Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

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 imagination and the war of the passions.

This is the very management of the character by which, above all others, we could be interested in its 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,
· The Glass of Fashion, and the Mold of Form,
• Th' observ'd of all Observers,'

placed in a situation in which even the amiable quasities 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 accomplishment 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,
« That ever I was born to set it right !

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 Rosina 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 character as of the kind abovementioned, when, hesitating on the evidence of his uncle's villany, he says,

· The spirit that I have seen
• May be the Devil, and the Devil hath power
T'assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
• 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 úttends 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.

Z

N 100. SATURDAY, APRIL 22, 1780.

The view of Hamlet's character, exhibited in my last Number, may, perhaps, serve to explain a dif. ficulty 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 shapsody 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 shew 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.

[blocks in formation]
« VorigeDoorgaan »