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the point, would do well to examine the character of Achilles, and then tell us whether the choler and obstinate desire of vengeance in Achilles, so pernicious in their effects, and which brought a thousand ills on the Grecian camp,—whether these be characteristics of a hero who may be pointed out as being virtuous ? and whether we are thence to conclude that Homer, the father of poets, made an injudicious choice in the subject of his epopée? The unbounded pride of Achilles, his disobedience to his general, his cruelty to his dead enemy, and his selling the body of his son to old Priam,-all these we abbor while we read them; and the poet only shows them, as Dryden justly observes, not to be imitated, but like rocks and quicksands, to be carefully avoided and shunned. Thus Shakspeare has set up the character of Hamlet, like some pharos or beacon-light, at the bickering flame of which we are not to kindle the torch which is to light us on our way, but of which we are to steer clear on the ocean of our lives.”—Literary Gazette, October 13, 1827.
- The Mirror, No. 99, April 18, 1780.
CRITICISM ON THE CHARACTER AND TRAGEDY
OF HAMLET CONCLUDED.
The view of Hamlet's character exhibited in the last number, may, perhaps, serve to explain a difficulty which has always occurred both to the reader and the spectator, on perceiving his madness, at one time, put on the appearance, not of fiction, but of reality; a difficulty by which some have been induced to suppose the distraction of the prince a strange unaccountable mixture throughout of real insanity and counterfeit disorder.
The distraction of Hamlet, however, is clearly affected through the whole play, always subject to the controul of his reason, and subservient to the accomplishment of his designs. At the grave of Ophelia, indeed, it exhibits some temporary marks of a real disorder. His mind, subject from nature to all the weakness of sensibility, agitated by the incidental misfortune of Ophelia's death, amidst the dark and permanent impression of his revenge, is thrown for a while off its poise, and, in the paroxysm of the moment, breaks forth into that extravagant rhapsody which he utters to Laertes.
Counterfeited madness, in a person of the cha
racter I have ascribed to Hamlet, could not be so uniformly kept up, as not to allow the reigning impressions of his mind to show themselves in the midst of his affected extravagance. It turned chiefly on his love to Ophelia, which he meant to hold forth as its great subject; but it frequently glanced on the wickedness of his uncle, his knowledge of which it was certainly his business to conceal.
In two of Shakspeare's tragedies are introduced, at the same time, instances of counterfeit madness and of real distraction. In both plays the same distinction is observed, and the false discriminated from the true by similar appearances. Lear's imagination constantly runs on the ingratitude of his daughters, and the resignation of his crown; and Ophelia, after she has wasted the first ebullience of her distraction in some wild and incoherent sentences, fixes on the death of her father for the subject of her song:
They bore him bare-fac'd on the bier.-
But Edgar puts on a semblance as opposite as may be to his real situation and his ruling thoughts. He never ventures on any expression bordering on the subjects of a father's cruelty, or a son's misfortune. Hamlet, in the same manner, were he as firm in mind as Edgar, would never hint any thing in his affected disorder that might lead to a suspicion of his having discovered the villainy of his uncle; but his feeling, too powerful for his prudence, often breaks through that disguise which it seems to have been his original, and ought to have continued his invariable purpose to maintain, till an opportunity should present itself of accomplishing the revenge which he meditated.
Of the reality of Hamlet's love, doubts have also been suggested. But if that delicacy of feeling, approaching to weakness, for which I contend, be allowed him, the affected abuse, which he suffers at last to grow into scurrility, of his mistress, will, I think, be found not inconsistent with the truth of his affection for her. Feeling its real force, and beginning to play the madman on that ground, he would naturally go as far from the reality as possible. Had he not loved her at all, or slightly loved her, he might have kept up some appearance of passion amidst his feigned insanity; but really loving her, he would have been hurt by such a resemblance in the counterfeit. We can bear a downright caricature of our friend much easier than an unfavourable likeness.
It must be allowed, however, that the momentous scenes in which he is afterwards engaged, seem to have smothered, if not extinguished, the feelings of his love. His total forgetfulness of Ophelia so soon after her death cannot easily be justified. It is vain, indeed, to attempt justifying Shakspeare in such particulars. “Time,' says Dr. Johnson, “toild after him in vain.” He seems often to forget its rights, as well in the progress of the passions, as in the business of the stage. That change of feeling and of resolution which time only can effect, he brings forth within the limits of a single scene.
Whether love is to be excited, or resentment allayed, guilt to be made penitent, or sorrow cheerful, the effect is frequently produced in a space hardly sufficient for words to express it.
It has been remarked that our great poet was not so happy in the delineation of love as of the other passions. Were it not treason against the majesty of Shakspeare, one might observe that, though he looked with a sort of instinctive
perception into the recesses of nature, yet it was impossible for him to possess a knowledge of the refinements of delicacy, or to catch in his pictures the nicer shades of polished manners; and, without this knowledge, love can seldom be introduced on the stage but with a degree of coarseness which will offend an audience of good taste. This observation is not meant to extend to Shakspeare's tragic scenes: in situations of deep distress or violent emotion, the manners are lost in the passions; but if we examine his lovers in the lighter scenes of ordinary life, we shall generally find them trespassing against the rules of decorum, and the feelings of delicacy."
» Assuredly not against the rules of decorum and the feelings of delicacy of the age in which the poet lived; for it may, I think, on sufficient authority be asserted that the lighter