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thinking that disappointment at losing the succession to the
crown may be the true cause of his morbid state. In this
intention they decry ambition : " it is but a shadow's shadow."
Hamlet rephes logically enough, that if ambition is but a
shadow, something beyond ambition must be the substance from
which it is thrown. If ambition represented by a King is a
shadow, the antitype of ambition represented by a beggar
must be the opposite of the shadow, that is the substance.
" Then are our beggars, bodies ; and our monarchs, and



62 HAMLET.

outstretch'd heroes, the beggars' shadows." He reduces the-
sophistry of his false friends to an absurdity, and closes the
argument by declining to carry it further : " By my fay, I
cannot reason." But Mr. Coleridge declares the passage to
be unintelligible, and perhaps this interpretation may be too
simple.

So far from being able to examine and recover the wind of
Hamlet, his old schoolfellows are put by him to a course of
questioning as to the motives of their presence, as to whether
it is a free visitation of their own inclining, or whether they
have been sent for. Their want of sldll in dissemblance, and
their weaker natures, submit the secret that they had been
sent for to him, and the old " rights of fellowship," " the
obUgations of ever-preserved love," are immediately clouded
by distrust : " Nay, then, I'U have an eye of you," he says.
Yet notwithstanding he freely discloses to them the morbid
state of his mind ; and, be it remarked, that in this ex-
quisite picture of hfe-weariness, in which no image could be
altered, no word omitted or changed, without obvious damage
to its grand effect, he does not describe the maniacal state, the
semblance of which he has put on before OpheUa and Polonius,
but that morbid state of weakness and melancholy which he
really suffers, of which he is thoroughly self-conscious, and
which he avows in his first speech, before he has seen the
Ghost :

" I have of late (but wherefore, I know not), lost aU my
mirth, foregone aU custom of exercises : and, indeed, it goes
so heavily with my disposition, that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a steril promontory ; this most excellent
canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament,
this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears
no other thing to me, than a foul and pestUent congregation
of vapours. What a piece of work is a man ! how noble in
reason ! how infinite in faculties ! in form, and moving, how
express and admirable ! in action, how like an angel ! in ap-
prehension, how like a god ! the beauty of the world ! the



HAMLET. 63

paragon of animals ! And yet, to me, what is tbis quintessence
of dust ? man delights not me, nor woman neither ; though,
by your smiling, you seem to say so."

How exqiiisitely is here conveyed the state of the reasoning
melanchoHac, (melancholia without delusion,) who sees all
things as they are, but feels them as they are not. All
cheerfulness fled, all motive for action lost, he becomes
listless and inert. He still recognises the beauty of the earth
and the magnificence of the heavens, but the one is a tomb,
and the other a funereal pall. His reason still shews him the
place of man, a Httle lower than the angels, but the sources
of sentiment are dried up, and, although no man-hater, he no
longer derives pleasure from kindly affections. The waters of
emotion are stagnant ; the pleasant places of the soul are
steril and desert.

Hamlet is not slow to confess his melancholy, and indeed
it is the peculiarity of this mental state, that those suffering
from it, seldom or never attempt to conceal it. A man wUl
conceal his delusions, will deny and veil the excitement of
mania, but the melancholiac is almost always readily confi-
dential on the subject of his feelings. In this lie resembles
the hypochondriac, though not perhaps from exactly the same
motive. The hypochondriac seeks for sympathy and pity ;
the melanchoUac frequently admits others to the sight of his
mental wretchedness, from mere despair of relief and con-
tempt of pity.

Although Hamlet is ready to shew to his friends the mirror
of his mind, observe how jealously he hides the cause of its
distortion. "But wherefore I know not," is scarcely con-
sistent with the truth. In his first soUloquy, which we take
to be the key-note of his real mental state, he clearly enough
indicates the source of his wretchedness, which the Queen
also with a mother's insight, has not been slow to perceive :
" His father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage."



6-i HAMLET.

Again, hovr jealous he is that his frierids should not refer his
melancholy to love-sickness. With his acute iasight into cha-
racter, the opinion propounded by Polonius, that he was mad for
love, could not have escaped him ; a theory, moreover, which
would be hkely to wound his pride severely. Polonious had
already made, in his presence, sundry aside observations on
this poiat ; and the significant smile of Eosencrantz at his
observation, " Man deHghts not me," would be Kkely to
stimulate the sleeping suspicion that he was set down as a
brain-sick, rejected lover, and some annoyance at an attempt
to explain his madness as the result of his rejection by
Ophelia, may combine with the suspicion that he is watched,
to explain his harshness towards her in his subsequent inter-
view with her.

How are we to understand his confession to the men he
already distrusts, that m the appearance of his madness the
King and Queen are deceived, except by his contempt for their
discrimination, and his disHke to wear the antic disposition
before all company.

When Polonius returns, he unmediately puts on the full
disguise, playing upon the old man's infirmities with the
ironical nonsense about Jephtha, king of Israel, who had a
daughter, &c., and skilfully leading Polonius by the nose on
the scent of his own theory, " Still on my daughter."

When the players enter, however, he thoroughly throws off
not only the antic counterfeit, but the melancholy reality of
his disposition ; he shakes his faculties together, and becomes
perfectly master of himself in courtesy, scholarship, and sohd
sense. His retort to Polonius, who objects to the speech of
the player as too long, seems a valuable hint of Shakespeare's
own opinion respecting the bad necessity he felt to introduce
ribald scenes into his plays : " It shall to the barber's, with
your beard. Pr'ythee, say on : he's for a jig, or a tale of
bawdry, or he sleeps." What a noble sentiment in homely



HAMLET. 65

plifase, is that in which he marks the right motive of beha-
viour towards inferiors, and indeed towards all men. To
Polonius's assurance that he will use the players according to
their desert, the princely thought, in homely garb, is,

" Odd's bodikin, man, much better : Use every man after
his desert, and who shall 'scape whippiag ! Use them after
your own honour and dignity : the less they deserve, the more
merit is in your bounty."

Although he freely mocks the old lord chamberlain him-
self, he will not permit others to do so. His injunction to the
player, " FoUow that lord, and look you mock him not," not
only indicates that the absurdities of Polonius are glaring, but
that there is less real malice in Hamlet's heart towards the
old man than he assumes the appearance of.

Hamlet decides upon the use he will make of the players
with a promptitude that shews that his resolve, " sicklied o'er
with the pale cast of thought," is but the inactivity of an
over-reflective melancholic mind, and that there is energy
enough in him to seize any real occasion.

Hamlet's sohloquy, " 0, what a rogue and peasant slave am
I ! " resembles with a difference the one foUowing his iater-
view with the Captain : " How all occasions do iaform against
me." The latter one, after he has obtained satisfactory proof
of his uncle's guilt, is far the least passionate and vehement,
justifying in some degree the remark of Schlegel, that " in
the last scenes the maia action either stands still or appears to
retrograde." There is, however, an important distinction be-
tween these two soliloquies. The passionate outburst of the
first has been stimulated by emotional imitation. The feigned
passion of the player has touched the most sensitive chord of
feeling, and given occasion to the vehemence of his angry self-
rebuke. The account of the soldier's temper, " greatly to find
quarrel in a straw, when honour's at the stake," sets him
calmly to reflect and philosophize upon the motives of action.



66 HAMLET.

In these two soliloquies, we have to some extent Shakespeare s
own exposition of Hamlet's natural character, and the motives
of his conduct.

" The whole," says Schlegel, " was intended to shew that a
consideration which would exhaust all the relations and pos-
sible consequences of a deed, to the very limits of human
foresight, cripples the power of actiag." In this tragedy of
thought, we have a highly sensitive, reflecting, self-introspec-
tive mind, weak and melancholic, sorrow-stricken and hfe-
weary. In a manner so awful that it might shake the soundest
mind, this man is called upon to take away the life of a king
and a relative, for a crime of which there exists no actual
proof. Surely Hamlet is justified in pausing to weigh his
motives and his evidence, in concluding not to act upon the
sole dictation of a shadowy appearance, who may be the devil
tempting his "weakness and his melancholy ;" of deciding to
" have grounds more relative than this," before he dehberately
commits himself to an act of revenge which, even had the
proof of his uncle's crime been conclusive and irrefragable,
would have been repulsive to his inmost nature. Hamlet's
indecision to act, and his over-readiness to reflect, are placed
beyond the reach of critical discovery by his own analytical
motive hunting, so eloquently expressed in the abstruse thinking
in which he indulges. Anger and hatred against his uncle,
self-contempt for his own irresolution, inconsistent as he feels
it with the courage of which he is conscious, disgust at his
own angry excitement, and doubts of the testimony, upon
which he is yet dissatisfied that he has not acted, present a
state of intellectual and emotional conflict perfectly consistent
with the character and the circumstances. If Hamlet had had
as much faith in the Ghost as Macbeth had in the Weird Sisters,
he would have struck without needing further evidence. If he
had been a man of action, whose firstlings of the heart are
those of the hand, he would have struck in the earliest heat



HAMLET. 67

of his revenge. He feels while he questions, that it is not
true that he is " pigeon liver' d, and lacks gaU to make op-
pression bitter ;" but he does lack that resolution which
" makes mouths at the invisible event ;" he does make, " I
would, wait upon, I will :" he does hesitate and procrastinate,
and examine his motives, and make sure to his own mind of
his justification, and allow us to see the painful labour of a
noble and sensitive being, struggling to gain an unquestionable
conviction of the right thing to do, in circumstances most
awry and difficult ; he does feel balancing motives, and pain-
fully hear the ring of the yes and no in his head.
" Che si, e n6 nel capo mi tenzona."

Shall we think the less nobly of him because his hand is
not ready to shed kindred blood ; because, gifted with God-
like discourse of reason, he does look before and after ; because
he does not take the law in his own hands upon his oppressor,
until he has obtained conclusive evidence of his guilt ; that
he seeks to make sure he is the natural justiciar of his
murdered father, and not an assassin instigated by hatred and
selfish revenge !

The report given to the King and Queen by the young

courtiers is conceived to hide their failure in the mission

of inquiry. The Prince, they say, "does confess he feels

himself distracted," while he refuses to yield to them the

cause :

" But, with a crafty madness, keeps aloof.
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.

He behaves

" Most like a gentleman ;"

" But with much forcing of his disposition,"

and he is falsely stated to have' been " niggard of question,"
but " most free in his reply."

They must, however, have been surprised to hear the condi-



68 HAMLET.

tion in which they found their friend described by the King, as
"turbulent and dangerous lunacy," since, up to this time,
this is an untrue description of Hamlet's state, whatever
cause the King may subsequently have to apply it, when the
death of Polonius makes him feel that Hamlet's "hberty
is fiiU of threats to aU." The expression used by the King,
that Hamlet " puts on this confusion," would seem to point
to a suspicion, even at this early time, that his madness is
but counterfeit. The Queen, however, appears to accept its
reality, and, notwithstanding all the arguments of Polonius,
she adheres to her first opiaion of its cause. She doth wish,
indeed, that Ophelia's "good beauties be the happy cause of
Hamlet's wildness ;" since, if so, she entertains the hope that
her virtues may bring the remedy. It seems here imphed
that the King and Queen have been made aware of Opheha's
love for Hamlet ; and both in this speech of the Queen, and
in the one she makes over Ophelia's grave,

" I hop'd thou should' st have been my Hamlet's wife,"
it appears that the remedy by which the Queen at this time
hopes to attain his recovery to " his wonted way again," is
by his marriage. This understanding, however, or arrange-
ment, is nowhere expressed, and indeed, although the Queen
may desire to think with Polonius respecting the cause and
nature of her son's malady, her mother's knowledge and
woman's tact lead her conviction nearer to the truth, when
she avows the real cause to be " His father's death, and our
o'erhasty marriage."

The soliloquy which foUows, " To be, or not to be," is
one of the most exquisite pieces of poetic self-communing
ever conceived. Imbued with a profotuidly melancholy view
of human hfe, which is relieved by no gleam of cheerfulness, -
illumined by no ray of hope, the mind of the unhappy
Prince dwells with longing desire, not on a future and happier
state of existence, but on annihilation. He wishes to end the



HAMLET. 69

troubles of life in a sleep -without a dream, and is restrained
alone from seeking it by the apprehension of

" What dreams may come.
When we have shuffled off this mortal coU ;"

by the fear, in fact, of a future state, in which the calamities
of this life may be exchanged for others more enduring, in the
undiscovered country of the future. This " dread of some-
thing after death " scarcely deserves the name of conscience,
which he apphes to it. The fear of punishment is the lowest
motive for virtuous action, and is far removed in its nature
from the inward principle of doing right for its own sake.
The word, however, does not seem to be here appHed in
its higher sense, as the arbiter of right, but rather in that
of reflective meditation. It is this that makes " cowards of
us all." It is this that prevents Hamlet seeking his own rest
in the annihilation he longs for. It is by this also, that his
hand is withheld from the act of wild justice and revenge
upon which his mind sits on brood. It is thus that he accu-
rately describes the trnfibre of his own mind, so active to
think, so inert to act, so keen to appreciate the evils of Ufe,
so averse to take any active part against them.

" Thus conscience does make cowards of us all ;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought ;
And enterprises of great pith and moment.
With this regard, their currents turn awry.
And lose the name of action."

The motive against suicide here adduced is undoubtedly a
mean and fallacious one. It is mean, because it is cowardly ;
the coward want of patience manfully to endure the evils of
this mortal life being kept in check by the coward fear of future
punishment. It is fallacious, because it balances the evils of
this Ufe against the apprehended ones of the fature ; there-
fore when, in the judgment of the sorely afflicted, the weight of
present evils more than counterpoises those which the amount



70 HAMLET.

of religious faith may point to in the threatening future, the
argument here advanced would justify suicide. There is
nothing in which men differ more than in their various
endowments with the courage of fortitude and the courage of
enterprise ; and it is certain that of two men equally groaning
and sweating under a weary life, and oppressed by the same
weight of calamity, if solely actuated by the reasoning here
employed by Hamlet in the contemplation of suicide, one
woulA have the courage to endure the present, and the other
would have the courage to face the pei-ils of the future.
Courage has been described as the power to select the least of
two evils ; the evil of pain and death, for instance, rather
than that of shame. If this be so, it must yet be admitted
that either one of two given evils may be the greatest to
different men ; and coiirage may urge one man to fight, and
another to flee, either in the vulgar wars of Kings and
Kaisars, or in the more earnest trials of the battle of life.
The converse of the proposition must also be true, and
cowardice may either make us stand by our arms or basely
desert. The terrible question of suicide, therefore, is not to
be thus solved ; indeed the only motive against suicide
which wiU. stand the test, is that which Hamlet in his first
speech indicates, namely, obedience to the law of God ;
that obedience which, in the heaviest calamities, enables
the Christian to "be patient and endure; " that obedience
which, in the most frantic desire to put off this mortal coil,
can withhold the hand by this one consideration, that

" The Eternal hath set His canon 'gainst self-slaughter."
The motives made use of by Hamlet in his earher and later
contemplation of suicide, indicate his religious and his philo-
sophic phase of character. Faith in the existence of a God,
and of a future state of existence, is so ingrained in his
mind that it powerfully influences his conduct, and constantly
turns up to invalidate, if not to refute, that sceptical phUo-



HAMLET. 71

sophy with whicli he is indoctrinated, and which leads him so
constantly to trace the changes of matter, as in
" Imperial Cssar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole, to keep the wind away."

This, perhaps, was the philosophy which Horatio and he had
learned at Wittenburg, the fallacy of which the Ghost had
seemed at first to prove. Yet it is strange how entirely
Hamlet appears at times to have forgotten the Ghost and
its revelations. The soliloquy, " To be, or not to be," is that
of a man to whom any future state of existence is a matter
of sincere doubt. He appears as one of those who would not
be persuaded, " though one rose from the dead."

After the soul-harrowing recital made to him by the per-
turbed spirit of his father, in which the secrets of the piuga-
torial prison-house are not indeed unfolded, but in which
they are so broadly indicated that no man who had seen so
much of the " eternal blazon " of the spirit-world, could find
a corner in his soul for the concealment of a sceptical doubt,
after this, the soliloquy, " To be, or not to be," presumes
either an entire forgetfulness of the awful revelation which
had been made to him, or the existence of a state of mind so
overwhelmed with suicidal melancholy as to be incapable of
estimating testimony. Now it is well enough known that the
most complete sensational and intellectual proofs go for nothing,
when opposed to the stubborn strength of a morbid emotion,
and if Hamlet reasons . upon the future life, and hunts
matter through its transmigrations with a sceptical intent, it
must be accepted as the result of mental disease which has
perverted the instinct of self-preservation, and made him desire
nothing so much as simple unconditional annihilation.

In his interview with the much enduring Ophelia which
follows the soliloquy, Hamlet has been accused of unworthy
harshness. Two considerations will tend to modify, though
not altogether to remove this judgment. The reader is aware



72 HAMLET.

that Ophelia entertains the fondest love towards Hamlet ; but
he, ignorant of this, only knows that, after accepting the tender
of his affections, she has repulsed him with every appearance
of heartless cruelty. He feels her to be, the cause in himself,
of " the pangs of despised love ;" yet he at first addresses her
in a manner indicating his own faithfulness and fond appre-
ciation of all her goodness and virtue, as if he could best
approach Heaven through her gracious intercession.
" The fair Ophelia : Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember' d."

What follows is so opposed to the tenderness of this greeting,
that we are compelled to assume that he sees through the snare
set for him ; and that in resisting it he works himself up into
one of those ebulHtions of temper to which he is prone. He
sees that Ophelia is under the constraint of other presence,
as what keen-sighted lover Would not immediately distiaguish
whether his mistress, in whatever mood she may be, feels her-
self alone with him, or under the observation of others. He
has before shewn his repugnance to the idea that he is love-
sick mad. He knows that Polonius thus explains his conduct ;
and his harshness to Ophelia is addressed to Polonius, and any
others who may be in hiding, more than to Ophelia herself.
Yet the harshest words, and those most unfit to be used to
any woman, are the true reflex of the morbid side of his mind,
which passion and suspicion have cast into the bitterest forms
of expression. The true melancholy and the counterfeit mad-
ness are strangely commingled in this scene. The latter is
shewn by disjointed exclamations and half-reasonings. " Ha,
ha ! are you honest ?" " Are you fair 1" " I did love you
once." " I loved you not," &c., and by the wUd form in
which the melancholy is here cast. " Get thee to a nunnery :
why would' st thou be a breeder of sinners 1" " Wha,t should
such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven!"
"Where's your father ?" Ophelia tells a white he. "At home.



HAMLET. 73

my lord." Hamlet knows better, and sends a random shaft
into his ambuscade. " Let the doors be shut upon him., that
he may play the fool nowhere but in his own house."

" Ham,. Get thee to a nunnery : why would'st thou be a
breeder of sinners ? I am myself indifferent honest ; but yet
I could accuse me of such things, that it were better my
mother had not borne me : 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 earth and heaven ! We are arrant knaves,
all ; believe none of us : Go thy ways to a nunnery. Where's
your father V

" Ham. If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for thy
dowry : Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt
not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery ; farewell : or, if
thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool ; for wise men know well
enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go ;
and quickly too. Farewell.

Oph. Heavenly powers, restore him !

Ham. I have heard of your paintings too, well enough ;
God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves
another ; you jig, you amble, and you Hsp, and nick^name
God's creatures, and make your wantonness your ignorance :
Go to, I'll no more of 't ; it hath made me mad. 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. To a
nunnery, go."

Partly dictated by jealous fear that Ophelia may solace her
pain with some other lover, it is yet an attempt to wean from
himself any fondness which may remain. The burthen is.
Grieve not for me, but do not marry another. The latter
speech is directed to the Queen in ambush.

What exquisite pathos ! what wail of despairiag love
in Ophelia's lament over the ruin of her lover's mind !
What fine discrimination of the excellencies marred ! What
forgetfulaess of self in the grief she feels for him ! Not for
her own loss, but for his fall, is she " of ladies most deject



74 HAMLET.

and wretched," although it is the dying swan-song of her own

sanity.

" 0, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown !
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword :


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Online LibraryJohn Charles BucknillThe psychology of Shakespeare → online text (page 6 of 21)