THE TYPE OF HAMLET'S CHARACTER
By: Edward P. Vining
|The following biography was originally published in The Mystery of Hamlet. Edward P. Vining. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1881.
As Hamlet lacks the energy, the conscious strength, the readiness for action that in here in the perfect manly character, how comes it that humanity still admires him? Is not the answer to this query found in the fact that there are two types of human perfection, and that in just the same degree in which he was found to lack the essential qualities of one of these types, he took upon himself the perfections of the other?
When God created man in his own image, male and female he created them.
There is not only a masculine type of human perfection, but also a feminine type; and when it became evident that Hamlet was born lacking in many of the elements of virility, there grew up in him, as compensation, many of the perfections of character more properly the crown of the better half of the human race. All mankind has recognized the deep humanity of the melancholy prince, and many have been puzzled to find that they were instinctively compelled to bow before him in admiration, while still finding in him so many faults and weaknesses. The depths of human nature which Shakespeare touched in him have been felt by all, but it has scarcely been recognized that the charms of Hamlet's mind are essentially feminine in their nature.
The masculinity of Lady Macbeth has been universally admitted. With a woman's body she united the steady courage, the unyielding resolution, that are properly masculine.
Lady Macbeth and Hamlet are counterparts. Each is gifted with a mind naturally noble, but misplaced in the body through which it acts, and warped by the unfavorable circumstances by which it is surrounded. Could Hamlet and Lady Macbeth have changed characters, neither drama would have been possible. Hamlet with Lady Macbeth's resolution would instantly have slain his father's murderer, and she with his natural sweetness of mind, and disposition to drift with circumstances rather than to control them, would have lived and died with no foul crime upon her soul, to trouble her with thick-coming fancies, to keep her from her rest and wear her to her death.
Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear constitute a trilogy of variants of one central theme--the action of a noble soul under circumstances the most adverse to its development that can be imagined; in all, insanity is portrayed and the atmosphere of another world seems to surround the spectator.
Gentleness, and more or less of dependence upon others, are inherent qualities of the feminine nature, and Hamlet possessed both.
Women, with less of strength to accomplish her desires by straightforward action, is compelled to bring them to pass by more of shrewdness and subtlety. Where strength fails, finesse succeeds; and therefore Hamlet plans and plots. His feigned madness, his trial of the mimic play, are stratagems that a woman might attempt, and that are far more in keeping with a feminine than with a masculine nature.
That Hamlet preferred to win by indirect means, rather than by driving straight forward to accomplish his end, is a peculiarity of his nature that has attracted the attention of many.
Says Dr. Maudsley: "Let it not any longer escape attention that the deliberate feigning of insanity was an act in strict conformity with Hamlet's character; he was by nature something of a dissimulator--the faculty having been born in him.... Strange as it may seem, we not uncommonly observe the character of the mother, with her emotional impulses and subtle but scarce conscious shifts, in the individual when young, while the calm deliberation and conscious determination of the father come out more plainly as he grows older. Setting aside any necessity which Shakespeare might think himself under to follow the old play, it is in Hamlet's inherited disposition to dissimulation that we find the only explanation of his deliberately feigning madness, when, to all appearances, policy would have been much better served if he had not so feigned. But he has a love of the secret for its own sake; to hoist the engineer with his own petard is to him a most attractive prospect; and he breaks out into positive exultation at the idea of outwitting Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, with whom he was to go to England."
Schlegel, too, notes this disposition: "He is not solely impelled by necessity to artifice and dissimulation; he has a natural inclination to go crooked ways; he is a hypocrite toward himself; his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his want of resolution: thoughts, as he says on a different occasion, which have but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward."
As woman, unable to fight her battles by force of arms, finds in the power of speech a more efficient weapon, so Hamlet, if words could kill, would have accomplished his revenge
- With wings as swift
- As meditation, or the thoughts of love.
He himself seems to feel that this disposition to expend resolution in words is womanish, for he exclaims:
- This is most brave,
- That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
- Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
- Must ... fall a cursing, like a very drab,
- A scullion! fie upon't!
Carl Rohrbach, commenting upon this disposition, says: "He always talks more than is necessary.... At all events, he can under this mask [of madness] give free play to his tongue, and that, and not the use of his hands, suits him above all things. Were he a whole man and no weakling, and if he would go wisely to work, why does he not at least keep his mouth shut?... He is a weakling. When he says, 'Frailty, thy name is woman,' he might have used his own name here.'
Hazlitt remarks of the character of Hamlet: "It is not a character marked by strength of will, or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment. Hamlet is as little of a hero as a man can well be.... The character of Hamlet is made up of undulating lines; it has the yielding flexibility of 'a wave o' th' sea.'... He is full of weakness and melancholy, but there is no harshness in his nature. He is the most amiable of misanthropes."
Are not these characteristics thoroughly feminine?
Let us not be deceived by the plea that Hamlet does not needlessly procrastinate but merely misely bides his time.
How clearly Bacon describes the drift of Hamlet's mind! "To seek to extinguish anger utterly is but a bravery of the stoics. We have better oracles.... In refraining from anger, it is the best remedy to win time, and to make a man's self believe that the opportunity of his revenge is not yet come; but that he foresees a time for it, and so to still himself, in the mean time, and reserve it."
So Hamlet, letting pass an unexceptionable opportunity for revenge, exclaims:
- Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent....
- This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
This was no horrible refinement of cruelty, but a mere make-shift to win time.
The true secret of Hamlet's dalliance lies, partly at least, in a fear of death. It was not so difficult to find an opportunity as it was certain that the king's death would immediately be revenged by the destruction of his slayer. This it is that supplies the clue to his soliloquy:
- To be, or not to be,--that is the question:--
- Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
- The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
- Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
- And by opposing end them?--To die----
The question in Hamlet's mind is whether he shall take a course which will insure his own safety and enable him to continue to live, and so "to be," or whether he shall, by assaulting the king, invite his own death, and so extinguish his own earthly being. Shall Hamlet be or not be?--that is the question with him. He sees that it is possible for him to end his troubles by taking arms and actively opposing them, but that such a course will probably be followed by his own death, and from that prospect he shrinks, and, after stating why it is that
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
- And thus the native hue of resolution
- Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
- And enterprises of great pith and moment,
- With this regard, their currents turn awry,
- And lose the name of action.
The enterprise of great pith and moment which Hamlet had in view was the revenge of the foul murder done to his father, and the reason clearly given by him why he allowed this enterprise to stall and lose its way:
- The dread of something after death,--
- The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
- No traveller returns--puzzles the will,
- And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
- Than fly to others that we know not of.
This shuddering recoil from even the possibility of death has been passed unnoticed by many commentators, but has attracted the attention of a few, among them being Mr. Jones Very, who in an essay published in 1839 expressed his belief as to Hamlet's mental state in the following words:
"It is to this condition that Hamlet has been reduced.... He fears nothing save the loss of existence.... This is the hinge on which his every endeavor turns. Such a thought as this might well prove more than an equal counterpoise to any incentive to what we call action.... The thoughts of this soliloquy are not found to belong to a particular part of the play, but to be the spirit of the whole. 'To be, or not to be,' is written over its every scene, from the entrance of the ghost to the rude inscription over the gateway of the church-yard."
Although the love of life is instinctive in all animate creatures, this timid shrinking from its possible loss, this resolution to bear even the murder of his father, the pollution of his mother, the theft of his crown, rather than to run any risk by attempting to end his ills, is certainly not what we should expect from a noble prince, the son of a man who did not shrink from meeting Fortinbras hand in hand in mortal struggle. This dread of something after death it was that induced him to
- Rather bear those ills he had,
- Than fly to others that he knew not of,
notwithstanding that weariness which he suffered from the weight of the burdens laid upon him, which caused him to despairingly wish that
- The Everlasting had not fix'd
- His canon 'gainst self-slaughter.
His weariness of life is shown again in his disconsolate reply to Polonius's
POLONIUS: My honorable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.
HAMLET: You cannot, Sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal,--except my life, except my life, except my life.
No slur is meant in saying that this half-confessed shrinking of Hamlet from the rôle that fate had called upon him to play is what we should expect from a gently-nurtured woman, rather than from a fervid young prince glowing with desire to end unequalled wrongs.