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66 DRAMAS OF REVENGE AND JEALOUSY: HAMLET
A beautiful, pure and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which makes the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off ; every duty is holy to him,—this too hard. The impossible is required of him,- not the impossible in itself, but the impossible to him. How he winds, turns, agonizes, advances and recoils, ever reminded, ever reminding himself, and at last almost loses his purpose from his thoughts, without ever again recovering his peace of mind.
OETHE'S criticism of “Hamlet” is so much
finer than any English criticism that I am glad to quote it. It will serve, I think, as a standard to distinguish the best criticism of the past from what I shall set forth in the course of this analysis. In this chapter I shall try to show what new light our knowledge of Shakespeare throws on the play, and conversely what new light the play throws on its maker.
The first moment of disillusion brought out, as we have seen in Brutus, all the kindness in Shakespeare's nature. He will believe in men in spite of experience; but the idealistic pose could not be kept up; sooner or later Shakespeare had to face the fact that he had been befooled and scorned by friend and mistress—how did he meet it? “Hamlet is the answer: Shakespeare went about nursing dreams of revenge and murder. Disillusion had
deeper consequences; forced to see other men as they were, he tried for a moment to see himself as he was. The outcome of that objective vision was | Hamlet-a masterpiece of self-revealing.
Yet, when he wrote “Hamlet,” nothing was clear to him; the significance of the catastrophe had only dawned upon him; he had no notion how complete his soul-shipwreck was, still less did he dream of painting himself realistically in all his obsequious flunkeyism and ungovernable sensuality. He saw himself less idealistically than heretofore, and, trying to look at himself fairly, honestly, he could not but accuse himself of irresolution at the very least; he had hung on with Herbert, as the sonnets tell us, hoping to build again the confidence which had been ruined by betrayal, hoping he knew not what of gain or place, to the injury of his own self-respect; while brooding all the time on quite impossible plans of revenge, impossible, for action had been “ sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought.” Hamlet could not screw his courage to the sticking point, and so became a type for ever of the philosopher or man of letters who, by thinking,
has lost the capacity for action. r Putting ourselves in Shakespeare's place for the
moment we see at once why he selected this story for treatment at this time. He knew, none better, that no young aristocrat would have submitted patiently to the wrong he had suffered from Lord Herbert; he created Laertes to show how instant and determined such a man would be in taking murderous revenge; but he still felt that what others would regard as faults, his irresolution and shrinking from bloodshed were in themselves nobler, and so, whilst half excusing, half realizing himself, he brought forth a masterpiece. This brooding on revenge, which is the heart and explanation of his great play, shows us how little Shakespeare cared for Herbert, how completely he had condemned him. The soliloquy on this point in “Hamlet” is the most characteristic thing in the drama:
“ This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murder'd Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words, And fall a-cursing like a very drab.”
Shakespeare is thinking of Herbert's betrayal: “ here I am,” he says, “prompted to revenge by reason and custom, yet instead of acting I fall a-cursing like a drab." But behind his irresolution
” is his hatred of bloodshed: he could whip out his sword and on a sudden kill Polonius, mistaking him for the king (Herbert), but he could not, in cold blood, make up his mind to kill and proceed to execution. Like his own Hubert, Shakespeare had to confess :
“Within this bosom never enter'd yet The dreadful motion of a murderous thought.”
He had none of the direct, passionate, conscienceless resolution of Laertes. He whips himself to anger against the king by thinking of Herbert in the king's place; but lackey-like has to admit that mere regard for position and power gives him pause: Lord Herbert was too far above him: “ There's such divinity doth hedge a king,
That treason can but peep to what it would.” Shakespeare's personal feeling dominates and
inspires the whole play. One crucial instance will prove this. Why did Hamlet hate his mother's lechery? Most men would hardly have condemned it, certainly would not have suffered their thoughts to dwell on it beyond the moment; but to Hamlet his mother's faithlessness was horrible, shameful, degrading, simply because Hamlet-Shakespeare had identified her with Miss Fitton, and it was Miss
Fitton's faithlessness, it was her deception he was L. condemning in the bitterest words he could find. He
thus gets into a somewhat unreal tragedy, a passionate intensity which is otherwise wholly inexplicable. This is how he talks to his mother:
“ Have you eyes?
What devil was't
If anyone can imagine that this is the way a son thinks of a mother's slip he is past my persuading. In all this Shakespeare is thinking of himself in comparison with Herbert; and his advice to his mother is almost as self-revealing, showing, as it does, what he would wish to say to Miss Fitton:
"Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;
In his description of the king and queen we get Shakespeare's view of Lord Herbert and Miss Fitton: the king (Herbert) is “mildew'd” and foul in comparison with his modest poet-rival—“A satyr to Hyperion."
Hamlet's view of his mother (Miss Fitton), though bitterer still, is yet the bitterness of disappointed love: he will have her repent, refrain from the adultery, and be pure and good again. When the Queen asks:
Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
his mouse; And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers Maddened with jealousy he sees the act, scourges himself with his own lewd imagining as Posthumus scourges himself. No one ever felt this intensity of jealous rage about a mother or a sister. The mere idea is absurd; it is one's own passion-torture that speaks in such words as I have here quoted.
Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia, too, and his advice to her are all the outcome of Shakespeare's own disappointment:
Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners ?”
We all expect from Hamlet some outburst of divine tenderness to Ophelia ; but the scenes with the pure and devoted girl whom he is supposed to love are not half realized, are nothing like so intense as the scenes with the guilty mother. It