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.