Page images
PDF
EPUB

There is in the ebb and flow of Shakspeare's soul all the grandeur of a mighty operation of nature ; and when we think or speak of him, it should be with humility, where we do not understand, and a conviction that it is rather to the narrowness of our own ken than to any failing in the art of the great magician, that we ought to attribute any sense of imperfection and of weakness which may assail us during the contemplation of his created worlds.

I believe that our admiration, and wonder, and love of our mighty dramatist are so intense, that we cannot endure any long, regular, and continued criticism upon him; for we know that there is an altitude of his soul which cannot be taken, and a depth that may not be fathomed. We wish rather to have some flashings of thought-some sudden streams of light thrown over partial regions of the mental scenery,—the veil of clouds here and there uplifted, and the sound of the cataract to be unexpectedly brought upon the silence. We ask not for a picture of the whole landscape of the soul, nor for a guide who shall be able to point out all its wonders ; but we are glad to listen to every one who has travelled through the kingdoms of Shakspeare. Something interesting there must be even in the humblest journal ; and we turn with equal pleasure from the converse of those who have climbed over the magnificence of the highest mountains there, to the lowlier tales of less am

bitious pilgrims, who have sat on the green and sunny knoll, beneath the whispering tree, and by the music of the gentle rivulet."

When I single out the tragedy of Hamlet, I enter, as it were, into a wilderness of thought where I know my soul must soon be lost, but from which it cannot return to our every-day world, without bringing back with it some lofty and mysterious conceptions, and a deeper insight into some of the most inscrutable recesses of human nature.

Shakspeare himself, had he even been as great a critic as a poet, could not have written a regular dissertation on Hamlet. So ideal, and yet so real an existence, could have been shadowed out only in the colours of poetry. When a character deals solely or -chiefly with this world and its events, when it acts, and is acted upon, by objects that have a palpable existence, we see it distinctly, as if it were cast in a material mould, -as if it partook of the fixed and settled lineaments of the things on which it lavishes its sensibilities and its passions, We see, in such cases, the vision of an individual soul, as we see the vision of an individual countenance.

We can describe both, and can let a

- Never was there a more eloquent description than this of the avidity and gratification with which every ingenious illustration of Shakspeare, as of a being gifted beyond others in the mysteries of nature, is read and studied. May it not without much presumption be considered as highly recommendatory of the object, and, as the editor hopes, not inapplicable to the character of the present volume ?

stranger into our knowledge. But how tell in words, so pure, so fine, so ideal an abstraction as HAMLET? We can indeed figure to ourselves generally his princely form, that outshone all other manly beauty, and adorn it with the consummation of all liberal accomplishment. We can behold in every look, every gesture, every motion, the future king,

The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword:
Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion, and the mould of form,
Th' observ'd of all observers !

But when we would penetrate into his spirit,meditate on those things on which he meditates,-accompany him even unto the brink of eternity,-Auctuate with him on the ghastly sea of despair,-soar with him into the purest and serenest regions of human thought,—feel with him the curse of beholding iniquity, and the troubled delight of thinking on innocence, and gentleness, and beauty,—come with him, from all the glorious dreams cherished by a noble spirit in the halls of wisdom and philosophy, of a sudden into the gloomy courts of sin, and incest, and murder,shudder with him over the broken and shattered fragments of all the fairest creation of his fancy,– be borne with him at once from calm, and lofty, and delighted speculations, into the very heart of fear, and horror, and tribulation,-have the agonies and the guilt of our mortal world brought into immediate contact with the world beyond the grave,

and the influence of an awful shadow hanging for ever on our thoughts,—be present at a fearful combat between all the stirred-up passions of humanity in the soul of one man,-a combat in which one and all of those passions are alternately victorious and overcome,-I say, that when we are thus placed and thus acted upon, how is it possible to draw a character of this sublime drama, or of the mysterious being who is its moving spirit? In him, his character and his situation, there is a concentration of all the interests that belong to humanity. There is scarcely a trait of frailty or of grandeur, which may have endeared to us our most beloved friends in real life, that is not to be found in Hamlet. Undoubtedly Shakspeare loved him beyond all his other creations. Soon as he appears on the stage, we are satisfied. When absent, we long for his return. This is the only play which exists almost altogether in the character of one single person. Who ever knew a Hamlet in real life? Yet who, ideal as the character is, feels not its reality? This is the wonder. We love him not, we think of him not, because he was witty,-because he was melancholy,—because he was filial; but we love him because he existed, and was himself. This is the grand sum-total of the impression. I believe that of every other character, either in tragic or epic poetry, the story makes a part of the conception; but of Hamlet, the deep and permanent interest is the conception of himself. This seems to belong, not to the character being more

perfectly drawn, but to there being a more intense
conception of individual human life than perhaps
in
any

other human composition ; that is, a being with springs of thought, and feeling, and action, deeper than we can search. These springs rise from an unknown depth, and in that depth there seems to be a oneness of being which we cannot distinctly behold, but which we believe to be there; and thus irreconcileable circumstances, floating on the surface of his actions, have not the effect of making us doubt the truth of the general picture.

A good play is an imitation of life, in as far as the actions, and events, and passions of a few hours can represent those of a whole lifetime. Yet, after all, it is but a segment of a circle that we can behold. Were the dramatist to confine himself to that narrow limit, how little could he achieve! He takes, therefore, for granted, a knowledge, and a sympathy, and a passion in his spectators, that extends to, and permeates the existence of his characters long anterior to the short period which his art can embrace. He expects, and he expects reasonably, that we are not to look upon every thing acted and said before us absolutely as it is said or acted. It is his business to make us comprehend the whole man from

1

[ocr errors]

$

I would particularly point out this attempt to develope the peculiar nature of the interest derived from the exhibition or study of the character of Hamlet, as singularly just and profound.

« PreviousContinue »