Hamlet Essay features Samuel Taylor Coleridge's
famous critique based on his legendary and influential
Shakespeare notes and lectures.
HAMLET was the play, or rather Hamlet himself was the
character, in the intuition and exposition of which
I first made my turn for philosophical criticism, and
especially for insight into the genius of Shakspeare,
noticed. This happened first amongst my acquaintances,
as Sir George Beaumont will bear witness; and subsequently,
long before Schlegel had delivered at Vienna the lectures
on Shakspeare, which he afterwards published, I had
given on the same subject eighteen lectures substantially
the same, proceeding from the very same point of view,
and deducing the same conclusions, so far as I either
then agreed, or now agree, with him. I gave these lectures
at the Royal Institution, before six or seven hundred
auditors of rank and eminence, in the spring of the
same year, in which Sir Humphrey Davy, a fellow-lecturer,
made his great revolutionary discoveries in chemistry.
Even in detail the coincidence of Schlegel with my lectures
was so extraordinary, that all who at a later period
heard the same words, taken by me from my notes of the
lectures at the Royal Institution, concluded a borrowing
on my part from Schlegel. Mr. Hazlitt, whose hatred
of me is in such an inverse ratio to my zealous kindness
towards him, as to be defended by his warmest admirer,
Charles Lamb(who, God bless him! besides his characteristic
obstinacy of adherence to old friends, as long at least
as they are at all down in the world, is linked as by
a charm to Hazlitt's conversation)only as 'frantic';Mr.
Hazlitt, I say, himself replied to an assertion of my
plagiarism from Schlegel in these words;"That
is a lie; for I myself heard the very same character
of Hamlet from Coleridge before he went to Germany,
and when he had neither read nor could read a page of
German!" Now Hazlitt was on a visit to me at my
cottage at Nether Stowey, Somerset, in the summer of
the year 1798, in the September of which year I first
was out of sight of the shores of Great Britain. Recorded
by me, S. T. Coleridge, 7th January, 1819.
The seeming inconsistencies in the conduct and character
of Hamlet have long exercised the conjectural ingenuity
of critics; and, as we are always loth to suppose that
the cause of defective apprehension is in ourselves,
the mystery has been too commonly explained by the very
easy process of setting it down as in fact inexplicable,
and by resolving the phenomenon into a misgrowth or
lusus of the capricious and irregular genius of Shakspeare.
The shallow and stupid arrogance of these vulgar and
indolent decisions I would fain do my best to expose.
I believe the character of Hamlet may be traced to Shakspeare's
deep and accurate science in mental philosophy. Indeed,
that this character must have some connection with the
common fundamental laws of our nature may be assumed
from the fact, that Hamlet has been the darling of every
country in which the literature of England has been
fostered. In order to understand him, it is essential
that we should reflect on the constution of our own
minds. Man is distingtuished from the brute animals
in proportion as thought prevails over sense: but in
the healthy processes of the mind, a balance is constantly
maintained between the impressions from outward objects
and the inward operations of the intellect;for
if there be an overbalance, in the contemplative faculty,
man thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation,
and loses his natural power of action. Now one of Shakspeare's
modes of creating characters is, to conceive any one
intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and
then to place himself, Shakspeare, thus mutilated or
diseased, under given circumstances. In Hamlet he seems
to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a
due balance between our attention to the objects of
our senses, .and our meditation on the workings of our
minds,an equilibrium between the real and the
imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed:
his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more
vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very perceptions,
instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations,
acquire, as they pass, a form and a colour not naturally
their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous,
intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion
to real action, consequent upon it, with all its symptoms
and accompanying qualities. This character Shakspeare
places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to
act on the spur of the moment:Hamlet is brave
and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility,
and procrasti-nates from thought, and loses the power
of action in the energy of resolve. Thus it is that
this tragedy presents a direct contrast to that of Macbeth;
the one proceeds with the utmost slowness, the other
with a crowded and breathless rapidity.
The effect of this overbalance of the imaginative power
is beautifully illustrated in the everlasting broodings
and superfluous activities of Hamlet's mind, which,
unseated from its healthy relation, is constantly occupied
with the world within, and abstracted from the world
without, giving substance to shadows, and throwing
a mist over all common-place actualities. It is the
nature of thought to be indefinite;definiteness
belongs to external imagery alone. Hence it is that
the sense of sublimity arises, not from the sight of
an outward object, but from the beholder's reflection
upon it;not from the sensuous impression, but
from the imaginative reflex. Few have seen a celebrated
waterfall without feeling something akin to disappointment:
it is only subsequently that the image comes back full
into the mind, and brings with it a train of grand or
beautiful associations. Hamlet feels this; his senses
are in a state of trance, and he looks upon ex-ternal
things as hieroglyphics. His soliloquy
O! that this too too solid flesh would melt, &c.
springs from that craving after the indefinitefor
that which is notwhich most easily besets men
of genius; and the self-delusion common to this temper
of mind is finely exemplified in the character which
Hamlet gives of himself:
It cannot be
But I am pigeon-livered, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter.
He mistakes the seeing his chains for the breaking
them, jdelays action till action is of no use, and dies
the victim of mere circumstance and accident.
There is a great significancy in the names of Shakspeare's
plays. In the Twelfth Night, Midsummer Night's Dream,
As You Like It, and Winter's Tale, the total effect
is produced by a coordination of the characters as in
a wreath of flowers. But in Coriolanus, Lear, Romeo
and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello, &c. the effect arises
from the subordination of all to one, either as the
prominent person, or the principal object. Cymbeline
is the only exception; and even that has its advantages
in preparing the audience for the chaos of time, place,
and costume, by throwing the date back into a fabulous
But as of more importance, so more striking, is the
judgment displayed by our truly dramatic poet, as well
as poet of the drama, in the management of his first
scenes. With the single exception of Cymbeline, they
either place before us at one glance both the past and
the future in some effect, which implies the continuance
and full agency of its cause, as in the feuds and party-spirit
of the servants of the two houses in the first scene
of Romeo and Juliet; or in the degrading passion for
shews and public spectacles, and the overwhelming attachment
for the newest successful war-chief in the Roman people,
already become a populace, contrasted with the jealousy
of the nobles in Julius Caesar;or they at once
commence the action so as to excite a curiosity for
the explanation in the following scenes, as in the storm
of wind and waves, and the boatswain in the Tempest,
instead of anticipating our curiosity, as in most other
first scenes, and in too many other first acts;or
they act, by contrast of diction suited to the characters,
at once to heighten the effect, and yet to give a naturalness
to the language and rhythm of the principal personages,
either as that of Prospero and Miranda by the appropriate
lowness of the style,or as in King John, by the
equally appropriate stateliness of official harangues
or narratives, so that the after blank verse seems to
belong to the rank and quality of the speakers, and
not to the poet;or they strike at once the keynote,
and give the predominant spirit of the play, as in the
Twelfth Night and in Macbeth;or finally, the first
scene comprises all these advantages at once, as in
Compare the easy language of common life, in which
this drama commences, with the direful music and wild
wayward rhythm and abrupt lyrics of the opening of Macbeth.
The tone is quite familiar;there is no poetic
description of night, no elaborate information conveyed
by one speaker to another of what both had immediately
before their senses(such as the first distich
in Addison's Cato, which is a translation into poetry
of 'Past four o'clock and a dark morning!');and
yet nothing bordering on the comic on the one hand,
nor any striving of the intellect on the other. It is
precisely the language of sensation among men who feared
no charge of effeminacy for feeling what they had no
want of resolution to bear. Yet the armour, the dead
silence, the watchfulness that first interrupts it,
the welcome relief of the guard, the cold, the broken
expressions of compelled attention to bodily feelings
still under controlall excellently accord with,
and prepare for, the after gradual rise into tragedy;
but, above all, into a tragedy, the interest of which
is as eminently ad et apud intra, as that of Macbeth
is directly ad extra.
In all the best attested stories of ghosts and visions,
as in that of Brutus, of Archbishop Cranmer, that of
Benvenuto Cellini recorded by himself, and the vision
of Galileo communicated by him to his favourite pupil
Torricelli, the ghost-seers were in a state of cold
or chilling damp from without, and of anxiety inwardly.
It has been with all of them as with Francisco on his
guard, alone, in the depth and silence of the
night;''twas bitter cold, and they were sick at
heart, and not a mouse stirring.' The attention to minute
sounds,naturally associated with the recollection
of minute objects, and the more familiar and trifling,
the more impressive from the unusualness of their producing
any impression at all gives a philosophic pertinency
to this last image; but it has likewise its dramatic
use and purpose. For its commonness in ordinary conversation
tends to produce the sense of reality, and at once hides
the poet, and yet approximates the reader or spectator
to that state in which the highest poetry will appear,
and in its component parts, though not in the whole
composition, really is, the language of nature. If I
should not speak it, I feel that I should be thinking
it;the voice only is the poet's, the words
are my own. That Shakspeare meant to put an effect in
the actor's power in the very first words "Who's
there?" is evident fromt he impatience expressed
by the startled Francisco in the words that follow "Nay,
answer me: stand and unfold yourself." A brave
man is never so peremptory, as when he fears that he
is afraid. Observe the gradual transition from the silence
and the still recent habit of listening in Francisco's"I
think I hear them"to the more cheerful call
out, which a good actor would observe, in the"Stand
ho! Who is there?" Bernardo's inquiry after Horatio,
and the repetition of his name and in his own presence
indicate a respect or an eagerness that implies him
as one of the persons who are in the foreground; and
the scepticism attributed to him,
Horatio says, 'tis but our fantasy;
And will not let belief take hold of him
prepares us for Hamlet's after eulogy on him as one
whose blood and judgment were happily commingled. The
actor should also be careful to distinguish the expectation
and gladness of Bernardo's 'Welcome, Horatio!' from
the mere courtesy of his 'Welcome, good Marcellus!'
Now observe the admirable indefiniteness of the first
opening out of the occasion of all this anxiety. The
preparation informative of the audience is just as much
as was precisely necessary, and no more;it begins
with the uncertainty appertaining to a question:
Mar. What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?
Even the word 'again' has its credibilizing effect.
Then Horatio, the representative of the ignorance of
the audience, not himself, but by Marcellus to Bemardo,
anticipates the common solution"tis but our
fantasy!' upon which Marcellus rises into
This dreaded sight, twice seen of us
which immediately afterwards becomes 'this apparition,'
and that, too, an intelligent spirit, that is, to be
spoken to! Then comes the confirmation of Horatio's
Tush! tush! 'twill not appear!
and the silence, with which the scene opened, is again
restored in the shivering feeling of Horatio sitting
down, at such a time, and with the two eye-witnesses,
to hear a story of a ghost, and that, too, of a ghost
which had appeared twice before at the very same hour.
In the deep feeling which Bernardo has of the solemn
nature of what he is about to relate, he makes an effort
to master his own imaginative terrors by an elevation
of style,itself a continuation of the effort,and
by turning off from the apparition, as from something
which would force him too deeply into himself, to the
outward objects, the realities of. nature, which had
Ber. Last night of all,
When yon same star, that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it bums, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one
This passage seems to contradict the critical law that
what is told, makes a faint impression compared with
what is beholden; for it does indeed convey to the mind
more than the eye can see; whilst the interruption of
the narrative at the very moment when we are most intensely
listening for the sequel, and have our thoughts diverted
from the dreaded sight in expectation of the .desired,
yet almost dreaded, talethis gives all the suddenness
and surprise of the original appearance;
Mar. Peace, break thee off; look, where it comes
Note the judgment displayed in having the two persons
present, who, as having seen the Ghost before, are naturally
eager in confirming their former opinions,whilst
the sceptic is silent, and after having been twice addressed
by his friends, answers with two hasty syllables'Most
like,' and a confession of horror:
It harrows me with fear and wonder.
O heaven! words are wasted on those who feel, and to
those who do not feel the exquisite judgment of Shakspeare
in this scene, what can be said ?Hume himself
could not but have had faith in this Ghost dramatically,
let his anti-ghostism have been as strong as Sampson
against other ghosts less powerfully raised.
Act i. sc. i.
Mar. Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch, &c.
How delightfully natural is the transition to the retrospective
narrative! And observe, upon the Ghost's reappearance,
how much Horatio's courage is increased by having translated
the late individual spectator into general thought and
past experience,and the sympathy of Marcellus
and Bernardo with his patriotic surmises in daring to
strike at the Ghost; whilst in a moment, upon its vanishing
the former solemn awe-stricken feeling returns upon
We do it wrong, being so majestical,
To offer it the show of violence.
Ib. Horatio's speech:
I have heard,
The cock, that is the trumpet to the morn,
Doth with his lofty and shrill-sounding throat
Awake the god of day, &c.
No Addison could be more careful to be poetical in
diction than Shakspeare in providing the grounds and
sources of its propriety. But how to elevate a thing
almost mean by its familiarity, young poets may learn
in this treatment of the cock-crow.
Ib. Horatio's speech:
And, by my advice,
Let us impart what we have seen to-night
Unto young Hamlet; for, upon my life,
This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.
Note the inobtrusive and yet fully adequate mode of
introducing the main character, 'young Hamlet,' upon
whom is transferred all the interest excited for the
acts and concerns of the king his father.
Ib. sc. 2. The audience are now relieved by a change
of scene to the royal court, in order that Hamlet may
not have to take up the leavings of exhaustion. In the
king's speech, observe the set and pedantically antithetic
form of the sentences when touching that which galled
the heels of conscience,the strain of undignified
rhetoric,and yet in what follows concerning the
public weal, a certain appropriate majesty. Indeed was
he not a royal brother?
Ib. King's speech:
And now, Laertes, what's the news with you? &c.
Thus with great art Shakspeare introduces a most impor-tant,
but still subordinate character first, Laertes, who
is yet thus graciously treated in consequence of the
assistance given to the election of the late king's
brother instead of his son by Polonius.
Ham. A little more than kin, and less than kind.
King. How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
Ham. Not so, my lord, I am too much i' the sun.
Hamlet opens his mouth with a playing on words, the
complete absence of which throughout characterizes Macbeth.
This playing on words may be attributed to many causes
or motives, as either to an exuberant activity of mind,
as in the higher comedy of Shakspeare generally; or
to an imitation of it as a mere fashion, as if it were
said'Is not this better than groaning?'or
to a contemptuous exultation in minds vulgarized and
overset by their success, as in the poetic instance
of Milton's Devils in the battle;or it is the
language of resentment, as is familiar to every one
who has witnessed the quarrels of the lower orders,
where there is invariably a profusion of punning invective,
whence, perhaps, nicknames have in a considerable degree
sprung up;or it is the language of suppressed
passion, and especially of a hardly smothered personal,
dislike. The first and last of these combine in Hamlet's
case; and I have little doubt that Farmer is right in
supposing the equivocation carried on in the expression
'too much i' the sun,' or son.
Ham. Ay, madam, it is common.
Here observe Hamlet's delicacy to his mother, and how
the suppression prepares him for the overflow in the
next speech, in which his" character is more developed
by bringing forward his aversion to externals, and which
betrays his habit of brooding over the world within
him, coupled with a prodigality of beautiful words,
which are the half embodyings of thought, and are more
than thought, and have an outness, a reality sui generis,
and yet retain their correspondence and shadowy affinity
to the images and movements within. Note also Hamlet's
silence to the long speech of the king which follows,
and his respectful. but general, answer to his mother.
Ib. Hamlet's first soliloquy:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! &c.
This tædium vitæ is a common oppression
on minds cast in the Hamlet mould, and is caused by
disproportionate mental exertion, which necessitates
exhaustion of bodily feeling. Where there is a just
coincidence of external and internal action, pleasure
is always the result; but where the former is deficient,
and the mind's appetency of the ideal is unchecked,
realities will seem cold and unmoving. In such cases,
passion combines itself with the indefinite alone. In
this mood of his mind the relation of the appearance
of his father's spirit in arms is made all at once to
Hamlet:it isHoratio's speech, in particulara
perfect model of the 'true style of dramatic narrative;
the purest poetry, and yet in the most natural language,
equally remote from the ink-horn and the plough.
Ib. sc. 3. This scene must be regarded as one of Shakspeare's
lyric movements in the play, and the skill with which
it is interwoven with the dramatic parts is peculiarly
an excellence of our poet. You experience the sensation
of a pause without the sense of a stop. You will observe
in Ophelia's short and general answer to the long speech
of Laertes the natural carelessness of innocence, which
cannot think such a code of cautions and prudences necessary
to its own preservation.
Ib. Speech of Polonius:(in Stockdale's edition.)
Or (not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,)
Wronging it thus, you'll tender me a fool.
I suspect this 'wronging' is here used much in the
same sense as 'wringing' or 'wrenching'; and that the
paren-thesis should be extended to 'thus.' 1
Ib. Speech of Polonius:
How prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows:these blazes, daughter,
A spondee has, I doubt not, dropped out of the text.
Either insert 'Go to' after 'vows';
Lends the tongue vows: Go to, these blazes, daughter
Lends the tongue vows:These blazes, daughter,
Shakspeare never introduces a catalectic line without
intending an equivalent to the foot omitted in the pauses,
or the dwelling emphasis, or the diffused retardation.
I do not, however, deny that a good actor might by employing
the last mentioned means, namely, the retardation, or
solemn knowing drawl, supply the missing spondee with
good effect. But I do not believe that in this or any
other of the foregoing speeches of Polonius, Shakspeare
meant to bring out the senility or weakness of that
personage's mind. In the great ever-recurring dangers
and duties of life, where to distinguish the fit objects
for the application of the maxims collected by the experience
of a long life, requires no fineness of tact, as in
the admonitions to his son and daughter, Polonius is
uniformly made respectable. But if an actor were even
capable of catching these shades in the character, the
pit and the gallery would be malcontent at their exhibition.
It is to Hamlet that Polonius is, and is meant to be,
contemptible, because in inwardness and uncontrollable
activity of movement, Hamlet's mind is the logical contrary
to that of Polonius, and besides, as I have observed
before. Hamlet dislikes the man as false to his true
allegiance in the matter of the succession to the crown.
Ib. sc. 4. The unimportant conversation with which
this scene opens is a proof of Shakspeare's minute knowledge
of human nature. It is a well established fact, that
on the brink of any serious enterprise, or event of
moment, men almost invariably endeavour to elude the
pressure of their own thoughts by turning aside to trivial
objects and familiar circumstances: thus this dialogue
on the platform begins with remarks on the coldness
of the air, and inquiries, obliquely connected, indeed,
with the expected hour of the visitation, but thrown
out in a seeming vacuity of topics, as to the striking
of the dock and so forth. The same desire to escape
from the impending thought is carried on in Hamlet's
account of, and moralizing on, the Danish custom of
wassailing: he runs off from the particular to the universal,
and, in his repugnance to personal and individual concerns,
escapes, as it were, from himself in generalizations,
and smothers the impatience and uneasy feelings of the
moment in abstract reasoning. Besides this, another
purpose is answered;for by thus entangling the
attention of the audience in the nice distinctions and
parenthetical sentences of this speech of Hamlet's,
Shakspeare takes them completely by surprise on the
appearance of the Ghost, which comes upon them in all
the suddenness of its visionary character. Indeed, no
modern writer would have dared, like Shakspeare, to
have preceded this last visitation by two distinct appearances,or
could have contrived that the third should rise upon
the former two in impressiveness and solemnity of interest.
But in addition to all the other excellences of Hamlet's
speech concerning the wassel-musicso finely revealing
the predominant idealism, the ratiocinative meditativeness,
of his characterit has the advantage of giving
nature and probability to the impassioned continuity
of the speech instantly directed to the Ghost. The momentum
had been given to his mental activity; the full current
of the thoughts and words had set in, and the very forgetfulness,
in the fervour of his argumentation, of the purpose
for which he was there, aided in preventing the appearance
from benumbing the mind. Consequently, it acted as a
new impulse,a sudden stroke which increased the
velocity of the body already in motion, whilst it altered
the direction. The co-presence of Horatio, Marcellus,
and Bemardo is most judiciously contrived; for it renders
the courage of Hamlet and his impetuous eloquence perfectly
intelligible. The knowledge,the unthought of consciousness,
the sensation,of human auditors,of
flesh and blood sympathistsacts as a support and
a stimulation a. tergo, while the front of the mind,
the whole consciousness of the speaker, is filled, yea,
absorbed, by the. apparition. Add too, that the apparition
itself has by its previous appearances been brought
nearer to a thing of this world. This accrescence of
objectivity in a Ghost that yet retains all its ghostly
attributes and fearful subjectivity, is truly wonderful.
Ib. sc. 5. Hamlet's speech:
O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell?
I remember-nothing equal to this burst unless it be
first speech of Prometheus in the Greek drama, after
the exit of Vulcan and the two Afrites. But Shakspeare
alone could have produced the vow of Hamlet to make
his memory a blank of all maxims and generalized truths,
that 'observation had copied there,'followed immediately
by the speaker noting down the generalized fact,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!
Mar. Hillo, ho, ho, my lord!
Ham. Hillo, ho, ho, boy I come bird, come, &c.
This part of the scene after Hamlet's interview with
the Ghost has been charged with an improbable eccentricity.
But the truth is, that after the mind has been stretched
beyond its usual pitch and tone, it must either sink
into exhaustion and inanity, or seek relief by change.
It is thus well known, that persons conversant in deeds
of cruelty contrive to escape from conscience by connecting
something of the ludicrous with them, and by inventing
grotesque terms and a certain technical phraseology
to disguise the horror of their practices. Indeed, paradoxical
as it may appear, the terrible by a law of the human
mind always touches on the verge of the ludicrous. Both
arise from the perception of something out of the common
order of thingssomething, in fact, out of its
place; and if from this we can abstract danger, the
uncommonness will alone remain, and the sense of the
ridiculous be excited. The dose alliance of these oppositesthey
are not contraries appears from the circumstance,
that laughter is equally the expression of extreme anguish
and horror as of joy: as there are tears of sorrow and
tears of joy, so is there a laugh of terror and a laugh
of merriment. These complex causes will naturally have
produced in Hamlet the disposition to escape from his
own feelings of the overwhelming and supernatural by
a wild transition to the ludicrous, a sort of
cunning bravado, bordering on the flights of delirium.
For you may, perhaps, observe that Hamlet's wildness
is but half false; he plays that subtle trick of pretending
to act only when he is very near really being what he
The subterraneous speeches of the Ghost are hardly
defensible:but I would call your attention to
the char-acteristic difference between this Ghost, as
a superstition connected with the most mysterious truths
of revealed religion,and Shakspeare's consequent
reverence in his treatment of it,and the foul
earthly witcheries and wild language in Macbeth.
Act ii. sc. i. Polonius and Reynaldo.
In all things dependent on, or rather made up of,
fine address, the manner is no more or otherwise rememberable
than the light motions, steps, and gestures of youth
and health. But this is almost everything:no wonder,
therefore if that which can be put down by rule in the
memory should appear to us as mere poring, maudlin,
cunning, slyness blinking through the watery eye
of superannuation. So in this admirable scene, Polonius,
who is throughout the skeleton of his own former skill
and statecraft, hunts the trail of policy at a dead
scent, supplied by the weak fever-smell in his own nostrils.
Ib. sc. 2. Speech of Pofonius:
My liege, and madam, to expostulate, &c.
Then as to the jingles, and play on words, let us
but look into the sermons Of Dr. Donne (the wittiest
man of that age) and we shall and them full of this
I have, and that most carefully, read Dr. Donne's sermons,
and find none of these jingles. The great art of an
oratorto make whatever he talks of appear of importancethis,
indeed, Donne has effected with consummate skill.
Ham. Excellent well;
You are a fishmonger.
That is, you are sent to fish out this secret. This
is Hamlet's own meaning.
Ham. For if the sun breeds maggots in a dead dog,
Being a god, kissing carrion
These purposely obscure lines, I rather think, refer
to some thought in Hamlet's mind, contrasting the lovely
daughter with such a tedious old fool, her father, as
he. Hamlet, represents Polonius to himself:'Why,
fool as he is, he is some degrees in rank above a dead
dog's carcase; and if the sun, being a god that kisses
carrion, can raise life out of a dead dog,why
may not good fortune, that favours fools, have raised
a lovely girl out of this dead-alive old fool?' Warburton
is often led astray, in his interpreta-tions, by his
attention to general positions without the due Shakspearian
reference to what is probably passing in the mind of
his speaker, characteristic, and expository of his particular
character and present mood. The subsequent passage,
O Jephtha, judge of Israel I what a treasure hadst
is confirmatory of my view of these lines.
Ham. You cannot. Sir, take from me any thing that
I will more willingly part withal; except my life, except
my life, except my
This repetition strikes me as most admirable.
Ham. Then are our beggars, bodies; and our monarchs,
and ont-stretched heroes, the beggars' shadows.
I do not understand this; and Shakspeare seems to have
intended the meaning not to be more than snatched at:'By
my fay, I cannot reason!'
The rugged Pyrrhusbe whose sable arms, &c.
This admirable substitution of the epic for the dramatic,
giving such a reality to the impassioned dramatic diction
of Shakspeare's own dialogue, and authorized too, by
the actual style of the tragedies before his time (Porrex
and Ferrex, Titus Andronicus, &c.)is well
worthy of notice. The fancy, that a burlesque was intended,
sinks below criticism: the lines, as epic narrative,
In the thoughts, and even in the separate parts of the
diction, this description is highly poetical: in truth,
taken by itself, that is its fault that it is too poetical!the
language of lyric vehemence and epic pomp, and not of
the drama. But if Shakspeare had made the diction truly
dramatic, where would have been the contrast between
Hamlet and the play ia Hamlet?
had seen the mobled queen, &c.
A mob-cap is still a word in common use for a morning
cap, which conceals the whole head of hair, and passes
under the chin. It is nearly the same as the nightcap,
that is, it is an imitation of it, so as to answer the
purpose ('I am not drest for company'), and yet reconciling
it with neatness and perfect purity.
Ib. Hamlet's soliloquy:
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am! I &c.
This is Shakspeare's own attestation to the truth of
the idea of Hamlet which I have before put forth.
The spirit that I have seen,
May be a devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and, perhaps
Out of my weakness, and my melancholy,
(As he is very potent with such spirits)
Abuses me to damn me.
See Sir Thomas Brown:
I believethat those apparitions
and ghosts of departed persons arc not the wandering
souls of men, but the unquiet walks of devils, prompting
and suggesting us unto mischief, blood and villany,
instilling and stealing into our hearts, that the blessed
spirits are not at rest in their graves, but wander
solicitous of the affairs of the world. Relig. Meet.
Pt. I. Sect. 37.
Act iii. sc. i. Hamlet's soliloquy:
To be, or not to be, that is the question, &c.
This speech is of absolutely universal interest,and
yet to which of all Shakspeare's characters could it
have been appropriately given but Hamlet? For Jaques
it would have been too deep, and for Iago too habitual
a communion with the heart; which in every man belongs,
or ought to belong, to all mankind.
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourne
No traveller returns.
Theobald's note in defence of the supposed contradiction
of this in the apparition of the Ghost.
O miserable defender! If it be necessary to remove
the apparent contradiction,if it be not rather
a great beauty,surely, it were easy to say, that
no traveller returns to this world, as to his home,
Ham. Ha, ha! are you honest?
Oph. My lord?
Ham. Are you fair?
Here it is evident that the penetrating Hamlet perceives,
from the strange and forced manner of Ophelia, that
the sweet girl was not acting a part of her own, but
was a decoy; and his after speeches are not so much
directed to her as to the listeners and spies. Such
a discovery in a mood so anxious and 'irritable accounts
for a certain harshness in him;and yet a wild
up-working of love, sporting with opposites in a wilful
self-tormenting strain of irony, is perceptible throughout.
'I did love you once:'
'I lov'd you not:'and particularly in his
enumeration of the faults of the sex from which Ophelia
is so free, that the mere freedom therefrom constitutes
her character. Note Shakspeare's charm of composing
the female character by the absence of characters, that
is, marks and out-juttings.
Ib. Hamlet's speech:
I say, we will have no more marriages: those that
are married already, all but one, shall live: the rest
shall keep as they are.
Observe this dallying with the inward purpose, characteristic
of one who had not brought his mind to the steady acting
point. He would fain sting the uncle's mind;
but to stab his body!The soliloquy of Ophelia,
which follows, is the perfection of loveso exquisitely
Ib. sc. 2. This dialogue of Hamlet with the players
is one of the happiest instances of Shakspeare's power
of diversifying the scene while he is carrying on the
Ham. My lord, you play'd once i' the university,
you say? (To Polonius.)
To have kept Hamlet's love for Ophelia before the audience
in any direct form, would have made a breach in the
unity of the interest;but yet to the thoughtful
reader it is suggested by his spite to poor Polonius,
whom he cannot let rest.
Ib. The style of the interlude here is distinguished
from the real dialogue by rhyme, as in the first interview
with the players by epic verse.
Ros. My lord, you once did love me.
Ham. So I do still, by these pickers and stealers.
I never heard an actor give this word 'so' its proper
emphasis. Shakspeare's meaning is'lov'd you? Hum!
so I do still, &c.' There has been no change
in my opinion:I think as ill of you as I did.
Else Hamlet tells an ignoble falsehood, and a useless
one, as the last speech to Guildenstern'Why, look
you now,' &c. proves.
Ib. Hamlet's soliloquy:
Now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
The utmost at which Hamlet arrives, is a disposition,
a mood, to do something:but what to do, is still
left undecided, while every word he utters tends to
betray his disguise. Yet observe how perfectly equal
to any call of the moment is Hamlet, let it only not
be for the future.
Ib. sc. 4. Speech of Polonius. Polonius's volunteer
obtrusion of himself into this business, while it is
appro-priate to his character, still itching after former
importance, removes all likelihood that Hamlet should
suspect his presence, and prevents us from making his
death injure Hamlet in our opinion.
Ib. The king's speech:
O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven, &c.
This speech well marks the difference between crime
and guilt of habit. The conscience here is still admitted
to audience. Nay, even as an audible soliloquy, it is
far less improbable than is supposed by such as have
watched men only in the beaten road of their feelings.
But the. final'all may be well!' is remarkable;the
degree of merit attributed by the self-flattering soul
to its own struggle, though baffled, and to the indefinite
half-promise, half-command, to persevere in religious
duties. The solution is in the divine medium of the
Christian doctrine of expiation:not what you have
done. but what you are, must determine.
Ib. Hamlet's speech:
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 scann'd, &c.
Dr. Johnson's mistaking of the marks of reluctance
and procrastination for impetuous, horror-striking,
fiendishness! Of such importance is it, to understand
the germ of a character. But the interval taken by Hamlet's
[speech is truly awful! And then
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words, without thoughts, never to heaven go,
O what a lesson concerning the essential difference
[between wishing and willing, and the, folly of all
motive-mongering, while the individual self remains!
Ib. sc. 4.
Ham. A bloody deed;almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
Queen. As kill a king?
I confess that Shakspeare has left the character of
Queen in an unpleasant perplexity. Was she, or was she
not, conscious of the fratricide?
Act iv. sc. 2.
Ros. Take you me for a spunge, my lord?
Ham. Ay, Sir; that .soaks up the King's countenance,
his rewards, his authorities, &c.
Hamlet's madness is made to consist in the free utterance
of all the thoughts that had passed through his mind
before;in fact, in telling home-truths.
Act iv. sc. 5. Ophelia's singing. O, note the conjunction
here of these two thoughts that had never subsisted
in disjunction, the love for Hamlet, and her filial
love, with. the guileless floating on the surface of
her pure imagina-tion of the cautions so lately expressed,
and the fears not too delicately avowed, by her father
and brother, concern-ing the dangers to which her honour
lay exposed. Thought, affliction, passion, murder itselfshe
turns to favour and prettiness. This play of association
is instanced in the close:
My brother shall know of it, and so I thank you
for your good counsel.
Ib. Gentleman's speech:
And as the world were now bnt to begin
Antiquity forgot, custom not known,
The ratifiers and props of every word
They cry, &c.
Fearful and self-suspicious as I always feel, when
I seem to see an error of Judgment in Shakspeare, yet
I cannot reconcile the cool, and, as Warburton calls
it, 'rational and consequential,' reflection in these
lines with the anony-mousness, or the alarm, of this
Gentleman or Messenger, as he is called in other editions.
Ib. King's speech:
There's such divinity doth hedge a king,
That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will.
Proof, as indeed all else is, that Shakspeare never
intended us to see the King with Hamlet's eyes; though,
I suspect, the managers have long done so.
Ib. Speech of Laertes:
To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Laertes is a good character, but, &c. WARBURTON.
Mercy on Warburton's notion of goodness! Please to
refer to the seventh scene of this act;
I will do it;
And for that purpose I'll anoint my sword, &c.
uttered by Laertes after the King's description of
He being remiss,
Most generous, and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils.
Yet I acknowledge that Shakspeare evidently wishes,
as much as possible, to spare the character of Laertes,to
break the extreme turpitude of his consent to become
an agent and accomplice of the King's treachery;and
to this end he reintroduces Ophelia at the close of
this scene to afford a probable stimulus of passion
in her brother.
Ib. sc. 6. Hamlet's capture by the pirates. This is
almost the only play of Shakspeare, in which mere accidents,
independent of all will, form an essential part of the
but here how judiciously in keeping with the character
of the over-meditative Hamlet, ever at last determined
by accident or by a fit of passion!
Ib. sc. 7. Note how the King first awakens Laertes's
vanity by praising the reporter, and then gratifies
it by the report itself, and finally points it by
Sir, this report of his
Did Hamlet so envenom with his envy!
Ib. King's speech:
For goodness, growing to a pleurisy,
Dies in his own too much.
Theobald's note from Warburton, who conjectures 'plethory.'
I rather think that Shakspeare meant 'pleurisy,' but
involved in it the thought of plethora, as supposing
pleurisy to arise from too much blood; otherwise I cannot
explain the following line
And then this should is like a spendthrift sigh,
That hurts by easing.
In a stitch in the side every one must have heaved
a sigh that 'hurt by easing.'
Since writing the above I feel confirmed that 'pleurisy'
is the right word; for I find that in the old medical
dictionaries the pleurisy is often called the 'plethory.'
Queen. Your sister's drown'd, Laertes.
Laer. Drown'd! O, where?
That Laertes might be excused in some degree for not
cooling, the Act concludes with the affecting death
of Ophelia,who in the beginning lay like a little
projection of land into a lake or stream, covered with
spray-flowers, quietly reflected in the quiet waters,
but at length is under-mined or loosened, and becomes
a faery isle, and after a brief vagrancy sinks almost
without an eddy!
Act v. sc. i. O, the rich contrast between the Clowns
and Hamlet, as two extremes! You see in the former the
mockery of logic, and a traditional wit valued, like
truth, for its antiquity, and treasured up, like a tune,
Ib. sc. i and 2. Shakspeare seems to mean all Hamlet's
character to be brought together before his final disappearance
from the scene;his meditative excess in the grave-digging,
his yielding to passion with Laertes, his love for Ophelia
blazing out, his tendency to generalize on all occasions
in the dialogue with Horatio, his fine gentlemanly manners
with Osrick, and his and Shak-speare's own fondness
But thou would'st not think, how ill all's here
about my heart;
but it is no matter.
1 It is so pointed in the modem editions.Ed.