A Difficulty in Hamlet

I HAVE looked in vain through the voluminous commentaries upon Hamlet for any satisfactory explanation of a superficial difficulty in the closing scene of the first act. How are we to interpret the sneering flippancy with which Hamlet treats the spirit of his father under circumstances of the deepest solemnity ? Several theories respecting the meaning of the play and the sanity of its hero would have little basis, were it not for a misinterpretation of the epithets “ boy,” “ true-penny,” “ old mole,” and others, which Hamlet lavishes upon the ghost. Mr. R. G. White declares it to be a great offense in an actor to omit a line of Shakespeare which portrays character, merely because he considers it inconsistent. Now, these opprobrious utterances certainly portray character in a very decided manner ; but, as they have been thought inconsistent with the true conception of the part, they have been, until very recently, omitted upon the stage. Macready, the most intelligent student of Shakespeare living men have seen, invariably left them out. The elder Booth, Forrest, Anderson, Charlotte Cushman, and other distinguished players, apparently not knowing what to do with them, always cut them from the part. Old attendants upon the Shakespearean drama heard them for the first time in the later representations of Mr. Edwin Booth. But while this admirable actor introduces these expressions of unfilial contempt with considerable effect, he sacrifices his conception of Hamlet in giving them utterance. For, according to the published opinion of Mr. Booth, Hamlet is not mad at all, yet these speeches are given as if coming from a mind totally unhinged, or, as recent psychologists might write it, as representing a convulsion of nerve centres in the last extremity of disorder. Now, even if we admit that the central figure of the drama at last passes the boundary line of responsibility, a plunge into a shocking and offensive perversion of madness at the beginning of his career is equally an offense to art and to nature. For art would never introduce a jar so discordant with the reverence the situation excites, and nature makes no such leaps as this, but passes from health to delusion by very gentle gradations. I desire to suggest what has always seemed to me the explanation of these troublesome speeches. It is an explanation consistent with the sanity and moral responsibility of Hamlet, and one which a good actor would have no difficulty in making obvious to his audience.

It is impossible to understand the drama to which this paper relates unless we dismiss from our minds the ideas of the nineteenth century in relation to the supernatural, and place ourselves in the position from which the Englishman of the Elizabethan era regarded it. To him visitations from other realms of being were simply facts, — facts as unquestionable as the law of gravitation or the Copernican system seems to us. But concerning the interpretation of these admitted facts, there was a wide difference of opinion. The belief in ghosts was fading out, and the theory of devils who personated the departed was taking its place. This may be called the better opinion of the time. It was held by the reformers, whose active intelligence chafed against the old limits of credence, while evolving ideas which were to be fruitful in wider circles. Now, unless this condition of thought is remembered, the character of Hamlet’s perplexities will be misunderstood. For, in spite of evidence which was at first convincing, the doubt whether the spirit he had seen might not have been a devil is continually suggesting itself; at moments it becomes so predominant as to permit the assertion that no traveler has ever returned from the undiscovered country whither mortals tend.

Upon turning to the scene where, after the departure of the ghost, Hamlet is joined by his companions, we find that he has pledged himself to action under circumstances of peculiar difficulty,— circumstances which require on his part the greatest circumspection. Horatio and Marcellus are full of curiosity ; but what satisfaction does their curiosity seek ? Not, as has been hastily assumed, to partake of any startling revelation that may have been made to Hamlet, — for of the fact of a revelation they know nothing. There was no suspicion of any murder in the case, and (supposing the apparition to be genuine, and to have found the use of voice) there was no reason why they should share any secrets of statecraft which the king might have confided to the prince, or learn the whereabouts of treasure extorted from the womb of earth, with which the father naturally wished to endow his heir. The ghost’s identity is the important matter upon which Horatio and Marcellus are eagerly curious. Did this appearance turn out to be a spirit of health, or was it a goblin damned? This was the interesting inquiry to the skeptical Horatio. Let us not forget that this man admitted to the son no more than that he had seen “ a figure like your father ; ” that when the figure was before him he had regarded it first as an “illusion,” and, even at its final disappearance, as some materialized demon which might be struck at with the partisan of the guard. It had seemed to him a usurper of the fair and warlike form, whose appearance was borrowed, and he was quick to note how it had started “ like a guilty thing,” upon the crowing of the cock. So far was this cautious man from identifying the ghost with the “ goodly king ” of his remembrance that he had used force to restrain Hamlet from following this “ image ” of his father, lest it should presently assume “ some other horrible shape,” that would unseat reason. Had such a transformation actually occurred ? Or could it be possible that Hamlet was convinced that the late king himself had stalked by their watch ? These were the questions which his inferiors had, under the circumstances, a right to ask the prince, and upon which their curiosity was naturally intense.

Looking at the text, we find that Hamlet’s first impulse is to reveal all that can be told, and gain the support of human sympathy in bearing the burden thrust upon him. But the peril of such a course flashes upon him, and the confession that rises to his lips is changed into a platitude.

Hamlet. There’s ne’er a villain dwelling in all Denmark,
But he’s an arrant knave.
Horatio. There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave,
To tell us this.

Or, to expand the meaning, “ If this is the amount of your interview, your visitor was a deluding fiend, as I have more than suspected, and by no means the spirit of your royal father.”

Hamlet. Why, right; you are i’ the right. Or, to convey the thought more fully, “ My ruse has been successful; you have drawn just the inference from my words which I intended them to convey.”

And so, without more circumstance at all,
I hold it fit that we shake hands, and part:
You, as your business and desire shall point you;
For every man hath business and desire,
Such as it is; and for mine own poor part,
Look you, I’ll go pray.

The underlying thought here being, “ I must break off this interview; for if it is prolonged I may at any moment betray my secret. The circumstances of my position preclude human sympathy ; I can lay my burden only at the feet of my Maker.”

Horatio. These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.

So, indeed, they appear to one whom they were designed to mystify, — to one who does not perceive the consistent thought of which they are the partial expression.

Hamlet. I am sorry they offend you, heartity; yes,
Faith, heartily.
Horatio. There’s no offence, my lord.

Catching at the word, and stung with the imputation of trilling under circumstances of such solemnity, Hamlet suddenly gives way to an overwhelming impulse, and confesses that the phantom was no illusion of the devil.

It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you.

But no sooner is the avowal made than its imprudence is realized, and the abrupt declaration follows that no further confidence is to be expected.

For your desire to know what is between us,
O’ermaster it as you may.

These lines are sometimes given as if addressed to Marcellus ; the confession of the ghost’s identity being made to Horatio alone. But they more naturally imply a spasmodic effort to close the bag after the cat has been let out of it. For Hamlet instantly sees how completely he has placed himself in the power of others. If the spirit’s identity has been acknowledged, what secret remains to be concealed ? King Claudius, upon learning that the ghost of his predecessor has appeared to the prince, will not have the slightest difficulty in divining the errand upon which it came. The strongest measures for self-protection, including the death of Hamlet, must inevitably follow. There is but one course to pursue. Hamlet must exact a solemn oath of secrecy, and then, admitting the truth of the confession into which he had been drawn, trust himself and his cause to the honor of his companions. But before this important oath can be administered the voice of the dead king (heard for the first time by Horatio and Marcellus) rises from beneath. The attention of the watchers is diverted from the ceremony of juration, now more than ever important. Unhappily, the interruption is in itself a confirmation of the confession which Hamlet had so rashly let fall. There is no time for reflection. Hamlet must act at once. And he adopts that course of action which is perfectly natural when one is mastered by an intense emotion, which must on no account be shown. Serious agitation is often best concealed by feigning a state of feeling directly opposed to it. The agonized mother who discovered her child on the brink of a precipice compelled herself to dance and sing, to allure it from danger. In precisely the same spirit, Hamlet now forces himself to meet the inquiring faces about him.

Ah, ha, boy! say’st thou so? art thou there, true-penny?
Come on, —you hear this fellow in the cellarage, —
Consent to swear.

The thought is this: “ Infer from my treatment of this matter that this is by no means the august spirit of my father, but only some deluding imp of darkness, with whose tricks I am well acquainted. Do not let this absurd trifler delay the business we have in hanα. He is not worth a thought. Give your attention to me. Consent to swear.”

Now, if this explanation of these words of contumely be correct, it follows that their utterance upon the stage should suggest something very different from hysteria or madness. Hamlet had evidently great gifts as an actor. Later in the play we find him declaiming tragical speeches, and giving excellent counsel to professional players. In the desperate urgency of his present position, he essays the art of the light comedian. Gesture, attitude, and stage business, as well as voice and manner, must now contribute to the part of easy nonchalance he has suddenly determined to play. The effort which this determination has cost Hamlet a good actor would indeed make apparent to his audience ; but to Horatio and Marcellus the art should be so perfect as to be mistaken for nature. With easy, laughing banter, — such as Charles Surface might use in his dealings with little Premium, —Hamlet now receives the admonitions of the ghost: —

Well said, old mole! canst work i’ the earth so fast?
A worthy pioneer! Once more remove, good friends.
Horatio. O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

What produced this cry of wonder ? Not the fact of a supernatural visitation, for this was an old story, but the astonishing way in which Hamlet took it. Horatio was completely puzzled. Could any mortal be on such free and easy terms with the powers of the air as this man represented himself ? The voice then came from no royal ghost, but from some trickish imp, which Hamlet knew all about, and which might be treated with this extraordinary levity !

Hamlet. And therefore as a stranger give it welcome;
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

The last two lines are usually delivered in tones of subdued reverence, such as Professor Tyndall might use in airing his rhetoric about the vastness of the Unknowable. But, considered with the context, quite another expression should be given to them. For the clear-headed Horatio never could have held any philosophy which disputed the unfathomableness of the unseen universe ; his marvel was that Hamlet should have possessed himself of such concrete particulars concerning it as his words seemed to imply. It is as if Hamlet had said, “You are surprised at my jesting with these shadows ? Why, they are worth no better treatment. You would laugh at them as I do, if you knew as much about them. There are more things — more trivial and contemptible things — in heaven and earth than your grave philosophy suspects ! ” The remark belongs to the part of careless unconcern which Hamlet is attempting to act. It should be given very much as Prince Hal might rally Falstaff for his cowardice.

Hamlet’s manœuvre is successful. He has diverted the attention of his companions from the ghost, and has fixed it upon himself. He has gained time to specify, minutely and in detail, just what this important oath must cover : —

But come;
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy !
How strange or odd soe’er I bear myself,—
As I, perchance, hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on, —
That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumbered thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As, “ Well, well, we know,’’ or, “ We could, an if we would,”
Or, “If we list to speak,” or “There be, an if they might,”
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this not to do,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you,

The oath is now administered with all proper solemnity. After it has been duly taken, the voice of the ghost is again audible : —

Hamlet. Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!

It is the custom of the stage to put into these words whatever of reverence and tenderness the actor can express. This is well, but something more is wanted. For the actor should make it plain that Hamlet’s words are indirectly addressed to the living, and carry a full confession to friends who have now entitled themselves to his confidence. It is as if he had said, “ I now throw off these attempts at concealment which prudence nerved me to make while you were unsworn to secrecy. The voice you hear is indeed that of my father. Join with me in praying for his repose.” All this may be suggested by suitable stage business before the aspiration for the spirit’s rest is spoken.

With exquisite courtesy, Hamlet now pledges himself to reciprocate the good will of his confidants, giving them assurance that no expression of his love shall be wanting. He may now hint at the terrible disorder in the state and family with which the ghost has acquainted him. At length he may find relief in utterance, as he sinks under the burden which has been thrust upon him : —

The time is out of joint; —O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

I shall never forget the pathos and despair which Macready used to put into this confession. It was a cry of incompetence, which struck the key-note of the tragedy. The tension of assuming a part to deceive others is over, and Hamlet collapses before the awful responsibility that confronts him. When, after a time, he recovers his self-possession, Horatio is about to speak. But words are useless, for there is now only question of a deed. Hamlet signifies this by a gesture, and adds a monosyllable which imposes silence. Then, slowly and with effort, he gives the signal for departure, as one who goes forward to meet a future from which his whole nature is repelled : —

Nay ! Come, let’s go together.

The view above given is consonant with that stage tradition of Hamlet — faintly traceable to the time of Shakespeare — which makes him a responsible human being, instead of the candidate for Bedlam which certain medical gentlemen have professed to discover. For if Dr. Conolly was right in supposing that the revolting epithets lavished upon the ghost show “a madman’s perversity,” or if Dr. Ray reasoned well in finding that they exhibited “ the wanderings of a mind reeling under the first strokes of disease,” then undoubtedly the interesting character which the sane world has found full of instruction and warning becomes little more than a sort of clinical demonstration for a handful of specialists. That the wavering will of Hamlet implies a substratum of morbid emotion, no one will deny. In the fifth act of the play we are shown how perilously near the verge of mania — if, indeed, it be not passed — a man may come who persistently avoids action, and lets feeling loose to carry him where it will. We may agree with Coleridge that Hamlet’s wildness is but half false, and that he is sometimes very near being the character he would act. But this is very different from supposing that Shakespeare could mar the majestic and tender opening of his noblest tragedy with the repulsive exhibition of irresponsible lunacy.

The Elizabethan drama was, first of all, written for the stage, and the interpretation of the theatre is necessary to educe its full significance. In the case just considered, the actor must supply the links to connect the condensed speeches of the dramatist in order to exhibit his meaning in logical coherence. The text gives scope to the most delicate powers of the performer, and provides a strong situation capable of the most effective theatrical handling,—a situation worthy of that matchless playwright of the Globe Theatre, who does not forget his bread-winning business to become the poet of humanity.

J. P. Quincy.