Prince Of Self-Pity. Hamlet Critical Essay
T S. Eliot thought Hamlet an ‘artistic failure’, Shakespeare being unable to reconcile the theme of the old revenge tragedy on which the work is based with the conception of the character of Hamlet himself. One may agree with this while still finding the play compelling; indeed the most puzzling of the tragedies.
The revenge theme is admittedly tiresome and the reasons for postponing the act of vengeance both unconvincing and boring. We can accept the ghost only as a convenient theatrical convention. No doubt Elizabethan audiences saw it differently. Belief in ghosts was then common, and one wonders to what extent Shakespeare shared it. Banquo’s ghost appears only to Macbeth and is invisible to the other dinner-guests; invisible to Lady Macbeth also. So the ghost scene in that play is psychologically convincing. It’s different in Hamlet. Francisco, Bernardo and Horatio all see the ghost, though it refuses to speak to them; subsequently speaking only to Hamlet himself. This suggests that Shakespeare may have regarded the ghost as something more than a useful dramatic device. But it is the character of Hamlet that gives the play its perennial interest, and it is his character which puzzles us, or ought to do so.
Is he a good man? Paul Johnson in a recent essay calls him a ‘paragon’ and a ‘confused but essentially benevolent young genius’. Considering what a botch he makes of things, ‘genius’ seems an over-statement. An earlier Johnson (Samuel) thought he was ‘represented as a virtuous character’, but clearly had doubts, being shocked, as a Christian, by the speech in which Hamlet resolves not to kill the king while he is at prayer, preferring to wait till he is ‘at some act/That has no relish of salvation in’t.’ Johnson found this speech ‘in which Hamlet… is not content with taking blood for blood, but contrives damnation for the man he would punish, too horrible to be read or to be uttered’.
Hamlet can be played as an indecisive and self-questioning Romantic intellectual (the Gielgud interpretation), or as a mixed-up kid, immature, uncertain of himself, veering from self-love to self-loathing by way of self-pity. His obsession with his mother — unhealthy and quasi-incestuous, as Olivier played it — marks him off from Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, the quintessential 1950s Angry Young Man.
Yet Hamlet, if emotionally immature, isn’t a boy. On the evidence of the gravediggers’ scene, he is 30. This prompted Auden to ask why he is still a student. (Doing a PhD at Wittenberg, perhaps?) It makes me wonder why everyone seems to have accepted without demur that Claudius should succeed his brother as king, rather than the Prince who is heir-apparent. This is all the stranger because Claudius tells us that Hamlet ‘is lov’d of the distracted multitude’ — like Edward VIII? Did the Establishment, as in Edward’s case, see something unstable and rotten in him?
If so, they had a point, for when we look at what Hamlet does, rather than losing ourselves in admiration of his words, he seems more villainous than virtuous. He hesitates to kill the king, but murders Polonius, and shows no remorse — ‘Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell.’ He arranges the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then boasts to Horatio of his cleverness in doing so; not very nice. He is brutal to Ophelia and also to the Queen — the ‘rank, sweat of an enseamed bed,/Stew’d in corruption’ speech is disgusting: no way to speak to your mother. He is also a hypocrite, boasting of his love for Ophelia after he had driven her to madness and suicide; and while he piously turns away from suicide himself because ‘the Everlasting hath set his canon ’gainst self-slaughter’, the divine prohibition of murder does not appear to trouble him.
Of course, he is attractive, witty, with a smart line in repartee: a ‘prince of gestures’, as Peter Vansittart has called him. But Shakespeare knew that villains are often capable of exercising great charm. Think of Richard III, Edmund, even Iago. Finally, Hamlet is full of self-pity: ‘The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right.’ Self-pity is unattractive in real life; not necessarily so in literature. Indeed, Anthony Powell thought ‘immense self-pity an almost essential adjunct of the bestseller’. Hamlet has self-pity in spades, and it is perhaps this, as much as anything, which accounts for his appeal and popularity.
The action is the same, as also is the order of the dialogues and soliloquies; but the later are much elaborated, always with an accession of dramatic force. The following will serve as an instance:
Edition of 1603
- HAMLET: My lord, 'tis not the sable suit I wear;
- No, nor the tears that still stand in my eyes,
- Nor the distracted 'havior in the visage,
- Nor altogether mixt with outward semblance,
- Is equal to the sorrow of my heart;
- Him have I lost I must of force forego,
- Thes, but the ornaments and suits of woe.
Edition of 1604
- HAMLET: 'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
- Nor customary suits of solemn black,
- Nor windy suspiration of forced breath;
- No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
- Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
- Together with all the forms, modes, shows of grief,
- That can denote me truly; these, indeed, seem,
- For they are actions that a man might play;
- But I have that within which passeth show;
- These, but the trappings and the suits of woe.
In this, the profoundest of plays, is a tragedy of thought inspired by continual and never-satisfied meditation on human destiny and the dark perplexity of the events of this world, one calculated to call forth the very same meditation in the minds of the spectators. This enigmatical work resembles somewhat those irrational equations in which a fraction of unknown magnitude always remains, that will in no way admit of solution. Much has been said, much written, on this piece, and yet no critic who anew expresses himself on it will entirely coincide with his predecessors. What most astonishes us is the fact that with such hidden purposes, with a foundation laid in such unfathomable depth, the whole should, at first view, exhibit an extremely popular appearance. The dread appearance of the ghost takes possession of the mind and the imagination almost at the very commencement; then the play within the play, in which, as in a glass, we see reflected the crime whose fruitlessly attempted punishment constitutes the subject-matter of the piece; the alarm with which it fills the king; Hamlet's pretended and Ophelia's real madness; her death and burial; the meeting of Hamlet and Laertes at her grave; their combat and the grand termination; lastly, the appearance of the young hero Fortinbras, who, with warlike pomp, pays the last honors to an extinct family of kings; the interspersion of comic characteristic scenes with Polonius, the courtiers and the grave-diggers, which have each of them their signification--all this fills the stage with and animated and varied movement. The only point of view from which this piece might be judged to be less theatrical than other tragedies of Shakespeare, is that in the last scenes the main action either stands still or appears to be retrograde. This, however, was inevitable, and lay in the nature of the subject. The whole is intended to show that a too close consideration, which exhausts all the relations and possible consequences of a deed, must cripple the power of action; as Hamlet himself expresses it:
- And thus the native hue of resolution
- Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought;
- And enterprises of great pith and moment,
- With this regard, their currents turn awry,
- And lose the name of action.
The mystery which surrounds the play centres in the character of Hamlet himself. He is of a highly cultivated mind, a prince of royal manners, endowed with the finest sense of propriety, susceptible of noble ambition, and open in the highest degree to an enthusiastic admiration of that excellence in others in which he himself is deficient. He acts the part of madness with unrivalled power, convincing the persons who are sent to examine into his supposed loss of reason merely by telling them unwelcome truths and rallying them with the most caustic wit. But in the resolutions which he so often embraces and always leaves unexecuted, his weakness is too apparent; he is not solely impelled by necessity to artifice and dissimulation, he has a natural inclination for crooked ways; he is a hypocrite toward himself; his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his want of determination--thoughts, as he says, which have
- ----but one part wisdom
- And ever three parts coward.
He has been condemned both for his harshness in repulsing the love of Ophelia, which he himself had cherished, and for his insensibility at her death. But he is too much overwhelmed with his own sorrow to have any compassion to spare for others; besides, his outward indifference gives us by no means the measure of his internal perturbation. On the other hand, we evidently perceive in him a malicious joy, when he has succeeded in getting rid of his enemies, more through necessity and accident, which alone are able to impel him to quick and decisive measures, than by the merit of his own courage, as he himself confesses after the slaying of Polonius. Hamlet has no firm belief either in himself or in anything else. From expressions of religious confidence he passes over to skeptical doubts; he believes in the ghost of his father as long as he sees it, but as soon as it has disappeared, it appears to him almost in the light of a deception. He has even gone so far as to say "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so;" with him the poet loses himself here in the labyrinths of thought, in which neither end nor beginning is discoverable. The stars themselves, from the course of events, afford no answer to the questions so urgently proposed to them. A voice from another world, commissioned, it would appear, by heaven, demands vengeance for a monstrous enormity, and the demand remains without effect; the criminals are at last punished, but, as it were, by an accidental blow, and not in the solemn way requisite to convey to the world a warning example of justice; irresolution, cunning treachery and impetuous rage hurry on to a common destruction; the less guilty and the innocent are equally involved in the general ruin. The destiny of humanity is here exhibited as a gigantic Sphinx, which threatens to precipitate into the abyss of skepticism all who are unable to solve her dread enigmas.
As one example of the many niceties of Shakespeare which have been generally misunderstood, may be mentioned the style in which the player's speech about Hecuba is conceived. It has been the subject of much controversy among commentators whether this was taken by Shakespeare from himself or from another, and whether, in the praise of the piece of which it is supposed to be a part, Hamlet was speaking seriously, or merely meant to ridicule the tragical bombast of his contemporaries. It seems never to have occurred to them that this speech must not be judged by itself, but in connection with the place where it is introduced. To distinguish it in the play itself as dramatic poetry, it was necessary that it should rise above the dignified poetry of the former in the same proportion that theatrical elevation always soars above simple nature. Hence Shakespeare has composed the play in Hamlet altogether in sententious rhymes full of antitheses. But this solemn and measured tone did not suit a speech in which violent emotion ought to prevail, and the poet had no other expedient than the one of which he made choice--overcharging the pathos. Unquestionably the language of the speech in question is falsely emphatical; but this fault is so mixed up with true grandeur that a player practiced in artificially calling forth in himself the emotion he is imitating may certainly be carried away by it. Besides, it will hardly be believed that Shakespeare knew so little of his art as not to be aware that a tragedy in which there is a lengthy epic relation of a transaction that happened so long before as the destruction of Troy, could neither be dramatic nor theatrical.
There is something altogether indefinable and mysterious in the poet's delineation of this character--something wild and irregular in the circumstances with which the character is associated. We see that Hamlet is propelled rather than propelling. But why is this turn given to the delineation? We cannot exactly tell. Doubtless much of the very charm of the play is its mysteriousness. It awakes not only thoughts of the grand and the beautiful, but of the incomprehensible. Its obscurity constitutes a portion of its sublimity. This is the stage in which most minds are content to rest, and perhaps better so, with regard to the comprehension of Hamlet.
The final appreciation of the Hamlet of Shakespeare belongs to the development of the critical faculty. Goethe, Coleridge, Schlegel, Lamb, Hazlitt, Mrs. Jameson and other writers out of number, some of the very highest order of excellence, have brought to the criticism and explanation of this play a most valuable fund of judgment, taste and aesthetical knowledge. To condense what is most deserving of remembrance in these admirable productions within due limits would be impossible. We must, therefore, place ourselves in the condition of one who has, however imperfectly, worked out in his own mind a comprehension of the idea of Shakespeare.
The opening of Hamlet is one of the most absorbing scenes in the Shakespearean drama. It produces its effect by the supernatural being brought into the most immediate contact with the real. The sentinels are prepared for the appearance of the ghost, Horatio being incredulous, but they are all surrounded with an atmosphere of common life. "Long live the king," "'Tis bitter cold," "Not a mouse stirring," and the familiar pleasantry of Horatio, exhibit to us minds under the ordinary state of human feeling. At the moment when the recollections of Bernardo arise into that imaginative power which belongs to the tale he is about to tell, the ghost appears. All that was doubtful in the narrative of the supernatural vision--what left upon Horatio's mind the impression only of a "thing"--because as real as the silence, the cold and the midnight. The vision is then "most like the king"--
Such was the very armor he had on.
The ghost remains but an instant, and we are again among the realities of common life. When it reappears there is still a tinge of skepticism in the soldiers:
Shall I strike at it with my partisan?
But their incredulity is at once subdued, and a resolution is taken by Horatio upon the conviction that what he once held as "fantasy" is a dreadful being, of whose existence there can be no doubt.
- Let us impart what we have seen tonight
- Unto young Hamlet: for, upon my life,
- This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
We have here, by anticipation, all the deep and inexplicable consequences of this vision laid upon young Hamlet; it is his destiny.
Here we need not stop to analyze the scenes and acts that follow, for of all Shakespeare's plays this is the most familiar, and it is also one on which most men have already formed their own opinion. It will be sufficient to dwell very briefly on a few of its most striking features, and first as to the question of Hamlet's madness. Before the appearance of the ghost his spirit has been wounded by a sudden blow--a father dead, a crown snatched from him, a mother disgracefully married. Thus he looks with a jaundiced eye on "all the uses of this world," on the "unweeded garden" that he fain would leave to be possessed by "things rank and gross in nature." Yet he communes with himself in a tone which bespeaks the habitual refinement of his thoughts, and his words shape themselves into images that belong to a high and cultivated intellect. Then comes the dread vision, with its appalling revelation, which lays on him a responsibility greater than his nature can bear. The mental disturbance which it causes becomes apparent while he thinks aloud, almost as soon as the ghost has disappeared; but he is not mad either in the popular or in the physiological sense; it is merely the mental derangement of a noble, but not an heroic, nature, sinking beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must cast away. Coleridge attributes what he consider's Hamlet's assumed eccentricity, after the ghost scene, to "the disposition to escape from his own feelings of the overwhelming and supernatural by a wild transition to the ludicrous, a sort of cunning bravado, bordering on delirium." It is under the immediate influence of the disorder in his soul that he resolves to feign madness. With a mind horribly disturbed with thoughts beyond mortal reach he still believes that the habitual powers of his intellect can control this disturbance and even render it an instrument of his safety. It has been observed that if there be anything disproportioned in his mind, it seems to be this only--that intellect is in excess; it is too subtle; it is even ungovernable. It is in his own high and overwrought consciousness of intellect that he describes the perfect man, "in apprehension how like a god." Much that requires elucidation in the play can be explained by this exceptional predominance of the intellectual faculty, and to this, perhaps, belongs the idea of pretending insanity as a cloak for his real designs.
Here begins the complexity of Hamlet's character, and in his new guise he is thus presented to us by Ophelia, then for the first time showing the preoccupation, which afterward appears in many of his sayings:
- He took me by the wrist, and held me hard;
- Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
- And with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
- He falls to such perusal of my face,
- As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;
- At last,--a little shaking of mine arm,
- And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
- He raised a sigh so piteous and profound,
- That it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
- And end his being. That done, he lets me go;
- And, with his head over his shoulder turned,
- He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
- For out o' doors he went without their help,
- And, to the last, bended their light on me.
In this was none of the "antic disposition" which Hamlet thought fit to put on; still less was it, as Polonius deemed, the "ecstasy of love" produced by Ophelia's coldness. It was the utterance, so far as it could be uttered, of his sense of the hard necessity that was upon him to go forth to a mortal struggle with evil powers and influences; to tear himself from all the soothing and delicious fancies that would arise out of his growing affection for the simple maid whom he treated so roughly. Under the pressure of his vow that the ghost's injunction should "live within the volume of his brain, unmix'd with baser matter," all else in the world has become to him mean and unimportant. Love was now to him "a trivial fond record," and philosophy "the saws of books."
That the king and his courtiers considered Hamlet insane, and freely talked of his insanity, is of no significance, for this was merely the "antic disposition," and the sarcasm directed against them, in which he appeared to be merely wandering, was but to relieve the bitterness of his soul. They did not see through his disguise any more than did Polonius, who, while pronouncing him "far gone," yet could not help noticing "how pregnant his replies are." In truth, the old man was himself verging on imbecility, though he had not wit enough to become entirely crazy--a condition which presupposes the possession of brains.
In the scene with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet is natural enough; for with them, as his old school-fellows, he is perfectly at ease, and he is again the Hamlet they knew of old--the gentleman and the scholar. He even discloses to them a glimpse of the deep melancholy which weighs on his soul: "O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." He knows that his friends were sent to him as spies; but he suppresses his feelings, and bursts out into the majestic piece of rhetoric beginning, "What a piece of work is man!"--one that could only have been conceived by a being of the highest intellectual power, in the fullest possession of his faculties. In the scene with the players, also, Hamlet is entirely himself. He has escaped for a moment from the one o'ermastering thought, but even here that thought follows him: "Dost thou hear me, old friend; can you play the murder of Gonzago?" Then comes the soliloquy, "Now I am alone," in which, as Charles Lamb expresses it, "the silent meditations with which his bosom is bursting are reduced to words for the sake of the reader." Hamlet's indecision is not due to want of courage, as appears in several instances--
- My fate cries out,
- And makes each petty artery in this body
- As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve.
But his will is subject to his higher faculties, and he sees no course clear enough to satisfy his understanding. He would have been greater had he been less great.
In his great soliloquy, "To be or not to be," he is interrupted by Ophelia in the midst of a most solemn train of thought. When she says to him--
My lord, I have remembrances of yours.
--it is probable that his rude denial of having given Ophelia remembrances, and his "Ha, ha! are you honest?" with all the bitter words that follow, are meant to indicate the disturbance which is produced in his mind by the clashing of his love for her with the predominant thought which now makes all that belongs to his personal happiness worthless. His bitterness escapes in generalizations; it is not against Ophelia, but against her sex, that he exclaims. To that gentle creature, the harshest thing he says is: "Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny." Coleridge things that the harshness in Hamlet's manner is produced by his perceiving that Ophelia was acting a part toward him and that they were watched. Perhaps, as Lamb expresses it, these "tokens of an unhinged mind" are mixed "with a certain artifice, to alienate Ophelia by affected discourtesies, so as to prepare her mind for the breaking off of that intercourse which can no longer find a place amid business so serious as that which he has to do." At any rate, the gentle and tender Ophelia is not outraged. Her pity only is excited; and, if the apparent rudeness of Hamlet requires a proper appreciation of his character to reconcile it with our admiration of him, Shakespeare has at this moment most adroitly presented to us that description of him which Goethe anticipated:
- The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword,
- The expectancy and rose of the fair state.
Hamlet recovers a temporary tranquillity. He has something to do, and that something is connected with his great business. He has to prepare the players to speak his speech. Those who look upon the surface only may think these directions out of place; but nothing can really be more appropriate than that such rules of art, so just, so universal and so complete should be put by Shakespeare into the mouth of him who had preëminently "the scholar's tongue." The satisfaction he takes in the device, the hopes which he has that his doubts may be resolved lend a real elevation to his spirits, which may pass for his feigned madness. He utters whatever comes uppermost; and the freedoms which he takes with Ophelia, while they are equally remote from bitterness or harshness, are such as in Shakespeare's age would not offend pure ears.
The test is applied; the king is "frighted with false fire," and the elation of Hamlet's mind is at its height. Then comes the climax--"Now could I drink hot blood." Yet he is not raving, and in the scene with the queen he vindicates his own sanity:
- It is not madness
- That I have uttered: bring me to the test,
- And I the matter will re-word; which madness
- Would gambol from.
The question may be asked, why is it, when we think upon the fate of the poor stricken Ophelia, that we never reproach Hamlet? We are certain that it was no "trifling of his favor" that broke her heart; we are assured that his seeming harshness did not sink deep into her spirit; we believe that he loved her more than "forty thousand brothers;" and yet she certainly perished through Hamlet and his actions. But we blame him not, for her destiny was involved in his. Says a writer in Blackwood's Magazine: "Soon as we connect her destiny with Hamlet we know that darkness is to overshadow her, and that sadness and sorrow will step in between her and the ghost-haunted avenger of his father's murder. Soon as our pity is excited for her it continues gradually to deepen, and, when she appears in her madness, we are as deeply moved as when we hear of her death. Perhaps the description of that catastrophe by the queen is poetical rather than dramatic; but its exquisite beauty prevails, and Ophelia, dying and dead, is still the same Ophelia that first won our love. Perhaps the very forgetfulness of her, throughout the remainder of the play, leaves the soul at full liberty to dream of the departed. She has passed away from the earth like a beautiful dream."
Garrick omitted the grave-diggers. He had the terror of Voltaire before his eyes. The English audiences compelled their restoration, for there was something in the scene that brought Hamlet home to the humblest in the large reach of his universal philosophy. The conversation of the clowns before he comes upon the scene is, indeed, pleasantry mixed with sarcasm; but, the moment that Hamlet opens his lips, the meditative richness of his mind is poured out upon us, and he grapples with the most familiar and yet the deepest thoughts of human nature, in a style that is sublime from its simplicity. The catastrophe is in perfect accord with the ultimate prostration of his mind. It is the result of an accident produced we know not how. The general massacre on which the curtain falls has been the subject of much adverse comment; but Shakespeare does nothing without excellent reasons.