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The character of Hamlet has caused more of perplexity and discussion than any other in the whole range of art. He has a wonderful interest for all, yet none can explain him; and perhaps he is therefore the more interesting because inexplicable. We have found by experience, that one seems to understand him better after a little study than after a great deal, and that the less one sees into him, the more apt one is to think he sees through him; in which respect he is indeed like nature herself. We shall not presume to make clear what so many better eyes have found and left dark. The most we can hope to do is, to start a few thoughts, not towards explaining him, but towards showing why he cannot be explained; nor to reduce the variety of opinions touching him, but rather to suggest whence that variety proceeds, and why.
One man considers Hamlet great, but wicked; another, good, but weak; a third, that he lacks courage, and dare not act; a fourth, that he has too much intellect for his will, and so thinks away the time of action: some conclude him honestly mad; others, that his madness is wholly feigned. Yet, notwithstanding this diversity of conclusions, all agree in thinking and speaking of him as an actual person. It is easy to invest with plausibility almost any theory regarding him, but very hard to make any theory comprehend the whole subject; and, while all are impressed with the truth of the character, no one is satisfied with another's view of it. The question is, why such unanimity as to his being a man, and at the same time such diversity as to what sort of a man he is?
Now, in reasoning about facts, we are apt to forget what complex and many-sided things they are. We often speak of them as very simple and intelligible; and in some respects they are so ; but, in others, they are inscrutably mysterious. For they present manifold elements and qualities in unity and consistency, and so carry a manifoldness of meaning which cannot be gathered up into logical expression. Even if we seize and draw out severally all the properties of a fact, still we are as far as ever from producing the effect of their combination. Thus there is somewhat in facts that still eludes the cunningest analysis; like the vital principle, which no subtlety of dissection can grasp or overtake. It is this mysteriousness of facts that begets our respect for them: could we master them, we should naturally lose our regard for them. For, to see round and through a thing, implies a sort of conquest over it; and when we seem to have conquered a thing, we are apt to put off that humility towards it, which is both the better part of wisdom, and also our key to the remainder.
This complexity of facts supposes the material of innumerable theories for, in such a multitude of properties belonging to one and, the same thing, every man's mind may take hold of some special consideration above the rest; and when we look at facts through a given theory they naturally seem to prove but that one,
though they would really afford equal proof of fifty others. Hence there come to be divers opinions respecting the same thing; and men arrive at opposite conclusions, forgetting, that of a given fact many things may be true in their place and degree, yet none of them true in such sort as to impair the truth of others.
Now, Hamlet is all varieties of character in one; he is continually turning up a new side, appearing under a new phase, undergoing some new development; so that he touches us at all points, and, as it were, surrounds us. This complexity and versatility of character are often mistaken for inconsistency: hence the contradictory opinions respecting him, different minds taking very different impressions of him, and even the same mind, at different times. In short, like other facts, he is many-sided, so that many men of many minds may see themselves in different sides of him; but, when they compare notes, and find him agreeing with them all, they are perplexed, and are apt to think him inconsistent in so great a diversity of elements, they lose the perception of identity, and cannot see how he can be so many, and still be but one. Doubtless he seems the more real for this very cause; our inability to see through him, or to discern the source and manner of his impression upon us, brings him closer to nature, makes him appear the more like a fact, and so strengthens his hold on our thoughts. For, where there is life, there must needs be more or less of change, the very law of life being identity in mutability; and in Hamlet the variety and rapidity of changes are so managed as only to infer the more intense, active, and prolific vitality; though, in so great a multitude of changes, it is extremely difficult to seize the constant principle.
Coleridge's view of Hamlet is much celebrated, and the currency it has attained shows there must be something of truth in it.
In the healthy processes of the mind," says he, "a balance is constantly maintained between the impressions from outward objects and the inward operations of the intellect for, if there be an overbalance in the contemplative faculty, man thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation, and loses his natural power of action. Now, one of Shakespeare's modes of creating characters is, to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakespeare, thus mutilated or diseased, under given circumstances. In Hamlet he seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to the objects of our senses, and our meditation on the workings of our minds, - an equilibrium between the real and the imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed his thoughts and the images of his fancy are far more vivid than his actual perceptions; and his very perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations, acquire, as they pass, a form and colour not naturally their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a
proportionate aversion to real action, consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities. This character Shakespeare places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to act on the spur of the moment :- Hamlet is brave and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve.
"The effect of this overbalance of the imaginative power is beautifully illustrated in the everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of Hamlet's mind, which, unseated from its healthy relation, is constantly occupied with the world within, and abstracted from the world without; giving substance to shadows, and throwing a mist over all common-place actualities. It is the nature of thought to be indefinite ;- definiteness belongs to external imagery alone. Hence it is that the sense of sublimity arises, not from the sight of an outward object, but from the beholder's reflection upon it; not from the sensuous impression, but from the imaginative reflex. Few have seen a celebrated waterfall without feeling something akin to disappointment: it is only subsequently that the image comes back full into the mind, and brings with it a train of grand or beautiful associations. Hamlet feels this; his senses are in a trance, and he looks upon external things as hieroglyphics."
This is certainly very noble criticism; and our main ground of doubt as to the view thus given is, that Hamlet seems bold, energetic, and prompt enough in action, when his course is free of moral impediments; as, for instance, in his conduct on shipboard, touching the commission, where his powers of thought all range themselves under the leading of a most vigorous and steady will. Our own belief is, though we are far from absolute in it, that the Poet's design was, to conceive a man great, perhaps equally so, in all the elements of character, mental, moral, and practical; and then to place him in such circumstances, bring such motives to bear upon him, and open to him such sources of influence and reflection, that all his greatness should be morally forced to display itself in the form of thought, even his strength of will having no practicable outlet but through the energies of the intellect. A brief review of the delineation will, if we mistake not, discover some reason for this belief.
Up to the time of his father's death, Hamlet's mind, busied in developing its innate riches, had found room for no sentiments towards others but generous trust and confidence. Delighted with the appearances of good, and shielded by his rank from the naked approaches of evil, he had no motive to pry through the semblance into the reality of surrounding characters. The ideas of princely elevation and moral rectitude, springing up simultaneously in his mind, had intertwisted their fibres closely together. While the chaste forms of young imagination had kept his own heart pure, he had framed his conceptions of others according to the model within himself. To the feelings of the son, the prince, the gentle16
man, the friend, the scholar, had lately been joined those of the lover; and his heart, oppressed with its own hopes and joys, had breathed forth its fulness in "almost all the holy vows of heaven." In his father he had realized the ideal of character which he aspired to exemplify. Whatsoever noble images and ideas he had gathered from the fields of poetry and philosophy, he had learned to associate with that venerated name. To the throne he looked forward with hope and fear, as an elevation for diffusing the blessings of a wise sovereignty, and receiving the homage of a grateful submission. As the crown was elective, he regarded his prospects of attaining it as suspended on the continuance of his father's life, till he could discover in himself such virtues as would secure him the succession. In his father's death, therefore, he lost the main stay of both his affections and his pretensions.
Notwithstanding, the foundations of his peace and happiness were yet unshaken. The prospects of the man were perhaps all the brighter, that those of the prince had faded. The fireside and the student's bower were still open to him; truth and beauty, thought and affection, had not hidden their faces from him with a mind saddened, but not diseased, his bereavement served to deepen and chasten his sensibilities, without untuning their music. Cunning and quick of heart to discover and appropriate the remunerations of life, he could compensate the loss of some objects with a more free and tranquil enjoyment of such as remained. In the absence of his father, he could concentrate upon his mother the feelings hitherto shared between them; and, in cases like this, religion towards the dead comes in to heighten and sanctify an affection for the living. Even if his mother too had died, the loss, however bitter, would not have been baleful to him; for, though separated from the chief objects of love and trust and reverence, he would still have retained those sentiments themselves unimpaired. It is not his mother, however, but his faith in her, that he has to part with. To his prophetic soul, the hasty and incestuous marriage brings at once conviction of his mother's infidelity, and suspicion of his uncle's treachery, to his father. Where he has most loved and trusted, there he has been most deceived. The sadness of bereavement now settles into the deep gloom of a wounded spirit, and life seems rather a burden to be borne than a blessing to be cherished. In this condition, the appearance of the Ghost, its awful disclosures, and more awful injunctions, confirming the suspicion his uncle's treachery, and implicating his mother in the crime, complete his desolation of mind.
Nevertheless, he still retains all his integrity and uprightness of soul. In the depths of his being, even below the reach of consciousness, there lives the instinct and impulse of a moral law with which the injunction of the Ghost stands in direct conflict. What is the quality of the act required of him? Nothing less, indeed, than to kill at once his uncle, his mother's husband, and his king;
and this, not as an act of justice, and in a judicial manner, an act of revenge, and by assassination! How shall he justify such a deed to the world? How vindicate himself from the very crime thus revenged? For, as he cannot subpoena the Ghost, the evidence on which he must act is in its nature available only in the court of his own conscience. To serve any good end either for himself or for others, the deed must so stand in the public eye, as it does in his own; else be will, in effect, be setting an example and precedent of murder, not of justice.
Thus Hamlet's conscience is divided, not merely against his inclination, but against itself. However he multiplies to himself reasons and motives for the deed, there yet springs up, from a depth in his nature which reflection has not fathomed, an overruling impulse against it. So that we have the triumph of a pure moral nature over temptation in its most imposing form, form of a sacred call from heaven, or what is such to him. thinks he ought to do the thing, resolves that he will do it, blames himself for not doing it; but there is a power within him which still outwrestles his purpose. In brief, the trouble lies not in himself, but in his situation; it arises from the impossibility of translating the outward call duty into a free moral impulse; and until so translated he cannot perform it; for in such an undertaking he must act from himself, not from another.
This strife of incompatible duties seems the true source of Hamlet's practical indecision. His moral sensitiveness, shrinking from the dreadful mandate of revenge, throws him back upon his reflective powers, and sends him through the abysses of thought in quest of a reconciliation between his conflicting duties, that so he may shelter either the performance of the deed from the reproach of irreligion, or the non-performance from that of filial impiety. Moreover, on reflection he discerns something in the mandate that makes him question its source: even his filial reverence leads him first to regret, then to doubt, and finally to disbelieve, that his father has laid on him such an injunction. It seems more likely that the Ghost should be a counterfeit, than that his father should call him to such a deed. Thus his mind is set in quest of other proofs. But when, by the stratagem of the play, he has made the King's guilt unkennel itself, this demonstration again arrests his hand, because his own conscience is startled into motion by the revelations made from that of another. Seeking grounds of action in the workings of remorse, the very proofs, which to his mind would justify the inflicting of death, themselves spring from something worse than death.
And it should be remarked, withal, that by the very process of the case he is put in immediate contact with supernatural influences. The same voice that calls him to the undertaking also unfolds to him the retributions of futurity. The thought of that eternal blazon, which must not be to ears of flesh and blood,