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A comedian of considerable talents has entered at large into the question of Hamlet's madness, and has endeavored to show that the Poet meant to represent him as insane.* Mr. Boswell, on the contrary, in a very judicious and ingenious review of Hamlet's character, combats the supposition, and thinks it entirely without foundation. He argues that "the sentiments which fall from Hamlet in his soliloquies, or in confidential communication with Horatio, evince not only a sound but an acute and vigorous understanding. His misfortunes, indeed, and a sense of shame, from the hasty and incestuous marriage of his mother, have sunk him into a state of weakness and melancholy; but though his mind is enfeebled, it is by no means deranged. It would have been little in the manner of Shakspeare to introduce two persons in the same play whose intellects were disordered; but he has rather, in this instance, as in King Lear, a second time effected what, as far as I can recollect, no other writer has ever ventured to attempt-the exhibition, on the same scene, of real and fictitious madness in contrast with each other. In carrying his design into execution, Hamlet feels no difficulty in imposing upon the king, whom he detests; or upon Polonius, and his school-fellows, whom he despises: but the case is very different indeed in his interviews with Ophelia; aware of the submissive mildness of her character, which leads her to be subject to the influence of her father and her brother, he cannot venture to entrust her with his secret. In her presence, therefore, he has not only to assume a disguise, but to restrain himself from those expressions of affection, which a lover must find it most difficult to repress in the presence of his mistress. In this tumult of conflicting feelings, he is led to overact his part, from a fear of falling below it; and thus gives an appearance of rudeness and harshness to that which is, in fact, a painful struggle to conceal his tenderness."+
Mr. Richardson, in his Essay on the Character of Hamlet, has well observed that "the spirit of that remarkable scene with Ophelia, where he tells her, 'Get thee to a nunnery,' is frequently misunderstood; and especially by the players. At least, it does not appear to have been the Poet's intention that the air and manner of Hamlet, in this scene, should be perfectly grave and serious; nor is there any thing in the dialogue to justify the grave and tragic tone with which it is frequently spoken. Let Hamlet be represented as delivering himself in a light and airy, unconcerned and thoughtless manner, and the rudeness so much complained of will disappear." His conduct to Ophelia is intended to confirm and publish the notion he would convey of his pretended insanity, which could not be marked by any circumstance so strongly as that of treating her with harshness or indifference. The sincerity and ardor of his passion for her had undergone no change; he could not explain himself to her; and, in the difficult and trying circumstances in which he was placed, had, therefore, no alternative.
* On the Madness of Hamlet, by Mr. W. Farren.-London Magazine, for April, 1824. † Boswell's edition of Malone's Shakspeare, vol. vii. p. 536.
The Poet, indeed, has marked with a master hand the amiable and polished character of Hamlet. Ophelia designates him as having been
66 the glass of fashion, and the mould of form;"
and, though circumstances have unsettled him, and thrown over his natural disposition the clouds of melancholy, the kindness of his disposition, and his natural hilarity, break through on every occasion which arises to call them forth.
Mr. Boswell has remarked, that "the scene with the grave-diggers shows, in a striking point of view, his good-natured affability. The reflections which follow afford new proofs of his amiable character. The place where he stands, the frame of his own thoughts, and the objects which surround him, suggest the vanity of all human pursuits; but there is nothing harsh or caustic in his satire; his observations are dictated rather by feelings of sorrow than of anger; and the sprightliness of his wit, which misfortune has repressed, but cannot altogether extinguish, has thrown over the whole a truly pathetic cast of humorous sadness. Those gleams of sunshine, which serve only to show us the scattered fragments of a brilliant imagination, crushed and broken by calamity, are much more affecting than a long, uninterrupted train of monotonous woe."
"Ophelia is a character almost too exquisitely touching to be dwelt upon. O rose of May! O flower too soon faded! Her love, her madness, her death, are described with the truest touches of tenderness and pathos. It is a character which nobody but Shakspeare could have drawn in the way that he has done; and to the conception of which there is not the smallest approach, except in some of the old romantic ballads.”*
* Hazlitt's Characters of Shakspeare's Plays, p. 112.
CLAUDIUS, King of Denmark.
HAMLET, Son to the former, and Nephew to the present, King.
POLONIUS, Lord Chamberlain.
HORATIO, Friend to Hamlet.
LAERTES, Son to Polonius.
GERTRUDE, Queen of Denmark, and Mother to Hamlet.
Lords, Ladies, Officers, Soldiers, Players, Grave-diggers, Sailors, Messengers, and other Attendants.
HAMLET, PRINCE OF DENMARK.
SCENE I. Elsinore. A Platform before the Castle.
FRANCISCO on his post. Enter to him, BERNARDo.
Bernardo. WHO's there?
Nay, answer me;' stand, and unfold
Ber. Long live the king!
Fran. You come most carefully upon your hour. Ber. 'Tis now struck twelve; get thee to bed, Francisco.
Fran. For this relief, much thanks; 'tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart.
Ber. Have you had quiet guard?
Ber. Well, good night.
Not a mouse stirring.
If you do meet Horatio and Marcellus,
The rivals of my watch, bid them make haste.
1 i. e. me, who have a right to demand the watchword; which appears to have been, "Long live the king."
2 Shakspeare uses rivals for associates, partners; and competitor has the same sense throughout these plays. It is the original sense of rivalis.
Enter HORATIO and MARCELLUS.
Fran. I think I hear them.-Stand, ho! Who is
A piece of him.
Ber. Welcome, Horatio; welcome, good Marcellus. Hor. What, has this thing appeared again to-night? Ber. I have seen nothing.
Mar. Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy;
And will not let belief take hold of him,
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us.
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
Sit down awhile;
He may approve our eyes, and speak to it.
Well, sit we down,
And let us hear Bernardo speak of this.
Ber. Last night of all,
When yon same star, that's westward from the pole, Had made his course to illume that part of heaven Where now it burns, Marcellus, and myself,
The bell then beating one,
Mar. Peace, break thee off; look, where it comes again!
1 To approve is to confirm.