Previously in Hamlet, Drama’s Apex. And now James Halliwell-Phillipps.
Place: London, Globe Theater
Assorted Shakespeare characters. Public domain image from Wikipedia.
The present favorite idea is that in Hamlet the great dramatist intended to delineate an irresolute mind depressed by the weight of a mission which it is unable to accomplish. This is the opinion of Goethe following, if I have noted rightly, an English writer in the Mirror of 1780. A careful examination of the tragedy will hardly sustain this hypothesis. So far from Hamlet being indecisive, although the active principle in his character is strongly influenced by the meditative, he is really a man of singular determination, and, excepting in occasional paroxsyms, one of powerful self-control. His rapidity of decision is strikingly exhibited after his first interview with the Ghost. Perceiving at once how important it was that Marcellus, at all events, should not suspect the grave revelations that had been made, although they had been sufficient to have paralyzed one of less courage and resolution than himself, he outwits his companions by banter, treating the apparition with intentional and grotesque disrespect and jocularity at a moment when an irresolute mind would have been terrified and prostrated.
Then Hamlet's powerful intellect not only enables him to recognize almost instantaneously the difficulties which beset his path, but immediately to devise a scheme by which some of them might be overcome. The compliance with the advice of his father's spirit, in strict unison with his own natural temperament, that the pursuit of his revenge was to harmonize with the dictates of his conscience, involving of course his duties to others, was attended by obstacles apparently insurmountable; yet all were to be removed before the final catastrophe, however acutely he might feel the effort of suppressing his desire for vengeance, that obligation the fulfilment of which was postponed by subtle considerations, and by fear lest precipitate action might leave him with "a wounded name." But this duty, it is important to observe, was never sought to be relinquished. The influences practically render delay a matter of necessity with him, and leaving a murderer to contend against one who, as he must have felt, would not have scrupled to design his assassination if at any moment safety could be in that way secured, his determination to assume the garb of insanity in the presence of the King and of those likely to divulge the secret, is easily and naturally explained.
Hamlet is wildly impetuous in moments of excitement, so that his utterances are not invariably to be accepted as evidences of his general nature. Much of the difficulty in the interpretation of the tragedy arises from the oversight of accepting his soliloquies as continuous illustrations of his character, instead of being, as they mostly are, transient emanations of his subtle irritability. Even in the midst of his impetuosity the current of violent thought was subject to a controlling interruption by a sudden reaction arising from the influence of reason; but it was natural on occasions that, stirred by his desire for revenge, he should doubt the validity of his reasons for delay. A wide distinction also must be drawn in the matter of time for vengeance, between action resulting from sudden and that from remoter provocation.
There seems to have been in Hamlet, so far as regards the commands of the apparition, an almost perpetual conflict between impulse and reason, each in its turn being predominant. The desire for revenge is at times so great that it is only by the strongest effort of will he resists precipitate action, then, losing no pretext to find causes for its exercise, overpowering the dictates of his penetrative genius. It is not rashness in Hamlet on one occasion and procrastination on another, but a power of instantaneous action that could be controlled by the very briefest period of reflection, the great feature in his intellect being a preternaturally rapid reflective power, and men of genius almost invariably do meditate before action.
Among the numerous unsupported conjectures respecting this tragedy may be mentioned that, when Shakespeare drew the characters of, 1. Hamlet; 2. Horatio; 3. Claudius; 4. The Queen, he had in his mind, 1. The Earl of Essex or Sir Phillip Sydney or himself; 2. Lord Southampton or Fulke Greville; 3. The Earl of Leicester; 4. Mary, Queen of Scots. Although some of these suggestions are ingeniously supported, there is not one of them which rests on any kind of real evidence or external probability.
Burbage was the first actor of Hamlet in Shakespeare's tragedy. His performance is spoken of in terms of high commendation, but there is no record of his treatment of the character, his delineation probably differing materially from that of modern actors. Stage tradition merely carries down the tricks of the profession, no actor entirely replacing another, and, in the case of Hamlet, hardly two of recent times, whose performances I have had the opportunity of witnessing, but who are or have been distinct in manner and expression, and even in idea. Few actors or readers can be found to agree respecting Shakespeare's conception of the character. This, however, may be safely asserted, that no criticism on Hamlet will ever be permanent which does not recognize the sublimity of his nature. Horatio understood Hamlet better than anyone, and his judgment of him doubtless expressed Shakespeare's own estimate:
"Now cracks a noble heart--good night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"
A "noble heart" that ever shrank from an act that would have resulted in his own aggrandizement, for, although the monarchy was elective, not hereditary, the succession of Hamlet had been proclaimed by the King and tacitly accepted.
This ends our series of passages on Hamlet, Drama’s Apex by James Halliwell-Phillipps from an unfinished work written before his death in 1889. This blog features short and lengthy pieces on all aspects of our shared past. Here are selections from the great historians who may be forgotten (and whose work have fallen into public domain) as well as links to the most up-to-date developments in the field of history and of course, original material from yours truly, Jack Le Moine. – A little bit of everything historical is here.
Text of play here.