Prev | Next | Contents


[Footnote 25: It may be convenient to some readers for the purposes of this book to have by them a list of Shakespeare's plays, arranged in periods. No such list, of course, can command general assent, but the following (which does not throughout represent my own views) would perhaps meet with as little objection from scholars as any other. For some purposes the Third and Fourth Periods are better considered to be one. Within each period the so-called Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies are respectively grouped together; and for this reason, as well as for others, the order within each period does not profess to be chronological (e.g. it is not implied that the Comedy of Errors preceded 1 Henry VI. or Titus Andronicus). Where Shakespeare's authorship of any considerable part of a play is questioned, widely or by specially good authority, the name of the play is printed in italics.

First Period (to 1595?).--Comedy of Errors, Love's Labour's Lost, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Midsummer-Night's Dream; 1 Henry VI., 2 Henry VI., 3 Henry VI., Richard III., Richard II.; Titus Andronicus, Romeo and Juliet.

Second Period (to 1602?).--Merchant of Venice, All's Well (better in Third Period?), Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado, As You Like it, Merry Wives, Twelfth Night; King John, 1 Henry IV., 2 Henry IV., Henry V.; Julius Caesar, Hamlet.

Third Period (to 1608?).--Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure; Othello, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus.

Fourth Period.--Pericles, Cymbeline, Winter's Tale, Tempest, Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII.]

[Footnote 26: The reader will observe that this 'tragic period' would not exactly coincide with the 'Third Period' of the division given in the last note. For Julius Caesar and Hamlet fall in the Second Period, not the Third; and I may add that, as Pericles was entered at Stationers' Hall in 1608 and published in 1609, it ought strictly to be put in the Third Period--not the Fourth. The truth is that Julius Caesar and Hamlet are given to the Second Period mainly on the ground of style; while a Fourth Period is admitted, not mainly on that ground (for there is no great difference here between Antony and Coriolanus on the one side and Cymbeline and the Tempest on the other), but because of a difference in substance and spirit. If a Fourth Period were admitted on grounds of form, it ought to begin with Antony and Cleopatra.]

[Footnote 27: I should go perhaps too far if I said that it is generally admitted that Timon of Athens also precedes the two Roman tragedies; but its precedence seems to me so nearly certain that I assume it in what follows.]

[Footnote 28: That play, however, is distinguished, I think, by a deliberate endeavour after a dignified and unadorned simplicity,--a Roman simplicity perhaps.]

[Footnote 29: It is quite probable that this may arise in part from the fact, which seems hardly doubtful, that the tragedy was revised, and in places re-written, some little time after its first composition.]

[Footnote 30: This, if we confine ourselves to the tragedies, is, I think, especially the case in King Lear and Timon.]

[Footnote 31: The first, at any rate, of these three plays is, of course, much nearer to Hamlet, especially in versification, than to Antony and Cleopatra, in which Shakespeare's final style first shows itself practically complete. It has been impossible, in the brief treatment of this subject, to say what is required of the individual plays.]

[Footnote 32: The Mirror, 18th April, 1780, quoted by Furness, Variorum Hamlet, ii. 148. In the above remarks I have relied mainly on Furness's collection of extracts from early critics.]

[Footnote 33: I do not profess to reproduce any one theory, and, still less, to do justice to the ablest exponent of this kind of view, Werder (Vorlesungen über Hamlet, 1875), who by no means regards Hamlet's difficulties as merely external.]

[Footnote 34: I give one instance. When he spares the King, he speaks of killing him when he is drunk asleep, when he is in his rage, when he is awake in bed, when he is gaming, as if there were in none of these cases the least obstacle (III. iii. 89 ff.).]

[Footnote 35: It is surprising to find quoted, in support of the conscience view, the line 'Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,' and to observe the total misinterpretation of the soliloquy To be or not to be, from which the line comes. In this soliloquy Hamlet is not thinking of the duty laid upon him at all. He is debating the question of suicide. No one oppressed by the ills of life, he says, would continue to bear them if it were not for speculation about his possible fortune in another life. And then, generalising, he says (what applies to himself, no doubt, though he shows no consciousness of the fact) that such speculation or reflection makes men hesitate and shrink like cowards from great actions and enterprises. 'Conscience' does not mean moral sense or scrupulosity, but this reflection on the consequences of action. It is the same thing as the 'craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event' of the speech in IV. iv. As to this use of 'conscience,' see Schmidt, s.v. and the parallels there given. The Oxford Dictionary also gives many examples of similar uses of 'conscience,' though it unfortunately lends its authority to the misinterpretation criticised.]

[Footnote 36: The King does not die of the poison on the foil, like Laertes and Hamlet. They were wounded before he was, but they die after him.]

[Footnote 37: I may add here a word on one small matter. It is constantly asserted that Hamlet wept over the body of Polonius. Now, if he did, it would make no difference to my point in the paragraph above; but there is no warrant in the text for the assertion. It is based on some words of the Queen (IV. i. 24), in answer to the King's question, 'Where is he gone?':

To draw apart the body he hath killed: O'er whom his very madness, like some ore Among a mineral of metals base, Shows itself pure; he weeps for what is done.

But the Queen, as was pointed out by Doering, is trying to screen her son. She has already made the false statement that when Hamlet, crying, 'A rat! a rat!', ran his rapier through the arras, it was because he heard something stir there, whereas we know that what he heard was a man's voice crying, 'What ho! help, help, help!' And in this scene she has come straight from the interview with her son, terribly agitated, shaken with 'sighs' and 'profound heaves,' in the night (line 30). Now we know what Hamlet said to the body, and of the body, in that interview; and there is assuredly no sound of tears in the voice that said those things and others. The only sign of relenting is in the words

  1. iv. 171):
  For this same lord,

I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so, To punish me with this and this with me, That I must be their scourge and minister.

His mother's statement, therefore, is almost certainly untrue, though it may be to her credit. (It is just conceivable that Hamlet wept at

  1. iv. 130, and that the Queen supposed he was weeping for Polonius.)

Perhaps, however, he may have wept over Polonius's body afterwards? Well, in the next scene (IV. ii.) we see him alone with the body, and are therefore likely to witness his genuine feelings. And his first words are, 'Safely stowed'!]

[Footnote 38: Not 'must cripple,' as the English translation has it.]

[Footnote 39: He says so to Horatio, whom he has no motive for deceiving

  1. ii. 218). His contrary statement (II. ii. 308) is made to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.]

[Footnote 40: See Note B.]

[Footnote 41: The critics have laboured to find a cause, but it seems to me Shakespeare simply meant to portray a pathological condition; and a very touching picture he draws. Antonio's sadness, which he describes in the opening lines of the play, would never drive him to suicide, but it makes him indifferent to the issue of the trial, as all his speeches in the trial-scene show.]

[Footnote 42: Of course 'your' does not mean Horatio's philosophy in particular. 'Your' is used as the Gravedigger uses it when he says that 'your water is a sore decayer of your ... dead body.']

[Footnote 43: This aspect of the matter leaves us comparatively unaffected, but Shakespeare evidently means it to be of importance. The Ghost speaks of it twice, and Hamlet thrice (once in his last furious words to the King). If, as we must suppose, the marriage was universally admitted to be incestuous, the corrupt acquiescence of the court and the electors to the crown would naturally have a strong effect on Hamlet's mind.]

[Footnote 44: It is most significant that the metaphor of this soliloquy reappears in Hamlet's adjuration to his mother (III. iv. 150):

Repent what's past; avoid what is to come; And do not spread the compost on the weeds To make them ranker.]

[Footnote 45: If the reader will now look at the only speech of Hamlet's that precedes the soliloquy, and is more than one line in length--the speech beginning 'Seems, madam! nay, it is'--he will understand what, surely, when first we come to it, sounds very strange and almost boastful. It is not, in effect, about Hamlet himself at all; it is about his mother (I do not mean that it is intentionally and consciously so; and still less that she understood it so).]

[Footnote 46: See Note D.]

[Footnote 47: See p. 13.]

[Footnote 48: E.g. in the transition, referred to above, from desire for vengeance into the wish never to have been born; in the soliloquy, 'O what a rogue'; in the scene at Ophelia's grave. The Schlegel-Coleridge theory does not account for the psychological movement in these passages.]

[Footnote 49: Hamlet's violence at Ophelia's grave, though probably intentionally exaggerated, is another example of this want of self-control. The Queen's description of him (V. i. 307),

This is mere madness; And thus awhile the fit will work on him; Anon, as patient as the female dove, When that her golden couplets are disclosed, His silence will sit drooping.

may be true to life, though it is evidently prompted by anxiety to excuse his violence on the ground of his insanity. On this passage see further Note G.]

[Footnote 50: Throughout, I italicise to show the connection of ideas.]

[Footnote 51: Cf. Measure for Measure, IV. iv. 23, 'This deed ... makes me unpregnant and dull to all proceedings.']

[Footnote 52: III. ii. 196 ff., IV. vii. 111 ff.: e.g.,

Purpose is but the slave to memory, Of violent birth but poor validity.]

[Footnote 53: So, before, he had said to him:

And duller should'st thou be than the fat weed That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf, Would'st thou not stir in this.

On Hamlet's soliloquy after the Ghost's disappearance see Note D.]

Prev | Next | Contents