Hamlet: Shakespeare’s Tragic Reading of Life, the Psychological Book of the Mental and Moral Nature of Man: Comparative and Correlated Analysis

An interrogation of the critical utterances that have accumulated during a century of eager Shakespearian study would doubtlessly place Hamlet upon a pinnacle as the extreme and most characteristic expression of the poet’s tragic mood. One need not be concerned to challenge the judgment, although it probably owes something to the consonance of the subject-matter o the play with the intellectual history of the century itself ; its spiritual upheaval, the paralysis of will that for a time inevitably proceeded from its blurred and uncertain vision of the ultimate tendency of things. It is not without consequence that the modern world has read Shakespeare through the spectacles of Coleridge. But, while criticism has lost its interest in the allocation of superlatives, it cannot allow Hamlet to be summed up as ‘characteristic’ of Shakespearian tragedy without a distinction.

Hamlet ‘belongs to the first book of Shakespeare’s tragic reading of life, the psychological book in which he seeks to penetrate to the emotional springs of pity and awe through an analysis of the mental’ and moral nature of man, and to bring into relief at once the splendid potentialities of that nature, and the causes, rooted in itself, whereby a piece of work—’how noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god!’ —is foredoomed to sterility and failure, It is of this type of tragedy that Hamlet is characteristic; and it must not be forgotten that Shakespeare subsequently wrote his second book of cosmic tragedies, in which the tragic issue is sought, not so much in the faulty composition of man, as in the forces beyond and above man which are dimly discerned as making for his temporary exaltation and his eternal undoing.

William Shakespeare
Of cosmic tragedy Macbeth and King Lear are characteristic, not Hamlet, wherein the cosmic themes are at the most foreshadowed, in the questioning soliloquies of Hamlet himself which, inconclusive as they are, begin to suggest some essential antimony between the Christianity that serves as the official philosophy of the play and the tangle beyond all raveling of the things that pass on earth. None the less the tragedy of Hamlet lies, if one may put it so, not in the content of the soliloquies, but in the fact that the soliloquies come to be uttered. It is the tragedy of the intellectual, of the impotence of the over-cultivated imagination and the over-subsidized reasoning powers to meet the call of everyday life for practical efficiency.

 Thus it is an exact pendant to Julius Caesar, in which the tragedy is that of the impotence in its turn of the most genuine and self sacrificing moral idealism when brought face to face with precisely the same practical ordeal. And one must note the element of irony which hangs about all tragedy. Hamlet does not fail because the problems of practical life are not subtle; and Brutus does not fail because there is no room in practical life for self-sacrifice. Tragedy comes because the subtleties are so many and the occasions for self- sacrifice so obvious, that only the stupid brain or the blunt moral sense is able to disregard them, and reach the goal.

In his way, Shakespeare has imposed his psychology, apparently by means of more than one recession, upon an existing theme of popular tragedy, the features of which he has, after all, not wholly eliminated. There was certainly an earlier Hamlet, probably by another hand, which one may think of as a sufficiently crude ice, pulsating with blood and revenge, in the manner of The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus. Into the midst of such a story the dramatist has deliberately set his modern born out of due time, the high-strung dreamer who moves brought it to the disaster of its hurried close. He is the academic man, the philosopher, brought suddenly into the world of strenuous action, and proving himself but the clay pot there. The fatal habit of speculation, fatal at Elsinore, however proper and desirable at Wittenberg, is his undoing Cursed with the
‘Craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,’
he is predestined to a failure in the hour of trial from which no truth and intensity of feeling, no delicacy of moral fibre, no compass and profundity of intellectual judgment, can Save him. Hamlet is presented as no ordinary prince. His spirit has been touched to fine issues; his wit is keen-edged and dipped in irony; his ethical outlook is unusual among the ruder Danes. He is not a mere boy when the play opens, but up to that moment his life has been serene and undisturbed.

The unexpected death of his father has called him hack from the University of Wittenberg, where his time has been spent in an atmosphere of studious calm and philosophic speculation. His tastes are those of the scholar; he loves to read for hours together, and, like most literary men, he takes great delight in the stage, with whose theory and practice he is familiar, He is no recluse.; he has the genius for friendship and for love; when at Elsinore he has been conspicuous in the gallant exercises of the age. He s the darling of the court and beloved by the people. But his real interest is all in speculation, in the play of mind around a subject, in the contemplation of it on all sides and from every point of view. Such a training has not fitted him to act a kingly part in stirring times; the intellectual element in him has come to outweigh the practical; the vivid consciousness of many possible courses of conduct deters him from the strenuous pursuit of one so that he has lost the power of deliberate purposeful action, and, by a strange paradox, if this thoughtful man acts at all, it must be from impulse.

Quite suddenly the dreamer finds himself face to face, with a thing to be done. According to the ethics of the age it becomes his imperative duty to revenge his father’s murder; a difficult task, and one whose success might well seem doubtful. But Hamlet does not shrink at first from recognizing the obligation; it is ‘cursed spite’ that the burden of setting the world straight should have fallen upon him, but he will not refuse to shoulder it. Only the habits of’ a lifetime are not to be thrown off so easily. As the excitement of the ghost’s revelation passes away, the laws of character begin to reassert themselves. The necessity of ‘thinking it over’ is potent with Hamlet. Instead of revealing all to his friends and enlisting their assistance, he binds them to secrecy and forms the plan of pretending madness that he may gain time to consider his position.

Criticism of the play is apt to centre round the question, ‘Was Hamlet, at any time and in any sense, really mad?’ Admittedly he set out to put an antic disposition on; but it has been held, sometimes with much learning of the alienist, that in course of time, under the strain of the situation, the pretence adopted as a mask passed into a reality. I do not think that the text, fairly read, supports this theory, and in the abstract it is surely untenable. Psychology, indeed, is hard put to it to establish a rigid dividing-line between the sane and the insane. The pathologist may distinguish certain abnormal conditions of brain-areas and call them diseased; or the lawyer may apply working tests to determine the point at which restraint of the individual liberty becomes necessary in the public interest. But beyond that you cannot go. No one, from any wider point of view, can lay his finger upon one manifestation here or there of the innate variety of human character, and say with assurance, ‘This way madness lies.’ Only of one thing we may be sure. Shakespeare did not mean Hamlet to be mad in any sense which would put his actions in a quite different category from those of other men. How could It ba so, since the responsibility of the free agent is of the essence of psychological tragedy, and to have eliminated Hamlet’s responsibility would have been to divest his story of humanity and leave it meaningless?

Consideration, however, cannot make Hamlet’s position other than a disconcerting one. In the first place, he is absolutely alone. The court at Elsinore is filled with quite ordinary people, none of whom can understand him, to none of whom he can look for help. This note of contrast between Hamlet and his surroundings is struck again and again. They are of another world than his’, limited, commonplace, incapable of ideals. His motives and feelings, his scruples and hesitations, are hopelessly beyond their comprehension. And therefore—this is the irony of it—most of them are far more fitted to deal with a practical crisis in life than this cultured idealist of a prince. There are ‘the good king and queen’; Claudius, shrewd  and ready for an emergency, one who has set foot in the paths of villainy and will not turn back, for all the dim visiting of momentary remorse ; Gertrude, a slave to the stronger nature, living in the present, unable to realize her own moral degradation. There is Horatio, a straightforward upright soldier; one whom Hamlet intensely respects comes even to envy, but who is not subtle enough to be of much use to him. There is Polonius, a played-out state official, vain and slowwitted, pattering words of wisdom which he does not understand and cannot put into practice. There are his son and daughter, Laertes and Ophelia ; Laertes, a shallow, vigorous young noble, quick with a word, and quick with a blow, but of less than average temper in brain and ethics; Ophelia, a timid conventional girl, too fragile a reed for a man to lean upon. Hamlet loves her, and she loves Hamlet, but it is not a love that will bear him through the deep waters of affliction. The rest of the court is typified by Osric the Waterfly, and by Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, of whom if you say Rosencrantz and Guildenstern it makes no difference; echoes, nonentities. With Hamlet on one side and these on the other, the elements of a tragedy are complete; the problem can work out to no satisfactory conclusion.

Once Hamlet has shrunk from immediate action, the possibilities of delay exercise an irresistible fascination over him. The ingenuity of his intellect exhausts itself in the discovery of obstacles he takes every turn and twist to avoid the fatal necessity for action. At first he looks to Ophelia, the well-beloved. She will give him strength to accomplish his mission; but the scene in her closet, and still more the lie which she tells when her father is behind the arras, confess her weakness and compel him to renunciation. In the meantime he continues the assumption of madness. It serves a double purpose; he is free from the intolerable burden of keeping on good terms with Claudius and the rest; he can fight out the battle with himself in peace, while he mocks them with the ironies congenial to his mood. And what is more, he can let himself go; the strain of his overwrought mind relieves itself in bursts of an extravagance only half affected. He plays the madman to prevent himself from becoming one. But all the while he is no nearer the end. He has turned the whole matter over and cannot decide. His thoughts slip away from the plain issue and lose themselves in a bitter criticism of all created things. In this the speculative temper infallibly betrays itself; the interest of the universal, not of the particular, is always dominant with Hamlet; not his mother’s sin, but the frailty of women, is his natural theme. And so it is with a pang that he constantly recalls himself to the insistent actual life, from the world in which he is a past-master to that wherein he gropes ineffectively. Of course he is fully aware of his own weakness; a deficiency of self-analysis is not likely to be one of his failings; but this does not give him power to throw if off, or help him from his maze of recurring dilemmas. More than once lie is on the point of cutting the knot by death, but even for that he has not sufficient conviction.

At last the crisis comes. Hamlet has resolved that the play scene shall decide once for all the question of the king’s guilt. That guilt is made most manifest, and the opportunity for revenge is offered him. He does not take it. Covering his weakness with unreal reasons he passes into the queen’s chamber. After that it is too late. The impetuous murder of Polonius is the first link in a chain of calamities. Moreover it gives Claudius his chance. The king has never been wholly deceived by Hamlet’s madness; he is sent to England, and only escapes that trap to fall into another. True, in the end the king dies by one impulsive stroke; but that cannot repair the ruin which Hamlet’s want of purpose has caused. The infinitely sad fate of Ophelia; the deaths of Polonius, Laertes, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern; for all their faults, all these are a sacrifice on the altar of his infirmity. Only for Hamlet himself is the fatal blow, opening to him the doors of forgotten felicity, ‘a consummation devoutly to be wished’.

 The tragic ineffectiveness of the speculative intellect in a world of action is the keynote of the play. In Hamlet, as In Brutus, the idealist gets the worst of it, and we are left to wonder at the irony of things by which it is so. And just as the figure of Brutus is St between the two triumphant Philistines, Caesar and Antony, so Shakespeare is careful to provide a similar contrast for Hamlet. Partly this is to be found in Horatio, ‘the man who is not passion’s slave, but still more in the stranger from Norway, Fortinbras. The very existence of Fortinbras and the danger with which he threatens the state 8how the need for an iron hand in Denmark; Hamlet’s reflections on his meeting with the Norwegian soldiers emphasize the same point; and the final appearance of Fortinbras on the weltering stage and his selection by Hamlet in his last will and testament as the true saviour of society are fully significant. It is the lesson of Henry the Fifth, the lesson of the ‘still strong man in a blatant land’. Only in Hamlet it is the other side of the shield that Shakespeare approaches. The heroic play comes singing the paean and blowing the trumpets of triumphant efficiency; the tragedy looks deeper, to shed its unavailing tear over
‘All the world’s coarse thumb And finger failed to plumb;
So passed in making up the main account’;
and the blare of the trumpets ceases, as the poor heap of ineffectual ideals and fantastic loyalties is borne away upon the bier. ‘The rest is silence.’

1. E. K. Chambers’s William Shakespeare: A Study Of Facts And Problems Vol I
2. G. B. Harison’s Shakespearean Tragedies

Ardhendu De 


Popular posts from this blog

Dr. West’s New Method of Teaching English :Its Merits and Demerits

Critical Appreciation of Philip Larkin’s Poem, "The North Ship": Life Award for Best Philosophical Access

What are the specific objectives of teaching English as a second language at the secondary stage? How far is the current high school curriculum helpful in realizing the objectives?