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We left Hamlet, at the close of the First Act, when he had just received his charge from the spirit of his father; and his condition was vividly depicted in the fact that, within an hour of receiving this charge, he had relapsed into that weariness of life or longing for death which is the immediate cause of his later inaction. When next we meet him, at the opening of the Second Act, a considerable time has elapsed, apparently as much as two months. The ambassadors sent to the King of Norway
Now he takes a further step. He suddenly appears unannounced in Ophelia's chamber; and his appearance and behaviour are such as to suggest both to Ophelia and to her father that his brain is turned by disappointment in love. How far this step was due to the design of creating a false impression as to the origin of his lunacy, how far to other causes, is a difficult question; but such a design seems certainly present. It succeeds, however, only in part; for, although Polonius is fully convinced, the King is not so, and it is therefore arranged that the two shall secretly witness a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet. Meanwhile Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, and at the King's request begin their attempts, easily foiled by Hamlet, to pluck out the heart of his mystery. Then the players come to Court, and for a little while one of Hamlet's old interests revives, and he is almost happy. But only for a little while. The emotion shown by the player in reciting the speech which tells of Hecuba's grief for her slaughtered husband awakes into burning life the slumbering sense of duty and shame. He must act. With the extreme rapidity which always distinguishes him in his healthier moments, he conceives and arranges the plan of having the 'Murder of Gonzago' played before the King and Queen, with the addition of a speech written by himself for the occasion. Then, longing to be alone, he abruptly dismisses his guests, and pours out a passion of self-reproach for his delay, asks himself in bewilderment what can be its cause, lashes himself into a fury of hatred against his foe, checks himself in disgust at his futile emotion, and quiets his conscience for the moment by trying to convince himself that he has doubts about the Ghost, and by assuring himself that, if the King's behaviour at the play-scene shows but a sign of guilt, he 'knows his course.'
Nothing, surely, can be clearer than the meaning of this famous soliloquy. The doubt which appears at its close, instead of being the natural conclusion of the preceding thoughts, is totally inconsistent with them. For Hamlet's self-reproaches, his curses on his enemy, and his perplexity about his own inaction, one and all imply his faith in the identity and truthfulness of the Ghost. Evidently this sudden doubt, of which there has not been the slightest trace before, is no genuine doubt; it is an unconscious fiction, an excuse for his delay--and for its continuance.
A night passes, and the day that follows it brings the crisis. First takes place that interview from which the King is to learn whether disappointed love is really the cause of his nephew's lunacy. Hamlet is sent for; poor Ophelia is told to walk up and down, reading her prayer-book; Polonius and the King conceal themselves behind the arras. And Hamlet enters, so deeply absorbed in thought that for some time he supposes himself to be alone. What is he thinking of? 'The Murder of Gonzago,' which is to be played in a few hours, and on which everything depends? Not at all. He is meditating on suicide; and he finds that what stands in the way of it, and counterbalances its infinite attraction, is not any thought of a sacred unaccomplished duty, but the doubt, quite irrelevant to that issue, whether it is not ignoble in the mind to end its misery, and, still more, whether death would end it. Hamlet, that is to say, is here, in effect, precisely where he was at the time of his first soliloquy ('O that this too too solid flesh would melt') two months ago, before ever he heard of his father's murder. His reflections have no reference to this particular moment; they represent that habitual weariness of life with which his passing outbursts of emotion or energy are contrasted. What can be more significant than the fact that he is sunk in these reflections on the very day which is to determine for him the truthfulness of the Ghost? And how is it possible for us to hope that, if that truthfulness should be established, Hamlet will be any nearer to his revenge?
His interview with Ophelia follows; and its result shows that his delay is becoming most dangerous to himself. The King is satisfied that, whatever else may be the hidden cause of Hamlet's madness, it is not love. He is by no means certain even that Hamlet is mad at all. He has heard that infuriated threat, 'I say, we will have no more marriages; those that are married, all but one, shall live; the rest shall keep as they are.' He is thoroughly alarmed. He at any rate will not delay. On the spot he determines to send Hamlet to England. But, as Polonius is present, we do not learn at once the meaning of this purpose.
Evening comes. The approach of the play-scene raises Hamlet's spirits. He is in his element. He feels that he is doing something towards his end, striking a stroke, but a stroke of intellect. In his instructions to the actor on the delivery of the inserted speech, and again in his conversation with Horatio just before the entry of the Court, we see the true Hamlet, the Hamlet of the days before his father's death. But how characteristic it is that he appears quite as anxious that his speech should not be ranted as that Horatio should observe its effect upon the King! This trait appears again even at that thrilling moment when the actor is just going to deliver the speech. Hamlet sees him beginning to frown and glare like the conventional stage-murderer, and calls to him impatiently, 'Leave thy damnable faces and begin!'
Hamlet's device proves a triumph far more complete than he had dared to expect. He had thought the King might 'blench,' but he does much more. When only six of the 'dozen or sixteen lines' have been spoken he starts to his feet and rushes from the hall, followed by the whole dismayed Court. In the elation of success--an elation at first almost hysterical--Hamlet treats Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are sent to him, with undisguised contempt. Left to himself, he declares that now he could
drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day Would quake to look on.
He has been sent for by his mother, and is going to her chamber; and so vehement and revengeful is his mood that he actually fancies himself in danger of using daggers to her as well as speaking them.
In this mood, on his way to his mother's chamber, he comes upon the King, alone, kneeling, conscience-stricken and attempting to pray. His enemy is delivered into his hands.
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying: And now I'll do it: and so he goes to heaven: And so am I revenged. That would be scanned.
He scans it; and the sword that he drew at the words, 'And now I'll do it,' is thrust back into its sheath. If he killed the villain now he would send his soul to heaven; and he would fain kill soul as well as body.
That this again is an unconscious excuse for delay is now pretty generally agreed, and it is needless to describe again the state of mind which, on the view explained in our last lecture, is the real cause of Hamlet's failure here. The first five words he utters, 'Now might I do it,' show that he has no effective desire to 'do it'; and in the little sentences that follow, and the long pauses between them, the endeavour at a resolution, and the sickening return of melancholic paralysis, however difficult a task they set to the actor, are plain enough to a reader. And any reader who may retain a doubt should observe the fact that, when the Ghost reappears, Hamlet does not think of justifying his delay by the plea that he was waiting for a more perfect vengeance. But in one point the great majority of critics, I think, go astray. The feeling of intense hatred which Hamlet expresses is not the cause of his sparing the King, and in his heart he knows this; but it does not at all follow that this feeling is unreal. All the evidence afforded by the play goes to show that it is perfectly genuine, and I see no reason whatever to doubt that Hamlet would have been very sorry to send his father's murderer to heaven, nor much to doubt that he would have been glad to send him to perdition. The reason for refusing to accept his own version of his motive in sparing Claudius is not that his sentiments are horrible, but that elsewhere, and also in the opening of his speech here, we can see that his reluctance to act is due to other causes.
The incident of the sparing of the King is contrived with extraordinary dramatic insight. On the one side we feel that the opportunity was perfect. Hamlet could not possibly any longer tell himself that he had no certainty as to his uncle's guilt. And the external conditions were most favourable; for the King's remarkable behaviour at the play-scene would have supplied a damning confirmation of the story Hamlet had to tell about the Ghost. Even now, probably, in a Court so corrupt as that of Elsinore, he could not with perfect security have begun by charging the King with the murder; but he could quite safely have killed him first and given his justification afterwards, especially as he would certainly have had on his side the people, who loved him and despised Claudius. On the other hand, Shakespeare has taken care to give this perfect opportunity so repulsive a character that we can hardly bring ourselves to wish that the hero should accept it. One of his minor difficulties, we have seen, probably was that he seemed to be required to attack a defenceless man; and here this difficulty is at its maximum.
This incident is, again, the turning-point of the tragedy. So far, Hamlet's delay, though it is endangering his freedom and his life, has done no irreparable harm; but his failure here is the cause of all the disasters that follow. In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, the Queen and himself. This central significance of the passage is dramatically indicated in the following scene by the reappearance of the Ghost and the repetition of its charge.
Polonius is the first to fall. The old courtier, whose vanity would not allow him to confess that his diagnosis of Hamlet's lunacy was mistaken, had suggested that, after the theatricals, the Queen should endeavour in a private interview with her son to penetrate the mystery, while he himself would repeat his favourite part of eaves-dropper (III. i. 184 ff.). It has now become quite imperative that the Prince should be brought to disclose his secret; for his choice of the 'Murder of Gonzago,' and perhaps his conduct during the performance, have shown a spirit of exaggerated hostility against the King which has excited general alarm. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discourse to Claudius on the extreme importance of his preserving his invaluable life, as though Hamlet's insanity had now clearly shown itself to be homicidal. When, then, at the opening of the interview between Hamlet and his mother, the son, instead of listening to her remonstrances, roughly assumes the offensive, she becomes alarmed; and when, on her attempting to leave the room, he takes her by the arm and forces her to sit down, she is terrified, cries out, 'Thou wilt not murder me?' and screams for help. Polonius, behind the arras, echoes her call; and in a moment Hamlet, hoping the concealed person is the King, runs the old man through the body.
Evidently this act is intended to stand in sharp contrast with Hamlet's sparing of his enemy. The King would have been just as defenceless behind the arras as he had been on his knees; but here Hamlet is already excited and in action, and the chance comes to him so suddenly that he has no time to 'scan' it. It is a minor consideration, but still for the dramatist not unimportant, that the audience would wholly sympathise with Hamlet's attempt here, as directed against an enemy who is lurking to entrap him, instead of being engaged in a business which perhaps to the bulk of the audience then, as now, seemed to have a 'relish of salvation in't.'
We notice in Hamlet, at the opening of this interview, something of the excited levity which followed the dénouement of the play-scene. The death of Polonius sobers him; and in the remainder of the interview he shows, together with some traces of his morbid state, the peculiar beauty and nobility of his nature. His chief desire is not by any means to ensure his mother's silent acquiescence in his design of revenge; it is to save her soul. And while the rough work of vengeance is repugnant to him, he is at home in this higher work. Here that fatal feeling, 'it is no matter,' never shows itself. No father-confessor could be more selflessly set upon his end of redeeming a fellow-creature from degradation, more stern or pitiless in denouncing the sin, or more eager to welcome the first token of repentance. There is something infinitely beautiful in that sudden sunshine of faith and love which breaks out when, at the Queen's surrender,
O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain,
O throw away the worser part of it, And live the purer with the other half.
The truth is that, though Hamlet hates his uncle and acknowledges the duty of vengeance, his whole heart is never in this feeling or this task; but his whole heart is in his horror at his mother's fall and in his longing to raise her. The former of these feelings was the inspiration of his first soliloquy; it combines with the second to form the inspiration of his eloquence here. And Shakespeare never wrote more eloquently than here.
I have already alluded to the significance of the reappearance of the Ghost in this scene; but why does Shakespeare choose for the particular moment of its reappearance the middle of a speech in which Hamlet is raving against his uncle? There seems to be more than one reason. In the first place, Hamlet has already attained his object of stirring shame and contrition in his mother's breast, and is now yielding to the old temptation of unpacking his heart with words, and exhausting in useless emotion the force which should be stored up in his will. And, next, in doing this he is agonising his mother to no purpose, and in despite of her piteous and repeated appeals for mercy. But the Ghost, when it gave him his charge, had expressly warned him to spare her; and here again the dead husband shows the same tender regard for his weak unfaithful wife. The object of his return is to repeat his charge:
- Do not forget
- this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose;
but, having uttered this reminder, he immediately bids the son to help the mother and 'step between her and her fighting soul.'
And, whether intentionally or not, another purpose is served by Shakespeare's choice of this particular moment. It is a moment when the state of Hamlet's mind is such that we cannot suppose the Ghost to be meant for an hallucination; and it is of great importance here that the spectator or reader should not suppose any such thing. He is further guarded by the fact that the Ghost proves, so to speak, his identity by showing the same traits as were visible on his first appearance--the same insistence on the duty of remembering, and the same concern for the Queen. And the result is that we construe the Ghost's interpretation of Hamlet's delay ('almost blunted purpose') as the truth, the dramatist's own interpretation. Let me add that probably no one in Shakespeare's audience had any doubt of his meaning here. The idea of later critics and readers that the Ghost is an hallucination is due partly to failure to follow the indications just noticed, but partly also to two mistakes, the substitution of our present intellectual atmosphere for the Elizabethan, and the notion that, because the Queen does not see and hear the Ghost, it is meant to be unreal. But a ghost, in Shakespeare's day, was able for any sufficient reason to confine its manifestation to a single person in a company; and here the sufficient reason, that of sparing the Queen, is obvious.
At the close of this scene it appears that Hamlet has somehow learned of the King's design of sending him to England in charge of his two 'school-fellows.' He has no doubt that this design covers some villainous plot against himself, but neither does he doubt that he will succeed in defeating it; and, as we saw, he looks forward with pleasure to this conflict of wits. The idea of refusing to go appears not to occur to him. Perhaps (for here we are left to conjecture) he feels that he could not refuse unless at the same time he openly accused the King of his father's murder (a course which he seems at no time to contemplate); for by the slaughter of Polonius he has supplied his enemy with the best possible excuse for getting him out of the country. Besides, he has so effectually warned this enemy that, after the death of Polonius is discovered, he is kept under guard (IV. iii. 14). He consents, then, to go. But on his way to the shore he meets the army of Fortinbras on its march to Poland; and the sight of these men going cheerfully to risk death 'for an egg-shell,' and 'making mouths at the invisible event,' strikes him with shame as he remembers how he, with so much greater cause for action, 'lets all sleep;' and he breaks out into the soliloquy, 'How all occasions do inform against me!'
This great speech, in itself not inferior to the famous 'To be or not to be,' is absent not only from the First Quarto but from the Folio. It is therefore probable that, at any rate by the time when the Folio appeared (1623), it had become customary to omit it in theatrical representation; and this is still the custom. But, while no doubt it is dramatically the least indispensable of the soliloquies, it has a direct dramatic value, and a great value for the interpretation of Hamlet's character. It shows that Hamlet, though he is leaving Denmark, has not relinquished the idea of obeying the Ghost. It exhibits very strikingly his inability to understand why he has delayed so long. It contains that assertion which so many critics forget, that he has 'cause and will and strength and means to do it.' On the other hand--and this was perhaps the principal purpose of the speech--it convinces us that he has learnt little or nothing from his delay, or from his failure to seize the opportunity presented to him after the play-scene. For, we find, both the motive and the gist of the speech are precisely the same as those of the soliloquy at the end of the Second Act ('O what a rogue'). There too he was stirred to shame when he saw a passionate emotion awakened by a cause which, compared with his, was a mere egg-shell. There too he stood bewildered at the sight of his own dulness, and was almost ready to believe--what was justly incredible to him--that it was the mask of mere cowardice. There too he determined to delay no longer: if the King should but blench, he knew his course. Yet this determination led to nothing then; and why, we ask ourselves in despair, should the bloody thoughts he now resolves to cherish ever pass beyond the realm of thought?
Between this scene (IV. iv.) and the remainder of the play we must again suppose an interval, though not a very long one. When the action recommences, the death of Polonius has led to the insanity of Ophelia and the secret return of Laertes from France. The young man comes back breathing slaughter. For the King, afraid to put Hamlet on his trial (a course likely to raise the question of his own behaviour at the play, and perhaps to provoke an open accusation), has attempted to hush up the circumstances of Polonius's death, and has given him a hurried and inglorious burial. The fury of Laertes, therefore, is directed in the first instance against the King: and the ease with which he raises the people, like the King's fear of a judicial enquiry, shows us how purely internal were the obstacles which the hero had to overcome. This impression is intensified by the broad contrast between Hamlet and Laertes, who rushes headlong to his revenge, and is determined to have it though allegiance, conscience, grace and damnation stand in his way
Hamlet's return to Denmark is due partly to his own action, partly to accident. On the voyage he secretly possesses himself of the royal commission, and substitutes for it another, which he himself writes and seals, and in which the King of England is ordered to put to death, not Hamlet, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Then the ship is attacked by a pirate, which, apparently, finds its intended prize too strong for it, and makes off. But as Hamlet 'in the grapple,' eager for fighting, has boarded the assailant, he is carried off in it, and by promises induces the pirates to put him ashore in Denmark.
In what spirit does he return? Unquestionably, I think, we can observe a certain change, though it is not great. First, we notice here and there what seems to be a consciousness of power, due probably to his success in counter-mining Claudius and blowing the courtiers to the moon, and to his vigorous action in the sea-fight. But I doubt if this sense of power is more marked than it was in the scenes following the success of the 'Murder of Gonzago.' Secondly, we nowhere find any direct expression of that weariness of life and that longing for death which were so marked in the first soliloquy and in the speech 'To be or not to be.' This may be a mere accident, and it must be remembered that in the Fifth Act we have no soliloquy. But in the earlier Acts the feelings referred to do not appear merely in soliloquy, and I incline to think that Shakespeare means to show in the Hamlet of the Fifth Act a slight thinning of the dark cloud of melancholy, and means us to feel it tragic that this change comes too late. And, in the third place, there is a trait about which doubt is impossible,--a sense in Hamlet that he is in the hands of Providence. This had, indeed, already shown itself at the death of Polonius, and perhaps at Hamlet's farewell to the King, but the idea seems now to be constantly present in his mind. 'There's a divinity that shapes our ends,' he declares to Horatio in speaking of the fighting in his heart that would not let him sleep, and of his rashness in groping his way to the courtiers to find their commission. How was he able, Horatio asks, to seal the substituted commission?
Why, even in that was heaven ordinant,
Hamlet answers; he had his father's signet in his purse. And though he has a presentiment of evil about the fencing-match he refuses to yield to it: 'we defy augury: there is special providence in the fall of a sparrow ... the readiness is all.'
Though these passages strike us more when put together thus than when they come upon us at intervals in reading the play, they have a marked effect on our feeling about Hamlet's character and still more about the events of the action. But I find it impossible to believe, with some critics, that they indicate any material change in his general condition, or the formation of any effective resolution to fulfil the appointed duty. On the contrary, they seem to express that kind of religious resignation which, however beautiful in one aspect, really deserves the name of fatalism rather than that of faith in Providence, because it is not united to any determination to do what is believed to be the will of Providence. In place of this determination, the Hamlet of the Fifth Act shows a kind of sad or indifferent self-abandonment, as if he secretly despaired of forcing himself to action, and were ready to leave his duty to some other power than his own. This is really the main change which appears in him after his return to Denmark, and which had begun to show itself before he went,--this, and not a determination to act, nor even an anxiety to do so.
For when he returns he stands in a most perilous position. On one side of him is the King, whose safety depends on his death, and who has done his best to murder him; on the other, Laertes, whose father and sister he has sent to their graves, and of whose behaviour and probable attitude he must surely be informed by Horatio. What is required of him, therefore, if he is not to perish with his duty undone, is the utmost wariness and the swiftest resolution. Yet it is not too much to say that, except when Horatio forces the matter on his attention, he shows no consciousness of this position. He muses in the graveyard on the nothingness of life and fame, and the base uses to which our dust returns, whether it be a court-jester's or a world-conqueror's. He learns that the open grave over which he muses has been dug for the woman he loved; and he suffers one terrible pang, from which he gains relief in frenzied words and frenzied action,--action which must needs intensify, if that were possible, the fury of the man whom he has, however unwittingly, so cruelly injured. Yet he appears absolutely unconscious that he has injured Laertes at all, and asks him:
What is the reason that you use me thus?
And as the sharpness of the first pang passes, the old weary misery returns, and he might almost say to Ophelia, as he does to her brother:
I loved you ever: but it is no matter.
'It is no matter': nothing matters.
The last scene opens. He narrates to Horatio the events of the voyage and his uncle's attempt to murder him. But the conclusion of the story is no plan of action, but the old fatal question, 'Ought I not to act?' And, while he asks it, his enemies have acted. Osric enters with an invitation to him to take part in a fencing-match with Laertes. This match--he is expressly told so--has been arranged by his deadly enemy the King; and his antagonist is a man whose hands but a few hours ago were at his throat, and whose voice he had heard shouting 'The devil take thy soul!' But he does not think of that. To fence is to show a courtesy, and to himself it is a relief,--action, and not the one hateful action. There is something noble in his carelessness, and also in his refusal to attend to the presentiment which he suddenly feels (and of which he says, not only 'the readiness is all,' but also 'it is no matter'). Something noble; and yet, when a sacred duty is still undone, ought one to be so ready to die? With the same carelessness, and with that trustfulness which makes us love him, but which is here so fatally misplaced, he picks up the first foil that comes to his hand, asks indifferently, 'These foils have all a length?' and begins. And Fate descends upon his enemies, and his mother, and himself.
But he is not left in utter defeat. Not only is his task at last accomplished, but Shakespeare seems to have determined that his hero should exhibit in his latest hour all the glorious power and all the nobility and sweetness of his nature. Of the first, the power, I spoke before, but there is a wonderful beauty in the revelation of the second. His body already labouring in the pangs of death, his mind soars above them. He forgives Laertes; he remembers his wretched mother and bids her adieu, ignorant that she has preceded him. We hear now no word of lamentation or self-reproach. He has will, and just time, to think, not of the past or of what might have been, but of the future; to forbid his friend's death in words more pathetic in their sadness than even his agony of spirit had been; and to take care, so far as in him lies, for the welfare of the State which he himself should have guided. Then in spite of shipwreck he reaches the haven of silence where he would be. What else could his world-wearied flesh desire?
But we desire more; and we receive it. As those mysterious words, 'The rest is silence,' die upon Hamlet's lips, Horatio answers:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Why did Shakespeare here, so much against his custom, introduce this reference to another life? Did he remember that Hamlet is the only one of his tragic heroes whom he has not allowed us to see in the days when this life smiled on him? Did he feel that, while for the others we might be content to imagine after life's fitful fever nothing more than release and silence, we must ask more for one whose 'godlike reason' and passionate love of goodness have only gleamed upon us through the heavy clouds of melancholy, and yet have left us murmuring, as we bow our heads, 'This was the noblest spirit of them all'?
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