« ElőzőTovább »
There was, we suspect, an older drama, written on the tale of Troy, and having for its chief subject, in imitation of the Iliad, the wrath of Achilles, which Shakspeare made the ground. work of his own ;-adding, or greatly enlarging, the parts of Troilus and Cressida, re-writing that of Thersites, and mingling throughout his own genius. He built upon and around the original edifice till he quite obscured it; but here and there a portion of the old wall is visible, and its existence may be traced in the want of unity which the whole plan betrays. There is no keeping between the events of the plot and prominence given to the characters of Troilus and Cressida. Compare the style of the language, and the movement of the verse, where the love tale is carried on with some other portions of the drama-especially with that part (act 2, sc. 2) where a debate is held before Priam on the propriety of continuing the war. If the whole of this play were written by the same man, it was certainly not written by the same man at the same period of his life.
Considerations such as these, make us unwilling listeners to any severe criticism on the style and language of Shakspeare. Though all is not admirable, we feel that we have nothing to do but to admire; and may here leave behind, as too easy, or ungenerous, or altogether needless, the less grateful and less profitable task of censure. In this feeling we so far partake, as to think that a verbal criticism of Shakspeare (unless to elucidate his meaning, or point out felicities of expression) would be wasted labour. So far we acquiesce; but we beg to enter our protest against those who, not satisfied with this abstinence from censure, strive to convert his very vices of style into a species of excellence, and to excuse and justify all manner of writing, on the plea of its dramatic propriety. A style unpardonable in itself, cannot become laudable on the ground of dramatic propriety. If a contrary rule, if an opposite canon of criticism is to be laid down-if that which manifestly shocks our taste is afterwards to be approved of, on the reflection that just such extravagances occur in real life-then the drama is at once given over to whatever bombast or folly, the ignorance and passion of men, are likely to blurt forth,
The beauty of the art is entirely sacrificed. The distinction between farce and the serious drama is obliterated. When Juliet talks of her Romeo being cut up into little stars, and so making the heavens wonderfully bright, the absurdity of the passage is not to be excused; nor is it to be transmuted into good writing, because it is notorious that a lovesick girl talks all imaginable nonsense. The task of the poet is indeed to depict the character of the lovesick personage, but so as to give pleasure by his delineation, and to enlist our sympathies in its behalf. Unless he intends to throw ridicule on the passion of the lover-to treat it as a subject of comedy or burlesque-he must confine it within such limits of folly or caprice as the majority of mankind can tolerate, excuse, or commiserate.
With regard to the style of Shakspeare, it is a more just observation and more conciliatory, to remark the connexion that subsists between that license he allowed himself in composition, and which the times and his position in the literary history of this country enabled him to take, and the peculiar ease and dramatic excellence of his dialogue. We could hardly have had the one without the other. Shakspeare wrote for a people whose ears were not yet accustomed to finished models of composition--to whom thought was fresh-whose minds had been informed and incited, but not encumbered by what had transpired to them, chiefly through translations, of the revived literature of the ancients, and who were not a little prompted to intellectual exertion by the religious revolutions of the period. While, therefore, there was no lack of knowledge in the country-while there existed much matter for reflection and poetry, and much aptitude for mental excitement-there was yet in the writer a natural boldness and hardihood, which, in more settled periods of literature, it is impossible for him to retain. This spirit of freedom
this daring to say all-to appropri ate all-was indispensable to the production of that surprising dialogue of Shakspeare, which so frequently unites the utmost beauty of poetic utterance with the very carelessness of unpremeditated speech, the very im petuosity of passion itself. When the work, with its mingled tissue of
most diverse materials, is accomplished, the reader of correct taste may separate what is crude and preposterous from what is singularly and daringly excellent; but he must acknowledge that the same boldness which seduced into the first was necessary to the creation of the second. logue so faithful to the passions, humours, and caprices-and, what is more, to the common sense of mankind-must have been written without the perpetual fear of critical censure, and with a freedom from the dreaded charge of plagiarism. When models of correct composition have formed the taste of the people, the poet be. comes bound by them; even the very struggle to throw off his restraint leads him into artifice, and converts courage into bravado; nor can he who comes after others, afford to let his characters say that which is most natural and probable, but must find for them sentiments, which, in proportion as they are new, will in all likelihood be forced and constrained. The genius of Shakspeare, so singularly dramatic, was developed under circumstances as singularly favourable to dramatic composition—so favourable, that some of his contemporaries, merely by sharing in them, have earned a celebrity as dramatists which is due only to their manner, not to their genius. His lifelike drama, mingling all the characters and all the faculties of man as the world mingles them, could not be repeated unless the same genius could again write with the same fearlessness, the same spontaneous movement, the same utter abandonment to its own great and varied powers could again write as if it stood apart, unseen and irresponsible, in its mimic work of creation. But why speak of a repetition? Such great national writers as he so entirely preoccupy their ground, that there is no room in the same language for an equal to themselves. You must overthrow them by one of those revolutions that sink the language itself in which they stand-you must bury them, like huge fossils, in their own buried soil-before the earth is free, and the air open, for such another outgrowth. There must come a second deluge over all literature, and a second time the green earth must appear above the waters, before another Shakspeare can have place.
But our veneration for our great dramatist has not only led us to an utter oblivion in his favour of verbal criticism, it has disposed us to look with a marvellous pertinacity for nature and consistency in all the characters he portrays. We study the creatures of his imagination with the same faith that we investigate the character of a historical personage, confident that, however intricate or self-contradictory they may appear, we shall find, if we do but ponder steadily enough, that all is true and appropriate. It is made quite a study of, this investigation of Shakspeare's characters; and, as an exercise for powers of discrimination in the field of human nature, it has this advantage over an examination of the real characters of history-that the facts on which we are to form our judgment are here all given, are settled data; whereas, in solving any difficulty in the historic personage-in accounting for the apparent inconsistencies of his conduct a doubt is always ready to arise, whether the facts themselves are all stated, whether all the circumstances are before us, whether the story might not be so told as to explain the whole difficulty; and thus the mind is perpetually called off from the investigation of character to the completion or moulding of the narrative. This study has doubtless led to some super-refinement, and to speculations somewhat wide of the sober realities of the case. The poet's freedom, the poet's necessity-at one time his unfettered utterance, at another his adherence to a plot given to him by his story-have betrayed the obsequious critic into no little difficulty, as he laboured with devoted zeal to make a crooked path look straight. But, in the main, we agree here also with the more enthusiastic admirers of Shakspeare. The consummate art which he has displayed in his masterpieces, justifies a patient study of his characters; and there is, in the more mature productions of his genius-such as his Othello and Macbeth -so full and complicated a development, that there is full scope for some subtlety of interpretation. His Othello is not only the jealous man and the jealous soldier, but the jealous Moor. You could not transplant his passion from that Eastern bosom in which it grew, without destroying in great measure the propriety of the description.
His Macbeth, pausing, reflective, but, once committed to his course, of desperate courage, exhibits no less distinctly the ambition of the northern chief. The climate hangs over them both. As you could not transplant the jealousy of Othello to the north, so neither could you divorce the ambi tion of Macbeth from the cold air it breathed, and the wild solitary heath on which it was fostered. There being this exquisite propriety in some of his portraitures, if a difficulty should arise in understanding others, it is allowable to look for the solution with a little curiosity of research. And, in doing this, it is not always an answer to the critic to say-you are suggesting for the poet an idea, which from its very merit, or the importance you attribute to it, could not have been present to his mind; for, if it had, he would not have failed to make better use of it, and to give it distinct expression. This remark would be more applicable in the case of any other author than of Shakspeare, who, partly perhaps from his freedom from such critical inquisition, rarely thinks of explaining what he is about. The reason why he does this or that may not always have been even distinctly reflected on by himself, although it passed through his mind, bringing with it a sense of sure conviction. With him the design and execution seem to have been almost simultaneous; he thought with the chisel in his hand, and wrought out his conceptions as they arose; and thus it is not impossible that an idea which really guided him, might yet have received
very imperfect enunciation, and might fairly admit of a fuller development from the critic, than it had even met with in the mind of the poet himself.
Amongst those discrepancies which have exercised the patience and ingenuity of criticism, the feigned madness of Hamlet is one of the most remarkable. It has been a stumblingblock to several commentators on the play. Let us see whether it will not bear such a representation, as not only to be intelligible, but to add something to our vivid appreciation of the character of Hamlet. We are not about to enter into a complete analysis of that character;-after the many brilliant criticisms which have been lately written on the same theme, this would be
a hazardous attempt, and for the most part superfluous;-we shall touch merely upon one point, and shall, as much as possible, avoid the repetition of remarks made familiar to all, by the eloquence of a Schlegel, a Goëthe, and a Coleridge.
"For this feigned madness," writes Dr Johnson, "there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity." The feint is not quite so unconnected with the plot as the worthy doctor would here represent it. One very manifest purpose of adopting such a disguise, was to obtain access to the king in some moment of unguarded privacy, when Hamlet could with certainty accomplish his revenge, or task of retribution. The rambling of a maniac over all parts of the palace, and at all hours, would excite no suspicion; and thus an opportunity might be afforded him of striking the fatal blow. And this end is in some measure answered; for we may attribute to this counterfeit of insanity, that he actually lights upon the King in his chamber while he is kneeling alone and at his prayers; and thus an opportunity is given of executing his revenge, which may not the less advance the piece because it is not taken advantage of. But, though not altogether unconnected with the plot, this pretended insanity effects so little, and is so carelessly sustained, that it might be censured
a bungling contrivance, if it had not a still more intimate connexion with the character and temper of Hamlet himself. It is in him rather than in the plot that the sufficient reason of this disguise is to be detected. A very slight prospect of advantage, or show of policy, was enough to lead him to adopt a stratagem which accorded well with the over-excited and turbulent condition of his thoughts. For these some disguise was at all events to be found--some concealment from the observation of men; and to wear the wild mask of insanity was not more toilsome to his spirit, more burdensome and oppressive, than to support that other counterfeit of a smooth, unruffled, and contented aspect.
To Hamlet, a reflective, wayward, melancholy man, the spirit of his father had appeared from the tombhad revealed the secret of his murder,
and committed the task of retributive justice. After this intercourse with the other world-after having received thus supernaturally a commission so fearful he who had never been closely knit to society, would feel himself chosen out and separated by an impassable chasm from all other men. His mind was unceasingly agitated by thoughts he could not communicate to others; and he was surrounded by a crowd of courtiers and politicians, with whose interests, and schemes, and projects, his could no longer assume even the ordinary show of participation. A father murdered, a mother wedded to the murderer, himself commissioned to revenge this crime, as yet a profound secret to the world— with these subjects fastened on his mind, and stinging him perpetually to all moody, and sarcastic, and hostile reflections, he would naturally avoid society-would escape, if possible, into solitude; but, if he must mingle with the crowd of courtiersif he must hold communion with them -we feel that an overstrained levity, a wild, bitter, uncertain, variable speech, would be the manner and style of conversation into which he would spontaneously fall. The ordinary tone of social intercourse, would be the last he would willingly or successfully support. Now this feint of madness, while it promised to advance his project in the obvious manner already hinted at, offered a disguise to himself more welcome, and which called for less constraint, than the laboured support of an ordinary, unnoticeable demeanour. The mimickry of madness was but the excess of that levity and wildness which naturally sprung from his impatient and overwrought spirit. It afforded some scope to those disquieted feelings which it served to conceal. The feint of madness covered all even the sarcasm,. and disgust, and turbulence, which it freed in some measure from an intolerable restraint. Nor was it a disguise ungrateful to a moody spirit, grown careless of the respect of men, and indifferent to all the ordinary projects and desires of life. The masquerade brought with it no sense of humiliation-it pleased a misanthropic humour-it gave him shelter and a sort of escape from society, and it cost him little effort. That mingled bitterness and levity which
served for the representation of insanity, was often the most faithful expression of his feelings. And we need hardly add, that a great portion of the beauty of the play would be lost, if we looked upon his extravagant speeches as cold inventions to support a fictitious madness, and did not keep in view their intimate connexion, and the connexion of the counterfeit of madness itself, with the real temper of the man.
It bears out this description, that we find his imitations of lunacy, and the spontaneous expression of his perturbed and over-excited feelings, to be at times scarce distinguishable, so naturally do they flow the one into the other. He deals unsparingly his wild and whirling speech in parts of the play where he cannot be suspected of counterfeiting madness-where he is addressing his confidential friends, and where he is in the most solemn and tragical situations of the drama. After the appearance of his father's spirit, and the horrible disclosure it had made, when he is swearing Marcellus and the rest to secresy as to what they themselves had witnessed, the ghost from beneath adds his voice, and calls on them to " Swear!" What says Hamlet, fresh from the very converse with the dead?" Come on-you hear this fellow in the cellarage!" And again, when, by the artifice of the play acted before the King, he has confirmed the testimony of the ghost, and satisfied himself of his uncle's guilt, and he is left alone with his friend Horatio, who is privy to the stratagem, what is the tragedy-speech which Shakspeare has put into his mouth? He repeats some doggerel verses
der the license of this counterfeit, to break from and utterly confound the mortal garrulity of that old courtier? Did he encounter an Ophelia, whom he had loved, but whose image he had obliterated, or meant to obliterate, "with all trivial fond records," from the tablet of his memory, what more accordant to his vexed and troubled spirit, than, under the same disguise, to indulge the mingled feelings of regret and renunciation, tenderness and sarcasm, and all the bitter contradictions that were struggling together in his bosom?
It is not to be supposed that the state of mind we have been attempting to describe as prompting to the choice of this disguise, would be one of long continuance; and accordingly we find, towards the close of the piece, that the feint of madness, which has never in fact been very sedulously supported, is laid aside, and that without any seeming embarrassment. As the excitement of his mind wears itself out, Hamlet assumes an ordinary tone. He jests with the courtier, Osric, as he would have done in his gayer days; and, from that time to the conclusion of the drama, he presents to us the aspect of one exhausted by the violence and intensity of his feelings. The Ghost might appear to him now, we think, and have been seen without a start-the tragedy of life was becoming as indifferent as its pleasures -and the secrets of another world would soon have been as little exciting as they had previously made the inter ests of this. The bidding of his father's spirit is still remembered; but we might almost doubt whether it would have been fulfilled, if the treachery of the King had not suddenly rekindled his wrath, and called upon him to revenge his own as well as his father's death.
If Shakspeare had not written the play of Hamlet, his critics might, perhaps, have said that, although he had portrayed to admiration the marked and obvious passions of mankind— love, and ambition, and jealousy there was one region into which he
had not entered-a region of more difficult conquest than that airy king. dom of spirits and of fairies which he had subdued and rendered tributary. They might have said that he had never seized upon those deep yet wayward feelings which have no origin in the common objects and notorious purposes of life, but are the changeful creatures of the mind alone-on that reflective melancholy which appears so very causeless to those whom it has never visited that aspiration which has no aim that discontent which frames no wish-that profound indifference and meditative vacancy which disregards and rejects the actual detail and personal interests of human existence, but is never weary of looking at it from aloof, as a thing, upon the whole, of strangest and perpetual mystery. But all this, and more, Shakspeare has shadowed forth in his Hamlet. Whatever had been the fate of the young Prince of Denmark, he would still have been one of those who
ever musing, with perplexed thought, upon themselves—their own inscrutable nature-and on mankind at large, and the little good that the great world answers :-one of those who find all action struck with futility, yet recognise that repose without action is impossible-whose mind feeds upon itself-and who never have a passion or purpose but the next moment they turn it into a subject of mere reflection. Thus constituted, he is plunged in circumstances of supernatural horror
the tomb has yielded up its dead, that he might be sent upon a mission of blood-the reflective spirit of the man is overwhelmed-he seeks relief in bursts of extravagant and fictitious levity-and, in this mood, he picks up the mask of idiotism, and brandishes it not unwillingly; assuming to himself, at the same time, a crafty purpose, which, being little suited to his nature, is but loosely adhered to. Such is our reading of the feigned madness of Hamlet. A mind unhinged, vexed, tortured, and bewildered, adopts as a scheme of action what, after all, is more impulse than policy.