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How many things still remain to say of Hamlet! Before I touch on his relation to Ophelia, I will choose but two. Neither of them, compared with the matters so far considered, is of great consequence, but both are interesting, and the first seems to have quite escaped observation.

  1. Most people have, beside their more essential traits of character, little peculiarities which, for their intimates, form an indissoluble part of their personality. In comedy, and in other humorous works of fiction, such peculiarities often figure prominently, but they rarely do so, I think, in tragedy. Shakespeare, however, seems to have given one such idiosyncrasy to Hamlet.

It is a trick of speech, a habit of repetition. And these are simple examples of it from the first soliloquy:

  O God! God!

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on't! ah fie!

Now I ask your patience. You will say: 'There is nothing individual here. Everybody repeats words thus. And the tendency, in particular, to use such repetitions in moments of great emotion is well-known, and frequently illustrated in literature--for example, in David's cry of lament for Absalom.'

This is perfectly true, and plenty of examples could be drawn from Shakespeare himself. But what we find in Hamlet's case is, I believe, not common. In the first place, this repetition is a habit with him. Here are some more instances: 'Thrift, thrift, Horatio'; 'Indeed, indeed, sirs, but this troubles me'; 'Come, deal justly with me: come, come'; 'Wormwood, wormwood!' I do not profess to have made an exhaustive search, but I am much mistaken if this habit is to be found in any other serious character of Shakespeare.[68]

And, in the second place--and here I appeal with confidence to lovers of Hamlet--some of these repetitions strike us as intensely characteristic. Some even of those already quoted strike one thus, and still more do the following:

(a) Horatio. It would have much amazed you. Hamlet. Very like, very like. Stay'd it long?

(b) Polonius. What do you read, my lord? Hamlet. Words, words, words.

(c) Polonius. My honourable lord, I will most humbly take

  my leave of you.
You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I
will more willingly part withal: except my
life, except my life, except my life.
(d) Ophelia. Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?
Hamlet. I humbly thank you, well, well, well.

Is there anything that Hamlet says or does in the whole play more unmistakably individual than these replies?[69]

  1. Hamlet, everyone has noticed, is fond of quibbles and word-play, and of 'conceits' and turns of thought such as are common in the poets whom Johnson called Metaphysical. Sometimes, no doubt, he plays with words and ideas chiefly in order to mystify, thwart and annoy. To some extent, again, as we may see from the conversation where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern first present themselves (II. ii. 227), he is merely following the fashion of the young courtiers about him, just as in his love-letter to Ophelia[70] he uses for the most part the fantastic language of Court Euphuism. Nevertheless in this trait there is something very characteristic. We should be greatly surprised to find it marked in Othello or Lear or Timon, in Macbeth or Antony or Coriolanus; and, in fact, we find it in them hardly at all. One reason of this may perhaps be that these characters are all later creations than Hamlet, and that Shakespeare's own fondness for this kind of play, like the fondness of the theatrical audience for it, diminished with time. But the main reason is surely that this tendency, as we see it in Hamlet, betokens a nimbleness and flexibility of mind which is characteristic of him and not of the later less many-sided heroes. Macbeth, for instance, has an imagination quite as sensitive as Hamlet's to certain impressions, but he has none of Hamlet's delight in freaks and twists of thought, or of his tendency to perceive and play with resemblances in the most diverse objects and ideas. Though Romeo shows this tendency, the only tragic hero who approaches Hamlet here is Richard II., who indeed in several ways recalls the emasculated Hamlet of some critics, and may, like the real Hamlet, have owed his existence in part to Shakespeare's personal familiarity with the weaknesses and dangers of an imaginative temperament.

That Shakespeare meant this trait to be characteristic of Hamlet is beyond question. The very first line the hero speaks contains a play on words:

A little more than kin and less than kind.

The fact is significant, though the pun itself is not specially characteristic. Much more so, and indeed absolutely individual, are the uses of word-play in moments of extreme excitement. Remember the awe and terror of the scene where the Ghost beckons Hamlet to leave his friends and follow him into the darkness, and then consider this dialogue:

Hamlet. It waves me still.
Go on; I'll follow thee.

Marcellus. You shall not go, my lord.

Hold off your hands.
Be ruled; you shall not go.
Hamlet. My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve.
Still am I called. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven I'll make a ghost of him that lets me.

Would any other character in Shakespeare have used those words? And, again, where is Hamlet more Hamlet than when he accompanies with a pun the furious action by which he compels his enemy to drink the 'poison tempered by himself'?

Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damn'd Dane, Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother.

The 'union' was the pearl which Claudius professed to throw into the cup, and in place of which (as Hamlet supposes) he dropped poison in. But the 'union' is also that incestuous marriage which must not be broken by his remaining alive now that his partner is dead. What rage there is in the words, and what a strange lightning of the mind!

Much of Hamlet's play with words and ideas is imaginatively humorous. That of Richard II. is fanciful, but rarely, if ever, humorous. Antony has touches of humour, and Richard III. has more; but Hamlet, we may safely assert, is the only one of the tragic heroes who can be called a humorist, his humour being first cousin to that speculative tendency which keeps his mental world in perpetual movement. Some of his quips are, of course, poor enough, and many are not distinctive. Those of his retorts which strike one as perfectly individual do so, I think, chiefly because they suddenly reveal the misery and bitterness below the surface; as when, to Rosencrantz's message from his mother, 'She desires to speak with you in her closet, ere you go to bed,' he answers, 'We shall obey, were she ten times our mother'; or as when he replies to Polonius's invitation, 'Will you walk out of the air, my lord?' with words that suddenly turn one cold, 'Into my grave.' Otherwise, what we justly call Hamlet's characteristic humour is not his exclusive property, but appears in passages spoken by persons as different as Mercutio, Falstaff and Rosalind. The truth probably is that it was the kind of humour most natural to Shakespeare himself, and that here, as in some other traits of the poet's greatest creation, we come into close contact with Shakespeare the man.

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