THE CHARACTER OF HAMLET: A HISTORY OF CRITICISM

By: Francis Jacox

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

Upon the character of Hamlet depends the interest of the play of Hamlet. Take the word "character" in whatever sense one will--the psychological or the technically dramatic--it is one that cannot be left out of the play.

To Goethe it was clear that Shakespeare intended to exhibit the effect of the sense of a great duty imposed upon a soul unable to perform it: an oak tree is planted in a china vase, proper only to receive the most delicate flowers; the roots strike out, and the vase flies to pieces. "A pure, noble, highly moral disposition, but without the 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." And Wilhelm Meister points out accordingly how the Prince of Denmark 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. "La préponderance de la pensée et de la parole sur l'action, et, pour tout dire d'un mot, la faiblesse, voilà le fond du caractère d'Hamlet, tel que Shakspeare l'a conçu." So wrote, and lectured, M. Saint-Marc Girardin. But, surely, urges Hartley Coleridge against too unquestioning acceptance of Goethe's view, perhaps too indiscriminately followed by foreign critics--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 thought, can this critic descry anything of female softness--anything of amiable weakness: his anguish is stern and masculine, stubbornly self-possessed, above the kind of 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 Shakspeare." Accordingly, Hartley Coleridge takes it to be 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 contradiction involved in the duty itself, the irregular means through which the duty is promulgated and known.

There is a personage in one of the late Lord Lytton's least-read fictions, who may partly serve to illustrate this phase of character crossed by circumstance: a philosopher, whose attachment to abstruse studies was one of the main causes which unfitted him for a life of action. But other and exceptional circumstances "had perverted his keen and graceful intellect to morbid indulgence in mystic reveries, and all the doubt, fear, and irresolution of a man who pushes metaphysics into the supernatural world." Whenever he had sought to wrestle against hostile circumstances, some seemingly accidental cause had blasted the labours of his most vigorous energy, till by degrees a gloomy cloud of despondency, almost of despair, settled over his mind. "He was a kind of Hamlet; formed under prosperous and serene fortunes to render blessings and reap renown; but over whom the chilling shadow of another world had fallen--whose soul curdled back into itself--whose life had been separated from that of the herd--whom doubts and awe drew back, while circumstances impelled onward--whom a supernatural doom invested with a peculiar philosophy, not of human effect and cause--and who, with every gift that could ennoble and adorn, was suddenly palsied into that mortal imbecility which is almost ever the result of mortal visitings into the haunted regions of the Ghostly and Unknown." Mrs. Jameson, with her wonted fineness of critical insight, depicts Hamlet as bewildered by the horrors of his situation--horrors which his subtle intellect, his strong imagination, and his tendency to melancholy, at once exaggerate, and take from him the power either to endure, or, "by opposing, end them." Without remorse, he endures all its horrors; without guilt, all its shame. The supernatural visitation has perturbed his soul to its inmost depths; all things else, all interest, all hopes, all affections, appear as futile, when the majestic shadow comes lamenting from its place of torment, to "shake him with thoughts beyond the reaches of his soul."

Was Hamlet really destitute of energy and moral courage, or was his conduct merely the result of a position in which by one too "much reflecting on these things," no one course could be chosen, because all seemed equally advisable, or equally dangerous? Professor Moir asserts that on this subject no two men think, or probably ever will think, alike. The circumstances of Hamlet's life, as exhibited by Shakespeare, do not, he considers, afford the conditions out of which the problem of his character is to be evolved; so that it will ever, in Schlegel's phrase, remain like one of those irrational equations, in which a fraction of unknown magnitude remains, that will never admit of solution.

The charm is therefore said to lie mainly in its mystery; but the mystery of Hamlet's character is regarded but as the type and shadow of the still greater mystery and perplexity of existence itself--a thought which meets us at every turn as we peruse this tragedy, and haunts us like a spectre that will not depart. In Hamlet we are taught to see a picture of humanity "in single opposition, hand to hand," with a merciless and iron destiny, which even from our own breasts, from the very nobility and activity of our faculties, draws forth the armoury of slings and arrows, with which it harasses, and eventually overpowers us. Could Hamlet, remarks the critic of Shakespeare in Germany, have dulled the edge of that apprehension which makes him "like a god;" could he have said to his restless intellect, "Peace, be still;" could he have been contented with the outward shows and most obvious consequences of things, instead of endeavouring to exhaust all their remote and possible relations, all might have been well--for then the power of free action might have remained to him, and in freedom of action he would have been happy. "But this he cannot do: his intellect demands exercise, and he cannot live except in an element of inquiry." If we first oppose the speculative to the active, and then make a farther distinction between the speculative and the contemplative, the union of the two latter may best be represented, thinks Professor Masson, in the character of Hamlet--a student from the university, daring into all questions, and fertile at every moment in new generalities and pregnant forms of expression; but whose peculiarity consists in this, that far back in his mind there lie certain permanent thoughts and conceptions towards which he always reverts when left alone, and from which he has ever been roused afresh when anything is to be done. Samual Taylor Coleridge forcibly pictures Hamlet flying from the sense of reality, and seeking a reprieve from the pressure of its duties in that ideal activity, the overbalance of which, with the consequent indisposition to action, is his disease. Labouring, as George Moir says, with his finite though noble faculties against infinity and eternity, the result is universal doubt: one by one all the props on which he leant have given way. "His mother's guilt has unhinged his confidence in the stability of the moral world; and now nature herself seems to abandon the even tenor of her course, since the dead have burst their cerements, and are permitted to revisit the glimpses of the moon." The moral confusion in Hamlet's mind is now complete; for all without and all within have alike lost their fixity. Nothing now seems good or bad "but thinking makes it so," and every course of action alike, since in none is certainty and tranquility to be obtained, and all seem to lead only to the brink of the limbo of doubt. "Sick at last of the whirl that surrounds his vessel, he throws down the helm of free-will in despair, and seems to feel a wild exultation in drifting, at the will of Chance, over the boundless ocean of possibilities." Contempt of life, mingled with a certain nervous clinging to it, is held by Tieck to characterize Hamlet in most of the scenes; a distinctive feature in those minds which have lost the first bloom of existence through offended pride and mortified feeling, and the calm steadiness of belief through restless investigation. La Rochefoucauld makes a maxim of it that "l'imagination ne saurait inventer tant de diverses contrariétés qu'il y en a naturellement dans le coeur de chaque personne." And Tieck professes to discern in Hamlet a strange unfathomable union of folly and wisdom, of greatness of soul and pusillanimity, of love and hatred, of vanity and true pride: a lover who shows passion, yet on whose love we can place no reliance; a man who speaks and feels like a faithful and noble friend, whose attractive amiableness renders him, when he pleases, the popular idol; who, in a certain sense, perceives so clearly all the relations by which he is surrounded, and yet is deceived on every hand: "This mixture of heterogeneous positions which, though in a less degree, we so often meet with in real life; those wonderful contradictions, under which every mind of high endowment more or less labours; all these combined features afford the key to the universal popularity of this tragedy and this character." In real life it is no unusual thing, Hartley Coleridge maintains, 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. Hamlet is taken by Professor Masson to be a closer translation of Shakespeare's own character than any other of his dramatized personæ: the same meditativeness, the same morbid reference at all times to the supernatural, the same inordinate development of the speculative faculty, the same intellectual melancholy, that are seen in the Prince of Denmark, seem to Milton's biographer to have distinguished Shakespeare--a meditative, contemplative melancholy, embracing human life as a whole; the melancholy of a mind incessantly tending from the real to the metaphysical, and only brought back by external occasion from the metaphysical to the real. To recur to Hartley's characterization of him--he is 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. "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." And thus sorrow contracts around his soul, and shuts it out from cheerful light and wholesome air.

Of Hamlet's closing soliloquy in the fourth scene of the fourth act, Mr. Grant White has remarked, that it gives us the key to his indecision, in that self-anatomization which is the habit of such natures. They know the action of their own minds, and burrowing in the blind heaps of speculation which press upon them, they unearth only their own hidden motives. "They have an intellectual perception of the excellence of action; but, fascinated by musings which hardly attain the dignity of contemplation, their noble purposes never take form; and, led on through a dreamy labyrinth of speculation, they die before they reach the busy day of the actual world." Coleridge in his table-talk defined Hamlet's character to be the prevalence of the abstracting and generalizing habit over the practical. He does not want courage, skill, will, or opportunity; but every incident sets him thinking; and it is curious, and at the same time strictly natural, that Hamlet, who all through the play seems reason itself, should be impelled, at last, by mere accident, to effect his object. "I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so," professed Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and very insincere or very unobservant must have been the listener that would say him nay.

In his notes on the play he discourses on the overbalance of the imaginative power as beautifully illustrated in the everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of Hamlet's mind, which, unseated from its healthy relation, is constantly occupied with the world within, and abstracted from the world without--giving substance to shadows and throwing a mist over all commonplace actualities. "It is the nature of thought to be indefinite--definiteness belongs to external imagery alone." Hamlet feels this; his senses are in a state of trance, and he looks upon external things as hieroglyphics. His soliloquy, "O, that this too too solid flesh would melt!" springs from that craving after the indefinite, for that which is not, which most easily besets men of genius; and the self-delusion common to this temper of mind Coleridge takes to be finely exemplified in the character which Hamlet gives of himself:

"It cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter."

He mistakes the seeing his chains for the breaking them, delays action till action is of no use, and dies the victim of mere circumstance and accident.

Sir Walter Scott held the part of Hamlet to be invested with so much obscurity, that it may be played in twenty different ways without the critic being able to say with certainty which expresses the sense of the author. And this because Hamlet unites in his single person a variety of attributes, by bringing any of which more forward, or throwing others farther into the background, the shading of the character is effectually changed. Sir Walter sees in him, accordingly, the predestined avenger called on to his task of vengeance by a supernatural voice--a prince resenting the intrusion of his uncle into his mother's bed and his father's throne--a son devoted to the memory of one parent and to the person of the other; but who, to do justice to his murdered father's memory, is compelled to outrage, with the must cutting reproaches, the ears of his guilty (for Scott assumes her to have been guilty) mother. Wittenberg has given him philosophy and the habits of criticism; nature has formed him social and affectionate; disappointment and ill-concealed resentment of family injuries have tinged him with misanthropy; the active world has given him all its accomplishments.

"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."

To all these peculiar attributes Sir Walter adds the prince's love for Ophelia, and something which "resembles an incipient touch of insanity; for this, after all, is necessary to apologize and account for some parts of his conduct." All which existing in Hamlet, the art of the performer is to distinguish the proper or most striking mode of exhibiting them; the author having "done little to help him in the management of the piece, which as a story indicates nothing decisive respecting the real character" of the prince. In this respect Hamlet is contrasted with Richard and Macbeth, and other of Shakespeare's most distinguished characters, who show themselves and their purposes, not by words and sentiments only, but by their actions, and whose actions therefore are the best commentaries on their characters and motives. Hamlet, on the contrary, "being passive almost through the whole piece, and only hurried into action in its conclusion, does nothing by which we can infer the precise meaning of much that he says." Hence the critic's inference that there exists about the representation of Hamlet a latitude which scarcely belongs to that of any other character in dramatic literature; consisting as it does of many notes, the dwelling upon or the slurring of any one of which changes entirely the effect of the air.

Indeed, the unfitness of Hamlet for stage representation at all, was urged by Charles Lamb with what might be called vehemence, were Elia ever vehement. He contended that nine parts in ten of what Hamlet does, are transactions between himself and his moral sense--the effusions of his solitary musings, which he retires to holes and corners and the most sequestered parts of the palace to pour forth; or rather they are the silent meditations with which his bosom is bursting, reduced to words for the sake of the reader, who else must remain ignorant of what is passing there. These profound sorrows, these light-and-noise-abhorring ruminations, which the tongue scarce dares utter to deaf walls and chambers, how, asked the essayist, can they be represented by a gesticulating actor, who comes and mouths them out before an audience, making four hundred people his confidants at once? He must insinuate them into his auditory by some trick of eye, tone, or gesture, as well as pronounce them ore rotundo; or he fails. "And this is the way to represent the shy, negligent, retiring Hamlet!" Not that Elia argued against the acting of Hamlet at all, but he essayed to show how much Hamlet is made another thing by being acted.

Contrasting the hero of one of Müllner's tragedies with Hamlet, Julius Hare expatiates on the blunder of making a man so anatomize his own heart and soul, as if a dispassionate observer were doing it for him; much as if one were to versify the analytical and rhetorical accounts which critics have given of Shakespeare's characters, and then to put them into the mouths of those characters. Müllner's hero raves out his self-analysis in the ears of another; whereas Hamlet, "that personification of human nature brooding over its own weaknesses and corruptions," puts forth his reflections mainly in soliloquy; and the individual, personal application of them is either swallowed up in the general confession of the frailty of human nature, or else they are the self-reproaches and self-stimulants of irresolute weakness, "the foam which the sea leaves behind on the sands, when it sinks back into its own abysmal depths, and the dissonant muttering of the waves, that have been vainly lashing an immovable rock." Hazlitt takes the reason why this of all Shakespeare's plays is the one we think of oftenest, to be, that it abounds most in striking reflections on human life, and that the distresses of the prince are transferred, by the turn of his mind, to the general account of humanity. "It is we who are Hamlet." Whatever happens to him we apply to ourselves, because he applies it so himself as a means of general reasoning. "He is a great moralizer; and what makes him worth attending to is, that he moralizes on his own feelings and experiences." And he makes us more than spectators: we have not only the outward pageants and the signs of grief, but we "have that which passeth show;" we read the thoughts of the heart, and catch the passions living as they rise. "The prince of philosophical speculators," Hazlitt styles him--who, because he cannot have his revenge perfect, according to the most refined idea his wish can form, misses it altogether: he scruples to trust the suggestions of the Ghost, contrives the scene of the play to have surer proof of his uncle's guilt, and then rests satisfied with this confirmation of his suspicions, and the success of his experiment, instead of acting upon it. Confessedly, he is sensible of his own weakness, taxes himself with it, and tries to reason himself out of it:

"How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge!... I do not know
Why yet I live to say this thing's to do..."

Still he does nothing; and this very speculation on his own infirmity, adds William Hazlitt, only affords him another occasion for indulging it. Not from any want of attachment to his father, or of abhorrence of the murder and the murderer, is Hamlet thus dilatory, but it is more to his taste to indulge in imagination in reflecting upon the enormity of the crime and refining on his schemes of vengeance, than to put them into immediate practice. "His ruling passion is to think, not to act; and any vague pretence that flatters this propensity instantly diverts him from his previous purposes." He does himself only justice, said Schlegel, when he implies that there can be no greater dissimilarity than between him and Hercules. Schlegel indeed regards him as not solely impelled by necessity to artifice and dissimulation, but as having a natural inclination for crooked ways, and as being a hypocrite towards himself--his far-fetched scruples being often mere pretexts to cover his want of determination. "Hamlet has no firm belief either in himself or in anything else: from expressions of religious confidence he passes over to sceptical doubts; he believes in the Ghost of his father as long as he sees it, but as soon as it has disappeared, it seems to him almost in the light of a deception." The elder Schlegel had, in fact, no liking for the Prince of Denmark, though he would scarcely have accepted and approved the theory of a popular living critic, who insists on "a thoroughly new reading of this little-understood character," and who takes Hamlet to have been hypochondriacal, capricious, pettish, misanthropic, soured, disappointed, tyrannical, selfish, depraved, yet with some noble aspirations, some godlike qualities. Another Byron in effect, and in the critic's full intent and purpose.

We have seen that Coleridge recognized within himself a certain affinity of character to Hamlet--the weaker side of it. And Leigh Hunt's biographer can find for him "no known prototype except in the character of Hamlet," as regards the uncertainty of purpose due to an excessive anxiety to take into account all that might be advanced on every side, with the no less excessive wish to do what was right, to avoid every chance of wrong, and, if possible, to abstain from causing any pain. And, by the way, in the earliest of his prose works, Leigh Hunt had characterized Hamlet as "that amiable inconsistent," who talked when he should have acted, and acted when he should not even have talked, who with a bosom wrung with sensibility was unfeeling, and in his very passion for justice unjust, who in his misery had leisure for ridicule and in his revenge for benevolence; who in the most melancholy abstraction never lost the graces of mind or the elegances of manner, and was natural in the midst of artifice and estimable in the midst of error. "I now find in my own person," says Walter Lester, "how deeply Shakespeare had read the mysteries of men's conduct. Hamlet, we are told, was naturally full of fire and action. One dark discovery quells his spirit, unstrings his heart, and stales to him for ever the uses of the world. I now comprehend the change. It is bodied forth even in the humblest, who is met by a similar fate--even in myself." We may recall Victor Hugo's note of admiration for the "admirable toute-puissance du poëte! il fait des choses plus hautes que nous, qui vivent comme nous. Hamlet, par example, est aussi vrai qu-aucun de nous, et plus grand. Hamlet est colossal, et pourtant réel. C'est que Hamlet, ce n'est pas vous, ce n'est pas moi, c'est nous tous. Hamlet, ce n'est pas un homme, c'est l'homme." This is Hazlitt's epigrammatic dictum expanded and epigrammatized anew.

If Hamlet and Polonius were living now, muses Pisistratus Caxton, Polonius would have a much better chance of being a Cabinet Minister, though Hamlet would unquestionably be a much more intellectual character. "What would become of Hamlet? Heaven knows! Dr. Arnold said from his experience of a school, that the difference between one man and another was not mere ability--it was energy." If so, tant pis for the Prince of Denmark and his chances in modern public life.

It is a commonplace in the criticism of comparative literature to contrast Hamlet with Orestes. The historian of Athens: Its Rise and Fall contrasts him with Electra. Electra, he observes, sees not in Clytemnestra a mother, but the murderess of a father. "The doubt and the compunction of the modern Hamlet are unknown to her more masculine spirit." She lives on but in the hope of her brother's return, and of revenge. It is of that brother, Professor Lowell is treating when he remarks that, to a Greek, the element of Fate, with which his imagination was familiar, while it heightened the terror of the catastrophe, would have supplied the place of that impulse in mere human nature which our habit of mind demands for its satisfaction. The fulfilment of an oracle, he goes on to say, the anger of a deity, the arbitrary doom of some blind and purposeless power superior to man, the avenging of blood to appease an injured ghost--any one of these might make that seem simply natural to a contemporary of Sophocles which is intelligible to us only by study and reflection. And the critic deems it not a little curious that Shakespeare should have made the last of these motives, which was conclusive for Orestes, insufficient for Hamlet, who so perfectly typifies the introversion and complexity of modern thought as compared with ancient, in dealing with the problems of life and action. And the American professor surmises it to have been not without intention (for who may venture to assume a want of intention in the world's highest poetic genius at its full maturity?) that Shakespeare brings in his hero "fresh from the University of Wittenburg, where Luther, who entailed upon us the responsibility of private judgment had been Professor." The dramatic motive in the Electra and Hamlet, it is added, is essentially the same; but what a difference between the straightforward bloody-mindedness of Orestes and the metaphysical punctiliousness of Hamlet! Yet each, the critic concludes, was natural in his own way, and each would have been unintelligible to the audience for which the other was intended.

Does Hamlet finally attain deliverance from his disease of will? Shakespeare, says Professor Dowden, has left the answer to that question doubtful: probably if anything could supply the link which was wanting between the purpose and the deed, it was the achievement of some supreme action; and the last moments of Hamlet's life are well spent, and for energy and foresight are the noblest moments of his existence; he snatches the poisoned bowl from Horatio, and saves his friend; he gives his dying voice for Fortinbras, and saves his country. The rest is silence:--

"Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest--O, I could tell you."

But he has not told. Let us not too readily assume that we "know the stops" of Hamlet, that we can "pluck out the heart of his mystery."

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