by Dennis Abrams
As those of you who have been following this blog know, I’m a great admirer of the renowned Shakespeare critic, A.C. Bradley (1851-1935). During his time as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University he produced two major works: Oxford Lectures on Poetry (1909) and, more importantly for our purposes, Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), a book that became so well-known that it inspired an anonymous poem:
I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s Ghost
Sat for a civil service post.
The English paper for that year
Had several questions on King Lear
Which Shakespeare answered very badly
Because he hadn’t read his Bradley.
And although Bradley has sometimes been criticized (perhaps fairly, perhaps not…we will discuss this as we proceed) for writing about Shakespeare’s characters as if they were real people, his book is still considered to be the single most influential book of Shakespearean criticism ever published, and his influence is perhaps better deserved than many later critics acknowledge, because his work demonstrates a moral perceptiveness not often found in other writers.
His treatment of Hamlet, for example, is, I think, an excellent counterbalance to the too often dreamy picture of Hamlet we inherited from the Romantics, for Bradley demonstrated, perhaps for the first time, why Hamlet is not merely a soft contemplative, incapable of taking action, but a truly great-hearted soul, a genius, worthy of tragedy. As such, I think, despite the carping of critics such as Kenneth Burkes, L.C. Knights and F.R. Leavis, that his work is an invaluable source for readers looking to understand what Shakespeare himself wrote and meant.
So here, for your enjoyment, are excerpts from his essay/lecture, “Shakespeare’s Tragic Period – Hamlet.”
Before we come to-day to Hamlet, the first of our four tragedies, a few remarks must be made on their probable place in Shakespeare’s literary career. But I shall say no more than seems necessary for our restricted purpose, and, therefore, for the most part shall merely be stating widely accepted results of investigation, without going into the evidence on which they rest.
Shakespeare’s tragedies fall into two distinct groups, and these groups are separated by a considerable interval. He wrote tragedy – pure, like Romeo and Juliet; historical, like Richard III. – in the early years of his career of authorship, when he was also writing such comedies as Love’s Labour’s Lost and the Midsummer-Night’s Dream. Then came a time, lasting some half-dozen years, during which he composed the most mature and humorous of his English History plays (the plays with Falstaff in them), and the best of his romantic comedies (the plays with Beatrice and Jaques and Viola in them). There are no tragedies belonging to these half-dozen years, nor any dramas approaching tragedy. But now, from about 1601 to about 1608, comes tragedy after tragedy – Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus; and their companions are plays which cannot indeed be called tragedies, but certainly are not comedies in the same sense as As You Like It or the Tempest. These seven years, accordingly, might, without much risk of misunderstanding, be called Shakespeare’s tragic period. And after it he wrote no more tragedies, but chiefly romances more serious and less sunny than As You Like It, but not much less serene.
The existence of this distinct tragic period, of a time when the dramatist seems to have been occupied almost exclusively with deep and painful problems, has naturally helped to suggest the idea that the ‘man’ also, in these years of middle age, from thirty-seven to forty-four, was heavily burdened in spirit; that Shakespeare turned to tragedy not merely for change, or because he felt it to be the greatest form of drama and felt himself equal to it, but also because the world had come to look dark and terrible to him; and even that the railings of Thersites and the maledictions of Timon express his own contempt and hatred for mankind. Discussion of this large and difficult subject, however, is not necessary to the dramatic appreciation of any of his works, and I shall say nothing of it here, but shall pass on at once to draw attention to certain stages and changes which may be observed within the tragic period. For this purpose too it is needless to raise any question as to the respective chronological positions of Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. What is important is also generally admitted: that Julius Caesar and Hamlet precede these plays, and that Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus follow them.
If we consider the tragedies first on the side of their substance, we find at once an obvious difference between the first two and the remainder. Both Brutus and Hamlet are highly intellectual by nature and reflective by habit. Both may even be called, in a popular sense, philosophic; Brutus may be called so in a stricter sense. Each, being also a ‘good’ man, shows accordingly, when placed in critical circumstances, a sensitive and almost painful anxiety to do right. And though they fail – of course in quite different ways – to deal successfully with these circumstances, the failure in each case is connected rather with their intellectual nature and reflective habit than with any yielding to passion. Hence the name ‘tragedy of thought,’ which Schlegel gave to Hamlet, may be given also, as in effect it has been by Professor Dowden, to Julius Caesar. The later heroes, on the other hand, Othello, Lear, Timon, Macbeth, Antony, Coriolanus, have, one and all, passionate natures, and, speaking roughly, we may attribute the tragic failure in each of these cases to passion. Partly for this reason, the later plays are wilder and stormier than the first two. We see a greater mass of human nature in commotion, and we see Shakespeare’s own powers exhibited on a larger scale. Finally, examination would show that, in all these respects, the first tragedy, Julius Caesar, is further removed from the later type than is the second, Hamlet.
These two earlier works are both distinguished from most of the succeeding tragedies in another though a kindred respect. Moral evil is not so intently scrutinised or so fully displayed in them. In Julius Caesar, we may almost say, everybody means well. In Hamlet, though we have a villain, he is a small one. The murder which gives rise to the action lies outside the play, and the centre of attention within the play lies in the hero’s efforts to do his duty. It seems clear that Shakespeare’s interest, since the early days when under Marlowe’s influence he wrote Richard III., has not been directed to the more extreme or terrible forms of evil. But in the tragedies that follow Hamlet the presence of this interest is equally clear. In Iago, in the ‘bad’ people of King Lear, even in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, human nature assumes shapes which inspire not mere sadness or repulsion but horror and dismay. If in Timon no monstrous cruelty is done, we still watch ingratitude and selfishness so blank that they provoke a loathing we never felt for Claudius; and in this play and King Lear we can fancy that we hear at times the saeva indignatio, if not the despair, of Swift. This prevalence of abnormal or appalling forms of evil, side by side with vehement passion, is another reason why the convulsion depicted in these tragedies seems to come from a deeper source, and to be vaster in extent, than the conflict in the two earlier plays. And here again Julius Caesar is further removed than Hamlet from Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.
But in regard to this second point of difference a reservation must be made, on which I will speak a little more fully, because, unlike the matter hitherto touched on, its necessity seems hardly to have been recognised. All of the later tragedies may be called tragedies of passion, but not all of them display these extreme forms of evil. Neither of the last two does so. Antony and Coriolanus are, from one point of view, victims of passion; but the passion that ruins Antony also exalts him, he touches the infinite in it; and the pride and self-will of Coriolanus, though terrible in bulk, are scarcely so in quality; there is nothing base in them, and the huge creature whom they destroy is a noble, even a lovable, being. Nor does either of these dramas, though the earlier depicts a corrupt civilisation, include even among the minor characters anyone who can be called villainous or horrible. Consider, finally, the impression left on us at the close of each. It is remarkable that this impression, though very strong, can scarcely be called purely tragic; or, if we call it so, at least the feeling of reconciliation which mingles with the obviously tragic emotions is here exceptionally well-marked. The death of Antony, it will be remembered, comes before the opening of the Fifth Act. The death of Cleopatra, which closes the play, is greeted by the reader with sympathy and admiration, even with exultation at the thought that she has foiled Octavius; and these feelings are heightened by the deaths of Charmian and Iras, heroically faithful to their mistress, as Emilia was to hers. In Coriolanus the feeling of reconciliation is even stronger. The whole interest towards the close has been concentrated on the question whether the hero will persist in his revengeful design of storming and burning his native city, or whether better feelings will at last overpower his resentment and pride. He stands on the edge of a crime beside which, at least in outward dreadfulness, the slaughter of an individual looks insignificant. And when, at the sound of his mother’s voice and the sight of his wife and child, nature asserts itself and he gives way, although we know he will lose his life, we care little for that: he has saved his soul. Our relief, and our exultation in the power of goodness, are so great that the actual catastrophe which follows and mingles sadness with these feelings leaves them but little diminished, and as we close the book we feel, it seems to me, more as we do at the close of Cymbeline than as we do at the close of Othello. In saying this I do not in the least mean to criticise Coriolanus. It is a much nobler play as it stands than it would have been if Shakespeare had made the hero persist, and we had seen him amid the flaming ruins of Rome, awaking suddenly to the enormity of his deed and taking vengeance on himself; but that would surely have been an ending more strictly tragic than the close of Shakespeare’s play. Whether this close was simply due to his unwillingness to contradict his historical authority on a point of such magnitude we need not ask. In any case Coriolanus is, in more than an outward sense, the end of his tragic period. It marks the transition to his latest works, in which the powers of repentance and forgiveness charm to rest the tempest raised by error and guilt.
If we turn now from the substance of the tragedies to their style and versification, we find on the whole a corresponding difference between the earlier and the later. The usual assignment of Julius Caesar, and even of Hamlet, to the end of Shakespeare’s Second Period – the period of Henry V. – is based mainly, we saw, on considerations of form. The general style of the serious parts of the last plays from English history is one of full, noble and comparatively equable eloquence. The ‘honey-tongued’ sweetness and beauty of Shakespeare’s early writing, as seen in Romeo and Juliet or the Midsummer-Night’s Dream, remain; the ease and lucidity remain; but there is an accession of force and weight. We find no great change from this style when we come to Julius Caesar, which may be taken to mark its culmination. At this point in Shakespeare’s literary development he reaches, if the phrase may be pardoned, a limited perfection. Neither thought on the one side, nor expression on the other, seems to have any tendency to outrun or contend with its fellow. We receive an impression of easy mastery and complete harmony, but not so strong an impression of inner power bursting into outer life. Shakespeare’s style is perhaps nowhere else so free from defects, and yet almost every one of his subsequent plays contains writing which is greater. To speak familiarly, we feel in Julius Caesar that, although not even Shakespeare could better the style he has chosen, he has not let himself go.
In reading Hamlet we have no such feeling, and in many parts (for there is in the writing of Hamlet an unusual variety) we are conscious of a decided change. The style in these parts is more rapid and vehement, less equable and less simple; and there is a change of the same kind in the versification. But on the whole the type is the same as in Julius Caesar, and the resemblance of the two plays is decidedly more marked than the difference. If Hamlet’s soliloquies, considered simply as compositions, show a great change from Jaques’s speech, ‘All the world’s a stage,’ and even from the soliloquies of Brutus, yet Hamlet (for instance in the hero’s interview with his mother) is like Julius Caesar, and unlike the later tragedies, in the fulness of its eloquence, and passages like the following belong quite definitely to the style of the Second Period:
Mar. It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
Hor. So have I heard and do in part believe it.
But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.
This bewitching music is heard again in Hamlet’s farewell to Horatio:
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.
But after Hamlet this music is heard no more. It is followed by a music vaster and deeper, but not the same.
The changes observable in Hamlet are afterwards, and gradually, so greatly developed that Shakespeare’s style and versification at last become almost new things. It is extremely difficult to illustrate this briefly in a manner to which no just exception can be taken, for it is almost impossible to find in two plays passages bearing a sufficiently close resemblance to one another in occasion and sentiment. But I will venture to put by the first of those quotations from Hamlet this from Macbeth:
Dun. This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.
Ban. This guest of summer,
The temple-haunting martlet, does approve,
By his loved mansionry, that the heaven’s breath
Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze,
Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird
Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle;
Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed,
The air is delicate;
and by the second quotation from Hamlet this from Antony and Cleopatra:
The miserable change now at my end
Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts
In feeding them with those my former fortunes
Wherein I lived, the greatest prince o’ the world,
The noblest; and do now not basely die,
Not cowardly put off my helmet to
My countryman, – a Roman by a Roman
Valiantly vanquish’d. Now my spirit is going;
I can no more.
It would be almost an impertinence to point out in detail how greatly these two passages, and especially the second, differ in effect from those in Hamlet, written perhaps five or six years earlier. The versification, by the time we reach Antony and Cleopatra, has assumed a new type; and although this change would appear comparatively slight in a typical passage from Othello or even from King Lear, its approach through these plays to Timon and Macbeth can easily be traced. It is accompanied by a similar change in diction and construction. After Hamlet the style, in the more emotional passages, is heightened. It becomes grander, sometimes wilder, sometimes more swelling, even tumid. It is also more concentrated, rapid, varied, and, in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or elliptical. It is, therefore, not so easy and lucid, and in the more ordinary dialogue it is sometimes involved and obscure, and from these and other causes deficient in charm. On the other hand, it is always full of life and movement, and in great passages produces sudden, strange, electrifying effects which are rarely found in earlier plays, and not so often even in Hamlet. The more pervading effect of beauty gives place to what may almost be called explosions of sublimity or pathos.
There is room for differences of taste and preference as regards the style and versification of the end of Shakespeare’s Second Period, and those of the later tragedies and last romances. But readers who miss in the latter the peculiar enchantment of the earlier will not deny that the changes in form are in entire harmony with the inward changes. If they object to passages where, to exaggerate a little, the sense has rather to be discerned beyond the words than found in them, and if they do not wholly enjoy the movement of so typical a speech as this,
Yes, like enough, high-battled Caesar will
Unstate his happiness, and be staged to the show,
Against a sworder! I see men’s judgements are
A parcel of their fortunes; and things outward
Do draw the inward quality after them,
To suffer all alike. That he should dream,
Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will
Answer his emptiness! Caesar, thou hast subdued
His judgement too,
they will admit that, in traversing the impatient throng of thoughts not always completely embodied, their minds move through an astonishing variety of ideas and experiences, and that a style less generally poetic than that of Hamlet is also a style more invariably dramatic. It may be that, for the purposes of tragedy, the highest point was reached during the progress of these changes, in the most critical passages of Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.
Suppose you were to describe the plot of Hamlet to a person quite ignorant of the play, and suppose you were careful to tell your hearer nothing about Hamlet’s character, what impression would your sketch make on him? Would he not exclaim: ‘What a sensational story! Why, here are some eight violent deaths, not to speak of adultery, a ghost, a mad woman, and a fight in a grave! If I did not know that the play was Shakespeare’s, I should have thought it must have been one of those early tragedies of blood and horror from which he is said to have redeemed the stage’? And would he not then go on to ask: ‘But why in the world did not Hamlet obey the Ghost at once, and so save seven of those eight lives?’
This exclamation and this question both show the same thing, that the whole story turns upon the peculiar character of the hero. For without this character the story would appear sensational and horrible; and yet the actual Hamlet is very far from being so, and even has a less terrible effect than Othello, King Lear or Macbeth. And again, if we had no knowledge of this character, the story would hardly be intelligible; it would at any rate at once suggest that wondering question about the conduct of the hero; while the story of any of the other three tragedies would sound plain enough and would raise no such question. It is further very probable that the main change made by Shakespeare in the story as already represented on the stage, lay in a new conception of Hamlet’s character and so of the cause of his delay. And, lastly, when we examine the tragedy, we observe two things which illustrate the same point. First, we find by the side of the hero no other figure of tragic proportions, no one like Lady Macbeth or Iago, no one even like Cordelia or Desdemona; so that, in Hamlet’s absence, the remaining characters could not yield a Shakespearean tragedy at all. And, secondly, we find among them two, Laertes and Fortinbras, who are evidently designed to throw the character of the hero into relief. Even in the situations there is a curious parallelism; for Fortinbras, like Hamlet, is the son of a king, lately dead, and succeeded by his brother; and Laertes, like Hamlet, has a father slain, and feels bound to avenge him. And with this parallelism in situation there is a strong contrast in character; for both Fortinbras and Laertes possess in abundance the very quality which the hero seems to lack, so that, as we read, we are tempted to exclaim that either of them would have accomplished Hamlet’s task in a day. Naturally, then, the tragedy of Hamlet with Hamlet left out has become the symbol of extreme absurdity; while the character itself has probably exerted a greater fascination, and certainly has been the subject of more discussion, than any other in the whole literature of the world.
Before, however, we approach the task of examining it, it is as well to remind ourselves that the virtue of the play by no means wholly depends on this most subtle creation. We are all aware of this, and if we were not so the history of Hamlet, as a stage-play, might bring the fact home to us. It is to-day the most popular of Shakespeare’s tragedies on our stage; and yet a large number, perhaps even the majority of the spectators, though they may feel some mysterious attraction in the hero, certainly do not question themselves about his character or the cause of his delay, and would still find the play exceptionally effective, even if he were an ordinary brave young man and the obstacles in his path were purely external. And this has probably always been the case. Hamlet seems from the first to have been a favourite play; but until late in the eighteenth century, I believe, scarcely a critic showed that he perceived anything specially interesting in the character. Hanmer, in 1730, to be sure, remarks that ‘there appears no reason at all in nature why this young prince did not put the usurper to death as soon as possible’; but it does not even cross his mind that this apparent ‘absurdity’ is odd and might possibly be due to some design on the part of the poet. He simply explains the absurdity by observing that, if Shakespeare had made the young man go ‘naturally to work,’ the play would have come to an end at once! Johnson, in like manner, notices that ‘Hamlet is, through the whole piece, rather an instrument than an agent,’ but it does not occur to him that this peculiar circumstance can be anything but a defect in Shakespeare’s management of the plot. Seeing, they saw not. Henry Mackenzie, the author of The Man of Feeling, was, it would seem, the first of our critics to feel the ‘indescribable charm’ of Hamlet, and to divine something of Shakespeare’s intention. ‘We see a man,’ he writes, ‘who in other circumstances would have exercised all the moral and social virtues, placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress and to perplex his conduct.’How significant is the fact (if it be the fact) that it was only when the slowly rising sun of Romance began to flush the sky that the wonder, beauty and pathos of this most marvellous of Shakespeare’s creations began to be visible! We do not know that they were perceived even in his own day, and perhaps those are not wholly wrong who declare that this creation, so far from being a characteristic product of the time, was a vision of
the prophetic soul
Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.
But the dramatic splendour of the whole tragedy is another matter, and must have been manifest not only in Shakespeare’s day but even in Hanmer’s.
But, before we come to our types of theory, it is necessary to touch on an idea, not unfrequently met with, which would make it vain labour to discuss or propose any theory at all. It is sometimes said that Hamlet’s character is not only intricate but unintelligible. Now this statement might mean something quite unobjectionable and even perhaps true and important. It might mean that the character cannot be wholly understood. As we saw, there may be questions which we cannot answer with certainty now, because we have nothing but the text to guide us, but which never arose for the spectators who saw Hamlet acted in Shakespeare’s day; and we shall have to refer to such questions in these lectures. Again, it may be held without any improbability that, from carelessness or because he was engaged on this play for several years, Shakespeare left inconsistencies in his exhibition of the character which must prevent us from being certain of his ultimate meaning. Or, possibly, we may be baffled because he has illustrated in it certain strange facts of human nature, which he had noticed but of which we are ignorant. But then all this would apply in some measure to other characters in Shakespeare, and it is not this that is meant by the statement that Hamlet is unintelligible. What is meant is that Shakespeare intended him to be so, because he himself was feeling strongly, and wished his audience to feel strongly, what a mystery life is, and how impossible it is for us to understand it. Now here, surely, we have mere confusion of mind. The mysteriousness of life is one thing, the psychological unintelligibility of a dramatic character is quite another; and the second does not show the first, it shows only the incapacity or folly of the dramatist. If it did show the first, it would be very easy to surpass Shakespeare in producing a sense of mystery: we should simply have to portray an absolutely nonsensical character. Of course Hamlet appeals powerfully to our sense of the mystery of life, but so does every good tragedy; and it does so not because the hero is an enigma to us, but because, having a fair understanding of him, we feel how strange it is that strength and weakness should be so mingled in one soul, and that this soul should be doomed to such misery and apparent failure.
I have dwelt thus at length on Hamlet’s melancholy because, from the psychological point of view, it is the centre of the tragedy, and to omit it from consideration or to underrate its intensity is to make Shakespeare’s story unintelligible. But the psychological point of view is not equivalent to the tragic; and, having once given its due weight to the fact of Hamlet’s melancholy, we may freely admit, or rather may be anxious to insist, that this pathological condition would excite but little, if any, tragic interest if it were not the condition of a nature distinguished by that speculative genius on which the Schlegel-Coleridge type of theory lays stress. Such theories misinterpret the connection between that genius and Hamlet’s failure, but still it is this connection which gives to his story its peculiar fascination and makes it appear (if the phrase may be allowed) as the symbol of a tragic mystery inherent in human nature. Wherever this mystery touches us, wherever we are forced to feel the wonder and awe of man’s godlike ‘apprehension’ and his ‘thoughts that wander through eternity,’ and at the same time are forced to see him powerless in his petty sphere of action, and powerless (it would appear) from the very divinity of his thought, we remember Hamlet. And this is the reason why, in the great ideal movement which began towards the close of the eighteenth century, this tragedy acquired a position unique among Shakespeare’s dramas, and shared only by Goethe’s Faust. It was not that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy or most perfect work of art; it was that Hamlet most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity, and the sense of the doom which not only circumscribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring.
My next post will be a short interesting one Hamlet in Hebrew on Friday night, followed by my Sunday evening/Monday morning post — MY introduction to our reading of Hamlet.