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declining into dotage. His mode of oratory is designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest natural. Such a man is positive and confident, because he knows that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it has become weak. Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in particular application. He is knowing in retrospect, and ignorant in foresight. While he depends upon his memory, and can draw from his depositaries of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel; but, as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to the dereliction of his faculties; he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recover the leading principle, and fall into his former train. The idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom will solve all the phenomena of the character of Polonius."
In all this Polonius is the exact antithesis of Hamlet, though Hamlet doubtless includes him, as the heavens do the earth. A man of but one method, that of intrigue; with his fingers ever itching to pull the wires of some intricate plot; and without any sense or perception of times and occasions; he is called to act in a matter where such arts and methods are peculiarly unfitting, and therefore only succeeds in over-reaching himself. Thus in him we have the type of a superannuated politician, and all his follies and blunders spring from undertaking to act the politician where he is most especially required to be a man. From books, too, he has gleaned maxims, but not gained development; sought to equip, not feed, his mind out of them he has therefore made books his idols, and books have made him pedantic.
To such a mind, or rather half-mind, the character of Hamlet must needs be a profound enigma. It takes a whole man to know such a being as Hamlet; and Polonius is but the attic story of a As in his mind the calculative faculties have eaten out the perceptive, of course his inferences are seldom wrong, his premises seldom right. Assuming Hamlet to be thus and so, he reasons and acts most admirably in regard to him; but the fact is, he cannot see Hamlet; has no eye for the true premises of the case; and, being wrong in these, his very correctness of logic makes him but the more ridiculous. His method of coming at the meaning of men, is by reading them backwards; and this method, used upon such a character as Hamlet, can but betray the user's infirmity.
Shakespeare's skill in revealing a character through its most characteristic transpirations is finely displayed in the directions Polonius gives his servant, for detecting the habits and practices of his absent son. Here the old politician is perfectly at home; his mind seems to revel in the mysteries of wire-pulling and trapsetting. In the Prince, however, he finds an impracticable sub
ject; here all his strategy is nonplussed, and himself caught in the trap he sets to catch the truth. The mere torch of policy, nature, or Hamlet, who is an embodiment of nature, blows him out; so that, in attempting to throw light on the Prince, he just rays out nothing but smoke. The sport of circumstances, it was only by a change of circumstances that Hamlet came to know him. Once the honoured minister of his royal father, now the despised tool of that father's murderer, Hamlet sees in him only the crooked, supple time-server; and the ease with which he baffles and plagues the old fox shows how much craftier one can be who scorns craft, than one who courts it.
Habits of intrigue having extinguished in Polonius the powers of honest insight and special discernment, he therefore perceives not the unfitness of his old methods to the new exigency; while at the same time his faith in the craft, hitherto found so successful, stuffs him with overweening assurance. Hence, also, that singular but most characteristic specimen of grannyism, namely, his pedantic and impertinent dallying with artful turns of thought and speech amidst serious business; where he appears not unlike a certain person who "could speak no sense in several languages." Superannuated politicians, indeed, like him, seldom have any strength but as they fall back upon the resources of memory: out of these, the ashes, so to speak, of extinct faculties, they may seem wise after the fountains of wisdom are dried up within them; as a man who has lost his sight may seem to distinguish colours, so long as he refrains from speaking of the colours that are before him.
Of all Shakespeare's heroines, the impression of Ophelia is perhaps the most difficult of analysis, partly because she is so real, partly because so undeveloped. Like Cordelia, she is brought forward but little in the play, yet the whole play seems full of her. Her very silence utters her: unseen, she is missed, and so thought of the more: when absent in person, she is still present in effect, by what others bring from her. Whatsoever grace comes from Polonius and the Queen is of her inspiring: Laertes is scarce regarded but as he loves his sister of Hamlet's soul, too, she is the sunrise and morning hymn. The soul of innocence and gentleness, wisdom seems to radiate from her insensibly, as fragrance is exhaled from flowers. It is in such forms that heaven most frequently visits us!
Ophelia's situation much resembles Imogen's; their characters are in marked contrast. Both appear amid the corruptions of a wicked court; Ophelia escapes them by insensibility of their presence, Imogen, by determined resistance: The former is unassailable in her innocence; the latter, unconquerable in her strength: Ignorance protects Ophelia, knowledge, Imogen: The conception of vice has scarce found its way into Ophelia's mind; in Imogen the daily perception of vice has but called for a power to repel it.
In Ophelia, again, as in Desdemona, the comparative want of intelligence, or rather intellectuality, is never felt as a defect. She fills up the idea of excellence just as completely as if she had the intellect of Shakespeare himself. In the rounded equipoise of her character we miss not the absent element, because there is no vacancy to be supplied; and high intellect would strike us rather as a superfluity than a supplement; its voice would rather drown than complete the harmony of the other tones.
Ophelia is exhibited in the utmost ripeness and mellowness, both of soul and sense, to impressions from without. With her susceptibilities just opening to external objects, her thoughts are so engaged on these as to leave no room for self-contemplation. This exceeding impressibility is the source at once of her beauty and her danger. From the lips and eyes of Hamlet she has drunk in pledges of his love, but has never heard the voice of her own; and knows not how full her heart is of Hamlet, because she has not a single thought or feeling there at strife with him. Mrs. Jameson rightly says, "she is far more conscious of being loved than of loving; and yet loving in the silent depths of her young heart far more than she is loved." For it is a singular fact that, though from Hamlet we have many disclosures, and from Ophelia only concealments, there has been much doubt of his love, but never any of hers. Ophelia's silence as to her own passion has been sometimes misderived from a wish to hide it from others; but, in truth, she seems not to be aware of it herself; and she unconsciously betrays it in the modest reluctance with which she yields up the secret of Hamlet's courtship. The extorted confession of what she has received reveals how much she has given; the soft tremblings of her bosom being made the plainer by the delicate lawn of silence thrown over it. Even when despair is wringing her innocent young soul into an utter wreck, she seems not to know the source of her affliction; and the truth comes out only when her sweet mind, which once breathed such enchanting music, lies broken in fragments before us, and the secrets of her maiden heart are hovering on her demented tongue.
One of the bitterest ingredients in poor Ophelia's cup is the belief that by her repulse of Hamlet she has dismantled his fair and stately house of reason; and when, forgetting the wounds with which her own pure spirit is bleeding, over the spectacle of that "unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth blasted with ecstacy," she meets his, "I loved you not," with the despairing sigh, "I was the more deceived," we see that she feels not the sundering of the ties that bind her sweetly-tempered faculties in harmony. Yet we blame not Hamlet, for he is himself but a victim of an inexorable power which is spreading its ravages through him over another life as pure and heavenly as his own. Standing on the verge of an abyss which is yawning to engulph himself, his very effort to frighten her back from it only hurries her in before him.
To snatch another jewel from Mrs. Jameson's casket, "He has
Ophelia's insanity exhausts the fountains of human pity. It is one of those mysterious visitings over which we can only brood in silent sympathy and awe; which Heaven alone has a heart adequately to pity, and a hand effectually to heal. Its pathos were too much to be borne, but for the sweet incense that rises from her crushed spirit, as "she turns thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, to favour and to prettiness." Of her death what shall be said? The victim of crimes in which she has no share but as a sufferer, we hail with joy the event that snatches her from the rack of this world. The "snatches of old lauds," with which she chaunts, as it were, her own burial service, are like smiles gushing from the very heart of woe. We must leave her, with the words of Hazlitt: "O, rose of May! O, flower too soon faded ! Her love, her madness, her death, are described with the truest touches of tenderness and pathos. It is a character which nobody but Shakespeare could have drawn in the way that he has done ; and to the conception of which there is not the smallest approach, except in some of the old romantic ballads."
The Queen's affection for this lovely being is one of those unexpected strokes, so frequent in Shakespeare, which surprise us into reflection by their naturalness. That Ophelia should disclose a vein of goodness in the Queen, was necessary perhaps to keep us both from underrating the influence of the one, and from exaggerating the wickedness of the other. The love which she thus awakens tells us that her helplessness springs from innocence, not from weakness; and so serves to prevent the pity which her condition moves from lessening the respect due to her character.
Almost any other author would have depicted Gertrude without a single alleviating trait in her character. Beaumont and Fletcher would probably have made her simply frightful or loathsome, and capable only of exciting abhorrence or disgust; if, indeed, in her monstrous depravity she had not rather failed to excite any feelIng. Shakespeare, with far more effect as well as far more truth, exhibits her with such a mixture of good and bad, as neither disarms censure nor precludes pity. Herself dragged along in the terrible train of consequences which her own guilt had a hand in starting, she is hurried away into the same dreadful abyss along with those whom she loves, and against whom she has sinned. In her tenderness towards Hamlet and Ophelia, we recognise the vir
tues of the mother without in the least palliating the guilt of the wife; while the crimes in which she is an accomplice almost disappear in those of which she is the victim.
The plan of this drama seems to consist in the persons being represented as without plans; for, as Goethe happily remarks, "the hero is without any plan, but the play itself is full of plan." As the action, so far as there is any, is shaped and determined rather for the characters than from them, all their energies could the better be translated into thought. Hence of all the Poet's dramas this probably combines the greatest strength and diversity of faculties. Sweeping round the whole circle of human thought and passion, its alternations of amazement and terror; of lust, ambition, and remorse; of hope, love, friendship, anguish, madness, and despair; of wit, humour, pathos, poetry, and philosophy; now congealing the blood with horror, now melting the heart with pity, now launching the mind into eternity, now startling conscience from her lonely seat with supernatural visitings ;it unfolds indeed a world of truth, and beauty, and sublimity.
Of its varied excellences, only a few of the less obvious need be specified. The platform scenes are singularly charged with picturesque effect. The chills of a northern winter midnight seem creeping on us, as the heart-sick sentinels pass in view, and, steeped in moonlight and drowsiness, exchange their meeting and parting salutations. The thoughts and images that rise in their minds are just such as the anticipation of preternatural visions would be likely to inspire. As the bitter cold stupefies their senses, an indescribable feeling of dread and awe steals over them, preparing the mind to realise its own superstitious imaginings. And the feeling one has in reading these scenes is not unlike that of a child passing a grave-yard by moonlight. Out of the dim and drowsy moonbeams apprehension creates its own objects; his fancies embody themselves in surrounding facts; his fears give shape to outward things, while those things give outwardness to his fears.The heterogeneous elements that are brought together in the gravedigging scene, with its strange mixture of songs and witticisms and dead men's bones, and its still stranger transitions of the grave, the sprightly, the meditative, the solemn, the playful, and the grotesque, make it one of the most wonderful yet most natural scenes in the drama. In view of the terrible catastrophe, Goethe has the following weighty sentence: "It is the tendency of crime to spread its evils over innocence, as it is of virtue to diffuse its blessings over many who deserve them not; while, frequently, the author of the one or of the other is not, so far as we can see, punished or rewarded."