By: Francis Jacox

The following article was originally published in Shakespeare Diversions: From Dogberry to Hamlet. Francis Jacox. London: Daldy, Isbister & Co., 1877.

In Hamlet, more clearly and readily than in any other of his plays, M. de Barante could perceive how Shakespeare possessed the marvellous art of casting a spell over the vulgar, and, at the same time, of fascinating enlightened and meditative spirits--in this respect resembling the spectacle of Nature, who so offers herself to all that each may prize her charms according to his point of view and appreciative power. And since man is docile in more directions than one; since the cultivation of his mental force and the exercise of his reflective powers are not cherished at the cost of that portion of himself which delights in the impressions of sense and imagination; since there ever remains in him something d'enfant et de populaire, the learned and the lettered have something to regret in any dramatic representation which appeals to themselves alone, as such; so that, indeed, it might be maintained, up to a certain point, that a genuine theatrical success requires universal suffrage. Now the conception of Hamlet was singularly favourable to the extended range, the variety, the universality, which characterizes Shakespeare: it is a philosophical tragedy, rife with all kinds of reflections, and indicative of the view he took of the world and of human nature; just such a work as may best enable us to make acquaintance with himself. Barante also hails in it a précieux témoignage of the Elizabethan age, which inevitably moulded and coloured it throughout: we may here learn not a little as to the tendency and drifts of thinking minds--the master minds of that epoch--as to the character of their activity, and the effect wrought on them by study and knowledge. If "la philosophie est la science des résumés généraux," a philosophic work must be, more than any other, a symbol and revelation of the time that gave it birth. And the interest is greatly heightened when the epoch in question is one in which the human mind, long delayed and repressed by the bonds of an imperfect civilization, begins to soar aloft, and to take free flight, full of movement, of curiosity, and of ardour. In Hamlet, accordingly, are to be found all the marks and effects of that kind of surprise and excitement inspired by learning and philosophy in those who were the first in time to surrender themselves thereto with all the charms of novelty: the wealth of newly acquired knowledge, the accumulating fund of reasoning, the lavish expenditure of reflections, could not but form the character of those ages, "born again" in the renaissance of literature and free thought. Hamlet himself, above all, is imagined in consonance with the ideas of those times of ferment. He has been long time a student at Wittenberg, "dans ces universités allemandes ou dejà l'on creusait métaphysiquement pour découvrir les principes des choses," where already the student lived in an ideal world, and reverie reduced man to the inner circle of his inward life.

"Genius, the Pythian of the beautiful,
Leaves its dark truths in a riddle to the dull--
From eyes profane a veil the Isis screens,
And fools on fools still ask, what Hamlet means?"

Charles Kingsley called it the beau-ideal of the poetry of doubt; and asked what would a tragedy be in which all the actors were Hamlets, or rather scraps of Hamlets? A drama of Hamlet he declared to be only possible because the one sceptic is surrounded by characters who have some positive faith, who do their work for good or evil undoubtingly while he is speculating about his--Ophelia, and Laertes, Fortinbras, Claudius, and the very grave-digger, knowing well enough what they want, whether Hamlet does or not. In the Prince of Denmark one of his best critics decries--taking situation as well as character into account--a concentration of all the interests that belong to humanity: there is scarcely a trait of frailty or of grandeur, which may have endeared to us our most beloved friends in real life, that is not to be found in Hamlet, whom "undoubtedly Shakspeare loved beyond all his other creations." If the question be put, Who ever knew a Hamlet in real life? the best answer perhaps is another question, Yet who, ideal as the character is, feels not its reality? "Here is a being with springs of thought, and feeling, and action, deeper than we can search. These springs rise from an unknown depth, and in that depth there seems to be a oneness of being which we cannot distinctly behold, but which we believe to be there; and thus irreconcileable circumstances, floating on the surface of his actions, have not the effect of making us doubt the truth of the general picture." So much of what is wayward and unaccountable found Jeffrey in this play, that he advised Shakespeare students to begin rather with Othello, which, with less exuberance and variety, is full of deep feeling, force, and dignity, and is all perfectly consistent, smooth and intelligible; none the less the Old Judge pronounced Hamlet to be, beyond a doubt, unique as regards the prodigality of high fancy, together with infinite discrimination of character, and moral wisdom and pathos. In this thoroughly "subjective" tragedy, Gustave Planche recognized a most ample exercise of la clairvoyance and reflection, but he declined to believe that Shakespeare had put into it anything like half the ideas imputed to him by Goethe and Tieck. The late Professor George Moir ascribed the secret charm which irresistibly attracts the readers of Hamlet, to its baffling mystery, its inscrutable character. Could we, he argued, fathom the principles of the Prince's character--"le personnage bizarre d'Hamlet," as Villemain words it--could we reduce to any logical scheme or plan the strange anomalies it presents, it might still remain, as it is now, an object of admiration, but not of that awful curiosity, mingled with love, which it at present excites. This critic takes our imagination to be stirred by it as by the contemplation of a mystic and enigmatical character in real life, which we know to be a reality, whose actions we feel must have their sufficient causes, but whose secret springs of action, "the fountain from the which his current runs," lie too deep for discovery. He likens the play to some enchanted region looming before us in wild magnificence; as we approach, we feel the solid earth beneath us, yet we know that we are treading haunted ground; on all sides the prospect fades away into the undefined and illimitable; and even those objects which had at first seemed clear, waver and grow dim, or change their shapes, even while we gaze upon them. Mr. Lewes, again, insists that Hamlet, in spite of a prejudice current in certain circles that if now produced for the first time it would fail, is the most popular play in our language--"amusing" thousands annually, while it stimulates the minds of millions: the lowest and most ignorant audiences delight in it. He regards the source of this delight as twofold: first, the sublimity of the play, and its reach of thought on topics the most profound; for the dullest soul can feel a grandeur which it cannot understand, and will listen with hushed awe to the outpourings of a great meditative mind obstinately questioning fate: secondly, its wondrous dramatic variety. Remarking upon the absorbing fascination of profound thoughts in it, he is for calling Hamlet "the tragedy of thought," for there is as much reflection as action in it; but the reflection itself is made dramatic, and hurries the breathless audience along with an interest which knows no pause. It is a machinery of horrors, physical and mental, by which moves "the highest, the grandest, and the most philosophic of tragedies."

M. Philarète Chasles is a fair and favourable example of the latter-day Frenchman who can "enter into" Shakespeare's ideas, without passing through Voltaire's strait gate. He explains that the poet's object is to depict the mortelle incertitude of the young prince, his long and bitter meditation upon life and sin, upon the destination of man, upon virtue and vice. To perturb this contemplative soul, already predisposed to melancholy, the ghost of a murdered father has stalked before his strained gaze. From that moment, Hamlet no longer lives on this earth of ours. Initiated into the secrets of another world, he feels himself ill at ease among the living. The desire to avenge his father, the terror inspired within him by that unknown world whose sublime attractions are nevertheless for him so potent, keep him still upon earth, and he remains as it were suspended over a gulf, between two worlds. Such, to M. Chasles, appears the Prince of Denmark during the course of the play. He dreamily muses, he cherishes a habit of reverie, he lives with spectres; his soul is with his murdered father. When the anile formalism of Polonius, and the hypocritical kindness of the king, and Gertrude's remorseful visitations, combine to awaken Hamlet and to recall to his remembrance the forgotten realities which surround him, we then see how his contempt and his irony come out, still bearing the imprint of the dreamy ideas by which he is haunted. There is in his talk a something of insult, of sadness, of derangement, and of whimsical folly, intermingled all. His recent communications with the world of spirits has infected his mind with the germs of madness. He becomes cruel to Ophelia whom he loves. He finds a sombre charm in conversing with grave-diggers. To the end, he is animated by a gloomy excitement, a secret horror, a meditative and merciless spirit of mockery. What thought Samuel Johnson, that "excellent lexicographe," that clever investigator of words, that practised penman of cadenced periods with their perpetual equality of two members and correlation of two parts--what though the English doctor avowed that he could understand nothing of Hamlet and his situation--the French professor asserts that nothing can be more natural, nothing less unaccountable or bizarre. We have here, says M. Chasles, no old-world Orestes, obedient to the divine fatality which plunges the avenging sword of her son in a mother's heart. To understand Hamlet, all that is wanted is to identify one's self with that young prince, and to think on the disorganization which would befall us, were the shade of a being we have loved and lost to startle our clear eyesight all at once--an apparition with credentials from the unseen world, eloquent in utterance, majestic in mien, and now menacing, now plaintive in the tone of his address.

One can scarcely make a study of such études as these sur W. Shakespeare, by so intelligent a lecturer on comparative literature, and so popular a professor au Collége de France, without contrasting the strain with that of Voltaire and his school. In Crabb Robinson's Diary may be read the diarist's impression fresh from reading voltaire's "critique of Hamlet,"--which critique is there pronounced to be a very instructive as well as entertaining performance, showing as it does how a work of unequalled genius and excellence may be made fun of, and "laughably exposed." The congenial friend of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lamb, forgave Frenchmen for their disesteem of Shakespeare. And he went on to say: "Voltaire has taken no unfair liberties with our idol. He has brought together all the disconvenances, according to the laws of the French drama, as well as the national peculiarities. To a Frenchman, Hamlet must appear absurd and ridiculous to an extreme." And this, H.C.R. was fain to own, by fair means--the Frenchman not perceiving how much the absurdity, in fact, lay in his own narrow views and feelings.


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