A Bedlam Humour

Elizabethan dramatists are known for their fascination with the medical lore of their day, which was based on the ancient Greek teaching that each person has a constitution that is predominated by one or two of four humors. According to Hippocrates and Galen, some people are dominated by the hot and dry, or choleric humor; some by the hot and moist, or sanguine humor; others by the cold and moist, or phlegmatic humor; and still others by the cold and dry, or melancholic humor (Lewis 169). Each of the four humors corresponds to one of the four elements, one of four life stages, and one of the four seasons: choler is associated with fire, young adulthood, and summer; sanguine with air, childhood, and spring; phlegm with water, old age, and winter; and melancholy with earth, middle age, and autumn (Lewis 169-70, Hedley). Disease, according to this system, is caused by an imbalance or excess of humors, and physicians would prescribe herbs, changes of diet, or bloodletting in order to heal patients by bringing their humors back into balance (Culpeper 11). Ben Jonson and George Chapman wrote entire plays which center around the theme of humoral imbalances, and which are known as humoral comedies (Hunter 282). Although Shakespeare’s interest in early modern medicine may not be quite as overt as that of some of his colleagues, his plays are nevertheless peppered with references to the four humors.

One writer maintains that “there are far fewer phlegmatic leading characters in Shakespeare’s plays than there are sanguine, melancholic, and choleric. Besides Falstaff…they usually function in the subplot of the comedies…in tragedies they may appear in short scenes of comic relief” (Ekstrom). This statement is not accurate, and is based on a superficial understanding of the phlegmatic temperament. In addition to laziness and slow movement, phlegm is associated with characteristics such as prevarication, cowardice, avarice, and, most significantly, madness. Ophelia, Richard II, and Malcolm are all Shakespeare characters who suffer from a surfeit of phlegm. Ophelia is subjected to external pressures which intensify her imbalances, the subjects of Richard II rebel because of his phlegmatic imbalance, and Malcolm receives good advice and is eventually able to overcome his phlegmatic imbalance. Understanding phlegm can help students of Shakespeare understand the plots involving these characters with more clarity.

According to an exhibition created by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, “madness of the kind Ophelia suffers after her father’s death and Hamlet’s rejection of her would have been understood as a drying and overheating of the brain” (“Melancholy Virgins”). There is no source given for this assertion, and it is contradicted by Nicholas Culpeper’s translation of Galen’s Art of Physick, in which hot and dry brains are understood to be clear and clever—the main drawback of having a hot and try distemper in the brain is chronic insomnia: “we shall first give the indications of a hot and dry Brain…they have excellent quick and nimble Wits, they watch much…” (Culpeper 21). In his discussion of brains, Galen attributes symptoms of madness exclusively to the distemper of a hot and moist brain: “[people who suffer from hot and moist brains] cannot keep themselves awake neither can they sleep quietly, but are molested with Dreams, and troubled with foolish imaginations, so that many times they think they see the things they see not, and hear the things they hear not, especially if the Brain offend more in heat than it doth in moisture” (Culpeper 23).

At first, it might appear as if Galen is saying that madness is caused by an excess of the hot and moist sanguine humor, or blood. This is surprising, however, because many medieval and early modern texts indicate that blood is associated with disease less than any of the other humors are—Chaucer even says that blood is “natures friend” (Lewis 171). One of Giovanni Maciocia’s modern textbooks on Chinese medicine can help to clarify the Galenic conception of madness:

When the mind is obstructed, there is a certain loss of insight, resulting in confused thinking, irrational thinking and behavior and, if there is also Heat, manic behavior. In extreme cases, obstruction of the Mind leads to the psychosis seen in bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However, it is important to realize that obstruction of the Mind occurs in a wide variety of degrees and having the Mind obstructed does not…mean mental illness in every case.

The Mind is obstructed by Phlegm or by Blood Stasis… (Chinese Medicine 447-48)

Fascinatingly, both Maciocia and Galen associate symptoms of psychosis with “heat.” Maciocia does not say that obstruction of the mind can be caused by the presence of blood, but he does say that it can be caused by the faulty movement of blood, and that it can also be caused by excess phlegm. That is, Maciocia says that madness can be caused by a problem with either of the two moist humors, and that mania occurs when heat is added to the mixture. Maciocia’s assertion that phlegm by itself can cause confused and irrational–but not psychotic or manic–thinking is exactly paralleled by Galen’s description of cold and moist brains:

The Brain afflicted with cold and moist distempers, moves a man to an inexpungable desire of sleep, and when he is awake, his Brain is so muddy, and his Senses so dull, that he can do nothing that will get him honor here, nor make him famous another day…his Head is full, though not of Wit… (Culpeper 25)

Before her madness, Ophelia is certainly not sanguine. The sanguine humor is associated with merriment, love, and courtesy; taciturn and docile, Ophelia unquestioningly obeys her father’s instructions to give up her lover, Hamlet, presumably without giving any kind of explanation to the latter (Culpeper 52-53, Hamlet. 2.1). Afterwards, she wordlessly agrees to be a tool in her father’s plot to trick Hamlet into betraying motivations which he is trying to hide (Ham. 3.1). Ophelia’s pre-madness behavior is in keeping with Culpeper’s description of the “dull” and “cowardly” phlegmatic temperament (Culpeper 57).

When Ophelia is subjected to emotional stress, her dull, phlegmatic behavior is replaced by manic psychosis. Laertes believes that her madness is caused by her grief for Polonius:

O heavens! Is’t possible a young maid’s wits

Should be as mortal as an old man’s life?

Nature is fine in love, and where ‘tis fine,

It sends some precious instance of itself

After the thing it loves. (Ham. 4.5.3037-41)

According to Maciocia, emotional stress causes Qi to rise, which in turn produces heat (“Empty Heat”). In the West, Galen introduced similar ideas about the effects of intense emotions on physical and mental health (“The Balance of Passions”). The specific image that Laertes is conjuring with “nature is fine in love” is Aristotle’s image of a flame burning upwards because it is lighter than the air around it: when a person experiences intense love, Laertes says, part of that person’s essence actually leaves his or her body and goes to the object of the love. Since Polonius is dead, Ophelia’s wits have flown to heaven with him. Whether it is called “rising Qi” or the “fineness of love,” what we have here is heat originating in emotion combining with Ophelia’s phlegmatic temperament to produce madness.

When he learns that Ophelia has drowned herself in her madness, Laertes says, “too much of water hast thou poor Ophelia,/ and therefore I forbid my tears” (Ham. 4.7.3335-36). This strange and sad pun could be understood in two ways, both of which are probably intended by the poet. Ophelia has, of course, drowned in water, and Laertes does not want to “add” to the water that drowned her, by crying. The other meaning of the pun is that Ophelia has been overcome by water internally—she has succumbed to an excess of phlegm, by dully sabotaging her own happiness by her obedient behavior before her father’s death, and by going mad after his death. Excessive crying is a pathology which, like dullness and madness, is also associated with phlegm, and Laertes is saying that, in honor of Ophelia, he will resist phlegm (Chinese Medicine 460).

In a note to his translation of Galen, Culpeper observes that a truly well-tempered man is “as rare as a phoenix” (Culpeper 12). In the English histories, perhaps more than in his other plays, Shakespeare focuses on the humors, contrasting a series of distempered kings with the perfectly tempered Henry V, who corresponds to Culpeper’s phoenix. Richard II is Shakespeare’s phlegmatic English king. Richard never becomes quite as mad as Ophelia does, but his characteristic indecision, rapid shifts in mood, and tendencies towards suspicion and tearful emotional outbursts betray a phlegmatic mind that is somewhat disturbed by heat.

When he disembarks from his Irish voyage, King Richard is elated, and, weeping, proclaims his feelings of joy, which he follows immediately with expressions of vindictiveness:

…I weep for joy
To stand upon my kingdom once again.

Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand…

Yield stinging nettles to mine enemies

And when they from thy bosom pluck a flower,
Guard it, I pray thee, with a lurking adder
Whose double tongue may with a mortal touch
Throw death upon thy sovereign’s enemies. (Richard II 3.2.1411-30)

He follows these with declarations of confidence and invulnerability:

So when this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke,
Who all this while hath revell’d in the night
Whilst we were wandering with the antipodes,
Shall see us rising in our throne, the east,
His treasons will sit blushing in his face,
Not able to endure the sight of day,
But self-affrighted tremble at his sin.
Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king; (R2. 3.2.1455-63)

However, as soon as, in the same scene, King Richard learns of the execution of his favorites, he despairs:

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones. (R2. 3.2.1554-64)

Hazlitt has pointed out that the king’s speech and behavior are often characterized by cowardliness and a failure to properly assess reality—he “is always lamenting the loss of his power which he has not the spirit to regain” (Hazlitt). If King Richard’s confusion and wild mood swings are not signs of actual madness, they are, at the very least, characteristic of a mind that is somewhat obstructed, and also touched by heat.

A Lutheran minister in the late nineteenth century gave a series of sermons on the spiritual side of the four humors, in which he describes the positive and negative tendencies of the phlegmatic:

If the choleric temperament is the grandest, and the sanguine the most amiable, the phlegmatic is the most practical of all…As of the other temperaments, so of this also, sin has taken hold…[The phlegmatic’s] practical activities excite in him sins of avarice and gain, rudeness and vindictiveness, deceit and cruelty, envy and suspicion. (Arndt 35)

This catalogue of phlegmatic sins corresponds remarkably well with Richard II’s behavior before Bolingbroke’s rebellion. Richard cruelly and rudely calls his dying uncle, John of Gaunt, a “lunatic lean-witted fool” (R2. 2.1.799).  Immediately after John of Gaunt’s death, the king avariciously seizes all of his uncle’s possessions, effectively disinheriting Bolingbroke. (R2. 2.1.847–49). The pretext of Bolingbroke’s successful rebellion is, of course, Richard II’s unjust pillaging of Bolingbroke’s inheritance. Bolingbroke at first convinces King Richard’s loyalists to join him by pointing out that

My father’s goods are all distrain’d and sold…

What would you have me do? I am a subject,

And I challenge law; attorneys are denied me;

And therefore, personally I lay my claim

To my inheritance and free descent. (R2. 2.3.1289-94)

Earlier in the play, after many lines of ridiculous indecision, Richard’s overly suspicious tendencies (and weak wits) lead him to banish both Mowbray, who is loyal to him, and Bolingbroke, who is ambivalent towards Richard (R2. 1.3). This is not an advantageous political tactic—Richard permanently exiles a potentially valuable ally, while further alienating a potential dangerous enemy. Richard’s actual death is unnatural, but the poor choices which lead up to it can, at least in part, be attributed to his phlegmatic temperament.

Malcolm, another phlegmatic prince, has a happier fate. He is an interesting foil to Macbeth: while Macbeth is an ambitious man of action who commits murder in order to gain a throne to which he has no claim, Malcolm is too cowardly to lawfully defend his right to the throne. He runs away to England as soon as he sees that his father has been murdered, and he does not voluntarily come back (Macbeth 2.3). As mentioned earlier, cowardice is typical of the phlegmatic temperament. Also noteworthy is Malcolm’s speech when he is confronted by Macduff—Malcolm’s descriptions of his own vices are striking:

It is myself I mean: in whom I know
All the particulars of vice so grafted
That, when they shall be open’d, black Macbeth
Will seem as pure as snow…

…there’s no bottom, none,
In my voluptuousness…
With this there grows
In my most ill-composed affection such
A stanchless avarice that, were I king,
I should cut off the nobles for their lands,
Desire his jewels and this other’s house:
And my more-having would be as a sauce
To make me hunger more; that I should forge
Quarrels unjust against the good and loyal,
Destroying them for wealth… (Mac. 4.3.1901–39)

When Malcolm is shamed into going with Macduff, he confesses that his previous confessions were false:

I put myself to thy direction, and
Unspeak mine own detraction, here abjure
The taints and blames I laid upon myself,
For strangers to my nature. (Mac. 4.3.1981-84)

The audience, which knows about Malcolm’s timidity from previous scenes, cannot be very surprised by Malcom’s retraction and explanation that his previous confessions were untrue; it can, however, be amused by his phlegmatic temperament, manifested both by the underlying cowardice and by the details of his first speech, which obviously has very little connection to reality. It can also be amused by his pliability and rapid shift in purpose, both of which are characteristic of the phlegmatic temperament as well. This scene is one of the few scenes of comic relief in Macbeth—Malcolm is a sort of Jos Sedley character. In the end, Malcolm fares better than Ophelia and Richard (and Jos Sedley) do: Macduff functions as a sort of a doctor, who, by example, nudges Malcolm out of his mild distemper and encourages him to be brave.

While, as we have seen, certain individuals have constitutions that are phlegmatic, there are also classes of people which are thought to be more phlegmatic than other classes of people: as mentioned earlier, the old and senile are especially associated with phlegm. So are women. In King Lear, Goneril discusses her father’s behavior with Regan:

The best and soundest of his time hath been but
rash; then must we look to receive from his age,
not alone the imperfections of long-engraffed
condition, but therewithal the unruly waywardness
that infirm and choleric years bring with them.

When the heat of King Lear’s choleric temper combines with the phlegm of his years, it can be expected that the result will be an “unruly waywardness,” or a sort of madness.

Like the elderly, women are, to a certain degree, more associated with the two moister humors than men are. I hope to discuss the importance of the sanguine humor as it pertains to Shakespeare’s women in another blog post. The most obvious connection between women and phlegm, which is one that comes up in countless plays, is the constant reiteration of the rule that women are more likely to cry than men are. Ironically, this idea is usually mentioned when a man is crying, or when a woman is not crying (as far as I can remember).  The full version of Laertes’s speech about crying for Ophelia is one example:

Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,

And therefore I forbid my tears. But yet

It is our trick. Nature her custom holds,

Let shame say what it will. When these are gone,

The woman will be out.—Adieu, my lord.

I have a speech of fire that fain would blaze,

But that this folly doubts it.

Another example is Hermione’s explanation for her lack of tears when her husband falsely accuses her of committing adultery:

Good my lords,
I am not prone to weeping, as our sex
Commonly are; the want of which vain dew
Perchance shall dry your pities: but I have
That honourable grief lodged here which burns
Worse than tears drown…

That is, Hermione is an exceptional woman who does not cry, because she has a masculine choleric temperament, as evidenced by the burning action of her grief.

It is interesting to think about the connection between crying and phlegm. Tears are mostly water of course, and phlegm is the watery humor. “Wet brains” and obstruction of the mind may be relevant here as well: Hermione calls tears “vain dew,” implying that crying is a pointless and irrational act. The Greeks, of course, believed in the intellectual superiority of men over women, but men cry in Greek poetry nevertheless (I wonder whether men ever cry in Greek plays, though?). It seems to be the case that, at some point, Greek medical ideas became tied in with Greek philosophical ideas, and the taboo against male tears materialized. The idea that an emotional shock could produce a temporarily wet brain, which would involve temporary mental obstruction, fits with Galen’s general theory that emotions have effects upon physical health. The biological fact that men cry less often than women do must have, at some point, been linked to the fact that women were generally thought to be constitutionally wetter, which in turn was associated with the fact that women were thought be less intelligent.

While madness is not thought of as a monocausal disease in traditional medicine, phlegm is often considered to be a factor (Chinese Medicine 448). Whenever madness or other classic symptoms of phlegm—such as avarice or cowardice—arise in an early modern play, it is always worthwhile to consider whether the character in whom the symptom manifests may be a distempered phlegmatic. Distempered phlegmatics do have major parts in Shakespeare’s plays, and understanding the unique humor and pathos which Elizabethan audiences would have associated with their predicaments can increase a modern reader’s appreciation of the plays.


Works Cited


Arndt, Frederick. “The Phlegmatic Temperament.” The Homiletic Review, Volume 47. Funk and

Wagnalls Company, 1904, pp. 34–38.

Culpeper, Nicholas, ed. and trans. Galens Art of Physick. By: Galen. Peter Cole, at the Sign of

the Printing Press in Cornhill, 1652.

Ekstrom, Nelly. “The Humours in Shakespeare.” Wellcome Collection.

wellcomecollection.org/articles/the-humours-in-shakespeare/. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Hazlitt, William. “Henry VI in Three Parts.” Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays.

ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hazlitt/william/characters-of-shakespeares-plays/chapter17.html. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Hedley, Christopher. “Which Humour Are You?” Henriette’s Herbal Homepage.

https://www.henriettes-herb.com/articles/hedley-humours.html. Accessed 16. Jan 2018.

Hunter, G.K. English Drama: 1586-1642: The Age of Shakespeare. Clarendon Press, 1997. Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature.

Cambridge University Press, 1964.

Maciocia, Giovanni, “Empty Heat.” Maciocia Online.

maciociaonline.blogspot.com/2012/06/empty-heat.html. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Maciocia, Giovanni. The Practice of Chinese Medicine. Churchill Livingstone Elsevier, 2008.

“Melancholy Virgins: The Case of Ophelia.” And There’s the Humour of It: Shakespeare and

the Four Humours. U.S. National Library of Medicine. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/shakespeare/hamlet.html. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Shakespeare, William. “History of Richard II.” Open Source Shakespeare.

https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=richard2&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” Open Source Shakespeare.

http://opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=hamlet&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Open Source Shakespeare.

https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/views/plays/play_view.php?WorkID=macbeth&Scope=entire&pleasewait=1&msg=pl. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

“The Balance of Passions.” Emotions and Disease. U.S. National Library of Medicine.

https://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/emotions/balance.html. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

Shakespeare and the Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test asks whether women in a work of literature ever talk to each other about anything other than men. I am always a little annoyed by people calling it the Bechdel Test, since Virginia Woolf invented it, but I guess it is necessary to go with the flow about the name at this point. Nowadays, some plots, like that of Disney’s Frozen, seem to be designed with the Bechdel test in mind. Many Victorian novels and poems that I can think of get a passing Bechdel grade, but it can be striking how “poorly” some older works of poetry and fiction perform on this test. I am sort of ambivalent about the significance of the test, but it is still a fun thing to think about.

I started wondering about how Shakespeare’s plays perform on the Bechdel test, and found this blog post which has already addressed that question. The conversation between the queen and her ladies in Richard II 3.4 does technically pass the Bechdel test, but as the author says, it is for a funny reason. I think that the ostensibly man-free conversation she cites between Alice and Katharine in Henry V 3.4 is even more dubious–and the understanding shall understand.

The conversation between Paulina and Emilia in The Winter’s Tale 2.2 ought to qualify. Although Paulina and Emilia do mention the king in that conversation, their primary concern is the health and welfare of the queen and her newborn girl, which they discuss for several lines before the king comes up. The learned banter between Rosalind and Celia, if not their discussions about their relative ranks and positions–which are related to, but not really about, their fathers–, in As You Like It 1.2, should also help As You Like It pass the Bechdel test.

The Absent Father of Postmodern Psychology

I am pretty sure that I read in an interview in the Paris Review that is now locked that Harold Bloom contends that Shakespeare was a brilliant original genius who anticipated Freud when he had the doctor in Macbeth declare that “the [psychiatric] patient must minister to himself.” I wonder whether the idea that healing from psychopathology needs to come from within was really an original idea of Shakespeare’s, though. In the Consolation of Philosophy–a work to which Shakespeare refers many times throughout his plays–Boethius’s mind is sick, and Boethius is cured by a woman named Philosophy, who explains to him why his unhappiness is irrational. Part of Philosophy’s teaching is that true happiness consists in self-sufficiency. Contrary to what modern leftist writers would have us believe, the value of self-sufficiency (in healing as in any other endeavor) used to be just as dear to the ancient and medieval West as it still is to those who adhere to Eastern philosophical traditions–the independent spirit of modern materialists and capitalists is a mere shadow of the systematic beliefs about the value of independence held by their fathers. It seems natural to assume that when Shakespeare wrote about healing from mental illness, his thoughts automatically reverted back to Boethius, and that the doctor’s demurral in Macbeth is a commonplace bit of contemporary wisdom, not some startling new insight.

Although Freud’s belief that psychiatric patients must heal themselves may not have been particularly original, he did, of course, articulate ideas about human psychology which were not widely recognized beforehand, and which have been backed up by modern empirical science (if not in the particulars, then at least in the generalities). However, it is interesting that clinical psychologists nowadays are leaving the practice of insight-based psychotherapy in droves. While they may accept Freud’s theories about the origins of neurosis, or the findings of developmental psychologists about the crucial role that attachment plays in the development of the healthy personality, they do not think that it is particularly important for patients to recognize the causes behind unhealthy patterns of behavior and thought. Rather, they choose to employ “new,” evidence-based methods such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which focus exclusively on identifying irrational or unhelpful patterns of thought and correcting them. The developers of these methods say that they were inspired by the wisdom of the East, so unlike that of the unphilosophical West.

The fact that psychotherapists are circling back to Boethius does not make the discoveries of Freud and the developmentalists irrelevant. John Bowlby concludes his trilogy on attachment with the wish that

despite all its deficiencies, our present knowledge may be sound enough to guide us in our efforts to help those already beset by difficulty and above all to prevent others becoming so. 

(Italics mine.) I don’t think it is coincidental that the deep unconscious was not a serious subject of study (at least in the West) until relatively recently. It has become a much more pressing concern in the past century and a half than it used to be–Boethius’s contemporaries would not have had the option of, for example, hospitalizing very young children for months without visiting them. While the most effective therapy for unhappy adults may be that which engages directly with the conscious mind, some knowledge of the workings of the dark side of the soul is invaluable for parents of children in a disorienting and rapidly changing society. We are very blessed to now have access to both kinds of psychological knowledge.

J.K. Rowling’s Intermagical Period

I recall that eight-year-olds in the nineties used to pass around the first Harry Potter book with enthusiastic praise, accompanied by one small caveat: the first chapter is boring. The first few chapters of The Order of the Phoenix, the fifth and weakest book in the series, are not only boring, but also poorly written–they are awkward and painfully self-conscious, devoid of the quick and natural energy that readers of the earlier best-sellers have come to expect from Rowling’s prose.  In The Casual Vacancy, her first non-magical novel, Rowling’s characteristic struggle with beginnings extends for a full seventy-five pages or so before she deploys her usual easy style.

Once the book is readable, it keeps our interest primarily with concern for the fate of the vividly portrayed central character. It is not a good book. Rowling has said in an interview that it would be presumptuous to aspire to actually be like Dickens, but that she “did want [The Casual Vacancy] to be like a Trollope or a Dickens or Mrs. Gaskell in the sense that [she is] taking a small community, literally a parochial community, and trying to analyze it and anatomize it in the way that they did.” Grouping Dickens together with Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell in this particular context is a bit odd. Dickens did not analyze, and he did not focus on communities, as Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell did, and as Rowling attempts to do in this book. Dickens, like Rowling in the Harry Potter novels, tends to focus on lovable weirdos and outcasts, and to non-analytically chronicle their often humorous brushes with the very bad and the very good.

Trollope and Mrs Gaskell (together with George Eliot) do actually attempt to paint panoramic pictures of communities. Their novels are characterized by a preoccupation with balance, nuance, and analysis. Mrs. Gaskell and George Eliot both wrote novels in which it is difficult to pinpoint villains. They tend to regard their poorly behaved characters with pity and occasional contempt. Although his satire is generally more caustic than that of his female contemporaries, Trollope’s hatred for his villains is still incomplete: most of the antagonists in his novels are complicated, realistic people painted with a fine brush, not cartoons. He was a committed liberal, but quite a few of his nicest characters are not only conservatives, but conservative politicians. In the frequent discussions of political topics which occur throughout his novels, he displays a subtle understanding of both sides of the contemporary political questions at hand. Similarly, Mrs. Gaskell’s North and South presents both striking union workers and stubborn mill owners in a sympathetic light.

J.K. Rowling, talented though she is, utterly fails to achieve–in this or in any other novel–the sort of nuance and tolerance which typically go together with the Victorian community portrait genre. In the Harry Potter books, the characters are distributed across the parts of the spectrum with which Dickens was comfortable: about half of them are wonderful people and those in the other half are detestable. Her adult characters here–even those who are on the “right” side of the political question at the center of the novel–are almost all comically repulsive and unsympathetic.

The political issue around which this political novel is constructed is clumsily handled. If she could not (and she cannot), like Trollope and Mrs. Gaskell, let both sides sympathetically express their opinions, Rowling ought to have been able to, like Dickens, viciously and effectively satirize some gross injustice. In the same interview quoted earlier, she explained that she wanted the book to address the questions of whether “we should be extending a helping hand and whether that should come from government and so on.” The specific question addressed by the book is whether the public schooling of children who live in a certain block of public housing should occur in a certain city or in a somewhat wealthier village nearby. Alas, a plea for the well-off rural “officer class” to assume the mantle of noblesse oblige more readily, although it may have been well-executed by a Mrs. Gaskell or a Trollope, is simply not something which lends itself to an effective treatment by a broad-brushing, Dickensian sort of artist.

Instead, Rowling contents herself with savagely exposing the hypocrisy of the petty and pious small business owners from the village who wish to disassociate themselves from the drug addicts and unwed mothers who live nearby. The villagers’ gluttony, lechery, avarice, pride, despair, wrath, vanity, and sloth are all duly trotted out for the disgust of the reader. Our concern for Krystal Wheedon, the girl from the slums, is certainly excited, and we do see that the paunch-bellied shopkeepers who couldn’t care less about her are inhumane. However, the political upshot of this political novel seems to be that, if one wishes to be a non-revolting person, one must keep the petit bourgeois at a distance, and vote with the nice educated professionals in the village council. In the end, the polemics of The Casual Vacancy hark back more to The Jew of Malta than to The Warden, Mary Barton, or Oliver Twist.

I believe that Rowling gets the magic of the Harry Potter books from Dickens; unlike Dickens, she also possesses a flair for constructing tight, compelling plots with satisfying surprise endings. The Cormoran Strike novels lack the exuberant joy which lies behind the magic of Harry Potter, but they retain the Potter books’ style, insofar as they have excellent plots and brilliant characters. Enjoyably, each of the books contains evidence of painstaking “research” the author has undertaken at Britain’s most celebrated eateries, where fussy and thoughtless interviewees often insist on meeting Strike, a perennially insolvent private investigator. Each crime mystery immerses the reader into a different colorful and compelling world: The Cuckoo’s Calling takes us into the world of London’s rich and famous, The Silkworm introduces us to the British publishing world, and Career of Evil explores a seedy criminal underworld, populated by more or less mentally imbalanced ne’er do wells.

Where Rowling fails to make any sort of coherent political argument in The Casual Vacancy, she does manage to slip some trenchant cultural commentary into the mouths of plain-speaking Strike and his sidekick, Robin Ellacott. We may never know whether Strike’s and Ellacott’s insistence on calling the people who send them weird letters “nutters,” in defiance of a culture which deems this behavior to be disrespectful to the mentally ill, is a perfectly accurate reflection of Rowling’s own opinion. In any case, the tempering perspective of an old socialist on this and on many other current questions of political correctness is interesting.

The Strike books are perfectly good for what they are, which is upmarket crime fiction– each is mostly enjoyable from the first page to the last. In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis suggests a genre-neutral test for whether or not a book is literary: is it read more than once by those people who like to read things more than once? Although I have read each of the Potter books multiple times over, I cannot see myself ever picking up one of the first two Strike books again. The possibilities that this difference could be attributed to my own advancing age or declining sensibility cannot be ruled out. But I suspect that the literary grain in the Potter books was mixed in somewhere with the happiness, hopefulness and magic.

This is not to say, of course, that I do not think that pessimistic books can be literary; of course, nobody can deny the artistic quality of (most of) the (mostly) sad twentieth century books which are generally more respected than Rowling’s. It is more that, for Rowling, despondency is an unnatural mood, and the artificiality which is necessarily present in her despondent writing precludes high literary quality. In The Casual Vacancy and the first two Strike books, at least, there is a feeling of something off, as if, in an effort to fit in with the current literary fashion, the author were occasionally suppressing what she really wants to write, or interpolating events that she does not want to write about. Strike is made to have a few somewhat boorish interactions with women, and we wonder, “is that really who he is?” The crimes and the suspected criminals in Career of Evil are more gruesome and creepy than those in Cuckoo and Silkworm; yet, paradoxically, the whole tenor of the book is somehow more buoyant and hopeful than that of its predecessors. Perhaps this is partly because Strike is allowed to be well-behaved for the entire time–Strike’s and Robin’s honesty and intense compassion for the crime victims they encounter comprise the engine which allow the book to sail past many frightening specters to a happy, if ambiguous, ending.

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

It has long seemed to me that the burst of creative activity in our literature, through the first quarter of this century, had about it, in fact, something premature; and that from this cause its productions are doomed, most of them, in spite of the sanguine hopes which accompanied and do still accompany them, to prove hardly more lasting than the productions of far less splendid epochs. And this prematureness comes from its having proceeded without having its proper data, without sufficient materials to work with. In other words, the English poetry of the first quarter of this century, with plenty of energy, plenty of creative force, did not know enough.

–Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”

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 (who was also admired by Wordsworth) 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, and 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 in which 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 about the natural and metaphysical world(s) which were held by medieval and early modern people. 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 himself 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 enthusiast, 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 debate 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 maintaining 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 (a Supercommentary)

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, a later play, is the overarching theme of which is most similar to that of Hamlet, according to Mrs. Oliphant’s reading. 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.