“I do not understand this; and Shakspeare seems to have intended the meaning not to be more than snatched at : ‘By my fay, I cannot reason!'”


Act Two, Part Six

By Dennis Abrams

For your reading enjoyment this weekend (along with Act Three of Hamlet for those of you who haven’t started it yet — my next post will be Sunday night/Monday morning beginning our look at Act 3), I’m posting excerpts from two of my favorite “old school” critics.  The first is from A.C. Bradley, whose Shakespearean Tragedy had a profound impact on the way I looked on Hamlet (along with Othello, Macbeth and Lear).


“The only way, if there is any way, in which a conception of Hamlet’s character could be proved true, would be to show that it, and it alone, explains all the relevant facts presented by the text of the drama. To attempt such a demonstration here would obviously be impossible, even if I felt certain of the interpretation of all the facts. But I propose now to follow rapidly the course of the action in so far as it specially illustrates the character, reserving for separate consideration one important but particularly doubtful point.

We left Hamlet, at the close of the First Act, when he had just received his charge from the spirit of his father; and his condition was vividly depicted in the fact that, within an hour of receiving this charge, he had relapsed into that weariness of life or longing for death which is the immediate cause of his later inaction. When next we meet him, at the opening of the Second Act, a considerable time has elapsed, apparently as much as two months.[54] The ambassadors sent to the King of Norway (I. ii. 27) are just returning. Laertes, whom we saw leaving Elsinore (I. iii.), has been in Paris long enough to be in want of fresh supplies. Ophelia has obeyed her father’s command (given in I. iii.), and has refused to receive Hamlet’s visits or letters. What has Hamlet done? He has put on an ‘antic disposition’ and established a reputation for lunacy, with the result that his mother has become deeply anxious about him, and with the further result that the King, who was formerly so entirely at ease regarding him that he wished him to stay on at Court, is now extremely uneasy and very desirous to discover the cause of his ‘transformation.’ Hence Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent for, to cheer him by their company and to worm his secret out of him; and they are just about to arrive. Beyond exciting thus the apprehensions of his enemy Hamlet has done absolutely nothing; and, as we have seen, we must imagine him during this long period sunk for the most part in ‘bestial oblivion’ or fruitless broodings, and falling deeper and deeper into the slough of despond.

Now he takes a further step. He suddenly appears unannounced in Ophelia’s chamber; and his appearance and behaviour are such as to suggest both to Ophelia and to her father that his brain is turned by disappointment in love. How far this step was due to the design of creating a false impression as to the origin of his lunacy, how far to other causes, is a difficult question; but such a design seems certainly present. It succeeds, however, only in part; for, although Polonius is fully convinced, the King is not so, and it is therefore arranged that the two shall secretly witness a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet. Meanwhile Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, and at the King’s request begin their attempts, easily foiled by Hamlet, to pluck out the heart of his mystery. Then the players come to Court, and for a little while one of Hamlet’s old interests revives, and he is almost happy. But only for a little while. The emotion shown by the player in reciting the speech which tells of Hecuba’s grief for her slaughtered husband awakes into burning life the slumbering sense of duty and shame. He must act. With the extreme rapidity which always distinguishes him in his healthier moments, he conceives and arranges the plan of having the ‘Murder of Gonzago’ played before the King and Queen, with the addition of a speech written by himself for the occasion. Then, longing to be alone, he abruptly dismisses his guests, and pours out a passion of self-reproach for his delay, asks himself in bewilderment what can be its cause, lashes himself into a fury of hatred against his foe, checks himself in disgust at his futile emotion, and quiets his conscience for the moment by trying to convince himself that he has doubts about the Ghost, and by assuring himself that, if the King’s behaviour at the play-scene shows but a sign of guilt, he ‘knows his course.’

Nothing, surely, can be clearer than the meaning of this famous soliloquy. The doubt which appears at its close, instead of being the natural conclusion of the preceding thoughts, is totally inconsistent with them. For Hamlet’s self-reproaches, his curses on his enemy, and his perplexity about his own inaction, one and all imply his faith in the identity and truthfulness of the Ghost. Evidently this sudden doubt, of which there has not been the slightest trace before, is no genuine doubt; it is an unconscious fiction, an excuse for his delay – and for its continuance.



How many things still remain to say of Hamlet! Before I touch on his relation to Ophelia, I will choose but two. Neither of them, compared with the matters so far considered, is of great consequence, but both are interesting, and the first seems to have quite escaped observation.

(1) Most people have, beside their more essential traits of character, little peculiarities which, for their intimates, form an indissoluble part of their personality. In comedy, and in other humorous works of fiction, such peculiarities often figure prominently, but they rarely do so, I think, in tragedy. Shakespeare, however, seems to have given one such idiosyncrasy to Hamlet.

It is a trick of speech, a habit of repetition. And these are simple examples of it from the first soliloquy:

O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie!

Now I ask your patience. You will say: ‘There is nothing individual here. Everybody repeats words thus. And the tendency, in particular, to use such repetitions in moments of great emotion is well-known, and frequently illustrated in literature – for example, in David’s cry of lament for Absalom.’

This is perfectly true, and plenty of examples could be drawn from Shakespeare himself. But what we find in Hamlet’s case is, I believe, not common. In the first place, this repetition is a habit with him. Here are some more instances: ‘Thrift, thrift, Horatio’; ‘Indeed, indeed, sirs, but this troubles me’; ‘Come, deal justly with me: come, come’; ‘Wormwood, wormwood!’ I do not profess to have made an exhaustive search, but I am much mistaken if this habit is to be found in any other serious character of Shakespeare.[68]

And, in the second place – and here I appeal with confidence to lovers of Hamlet – some of these repetitions strike us as intensely characteristic. Some even of those already quoted strike one thus, and still more do the following:

(a) Horatio. It would have much amazed you.
Hamlet. Very like, very like. Stay’d it long?

(b) Polonius. What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet. Words, words, words.

(c) Polonius. My honourable lord, I will most humbly take
my leave of you.
Hamlet. You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I
will more willingly part withal: except my
life, except my life, except my life.

(d) Ophelia. Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?
Hamlet. I humbly thank you, well, well, well.

Is there anything that Hamlet says or does in the whole play more unmistakably individual than these replies?[69]

(2) Hamlet, everyone has noticed, is fond of quibbles and word-play, and of ‘conceits’ and turns of thought such as are common in the poets whom Johnson called Metaphysical. Sometimes, no doubt, he plays with words and ideas chiefly in order to mystify, thwart and annoy. To some extent, again, as we may see from the conversation where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first present themselves (II. ii. 227), he is merely following the fashion of the young courtiers about him, just as in his love-letter to Ophelia[70] he uses for the most part the fantastic language of Court Euphuism. Nevertheless in this trait there is something very characteristic. We should be greatly surprised to find it marked in Othello or Lear or Timon, in Macbeth or Antony or Coriolanus; and, in fact, we find it in them hardly at all. One reason of this may perhaps be that these characters are all later creations than Hamlet, and that Shakespeare’s own fondness for this kind of play, like the fondness of the theatrical audience for it, diminished with time. But the main reason is surely that this tendency, as we see it in Hamlet, betokens a nimbleness and flexibility of mind which is characteristic of him and not of the later less many-sided heroes. Macbeth, for instance, has an imagination quite as sensitive as Hamlet’s to certain impressions, but he has none of Hamlet’s delight in freaks and twists of thought, or of his tendency to perceive and play with resemblances in the most diverse objects and ideas. Though Romeo shows this tendency, the only tragic hero who approaches Hamlet here is Richard II., who indeed in several ways recalls the emasculated Hamlet of some critics, and may, like the real Hamlet, have owed his existence in part to Shakespeare’s personal familiarity with the weaknesses and dangers of an imaginative temperament.

That Shakespeare meant this trait to be characteristic of Hamlet is beyond question. The very first line the hero speaks contains a play on words:

A little more than kin and less than kind.

The fact is significant, though the pun itself is not specially characteristic. Much more so, and indeed absolutely individual, are the uses of word-play in moments of extreme excitement. Remember the awe and terror of the scene where the Ghost beckons Hamlet to leave his friends and follow him into the darkness, and then consider this dialogue:

Hamlet. It waves me still.
Go on; I’ll follow thee.
Marcellus. You shall not go, my lord.
Hamlet. Hold off your hands.
Horatio. Be ruled; you shall not go.
Hamlet. My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve.
Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.

Would any other character in Shakespeare have used those words? And, again, where is Hamlet more Hamlet than when he accompanies with a pun the furious action by which he compels his enemy to drink the ‘poison tempered by himself’?

Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damn’d Dane,
Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.

The ‘union’ was the pearl which Claudius professed to throw into the cup, and in place of which (as Hamlet supposes) he dropped poison in. But the ‘union’ is also that incestuous marriage which must not be broken by his remaining alive now that his partner is dead. What rage there is in the words, and what a strange lightning of the mind!

Much of Hamlet’s play with words and ideas is imaginatively humorous. That of Richard II. is fanciful, but rarely, if ever, humorous. Antony has touches of humour, and Richard III. has more; but Hamlet, we may safely assert, is the only one of the tragic heroes who can be called a humorist, his humour being first cousin to that speculative tendency which keeps Jude-Law-as-Hamlet-at-Wyn-002his mental world in perpetual movement. Some of his quips are, of course, poor enough, and many are not distinctive. Those of his retorts which strike one as perfectly individual do so, I think, chiefly because they suddenly reveal the misery and bitterness below the surface; as when, to Rosencrantz’s message from his mother, ‘She desires to speak with you in her closet, ere you go to bed,’ he answers, ‘We shall obey, were she ten times our mother’; or as when he replies to Polonius’s invitation, ‘Will you walk out of the air, my lord?’ with words that suddenly turn one cold, ‘Into my grave.’ Otherwise, what we justly call Hamlet’s characteristic humour is not his exclusive property, but appears in passages spoken by persons as different as Mercutio, Falstaff and Rosalind. The truth probably is that it was the kind of humour most natural to Shakespeare himself, and that here, as in some other traits of the poet’s greatest creation, we come into close contact with Shakespeare the man.


The actor who plays the part of Hamlet must make up his mind as to the interpretation of every word and deed of the character. Even if at some point he feels no certainty as to which of two interpretations is right, he must still choose one or the other. The mere critic is not obliged to do this. Where he remains in doubt he may say so, and, if the matter is of importance, he ought to say so.

This is the position in which I find myself in regard to Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. I am unable to arrive at a conviction as to the meaning of some of his words and deeds, and I question whether from the mere text of the play a sure interpretation of them can be drawn. For this reason I have reserved the subject for separate treatment, and have, so far as possible, kept it out of the general discussion of Hamlet’s character.

On two points no reasonable doubt can, I think, be felt. (1) Hamlet was at one time sincerely and ardently in love with Ophelia. For she herself says that he had importuned her with love in honourable fashion, and had given countenance to his speech with almost all the holy vows of heaven (I. iii. 110 f.). (2) When, at Ophelia’s grave, he declared,

I loved Ophelia; forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum,

he must have spoken sincerely; and, further, we may take it for granted that he used the past tense, ‘loved,’ merely because Ophelia was dead, and not to imply that he had once loved her but no longer did so.

So much being assumed, we come to what is doubtful, and I will begin by stating what is probably the most popular view. According to this view, Hamlet’s love for Ophelia never changed. On the revelation made by the Ghost, however, he felt that he must put aside all thoughts of it; and it also seemed to him necessary to convince Ophelia, as well as others, that he was insane, and so to destroy her hopes of any happy issue to their love. This was the purpose of his appearance in her chamber, though he was probably influenced also by a longing to see her and bid her a silent farewell, and possibly by a faint hope that he might safely entrust his secret to her.


I’ll post more from Bradley’s lecture on Hamlet (acts 3-5, his take on Hamlet and Ophelia, etc.) as we move through the play.


And I’ll end today’s post with an excerpt from the great British Romantic poet and essayist, Samuel “Kubla Khan” Taylor Coleridge.  As Logan Pearsall Smith said of him, “He is often an almost intolerable bore as a companion, but the ‘flashes of his dark lantern’ are sometimes more illuminating than those of any other light.”

I think he’s well worth our time.


[“Hamlet” was the play, or rather Hamlet himself was the character, in the intuition and exposition of which I first made my turn for philosophical criticism, and especially for insight into the genius of Shakspere, noticed. This happened first amongst my acquaintances, as Sir George Beaumont will bear witness; and subsequently, long before 1 Schlegel had delivered at Vienna the lectures on Shakspere, which he afterwards published, I had given on the same subject eighteen lectures substantially the same, proceeding from the very same point of view, and deducing the same conclusions, so far as I either then agreed, or now agree, with him. I gave these lectures at the Royal Institution before six or seven hundred auditors of rank and eminence, in the spring of the same year, in which Sir Humphry Davy, a fellow-lecturer, made his great revolutionary discoveries in chemistry. Even in detail the coincidence of Schlegel with my lectures was so extraordinary, that all who at a later period2 heard the same words, taken by me from my notes of the lectures at the Royal Institution, concluded a borrowing on my part form Schlegel. Mr. Hazlitt, whose hatred of me is in such an inverse ratio to my zealous kindness towards him, as to be defended by his warmest admirer, Charles Lamb – (who, God bless 438px-Coleridge2him! besides his characteristic obstinacy of adherence to old friends, as long at least as they are at all down in the world, is linked as by a charm to Hazlitt’s conversation) – only as “frantic;” – Mr. Hazlitt, I say, himself replied to an assertion of my plagiarism from Schlegel in these words; – “That is a lie; for I myself heard the very same character of Hamlet from Coleridge before he went to Germany, and when he had neither read nor could read a page of German!” Now Hazlitt was on a visit to me at my cottage at Nether Stowey, Somerset, in the summer of the year 1798, in the September of which year I first was out of sight of the shores of Great Britain. Recorded by me, S.T. Coleridge, 7th January, 1819.]

The seeming inconsistencies in the conduct and character of Hamlet have long exercised the conjectural ingenuity of critics; and, as we are always loth to suppose that the cause of defective apprehension is in ourselves, the mystery has been too commonly explained by the very easy process of setting it down as in fact inexplicable, and by resolving the phenomenon into a misgrowth or lusus of the capricious and irregular genius of Shakspere. The shallow and stupid arrogance of these vulgar and indolent decisions I would fain do my best to expose. I believe the character of Hamlet may be traced to Shakspere’s deep and accurate science in mental philosophy. Indeed, that this character must have some connection with the common fundamental laws of our nature may be assumed from the fact, that Hamlet has been the darling of every country in which the literature of England has been fostered. In order to understand him, it is essential that we should reflect on the constitution of our own minds. Man is distinguished from the brute animals in proportion as thought prevails over sense : but in the healthy processes of the mind, a balance is constantly maintained between the impressions from outward [344] 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 Shakspere’s modes of creating characters is, to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakspere, 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 a 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 Shakspere 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. Thus it is that this tragedy presents a direct contrast to that of “Macbeth;” the one proceeds with the utmost slowness, the other with a crowded and breathless rapidity.

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 hamlethealthy 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 state of trance, and he looks upon external things as hieroglyphics. His soliloquy –

“O! that this too too solid flesh would melt,” &c.

springs from that craving after the indefinite – for that which is not – which most easily besets men of genius; and the self-delusion common to this temper of mind is finely exemplified in the character which Hamlet gives of himself :-

“It cannot be
But I am chicken liver’d, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter.”

He mistakes the seeing his chains for the breaking them, delays action till action is of no use, and dies the victim of mere circumstance and accident.

There is a great significancy in the names of Shakspere’s plays. In the “Twelfth Night,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “As You Like It,” and “Winter’s Tale,” the total effect is produced by a co-ordination of the characters as in a wreath of flowers. But in “Coriolanus,” “Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” &c., the effect arises from the subordination of all to one, either as the prominent person, or the principal object. “Cymbeline” is the only exception; and even that has its advantages in preparing the audience for the chaos of time, place, and [346] costume, by throwing the date back into a fabulous king’s reign.

But as of more importance, so more striking, is the judgment displayed by our truly dramatic poet, as well as the poet of the drama, in the management of his first scenes. With the single exception of “Cymbeline,” they either place before us at one glance both the past and the future in some effect, which implies the continuance and full agency of its cause, as in the feuds and party-spirit of the servants of the two houses in the first scene of “Romeo and Juliet;” or in the degrading passion for shows and public spectacles, and the overwhelming attachment for the newest successful war-chief in the Roman people, already become a populace, contrasted with the jealousy of the nobles in “Julius Cæsar;” – or they at once commence the action so as to excite a curiosity for the explanation in the following scenes, as in the storm of wind and waves, and the boatswain in the “Tempest,” instead of anticipating our curiosity, as in most other first scenes, and in too many other first acts; – or they act, by contrast of diction suited to the characters, at once to heighten the effect, and yet to give a naturalness to the language and rhythm of the principal personages, either as that of Prospero and Miranda by the appropriate lowness of the style, – or as in “King John,” by the equally appropriate stateliness of official harangues or narratives, so that the after blank verse seems to belong to the rank and quality of the speakers, and not to the poet; – or they strike at once the key-note, and give the predominant spirit of the play, as in the “Twelfth Night,” and in “Macbeth;” – or finally, the first scene comprises all these advantages at once, as in “Hamlet.”

Compare the easy language of common life, in which this drama commences, with the direful music and wild wayward rhythm and abrupt lyrics of the opening of [347] “Macbeth.” The tone is quite familiar; – there is no poetic description of night, no elaborate information conveyed by one speaker to another of what both had immediately before their senses – (such as the first distich in Addison’s “Cato,”3 which is a translation into poetry of “Past four o’clock and a dark morning!”); – and yet nothing bordering on the comic on the one hand, nor any striving of the intellect on the other. It is precisely the language of sensation among men who feared no charge of effeminacy, for feeling what they had no want of resolution to bear. Yet the armour, the dead silence, the watchfulness that first interrupts it, the welcome relief of the guard, the cold, the broken expressions of compelled attention to bodily feelings still under control – all excellently accord with, and prepare for, the after gradual rise into tragedy; – but, above all, into a tragedy, the interest of which is as eminently ad et apud intra, as that of “Macbeth” is directly ad extra.

In all the best attested stories of ghosts and visions, as in that of Brutus, of Archbishop Cranmer, that of Benvenuto Cellini recorded by himself, and the vision of Galileo communicated by him to his favourite pupil Torricelli, the ghost-seers were in a state of cold or chilling damp from without, and of anxiety inwardly. It has been with all of them as with Francisco on his guard, – alone, in the depth and silence of the night; – “’twas bitter cold, and they were sick at heart, and not a mouse stirring.” The attention to minute sounds, – naturally associated with the recollection of minute objects, and the more familiar and trifling, the more impressive from the unusualness of their producing any impression at all – gives a philosophic pertinency [348] to this last image; but it has likewise its dramatic use and purpose. For its commonness in ordinary conversation tends to produce the sense of reality, and at once hides the poet, and yet approximates the reader or spectator to that state in which the highest poetry will appear, and in its component parts, though not in the whole composition, really is, the language of nature. If I should not speak it, I feel that I should be thinking it; – the voice only is the poet’s, – the words are my own. That Shakspere meant to put an effect in the actor’s power in the very first words – “Who’s there?” – is evident from the impatience expressed by the startled Francisco in the words that follow – “Nay, answer me : stand and unfold yourself.” A brave man is never so peremptory, as when he fears that he is afraid. Observe the gradual transition from the silence and the still recent habit of listening in Francisco’s – “I think I hear them” – to the more cheerful call out, which a good actor would observe, in the – “Stand ho! Who is there?” Bernardo’s inquiry after Horatio, and the repetition of his name and in his own presence, indicate a respect or an eagerness that implies him as one of the persons who are in the foreground; and the scepticism attributed to him, –

“Horatio says, ’tis but our fantasy;
And will not let belief take hold of him -”

prepares us for Hamlet’s after eulogy on him as one whose blood and judgment were happily commingled. The actor should also be careful to distinguish the expectation and gladness of Bernardo’s “Welcome, Horatio!” form the mere courtesy of his “Welcome, good Marcellus!”

Now observe the admirable indefiniteness of the first opening out of the occasion of all this anxiety. The preparation informative of the audience is just as much as was precisely necessary, and no more; – it begins with the uncertainty appertaining to a question : –

Mar. What, has this thing appear’d again to-night? -”

Even the word “again” has its credibilizing effect. Then Horatio, the representative of the ignorance of the audience, not himself, but by Marcellus to Bernardo, anticipates the common solution – “’tis but our fantasy!” upon which Marcellus rises into

“This dreaded sight, twice seen of us -”

which immediately afterwards becomes “this apparition,” and that, too, an intelligent spirit, that is, to be spoken to! Then comes the confirmation of Horatio’s disbelief; –

“Tush! tush! ’twill not appear! -”

and the silence, with which the scene opened, is again restored in the shivering feeling of Horatio sitting down, at such a time, and with the two eye-witnesses, to hear a story of a ghost, and that, too, of a ghost which had appeared twice before at the very same hour. In the deep feeling which Bernardo has of the solemn nature of what he is about to relate, he makes an effort to master his own imaginative terrors by an elevation of style, – itself a continuation of the effort, – and by turning off from the apparition, as from something which would force him too deeply into himself, to the outward objects, the realities of nature, which had accompanied it : –

Ber.  Last night of all,
When yon same star, that’s westward from the pole,
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one -”

This passage seems to contradict the critical law that what is told, makes a faint impression compared with what is beholden; for it does indeed convey to the mind more than the eye can see; whilst the interruption of the narrative at the very moment, when we are most intensely listening for the sequel, and have our thoughts diverted from the dreaded sight in expectation of the desired, yet almost dreaded, tale – this gives all the suddenness and surprise of the original appearance; –

Mar. Peace, break thee off; look where it comes again! -”

Note the judgment displayed in having the two persons present, who, as having seen the Ghost before, are naturally eager in confirming their former opinions, – whilst the sceptic is silent, and after having been twice addressed by his friends, answers with two hasty syllables – “Most like,” – and a confession of horror :

“- It harrows me with fear and wonder.”

O heaven! words are wasted on those who feel, and to those who do not feel the exquisite judgment of Shakspere in this scene, what can be said? – Hume himself could not but have had faith in this Ghost dramatically, let his anti-ghostism have been as strong as Samson against other ghosts less powerfully raised.

Act i. sc. 1.

Mar. Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch,” &c.

How delightfully natural is the transition to the retrospective narrative! And observe, upon the Ghost’s reappearance, how much Horatio’s courage is increased by having translated the late individual spectator into general thought and past experience, – and the sympathy of Marcellus and Bernardo with his patriotic surmises in daring to strike at the Ghost; whilst in a moment, upon its vanishing, the former solemn awe-stricken feeling returns upon them :-

“We do it wrong, being so majestical,
To offer it the show of violence. -”

Ib. Horatio’s speech :-

[351] “I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day,” &c.

No Addison could be more careful to be poetical in diction than Shakspere in providing the grounds and sources of its propriety. But how to elevate a thing almost mean by its familiarity, young poets may learn in this treatment of the cock-crow.

Ib. Horatio’s speech : –

“And, by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
The4 spirit , dumb to us, will speak to him.”

Note the inobtrusive and yet fully adequate mode of introducing the main character, “young Hamlet,” upon whom is transferred all the interest excited for the acts and concerns of the king his father.

Ib. sc. 2. The audience are now relieved by a change of scene to the royal court, in order that “Hamlet” may not have to take up the leavings of exhaustion. In the king’s speech, observe the set and pedantically antithetic form of the sentences when touching that which galled the heels of conscience, – the strain of undignified rhetoric, – and yet in what follows concerning the public weal, a certain appropriate majesty. Indeed was he not a royal brother? –

Ib. King’s speech :-

“And now, Laertes, what’s the news with you?” &c.

Thus with great art Shakspere introduces a most important, but still subordinate character first, Laertes, who is yet thus graciously treated in consequence of the assistance [352] given to the election of the late king’s brother instead of his son by Polonius.


Ham. A little more than kin, and less than kind.
King. How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Ham. Not so, my lord, I am too much i’ the sun.”

Hamlet opens his mouth with a playing on words, the complete absence of which throughout characterizes “Macbeth.” This playing on words may be attributed to many causes or motives, as either an exuberant activity of mind, as in the higher comedy of Shakspere generally; – or to an imitation of it as a mere fashion, as if it were said – “Is not this better than groaning?” – or to a contemptuous exultation in minds vulgarized and overset by their success, as in the poetic instance of Milton’s Devils in the battle; – or it is the language of resentment, as is familiar to every one who has witnessed the quarrels of the lower orders, where there is invariably a profusion of punning invective, whence, perhaps, nicknames have in a considerable degree sprung up; – or it is the language of suppressed passion, and especially of a hardly smothered personal dislike. The first, and last of these combine in Hamlet’s case; and I have little doubt that Farmer is right in supposing the equivocation carried on in the expression “too much i’ the sun,” or son.


Ham. Ay, madam, it is common.”

Here observe Hamlet’s delicacy to his mother, and how the suppression prepares him for the overflow in the next speech, in which his character is more developed by bringing forward his aversion to externals, and which betrays his habit of brooding over the world within him, coupled with a prodigality of beautiful words, which are the half embodyings of thought, and are more than thought, and [353] have an outness, a reality sui generis, and yet retain their correspondence and shadowy affinity to the images and movements within. Note also Hamlet’s silence to the long speech of the king which follows, and his respectful, but general, answer to his mother.

Ib. Hamlet’s first soliloquy :-

“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!” &c.

This tædium vitæ is a common oppression on minds cast in the Hamlet mould, and is caused by disproportionate mental exertion, which necessitates exhaustion of bodily feeling. Where there is a just coincidence of external and internal action, pleasure is always the result; but where the former is deficient, and the mind’s appetency of the ideal is unchecked, realities will seem cold and unmoving. In such cases, passion combines itself with the indefinite alone. In this mood of his mind the relation of the appearance of his 220px-John_Barrymore_Hamlet_1922father’s spirit in arms is made all at once to Hamlet : – it is – Horatio’s speech, in particular – a perfect model of the true style of dramatic narrative; – the purest poetry, and yet in the most natural language, equally remote from the ink-horn and the plough.

Ib. sc. 3. This scene must be regarded as one of Shakspere’s lyric movements in the play, and the skill with which it is interwoven with the dramatic parts is peculiarly an excellence of our poet. You experience the sensation of a pause without the sense of a stop. You will observe in Ophelia’s short and general answer to the long speech of Laertes the natural carelessness of innocence, which cannot think such a code of cautions and prudences necessary to its own preservation.

Ib. Speech of Polonius :- (in Stockdale’s edition.)

[354] “Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,)
Wronging it thus, you’ll tender me a fool.”

I suspect this “wronging” is here used much in the same sense as “wringing” or “wrenching;” and that the parenthesis should be extended to “thus”. 5

Ib. Speech of Polonius:-

“- How prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows :- these blazes, daughter,” &c.

A spondee has, I doubt not, dropped out of the text. Either insert “Go to” after “vows;” –

“Lends the tongue vows:- Go to, these blazes, daughter -”

or read

“Lends the tongue vows:- These blazes, daughter, mark you -”

Shakspere never introduces a catalectic line without intending an equivalent to the foot omitted in the pauses, or the dwelling emphasis, or the diffused retardation. I do not, however, deny that a good actor might, by employing the last mentioned means, namely, the retardation, or solemn knowing drawl, supply the missing spondee with good effect. But I do not believe that in this or any other of the foregoing speeches of Polonius, Shakspere meant to bring out the senility or weakness of that personage’s mind. In the great ever-recurring dangers and duties of life, where to distinguish the fit objects for the application of the maxims collected by the experience of a long life, requires no fineness of tact, as in the admonitions to his son and daughter, Polonius is uniformly made respectable. But if an actor were even capable of catching these shades in the character, the pit and the gallery would be malcontent at their exhibition. It is to Hamlet that Polonius is, and is meant to be, contemptible, because in inwardness and uncontrollable activity of movement, Hamlet’s  mind is the logical contrary to that of Polonius, and besides, as I have observed before, Hamlet dislikes the man, as false to his true allegiance in the matter of the succession to the crown.

Ib. sc. 4. The unimportant conversation with which this scene opens is a proof of Shakspere’s minute knowledge of human nature. It is a well established fact, that on the brink of any serious enterprise, or event of moment, men almost invariably endeavour to elude the pressure of their own thoughts by turning aside to trivial objects and familiar circumstances: thus this dialogue on the platform begins with remarks on the coldness of the air, and inquiries, obliquely connected, indeed, with the expected hour of the visitation, but thrown out in a seeming vacuity of topics, as to the striking of the clock and so forth. The same desire to escape from the impending thought is carried on in Hamlet’s account of, and moralizing on, the Danish custom of wassailing: he runs off from the particular to the universal, and, in his repugnance to personal and individual concerns, escapes, as it were, from himself in generalizations, and smothers the impatience and uneasy feelings of the moment in abstract reasoning. Besides this, another purpose is answered; – for by thus entangling the attention of the audience in the nice distinctions and parenthetical sentences of this speech of Hamlet’s, Shakspere takes them completely by surprise on the appearance of the Ghost, which comes upon them in all the suddenness of its visionary character. Indeed, no modern writer would have dared, like Shakspere, to have preceded this last visitation by two distinct appearances, – or could have contrived that the third should rise upon the former two in impressiveness and solemnity of interest.

But in addition to all the other excellencies of Hamlet’s speech concerning the wassail-music – so finely revealing the predominant idealism, the ratiocinative meditativeness, of his character – it has the advantage of giving nature and probability to the impassioned continuity of the speech instantly directed to the Ghost. The momentum had been given to his mental activity; the full current of the thoughts and words had set in, and the very forgetfulness, in the fervour of his argumentation, of the purpose for which he was there, aided in preventing the appearance from benumbing the mind. Consequently, it acted as a new impulse, – a sudden stroke which increased the velocity of the body already in motion, whilst it altered the direction. The co-presence of Horatio, Marcellus and Bernardo is most judiciously contrived; for it renders the courage of Hamlet and his impetuous eloquence perfectly intelligible. The knowledge, – the unthought of consciousness, – the sensation, – of human auditors, – of flesh and blood sympathists – acts as a support and a stimulation a tergo, while the front of the mind, the whole consciousness of the speaker, is filled, yea, absorbed, by the apparition. Add too, that the apparition itself has by its previous appearances been brought nearer to a thing of this world. This accrescence of objectivity in a Ghost that yet retains all its ghostly attributes and fearful subjectivity, is truly wonderful.

Ib. sc. 5. Hamlet’s speech:-

“O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell? -”

I remember nothing equal to this burst unless it be the first speech of Prometheus in the Greek drama, after the exit of Vulcan and the two Afrites. But Shakspere alone could have produced the vow of Hamlet to make his memory a blank of all maxims and generalized truths, that “observation had copied there,” – followed immediately by the speaker noting down the generalized fact,

“That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!”


Mar. Hillo, ho, ho, my lord!
Ham. Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come bird, come,” &c.

This part of the scene after Hamlet’s interview with the Ghost has been charged with an improbable eccentricity. But the truth is, that after the mind has been stretched beyond its usual pitch and tone, it must either sink into exhaustion and inanity, or seek relief by change. It is thus well known that persons conversant in deeds of cruelty, contrive to escape from conscience, by connecting something of the ludicrous with them, and by hamlet_olivier_1948PDVD_00601inventing grotesque terms and a certain technical phraseology to disguise the horror of their practices. Indeed, paradoxical as it may appear, the terrible by a law of the human mind always touches on the verge of the ludicrous. Both arise from the perception of something out of the common order of things – something, in fact, out of its place; and if from this we can abstract danger, the uncommonness will alone remain, and the sense of the ridiculous be excited. The close alliance of these opposites – they are not contraries – appears from the circumstance, that laughter is equally the expression of extreme anguish and horror as of joy: as there are tears of sorrow and tears of joy, so is there a laugh of terror and a laugh of merriment. These complex causes will naturally have produced in Hamlet the disposition to escape from his own feelings of the overwhelming and supernatural by a wild transition to the ludicrous, 6 – a sort of cunning bravado, bordering on the flights of delirium. For you may, perhaps, observe that Hamlet’s wildness is but half false; he plays that subtle trick of pretending to act only when he is very near really being what he acts.

The subterraneous speeches of the Ghost are hardly defensible:- but I would call your attention to the characteristic difference between this Ghost, as a superstition connected with the most mysterious truths of revealed religion, – and Shakspere’s constant reverence in his treatment of it, – and the foul earthly witcheries and wild language in “Macbeth”.

Act ii. sc. 1. Polonius and Reynaldo.

In all things dependent on, or rather made up of, fine address, the manner is no more or otherwise rememberable than the light motions, steps, and gestures of youth and health. But this is almost everything: – no wonder, therefore, if that which can be put down by rule in the memory should appear to us as mere poring, maudlin, cunning, – slyness blinking through the watery eye of superannuation. So in this admirable scene, Polonius, who is throughout the skeleton of his own former skill and statecraft, hunts the trail of policy at a dead scent, supplied by the weak fever-smell in his own nostrils.

Ib. sc. 2. Speech of Polonius: –

“My liege, and madam, to expostulate,” &c.

Warburton’s note:

“Then as to the jingles, and play on words, let us but look into the sermons of Dr. Donne (the wittiest man of that age),
and we shall find them full of this vein.”

I have, and that most carefully, read Dr. Donne’s sermons, and find none of these jingles. The great art of an orator – to make whatever he talks of appear of importance – this, indeed, Donne has effected with consummate skill.


Ham. Excellent well;
You are a fishmonger.”

That is, you are sent to fish out this secret. This is Hamlet’s own meaning.


Ham. For if the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog,
Being a god, kissing carrion -”

These purposely obscure lines, I rather think, refer to some thought in Hamlet’s mind, contrasting the lovely daughter with such a tedious old fool, her father, as he, Hamlet, represents Polonius to himself: – “Why, fool as he is, he is some degrees in rank above a dead dog’s carcase; and if the sun, being a god that kisses carrion, can raise life out of a dead dog, – why may not good fortune, that favours fools, have raised a lovely girl out of this dead-alive old fool?” Warburton is often led astray, in his interpretations, by his attention to general positions without the due Shakespearian reference to what is probably passing in the mind of his speaker, characteristic, and expository of his particular character and present mood. The subsequent passage, –

“O Jephtha, judge of Israel! what a treasure hadst thou!”

is confirmatory of my view of these lines.


Ham. You cannot, Sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal;
except my life, except my life, except my life.”

This repetition strikes me as most admirable.


Ham. Then are our beggars, bodies; and our monarchs, and outstretched heroes, the beggars’ shadows.”

I do not understand this; and Shakspere seems to have intended the meaning not to be more than snatched at : “By my fay, I cannot reason!”


“The rugged Pyrrhus – he whose sable arms,” &c.

This admirable substitution of the epic for the dramatic, giving such a reality to the impassioned dramatic diction of Shakspere’s own dialogue, and authorized, too, by the actual style of the tragedies before his time (“Porrex and Ferrex”, 7 “Titus Andronicus,” &c.) – is well worthy of notice. The fancy, that a burlesque was intended, sinks below criticism: the lines, as epic narrative, are superb.

In the thoughts, and even in the separate parts of the diction, this description is highly poetical: in truth, taken by itself, this is its fault that it is too poetical! – the language of the lyric vehemence and epic pomp, and not of the drama. But if Shakspere had made the diction truly dramatic, where would have been the contrast between “Hamlet” and the play in “Hamlet?”


“- had seen the mobled queen,” &c.

A mob-cap is still a word in common use for a morning cap, which conceals the whole head of hair, and passes under the chin. It is nearly the same as the night-cap, that is, it is an imitation of it, so as to answer the purpose (“I am not drest for company”), and yet reconciling it with neatness and perfect purity.

Ib. Hamlet’s soliloquy:

“O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” &c.

[361] This is Shakspere’s own attestation to the truth of the idea of Hamlet which I have before put forth.


“The spirit that I have seen,
May be a8 devil: and the devil hath power
Joan-Crawford-as-Hamlet-1929To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and, perhaps
Out of my weakness, and my melancholy,
(As he is very potent with such spirits)
Abuses me to damn me.”

See Sir Thomas Brown:

“I believe – that those apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wandering souls of men, but the unquiet walks of devils, prompting and suggesting us unto mischief, blood and villainy, instilling and stealing into our hearts, that the blessed spirits are not at rest in their graves, but wander solicitous of the affairs of the world.” – Relig. Med. Pt. I. Sect. 37.


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