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THE MYSTERY OF HAMLET
There is not so much "inconsistency” in the conduct of Hamlet as is generally supposed. To show this I shall take a number of the most contradictory-seeming passages and explain them according to the one central idea. The character and conduct of Hamlet is utterly natural. That is where the greatness lies.
Up to the meeting between Hamlet and the ghost, there is nothing in his character which strikes us as unnatural; but after that strange "inconsistencies” arise to puzzle the commentators. All these are easily explainable. We cannot, however, make the least progress in the understanding of the true inwardness of the play until we have realized that Hamlet is a man who has been incapacitated to have emotion.
This gives rise to a peculiar state of affairs. To witness a display of emotion upon the part of others was a torture to him because it reminded him of the faculty which he had lost. It made him feel poignantly the difference between himself and other men, a terrible state of isolation; and not only that, it confronted him continually with a live contrast between his former self and the man he had now become.
Emotion is our source of inward relief. A man who cannot have it does not want to be always faced by those who can; it calls up an inward lack which is nothing less than painful. Hence Hamlet's feeling that the world was “mocking” or “outfacing” him. It is here, in this inward state of affairs, that the whole tragedy lies.
Let us begin our insight of this by taking up those impassioned lines regarding Hecuba the scene between Hamlet and the traveling actors (ii, 2, 576). Shakespeare has here introduced, for the particular purpose in view, the most vivid and high-wrought eloquence of primitive tragedy. It is intended to rouse the blood. Immediately the players are gone a soliloquy begins:
Hamlet. Ay, so. God buy ye. - Now I am alone. A while Hamlet berates himself for not having a feeling over his own real tragedy like that the actors are able to work up over a mere fancied one.
Then note what follows, remembering always that Hamlet is alone. He breaks out
Am I a coward?
This means that Hamlet is trying to work up some sort of emotion in himself. In order to
do so he imagines some insulting adversary, and he heaps upon himself the most unbrookable indignities that one man could perpetrate upon another. They would move the ire of a slave. Hamlet, by a strong effort of imagination, conceives such an adversary before him; and all because, being unpregnant of emotion, he hopes to stir up within himself the beginnings of a live passion. It is like priming a dry pump. By this artificial means he hopes to strike the live springs of emotion and set his human nature a-working; but it is no use. For after that tragic "Ha” (as if he were on the point of drawing his sword) it all comes to nothing; and he reflects
Swounds, I should take it; for it cannot be
To make oppression bitter, But Hamlet does not give up so easily. From this attempt to rouse his feelings with an imaginary opponent he now turns his mind to his real enemy, the king. He makes a grand effort at passionate feeling, as can be seen by the tirade of epithet he launches himself into.
Bloody, bawdy villain!
Why, what an ass am I! The effort fails — it is mere words. The epithets strike Hamlet as vain and ridiculous because they do not lead on to action; which is to say, they have not moving passion behind
them. Hamlet is a man who, as I have said, has been incapacitated to have emotion.
We must remember, in reading this outburst, that it is not genuine; it is a mere experimental attempt. Shakespeare has artfully paved the way for this interpretation by preceding it with the effort at feeling against an imaginary opponent. That was a mere trumped-up emotion; and so is this. Shakespeare is very organic in his sequences.
We have now considered a very large unit in the organism of the play as a whole; and the principal idea in this unit, which includes the player's lengthy speech and Hamlet's experiments afterward, is to enforce upon us deeply the idea of Hamlet's incapacity to have emotion - a faculty which he had lost. We see that he feels the lack poignantly; the very inner hollowness is a pain. It was done very systematically; first by a strong contrast between the mere actor who could have “tears in 's eyes” over nothing but the live working of his own sources of emotion, and the incapacity of Hamlet to get such relief even when he required it in actual life. And the complete artificiality of his tirade against the king is enforced upon us by preceding it with an effort which is unmistakably, ostensibly, artificial. Shakespeare works in large units which are organic in every small detail, and which in turn make up an organic whole. We cannot read him to the best advantage unless we
have an eye for the central ideas which these larger units or divisions are primarily engaged upon. The richness of the poetry, and the multiplicity of side-lights which are struck out, must not blind us to the masterly progress, the larger main trend.
But Shakespeare could do more than one thing at a time; these actors are going ultimately to be used for the shrewd detection of the king's guilty conscience. I must point out, however, in order that the reader may not get issues confused, that this purpose has hardly been hinted at. So far the actors serve purely for the effect we have been observing; but suddenly, when Hamlet's efforts at feeling have proved vain, he says, “Foh! about my brains,” and then the action takes a new turn. Their further purpose is revealed to us. For as Hamlet lives in the cold light of reason, bereft of all other relief, he is quite at home in a deep, canny piece of detective work. Let us now turn to another
very inconsistent-seeming passage and note the same meaning behind it. I refer to the passage containing that beautiful description, “this majestical roof fretted with golden fire” (ii, 2, 310). Hamlet says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I have of late — but wherefore I know not — lost all my mirth, foregone all custom of exercise; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most