ON THE CHARACTER OF HAMLET
- By: Hartley Coleridge
|The following article was originally published in Essays and Marginalia. Hartley Coleridge. London: Edward Moxon, 1851.
May not that critical problem, the character of Hamlet, be partly elucidated upon this principle? No fictitious, and few historical personages, have given rise to more controversy. Some commentators hold him up as the pattern of all that is virtuous, noble, wise, and amiable; others condemn him as a mass of unfeeling inconsistency. It is doubted whether his madness be real or assumed. Stevens declares that he must be madman or villain. Boswell, the younger, makes him out to be a quiet, good sort of man, unfit for perilous times and arguous enterprises, and, in fine, parallels him with Charles I and George III.
Goethe (in his Wilhelm Meister) burns, as the children sat at hide-and-seek, but when about, as it were, to lay hands on the truth, he is blown "diverse innumerable leagues." "it is clear to me," he says, "that Shakespeare's intention was to exhibit the effects of a great action imposed as a duty upon a mind too feeble for its accomplishment. Here is an oak-tree, planted in a china vase, proper only to receive the most delicate flowers. The roots strike out, and the vessel flies to pieces. A pure, noble, highly moral disposition, but without that energy of soul which constitutes the hero, sinks under a load, which it can neither support nor resolve to abandon. All his obligations are sacred to him, but this alone is above his powers. An impossibility is required at his hands--not an impossibility in itself, but that which is so to him. Observe how he turns, shifts, advances, and recedes--how he is constantly reminding himself of his great commission, which he nevertheless in the end seems almost entirely to lose sight of, and this without recovering his former tranquility."
Now, surely, feebleness of mind, the fragility of a china vase, lack of power and energy, are not the characteristics of Hamlet. So far from it, he is represented as fearless, almost above the strength of humanity. He does not "set his life at a pin's fee." He converses, unshaken, with what the stoutest warriors have trembled to think upon, jests with a visitant from darkness, and gathers unwonted vigour from the pangs of death. Nor, in all his musings, all the many-coloured mazes of his thoughts, is there anything of female softness--anything of amiable weakness. His anguish is stern and masculine, stubbornly self-possessed, above the kind relief of sighs, and tears, and soothing pity. The very style of his more serious discourse is more austere, philosophic--I had almost said prosaic--than that of any other character in Shakespeare. It is not the weight and magnitude, the danger and difficulty of the deed imposed as a duty, that weighs upon his soul, and enervates the sinews of his moral being, but the preternatural contradictions involved in the duty itself, the irregular means through which the duty is promulgated and known.
Presumptuous as it may appear to offer a new theory on a subject that has exercised so many wits before, or to pretend to know what Shakespeare intended, where his intentions have been so variously conjectured, I will venture to take a cursory view of this most Shakespearean of all Shakespeare's dramas, and endeavour to explain, not justify, the most questionable points in the character of the hero.
Let us, for a moment, put Shakespeare out of the question, and consider Hamlet as a real person, a recently deceased acquaintance. In real life, it is no unusual thing to meet with characters every whit as obscure as that of the Prince of Denmark; men seemingly accomplished for the greatest actions, clear in thought, and dauntless in deed, still meditating mighty works, and urged by all motives and occasions to the performance,--whose existence is nevertheless an unperforming dream; men of noblest, warmest affections, who are perpetually wringing the hearts of those whom they love best; whose sense of rectitude is strong and wise enough to inform and govern a world, while their acts are the hapless issues of casualty and passion, and scarce to themselves appear their own. We cannot conclude that all such have seen ghosts; though the existence of ghost-seers is as certain, as that of ghosts is problematical. But they will generally be found, either by a course of study and meditation too remote from the art and practice of life,--by designs too pure and perfect to be executed in earthly materials, or from imperfect glimpses of an intuition beyond the defined limits of communicable knowledge, to have severed themselves from the common society of human feelings and opinions, and become as it were ghosts in the body. Such a man is Hamlet; an habitual dweller with his own thoughts,--preferring the possible to the real,--refining on the ideal forms of things, till the things themselves become dim in his sight, and all the common doings and sufferings, the obligations and engagements of the world, a weary task, stale and unprofitable. By natural temperament he is more a thinker than a doer. His abstract intellect is an overbalance for his active impulses. The death of his father, his mother's marriage, and his own exclusion from the succession,--sorrow for one parent, shame for another, and resentment for himself,--tend still further to confirm and darken a disposition, which the light heart of happy youth had hitherto counteracted. Sorrow contracts around his soul, and shuts it out from cheerful light, and wholesome air. It may be observed in general, that men of thought succumb more helplessly beneath affliction than the men of action. How many dear friends may a soldier lose in a single campaign, and yet find his heart whole in his winter quarters; the natural decease of one whereof in peace and security, would have robbed his days to come of half their joy! In this state of mind is Hamlet first introduced; not distinctly conscious of more than his father's death and mother's dishonour, yet haunted with undefined suspicions and gloomy presentiments,--weary of all things, most weary of himself,--without hope or purpose. His best affections borne away on the ebbing tide of memory, into the glimmering past, he longs to be dissolved, to pass away like the dew of morning. Be it observed, that this longing for dissolution, this fond familiarity with graves, and worms, and epitaphs, is, as it were, the background, the bass accompaniment of Hamlet's character. It sounds at ever recurrent intervals like the slow knell of a pompous funeral, solemnising the mournful music and memorial pageantry. No sooner is he left alone, in the first scene after his entrance, than he wishes "that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter;" in the last, in articulo mortis, he requests of his only friend,--
- If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
- Absent thee from felicity awhile,
- And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
- To tell my story.
So little does the dying man love live, that he holds it the utmost sacrifice of friendship to endure it. But this desire is not prompted by any anticipation of future bliss; he dreams neither of a Mahometan paradise, nor a Christian heaven; his yearning is to melt,--to die,--to sleep,--not to be. He delights in contemplating human nature in the dust, and seems to identify man with his rotting relics. Death, the most awful of all thoughts, is to him a mere argument of scorn, convicting all things of hollowness and transiency. Not that he does not believe in a nobler, a surviving human being; but the spring of hope is so utterly dried up within him, that it flows not at the prospect of immortality.
It might easily be imagined,--it has even plausibly been asserted,--that the appearance of a departed spirit, admitting it to be authenticated, would, so far from a curse and a terror, be a most invaluable blessing to mankind, inasmuch as it would remove every doubt of an hereafter, and demonstrate the existence of a spiritual principle. He that knew what was in the heart of man, and all its possible issues, has declared otherwise: "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead;" and even so. The knowledge, the fact, the revelation which finds no companion in the mind,--which remains a mere exception, an isolated wonder,--may cast a doubt on all that was before believed, but can never of itself produce a fruitful or a living faith. Seeing is not necessarily believing; at least, it is not rational conviction, which can only take place on one of two conditions: 1st, If the new truth be itself conformable with and consequent to former convictions: or, 2ndly, If it be able to conform and atone all other truths to itself, and become the law and centre of the total being. The latter is the blessed might of Christian truth, when, being received by faith to faith, it renews and ferments the regenerate soul. The former is the condition of all growth in mere human knowledge.
All the movements of Hamlet's mind, and consequently all his words and actions, would be explicable on the supposition, that the Ghost were, like the air-drawn dagger in Macbeth, a mere illusion. But the belief of Shakespeare's age, the nature of dramatic representation, the very idea of poetry, which deals not with the invisible processes of mind, but with their sensible symbols, selected, integrated, realized by the imagination, require that the apparition should be considered as a real, objective existence. Accordingly, the appearance is authenticated with the most matter-of-fact judicial exactness. It is produced before several witnesses, and, in the first instance, to impartial evidence,--to Horatio and the rivals of his watch,--before Hamlet is even apprised of the visitation. There is a detail, a circumstantiality in the successive exhibitions of the departed monarch, worthy of attentive observation. First, we have the chill night--the dreary platform--the homely routine of changing guard--the plain courtesy of honest soldiers--then the incredulity of the scholar--the imperfect narrative, interrupted by the silent entrance of the royal shade--the passing and repassing of the "perturbed spirit"--the wide guesses, and auld-world talk of the sentinels, calling up all records of their memory to find precedents, to bring their individual case under the general law, and to dignify it by illustrious example:
- In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
- A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
- The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
- Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.
The images of superstition are not always terrible. The halo, no doubt, is an unsubstantial, it may be an ill-omened vision; still it is the halo of the pure and lovely moon.
- Some say, that ever 'gainst that season comes
- Wherein our Savior's birth is celebrated,
- This bird of dawning singeth all night long;
- And then they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
- The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike;
- No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm;
- So hallowed and so gracious is the time.
But it is impertinent to quote Hamlet, or anything else now. Suffice it, then, to remark, with what consummate skill this introductory, and it might be deemed supererogatory scene, prepares the way for the subsequent disclosures. The wonder, the terror of the Ghost is shaded and humanised; the spectator is familiarised to his aspect before he becomes a speaker and an agent in the drama, and is enabled to sympathise fully with Hamlet, who almost forgets the spectre in the father. His awe, his surprise, is momentary; his natural doubts are suppressed by a strong effort of his will, an act of faith,--
I'll call thee King--Hamlet--Father!
It is not easy to reduce this Ghost to any established creed or mythology. Of the Scandinavian system, as recorded in the semi-christianised Edda, no trace is discoverable in the whole story. Nor does it appear that a penal or expiatory purgatory is indicated in any record of Gothic theology. Neither their heaven, their hell, nor their gods, were supposed to be eternal; they were all ordained to perish at the last, and a new paradise of peace and innocence to succeed the drunken Valhalha. But with these things Hamlet's Ghost had no acquaintance. He talks like a good Catholic; though some commentators have taken pains to prove, by chronological arguments, that he must be a Pagan. A Pagan, however, would scarce complain that he was cut off
Unhousel'd, disappointed, unaneled;
and yet, would not a true Catholic spirit have requested prayers and masses, rather than vengeance?
Some persons, from these allusions to Popish practices, have inferred that Shakespeare was himself a Papist. If he were, let us hope, that before his death he reconciled himself to a Church, which, considering the theatrical turn of many of her own ceremonies, deals rather scurvily with players and play-writers. But first, the doctrine of Purgatory does not imply Popery, though the priesthood have contrived to turn it to excellent account. It is older than Christianity itself; it has been the professed belief of some professing Protestants, and, it is more than probable, the secret hope of many more; and, secondly, on what other hypothesis could the Ghost have been introduced with equal effect? A mere shade or Eidolon were too weak a thing to bear the weighty office imposed on this awful visitation. Would men at any time have believed in the descent of an emancipated soul from heaven, to demand vengeance on a wretched body for sending it thither? Or could they have sympathised in the wrongs of a "goblin damned?" Is not the desire of revenge, even upon an adulterous murderer, one of the imperfections--that must be "burned and purged away?" Yet, to Hamlet, a son and a mortal, what motive of revenge so mighty as the purgatorial pangs, the indefinitely protracted sufferings of a parent, whose virtues had entitled him to immediate bliss, had they not been taken in company with casual infirmity? He who believes a Purgatory, proportioned to the degree of sinfulness adhering to a soul endued with the principles of salvation, may take vengeance for the dead. We, rational Protestants, when we hang or shoot a murderer, only revenge, or, more properly speaking, defend ourselves.
Nothing in this mysterious history bears a stranger aspect than the inconsistent wildness of Hamlet's behaviour towards this same apparition. In its presence he displays the affectionate reverence of a son to his departed sire, of an earthly to a spiritual being; yet no sooner does the presence of human mortals break in upon him, than he treats the fearful vision with ludicrous irreverence--calls him (in his own hearing, be it remembered) "True-penny," "Fellow in the Cellarage," "Hic et ubique," "Old Mole." How is this explained? Is it mere buffoonery, foisted in to reward the gallery for silence? Is it an ordinary fetch of policy, to baffle the curiosity of his companions? Is it the prologue to the assumption of madness? or the true symptom of incipient derangement?
I never, to my knowledge, saw, or even fancied that I saw a ghost, much less the ghost of a murdered father; nor am I acquainted with anyone that has; of course, therefore, I cannot tell how I or my friends would comport ourselves, either in the presence of a spirit, or immediately after its exit. But I shrewdly suspect, that our demeanour would be widely at variance with all established notions of propriety, decorum, and seriousness. Nay, from analogy, I conceive it probable, that the utter abeyance and confusion of all common forms and processes of understanding, the inadequacy of all human expressions of reverence, might find vent in something very like jocular defiance. Those who would profit by the experience of an old and able practitioner, may consult Luther's Table-Talk, in that passage (I cannot at present refer to it) where he details his usual method of receiving the visits of his Satanic majesty.
While the spirit is present, Hamlet's faculties are absorbed and concentrated; his composing powers are suspended; he feels the reality of hismoral relation to the incorporeal visitant, and is upheld by the consequent sense of moral obligation. Even after the "Adieu, adieu, adieu; remember me," his soul is still collected, and retained in unity with the one great object. The dire injunction fills up the total capacity of his being; it is to him the only truth; all else is vanity and phantasm--"saws of books and trivial fond records." He is still out of the body; earth glimmers away into non-existence; but the bare recollection, that there are other creatures--creatures with whom he is newly placed in the relations of utter estrangement and irreconcilable enmity--occasions a partial revulsion; his human nature is resuscitated in an agony of wrathful scorn.
The sound of living voices, the sight of living bodies, farther remind him that he is in the flesh, but charged with a secret that must not be imparted, which alienates him from the very men, who, not one hour since, might have read his heart in the light of day, which turns his former confidents into intrusive spies. Hence the wild and whirling words--the half-ludicrous evasions--the struggle of his mind to resume its 'customed course, and affect a dominion over the awful shapes and sounds that have usurped its sovereignty. From this period, the whole state of Hamlet may aptly be likened to a vast black deep river, the surface whereof is curled and rippled by the passing breezes, and seemingly diverted into a hundred eddies, while the strong under-current, dark and changeless, maintains an unvaried course towards the ocean.
If it be asked, Is Hamlet really mad? Or for what purpose does he assume madness? We reply, that he assumes madness to conceal from himself and other his real distemper. Mad he certainly is not, in the sense that Lear and Ophelia are mad. Neither his sensitive organs, nor the operations of his intellect, are imparied. His mind is lord over itself, but it is not master of his will. The ebb and flow of his feelings are no longer obedient to calculable impulses--he is like a star, drawn by the approximation of a comet, out of the range of solar influence. To be mad, is not to be subject to the common laws, whereby mankind are held together in community; and whatever part of man's nature is thus dissociated, is justly accounted insane. If a man see objects, or hear sounds, which others in the same situation cannot see or hear, and his mind and will assent to the illusion (for it is possible that the judgment may discredit the false intelligence which it receives from its spies), such man is properly said to be out of his senses, though his actions and conclusions, from his own peculiar perceptions, should be perfectly sane and rational. Hamlet's case is in some measure the reverse of this--his actions and practical conclusions are not consistent with the premises in his mind and his senses. An overwhelming motive produces intertness--he is blinded with excess of light.
The points in his character which have given occasion to most controversy, are his seemingly causeless aversion to Polonius; his cruel treatment of Ophelia; his sceptical views of an hereafter, spite of ocular demonstration that to die is not to sleep; his apparent treachery to his two schoolfellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and his tardy, irresolute, and at last casual, performance of the dread vow which he has invoked Heaven, Earth, and Hell to witness.
The character of Polonius, though far less abstruse and profound than that of Hamlet, has been far more grossly misrepresented--at least on the stage--where he is commonly exposed to the gods as a mere doodle, a drivelling caricature of methodical, prying, garrulous, blear-eyed, avaricious dotage; in fact, as all that Hamlet, between real and counterfeit madness, describes him. A similar error has turned Othello, the sable Mauritanian chieftan, haply descended from the vanquishers of Roderic the Goth, into a rank woolly-pated, thick-lipped n*****, a protégé of the African Association. The Danish Chamberlain is indeed superannuated--a venerable ruin, haunted with the spectre of his departed abilities. But he has been already sufficiently vindicated by Dr. Johnson, who was seldom wrong, when acute observation of life and manners, unaided by extensive imagination, could set him right. Of Polonius, in his prime, it might be said, that "wisdom and cunning had their shares in him;" his honour and honesty were of the courtier's measure, more of the serpent than the dove. Even his advice to Laertes, which has sorely puzzled those who mistake him for an anile buffoon, is altogether worldly and prudential, such as a worldly-wise man might derive from the stores of experience, long after he had lost the power of applying his experience to passing occasions. A cautious wisdom, never supported by high, philosophic principles, has degenerated into circuitous craftiness. Witness his notable scheme of espionage upon his son's morals at Paris. He is, moreover, a member of the Academy of Compliments, a master of ceremonies, and evidently practised in the composition of set speeches and addresses, as his rhetorical formulæ and verbal criticisms sufficiently evince. "A foolish figure"--"A vile phrase"--"Beautified is an ill phrase"--"That's good, mobled queen is good." It would seem, too, that like some other great statesmen, he has dabbled in polite literature. How correctly he inventories the genera and species of the Drama--Tragedy, Comedy, Pastoral, Pastoral-comical, Historical-pastoral, Tragical-historical, Tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, Scene-undividable, or Poem-unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the "law of writ, and the liberty, these are the only men."
He much resembles an emeritus professor of legerdemain, who continues to repeat his sleight-of-hand tricks when gout or palsy has deprived his hands of the quickness necessary to deceive. He is a formalist in politics, a precision in courtesy.
Between such a personage, and the moody, metaphysical, impatient, open-hearted Hamlet, there must needs have existed an utter antipathy; and though antipathy is not synonymous with hatred, it is on the highway to it. Where natures are entirely discordant, small provocation suffices to produce personal hostility. Now, Polonius is the confidential agent and advisor of the usurping king, and may be supposed to have had a hand in diverting the course of succession. He is Ophelia's father, and, as such, has enjoined her to deny her company to Hamlet--prudently enough, no doubt, but paternal prudence seldom escapes the resentment of the disappointed lover. The plainest dictates of parental duty are ascribed to sordid and unworthy designs; and that the Danish Prince imputes such to Polonius, is manifest, from the ambiguous epithet, fishmonger, and from his ironical admonition, "let her not walk in the sun...." But what is more than all, Polonius betrays his intention of pumping Hamlet; and the irritation naturally consequent on the discovery of such a purpose, is heightened by contempt for the maneuvering imbecility, the tedious pariphrasis with which it is pursued, which renders age contemptible for its weakness, and odious for its indirection. It is not, therefore, unnatural--though certainly far from proper--that Hamlet should make the infirmities of the venerable lord a topic of reproach and ridicule; and that when, in a feverish flash of vigour, he has stabbed him like a rat behind the arras, he should vent his just anger against himself upon the victim of his rashness, whom he chooses to consider as the impediment to his just revenge; and, unable to speak seriously on what he cannot bear to think of, should continue to the carcass, the same strain of scornful irony wherewith he used to throw dust in the dim prying eyes of the living counsellor.
But, for wringing the kind, fond heart of sweet Ophelia, with words such as man should never speak to woman, what excuse, what explanation can be offered? Love, we know, is often tyrannous and rough, and too often tortures to death the affection it would rack into confession of itself; and men have been who would tear open the softest breast, for the satisfaction of finding their own names indelibly written on the heart within. But neither love, nor any other infirmity that flesh is heir to, can exempt the live dissection from the condemnation of inhumanity. Such experiments are more excusable in women, whose weakness, whose very virtue requires suspicion and strong assurance; but in man, they ever indicate a foul, a feeble, an unmanly mind. I never could forgive a Posthumus for laying wagers on his wife's chastity. Of all Shakespeare's jealous husbands, he is the most disagreeable.
But, surely, the brave, the noble-minded, the philosophic Hamlet, could never be guilty of such cruel meanness. Nor would Shakespeare, who reverenced womanhood, have needlessly exposed Ophelia to insult, if some profound heart-truth were not developed in the exhibition. One truth at least it proves--the fatal danger of acting madness. Stammering and squinting are often caught by mimicry; and he who wilfully distorts his mind, for whatever purpose, may stamp its lineaments with irrecoverable deformity. To play the madman is "hypocrisy against the devil." Hamlet, in fact, through the whole drama, is perpetually sliding from his assumed wildness into sincere distraction. But his best excuse is to be found in the words of a poet, whom it scarce beseems me to praise, and who needs no praise of mine:
- For to be wroth with one we love,
- Doth work like madness in the brain.
Hamlet loved Ophelia in his happy youth, when all his thoughts were fair and sweet as she. But his father's death, his mother's frailty, have wrought sad alteration in his soul, and made the very form of woman fearful and suspected. His best affections are blighted, and Ophelia's love, that young and tender flower, escapes not the general infection. Seemed not his mother kind, faithful, innocent? And was she not married to his uncle? But after the dread interview, the fatal injunction, he is a man among whose thoughts and purposes love cannot abide. He is a being severed from human hopes and joys--vowed and dedicated to other work than courtship and dalliance. The spirit that ordained him an avenger, forbad him to be a lover. Yet, with an inconstancy as natural as it is unreasonable, he clings to what he has renounced, and sorely feels the reluctant repulse which Ophelia's obedience presents to his lingering addresses. Lovers, even if they have seen no ghosts, have no uncles to slay, when circumstances oblige them to discontinue their suit, can ill endure to be anticipated in the breach. It is a sorrow that cannot bear the slightest show of unkindness. Hamlet, moreover, though a tardy, is an impatient nature, that would feel uneasy under the common process of maidenly delay. Thus perplexed and stung, he rushes into Ophelia's chamber, and, in amazed silence, makes her the confidante of his grief and distraction, the cause of which she must not know. No wonder she concludes that he is mad for her love, and enters readily into what to her appears an innocent scheme to induce him to lighten his overcharged bosom, and ask of her the peace, which unasked she may not offer. She steals upon his solitude, while, weary of his unexecuted task, he argues with himself the expediency of suicide. Surprised as with a sudden light, his first words are courteous and tender, till he begins to suspect that she too is set on to pluck out the heart of his mystery; and then, actually maddened by his self-imposed necessity of personating madness, he discharges upon her the bitterness of blasted love, the agony of a lover's anger, as if determined to extinguish in himself the last feeling that harmonised not with his fell purpose of revengeful justice. To me, this is the most terrifically affecting scene in Shakespeare. Neither Lear, nor Othello, are plunged so deep in the gulf of misery.
The famous soliloquy, which is thus painfully interrupted, has been murdered by its own celebrity. It has been so bespouted, bequoted, and beparodied--so defiled by infant reciters, and all manner of literary bores vivâ voce and in print--so cruelly torn from its vital connection that it derives its sole sense and propriety from the person by whom, and the circumstances under which, it is spoken. Even when recited on the stage, we always feel as if Hamlet were repeating a speech, not uttering the unpremeditated discourse of his own divided thoughts. Strangely enough, it has been taken as a clerical diatribe against suicide, that might do honour to a pulpit, or chair of Moral Philosophy. Yet the scepticism which considers death as a sleep, futurity as a possible dream, and conscience as a coward, has not been wholly unobserved; and Shakespeare has been boldly accused of inadvertence in putting such doubts into the mouth of one who had actually seen and conversed with a denizen "of that undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveller returns." Many insufficient solutions of this apparent contradiction have been proposed. Perhaps the most plausible is that which ascribes it to the uncertainty still existing in Hamlet's mind, whether the thing which he has seen is really his father's spirit, or only a diabolical illusion. But this explanation, though good as far as it goes, does not go far enough. I will not say, that an apparition might not confirm the faith of an hereafter where it pre-existed, but where that faith was not, or was neutralised by an inward misery, implicated with the very sense of being, its effect would be but momentary or occasional--a source of perplexity, not of conviction--throwing doubt at once on the conclusions of the understanding and the testimony of the senses, and fading itself into the twilight of uncertainty, making existence the mere shadow of a shade. Hamlet, in his first soliloquy, speaks like a Christian--an unhappy and mistrusting Christian indeed, but still a Christian who reveres the Almighty's "canon 'gainst self-slaughter." But now, when his belief has received that confirmation which might seem irrefragable, he talks like a speculative heathen, whose thoughts, floating without chart or compass on the ocean of eternity, present the fearful possibility of something after death, but under no distinct conception either of hope or of fear. The apparition has unsettled his original grounds of certainty, and established no new ones. Are there no analogous cases within the limit of our own experience? Have not some half intuitions of metaphysical truths operated on certain minds, like the Ghost upon Hamlet's, to destroy the intelligible foundations of common-sense, and give nothing in their stead? To impair the efficiency of ordinary motives, yet supply none adequate either to overcome indolence or counteract impulse?
That the active powers of Hamlet are paralysed, he is himself abundantly conscious. Every appearance of energy in others--the histrionic passion of the player--the empty ambition of Fortinbras--the bravery of grief in Laertes, excite his emulation and his self-reproaches. Yet day after day--hour after hour, the execution of his vow is in his hand--no fear--no scruple seems to detain him; and yet, after the play has caught the conscience of the King, and every doubt of the Ghost's veracity is removed, the said Ghost upbraids his almost blunted purpose. The power of acting revisits him only at gusty intervals; and then his deeds are like startlings out of slumber, thrustings on of his destiny. In one of these fits he stabs Polonius; in another, he breaks open the commission of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and without considering how far they might, or might not be, privy to his uncle's treachery, sends them by a forged instrument to the block. At last, when the envenomed rapier has wound up his own tragedy, he feels new strength in his mortal moment, and, in an instant, performs the work, and dies!