Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

ment from the people and nobles, and even their consent to his marriage with his brother's widow. Hamblet, left friendless, counterfeited madness in order to elude his uncle and prepare revenge. He ran through the streets like one distracted, and spoke words of phrensy. Yet he sometimes acted and spoke in a manner that indicated a serious undercurrent of intention. Once he was observed sharpening sticks, and, when questioned, said that they were meant to avenge his father's death. The suspicion of the king and his courtiers being aroused, a beautiful woman, greatly beloved by the prince, was employed to entrap him into an avowal of his sanity and of the designs which he harboured. tempt deeply moved him; but one friend whom he had gave warning, and the lady proved faithful. One of the courtiers, still full of misgivings, proposed to the king that Hamblet should have an interview with his mother, and offered to hide himself behind the hangings and hear the confidential communications the prince might make. The king assented. Hamblet, when summoned to his mother's chamber, suspected treachery, and imitating with his arms the flapping of a cock's wings felt something move under the arras, and, calling out a rat, a rat, drew his sword, thrust it through, and stabbing the courtier dragged him out and killed him. He then in a long speech denounced the unbridled passion of his mother in marrying her husband's murderer, and ended by acknowledging that his madness was assumed, and that he meant to kill the king. The queen, moved by his reproaches, embraced him with affection, and made excuses for her conduct. When the king made inquiries concerning the slain courtier, Hamblet made answer that "the hogs meeting him had filled their bellies with him." Fengon resolved to put Hamblet out of his way; but not wishing to offend Geroth and the people, sent him to the King of England with two companions, who bore secret orders that he was to be put to death. Hamblet took his departure, having first requested his mother to hang the wall with tapestry, and to celebrate his funeral after a year had elapsed. During the voyage, while his companions slept, he substituted their names for his in their instructions. When he reached England, the king gave him his daughter in marriage, and hanged the two messengers. Hamblet feigned displeasure, and the king to appease him gave him a large sum of money, which he melted and hid in two staves.

[merged small][ocr errors]

He returned to Denmark, and when asked about his companions showed the two staves, and said that those were they. The preparations for his funeral feast were applied with added zest to the celebration of his return; and, when the whole court were sunk in intoxication, he pulled down the tapestry on them, nailed it to the ground with the pointed sticks, and then set fire to the palace, thus destroying all his enemies save the king, whom he afterwards slew in his chamber after having exchanged his own sword, which his enemies fixed in the scabbard, for his. Hamblet then became King of Denmark, and was finally betrayed by his wife to another uncle, who slew him and married the traitress.

This account is compounded from the Roman story of the first Brutus and popular tales of fools or half-witted persons who overcame powerful enemies by almost infantine devices. Such stories solaced the simple minds of oppressed peasants during centuries, and at last found a fixed and congenial receptacle in the nursery. Saxo Grammaticus worked the scattered fragments into form and dignified it with the name of history. The lower and unseen outline of this infertile rock, the exuberant genius of Shakspere has partly clothed with mould of his own invention, and altogether covered with the richest flowers and fruit of imagination. Those who are not satisfied with fruit and flowers, unless they are made to grow logically from a suitable soil, think there must be a hidden meaning in the incongruity. The same objection might be made in a less degree to every drama that Shakspere wrote.

Why, it has been asked, did Hamlet feign madness, and what purpose did it serve? Let us briefly compare the play with the history. Claudius killed his brother secretly; there is, therefore, no reason for Hamlet to fear that his uncle would suspect him of plotting vengeance, as the Hamblet of the history does, whose father had been killed openly. Accordingly, he consents not to go to Wittenberg, at his mother's request. The history and play differ in that the hero of the former feigns madness from the time of his father's murder, while the hero of the play feigns only after his father's ghost appears to him. The appearance of the ghost puts the Hamlet of the play in the same situation as the Hamblet of the history, and leaves him to be guided by the same motives and policy. The ghost makes the murder known to him,

and binds him to secrecy by refusing to make the revelation sav to him alone, and by sanctioning the oath of silence, which he imposes on Horatio and Marcellus. Hamlet, therefore, cannot openly kill Claudius because the act would seem wanton and unprovoked. The only way left to him is through concealment and cunning. He guards himself against the newly-discovered danger and watches for revenge under the shelter of counterfeited insanity. The legendary Hamblet fears open violence from the known perpetrator of a murder, and pretends to be mad. Shakspere's Hamlet, grieving at his mother's hasty marriage, but free from apprehension of personal danger, as is evident from his consenting not to go to Wittenberg (i. ii. 120), suddenly learns that the king is the murderer of his father. This assimilated his circumstances to those of his prototype, and he instantly adopts the same disguise. He conceals the ghost's revelations from Horatio and Marcellus, because if it came to his uncle's ears it would be his interest to murder him likewise. Moreover, as the fact of his father's ghost having appeared to him, if known to Claudius, would at once suggest to his guilty conscience the object of the visitation, he solemnly pledges his companions not even by hint or inuendo to furnish any explanation of the "antic disposition which he tells them he is about to put on. He pretends madness because he knowns himself to be in the power of a criminal whom it is his duty to punish, but against whom he cannot proceed openly or publicly in consequence of the channel through which his information has come.

[ocr errors]

Various hypotheses have been invented to explain why Hamlet does not immediately kill Claudius. Goethe is of opinion that Shakspere's intention was to exhibit a pure but feeble soul staggering under the burthen of a task which it is unable to accomplish. Gervinus believes that he intended to exemplify the demoralising influence and fatal results of philosophy, speculation, and conscientiousness as compared with immediate and resolute action. A number of medical writers maintain that Hamlet's irresolution is to be accounted for only on the theory that he was mad, not in pretence, but in reality. If these and other writers confined themselves simply to the facts they would see that Hamlet did not at once kill Claudius, or rather that Shakspere did not make Hamlet at once kill Claudius, because the poet's object was not to relate

a single deed, but to compose five acts, and that with this view he has brought his plot into harmony with the original history, in which the hero does not immediately kill his enemy, but pretends madness, employs craft, and awaits his opportunity. Craft is the conventional weapon which tradition ascribes to assumed madness. Shakspere's Hamlet faithfully follows his prototype in the use of it. When Ophelia, after being forbidden to receive his overtures, is employed to betray him and worm out his secret, he retorts on his enemies and makes her the instrument of putting them on a false scent. The address with which he baffles Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when they sound him concerning the ambitious views he is suspected of entertaining, and with which he turns Polonius into ridicule, is so successful a part of the representation that we cease to see in it an essential element in Hamlet's role, just as the grotesqueness in the gargoyles of an old church blinds us to their being not accessories or ornaments, but integral portions of the material edifice and speaking symbols of the ecclesiastical mind of the day. When he grows impatient as time advances and nothing is accomplished, it is his invention he appeals to-" About, my brains" (ii. ii. 565 comp. v. ii. 30), and he hits on the device of the play. He kills Polonius, supposing he was the king, by craft, clearly showing how he meant to execute his purpose, and his readiness to kill Claudius when the occasion offered. A 'few lines from this scene shows in what a mist of suspicion he dwells. Polonius has just gone behind the arras in the queen's chamber, and Hamlet enters. The queen says—

Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.

Nothing would be more apposite than those words to lead to his subject if he did not apprehend that he was surrounded by treachery. He only echoes the charge

Mother, you have my father much offended.

Immediately afterwards, when he has slain Polonius and he no longer fears an eavesdropper, when the queen says,

O what a rash and bloody deed is this!

he unreservedly pours out the full tide of his wrath :

A bloody deed;—almost as bad, good mother,

As kill a king and marry with his brother,

He almost revels in the anticipation of circumventing the companions of his voyage to England:

There's letters sealed: and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged-
They bear the mandate, they must sweep my way,
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the engineer

Hoist with his own petard: and 'twill go hard,

But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon : O 'tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet.

When he returns from his frustrated voyage he boasts to Horatio of the way in which he outwitted his perfidious companions as the very sort of triumph alone within his reach; and so far is Horatio from disapproving, as Gervinus to suit his theory would interpret, that after Hamlet's death he claims the credit of the act for him, when the ambassadors would ascribe it to the king. So closely does Shakspere associate the habit of retaliative subtlety with his hero's character, that when Osric comes with the king's message, Hamlet competes with him, and surpasses the exaggeration of his euphuisms, although he does not suspect the deadly treachery that lurked under its florid redundance. At last Claudius and Laertes encompass him with wiles from which escape is impossible. He falls, but not until he has slain them both by the recoil of their own artifice.

If it be established that the method imposed on Hamlet required delay, all the morbid fancies accounting for that delay on other grounds are shown to be foreign and fallacious. If all the legends concerning pretended madness agree that the object was to gain time in which to over-reach or undermine, and if our play is constructed on the obvious framework of this idea, then the other explanations of the procrastinated revenge are shadows, and the theories built on them are baseless. It cannot be argued, in reply, that Hamlet, in some of his soliloquies, condemns his own apathy and spurs himself to more rapid movement. A poet's hero must rail at himself for not being able to overcome any obstacle that comes in his way. The Roman historian may describe Brutus as waiting patiently for his opportunity, Saxo Grammaticus may relate the childish preparations of Amlethus, but the Hamlet of

« AnteriorContinuar »