ON HAMLET AS AN AESTHETIC DOCUMENT

By: A. Clutton-Brock

The following biography was originally published in Shakespeare's Hamlet. A. Clutton-Brock. London: Methuen & Co., 1922.

I wish to deal with two kinds of criticism which seem to me perverse though common; and to examine Hamlet in detail as being an important document for all who would understand the nature, not only of dramatic art, but of all art. When Mr. Robertson says that Hamlet is to be understood only in terms of some earlier play, I would answer--"Then it cannot be worth understanding"; and Mr. Eliot implies that it is not worth understanding, when he says that it is most certainly an artistic failure. To him I am provoked to reply--"But it is one of the documents from which we may learn what artistic success is." To deny that is to ignore the facts of art for a theory which will land you at last on some desert absurdity--as that Coriolanus is a better play than Hamlet.

Such criticism, especially if practised with an intimidating manner, sets up obstructions to the experience of works of art, which it is one of the main functions of criticism to remove. We are all subjects to wrong suggestions about works of art as about other things; and the critic helps us if he can rid our minds of them so that we may experience works of art simply. There are, for instance, the suggestions likely to affect the ordinary man, which are usually wrong expectations. He expects all works of art to be like those to which he is accustomed; he expects to be amused at once, and without any effort on his part, by every work of art; and, if he is not, he decides that it is not for him. But there are also other, less crude and less obviously wrong, suggestions. For instance, the suggestions of learning, that a work of art is to be studies mainly as a historical document or as a link in some process of evolution; or else, if it be a tragedy, that we must examine it to see how far it conforms to the principles laid down by Aristotle in his Poetics or by any other critic in whom we trust. And, finally, there are the suggestions of fastidiousness, which come of our anxiety not to like anything we ought not to like, or of a mechanical reaction against what is commonly said. All of these are obstructions; and criticism should set us on our guard against them.

Aristotle's Poetics were long an obstruction to the experience of dramatic art, often because they were misunderstood, and often because it was forgotten that Aristotle had but a short and limited experience of that art. When we read The Poetics, we should remember that he wrote them without knowing Hamlet, and that, if he had known it, he might have written them differently; for he was a great man who would rather learn from facts than deny them. Hamlet is an important aesthetic document because its method is not one known to Aristotle, because it is something added by Shakespeare to the resources of his art. The law of art is all case-law, and Hamlet is a case that has been decided in the court of experience.

If Aristotle had read the plot of Hamlet in a bald outline he might well have condemned it; whereas, if he had read the plot of Coriolanus, he might have thought it all that a dramatist could wish for. But, in fact, plots in a bald outline are nothing; and criticism based on an examination and classification of them is nothing. Aristotle says that plot is the soul of tragedy, which should imply that the soul cannot be separated from the body; the plot cannot be related in other words, for, if it is, it is no longer the plot. But even Aristotle seems near to error when he says that plot is the principal part of tragedy, and character the part next in rank; for the better a tragedy, is the less possible is it to separate character from plot. What is done is done by particular persons, and what happens happens to them; it would be all different and perhaps absurd if the characters were different. If we can make a distinction between plot and character, the play falls short of complete success. We can make that distinction, to some extent, in Coriolanus; we can consider the plot apart from the characters without feeling that we are doing something very foolish; but in Hamlet we cannot. The plot of that play is what it is because Hamlet is what he is; apart from him, there is no meaning or coherence in it, and it does seem a plot for Kyd rather than for Shakespeare.

Aristotle, again, says that a plot is not one merely because the hero is one. Numberless events happen to any man, many of which cannot be connected into one event; and there are many actions of one man which cannot be connected into a single action. So the poet should choose for his plot only those events which can be connected into one event and those actions which can be connected into one action. To this we must agree; there must be some kind of unity in a plot; but what is the nature of the connection in Hamlet which gives unity to the plot? That we must seek in Hamlet and not in Aristotle; for it is, I think, a connection which Aristotle had not experienced in any Greek play, and which therefore he has not mentioned. Yet it does give unity to the plot, and a unity perhaps more complete than is to be found in any other play whatever.

Even Mr. Eliot says that in Shakespeare's Hamlet there is an "unmistakable tone" which is "unmistakably not in the earlier play." About the earlier play I, like Mr. Eliot, know nothing; but I agree that the peculiarity of Hamlet is in its tone, though not that the tone can be separated from the action. Rather I insist that the action is unified by the tone, which all comes from Hamlet himself. The peculiarity of the play consists, first, in this, that its unity is given to it by the predominance of a single character, a predominance so great that we see all the other characters only in relation to Hamlet and as contrasts to him at one point or another. Now you may say, if you please, that this ought not to be done; only Shakespeare has done it. And he has done another thing, still more surprising, which seems contrary to the principles of Aristotle. It is not only the character of Hamlet that makes the unity of the play; but it is also a particular, and morbid, state of that character; for without the shock suffered by Hamlet, and the consequent disorder of his mind, the plot would lack all reason and coherence.

Aristotle lays it down that the hero of a tragedy should be involved in misfortune, not through his deliberate vice or villainy, but through some error of human frailty. The specific word used by Aristotle has been explained as meaning either a fault through avoidable or excusable ignorance, or one incurred through passion but without evil will. In fact Aristotle holds that in Tragedy there should be some justification of the ways of God to man, or of the order of things. If misfortunes happen, they should happen through the hero's own fault, which, yet, should not be so great as to deprive him of our sympathy. But Hamlet's misfortune does not happen to him either through avoidable ignorance or through passion. It happens, in the first place, because of crimes in which he is not implicated at all, and, in the second, through the nervous shock which he suffers on hearing of those crimes, and which is great, not because of the weakness, but because of the beauty of his nature. We should think poorly of a man who did not suffer so in such a case. In fact the key to this tragedy is to be found in the words of Ophelia, not of Aristotle--

Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh.

It is something which happens to Hamlet, not something done by him, that causes all the disaster; though, as Mr. Robertson says, critics, no doubt remembering Aristotle or governed by his desire to justify the ways of God to man, have often preached to Hamlet, like his comforters to Job.

Again, we may say that a tragedy ought not to be made out of the undeserved suffering of the hero, or, in particular, out of his mental disorder; only, again, Shakespeare has done it. We might expect that a tragedy so made would be merely disagreeable; Mr. Eliot seems to think it is. "Shakespeare," he says, "attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible," and failed. He implies, in fact, that the tragedy lacks beauty, when beauty is its most signal and most surprising quality. That is why Hamlet is an important aesthetic document. Beauty is achieved where we should not expect it to be achieved; and how?

I cannot attempt to answer this question without also attempting a statement of first principles, for which I ask the reader's patience.

All art is an expression of values; but the expression of values does not mean the statement of them. I may say what I value and leave every one cold; but values are expressed when they are communicated--that is to say, when the artist, by means of his work of art, causes his audience to share them. Unless this happens, unless the values are communicated, they are not expressed for the audience. The artist, however, has no practical purpose in the communication of his values; he does not attempt it either because he wishes to make his audience better men or because he hopes to get anything by it. Rather the desire to express, to communicate, is itself a part of that kind of experience which we call valuing; the experience itself is not complete without expression. Further, valuing is not merely moral, as we know in the case of love. It is an experience, always emotional and recognized by the emotion which accompanies it, an experience of which the immediate issue is simply the impulse to expression and communication. Art, in fact, is the practical result of it; whenever we have the emotion of value, we are, potentially, artists. But the emotion, if it cannot find expression, is incomplete and baulked; if it produces only a direct statement of values, it has not expressed or communicated itself. Indeed, art cannot be a mere statement of values; the artist gives us something that is not an opinion, in which we see no opinion at all; he can express his values only in some object, which, without our knowing it, makes us value what he values; and this object he produces without making a statement of his values even to himself.

Thus, in music, there can be no statement of values, for it is incapable of making any statement whatever; and the musician himself would be unable to say in words what values he had expressed in his music. Music is the object in which he expresses and communicates them; and our sense of the beauty of music is our sense of those values. And so it is with all the arts; when we are aware of beauty in them, then the artist has communicated his values to us; and, the more successful the process of communication, the less are we aware of it. We do not say--"I value this or that"--but only--"This is beautiful." We are, however, aware of differences in the quality of beauty; and these correspond to differences in the quality of the values communicated. Beauty seems to us profound, and is most permanent in its effects upon us, when the artist has communicated to us his deepest and most permanent values, those which he has acquired through his most intense and complete experience. So, the quality of a man's art, given that he is an artist at all, depends upon his experiencing power. There are real artists, who give us a real, though slight, beauty, because their experiencing power is slight and their values, quick perhaps and vivid, are for little things. We are aware of this difference, as a difference in the quality of beauty, very clearly in music. For instance, the melodies of Sullivan are real melodies; but their beauty, which is also real, expresses a slighter experience and less permanent values than the melodies of Mozart. And intellect comes into art because it comes into all experience and so into all values. The artist with a profound intelligence sets himself a harder problem, because his experience and his values are more profound; and he uses his intellect also in the solution of that problem. He has a larger content to express; and the object in which he expresses it is therefore more complex and more highly organized.

Let us now apply these principles to drama. Drama, of course, is capable of a direct statement of values; but such a statement will not make a drama any more than it will make a piece of music or a picture. Drama, like music or pictures, is the object in which values are communicated, and any statement of values is irrelevant to it, unless that statement is what a person of the drama would naturally say in the circumstances; in which case it is there, not as a statement of values, but as a part of the drama. Hamlet does, now and again, make a statement of his values which may be also Shakespeare's; but, in so far as it is relevant to the drama, it is there, not as a statement of Shakespeare's values, but as what Hamlet would say in those circumstances. Hamlet is not Shakespeare's mouthpiece; he is rather an embodiment of what Shakespeare values; and the play is a success because Shakespeare, by the manner in which he presents Hamlet to us, makes us share his feelings for Hamlet. I speak in this case of Hamlet, the man, rather than of Hamlet, the play, because Hamlet, the man, is Hamlet, the play. Shakespeare seems in Hamlet, the man, to embody all that he himself most values in humanity. What he expresses is a very personal and individual value; and he does it through a very individual character. This does not mean, of course, that Shakespeare is preaching a sermon, that he is saying to us--"Here is my ideal man; let him also be yours." The artist, like the lover, has no propagandist purpose; but the mere fact that he values a certain kind of human being intensely causes him to express that value. And we see the intensity of Shakespeare's value for one kind of human being in the peculiar construction of Hamlet; it is what has caused him to make one character so predominant in it, to make the play itself, not a conflict of persons, but a conflict within the mind of Hamlet. The King and all the other persons of the play are almost passive spectators of the drama of Hamlet's mind, which they cannot understand. What they do has dramatic value because of its effect on that drama rather than on the plot of the play. For instance, when the King tells Hamlet that he is to go to England, the interest lies in the manner in which Hamlet accepts the news, not in the news itself. In fact, all the other characters are seen through his eyes, in terms of his feelings. But the play succeeds because Hamlet is so interesting and attractive to us that, throughout, we wish to know, what Shakespeare wishes to tell us, namely, what is happening in Hamlet's mind.

And now I can answer, perhaps, that question--How is beauty achieved, where we should not expect it to be achieved, namely through a drama made out of the mental disorder of the hero?

Hamlet is a tragedy, and is beautiful, because of the intensity of value which is expressed in Hamlet himself. There would be no tragedy, and no beauty, if the jangled bells were not sweet, if the reason were not noble, and even sovereign, through all its disorder. That disorder, happening to a common mind or to a mind not valued by the author, might make a story pathologically interesting, it would not make a great work of art. That "unmistakable tone" which Mr. Eliot finds in Hamlet the play, comes from Hamlet himself and is the beauty of his character, which seems to flow out of it and to fill the whole play, seems indeed to be heightened by all contrasting characters. In fact, in Hamlet, values are expressed more completely through the presentment of a living man, than in any other play known to us; and that is the secret of its success and also of the many questions asked about it. Shakespeare has always troubled the critics, because he is so thoroughly and so merely the artist; his expression of his values is more embodied than the expression of any other dramatist. Thus, if we ask like Mr. Eliot, or like the Senior Wrangler about Paradise Lost, what Hamlet proves, there is no answer. It proves nothing, even about human nature; it is human nature. Aristotle or anyone else, if given the plot in a bare outline, might have doubted whether it could be related to any character; but Shakespeare has not merely related it to a character, he has made it the expression of a character; and that is what puzzles the people who talk about plots by themselves or about psychology by itself. They have forgotten Hamlet himself, who compels us to believe in him and in all the events through which he lives and moves and has his being.

And in Hamlet more clearly than in any other play, we can see the justification of tragedy; which is that values can be more fully expressed in it than in comedy. Hamlet himself might be a character of comedy, a Mercutio, almost a melancholy Jacques; but, if he were, we should know and feel far less about him. Even Mercutio is most fully revealed to us, and is most valued by us, in his jests when he is dying; for when we see that his jesting is a part of himself, a reaction both trained and instinctive, and not mere high spirits or ingenuity or ambition of wit. And Hamlet, throughout, is like a man who jests dying; he does not put on an antic disposition but actually expresses suffering in terms of laughter; and this we should not know without his misfortune. It is no wonder that Shakespeare, the artist, should so have valued one who remains himself an artist even through mental disorder, and is even more of an artist because of it. Hamlet is never, even in the midst of horror, one who must tread a careful and narrow way so that he may not offend. He goes through life with a beautiful wilfulness, dancing rather than trudging; he can relish all kinds of experience, even the disorder of his own mind, because he can express them all. His very talk is a kind of dancing rather than our usual hand-to-mouth jog-trot of words. It reveals an extreme resilience of mind, which instantly transforms whatever happens into a fine expression of itself, with a personal comment always implied or expressed. Compared with other men, he is like a polished pebble by a dull one; all things are more clearly and more beautifully reflected in him.

To express such a character fully, it seems necessary that he should be subjected, not only to external, but to internal misfortune; or rather that external misfortune, of the kind to which he is subjected, must produce mental disorder. Hamlet would not be Hamlet if he dealt with the situation as Othello would deal with it; but, if he is to deal with it in his own way, we must have his mental disorder exposed to us. Therefore, if such a character as Hamlet is to be tragically treated--and only, if he is tragically, can he be fully treated--he must be treated in Shakespeare's manner. Mr. Eliot and some other critics, I suppose, would say that it is impossible to treat him tragically; the answer is that Shakespeare has done it; and the proof is that he presents Hamlet to us, not only vividly, but always in terms of beauty.

We resent mental disorder in a work of art if it seems to be there only to make our flesh, or our spirit, creep, or if it is misplaced science. We do not resent it in Hamlet because it is the necessary result of events, and because Hamlet himself is more clearly revealed to us by means of it. He is never "a case," but always himself; his range of mind, his quickness of transforming comment, are exhibited through his disorder as they could not be otherwise. For the very point of the play, that which interests us and moves us so profoundly, is the fact that he maintains all his graces, even his dancing speech, where other men would be either broken into silence or turned into mere instruments of revenge. He is neither narrowed nor made dumb, but remains more than ever Hamlet. Take, for instance, his courteous welcome to the players. How much more moving this is in its context, uttered by a man doomed and conscious of his doom, than it would be in a comedy. Or the scene with the recorders. There Hamlet is fantastic; but his fantasy is a triumph of his spirit, his sovereign reason even, over the situation and its effect upon his own mind. "'Tis as easy as lying," he says to Guildenstern; a sentence of comedy implying that for Guildenstern lying is very easy; but Hamlet is triumphant because he can treat a tragic situation as if it were comedy; righteous indignation to Guildenstern would not be half so deadly, or so like Hamlet. And the relation between them enthrals us because it is tragic in a comic guise. Hamlet had made a serious appeal to Guildenstern, but now he knows it was vain; there is nothing in common between them, and he can comment on that fact only comically. It is however the peculiarity and the triumph of Hamlet, the artist, through all actual calamity, even through his own mental disorder, that he comments always with a bewildering, unexpected, rightness. If we saw him only in comedy, he would be for us undeveloped, like a charming youth who has never been tested in action. But he is tested and keeps his charm even when his behaviour is most outrageous; a proof that in that behaviour his character is revealed. In fact the unity of the play, and that inevitability without which a plot is mere machinery, is made by his character; and we must never criticize the plot without remembering this.

There has been much discussion in the past about the mixture of comedy and tragedy in the Elizabethan drama. It shocked Voltaire, who kept all his sense of propriety for the arts; and certainly, in the plays of Fletcher and lesser men, comedy is sometimes a mere diversion in tragedy and seems to be introduced because the dramatist is not sure that he can keep his audience quiet unless he gives them something to laugh at. But the mixture is justified in Hamlet where comedy and tragedy are fused, not only in the play, but in Hamlet himself. He could not be in the solemn French tragedy; but his drama is more tragic because of the fusion. Hamlet plays for himself the part of Mercutio and maintains it, almost to the end, in the scene with Osric.

Aristotle said that tragedy is more universal than history; and that is true if it means that values can be more directly expressed in it than in history. The historian is concerned rather with telling the truth about matters of fact than with the expression of values; it is a point of honour with him, or should be, not to adapt events or characters to the expression of values. His people are what they are, and he can only comment on the facts which are given to him. But to the dramatist no facts are given, even if he is dealing with history or revising an old play; and he can never defend a failure in the expression of values by saying that he is tied by his material, as the historian can never defend a failure to tell the truth by saying that he has expressed his values. So, if Shakespeare was indeed tied by his material and compelled to write as he would not otherwise have written, he has been particular like a historian where, as a dramatist, he should have been universal. But the fact that he has so fully expressed his values in Hamlet proves that, whatever use he made of the old play, he was not tied to his material, that he wrote as a dramatist, not as a historian.

Unfortunately the saying of Aristotle that tragedy must be universal has been an obstruction both to the experience of dramatic art and to the production of it; for it has made both playwrights and critics forget that a certain kind of particularity is the essence of tragedy, since it becomes real, and so moving, only as its characters are real. One may say indeed that, while in comedy characters may be generic, in tragedy they must be specific. Racine moves us most when his characters are specific, are individuals, in spite of his generalized manner of writing; his peculiar power is to reveal individuals through this generalized speech. But there is nothing generalized in the speech of Hamlet, where it is most moving, most tragic even. He does at times talk Elizabethan rhetoric, as in the scene with his mother, especially in the first part of the speech--"Look here, upon this picture, and on this." But elsewhere he has a peculiar style, as he has a peculiar character, of his own.

Sure, he that made us with such large discourse
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,--
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward,--I do not know
Why yet I live to say, "This thing's to do,"
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,
To do't.

In that we seem to hear the very voice of Hamlet; and, I think, Shakespeare made a great advance in this play in the development of his blank verse because he was trying to express the particularity of Hamlet, to put into poetry his changes of mood, his vividness, his caprice, all that another writer would have left to prose. He has, both in style and in conception, poetized here a richer and more diverse content than had ever been poetized in the drama before; and the very capacities of blank verse and of the English language were enlarged by his success. But he made a yet greater advance. The place of Hamlet in the series of Shakespeare's plays is not certain. Mr. E.K. Chambers, in his conjectured chronology of the plays in the Encyclopedia Britannica, gives it to the year 1601 with Twelfth Night, placing it two years after Julius Caesar, a year before Othello and Measure for Measure. It is, by general consent, the first of the four great tragedies, and so the first of those plays which place Shakespeare among the chief poets of the world. Reading it after the comedies, or Henry IV and Henry V, or even Julius Caesar, we are aware of a change in Shakespeare's mind more easily noticed than described. Before this change he had aimed at dramatic success and achieved it, often by the easiest way. The play had been the thing for him always, something outside himself which he had to make, as a craftsman makes an object of use. And in making his plays, in drawing his characters, he had, in the main, accepted the standards of the world, not obsequiously, but a little thoughtlessly, as if he were too much occupied with the task of making his plays to ask how he himself valued the characters in them. It was enough for him to draw those characters as Titian drew his figures in a great sacred composition, magnificently but not very intimately, and with an eye to the composition itself more than to the individuals composing it. There are, of course, exceptions from the first, characters who seem to be there because he himself is interested in them. There is Berowne in Love's Labour's Lost, Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet; Richard II, an artist himself and a mouthpiece for poetry which runs away with the play; the melancholy of Antonio in The Merchant of Venice; Falstaff, a mouthpiece of humour which overpowers everything; Beatrice, who is too much alive compared with every one else in Much Ado except Benedick; and Brutus, who seems to be doubtfully drawn as if Shakespeare himself doubted what kind of man he was. Some of these seem to be drawn from real men or women; but there is not one of them, not even Richard II, who compels the play to be what it is. But in Hamlet Shakespeare set himself a different task and wrote with a different kind of interest. It is not the play, as a composition, that concerns him, but one particular man, as he is affected by the events and the other characters of the play. It is not that he has tried to draw an ideal character; if he had done that he would have yawned over the task; nor is it that he makes of Hamlet his own mouthpiece, though he does that sometimes. Hamlet is not drawn from himself, though we may be sure that he could not have drawn Hamlet's disorder except from some mental experience of his own. But Hamlet has come to life for him as no character had ever come to life before in any drama whatever; there is in him a peculiarity of values never before attempted. Hamlet himself means to us a certain way of feeling, thinking, and acting, of which the world had not before been aware and which it has valued ever since. You may say indeed that every man, at least of a certain order of mind, is Hamlet to himself; and that, not merely so that he may excuse to himself his own irresolutions, but because what we value in Hamlet is, not his actions, but his attitude to life. The hero is commonly the man who does things, and the things he means to do; but most of us secretly resent his glorification, as in Henry V, because we feel that, in real life, he is rewarded for a simplicity that comes often of lack of experiencing power.

But, in Hamlet, what Shakespeare values and makes us value is an extreme of experiencing power which, while it may produce the symptoms of irresolution, is not irresolution. In Hamlet there is neither uncertainty nor poverty of values; it is because his values are so rich and strong that he experiences all things so fully; and because he experiences them fully, he is more hurt by the calamity that befalls him than the common hero would be. But his hurt also is of a peculiar kind; the very calamity, beginning as external, becomes internal; his mind cannot adjust itself to the world of the court, as he finds it, or to life itself, since the world of the court is part of life. It is not merely conscience but his soverign reason that rebels and is shaken by its own rebellion. The common hero, in such a case, would do something more effective; in a tragedy he would be killed doing it, and the tragedy would consist of his death. But Hamlet's tragedy is his life after he has learned the truth from the Ghost; and it consists in the fact that, by his very virtues, moral, intellectual and aesthetic, he is prevented from doing anything effective. It is the tragedy of "Captive good attending captain ill"; and yet we are sure that this very capacity for suffering is more to be valued than the common hero's effectiveness. We may not be able to say why; we may, when the spell of Hamlet is no longer upon us, even ask why he does not act like the common hero; but, so long as we are under his spell, we do value him, not in terms of what he does, but in terms of himself.

In Hamlet there is the first vivid and complete representation of a kind of character which still bewilders and fascinates us, the character, namely, which possesses, and expresses itself in terms of, an incessant double consciousness. Hamlet is one of those who are aware, not only of the desires, purposes, pleasures, and pains of the moment, but also of their own permanent attitude to all things, and of a general situation, not only of themselves but even of the universe. It is not that he is a professed philosopher or critic, but that his mind works, not like the minds of most men in unison, but in harmony and so, sometimes, in discord. All his thoughts, feelings, words, actions even, are richer than those of other men because of the accompaniment supplied by his personal attitude, and the implied comment of that attitude on all that happens to him. Such men fascinate us by a superior disinterestedness, intellectual rather than moral; they seem to be not merely themselves, but a larger intellectual conscience contemplating themselves and all things. They are commonest in the most civilized societies, impossible perhaps among savages, and rare in simple, impulsive ages like the Elizabethan; but always, when they appear and play a part in history, they arouse a peculiar interest even in those who least understand them. Julius Caesar seems to have been such a man; and that is why he interests us so much more than other able men of action, such as Cromwell or Napoleon, with only a single consciousness; and why Shakespeare's Caesar, who has no double consciousness, disappoints us. Another example, nearer to our own time, is Disraeli, and we forgive in him what we would not forgive in the single consciousness of Gladstone.

We may be puzzled by the value we put upon this double consciousness, but it is to us a prophecy of a higher state of being, of men who shall escape permanently from the narrowing tyranny of the struggle for life, who shall be artists and philosophers even while engaged in that struggle, concerned not only to succeed in this or that but at the same time to live a continuous life of thought and expression. We value such a man above, even, specialized artists or philosophers, who may be beings of simple consciousness, because he is what they do, and does, however imperfectly, achieve that fusion of the aesthetic and intellectual with the practical which is the lasting ideal of the human mind. The greatest example of this fusion known to us in history is Christ, and, in literature, Hamlet; and we have the same deep, if bewildered, interest in both. We feel about both--that they understood; and so Shakespeare himself, in Hamlet, becomes for us the poet who understands, not merely the great but specialized artist of the earlier plays. He is also, of course, a greater artist because, possessed by his own passionate value for his kind of character whom he has introduced into art, he has been able to devise a drama, unlike any former drama, which will express that character in all its unity and diversity. The very discord of the double consciousness, caused by Hamlet's calamity, reveals, as nothing else could, its underlying and implied harmony. There is still the permanent attitude, the passionate disinterestedness, maintained in the face of a hideous, pressing, duty; the fusion of the intellectual and the aesthetic with the practical, even when the practical is so fatally in conflict with them. And the tragedy of Hamlet, a tragedy possible only to the double consciousness, consists in this conflict between the permanent attitude and the practical task, and in the vain effort to recover that harmony which, to such minds, is a necessity of life. "Thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart"--Hamlet says just before the end; and Horatio advises--"If your mind dislike anything, obey it"; he does not understand that Hamlet's mind is not at odds with any particular thing, that he is commenting, not on a task of the moment, but on a permanent condition, which can be ended only by death.

To judge such a tragedy by tragedies of external circumstance, to expect to understand Hamlet's motives as easily as those of Othello or Coriolanus, is to misunderstand. It is nearer to the tragedy of Macbeth than to any other, because Macbeth is forced, by a crime far below the level of his character, into a conflict between himself and all his immodest tasks, and so into a permanent condition that can be ended only by death. But in Macbeth the double consciousness, what there is of it, is evoked by his crime and the discord of his nature which it causes. In Hamlet it is there always, and we become more and more aware of it, in all its beauty and subtlety, with every event of the play.

So the play does for us, in an extreme degree, what it is the function of all art to do for us. It gives us the sense of values apart from all consequences, all practical issues, as that sense is given to us by a great tune. In that consists the liberating power of art; it makes for us a kind of experience in which we do not need to look before or after, in which what is is also expressed, and so directly, that we can value it directly. Hamlet, expressed for us by Shakespeare, is charged for us with Shakespeare's values. They ring in his speech, and the emotion of the creator sounds in the music of the creature, so that often the play seems to escape from itself and to become a hymn of the beauty of the human mind triumphing over all odds.

In one place Hamlet is his own chorus and seems prophetic of his commentators--

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you would make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from the lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

There remains a mystery after all that we can say; but we shall not pluck out its heart by trying to prove that it is no mystery. As Mr. Robertson says: "You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear"; and not even Shakespeare could have made Hamlet out of a play of Kyd's.

FURTHER STUDIES:

Back to Hamlet

Home · Theatre Links · Monologues · One Act Plays · Bookstore · © 2006 TheatreHistory.com