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To be or not to be, that is the question.
The account he gives of his own feelings to Rosincrantz 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 charace ter as of the kind above-mentioned, when, hesitating on the evidence of his uncle's villany, he says,
The spirit that I have seen
Abuses me to damn me. This doubt of the grounds on which our purpose is founded, is as often the effect as the cause of irresolution, 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 went on, 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 legendary 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, 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.
No. 100. SATURDAY, APRIL 22, 1780.
The view of Hamlet's character, exhibited in my last number, may, perhaps, serve to explain a difficulty which has always occurred, both to the reader and the spectator, on perceiving his madness at one time put on the appearance, not of fiction but of reality; a difficulty by which some have been induced to suppose the distraction of the Prince a strange unaccountable mixture throughout of real insanity and counterfeit disorder.
The distraction of Hamlet, however, is clearly affected through the whole play, always subject to the control of his reason, and subservient to the accomplishment of his designs. At the grave of Ophelia, indeed, it exhibits some temporary marks of a real disorder. His mind, subject from nature to all the weakness of sensibility, agitated by the incidental misfortune of Ophelia's death, amidst the dark and permanent impression of his revenge, is thrown for a while off its poise, and, in the paroxysm of the moment, breaks forth into that extravagant rhapsody which he utters to Laertes.
Counterfeited madness, in a person of the character I have ascribed to Hamlet, could not be so uniformly kept up, as not to allow the reigning impressions of his mind to show themselves in the midst of his affected extravagance. It turned chiefly on his love to Ophelia, which he meant to hold forth as its great subject; but it frequently glanced on the wickedness of his uncle, his knowledge of which it was certainly his business to conceal,
In two of Shakspeare's tragedies are introduced, at the same time, instances of counterfeit madness and of real distraction. In both plays the same distinction is observed, and the false discriminated from the true by similar appearances. Lear's imagination constantly runs on the ingratitude of his daughters, and the resignation of his crown; and Ophelia, after she has wasted the first ebullience of her distraction, in some wild and incoherent sentences, fixes on the death of her father for the subject of her song:
They bore him bare-faced on the bier
And will he not come again ? &c. But Edgar puts on a semblance as opposite as may be to his real situation and his ruling thoughts. He never ventures on any expression bordering on the subjects of a father's cruelty, or a son's misfortune. Hamlet, in the same manner, were he as firm in mind as Edgar, would never hint any thing in his affected disorder, that might lead to a suspicion of his having discovered the villany of his uncle; but his feeling, too powerful for his prudence, often breaks through that disguise which it seems to have been his original, and ought to have continued his invariable purpose to maintain, till an opportunity should present itself of accomplishing the revenge which he meditated.
Of the reality of Hamlet's love, doubts also have been suggested. But if that delicacy of feeling, approaching to weakness, for which I contend, be allowed him, the affected abuse, which he suffers at last to grow into scurrility, of his mistress, will, I think, be found not inconsistent with the truth of his affection for her. Feeling its real force, and designing to play the madman on that ground, he
would naturally go as far from the reality as possible. Had he not loved her at all, or slightly loved her, he might have kept up some appearance of passion amidst his feigned insanity; but really loving her, he would have been hurt by such a resemblance in the counterfeit. We can bear a downright caricature of our friend much easier than an unfavourable likeness.
It must be allowed, however, that the momentous scenes in which he is afterwards engaged, seem to have smothered, if not extinguished, the feelings of his love. His total forgetfulness of Ophelia so soon after her death cannot easily be justified. It is vain, indeed, to attempt justifying Shakspeare in such particulars. · Time,' says Dr. Johnson, • toil'd after him in vain.' He seems often to forget its rights, as well in the progress of the passions, as in the business of the stage. That change of feeling and of resolution which time only can effect, he brings forth within the limits of a single scene. Whether love is to be excited, or resentment allayed, guilt to be made penitent, or sorrow cheerful, the effect is frequently produced in a space hardly sufficient for words to express it.
It has been remarked, that our great poet was not so happy in the delineation of love as of the other passions. Were it not treason against the majesty of Shakspeare, one might observe, that, though he looked with a sort of instinctive perception into the recesses of nature, yet it was impossible for him to possess a knowledge of the refinements of delicacy, or to catch, in his pictures, the nicer shades of polished manners; and, without this knowledge, love can seldom be introduced on the stage, but with a degree of coarseness which will offend an audience of good taste. This observation is not meant to extend to Shakspeare's tragic scenes: in situations of