Shakespeare      Shakespeare's Plays and Other Works
- The Tragedies - The Comedies - The Histories - The Sonnets
- The Life of Shakespeare - The Times of William Shakespeare - The Characters from Shakespeare - Stories and Plots
- Quotes from Shakespeare - Doubtful Works - Site Map - More ...
 [Shakespeare Quotes]     
 Home > Life of Shakespeare >

Prev | Next | Contents


"A beautiful, pure and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which makes the hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off; every duty is holy to him,--this too hard. The impossible is required of him,--not the impossible in itself, but the impossible to him. How he winds, turns, agonizes, advances and recoils, ever reminded, ever reminding himself, and at last almost loses his purpose from his thoughts, without ever again recovering his peace of mind...."--"<i>Hamlet</i>" by <i>Goethe</i>.

Goethe's criticism of Hamlet is so much finer than any English criticism that I am glad to quote it. It will serve, I think, as a standard to distinguish the best criticism of the past from what I shall set forth in the course of this analysis. In this chapter I shall try to show what new light our knowledge of Shakespeare throws on the play, and conversely what new light the play throws on its maker.

The first moment of disillusion brought out, as we have seen in Brutus, all the kindness in Shakespeare's nature. He will believe in men in spite of experience; but the idealistic pose could not be kept up: sooner or later Shakespeare had to face the fact that he had been befooled and scorned by friend and mistress--how did he meet it? Hamlet is the answer: Shakespeare went about nursing dreams of revenge and murder. Disillusion had deeper consequences; forced to see other men as they were, he tried for a moment to see himself as he was. The outcome of that objective vision was Hamlet--a masterpiece of self-revealing.

Yet, when he wrote "Hamlet," nothing was clear to him; the significance of the catastrophe had only dawned upon him; he had no notion how complete his soul-shipwreck was, still less did he dream of painting himself realistically in all his obsequious flunkeyism and ungovernable sensuality. He saw himself less idealistically than heretofore, and, trying to look at himself fairly, honestly, he could not but accuse himself of irresolution at the very least; he had hung on with Herbert, as the sonnets tell us, hoping to build again the confidence which had been ruined by betrayal, hoping he knew not what of gain or place, to the injury of his own self-respect; while brooding all the time on quite impossible plans of revenge, impossible, for action had been "sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought." Hamlet could not screw his courage to the sticking point, and so became a type for ever of the philosopher or man of letters who, by thinking, has lost the capacity for action.

Putting ourselves in Shakespeare's place for the moment we see at once why he selected this story for treatment at this time. He knew, none better, that no young aristocrat would have submitted patiently to the wrong he had suffered from Lord Herbert; he created Laertes to show how instant and determined such a man would be in taking murderous revenge; but he still felt that what others would regard as faults, his irresolution and shrinking from bloodshed were in themselves nobler, and so, whilst half excusing, half realizing himself, he brought forth a masterpiece. This brooding on revenge, which is the heart and explanation of his great play, shows us how little Shakespeare cared for Herbert, how completely he had condemned him. The soliloquy on this point in "Hamlet" is the most characteristic thing in the drama:

"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, And fall a-cursing like a very drab."

Shakespeare is thinking of Herbert's betrayal; "here I am," he says, "prompted to revenge by reason and custom, yet instead of acting I fall a-cursing like a drab." But behind his irresolution is his hatred of bloodshed: he could whip out his sword and on a sudden kill Polonius, mistaking him for the king (Herbert), but he could not, in cold blood, make up his mind to kill and proceed to execution. Like his own Hubert, Shakespeare had to confess:

"Within this bosom never enter'd yet The dreadful motion of a murderous thought."

He had none of the direct, passionate, conscienceless resolution of Laertes. He whips himself to anger against the king by thinking of Herbert in the king's place; but lackey-like has to admit that mere regard for position and power gives him pause: Lord Herbert was too far above him:

"There's such divinity doth hedge a king, That treason can but peep to what it would."

Shakespeare's personal feeling dominates and inspires the whole play. One crucial instance will prove this. Why did Hamlet hate his mother's lechery? Most men would hardly have condemned it, certainly would not have suffered their thoughts to dwell on it beyond the moment; but to Hamlet his mother's faithlessness was horrible, shameful, degrading, simply because Hamlet-Shakespeare had identified her with Miss Fitton, and it was Miss Fitton's faithlessness, it was her deception he was condemning in the bitterest words he could find. He thus gets into a somewhat unreal tragedy, a passionate intensity which is otherwise wholly inexplicable. This is how he talks to his mother:

"Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes ...
... ... ... What devil was't
That thus cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense

Could not so mope.
O, shame! where is thy blush?"

If anyone can imagine that this is the way a son thinks of a mother's slip he is past my persuading. In all this Shakespeare is thinking of himself in comparison with Herbert; and his advice to his mother is almost as self-revealing, showing, as it does, what he would wish to say to Miss Fitton:

"Repent what's past; avoid what is to come; And do not spread the compost on the weeds To make them ranker....
Assume a virtue if you have it not...."

In his description of the king and queen we get Shakespeare's view of Lord Herbert and Miss Fitton: the king (Herbert) is "mildew'd" and foul in comparison with his modest poet-rival--"A satyr to Hyperion."

Hamlet's view of his mother (Miss Fitton), though bitterer still, is yet the bitterness of disappointed love: he will have her repent, refrain from the adultery, and be pure and good again. When the Queen asks:

"What shall I do?"

Hamlet answers:

"Not this, by no means, that I bid you do: Let the king tempt you again to bed; Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse; And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses, Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers...."

Maddened with jealousy he sees the act, scourges himself with his own lewd imagining as Posthumus scourges himself. No one ever felt this intensity of jealous rage about a mother or a sister. The mere idea is absurd; it is one's own passion-torture that speaks in such words as I have here quoted.

Hamlet's treatment of Ophelia, too, and his advice to her are all the outcome of Shakespeare's own disappointment:

"Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?"

We all expect from Hamlet some outburst of divine tenderness to Ophelia; but the scenes with the pure and devoted girl whom he is supposed to love are not half realized, are nothing like so intense as the scenes with the guilty mother. It is jealousy that is blazing in Shakespeare at this time, and not love; when Hamlet speaks to the Queen we hear Shakespeare speaking to his own faithless, guilty love. Besides, Ophelia is not even realized; she is submissive affection, an abstraction, and not a character. Shakespeare did not take interest enough in her to give her flesh and blood.

Shakespeare's jealousy and excessive sensuality come to full light in the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, when they are about to witness the play before the king: he persists in talking smut to her, which she pretends not to understand. The lewdness, we all feel, is out of place in "Hamlet," horribly out of place when Hamlet is talking to Ophelia, but Shakespeare's sensuality has been stung to ecstasy by Miss Fitton's frailty, and he cannot but give it voice. As soon as Ophelia goes out of her mind she, too, becomes coarse--all of which is but a witness to Shakespeare's tortured animality. Yet Goethe can talk of Hamlet's "pure and most moral nature." A goat is hardly less pure, though Hamlet was moral enough in the high sense of the word.

There are one or two minor questions still to be considered, and the chief of these is how far, even in this moment of disillusion, did our Shakespeare see himself as he was? Hamlet says:

"I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in,

imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us."

All this is mere rhetoric, and full of clever self-excusing. Hamlet is not very revengeful or very ambitious; he is weakly-irresolute, and excessively sensual, with all the faults that accompany these frailties. Even at this moment, when he must know that he is not very revengeful, that forgiveness were easier to him, Shakespeare will pose to himself, and call himself revengeful: he is such an idealist that he absolutely refuses to see himself as he is. In later dramas we shall find that he grows to deeper self-knowledge. Hamlet is but the half-way house to complete understanding.

Fortunately we have each of us an infallible touchstone by which we can judge of our love of truth. Any of us, man or woman, would rather be accused of a mental than a physical shortcoming. Do we see our bodily imperfections as they are? Can we describe ourselves pitilessly with snub nose, or coarse beak, bandy legs or thin shanks; gross paunch or sedgy beard? Shakespeare in Hamlet can hardly bear even to suggest his physical imperfections. Hamlet lets out inadvertently that he was fat, but he will not say so openly. His mother says to Hamlet:

"You are fat and scant of breath."

Many people, especially actors, have been so determined to see Hamlet as slight and student-like, that they have tried to criticize this phrase, and one of them, Mr. Beerbohm Tree, even in our day, went so far as to degrade the text to "faint and scant of breath." But the fatness is there, and comes to view again in another phrase of Hamlet:

"O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew."

No thin man ever spoke of his flesh in that way. Shakespeare was probably small, too. We know that he used to play Adam in "As You Like it," and in the play Orlando has to take Adam up and carry him off the stage, a thing no actor would attempt if the Adam had been a big man. Shakespeare was probably of middle height, or below it, and podgy. I always picture him to myself as very like Swinburne. Yet even in Hamlet he would make himself out to be a devil of a fellow: "valiant Hamlet," a swordsman of the finest, a superb duellist, who can touch Laertes again and again, though lacking practice. At the last push of fate Shakespeare will pose and deceive himself.

It is curiously characteristic of Shakespeare that when Hamlet broods on retaliation he does not brood like a brave man, who gloats on challenging his enemy to a fair fight, and killing him by sheer force or resolution; his passion, his revenge, is almost that of an Italian bravo. Not once does Hamlet think of forcing the king (Herbert) to a duel; he goes about with ideas of assassination, and not of combat.

"Now might I do it pat"

he cries as he sees the king praying; and he does not do it because he would thus send the king's soul to Heaven--shrill wordy intensity to excuse want of nerve. Whenever we get under the skin, it is Shakespeare's femininity which startles us.

One cannot leave this great picture of Hamlet-Shakespeare without noticing one curious fact, which throws a flood of light on the relations of literary art to life. Shakespeare, as we have seen, is boiling with jealous passion, brooding continually on murderous revenge, and so becomes conscious of his own irresolution. He dwells on this, and makes this irresolution the chief feature of Hamlet's character, and yet because he is writing about himself he manages to suggest so many other qualities, and such amiable and noble ones, that we are all in love with Hamlet, in spite of his irresolution, erotic mania and bloody thoughts.

In later dramas Shakespeare went on to deal with the deeper and more elemental things in his nature, with jealousy in "Othello," and passionate desire in "Antony and Cleopatra"; but he never, perhaps, did much better work than in this drama where he chooses to magnify a secondary and ancillary weakness into the chief defect of his whole being. The pathos of the drama is to be found in the fact that Shakespeare realizes he is unable to take personal vengeance on Herbert. "Hamlet" is a drama of pathetic weakness, strengthened by a drama of revenge and jealousy. In these last respects it is a preparatory study for "Othello."

In "Hamlet" Shakespeare let out some of the foul matter which Herbert's mean betrayal had bred in him. Even in "Hamlet," however, his passion for Mary Fitton, and his jealousy of her, constitute the real theme. We shall soon see how this passion coloured all the rest of his life and art, and at length brought about his ruin.

Prev | Next | Contents

     Shakespeare's Plays and Other Works - The Tragedies - The Comedies - The Histories - The Sonnets - The Life of Shakespeare - The Times of William Shakespeare - The Characters from Shakespeare - Stories and Plots - Quotes from Shakespeare - Doubtful Works
- Study Guide - About Us - Privacy Policy - Site Map - More ...

Buy Books at and Save!