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THE CHARACTER OF HAMLET ELUCIDATED.
BY EDWARD MAYHEW. Very general is the impression that the character of Hamlet is involved in a mystery so profound as to be beyond the reach of human comprehension. Against this fallacy we protest ; and inasmuch as this character has, ever since its declaration, been by all classes felt to be true, we insist it has been comprehended from the first--for he who feels a truth has interpreted it, and certainly understands what he may not have the ability to demonstrate.
Then, undertaking the explanation of the supposed enigma, no apology is offered for presumption, because no more is attempted than millions have already accomplished ; and if some great and learned men have failed to do that we now intend to fulfil, may not too much study have unfitted their minds for a task which required only simple intelligence? It is not our intention to infer what Shakspere intended, or arrogate what he meant we simply propose to show what he has done. Various editions and black-letter fables are alike rejected ; we draw nothing from words or from foreign sources.
The common trade edition of Shakspere's Dramas is before us; and out of this alone, we confidently assert, the whole truth can be educed; for grant that Hamlet is a good play, and it is conceded that Hamlet requires nothing for its interpretation which is not contained within itself. A good play is an entire truth ;-not only true, but so declared that the auditor is placed, as it were, in a position whence the verity must be by him recognized. Annotations are not required to make this plain. Notes and comments may explain particular words or passages, but the pervading spirit these will never materially assist; because a Drama in its intention contemplates a state where such aids cannot be employed. The Dramatist invites the public to the theatre, and undertakes to show them that which they shall, through their comprehensions, be amused with. It is his office to make his audience understand; and unless Shakspere was a bungler at his craft, he has done this in Hamlet, as in his other plays. The general voice, which has so loudly applauded this tragedy, declares its author to have done his part well; and if none yet have been able to demonstrate how admirably this has been done, surely it is owing to the discussions which have confounded reason; for the most ignorant have felt the interpretation, --the most learned have not been able to explain.
Then, with the common edition of the tragedy, which has not a single note or comment, and is far from being good in its text,-with this publication only, and all other assistance rejected, let the reader accompany us through the pages, and most probably he will wonder, as we have done, at the curious blunders of the writers, and the glorious perspicuity of Shakspere.
Hamlet is depicted under suffering, which has been endured for some period before the commencement of the play. His nature has been operated on by misfortune, and has, more or less, undergone a change from its original condition; and it therefore is imperative towards an understanding of his character, to find out what Hamlet may have been previous to those events that are antecedent to the Drama.
Ophelia, whose impressions were imbibed during his father's reign, and who since has had little intercourse with the Prince to weaken their truth, declares he was
“ The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of this fair state,
Act III. Scene I. And though the unripe judgment of the speaker would not allow much weiglit to be attached to her unsupported evidence, notwithstanding she is here but reviving recollections with no present motive to mis-state or overcharge, being alone,--yet her declaration becomes of much importance when corroborated; and Fortinbras, who had never encountered Hamlet since the date of his misfortunes, confidently pronounces him
likely, had he been put on, To have proved most royally.”
Act V. Scene 2. While in the general aspect and unconscious testimony of behaviour from such as had neither affection nor interest to colour their respects, an aggregate proof is given that Hamlet had established a moral reputation, the influence of which, not the credit of his insanity, the accusation of murder, or the enmity of the reigning monarch, could destroy ;-but memory hallowed what faith once had owned.
Nor is the character of Hamlet exhibited only under suffering such as refuses countenance to the supposition it once had approached perfection. In Hamlet, bosom-hates are moral antipathies; and revenge is pursued as a duty, not indulged as a passion.
He neither whines nor raves; but, wanting the self-adoration which found Lear a refuge in affliction, with mental courage struggles against a misery nature could not conquer ; and as the strength of his original character must have been proportioned to the weight it was able to sustain, so by Hamlet's power to endure, as much as by other circumstances, we are led to the conviction that his nature once was like the white plume waving above the Prince's coronet, the grace of his exalted title.
By this conclusion, the duty is self-imposed to show that those events antecedent to the opening of the Drama were such as must have changed the sweet and noble mind attributed to Hamlet.
In the bloom of age, with the promise of many years of health upon his cheek, the father strangely dies. AMiction inquires in vain the cause of death; and suddenness and mystery call up fearful doubts, that burst upon the sense like mountain storms, to make impetuous the course of sorrow.
To estimate the effect of this great loss upon the mind of Hamlet, it must be regarded in conjunction with the circumstance of his station, which, as a Prince, circumscribed the limits of his home. Private individuals have a large space for their affections but the Royal child,
nursed in etiquette and reared in forms, knows but few equals with whom he can securely joy or sorrow. He alone sees the parent in the King, or can disregard the robes with which the mother's bosom is encumbered. All other relations of life State interferes with. The uncle yields him precedence, and the cousin sinks into the courtier. If the ceremony of the Palace deaden not the sensibility of its inhabitants, the affections are concentrated, and their intensity is yet heightened by those ideas of honour, and that sense of interest, which, after holier faiths had been abjured, have frequently in outward show supplied their places in the families of Princes.
His elevated position also exposed him to annoyance. The Prince, who felt more deeply, was not permitted to mourn sincerely as other men; but while no heart could sympathize, all eyes dictated to his sadness. Dignity was imposed upon dejection, and prostration was expected to parade. Formal condolences intruded on his privacy, and ceremonious details taxed his patience, at a time when affliction made him anxious to be quiet and alone; till, to escape, and make himself a solitude, Hamlet forbad society, and shut himself from the world.
This circumstance, accordant with the customs of grief, is not directly stated in the play, but it is indicated in a manner so marked as to leave no room for uncertainty. Hamlet's accusation against the uncle of having“ Popped in between the election and my hopes,"
Act V. Scene 2. clearly insinuates an advantage taken rather than a struggle gained ; and this advantage, such conduct would afford ample opportunity to secure. The seclusion of the Prince would necessarily facilitate the designs of the usurper; and occurring at a time when the sudden demise of the crown, joined to the hostile demonstration of a neighbouring state, made energy imperative for the conservation of the kingdom, would suggest the strongest and most plausible arguments for setting aside the direct succession, which, had Hamlet possessed activity to form and head his party, not only need not, but could not, have been intersered with, as the reason the King advances to excuse his not proceeding openly on Polonius's murder
“The great love which the general gender bear him:
Act IV. Scene 7. convinces Hamlet had the power to assert, had he possessed the inclination to contest, his right.
Policy required he should be kept ignorant of the State's decision, till the measures to enforce it had been matured; therefore his second blow would also possess all the evils of a surprise to Hamlet, who, though as a philosopher his mind was superior to the loss, yet as a man his feeling could not be insensible to the injury. He had been educated to anticipate his possession of the throne as a natural consequenceVOL. XCVI.
his removal might not have occurred to him as a possibility; he was secure in the affections of the populace; at the head of the council sat his nearest relative, and his claims were by affliction made sacred unto charity. Wholly unprepared—it might be conjectured unfitted—10 hear such tidings, he was suddenly apprized, the bond to which was pledged great Nature's order, the law's integrity, the people's voice, the senate's honour, was arbitrarily cancelled ; and, nearest to his domestic sensitiveness, the hand that had torn off the seal was his who should have been foremost to point to its inviolability.
The keenest trial, however, yet remained. There lived only one being who could speak to Hamlet of his father as he had loved himonly one who shared his knowledge of the domestic virtues of the King, and to whom he could look for sympathy or consolation in his sorrow. On his mother's lap alone he could sink his head, and feel his manhood was not shamed to weep; in her eyes alone the Prince could hope the abandonment of his tears was justified: but before the earth had settled o'er his father's corse
“ Within a month;
Act I. Scene 2. Let these rapid calamities be considered, and no private faiths or public trusts, hopes or affections, can be found, which were not by them annihilated; even the youthful passion for Ophelia was by his mother's “incestuous dexterity" made sickly. • Frailty, thy name is woman !"
Act I, Scene 2. The chivalrous idolatry of love-worship was there denied ; and he who yet professed, no longer knelt in faith.
Ophelia's sex and age forbad Hamlet to impart to her his serious confidences, and in none else could he confide; for parent, relative, and country, he had experienced to be faithless. Nor was there a circumstance could alleviate his despondency: his presence at his uncle's coronation would seem a mockery at his own dethronement; and the repeated assurance he stood as chiefest courtier, loving cousin, and adopted son to the reigning monarch, would sound tauntingly to him who had ever been the only child and rightful heir of Denmark.
Thus incapable of consolation, and severed from communication with mankind, in vain might Hamlet have striven to escape the entrancement of his grief. All the misfortunes which had befallen him subsequently to his father's death, were consequences of that event. The mind was constantly being driven back to the first cause of its suffering : and as in the sacredness of his filial sorrow Hamlet was justified, and they who had wronged him condemned, a moral pride would be engendered to foster and endear its anguish, which the rejoicing that ushered in the new reign could not but irritate and augment: there was nothing in his own position, or the circumstances which surrounded him, to divert his mind, while to fascinate, doubt, suspense, and horror fitted o'er the subject of his thoughts. He, nearest to the person of the King, had been the first to make advantage by his death ; ihe uncle, who became the natural guardian of the son, had used his trust to rob his ward's inheritance; and the widow had cast aside her weeds to unite with the traitor to her child, to share the gain and pleasure in the plunder.
This combination of unnatural results led to a terrible conclusion ; and in the first soliloquy we have an insight to those reflections which agitated Hamlet's bosom. Broken sentences, piteous exclamations, and general aspersions, together with the painful knowledge of exact space being unable to suggest precise dates, show the intellect is trembling beneath some burden which is wearing out its strength. He strives to compare evidence so as to reach conviction; yet by some terrible vision he is ever distracted ; and now, in despair, he resolves not to think of it-only immediately to return, being incapable of other thoughts. One idea is ever present to his mind, which connects his father's image with his uncle's person ;--conjuring up the one, the other starts beside it; and from the love he bore the dead, he extracts a hatred for the living. Unsteadily winding round and round a horror, that like a prophetic vision fills his sight, whose form he knows, yet dares not recognize, Hamlet hastily endeavours to break the charm by concluding
“It is not, nor it cannot come to good.” Act I, Scene 2. When, as that were too near an approach to the fatal truth, having no proof on which to rest, save strong conjecture, his native honour rises in rebuke, and he determines for the future to bury his surmise till it consumes his life. “ But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue !"
Act I, Scene 2.
What thought it is he then suppresses, being afterward confessed in the ready exclamation, “O! my prophetic soul! my uncle !"
The distress arising from family loss and dishonour is heightened by the terror of a suspicion that again makes more poignant the cause of all his misery; and Hamlet appears upon the scene steeped in an affliction—not tearful-not fata)—but a living sorrow grafted on a princely nature, and all his actions will be seen to be its fruit.
He enters silently: discussions arise in which the Prince might have reasonably joined: but Hamlet continues mute till directly addressed, when the first line he speaks,
“A little more than kin and less than kind," Act I. Scene 2. pronounces him keenly sensitive of his changed position; and the next explains the cause of his despondency
How is it that the clouds still hang on you? Hamlet. Not so, my Lord, I am too much i'th'sun;" Act I. Scene 2. ightly referring to the annoyance his melancholy experienced from the glare in which he resides, so reminding the King of his desire to escape to Wittenberg ; yet carrying a deeper meaning in the sound the words would have when spoken on the stage, “ I am too much of the son ;" in which latter sense alone they are construed by the characters present,