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CRITICISM ON THE CHARACTER AND TRAGEDY
CRITICISM, like every thing else, is subject to the prejudices of our education or of our country. National prejudice, indeed, is, of all deviations from justice, the most common and the most allowable; it is a near, though perhaps an illegitimate, relation of that patriotism which has been ranked among the first virtues of characters the most eminent and illustrious. To authors, however, of a rank so elevated as to aspire to universal fame, the partiality of their countrymen has been sometimes prejudicial; in proportion as they have unreasonably applauded, the critics of other countries, from a very common sort of feeling, have unreasonably censured ; and there are few great writers, whom prejudice on either side may not, from a partial view of their works, find some ground for estimating at a rate much above or much below the standard of justice.
No author, perhaps, ever existed, of whom opinion has been so various as Shakspeare. Endowed with all the sublimity, and subject to all the irregularities of genius, his advocates have room for unbounded praise, and their opponents
for frequent blame. His departure from all the common rules which criticism, somewhat arbitrarily perhaps, has imposed, leaves no legal code by which the decision can be regulated; and in the feelings of different readers, the same passage may appear simple or mean, natural or preposterous, may excite admiration, or create disgust.
But it is not, I apprehend, from particular passages or incidents that Shakspeare is to be judged. Though his admirers frequently contend for beauty in the most distorted of the former, and probability in the most unaccountable of the latter; yet it must be owned that in both there are often gross defects which criticism cannot justify, though the situation of the poet, and the time in which he wrote, may easily excuse.
But we are to look for the superiority of Shakspeare in the astonishing and almost supernatural powers of his invention, his absolute command over the passions, and his wonderful knowledge of nature. Of the structure of his stories, or the probability of his incidents, he is frequently careless,—these he took at random from the legendary tale, or the extravagant romance; but his intimate acquaintance with the human mind seldom or never forsakes him; and amidst the most fantastic and improbable situations, the persons of his drama speak in the language of the heart, and in the style of their characters.
Of all the characters of Shakspeare, that of Hamlet has been generally thought the most difficult to be reduced to any fixed or settled principle. With the strongest purposes of revenge, he is irresolute and inactive; amidst the gloom of the deepest melancholy, he is gay and jocular; and while he is described as a passionate lover, he seems indifferent about the object of his affections. It may be worth while to inquire whether any leading idea can be found, upon which these apparent contradictions may be reconciled, and a character so pleasing in the closet, and so much applauded on the stage, rendered as unambiguous in the general as it is striking in detail. I will venture to lay before my readers some observations on this subject, though with the diffidence due to a question of which the public has doubted, and much abler critics have already written.
The basis of Hamlet's character seems to be an extreme sensibility of mind, apt to be strongly impressed by its situation, and overpowered by the feelings which that situation excites. Naturally of the most virtuous and most amiable dispositions, the circumstances in which he was placed unhinged those principles of action, which, in another situation, would have delighted mankind, and made himself happy. That kind of distress which he suffered was, beyond all others, calculated to produce this effect. His misfortunes were not the misfortunes of accident, which, though they may overwhelm at first, the mind will soon call up reflections to alleviate, and hopes to cheer: they were such as reflection only serves
to irritate, such as rankle in the soul's tenderest part, her sense of virtue, and feelings of natural affection ; they arose from an uncle's villainy, a mother's guilt, a father's murder !-Yet amidst the gloom of melancholy, and the agitation of passion, in which his calamities involve him, there are occasional breakings-out of a mind richly endowed by nature, and cultivated by education. We
perceive gentleness in his demeanour, wit in his conversation, taste in his amusements, and wisdom in his reflections.
That Hamlet's character, thus formed by nature, and thus modelled by situation, is often variable and uncertain, I am not disposed to deny. I will content myself with the supposition that this is the very character which Shakspeare meant to allot him. Finding such a character in real life, of a person endowed with feelings so delicate as to border on weakness, with sensibility too exquisite to allow of determined action, he has placed it where it could be best exhibited, in scenes of wonder, of terror, and of indignation, where its varying emotions might be most strongly marked amidst the workings of imagination, and the war of the passions.
This is the very management of the character by which, above all others, we could be interested in its behalf. Had Shakspeare made Hamlet pursue his vengeance with a steady determined purpose, had he led him through difficulties arising from accidental causes, and not from the doubts and hesitation of his own mind, the anxiety of the spectator might have been highly raised; but it would have been anxiety for the event, not for the Person. As it is, we feel not only the virtues, but the weaknesses of Hamlet, as our own; we see a man who, in other circumstances, would have exercised all the moral and social virtues, one whom nature had formed to be
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress, and to perplex his conduct. Our compassion for the first, and our anxiety for the latter, are excited in the strongest manner; and hence arises that indescribable charm in Hamlet, which attracts every reader and every spectator, which the more perfect characters of other tragedies never dispose
us to feel.
The Orestes of the Greek poet, who, at his first appearance, lays down a plan of vengeance which he resolutely pursues, interests us for the accomplishment of his purpose ; but of him we think only as the instrument of that justice which we wish to overtake the murderers of Agamemnon. We feel with Orestes, (or rather with Sophocles, for in such passages we always hear the poet in his hero,) that it is fit that such gross infringements of the moral law should be punished with death,