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observations on this subject, though with the diffidence due to a question of which the Public has doubted, and much abler critics have already written.
The basis of Hamlet's character seems to be an extreme sensibility of mind, apt to be strongly impressed by its situation, and overpowered by the feelings which that situation excites. Naturally of the most virtuous and most amiable dispositions, the circumstances in which he was placed unhinged those principles of action, which, in another situation, would have delighted mankind, and made himself happy. That kind of distress which he suffered was, beyond all others, calculated to produce this effect. His misfortunes were not the misfortunes of accident, which, though they may overwhelm at first, the mind will soon call up reflections to alleviate, and hopes to cheer; they were such as reflection only serves to irritate, such as rankle in the soul's tenderest part, her sense of virtue and feelings of natural affection; they arose from an uncle's villany, a mo. ther's guilt, a father's murder !-Yet, amidst the gloom of melancholy and the agitation of passion, in which his calamities involve him, there are occa. sional breakings-out of a mind, richly endowed by nature and cultivated by education. We perceive gentleness in his demeanour, wit in his conversation, taste in his amusements, and wisdom in his reflections.
That Hamlet's character, thus formed by Nature, and thus modelled by situation, is often variable and uncertain, I am not disposed to deny. I will content myself with the supposition, that this is the very character which Shakspeare meant to allot him. Finding such a character in real life, of a person endowed with feelings so delicate as to border on weakness, with sensibility too exquisite to allow of determined action, he has placed it where it could be best exhibited, in scenes of wonder, of terror, and of indignation, where its varying emotions might be most strongly marked amidst the workings of ima. gination and the war of the passions.
This is the very management of the character by by which, above all others, we could be interested in it's behalf. Had Shakspeare made Hamlet pursue his vengeance with a steady determined purpose, had he led him through difficulties arising from accidental causes, and not from the doubts and hesitation of his own mind, the anxiety of the spectator might have been highly raised; but it would have been anxiety for the event, not for the person. As it is, we feel not only the virtues, but the weaknesses of Hamlet, as our own; we see a man who, in other circumstances, would have exercised all the moral and social virtues, one whom Nature had formed to be
- Th’ Expectancy and Rose of the fair State,
placed in a situation in which even the amiable qua. lities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress, and to perplex his conduct. Our compassion for the first, and our anxiety for the latter, are excited in the strongest manner; and hence arises that indescribable charm in Hamlet, which attracts every reader and every spectator, which the more perfect characters of other tragedies never dispose us to feel.
The Orestes of the Greek poet, who, at his first appearance, lays down a plan of vengeance which he resolutely pursues, interests us for the accomplish. ment of his purpose ; but of him, we think only as the instrument of that justice which we wish to overtake the murderers of Agamemnon. We feel with Orestes (or rather with Sophocles, for in such passages we always hear the poet in his hero), that it is fit that such gross infringements of the moral law should be punished with death, in order to render wickedness less frequent ;' but when Horatio exclaims on the death of his friend,
· Now crack'd a noble heart !
we forget the murder of the King, the villany of Claudius, the guilt of Gertrude ; our recollection dwells only on the memory of that 'sweet prince,' the delicacy of whose feelings a milder planet should have ruled, whose gentle virtues should have bloomed through a life of felicity and usefulness.
Hamlet, from the very opening of the piece, is delineated as one under the dominion of melancholy, whose spirits were overborne by his feelings. Grief for his father's death, and displeasure at his mother's marriage, prey on his mind; and he seems, with the weakness natural to such a disposition, to yield to their controul. He does not attempt to resist or combat these impressions, but is willing to fly from the contest, though it were into the grave.
• Oh! that this too too solid flesh would melt,' &c.
Even after his father's ghost has informed him of his murder, and commissioned him to avenge it, we find him complaining of that situation in which his fate had placed him :
- The time is out of joint; oh! cursed spight,
And afterwards, in the perplexity of his condition, meditating on the expediency of suicide :
« To be, or not to be, that is the question.
The account he gives of his own feelings to Rosin. cratz and Guildenstern, which is evidently spoken in earnest, though somewhat covered with the mist of his affected distraction, is exactly descriptive of a mind full of that weariness of life which is characteristic of low spirits :
• This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me
a sterile promontory,' &c.
And, indeed, he expressly delineates his own charac ter as of the kind abovementioned, when, hesitating on the evidence of his uncle's villany, he says,
• The spirit that I have seen
This douht of the grounds on which our purpose is founded, is as often the effect, as the cause, of irre. solution, which first hesitates, and then seeks out an excuse for its hesitation.
It may, perhaps, be doing Shakspeare no injustice to suppose, that he sometimes began a play, without having fixed in his mind, in any determined manner, the plan or conduct of his piece. The character of some principal person of the drama might strike his imagination strongly in the opening scenes ; as he wention, this character would continue to impress itself on the conduct as well as the discourse of that person, and, it is possible, might affect the situations and incidents, especially in those romantic or legen. dary subjects, where history did not confine him to certain unchangeable events. In the story of Amleth,
the son of Horwondil, told by Saxo-Grammaticus, from which the tragedy of Hamlet is taken, the young prince, who is to revenge the death of his father, murdered by his uncle Fengo, counterfeits madness, that he may be allowed to remain about the court in safety and without suspicion. He never forgets his purposed vengeance, and acts with much more cunning towards its accomplishment than the Hamlet of Shakspeare. But Shakspeare, wishing to elevate the hero of his tragedy, and at the same time to interest the audience in his behalf, throws around him, from the beginning, the majesty of melancholy, along with that sort of weakness and irresolution which frequently attends it. The incident of the Ghost, which is entirely the poet's own, and not to be found in the Danish legend, not only produces the happiest stage effect, but is also of the greatest advantage in unfolding that character which is stamped on the young prince at the opening of the play. In the communications of such a visionary being, there is an uncertain kind of belief, and a dark unlimited horror, which are aptly suited to display the wavering purpose and varied emotions of a mind endowed with a delicacy of feeling that often shakes its fortitude, with sensibility that overpowers its strength.