Virginia Woolf on Belloc, Chesterton, and Shaw

Jia Tolentino recently wrote for the New Yorker about the waning of the personal essay fad. This sparked a piece by Lorraine Berry in Literary Hub about Virginia Woolf’s intolerance for a certain kind of personal essay. Berry points out that Woolf’s anti-essay essay probably played a part in inspiring the personal essay genre that we have today: contemporary women who write harrowing confessional essays are obeying her call to “confront…the terrible spectre of themselves.”

If the essays on the internet today are part of a reactionary literary movement, what is the form to which they are reacting? In Night and Day, a couple of Woolf’s characters have a typically pedantic Woolfian dialogue about the essays of her day.

“…but I forget, you in your generation, with all your activity and enlightenment,…do not read De Quincey. You have your Belloc, your Chesterton, your Bernard Shaw–why should you read De Quincey?”

“But I do read De Quincey,” Ralph protested, “more than Belloc and Chesterton anyhow.”

“Indeed!” exclaimed Mrs. Cosham, with a gesture of surprise and relief mingled. “You are then, a ‘rara avis’ in your generation. I am delighted to meet anyone who reads De Quincey.”

I haven’t read Belloc’s essays, but I think that both Shaw’s and Chesterton’s styles mostly fit as the targets of Woolf’s deprecatory essay:

And thus, instead of the honest truth which we should all respect, we are given timid side-glances in the shape of essays, which, for the most part, fail in the cardinal virtue of sincerity. And those who do not sacrifice their beliefs to the turn of a phrase or the glitter of paradox think it beneath the dignity of the printed word to say simply what it means; in print they must pretend to an oracular and infallible nature.

She certainly has a point–both Shaw and Chesterton engage in shamelessly ridiculous trolling (although I think that they both have valuable critical insights as well, and are enjoyable to read even when they are extremely insincere). In The Short Oxford History of English Literature, Andrew Sanders sniffs at G.K. Chesterton’s “presumptuous” essays: they certainly are that, and he might have added that Shaw, even more so, “pretends to an oracular and infallible nature.” However, maybe Woolf and Sanders have missed the point as long as they do not acknowledge that the oracular style is all part of one big self-deprecating joke, as distasteful as some may (understandably) find that joke to be.

The part of Woolf’s essay which remains inexplicable to me is her suggestion that “if men and women must write, let them leave the great mysteries of art and literature unassailed,” and that people should write only of themselves. It is true that she puts a great deal of herself into her literary essays, but also true that those essays are primarily about art and literature. Since, presumably, Woolf was a person who succeeded in the cardinal virtue of sincerity, what can this literary limitation possibly mean?

The Poetics of Pilewort

In a footnote to “To the Small Celandine,” Wordsworth observes that “it is remarkable that this flower, coming out so early in the spring as it does, and so bright and beautiful, and in such profusion, should not have been noticed earlier in English verse.” The subtext of Wordsworth’s comment is that he is not really surprised by the fact that “vain” poets ignore the small celandine: it is an “unassuming” weed, “careless of its neighborhood,” and its beauty was appreciated exclusively by the “thrifty cottager,” until Wordsworth himself came along. A more clearly articulated dismissal of the artificiality and snobbery of his predecessors can be found in his preface to Lyrical Ballads. Surely, however, no sane person,–least of all Wordsworth, who admired Shakespeare–would include Shakespeare in a general accusation against the snobbery of poets. So, despite the subtext of the footnote, there must be some other explanation for the omission of this flower from older poetry.

Perhaps earlier poets’ neglect of this flower can be partially explained by the previous footnote, in which Wordsworth carefully informs his readers that the small celandine is none other than “the common pilewort.”  Shakespeare is more likely to write poetry about the medicinal virtues and symbolism of herbs and flowers than about their “pleasant faces.” His “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance,” is echoed by the matter of fact Culpeper, who informs us that rosemary “helps a weak memory, and quickens the senses.” In his description of Eden, Milton (whom Wordsworth also admired) vaguely mentions “flowers of all hue” and “without thorn the rose,” but it is to a magical healing plant in another poem that he devotes a painstaking, Worsdsworthian description: “a small unsightly root,/ But of divine effect…The leaf was darkish, and had prickles on it/But in another country…Bore a bright golden flowre…” If Shakespeare had chosen to write about pilewort, he would probably have incorporated it into a satirical poem or a comedic scene; it is difficult to imagine Milton writing anything either indecorous or mundane enough to warrant a specific pilewort reference.

Macaulay remarks that, while rugged scenery is–unlike a certain pretty, medicinal weed–present in pre-Romantic literature, it is consistently regarded with distaste.

In the south of our island scarcely any thing was known about the Celtic part of Scotland; and what was known excited no feeling but contempt and loathing. The crags and the glens, the woods and the waters, were indeed the same that now swarm every autumn with admiring gazers and stretchers…Goldsmith was one of the very few Saxons who, more than a century ago, ventured to explore the Highlands. He was disgusted by the hideous wilderness, and declared that he greatly preferred the charming country round Leyden, the vast expanse of verdant meadow, and the villas with their statues and grottoes, trim flower beds, and rectilinear avenues. Yet it is difficult to believe that the author of The Traveller and of The Deserted Village was naturally inferior in taste and sensibility to the thousands of clerks and milliners who are now thrown into raptures by the sight of Loch Katrine and Loch Lomond. His feelings may easily be explained. It was not till roads had been cut out of the rocks, till bridges had been flung over the courses of the rivulets, till inns had succeeded to dens of robbers, till there was as little danger of being slain or plundered in the wildest defile of Badenoch or Lochaber as in Cornhill, that strangers could be enchanted by the blue dimples of the lakes and by the rainbows which overhung the waterfalls, and could derive a solemn pleasure even from the clouds and tempests which lowered on the mountain tops.

Although Macaulay’s explanation is sensible and cannot be completely discarded, I wonder whether it accounts for the full story. Wordsworth, in particular, writes not only about the beauty of nature, but also about the awe and danger sometimes associated with it. For example, regarding the mountains in the part of England where he grew up, he attests that

…images of danger and distress,
Man suffering among awful Powers and Forms;
Of this I heard, and saw enough to make
Imagination restless; nor was free
Myself from frequent perils; nor were tales
Wanting,—the tragedies of former times,
Hazards and strange escapes, of which the rocks
Immutable and overflowing streams,
Where’er I roamed, were speaking monuments.

In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis outlines an entire web of associations and beliefs which were held by medieval and early modern people. Under the influence of Bacon, this web had, at some point between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, come undone. Isn’t it possible that it was this same gradual stripping of associations and the substitution of new ones which helped to free Wordsworth to write about plants without alluding to their planetary influences or their medicinal uses, as well as to allow him and and his contemporaries to appreciate the beauties of the wild Scottish landscape? Although Wordsworth still associated mountains with danger, the habit of disregarding old poetical and aesthetic conventions and creating new ones led him to appreciate their beauty as well.

Of course Wordsworth may be thinking about his more immediate predecessors when he wonders at the neglect of the small celandine. Poets such as Erasmus Darwin had continued the Renaissance tradition of involvement in all disciplines of gentle study,–including philosophy, art, and natural science–while, like Goethe, adapting their scientific mindset to the post-Bacon era. Instead of referencing the four humors, angelology, or herbs to expel evil spirits, this group of eighteenth century poets tends to describe natural phenomena in minute detail and reference Linnaean classifications. Wordsworth adopts these poets’ interest in nature for its own sake as well as the descriptive style of their “empirical” poetry, but drops their scientific pretensions. It may be that members of this school actually did neglect the small celandine because of their snobbish tendencies.

It is clear from a few lines in The Borderers that Wordsworth was keenly aware of the changes in attitudes which had occurred within the previous few centuries. When Marmaduke asks Oswald whether he prefers roses, poppies, or nightshade, Oswald replies that he prefers “that which, while it is strong to destroy, is also strong to heal.” I think that this line, which occurs early in the play, together with a dense volley of references to “saints,” “masses,” “Mary” etc. in the first act, serves to set the historical scene–the story is supposed to take place in the thirteenth century.

In addition to freedom from the old associations, another factor which would have made it easier for Wordsworth to pay attention to the small celandine is his specialist attitude towards poetry, which he discusses in his preface to Lyrical Ballads.

 If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

While the well-rounded Renaissance poets and those who come just after them are pleased to dispense dietary advice and share their views about the natural world, Wordsworth sharply defines himself as a poet, in contrast to a man of science. While he and his successors do, as he had predicted, grapple with the outcomes of science, they do so as outsiders. If Wordsworth had been a doctor, like Vaughan, or even an amateur medicine nerd, like Shakespeare, it might have been difficult for him to keep his interests in plants’ uses from boiling over into his poetry (medical herbs did not fall out of widespread use until the early twentieth century). Because Wordsworth was a specialist, he labored under no such difficulty.

 

 

 

Bowlby on C.S. Lewis

In Loss, the third volume in his series on attachment, John Bowlby makes an interesting connection between an account of disordered mourning in the diary C.S. Lewis kept after the death of his wife and Lewis’s description of the nature of his earliest loss in his autobiography. Bowlby writes that Lewis’s account of mourning as an adult “strongly suggests a man whose feeling life had become to a great degree inhibited and suppressed during childhood and who had grown up, as a result, to be intensely introspective…The passages following are striking…”

Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy…you will be–or so it feels–welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away…

Is it…the very intensity of longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel like we are staring into a vacuum…? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.

Bowlby continues:

To anyone who approaches problems of mourning from [the point of view of attachment theory] certain inferences regarding how Lewis’s parents had responded to him when, as a child, he was distressed and sought comfort will be obvious; and some confirmation of these inferences is to be found in his autobiography. Not only did his mother die of cancer when he was nine and a half, but his father, always temperamental, became so distraught that he was in no state to comfort his two grieving sons. On the contrary, he alienated them: “he spoke wildly and unjustly…With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

Lewis would probably have appreciated Bowlby’s insight. Over a decade before the occurrences described in his mourning diary, Lewis had written

We have learned from Freud and others about those distortions in character and errors in thought which result from a man’s early conflicts with his father. Far the most important thing we can know about George MacDonald is that his whole life illustrates the opposite process. An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.

Onkelos’s Way

At this point, I’ve read most of the two already published volumes of Rabbi Yonatan Kolatch’s Masters of the Word (which is wonderful). I’d like to suggest a possible solution to one of the questions raised in the book.

In the chapter on Targum Onkelos, Rabbi Kolatch cites a modern scholarly argument about why Onkelos sometimes chooses to translate the legal portions of the Torah according to the peshat, even though he usually chooses to translate them according  to the Torah Sheba’al Peh. Yehuda Komlosh rejects all three of the suggested solutions, on the grounds that none accounts for every exception to the rule, and instead posits that Onkelos decides to translate or not to translate according to the halakha at random.

Rabbi Kolatch only brings three examples of psukim which Onkelos translates according to the non-halakhic literal meaning, and I unfortunately do not have access to Komlosh’s book about Targum Onkelos (or thorough familiarity with Targum Onkelos), so I don’t know what the other examples are. However, I think that there is an explanation which would account for Onkelos’s unusual  translations in the three psukim quoted in Masters of the Word. The three cases are:

  1. In Shemot 21:6, Onkelos translates “leolam” literally as “lealam”– for as long as the world endures, despite the fact that Chazal explain that it means “until the jubilee.”
  2. In Shemot 21:24 Onkelos translates “ayin tachat ayin” literally as “ayna chalaf ayna” — an eye for an eye, despite the fact that Chazal explain that the pasuk is referring to the monetary value of the eye.
  3. In Shemot 12:6 and Bamidbar 28:4 Onkelos translates “bein ha’arbayim” literally as “bein shimshaya”– twilight, despite the fact that Chazal conclude that the pasuk is referring to the afternoon.

In two of the three above cases, Chazal engage with the pasuk on a pshat level. A person who studied the words of Chazal and did not know the literal meaning of these psukim would not be able to understand what Chazal are talking about in the gemara and midrashei halacha. One of the cases is not really an exception to the Targum’s general policy, as I will explain below.

On Shemot 21:6, Rebbi in the Mechilta comments that “from here you can learn that ‘the world’ (haolam, with a hey, not a lamed) is for no more than fifty years.” In other words, he is using the fusion of the “peshat” meaning and the “derash” meaning to derive an esoteric lesson about the age of the world, as Ramban clarifies in his commentary on this pasuk.

On Shemot 21:24, Malbim–who, to put it mildly, is not an admirer of the medieval pshat movement’s approach to the halakhic portions of the Torah–comments, based on the back and forth about the meaning of these words in Bava Kama, that the Torah really is teaching that a person who blinds another person ought to have his eyes gauged out. Although the Oral Law ends up demanding payment in lieu of eye-gauging — for technical reasons that are brought down in Bava Kama — the rabbis all agree that the literal meaning of the pasuk is teaching us something; it is, however, a law that cannot ever be kept. It would not be possible to understand the discussion in Bava Kama without knowledge of the literal meaning of “ayin tachat ayin.” In fact, the Rambam thought that this homiletic pshat understanding of the pasuk was important enough to codify in his Mishneh Torah.

Instructions for the sacrifice of the pesach offering are given more than once in the Torah. In Shemot 12:6, the pasuk says that the offering must be brought “bein ha’arbayim,” which Onkelos translates as “bein shimshaya.” Presumably because of its linguistic similarity to the Mishnaic expression “bein hashmashot,” which means twilight, modern academic scholars assume that “twilight” is what Onkelos means here. This is not, however, Ramban’s reading of Onkelos. He states in his commentary that Onkelos and Rashi have the same opinion about the meaning of bein ha’arbayim: Rashi explains that bein ha’arbayim refers to the time of day which falls between the beginning of the sun’s movement to the west (ie. the early afternoon) and which ends just before nightfall (see Rashi for more information about where this definition comes from).

Gur Aryeh doesn’t like Rashi’s  explanation: it does not make sense to him that bein ha’arbayim could be a reference to a time between two positions of the sun. He claims that what Onkelos really means by “bein shimshaya” is “between days,” and relates Onkelos’s translation to the rabbinic usage of “bein hashmashot.” However, he explains that the meaning of the Aramaic expression here, in Onkelos, is broader than that of the usual rabbinic usage.  So what we have here are both Ramban and Maharal staunchly asserting that the translation of Onkelos on our pasuk is in accordance with halakha. The phrase “bein ha’arbayim” appears a handful of other times in the chumash; Chazal consistently interpret it as mandating afternoon observance of certain mitzvot (most of which are mikdash related), and Onkelos consistently translates it as “bein shimshaya.”

It is worthwhile to reconsider the first two examples of Onkelos’s “pshat” or “non-halachik” explanations. What we have seen is that, in preserving the pshat meaning of these psukim, Onkelos is merely following Chazal. This “doubling up” behavior of Chazal is in accordance with Malbim’s rule from Ayelet HaShachar, which is brought down earlier in Masters of the Word, that, “in every place where the meaning of the language will bear two explanations, they [Chazal] will give a second explanation as well.” When considering the attitudes of later commentators towards the pshat of legal psukim, we can draw a distinction between complementary and contradictory pshat explanations. Rashbam does not have a problem with pshat commentaries which contradict the actual halakha. On Shemot 21: 6, Rashbam writes that “leolam” means “for all of the days of his life.” This is not an explanation which can coexist with “until the jubilee.” Certainly Rashi and Ramban, and possibly Ibn Ezra as well, refrain from writing contradictory pshat commentaries such as this one. On the other hand, just about all of the medieval commentators will more or less often, depending on their inclinations, write complementary pshat commentaries on legal psukim.

It would be neat and tidy to say that they write complementary pshat commentaries because they are following the examples of Onkelos and Chazal themselves. However, although I don’t know very much about this, my general impression is that, when medieval commentators do it, it has less to do with wanting to pile homilies on top of legal mandates, and more to do with varying understandings of which psukim are actually sources of legal instructions, and which are only “asmachtot,” or pegs. Sometimes there will be a local disagreement between Ramban and Rashi, for example, about whether something is a peg. But it probably would be possible to trace the attitudes of various commentators to the peg vs. source question. Ibn Ezra, for example, seems to have a tendency to view a lot of the connections between laws and psukim as pegs. Onkelos, at any rate, does not appear to go off on his own and declare that traditional drashot are pegs. He appears to closely adhere, in all cases, to the plain meaning of the teachings of Chazal, and when they teach a homiletic pshat meaning in addition to a legal meaning, he will choose that one for his translation.

Athens and Elsinore

In Hester, a novel published in 1884, Mrs. Oliphant briefly sketches out what she considers to be “the secret of all of Hamlet’s tragedy.” The character who presents her analysis of Hamlet does so while describing what ensued after the disappointment in love of one Catherine Vernon.

Something however, occurred after, much worse than his preference for another woman. The man turned out to be an unworthy man. I should think for my part that there cannot be any such blow as that. Don’t you remember we agreed it was the secret of all of Hamlet’s tragedy?  It is the tragedy of the world, my dear…Hamlet would never have discovered what traitors those young courtiers were, if his mother had not turned out a fraud, and his love a delusion–at least that is my opinion. The wonder is, he did not misdoubt Horatio too. That’s what I should have done if it had been me. But there is the good of genius Hester; the Master who knew everything knew better.

In an essay published in Blackwoods in 1879, Mrs. Oliphant fleshes out this idea at greater length. Her essay is exhilarating because–unlike so many other critical essays, which tend to focus on one or two interesting themes within the enigmatic play–it really attempts to join the apparently disparate elements of the plot and explain how they all fit together.

While she successfully ties together the Gertrude subplot, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subplot, and the Ophelia subplot, Mrs. Oliphant assigns relatively little weight to the revenge plot which most people consider to be the most important one in the play:

This horrible revelation of evil in the place where it should have been least suspected, this certainty which nothing can change or excuse or atone for, is the foundation of all that follows. The murder is less, not more than this. It may be proved, it may be revenged, and in any case it gives a feverish energy to the sufferer, an escape for the moment from a deeper bitterness still; but even were it disproved or were it avenged, it would change nothing.

To diehard Mrs. Oliphant enthusiasts like myself, this concession seems too easy. The moments in which Hamlet thinks about his own failure to carry out the revenge can actually be seen as those in which his most harrowing ruminations on the mutability of human love and loyalty occur. Hamlet is disappointed not just in his friends and in his relations, but also in himself. When he compares the Player’s compassion for Hecuba with his own failure to avenge his father’s murder, he exclaims

Yet I,

A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak

Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause…

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must like a whore unpack my heart with words…

In a later scene, Laertes insists that if he, Laertes, fails to instantly avenge the death of his father, it would show an unnatural want of love and faithfulness towards that gentleman–

That drop of blood that’s calm proclaims me bastard,

Cries cuckold to my father…

These heated words pile an ironic condemnation of Hamlet on top of the many self-condemnations which Hamlet utters throughout the play, and most harshly characterize Hamlet’s behavior as unloving and disloyal. Just as Gertrude actively betrays her husband by marrying Claudius, Hamlet passively betrays his father by failing to instantly avenge his father’s murder. Hamlet’s carelessness towards one whom he has formerly loved is, of course, not limited to his treatment of his father. When he accidentally kills Polonius, he does not give a thought to the effect that his actions will have on Ophelia, who–putting the (perhaps justified) disdain of Mrs. Oliphant aside–continues to love Hamlet in her own weak way even after his poor treatment of her, and is actually driven mad by a manifestation of the same phenomenon which provokes the bitterness of Hamlet–who only pretends to be mad.

Horatio, the one true friend, the constant foil to half a dozen traitors, would have been a familiar character in a familiar situation to Shakespeare’s original audience. Boethius writes that bad fortune can be seen as a blessing in disguise:

Do you think it is of small account that this harsh and terrible misfortune has revealed those whose hearts are loyal to you? She has shown you the friends whose smiles were true smiles, and those whose smiles were false; in deserting you Fortune has taken her friends with her and left those who are truly yours.*

This idea is echoed in Hamlet’s speech to Horatio.

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice,

And could of men distinguish her election,

Sh’ath seal’s thee for herself; for thou hast been

As one, in suff’ring all, that suffers nothing,

A man that Fortune’s buffets and rewards

Hast ta’en with equal thanks…

This sketch of Horatio’s character is, of course, contrasted almost immediately with the inconstancy of the Player Queen in “The Mousetrap,” which follows it. Almost the entire dialogue of the play within a play serves to further strengthen Mrs. Oliphant’s theory.

Even the less educated members of Shakespeare’s audience would have been well acquainted with the theme of fickle friendship in the face of adverse fortune, if not from translations of Boethius, then at least from earlier plays written by Shakespeare himself. Timon of Athens, specifically, stands out as the previous play which, according to Mrs. Oliphant’s reading, has the theme most similar to that of Hamlet. Although he is faced with similar circumstances, Hamlet, unlike Timon, does not finally allow his bitterness to overwhelm him completely; while Timon completely surrenders to misanthropy and despair, Hamlet, especially in the last act, displays sprightliness, hope, and even (in his dealings with Laertes) charity. Mrs. Oliphant struggles to fit the last act of the play into her theory.

The last act of “Hamlet” remains to ourselves a mystery… Death indeed cuts the thread artificially both in real life and poetry; but it is an artificial ending, however it comes about, and, so far as we are concerned, solves no problem, though we make bold to believe that it explains everything to the person chiefly concerned. In the fifth act all is changed. That former world has rolled away with all its passions and pains. Hamlet, having delivered himself by the promptest energetic action, in an emergency which is straightforward and without complications, comes back with a languor and exhaustion about him which contrasts strangely with the intensity of all his previous emotions. Contemplative as ever, there is no longer any strain of mystic anguish in his musings. Unaccountably, yet most evidently, the greatness of his suffering has dissolved away…What is the secret of the subdued dead hush and calm with which he comes before us in the end? Is it mere weariness, exhaustion of all possibility of action, the sense that nothing more remains worth struggling for — for even his revenge, the one object which had kept the channels of life clear, has disappeared in the last chapter? …So far as our theory goes, the last act is in fact the return of the poet to his real theme. His hero has been wrecked throughout by treachery. The higher betrayals that affected his heart and soul wrung Hamlet’s being, and transformed the world to him: but the meaner tricks that assailed his life were too low for his suspicion. How was he, so noble, so unfortunate, measuring his soul against the horrible forces of falsehood, the spiritual wickedness in high places, to come down from that impassioned and despairing contest, to think of poison, or take precautions against it? Thus the traitor got the better of him, and death triumphed at the last.

The problem with this final point is that it is contradicted by the text. After he is informed of the conditions of the duel, Hamlet tells Horatio that “all’s ill here about my heart…it is such a kind of gaingiving as would perhaps trouble a woman.” When Horatio suggests postponing the duel, Hamlet refuses, and consciously chooses to face danger, accepting whatever fate Providence assigns him.

Not a whit. We defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of the sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leave, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

In order to determine why it is that Hamlet, who has been steering in the same general direction chosen by Timon, suddenly swerves in the fifth act, it might be worthwhile to examine the end of the fourth act more closely. Hamlet’s rebuke of Gertrude in her bedroom (together with his general unhappiness regarding Gertrude’s remarriage) is understood by many twentieth century critics as a barely concealed sublimation of his Oedipal instincts. This interpretation is not supported by the text of the play. Hamlet’s concern for the chastity of his close female relative is normal, just as Polonius’s and Laertes’s concern for the chastity of their close female relative is normal. In fact, the two scenes in which the ladies are warned by their male relatives to be more careful of their chastity can be seen as parallel but contrasting bookends to the main body of the play. When the young girl is chastised by her father and brother it is natural and proper; when the middle aged woman is chastised by her grown son it is sad and strange. In modern performances of Hamlet, the sense of the words in this scene are always swallowed up by the amorous gestures. In the play Shakespeare wrote, Hamlet enjoins Gertrude to refuse Claudius’s embraces and to falsely inform him that he, Hamlet, is actually mad. Gertrude promises to comply with both of these instructions. In the next scene, we witness her lying to Claudius, just as Hamlet had told her to do. Later, in an aside, she confesses that

To my sick soul (as sin’s true nature is),

Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss.

So full of artless jealousy is guilt,

It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.

This aside indicates that the repentance of which Gertrude has previously assured Hamlet is genuine. Although she does intervene to save Claudius from being murdered by Laertes, there is no indication in the text of the play that Gertrude ever accepts Claudius’s affections after the bedroom scene with Hamlet. It seems reasonable that, if his mother’s wantonness was the original cause of Hamlet’s unhappiness, her sincere repentance would make him happy again. Part of this has, no doubt, something to do with a personal reassurance that she is loyal to him. Another factor which may contribute to the lifting of Hamlet’s pall is the general reassurance about human nature that witnessing repentance may give. Many of Hamlet’s speculations focus on the tension between the animal and the ethereal in man, and are characterized by grief over the all too common dominance of the animal over the ethereal. Seeing the ethereal conquer the animal is balm to the soul of a philosopher like Hamlet.

Hamlet and Timon are alike in their fortunes, but they are unlike in their ways of coping with fortune. Hamlet remains introspective and wittily humorous throughout the time of his adversity, finding fault in himself as well as in others; Timon blames all of his unhappiness on those around him. Once Hamlet has witnessed his mother’s repentance, his faith is strengthened–he comes back to Elsinore confidently, and confronts a dangerous situation trustfully. While he is dying, he forgives Laertes for murdering him and receives Laertes’s forgiveness for killing Polonius. Both Timon and Hamlet are tragedies, but while the former is a thoroughly sad tragedy, the latter isn’t an entirely unhappy one, since Hamlet, unlike Timon, dies with dignity and goodwill. In other words, though he lives and dies bounded in a nutshell, Hamlet can indeed be counted a king of infinite space.

 

 

*Penguin Classics edition, Victor Watts translation

Hamlet (Transcription)

By: Margaret Oliphant

IT is common to say that no actor upon the English stage, who has any ambition or love for his profession, can die happy without having once at least attempted to represent Hamlet. It is the part which inspires the most imperfect, and leads on the most experienced in never-failing pursuit of an excellence to come — a laurel always there for the winning. It is, we are also told by those who know the stage well, although one of the most difficult of all the creations of poetry, the one also in which absolute failure is less common than in any other. No one, perhaps, of all its many representatives has given us a complete impersonation of the strange and wonderful being whom we never completely understand, whom we discuss and quarrel over all our lives, but whom, at least, we know, as we know few other of our lifelong friends; while at the same time, every one who has attempted the part has got some hold on humanity through those words, which the merest mouther of phrases cannot spoil, and that most touching and terrible position which, even when we do not understand it, we feel, moving us to the bottom of our hearts. Whether it is a doctrinaire who is upon the stage, grafting his own philosophies upon the poet’s creation, or an ambitious mime who attempts it only as the part which pays best when successful, our own ideal of the noble Dane, and intimate acquaintance with his real being, save his representative from entire failure. He is more to us than any actor; and it is scarcely going too far to say that,as each new attempt is made, the universal curiosity and interest it excites are drawn forth at least quite as much by the hope that now at last we may know our Hamlet better, as by the lighter and more superficial eagerness to see how the actor acquits himself in a great part. No other tragic creation, however great, has the same hold upon us. Othello is noble and terrible in his mingled strength and weakness, and Lear tears our hearts asunder with a passion of painful and tragic delight; but Hamlet stands to us in a far closer relation — he is a part of our intellectual training, of our higher being, of all the mysteries that move within us, and so often burst into unconscious expression in his very words. How it should be so we cannot tell — for it is impossible to conceive a type less like the ordinary estimate of English character; yet we feel assured the reader will agree with us when we say, that no other creation of poetry has ever seized hold upon and entered into the soul of the nation with such complete and perfect sovereignty. No hero of history — no brave and resolute Englishman — no King Hal, gay in his excesses, noble in his transformation, the very type of Anglo – Saxon manliness — comes within a thousand miles of that mystic traveller between life and death, that impersonation of all the doubts and questionings of humanity, in the heart of a people which has no turn for philosophy, a race prompt and ready, and more apt at blows than words. Rarely has there happened in the mental history of a country so rare a phenomenon. And we know no parallel to it in any other national experience, unless it were in Spain, where, however, the long lean figure of that forlorn and last knight errant has too much humour in the atmosphere that surrounds it,and too much mixture of the ludicrous, to hold the same position. The German Faust makes no such universal claim upon the sympathies, and the French Alceste is but a weakened shadow of Hamlet; while in all these great conceptions there is something which chimes in with the national temper of the race that has produced them. The Spaniard’s hyper-chivalry, the German’s wild yet carnal mysticism, the Frenchman’s bitter distinctness of perception and cynic-sentimental tendency, are all more or less embodied in these central figures of their literature. But that we, who pride ourselves upon our national energy and practical character, and whose faith it is that “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly,” — that we should have selected Hamlet from among all the poetical creations in which we are so rich, as the object of our unanimous interest, is one of the strangest facts in literary history. It would be incredible, were it not absolutely true.
This reign of Hamlet over the English imagination comes from time to time to a sudden climax, by means of some new or powerful actor; and we are at present in the midst of one of those high tides of popular interest. Mr Irving is doing what all his great predecessors on the stage have done, with varying power and success; and as it is now a long time since any actor has attempted perseveringly to win this crown of reputation, the effort is all the more interesting. The last attempt of the kind, and indeed the only one which comes within our own experience of the stage, was that made by Fechter more than a dozen years ago. We do not ourselves sympathise with the feeling which makes some people refuse their suffrage to an admirable and accomplished actor, because his English was somewhat defective. This is one of the criticisms which are becoming more and more general among us, and which dwell upon external and minute detail, in entire indifference to the spirit and soul of the performance. Fechter has fallen out of fashion. Perhaps he never did secure the critics so completely on his side as he did the simple multitudes who used to hang on his lips; but at all events it requires courage now to produce his name, in face of the superciliously indulgent smile with which it is received by those who are supposed to know. Fechter’s Hamlet, however, was, we are bold to say, the most interesting piece of acting which we have ever seen; and his English can hardly be said to have been more defective than that which Mr Irving has managed to make the public accept as a possible rendering of Shakespeare’s noble tongue. But few things could be more unlike than the breadth and ease of the great French actor’s treatment, and the laborious and infinitely painstaking effort of the Hamlet who is at present in possession of the stage. It is impossible, we suppose, without some touch of genius,to have attained the mastery over the public which Mr Irving undoubtedly possesses. In this age of burlesques and dramatic folly, he has gained the complete and absorbed attention, night after night, of a large and highly cultivated audience, and succeeded in moving society in London to an almost universal interest in every new attempt he makes — which is no small triumph. Our own opinion, however, is, that this remarkable actor has attained his successes more by sheer force of character than by genius. He has conquered the public by his bow and his spear — by means of the intense feeling and concentrated energy of mind with which, it is evident, he approaches his work — labouring at it like an athlete of Michael Angelo, with every muscle starting and every sinew strung to its utmost tension. He is in such deadly earnest in everything he does that we can scarcely refuse our interest to the effort which costs so much. And as difficulty overcome is universally recognised as a very high attraction to human curiosity and interest, there must always be a large section of mankind to whom the sight of the struggle by which that difficulty is overcome will always be more impressive and affecting than the success which looks easy, the calm mastery of the greater artist who fights and strains too in his time, but that not in, but out of, sight of the gazing crowd. This is not Mr Irving’s way : he takes the public into his confidence,and shows them the beads of toil upon his forehead, the quiver in his limbs of muscular and nervous as well as mental exertion. It is something like a gladiator that we have before us, “taking arms” as says our Shakespeare, with that confusion of metaphor at which we laugh tenderly, liking him the better, supreme master, for the slip that proves him human — “against a sea of troubles,” facing all the wild beasts of difficulty, and rending his way to the prize which the excited spectators accord him, almost more for the pluck and force and energy with which he has toiled for it, than for the excellence of the performance. The people who crowd the Lyceum every night have thus, if not a first-rate representation of Hamlet, yet a very interesting and even exciting spectacle set before them — the sight of an able and eccentric mind full of contortions, yet also of strength, struggling with all the power nature has given it, upward to the platform of genius, with every faculty strained, and its whole being quivering in the effort. There are those who mount to that platform lightly, by grace of nature, or seem to do so; but these, if finer and higher, are perhaps in reality less interesting than the indomitable fighter who struggles upward to it, his teeth set, his shoulders squared, his every limb in energetic action. Mr Irving in this point of view presents a spectacle to gods and men of which it is difficult to exaggerate the interest. He has almost every quality which should interest the lookers-on — a fine and generous aim, a high courage, and the most determined tenacity of purpose. If he cannot scale these heights, we may be sure he will die half-way, always fighting upwards, never giving in. He is in a hundred perils every day, and nothing daunts him, — perils of nature, perils of excessive friendship, perils of success — sometimes the worst of all. Yet every step he has made, even when we cannot admire it, we are obliged to recognise as an honest endeavour towards that which is best and highest. So far as can be judged from without, never man was more perfectly sincere or strenuous in his determination to do well. It is more than an artistic effort,it is a moral conflict with adverse powers of nature in which he is engaged; and if he fails in the end, his failure will be from no fault of his, no want of zeal or conscience or energy in the man. One does not generally use such words in respect to an actor’s study of his part; but it is the highest testimonial that can be given to Mr Irving to say that we are obliged to employ them after witnessing his evening’s work.
Notwithstanding what has been said of the unanimity of English feeling in respect to Hamlet, there is, perhaps, no dramatic creation in the world about which there has been so much difference of opinion. Naturally the great mass of readers and spectators make no attempt to analyse it at all. The greatness of the mind presented before them, the consciousness of a human being most real and tangible, though looming over them with a confused greatness which they can appreciate without being able to understand it, is enough to satisfy all their intellectual requirements; though even in this widest circle, the question whether Hamlet’s madness was assumed or real will arouse a certain intellectual interest. But above the first level of the admiring and uncritical public there are many circles of critics, each of which has its spoken or unspoken creed in regard to Shakespeare’s great creation. There is scarcely a drawing-room party among the educated classes in which, were the question mooted, there would not be found warm partisans on both sides of the question, and inquirers with ideas of their own as to the real cause of that vacillation, which is the most obvious feature in the character to the ordinary observer. We might perhaps ask, though without any possibility of reply, whether the poet himself had any intention of making this mystery clear to us; or whether, indeed, it was within the range of his genius to fathom altogether the great and mysterious being — greater and more wonderful by far than the Warwickshire yeoman’s son, the playwright of the Globe — whom he put miraculously into the world to live there for ever, outlasting a hundred generations of men. This, however, is a view which critics never, and the humble reader very rarely, consent to take. That mystic independence of its creator which belongs to a great poetical conception of character, reflecting, perhaps, more truly than anything else can, our own mortal independence (so far at least as consciousness goes) of our Maker, and power to contradict, and, as much as in us lies thwart, His purposes, is incredible to most people. To our own thinking, it is plain enough that a dramatic conception of the highest order does follow a law of its own being which is not, as we think, entirely under the control of its originator. “I did not do it; they did it themselves,” Thackeray (we think) is reported to have said of some of his heroes and heroines whose proceedings did not please the world; and the merest dabbler in fiction must be aware of a curious current of influence not originated by him which sweeps the personages of his story here and there, following some necessity of their nature which he may not even comprehend, and which does not agree with his plan for them. We do not mean to imply an opinion that Hamlet escaped from the control of the poet to whom he owes his birth; but only that so great a creation might well have, like an actual being, many doubtful and unresolved points in him, over which spectators might discuss, without any absolute certainty, even on the part of his maker, as to which party was in the right.
To ourselves Hamlet is the greatest instance of that disenchantment which is, of all the miseries in the world,the one most crushing and most general. Disenchantment — desillusionment — that opening of the eyes to see a world altogether different from the world we have observed, which is about the bitterest pang of which the soul is capable. It is the burden more or less of all the world’s worst complaints. The common mass of us encounter it in detail, and have happily managed to weave some new veil over the painful reality in one region before we are caught in another, and obliged to look on and see the veils of imagination stripped from the facts of life. And no one can bear to dwell upon this unveiling. It brings madness or it brings death; or in the case of a noble mind too great for such brief and vulgar conclusion, it evolves a Hamlet — a man standing among the wrecks of life so deeply amazed, so confounded and heart-struck, that his trouble paralyses him, and nothing seems worth doing of all that might be done. Such a one in real life, we may perhaps say, was Leopardi, though without that spring of sweeter nature in him which kept Hamlet in being. In the case of the real man, we do not know what it was which turned all the milk to gall,and brought the spirit face to face with a universe of hideous folly and falsehood, instead of that world all dressed in smiles and sweetness in which he had taken delusive delight. The worst and most dismal depth of the philosophical despair which is called pessimism, was the natural issue with the Italian of that poisoning of all happier impulse. What it was in the royal Dane we all know.
Hamlet is greater, larger than Leopardi; his nature would, we cannot doubt, have righted itself one time or other, had it not been so precipitately cut short: but there is a certain illumination in the contrast yet resemblance. The terrible gulf, unlighted by any star, into which Leopardi plunged at the moment of which all his poems are full, the point of life at which he awakened, and at which, as he tells us, the supreme delusion of his first happier impressions became apparent to him — has a profound blackness of despair in it which is less within the range of our sympathies than the confused and gloomy world, still in the throes of earthquake, amid which Hamlet stands, sick at heart, gazing with eyes of wild dismay at the sanctities which fall in succession into the dust one after another, leaving him ever more and more haggard and bereaved. His father’s death to be revenged, and all that “cursed spite” to be set right, are rather living influences than otherwise to his soul, bewildered with loss, and sick and hopeless in the downfall of everything that is sweet and fair around. These motives keep up a struggle within him, and in reality prevent the gloomy waves from closing over his head; but yet have not acquired the consistency of force necessary to drive him back into living, and into so much hope as would alone make living possible. His vacillaton is but the struggle of that wholesome and righteous passion against the inertness of despair, the cui bono of his disenchanted existence. He tries to rouse himself, but in vain. What were the good? If Claudius were slain, would that restore honour and purity to the desecrated house? Could anything remake that polluted mother into the type of holy womanhood above corruption? He tries to work himself up to the point of action, but there is no hope in him to give vigour to his arm. Something of the old energy bursts out in fits and starts, but is paralysed by this supreme sickness of heart and failure of all possibilities of restoration. What Hamlet wants is more than a vengeance: it is a re-creation. Nothing short of the undoing of all the monstrous evil which has killed his soul in him, is worth his living for. Mending is futile, the harm is too fundamental, the misery too complete. Revenge would be a momentary satisfaction, would give him ease, as when a wounded man tears off his bandages; but what more could revenge do for Hamlet? Restore to him his world of youth, his trust in those around him, his belief that one is pure and another true, his spotless mother, his innocent love, his loyal friends? — ah no ! not one of them. And therefore, now with flashes of wild scorn, now with utterances of deepest sadness, he stands —hesitating,— as we say, before the vengeance which will, he sees, be but a deception like all the rest, and make no real difference. Leopardi, the gloomy shadow of an actual Hamlet, had no possibility even of a stroke for life in the shapeof a revenge, no palpabe wrong which he could identify, nor practical blow that would help him a little, or which he could even pretend might help him. Therefore the nobility of a struggle is wanting in him. More grandly, on nobler lines,and with a more majestic modelling, the poet has worked out his fatally illuminated, disenchanted, disappointed, heroic soul. Let shallow Laertes storm for his vengeance, but in the profound depths of Hamlet’s nature there is no more room for delusion. As Macbeth murdered sleep, so has villany murdered truth,the soul of the world; but that last and awful murder is not to be made up for by the death of the villain. That is trivial, a nothing, a momentary anodyne, a little salve put to the burning of the heart-deep wound: but no remedy; for remedy is beyond possibility, beyond even hope.
This in our opinion is the interpretation of Hamlet, so far as his great and noble manhood is capable of a set interpretation. All through the darkness that has closed round him there strike flickerings of a former light, which show the real nature, instinct with grace and sweetness of his character. When he is first presented to us, his “inky cloak” is not more new to him than is the gloom that envelops his life. This gloom dates back but these two little months — not two: nay, perhaps not more than half that period: since the secret horrors that lie beneath the surface of common living first burst upon him — not in his father’s death, a natural sorrow, but in the monstrous inconstancy and wantonness of his mother. Before that unparalleled revelation of evil came, what had Prince Hamlet been?

“The glass of fashion and the mould of form:
The expectancy and rose of the fair state:”—

the very hope and flower of noble youth in Denmark. It is easy to collect the traces of that light and sweet existence after it is past. The warmth of his faith in the one last prop that remains to him, his faithful Horatio, is at the first moment scarcely less ready and genial than his salutation of the other friends who are not true: “Good lads,how do ye both?” he cries, with happy frankness, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, before he has seen the treachery in their faces; and when he has begun to suspect that treachery, with what pathos of recollection does he remind them of the time in which there was no suspicion, adjuring them “by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love!” This is no melancholy philosopher above the range of the young cavaliers, the soldiers and scholars of Wittenberg; but a true comrade — one whose superior rank made him only more generous in his brotherhood, more dependent upon their affection. And it is by means of the happy likings of his youth that almost all the machinery of the drama is constructed. The players are brought to him naturally, as to the source of patronage and favour. They had been of his retinue before, and he knows each one, and has a gracious word for the hobbledehoy who plays the women’s parts, as well as for the leader of the troupe, whose emotion at his own performance fills the prince with a sad yet not unamused wonder. If he had not been their constant patron, and known their capacity of old, the expedient of the play could not have come in. And the very climax of the tragedy is procured by similar means. Even in the midst of his great gloom and overthrow, Hamlet is still capable of being piqued by the brag of Laertes’ proficiency in fencing, which proves that such an accomplishment was of price with him. But for this there would have been no appropriateness in the king’s wager on his head. It is “a very riband in the cap of youth,” part of “the light and careless living” of the blooming season. Strange words to be applied to Hamlet! yet so true that the skill of a rival has still sufficient force to kindle the half-quenched fire of youthful emulation in him, notwithstanding all his burdens. Last of all, there is the trifling of early love — less love than fancy — shaped upon the fantastic models of the reigning fashion, which Hamlet had not been too serious to play with, like his contemporaries.The letter which Polonius reads to the king and queen is such a letter as Sir Percie Shafton might have written,the lightest traffic of lovemaking, half sport, half earnest, — all youthful extravagance and compliment. “To my soul’s idol, the beautified Ophelia,” — “an ill phrase, a very vile phrase,” as Polonius justly adds. This gay essay of gallantry is precisely what Laertes calls it in his early advice to his sister, “a fashion and a toy in blood;” it is nothing more than “the trifling of his favour.” “Perhaps he loves you now,” the prudent brother says; but it is the light fancy of youth, the inclination of nature in its crescent, not any guarantee for what may be when “the inward service of the mind and soul” has attained its full width and growth. Still more decided upon this point is Polonius. “For Lord Hamlet, believe so much in him that he is young,” says the wary old chamberlain. He has been a dangerous young gallant, a noble prince full of all the charms and entertainments of his age; surrounded by gay comrades, soldier and courtier and scholar; ready for every fresh amusement, to hear everything new the players have on hand, to try his skill against whoever offers, to wear a fair lady’s favour in his cap. Such has been the golden youth of the Prince of Denmark: until suddenly, all at once, as at the crack of doom, the mask has broken off the fair face of the world, and Hamlet has made the irredeemable discovery that nothing is as it seems.
It might be too long to attempt to show how the foundations of the world were more entirely broken up by the special guise in which this calamity overtook him, than they could have been to Hamlet in any other. There is indeed scarcely any way in which the whole keynote of nature could have been changed to him except this. It could be done to Othello by the supposed falsehood of the woman in whom his life had reblossomed, who was his consolation for all the labours of existence; but no falsehood of love could have struck to despair the young man only lightly stepping within the primrose path of dalliance, and capable of no tragic passion there. Where he could be struck was in the very fountain of his life — his mother. The most degraded mind finds a certain refuge there. A woman by very right of maternity is lifted out of the impurities and suspicions which may assail even those who are “as chaste as ice,as pure as snow.” She has a shield cast before her to quench all evil thoughts. If truth fails everywhere else, yet in her there is the source, the springs of unpolluted life, the fountain of honour, the one original type of faithful affection which cannot be doubted, even if heaven and earth were melting and dissolving. While that foundation stands fast, the world must still stand; it cannot fall into irremediable ruin and destruction. When Hamlet first comes before us in “the customary suit of sober black,” which is in itself a protestation against that unnatural marriage, this entire revolution of heaven and earth has happened to him. He is dragged in the train of the pageant, witnessing his mother’s re-enthronement, looking on at all the endearments of her monstrous bridehood, sick with disgust and misery, unable to turn his back upon it all, or save himself from the dishonour that invades his own veins from hers. “Fie on’t! 0 fie!” he cries, with a loathing which involves all the world, and even himself, in its sick horror. The earth is

“An unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank, and gross in nature,
Possess it merely.”

Foulness is everywhere. Oh that he could but melt and dissolve away — that it could be permitted to him to be no longer, to get done with the very consciousness of living. “Heaven and earth!” he cries, in the impatience of his wretchedness, “must I remember”—

“Within a month,—
Let me not think on’t.” Frailty,thy name is woman!
A little month ; or ere those shoes were old,
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears; why she, even she, —
0 God ! a beast,that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourned longer.”

This horrible revelation of evil in the place where it should have been least suspected, this certainty which nothing can change or excuse or atone for, is the foundation of all that follows. The murder is less, not more than this. It may be proved,it may be revenged, and in any case it gives a feverish energy to the sufferer, an escape for the moment from a deeper bitterness still; but even were it disproved or were it avenged, it would change nothing. The worst that can happen has happened; that first discovery which makes every other possible has been made. How it is gradually supplemented by other treacheries, and how the noble victim finds himself surrounded by every cheat that is most appalling to his nature, all chiming in, with one baseness after another, is in our judgment the real argument of the tragedy — ending as it does in an imbroglio of heaped falsehood upon falsehood, confusion of murderous lie on lie, which leads to the only end that is possible — an end of universal slaughter, embodying at once the utter success and failure of multiplied treachery, not capable of stopping when it would. The murder is brought into the foreground, arresting the attention of the spectator, holding the chief place for a time, then utterly disappearing during the last act as if it had not been — because it is, in fact, not the central strain of the drama at all, but only a tremendous complication giving life and temporary vigour to the hero’s terrible illumination and despair.
Let us endeavour to trace this under-swell of dark and accumulating misery through the play. Hamlet is, in fact, roused into heroic action whenever the question of his father’s murder is really before him: he vacillates about his vengeance; but in the great scenes with the ghost, the arrangements for the players, and also the interview with his mother, there is neither hesitation nor weakness about him. It is when outside the range of that inspiring excitement that the darker misery seizes possession of his soul; and this we think we shall be able to show. As for the madness which he has declared it to be his intention to simulate, we see very little of that on the stage or in the text. We are left to infer that he must have carried out his own suggestions of policy (“I perchance hereafter may think meet to put an antic disposition”), by the fact that immediately after the scene with the ghost (in which there is certainly no madness) we plunge almost at once into the talk of the court about “Lord Hamlet’s lunacy.” This appears to have developed so gradually,as to have left the king and queen time to send to Wittenberg for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; but the only evidence we have of it is the report which the frightened Ophelia brings to her father of the strange visit the prince has paid her as she was “sewing in her closet.” Ophelia, to judge by the admonitions of her relatives, had not been by any means disinclined to admit the wooing of Hamlet. “You have of your audience been most free and bounteous,”says her father ” a prudent man though an ambitious: —

“From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatment at a higher rate
Than a command to parley.”

The simple and submissive girl, most shallow of all Shakespeare’s women — who is, throughout her brief career before us, entirely unconscious, it is evident, of any claim of loyalty in love, and who thinks a great deal more of her father’s approbation than of what is due to Hamlet — gives us in reality the only thing that approaches to evidence of madness on his part. “O my lord,my lord,I have been so affrighted!” she cries,rushing with a child’s simple impulse to her father.

“Lord Hamlet, ” with his doublet all unbrac’d;
No hat upon his head ; his stockings foul’d,
Ungarter’d,and down-gyved to his ankle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other,
And with a look so piteous in purport,
As if he had been loosed out of hell,
To speak of horrors,” he comes before me.
Pol. Mad for thy love?
Oph. My lord,I do not know;
But, truly,I do fear it.
Pol. What said he?
Oph. He took me by the wrist, and held me hard:
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face,
As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so;
At last, — a little shaking of mine arm,
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound,
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk,
And end his being: that done, he lets me go;
And, with his head over his shoulder turn’d,
He seem’d to find his way without his eyes;
For out o’ doors he went without their help,
And, to the last, bended their light on me.”

Curiously enough, this is the only single bit of evidence in the whole play which, we venture to say, would be received by any court as proof of Hamlet’s madness. His own light and bitter “chaff” with Polonius would take in no lawyer. Whether it might be that in the interval which takes place behind the scenes, Hamlet had perceived that the sweet, childish nature of Ophelia had been taken possession of by the old courtier, and that she was a real, if innocent, snare for him, it is hard to tell; but it is scarcely possible for the reader to imagine a delusion more absurd than that the great and princely Hamlet had gone mad for the love of Ophelia. Though her pretty simplicity and hapless fate give a factitious interest to her, it is manifest that this soft submissive creature, playing into her father’s hands as she does, is in no way a possible mate for Hamlet; neither does he say a word which would justify us in thinking that any serious passion for her increased the confusion of pain and misery in his mind. Perhaps that long perusal of her face, of which she tells her father, was the regretful, tender leave-taking of the man from whom all toys and fashions of the blood had fallen away, who could write sonnets no longer, nor rhymes to his lady’s eyebrow. Anyhow, the fact remains that during the time which elapsed between Hamlet’s resolution to “put an antic disposition on,” and the arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at the request of the king, the events upon which the notion of Hamlet’s madness has been built had taken place, and that all we know of them is this report of Ophelia’s. He has, it would appear, “borne himself strange and odd,” as he said he would do, and Polonius has found out the reason on his side,and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been sent for to do it on theirs. When Hamlet appears to us again, he is mocking Polonius with wild talk — talk so full of meaning and mischief, that even the old chamberlain with his foregone conclusion in his head, is fain to give vent to the confession, “though this be madness, yet there’s method in’t.” This transparent assumption of folly blows off the moment he sees the new-comers, whom he meets at first with the frankest pleasure. “Sure I am, there are not two men living to whom he more adheres,” the queen has said; and the reception which Hamlet gives them fully carries out his mother’s description. But either there is something in their air which prompts suspicion, or the new-born doubts in his mind make him question closely, “What make you at Elsinore?” Alas ! the generous and truthful Hamlet has now got that light of bitter illumination in his eyes which sees through all disguises. In a little keen quick play of persistent question and unwilling reply, he has got the secret of their mission. He accepts that too: his friends have fallen away from him, and turned into spies and emissaries of his foe. The rest of the interview with these false friends is wrought with the most marvelous skill: the suppressed passion in it mingled with that levity of the sick heart which is more sad than despair. At first he seems to make almost an appeal to their sympathies, when he tells them how he has “lost all my mirth,foregone all custom of exercises;” but seeing this does not move one spark of the old fellow feeling within them, Hamlet accepts the position, this time with a smile of bitter yet tranquil understanding. That which would have been so great an evil, so miserable a disaster before — what is it now but a faint echo of the downfall already accomplished? Fate having already done her worst, this bitterness the more but chimes in like an anticipated refrain. Yet the pain of it tells even in the greater anguish, and rises to a climax of indignant remonstrance when, after the hypocritical appeal his false friends make to his old affection, Hamlet, scorning to give them more distinct reply, takes the “recorder” from the hands of the player and offers it first to one, then to the other. “Will you play upon this pipe?” he says; — ’tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your ringers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music.” “Why, look you, now,” he adds, “how un worthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery… ‘Sblood,do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” Mr Irving in a fury — quite out of character, we think, with the concentrated scorn and pain, the pang yet smile of the outburst which is far too sad for passion — breaks violently across his knee the “little organ,” which appears to those shallow deceivers so much more difficult to understand than Hamlet’s great heart and nature. But passion or violence is not in the contrast between the simple pip eand the man’s soul. It leaves them confounded, poor creatures as they are — yet still not altogether sure, so great is the forbearance of his protest, notwithstanding the reluctant contempt in it — that they may not yet deceive him again, and get the better of him, and worm their way into his secret. In no part of the play is his attitude more noble — high as the heavens above the falsehood which is wringing his very heart, yet deeply, profoundly conscious of it than in those scenes. His first disenchantment has been so complete, and has cut the ground so entirely from under his feet, that this is no new revelation to him. He bears it even, standing there alone, on so much solid ground as his feet can cover, no more, with a smile — but the smile is one of utter and inexpressible pain.
There remains but one thing in which Hamlet might still find a shred of truth and faithfulness. According to our opinion Ophelia has always been too slight and small a creature to have much hold upon such a spirit — and his perpetual gibes and flouts at Polonius, specially on the subject of his daughter, would be cruel, had he not an idea that some plot or other in respect to his daughter was brewing in the old courtier’s mind; but when the deepest musings of his sadness are disturbed by the entrance of that last and cruelest spy upon him, Hamlet does not seem at first to contemplate the possibility that Ophelia too might be in the plot against him. Her evidently concerted appearance at that moment, a calculated chance to secure the prince’s attention, rouses him from thoughts so different that he perceives her with a passing impatience. And it is hard to believe that even Ophelia is conscious of the full meaning of the snare which she is made to set. Something of simplicity, something of stupidity, is in the device — which is probably all her own, and unsuggested by the other conspirators — of bringing Hamlet’s love-tokens to restore to him at such a moment and under such circumstances. Though she thinks he is mad of love for herself, and though she knows that her father and the king are lying in watch to listen, she tempts her crazed lover, as she imagines, to betray his most secret feeling, by those soft reproaches, which at another place and time would have been so affecting — appeals to his tenderest recollections, and pathetic protest against his abandonment of her. A woman forsaken could not do more in a supreme effort to reclaim the heart that has strayed from her. Her faltering reference to the “words of so sweet breath composed as made the things more rich,” the faint and plaintive indignation of her conclusion, “Rich gifts wax poor, when givers prove unkind,” would be exquisitely touching did we not know of those spies behind the arras. They are exquisitely touching, we believe, to the great part of the public, who, soft-hearted to the soft Ophelia, forget that this whole meeting is a plot, and that she has contrived, in her simplicity, a still more delicate refinement of the snare, by thus throwing upon him the sudden shadow of the past. For a moment Hamlet seems to pause. “I humbly thank you, well, well, well,” he says, in answer to her question, with something in his tone of fear, lest this softness should melt him, and his steps be tempted into a way less rude and terrible than that which lies before him. But when the meaning of the whole situation suddenly flashes upon him — when his rapid glance detects the listeners at one side, while the seeming-simple maiden falters forth her reproaches on the other — a blaze of sudden scorn and wrath suddenly illuminates the scene. A stab delivered by so soft a hand cuts to the heart. She too, suborned by his enemies, made into a trap for him, endeavouring to seduce him to a self betrayal more intimate, more sacred, than any that his false friends could hope to attain! The pang is so keen that Hamlet is cruel and terrible to the soft and shrinking creature. He rails at her as if she were a wanton, and crushes her under his contempt. “Go thy ways to a nunnery — to a nunnery — go!” he cries, with, for the first time, a shrill tone of anger in his voice. She to whose orisons he commends himself one moment, is denounced the next in terms as harsh and disdainful as were ever used to the most abandoned sinner. His words beat her down like a hailstorm on a flower. He has no pity — no mercy. That combination of the last appeal to his tenderness with the concealed and cruel plot against him betrays Hamlet to an outburst which under less provocation would be unmanly. He insults the woman who has made a snare for him out of her own very tenderness. The exquisite art which keeps up our sympathy for the bewildered and crushed Ophelia, notwithstanding what would be the baseness of her disloyalty were she sufficiently elevated in character to understand the treacherous part she is playing, is wonderful. It leaves a haze of mortal uncertainty about her character altogether, such as veils the actual being of our contemporaries, and leaves us at liberty to think better or worse of them according to the point of view from which we see them, — a licence which has secured for Ophelia a place among Shakespeare’s heroines which does not seem to be justified by anything but the prettiness and pathos of her mad scenes. Her submissive obedience to every impulse from her father scarcely balances her absolute want of perception of any truth or delicacy which she owes to Hamlet, for whose betrayal she allows herself,without apparent resistance, to be made the decoy.
Thus the last blow that Fortune can now strike at him has fallen — his friends have abandoned him; his simple love,the innocent creature in whom, if no lofty passion was possible, there still seemed every commendation to sweet domestic trust and truth, has done her best to betray him. What remains for this man to whom all the world has turned traitor, under whose feet the solid soil has crumbled, who sees nothing but yawning ruin round him, abysses of darkness, bottomless pits of falsehood, wherever he may turn?
This, it seems to us, is the deepest and chief strain in the tragedy. The murder and the vengeance he would take for it, would his sick heart leave him enough possibility of living to give the necessary standing-ground for the blow — form the sole source of energy and life which he retains. That cruel and monstrous wrong, for which he can yet get some amends, rouses him from the deadly collapse of every hope and wish which he cannot escape, which nothing in heaven or earth can remedy. The passion of the great scene with the ghost brings before us another Hamlet, a heroic figure, altogether awakened out of the sick and miserable musing, the impotent still anger and pain of his previous appearance. “Remember thee?” he cries; “ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat in this distracted globe.” And the wild humour of his excitement as he makes his companions swear to secrecy, is not more unlike the bitter satire of hopeless despondency with which in a previous scene he explains his mother’s marriage as “thrift, thrift, pure thrift” — than is the roused and passionate fervour of his action from the apathy of spectatorship in which we have seen him plunged from the first. Again, the gleam of revival which occurs when the players present themselves, and he perceives a ready means in his hand of convicting the criminal, confirming the apparition, and striking a first and subtle blow, once more restores force and life to Hamlet. There is no vacillation in his measures then. How prompt, how ready, how practical are all his combinations! Once more he is delivered from the deadly influence of that eating falsehood, and truth becomes possible.

“I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul, that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions.
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ.”

After the terrible success of this experiment, we are not left time to see any further faltering of purpose. The events follow in breathless succession. The great scene with his mother and the killing of Polonius take place the same evening — and that very night or the morning immediately succeeding, without pause or delay, he is swept away to England on the expedition from which the king hopes he may never return. The “vacillation” with which Hamlet is continually credited, and of which so much has been said, is all confined to the untold period between the appearance of the ghost and the point at which the story resumes, with the treacheries of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and of Ophelia. After he has made sure by the trial to which he subjects his uncle at the play, of the guilt of the king, Hamlet, save at the moment when he surprises the criminal on his knees, and decides not to kill him, has no further opportunity for vacillation. And here the sustained action of the tragedy may be said to end. The last act is a bewildering postscript, in which all the mysteries of the previous close and elaborate piece of tragedy are swept up. It might be almost a new play, so different is it — or the beginning of a continuation which shows us all the former occurrences thrown into distance and perspective. Of the original actors none remain except Hamlet himself,the king and queen, and the two lay figures of Horatio and Laertes. Ophelia is gone, all her simplicities and artless treachery ended in a pretty foolish madness as much unlike the “lunacy of the Lord Hamlet” as can be conceived; and old Polonius, wagging his wise old head in shallow sagacity; and the young court friends, who cannot understand their princely companion, but can betray him — all are swept away. And with them has gone Hamlet’s despair, and his plan of vengeance, and all those obstinate questionings with which he has endeavoured to blow aside the veil of human uncertainty. We tread new ground, and enter a new contracted, less impassioned world.
All this time, though we have discussed Hamlet much, we have given but little attention to Mr Irving, though it is his performance which has furnished the text of the disquisition. Notwithstanding the very serious and conscientious perfomance he gives us, it is very difficult to judge what is the conception he has formed of the character of Hamlet. He would seem rather to have studied the drama scene by scene, endeavouring with all his powers to give what seems to him an adequate representation of each, than to have addressed himself to the character as a whole. And though there are general criticisms of the superficial kind to be addressed to him, such as the very natural and reasonable objection to the language he speaks,which certainly is quite as imperfect English as that which any foreigner may have made use of — we are prevented by our inability to discriminate what his idea is, from finding any fault with that idea. He wants humour so entirely, that the wild pathetic gleams of diversion which light up the gloom are lost to his audience; and the laugh which breaks in at the most bitter moments — that laugh which is full of tears, yet is nevertheless instinct with a wildly humorous perception of things ludicrous and incongruous — loses all its distinctive character, and becomes a mere hysterical symbol of excessive emotion, no more expressive than a shriek. And he wants the flexibility, the ready change from one mood to another, the rapidity of transition which bewilders Hamlet’s commonplace companions. The broken jest, so strangely natural, yet to the vulgar eye so unsuited to the occasion, with which he hails the interruptions of the ghost — his fantastic fooling of Polonius — even the lighter touches between deadly jest and earnest with which his interview with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is full — are all beyond Mr Irving’s power. And the wild outburst of tragic gaiety into which he breaks when the assembly is broken up after the play, becomes mere mad bellowing and screaming in Mr Irving’s hands, without any suggestion of that wavering of the mind at the very summit of tragic satisfaction, consternation, and horror, frantic with meaning, yet a world apart from madness, which is perhaps the furthest step humanity can take into what is expressible and capable of being put into words: it is a step beyond the actor’s powers. To embody the vicissitudes, the extremes, the heights and depths of this most wonderful of poetical creations, who could be sufficient who did not to some degree share Hamlet’s nature, his large eyesight, his comprehension of small and great, his susceptibility to every breath that flits across the mental horizon? This last quality apparently Mr Irving does not perceive at all; for we are sure that if he perceived it he would devote himself to a study of all the ripplings of sensitive faces, all the transitions of changeable minds. His own countenance is at times finely expressive, but it has not been made for the flickerings of a mind at once spontaneous and complex. Its force is single, uni, not mingled but of one colour. Hamlet is too great to be called versatile, a word reserved by us for the use of characters of slighter mould; but there is all the gamut in him, and no difficulty in going at once from the height to the depth of the moral scale. But Mr Irving possesses no such varied power of expression; and this must always be fatally in his way when it is necessary to attempt those shades of meaning which are infinite, and which vary with every breath. As an instance, however, of what seems to us complete misconception more serious than simple failure, we may instance the scene with Ophelia, which no doubt is one of the most difficult in the play. It is hard in any case (notwithstanding that the doctrine is popular) to give a persistent tone of superiority to a man’s intercourse with a woman without offending the finer perceptions as well as the wholesome prejudices of the audience, which naturally range themselves on the woman’s side; and it is still more difficult to show the turn of sentiment, and justify Hamlet’s wild and sudden onslaught upon so soft and shrinking a nature. Mr Irving avoids this by turning the scene into one of the most impassioned and frantic love — love of gesture and attitude, since he can not change the words, which are as unlike love-making as ever were put on paper. His Hamlet can scarcely restrain himself from clasping Ophelia to his heart, his arms are all but closed around her, and when he turns himself away it is but to turn back, drawn by an attraction which it takes not only all his power of resolution but all his muscular force to resist. Those embracings of the air, those futile snatchings and withdrawals,are supposed to be proofs of a violent and passionate love, restrained or broken either by madness or by misery — Mr Irving does not clearly give us to understand which — but certainly belonging at least to a most robust sentiment, for even the sight of the half-concealed spectators, about whose presence it is impossible he can deceive himself, makes no difference to him; and he goes on with those wild half-embraces and the strangest pantomimic struggle of passion after he knows of the plot and treachery, making an exhibition of his feelings under the very noses of the watchers. From whence Mr Irving can have taken this extraordinary conception is impossible to tell. It is contradicted not only by every word Hamlet says, but by the verdict of the spies after. “Love! his affections do not that way tend,” says the king, more clear-sighted than Mr Irving; though, indeed, had Mr Irving been Hamlet (as, thank heaven! he is not), Polonius must have remained master of the field, since nothing could justify his mad behaviour but the old courtier’s theory. There are many jarring notes in the performance, but none so entirely false as this.
On the equally delicate ground where Hamlet is confronted by the other treachery in the persons of Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Mr Irving is much more happy. Though he is incapableof the light banter which conceals so much tragic feeling, his intercourse with them is well done throughout, though somewhat extreme in gravity. The searching look,which is the first evidence of his doubts, follows very quickly upon his cordial recognition of his fellow-students; and the manner in which he penetrates through their shifting and paltry defences is fine in its reality and concentrated observation — a study as successful as the encounter with Ophelia is false. In the one case he has caught the true tone of the character, in the other goes wilfully against it, and against every indication of the text. The fine scene with the recorder, to which we have already referred, is somewhat spoiled by the violence with which he breaks, when he has served his purpose, the pipe which has proved so powerful an illustration of his meaning; but this is a detail which may easily be pardoned, all the rest being so satisfactory. By the way, the introduction of the recorder, not only in Mr Irving’s arrangement, but in every other we have seen, is singularly artificial. Hamlet has demanded “some music — the recorders,” in his wild exultation at the end of the play-scene, meaning evidently a performance of music to soothe or inspire his excited fancy, or to take the place of the entertainment so summarily interrupted. The recorder, however, is brought to him as if he had asked for it simply to give the courtiers their lesson, the idea of music to be performed before him failing altogether. Mr Irving’s careful zeal for all these matters might well be exerted on this point to make the introduction of the instrument more natural.
That he does not think any detail trivial is apparent from his notes in a contemporary, the last of which is occupied with a defence of his own practice in withdrawing the two portraits of traditionary use, which have hitherto figured in the queen’s chamber, and afforded a visible text for Hamlet’s speech — “Look here, upon this picture, and on this.” Mr Irving’s crotchet on this point is really unimportant; though it is somewhat confusing, we think, to the spectator, to have so distinct an allusion without any visible ground for it; and the suggestion he makes, that the stage has four walls, and that the portraits may be supposed to be hanging upon that which “is only theoretical” — which, in reality, is the theatre, with all its crowding faces — is somewhat ludicrous. The absence of the portraits, or of the miniatures which sometimes do duty for them, weakens the force of the speech, in so far as any failure of external accessories can weaken it, which is a trivial quantity. But this accessory to which the text seems to point is, on the whole, more important than the chamber candle which Hamlet, with real attention, lights and hands to his mother at the conclusion of the interview, neglecting, however, as we cannot but feel, to remind her of the night-gear, evidently airing at the fire, which gives truth and local colour to the room; though, after all, it is not the queen’s bedroom, but only some boudoir appartenant, or there would be no need for the chamber-candle at all. The scene which takes place in this room is strangely lopped and cut; something it may be necessary to omit in deference to modern modesties, but these are somewhat too much regarded in a scene of passion so intense. And the sudden vehemence of Hamlet’s action, when the voice behind the arras rouses him into wild rapidity of impulse, leaving no time for thought, loses all its force in Mr Irving’s treatment. He lifts the arras before he strikes, making any doubt about the person of the victim impossible, and taking the meaning out of his own question, “Is it the king?” It must be remembered that he has come there still breathless with the wild emotion of the play-scene; that he has passed, on his way, through the oratory where the king is praying, and has spared him ; and that the transport of sudden passion with which he rushes at the concealed spectator is a payment of long arrears to the arch-enemy, who had already used this same mean device to surprise his thoughts. We cannot tell why Mr Irving should have cut out two lines of the words addressed to the dead Polonius, which are far from unnecessary:

“Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better; take thy fortune;
Thou find’st to be too busy is some danger

is what Shakespeare wrote; but Mr Irving omits the italics, leaving the victim without even so much disdainful regret as this. Altogether ludicrous, too, is the appearance of the ghost in this very important scene. The convolutions of the queen’s night-drapery, which, so far as she is concerned, occupy the most prominent place in the scene, billowing hither and thither as she is affected by Hamlet’s vituperations, had, we confess, so occupied our mind, that when, with a rush, a venerable gentleman in familiar domestic costume came on the stage, shaking it with substantial footsteps, the idea of the ghost did not present itself at all to our dull imagination; and it was impossible to avoid the natural idea that the lady’s husband, hearing an unaccountable commotion in the next room, had jumped out of bed, seized his dressing-gown, and rushed in to see what was the matter. The combination of this and the chamber-candle which Hamlet lights so carefully, and the night-gown airing at the fire, is most unfortunate. These accessories are a great deal more prosaic than the introduction of pictures would be; and we cannot but wonder that the actor who leaves so much to imagination at one moment, should leave so little to it at another. There are many omissions, too, which seem distinct faults in the representation, diminishing its effect — as, for instance, at the end of the play-scene, where the alarmed phrases exchanged by the spectators occupy the moment necessary to show us the king’s perturbation, before the whole train suddenly rushes away, and everything is over. Here is the version of Shakespeare: —

“Ham. He poisons him i’ the garden for’s estate. His name’s Gonzago: the story is extant, and writ in choice Italian. You shall see anon how the murderer gets the love of Gonzago’s wife.

Oph. The king rises.
Ham. What! frighted with false fire?
Queen. How fares my lord?
Pol. Give o’er the play.

King. Give me some light: — away!
All Lights,lights,lights!”

Mr Irving leaves out all that we have put in italics, thus gaining nothing in point of time, and entirely missing the confused consciousness of the spectators, which helps the effect of the scene so greatly. As it is now being represented, the king’s exclamation, and the echoing cry of the courtiers for lights, are all that is interposed between the sudden flight of the court and Hamlet’s explanation of the argument of the play. His own outcry, “What! frighted with false fire?” is transposed, and comes after the precipitate withdrawal of the royal party. Thus the effect of three independent witnesses to the king’s conviction and remorse, each breaking in spontaneously, with a rising excitement which makes the rush of the departure infinitely more telling and lifelike, is entirely lost. And no counterbalancing advantage is gained by the omission of these few but pregnant phrases, which do not delay but only elucidate the action. We cannot understand, either, why of Hamlet’s wild doggerel the verse which is universally known and full of meaning, should be omitted, while the second mad rhyme is retained:

“Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play,”

is as fit an expression of the wild feeling of the moment as could be found — whereas the jingle that is retained is a mere maddening clatter of words, expressive enough of the frantic levity of passion when taken in conjunction with the other, but far less worthy of preservation than the other. We fail also to perceive any reason for leaving out one of the best-known lines in the Ghost’s address to Hamlet, “Unhousel’d, disappointed, unanel’d.” Perhaps there is no single line in the whole play the omission of which would so strike the most careless listener. It is like leaving out a bar in a strain of music, and withdraws our mind from the rest of the speech into involuntary investigation of the mystery of this incomprehensible “cut.” Why, except to make us stumble and distract our attention, should this have been left out? The omission of the scene in the oratory,the king’s prayer and Hamlet’s fierce and momentary self-discussion thereanent, is perhaps less to be complained of. We sincerely sympathise with Mr Irving in the grievous disappointments he must encounter in the persons of his kings. The Shakespearian monarch is a being by himself; and how to get him to look — not like a king, but — like anything better than a hobby-horse, must be a labour of Hercules such as only managers fully appreciate. It is much better to leave the scene out altogether than to associate only ludicrous ideas with it. A gentleman whose chief thought when he kneels is about the knees of his “tights,” and who goes on serenely saying his prayers while the avenger rants and waves a torch within a foot of him, is better left out when he can be left out. Indeed their majesties of Denmark at the Lyceum must be almost as great an exercise to Mr Irving’s soul as were their originals to Hamlet. The swing of their respective mantles, especially that fine wave of white silk lining from the monarch’s shoulder, is the chief point that strikes us. As for the queen, the manner in which her majesty swathes herself in her red and yellow night-gown during the exciting scene in her chamber,`making its billows and puffings do duty for the emotion she shows but little trace of otherwise, is probably due to some archaeological instructions previously administered by Hamlet, rather than to any inspiration of her own. We cannot, however, pass over the personnel of the drama without saying something of Miss Ellen Terry’s Ophelia. No Ophelia of our time has given to the character so graceful a presence. The very excellence of the actress, however, makes more apparent the insignificance of the part allotted to her. Nothing can make the submissive little daughter of Polonius a great poetical heroine. All the prejudices of the audience are in her favour, and we have grown up with the idea that she ranks among the Juliets and Rosalinds; and, unfortunately, it has been very easy on most occasions to assure ourselves that our disappointment arose solely from the incapacity of the actresses to whom (a necessity for a singing voice being in itself a limitation to the number of Ophelias possible) the part was intrusted. But now that we have a representative to whom no exception can be made, this delusion fails us. Even Miss Terry cannot give more than the mildest interest to the character. What she can do she does; though even the sweet and animated archness of her countenance, though capable of touching pathos, would be more adapted for a Rosalind full of life and action, than for the plaintive weakness of Ophelia.
The last act of “Hamlet” remains to ourselves a mystery. We cannot attempt to discuss what we so little understand. Had not Shakespeare been writing plays for an audience to which an orthodox ending was necessary — had not even the supreme creator laboured under that necessity for a third volume with which critics upbraid the smaller artists of fiction — it is likely enough that he would have left this tale unfinished, as it is at the end of the fourth act. There is no end practicable for such a hero. Death indeed cuts the thread artificially both in real life and poetry; but it is an artificial ending, however it comes about, and, so far as we are concerned, solves no problem, though we make bold to believe that it explains everything to the person chiefly concerned. In the fifth act all is changed. That former world has rolled away with all its passions and pains. Hamlet, having delivered himself by the promptest energetic action, in an emergency which is straightforward and without complications, comes back with a languor and exhaustion about him which contrasts strangely with the intensity of all his previous emotions. Contemplative as ever, there is no longer any strain of mystic anguish in his musings. Unaccountably, yet most evidently, the greatness of his suffering has dissolved away. He walks into the scene like a man recovered from an illness — like one who has been dreaming and is awake, a sadder and a wiser man than he was only yesternight. His speculations in the churchyard are all in a lower key. Instead of those sublime questionings of earth and heaven which formed the burden of all his thoughts — instead of the passion of disenchantment and cruel consciousness of treachery and falsehood — the flight of his subdued fancy goes no higher than the base uses to which the dust of humanity may return. True, he starts into spasmodic excitement when roused by the ranting of Laertes over his sister’s grave, and meets him with an outburst of responsive ranting, in which there is a gleam of his old wild humour, though subdued like himself to a lower tone. “The bravery of his grief did put me into a towering passion,” he exclaims afterwards to Horatio; and his sudden irritation and outdoing of the swagger of his natural opponent is the thing most like the Hamlet of old in the whole postscriptal episode. So also in a mild degree is the scene with the young euphuist Osric, where prince and courtier give us a dialogue in the manner of Lyly, according to the fashion of Elizabeth’s time rather than Hamlet’s, wonderfully reduced and tamed from the wild and brilliant play of the prince with Polonius in the previous acts. Throughout the growing rapidity of action with which all things tend towards the catastrophe, Hamlet bears himself with noble and unsuspicious dignity, while the last murderous network of deceit, which is compassing his death, closes round him. The hand of fate is upon him, his insight is clouded with a great weariness, his deep soul subdued. It does not occur to him apparently to ask why this wager of the king’s, or for what purpose he, of all men in the world, is backed up and set forth as his champion by his natural enemy. He walks this time calmly, with melancholy grace, into the snare. Thus Hamlet dies, as he has suffered, by fraud. Treachery has tracked him from the beginning of the great and melancholy story. It has broken his heart, it has untwisted for him all the ties of nature, it has made love and friendship into delusions, and life itself a troubled dream. What is the secret of the subdued dead hush and calm with which he comes before us in the end? Is it mere weariness, exhaustion of all possibility of action, the sense that nothing more remains worth struggling for — for even his revenge, the one object which had kept the channels of life clear, has disappeared in the last chapter? Who can tell? Only at the very end does a gleam of the old passion flash in his face, as he at last accomplishes that vengeance, and sends his enemy before him into the land of retribution. So far as our theory goes, the last act is in fact the return of the poet to his real theme. His hero has been wrecked throughout by treachery. The higher betrayals that affected his heart and soul wrung Hamlet’s being, and transformed the world to him: but the meaner tricks that assailed his life were too low for his suspicion. How was he, so noble, so unfortunate, measuring his soul against the horrible forces of falsehood, the spiritual wickedness in high places, to come down from that impassioned and despairing contest, to think of poison, or take precautions against it? Thus the traitor got the better of him, and death triumphed at the last.
There is nothing to object to in Mr Irving’s performance of this last portion of the play. It suits him better than all that has gone before. The anachronism which we believe experts find in the exhibition of a modern scientific manner of fencing, which could not have existed in the vague traditionary days of Hamlet the Dane, is but a trifling and scholarly grievance, and there is no complication of passions to carry these scenes beyond the actor’s range. If he would dispense with the ludicrous head-dress which is half like Mephistopheles and half like a gipsy woman, we should feel that Mr Irving’s churchyard scene was as satisfactory a rendering as we are likely to attain.

The Happiest Hipster

It is well known that the leftist hippies of a previous generation were directly inspired by cranky conservative writers, such as Wendell Berry and J.R.R. Tolkien. What is less well known is that the left-leaning urban hipsters of today partake of much of the unique aesthetic of another conservative writer–G.K. Chesterton. Like Berry, Chesterton eschewed cosmopolitanism and prioritized belonging to a certain place. It just so happened that the place to which Chesterton belonged was suburban London; he did not share Berry’s feeling that dwelling in the capitol was in any way inferior to dwelling in a country home. Not only did Chesterton fail to farm, as Berry does, he did not even work in his own garden, as Tolkien did. He writes of sitting in his garden and watching his gardener work:

The gardener was gardening. I was not gardening. .. It is quite certain that he would not have allowed me to touch the garden if I had gone down on my knees to him.
And it is by no means certain that I should have consented to touch the
garden if he had gone down on his knees to me…

And all the time I was thinking what a shame it was that he was not
sticking his spade into his own garden, instead of mine: he knew about the
earth and the underworld of seeds, the resurrection of Spring and the
flowers that appear in order like a procession marshalled by a herald.
He possessed the garden intellectually and spiritually, while I only
possessed it politically.

Like the hipster farm tourists of today, Chesterton firmly identified with the urban location and the relatively idle social class into which he was born; he also felt a deep ambivalence about hereditary class privilege, and wistfully admired people who work with their hands.

He even cultivated a fascination with the pleasures of local culture and cuisine. In a mock defense of Prohibition, he writes

But the private brews differ very widely; multitudes are quite harmless and some are quite excellent. I know an American university where practically every one of the professors brews his own beer; some of them experimenting in two or three different kinds. But what is especially delightful is this: that with this widespread revival of the old human habit of home-brewing, much of that old human atmosphere that went with it has really reappeared. The professor of the higher metaphysics will be proud of his strong ale; the professor of the lower mathematics (otherwise known as high finance) will allege something more subtle in his milder ale; the professor of moral theology (whose ale I am sure is the strongest of all) will offer to drink all the other dons under the table without any ill effect on the health. Prohibition has to that extent actually worked the good, in spite of so malignantly and murderously willing the evil. And the good is this: the restoration of legitimate praise and pride of the creative crafts of the home.

This being the case, it seems that some of our more ardent supporters might well favour a strong, simple and sweeping policy. Let Congress or Parliament pass a law not only prohibiting fermented liquor, but practically everything else. Let the Government forbid bread, beef, boots, hats and coats; let there be a law against anybody indulging in chalk, cheese, leather, linen, tools, toys, tales, pictures or newspapers. Then, it would seem by serious sociological analogy, all human families will begin vigorously to produce all theses things for themselves; and the youth of the world will really return.

Chesterton wrote a few essays that elaborate more on the beauties of some of the items in his catalog of “goods which ought to be banned”–one essay is about the glories of local cheese, and another concludes with the thrill of locally sourcing chalk. He also wrote something about local wine. Twenty-first century anti-globalists can be divided into two broad camps: a camp of those who rebel against globalization by voting against international coalitions, and a camp of those who rebel against globalization by delighting in microbrews. Chesterton, who co-invented a rather locally oriented political philosophy called Distributism, carried Hipsterism to its logical conclusion.

 

 

For the Sake of God Alone

By S.Y. Agnon

(Explanatory notes are at the end)

A Chassid of the Maggid of Zlotchov used to travel to Zlotchov every year on the Saturday night that was the first night of selichot. He would go to be near his rebbe in Zlotchov, arrive in time for the recitation of selichot, and stay through Yom Kippur. His journeys there and back were generally peaceful. One year, he set off on his way just as he did every year, anticipating that he would arrive in time for selichot just as he did every year. This anticipation was, in fact, fulfilled–he did arrive in time for selichot. His journey to Zlotchov, however, was not a smooth one. When he left his village, the sky was full of stars, the earth radiated joy, and he too was joyful, with the joy of a chassid who goes to greet the rebbe from whom he has learned Torah and the fear of Heaven. On his way, he exercised his voice by repeating the stern rebukes he had heard during the days of Elul from itinerant pietists and preachers.

The Chassid sweetened the journey for himself with a mournful melody, like a preacher who stands at a podium and delivers a sermon to the congregation. Sometimes he endears himself to the members of the congregation by calling them “dear brothers,” and sometimes he frightens them by calling them “strayers and fools.” This chassid did not notice that when he stretched out his right hand imposingly, the bag containing his prayer shawl and phylacteries slipped and fell.

Meanwhile, the sky had knotted over with thick clouds, the stars had hidden, and the road had disappeared. He found himself knocking about blindly until he ended up in a forest which he had never seen or even heard of before. While he was attempting to leave the forest, rain began to fall, and it increased in severity until it had the force of a rushing river.

A great black fear fell upon him. The rain fell, and his fear grew as he stood there in the forest being slapped in the face and hammered on the head by tree branches and rain. The rain also undermined his footing, until he couldn’t tell whether he was floating or sinking into the ground. The forest stretched on beyond measure and without end–and the night was still young. And such a night–a long, cold night at the year’s end.

There the chassid stood in the forest, in the rain and penetrating darkness. His clothes were saturated with water, and his very soul folded from grief within him. Each time he forcefully extricated himself from one entanglement, he found himself in a place that presented an even more difficult one.

A bolt of lightning illuminated the entire forest. The chassid looked around and saw a cottage with light coming out of it. He gathered his strength, extricated his legs from where they were, and made his way to the cottage. He found an open doorway and went in.

Inside, he saw creatures who looked like men. Their long ears stretched down below their feet to the floor, and even beneath it. Each one held a clerk’s quill in his hand and sat before thick notebooks. The pages of the notebooks were made of skins which had never been cured by a tanner. Strange voices rumbled and rose up from beneath the floor and came to sit on the tips of the quills, from whence the voices would shriek, while the crying, agitated quills would hasten all over the notebooks.

The chassid understood that he had come to a place that was not good. He stood with failing knees and silently prayed that that which could happen would not happen. When he reached out to touch the bag containing his prayer shawl and phylacteries, he couldn’t find it, and he realized that it had been lost on the road. He reflected to himself that when a man’s way is destroyed by sin, he has nothing left to hold onto in his time of need. For what sin he was being punished he did not know.

One of the strange creatures lifted his head from his notebook and flailed his arms about, like a person who is trying not to drown. If the chassid’s eyes did not deceive him, both of this creature’s hands–like both hands of each of his companions–were left hands, but they worked so quickly it was as if they were each seventy seven hands. As they worked, the creatures cursed and imprecated, saying “The souls of preachers should blow out. I have seen an end of all perfection, but vain words have no end.” To what words they were referring the chassid could not guess. The chassid shrank away so that the demons would not notice him. He continued to shrink himself until there was nothing left of him but terror.

The chassid realized that it would do him no good just to stand there, immobilized by fear, so he gathered what strength he had and transmuted it into words: “I was walking on the road when it began to rain, and I came to your house to shelter from the downpour. Now that the rain has stopped I shall go on my way.” When he turned around to leave, he saw that all of the walls were completely opaque–there was no door. How had he come in, then? He was too disoriented to remember. Though he continued to look around, he could not find the doorway.

The chassid forced himself to tell them that it was his custom to travel to Zlotchov on the first night of selichot every year to stay near his rebbe for the Days of Awe. He also told them about what had happened to him after he set out on that night’s journey. But those long ears which heard what was underground were deaf to words of truth.

After the chassid had banged on all of the walls without finding the opening, the chief demon said to his minions, “Open up for him.” When the chassid was about to go, the chief demon said to him, “We are allowing you to go on the condition that you come back to us after thirty-one days. If you do not return, we will come and take you ourselves, even if we have to drag you from under the prayer shawl of your rebbe.”

What could the wretch say in reply? He nodded his head. The chief demon responded, “You think that it is a nod of your head that we want; it is you that we want. If you swear that you will return to us, we will show you to the doorway so that you can leave.” The poor man thought that if they didn’t show him the way out, he was destined to run around in circles until the breath of the enemies of Israel should expire. He swore that he would return to them after thirty-one days. They opened the door for him and he left. Outside, he found himself in the place in which he had been standing before he entered the forest that was not a forest. He found his prayer shawl and phylacteries waiting for him there. He wondered at his own failure to get out of that cottage himself–if only he had tried harder, he would have found the doorway. True, the walls had seemed opaque, but surely he could have opened whichever part of the wall the demons had opened, and he would have avoided the necessity of acquiescing to their demand that he return to them. The chassid sighed in his heart, hugged his prayer shawl and phylacteries, and began to walk. After about an hour he arrived in time for the recitation of “O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee” in the Maggid’s house of prayer.

After morning prayers, the chassid went to get the “shalom” greeting from his rebbe–but his rebbe did not give him shalom. The chassid stood behind the door of the maggid. Men were going in and out–some of them were wealthy householders, some of them were chassidim, and some of them were regular Jews who happened to live in that city. The Maggid greeted and spoke with everyone. To him alone the Maggid would not give a greeting or even a look. The chassid stood with a broken and contrite heart, and wondered, “What is my sin and what is my transgression: why does the Maggid shun me like this?” He still expected that the Maggid would tell him to enter after everyone else had left. However, when they were all gone, the Maggid closed the door. The chassid dragged himself away, went to the Maggid’s study hall, sat down in a corner, and made an accounting of his actions in order to determine what was the cause of the Maggid’s refusal to return his shalom. The chassid fasted that day and the following night. When it was time to recite selichot again, he roused himself from his place and stood with the rest of the congregation, swimming in tears, and it need not be said that he remained in this state for the prayer of “Answer Us.” Although this chassid was not the only one who recited selichot in this manner, all of the others found some resting place within their hearts, while his heart was torn and boiled. His manner while praying the morning prayer was the same as it had been during selichot.

After he had removed his phylacteries and taken off his prayer shawl, he gathered his strength and went to his rebbe. The Rebbe saw him and locked the door in his face. As it was that day, so it was on the morrow, and the day after that, and so on the eve of Rosh Hashanah–when all are blessed by their rebbes–and so on the two days of Rosh Hashanah. Even on the day before Yom Kippur, when the Maggid’s hand was extended to all and sundry, he did not return shalom to this chassid.

The Sacred Day passed and the holiday of Sukkot arrived. All were elated as defendants who had been absolved by the court. The followers of the Maggid, who had prayed with their rebbe and seen his service–which resembled the service of the High Priest on Yom Kippur, when he stood in the Holy of Holies to plead for mercy for his people, Israel– were especially joyful. Everyone was joyful–but our chassid was heartsick. Then too, his rebbe had locked the door in his face and had not allowed him to pour out what he had to say.

Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret passed, and Simchat Torah came. We rejoice on all other days of the year in the commandment of Torah study; on Simchat Torah, we rejoice in the Torah itself. There was joy on every face, but our chassid mourned in his heart, for the day on which he must return to that cottage drew nigh, and his rebbe, who had the power to help him, would not allow him to approach. The chassid threw all of his hopes upon the Almighty.

Thirty days after the chassid’s encounter with the demons, the Maggid called him to his chamber. The chassid came and stood with a broken and contrite heart. The Maggid rested his head upon the column which was in front of him, and stood that way for an hour or so. Afterwards, he raised his head and said

“Do you know what kind of a place that is? It is not a good place. It is a house where impurity dwells, for the demons sit there and write down each and every sermon that the preachers preach for the sake of advertising their cleverness and erudition, to preen before the crowd, and become great in the eyes of God’s creatures. Similarly, the demons write there all of the words of those who rebuke others without rebuking themselves first. What brought you to that place are the sermons of which you are so enamored. Even on the very first night of selichot–when a Jew must prepare his heart for repentance–you enjoyed them. You promised those creatures that you would return, and a Jew must keep whatever commitment passes his lips: you must return to them as you told them you would. But do not be afraid of them; tell them that you are one of the men of the Maggid of Zlotchov. They will certainly mock both you and me, but do not be troubled by their laughter–say to them, ‘if you can find one word that has come from the mouth of the Maggid of Zlotchov that was not for the sake of the Almighty, you have a right to do with me what you will. If not, you must leave me alone and let me go on my way.'”

And the Maggid of Zlotchov said,

“I am certain that–thanks to the Blessed One’s kindness–they will not find in their notebooks a word that has left my mouth that was not for the sake of Heaven, for every sermon that I give and every word that I speak is uttered for the sake of God alone. Go to life and peace, and may God help us to serve Him with whole hearts, and without any alien intentions.”

The chassid took leave of his rebbe and went on his way, and God helped him–for no inappropriate thoughts came into his head, and he thought only of the ways of divine service and fear which he had witnessed by observing his holy rebbe, whose study, prayer, speech, and even necessary actions–without which no one born of woman can endure–were all for the sake of Heaven.

At midnight, the chassid returned to the spot. He entered and saw the creatures sitting in their places, with their ears inserted into the ground, holding their quills in their left hands, while unsavory voices floated up from the ground and latched on to the tips of the quills, and the agitated quills rushed over the foul-smelling notebooks. Not a single one of the creatures looked up at the chassid or asked him anything.

The chassid did not want to stay any longer than was necessary in that house of impurity. He said to them, “I am the man who was here on the first night of selichot.”

The chassid had assumed that as soon as he had spoken they would put down their work, he would tell them what his rebbe had commanded him to say, and they would let him go in peace. But they paid him no heed since–due to the sins of that generation–the sermons had proliferated, and still continued to multiply. Because no person who entered their cottage ever left, it wasn’t worthwhile for them to lose a minute of work on his behalf.

The chassid hardened his face and said, “I promised to come; I did not promise to waste my time here. If you do not release me immediately, I shall show myself out.” They raised their ears from the ground and gazed at him in wonderment. Never before had they encountered a man who was not afraid of them, let alone one who would address them with such impudence. They grabbed him with their ears and pushed him about the room. The chassid pushed back and said, “I am one of the men of the Maggid of Zlotchov.”

The room erupted in laughter. The creatures ridiculed him and his rebbe among themselves: some posed mocking questions, others answered, all laughed. The chassid did not care for them or for their laughter. He stood gazing at them coldly. They began to wonder: the souls of great preachers, whose bellies were equal in size to a prayer quorum of Jews, had expired here from fear, while this dried out man who looked like a schoolteacher’s shovel said that he belonged to the Maggid of Zlotchov, and betrayed no sign of fear.

The chief of these creatures asked his fellows, “Have any of you heard of this Maggid of Zlotchov–the one this dried out fig of a man says he belongs to?” They responded, “We have not heard his name, nor have we seen his sermons.” “Let us look into the notebooks,” he said.

To explain what the notebooks were: men’s actions and thoughts are all written down in notebooks, as are their words. If men’s words are for the sake of Heaven, they are brought up before the Throne of Glory in order to give pleasure to their Creator; if they are for their own sakes–for their own good and pleasure, to increase their own glory and honor–they are sent down to the nether worlds, and demons come and grab them, possess them, and take responsibility for them. The demons charge a labor fee from each man whose words are written in their notebooks.

And why was this chassid punished by being forced into such a place on the first night of selichot? There were many preachers in that generation who would go to the synagogues and study halls, and who would preach sermons consisting of homilies and rebukes so that people would repent. Despite the fact that their words were reproofs of instruction and fear of Heaven, the intention of the preachers’ inner hearts was to show off their homiletic abilities, and because this chassid enjoyed their words he was punished–for enjoyment of something which is not all for Above merits punishment.

They brought their notebooks and searched through them, and did not find the name of the Maggid of Zlotchov–nor did they find any word of his. They checked a second time, and they still could not find his name, nor a word he had said, nor, it goes without saying, could they find any of his sermons. They wondered greatly at this: even those whose actions are all for the sake of Heaven occasionally allow a word that is not entirely for the sake of His blessed name to escape their lips–that is to say, they mix into the utterance of that word a bit of an intention for self-profit.

But we, chassidim the sons of chassidim, who have been taught by our fathers that the words of true tzaddikim are completely for the sake of Heaven, are not surprised that they could not find in their notebooks a single speech of the Maggid of Zlotchov, since it is known that each and every word which came out of his mouth was for the sake of God alone. That is why there was no mention of him in the notebooks.

The chassid went on his way happy and heart-content. He was happy because he had taken leave of the demons, and he was heart-content because he had merited to cleave to a rebbe who was holy and pure, and whose every word was for the sake of God alone.

And we, if we have not merited to know the early tzaddikim, have merited to tell stories of their deeds, stories of truth and faith, that ye may know the way in which ye must go.

 

Explanatory Notes

Elul – the Hebrew month of repentance in the Autumn which precedes Rosh Hashanah

Maggid – preacher

selichot – penitential prayers that are recited daily (excluding Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur) before sunrise, starting from four days to ten days before Rosh Hashanah (depending on the year) and throughout the Ten Days of Repentance which follow Rosh Hashanah and culminate on Yom Kippur.

“souls…blow out”-  cf. Job 31:39

“I have seen an end of all perfection, but vain words have no end.” – humorous juxtaposition of Psalm 119:96 and Job 16:3

from under the prayer shawl of your rebbe – the image evoked is of a father who covers his small children with his prayer shawl in the synagogue while the priests recite their blessing.

if you swear – here and elsewhere, literally “swear on your righteous affirmation.” “Righteous affirmation” is a (once) popular expression derived from a Talmudic play on Leviticus 19:36. Even a commitment without an oath must be treated as binding.

Israel’s enemies – Talmudic euphemism for the people of Israel, used when discussing a negative action or eventuality.

O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto Thee – Daniel 9:7 is the first line of the selichot liturgy.

Jews who happened to live in that city – literally, “the people who were in the city,” evocative of several verses in the Bible, cf. Jeremiah 29:16

broken and contrite heart – Psalm 51:17

Answer Us – part of the selichot liturgy

Sukkot – the Feast of Booths, a holiday which begins four days after Yom Kippur and lasts for seven days.

Shemini Atzeret – a one day holiday immediately following Sukkot

Simchat Torah – a one day holiday immediately following Shemini Atzeret

prayer quorum of Jews – ten men

reproofs of instruction – Proverbs 6:23

tzaddikim – perfectly righteous people

that ye may know the way etc. – Joshua 3:4

 

Lament for Zion

This famous elegy was written in the sixth century by Rabbi Elazar HaKalir.

For Zion and her towns complain

Like woman in her birthing pain

Or like a sackcloth girded maid

Whose husband in the ground’s been laid.

For devastation of her hall

By wretched flock’s most sinful fall;

For blasphemers who boldly came

Into the room that housed His name.

For holy priests in exile grim,

And singers of her faithful hymn;

For rivers of their kindred blood

Which coursed through courtyards in a flood.

For cities cloaked in silence thick–

Sans joyful calls from dances quick;

For meeting room that’s barren of

Men’s learned words and wars of love.

And for her daily sacrifice,

Redemption of her firstborns’ price,

For sacred bowls defilers broke,

For ceasing of her incense smoke.

For sons of kings without their swords,

Good David’s children, Zion’s lords,

Whose faces fair were darkened when

Her shining crowns were reft from them.

For Glory which, at that time, fled

Her ruined home amidst the dead.

For foeman fell, oppression cruel,

For sackcloth worn instead of wool.

For painful wounds and lashes strong

Her patient princes suffered long.

For bodies of her babes and youth

–smashed on stones without all ruth.

For gaiety of hateful foes

Who laughed to see her shames and woes.

And for free men reduced to scorn —

The pure of heart and noble born.

For crooked paths towards which she turned

From happy road in childhood learned.

And for her sad and swarthy throngs

All burnt by sins and scorched by wrongs.

For imprecating voices shrill

When rife she was with corpses still;

And for the shrieks and echoed call

Of stranger’s curse within her Hall.

O for Thy name that’s been profaned

By those who with her blood are stained.

When Exile’s prayer they cry to Thee

Incline and hear and set her free!

The Heiress of Dickens

There are few pieces of criticism written on the books of JK. Rowling which neglect to mention the supposed influences of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien on the Harry Potter novels. Nothing could be neater than tying popular, literary, twentieth century writers of fantasy fiction into one bundle. This pretty packaging, however, must seem forced to those who, like myself, are fans of all three writers. How can one seriously claim that the vibrant primary colors of Harry Potter are substantially derived from the golds, grays, muted blues, and greens of Narnia and Middle Earth?

Furthermore, the works of the two Oxbridge professors are permeated with ineffable nostalgia, a feeling that is rarely encountered in Rowling’s work. The magical world that Harry enters is not older or essentially better than ours; it is just more fascinating. If J.K. Rowling is ever really guilty of nostalgia, it is the nostalgia for the future commonly known as progressivism. Hogwarts, which, as Mr. Filch is fond of reminding the students, used to use interesting methods of corporal punishment, was not always as nice a place as it now is. Dumbledore is kinder and wiser than previous headmasters, — one of whom unjustly expelled Hagrid. In the larger wizarding world, the abuse of house elves used to go unquestioned, but Hermione Granger is determined to end this practice and liberate the downtrodden house elves from their bonds. We are always made to feel that Middle Earth and Narnia, on the other hand, were once much better places than they now are. The spiritual decline of those lands has come to such a point, in fact, that The Lord of the Rings must conclude with the departure of the Elves — with all their magic and wisdom — from Middle Earth, while the Chronicles of Narnia end with total moral decay and an apocalypse.

With the exception of Lewis’ lamp post, inanimate objects belonging to the post-industrial world are, in the eyes of Lewis and Tolkien, symbolic of evil and ugliness. Rowling, on the other hand, embraces such objects and gives them a magical twist: while the victorious hobbits get rid of Saruman’s utilitarian, modern buildings, and the children entering Narnia are thankful to shed their ugly clothes for beautiful ones, in Rowling’s world, train stations are enchanted, modern canvas tents are larger on the inside than on the outside, and old newspapers and rubber tires are given the ability to magically transport groups of people from one place to another.

There are two schools of romance. One, which can be traced back in a straight line to the Romans (hence, we suppose, the word romance), is the refined, discontented school: its members are always impatient with their actual surroundings and yearning for goodness that can only be found somewhere “far, far away,” whether in a pastoral idyll or a mythical past. A representative work from this group is Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” in which the poet tells his child that

                                          I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.

The other school sees lovely things everywhere, and hears the eternal language of God even in a cloistered city. Its doctrine is encapsulated in Chesterton’s poem about a mailbox:

“In mine own city” thus he said—
“There stands a little man in red
Who in the steep street standeth still
And morn and even eats his fill
Of tales untold, wild truths and lies
Small wars and secret chivalries
You may walk round him as may be
He guards his secrets soldierly—
A quaint red tower not three feet wide
And thousands of mens’ souls inside.”

Lewis and Tolkien mainly belong to the first school (although they both incorporate some elements of the second school into their stories); Rowling belongs solidly to the second school.  While the history and origins of the everyday sort of romantic poetry are not as obvious as those of the classical kind, one earlier author who stands out for seeing magic in the mundane is Charles Dickens.

While Dickens is most regarded for his deeply humorous characters and biting social commentary (both of which qualities can be found in Rowling’s books as well), it is less often remarked that he is a pioneering writer of fantasy fiction as well. Several of Dickens’ works contain magical elements, and it is to these, and not to any twentieth century book, that Rowling owes her greatest debt. The device of Dumbledore’s “Pensieve,” which carries its user back into memories in which he can observe without being observed, is a pretty obvious homage to A Christmas Carol. The general kind of magic that can be found in Harry Potter — the all-embracing, humorous kind — is similar to the magic in some of  the random anecdotes found scattered throughout The Pickwick Papers. We hear in the cheeky banter of Hogwarts students with the school’s resident ghosts echoes of the young lawyer in Pickwick cleverly advising the tortured ghost-of-a-lawyer he encounters to leave his stuffy rooms in London and seek out fresher climes. Rowling’s image of an overstuffed couch that is revealed to be, in fact, a cowardly, obese man, is reminiscent of a chair in Pickwick with an old man’s features which coarsely boasts about all of the women who have “sat on its lap for hours together.”

Although we are certainly very lucky that Rowling picked up where Dickens left off, we suspect that even if Dickens hadn’t left any explicitly magical thread at all, it is possible that Rowling could still have been inspired by him (and similar authors) to create the wizarding universe. When Harry Potter first rides the Hogwarts Express, he discovers that wizard candy is more interesting than Muggle candy: Bertie Bott really does include all flavors in his jelly beans, including pepper, ear wax, and grass. There is nothing specifically “magical” about this; it is just amusing and different. Chesterton defines humor as “a rather deep and delicate appreciation of the absurdities of others.” It is in Pickwick, which is the work of Dickens at his funniest and most incorrigible, that Dickens’ enthusiasm boils over: he cannot confine himself to appreciating the absurdities of other people, but must also explore the eccentricities and exaggerations of inanimate objects and imaginary beings. Given the long and rich tradition of English comedy — and the benefit of hindsight — we may even feel that the creation of a world in which everything is perceived through humor’s exuberant lens and in which many objects undergo a supernatural transformation (or transfiguration), was inevitable.

Rowling shares a few other stylistic similarities with Dickens, the most notable of which is a penchant for gloriously improbable plots (although hers are much more tightly constructed than his). Something else the two authors have in common is that the books of both have been received with wild popularity. Of course, it would not have been possible for them to be so popular if they weren’t good. We all know, however, that there are many excellent, literary books that will never be so widely read. What makes our two authors popular is the fact that, morally outraged and satirical as they may occasionally be, they are, essentially, unabashedly joyful. And it is this very joy which enables them to see everything transformed by a magical light. If the somber moods of Lewis and Tolkien can be traced back to Virgil (as well as, in Tolkien’s case, Anglo-Saxon and Norse poets), who was a typically pensive pagan, the joyous moods of Dickens and Rowling may be traced to Isaiah, who proclaimed that “the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”