can save him. It is surely no mere accident that so many features in the portrait of Hamlet are reproduced in Mrs. Ward's Edward Langham. The worship of intellect, the absorbing interest in music and the theatre, the nervous excitability, the consciousness of ineffectiveness taking revenge in irony and sarcasm, these and countless other points stamp them as temperaments of kindred mould. And in both lives the tragic woof is the same; it is the tragedy of spiritual impotence, of deadened energies and paralysed will, the essential tragedy of modernity. Hamlet fascinates us, just as Langham fascinates us, because we see in him ourselves; we are all actual or potential Hamlets.

Was Shakespeare, then, a prophet, or how came he to hit upon a conception so alien to the "form and pressure" of the time? One thinks of Elizabethan England as vigorous and ardent, flushed with youth and hope, little vexed with intellectual subtleties. Laertes is its type, not Hamlet. Perhaps the Sonnets, with the personal insight they give us into the poet's temper, help to solve the problem. Shakespeare was not Hamlet, but he touched him on many sides. The maker, like the puppet, had his moments of world-weariness, and breathed his sigh for "restful death". But there is another than Shakespeare himself in whom we would willingly recognize in some measure the original Hamlet. It is not needful to commit ourself to the growing modern theory that the dramas of Shakespeare, comedies and tragedies alike, are largely Aristophanic in their intent, filled with topical sketches and allusions, to which in many cases the clue is now lost. But it is difficult not to think it probable that in this particular the poet gathered some hints from the noticeable personality of Sir Philip Sidney. Sidney is curiously lacking in the characteristic of Elizabethan blitheness; he looks by preference on the gloomy side of things; the pessimistic note comes out no less in his letters than in the bitter mockery of the famous dirge. And, like Hamlet, he was a scholar and an idealist, set in an uncongenial environment and always striving ineffectually to escape from it into the life of action. The lingering and futility of his later years were due in great measure to the force of external circumstance, yet something in them may also be traced, clearly enough, to Hamlet's irresolution and impotence of will. Nor can one fail to be struck by the parallel between the language common to the wits and poets of Elizabeth's court in speaking of "the president of noblesse and of chivalry" and the lement of Ophelia over the unstrung nerves of her lover:--

"Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword,
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!"


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