Abbildungen der Seite

have, without distinction, represented him as guilty of unprovoked rudeness, or influenced by a touch of real madness, in this scene. This I have frequently talked of as a mistake; and I once urged my reasons to an actor in London, when about to play it, but in vain. We are obliged to Mr. Skottowe for a valuable elucidation of the text on this subject. He points out that, in the original story, the usurping uncle, in order to discover if Hamlet's madness is feigned or real, causes him, attended by spies, to be met by a young lady, who had been already tutored to discover what was passing in his mind. Hamlet has long entertained a sincere affection for her, and was ready to fall into the snare, were he not timely advised of it by a friend; upon which he is careful to behave towards her as if distracted in his mind. Here, Mr. Skottowe justly observes, recurring to the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia, “ A satisfactory solution of the difficulty is derived from the history; whence it is learnt, what is not to be learnt from the play, that Hamlet was aware that Ophelia was purposely thrown in his way; that spies were about them; and that it was necessary, for the preservation of his life, to assume a conduct which he thought could be attributed to madness only." Those accustomed to examine the prototypes of Shakespeare's fables, may be satisfied with this solution, for they well know how artfully he could appropriate incidents or shades in character, while he partially or almost wholly differed from the story. But I cannot agree in the assertion, that such a solution is “not to be learnt from the play,” because it has always been evident to me there. As it is now in

my power, with Mr. Skottowe's assistance, to remove a difficulty which has hitherto been beyond my skill, I will recall to the reader's mind the precise circumstances related in the text, and thence draw, what seems to me, the only conclusion that can be made.

In order to discover the real cause of Hamlet's seeming madness, Ophelia is placed in his way, while her father and the king conceal themselves within earshot as “lawful espials.” Hamlet enters without observing her, absorbed in deep reflexion, and gives breath to the famed soliloquy of “ To be, or not to be.” At length, seeing her, he gently approaches, and salutes her in a tone suitable to her occupation, and to his serious state of mind :

“ Nymph, in thy orisons Be all my sins remembered !"

Unaccustomed to deceit, she doubtless acts according to her father's instructions, and rather suddenly offers back his remembrances of love. He, having just before been made aware that his two school-fellows, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, were employed as spies upon him, is naturally full of suspicion, looks furtively around if any one is near, and perceives the king and Polonius spying from their covert, and eagerly listening. The moment he has caught a glance at them, he exclaims to himself “Ha! ha!" and half doubting the conduct of Ophelia, asks this searching question,—“ Are you honest ?”

She is surprised; and in self-defence he instantly assumes his former mask of madness, though, as usual with him, “ there is method in it.” As the dialogue proceeds,

a thought crosses his mind respecting her participation in their treachery, and he puts another question to her, completely suited to his purpose,—“ Where's your father ?" In compelled untruth, poor girl ! for she well knows he is listening close at hand, she faintly (I suppose) replies,--"At home, my lord.” His exclamation at this is intended, if not to reproach her, to be loud in his ears ;—“Let the doors be shut upon him; that he may play the fool no where but in's own house. Farewell.” Scarcely has he left her, probably in anger at her duplicity, when he returns for the purpose of adding to the deception of the king, and talks in a higher strain of madness than before.

Thus it has ever appeared to me that our poet gives sufficient hints of his intention in this scene.


66 I cannot reconcile my heart to Bertram ;" says Dr. Johnson, “a man noble without generosity, and young without truth; who marries Helen as a coward, and leaves her as a profligate; when she is dead by his unkindness, sneaks home to a second marriage, is accused by a woman whom he has wronged, defends himself by falsehood, and is dismissed to happiness."

If we cannot “reconcile our hearts to Bertram,” the play is altogether intolerable. If at any time his conduct is such as to provoke our contempt, or if we did not perceive among his errors, the germs of a good and honourable mind, the interest of the story would be at an end. The hopes and fears of the other characters, their efforts to reclaim him, and the happiness of Helen, would be all despair the moment he became unworthy of our sympathy.

Shakespeare appears to have adopted this tale from Boccaccio, who lays no stress on the argument, for the purpose of portraying those moral evils, frequently interwoven with the privileges of the nobility,—prejudice, arrogance, and wilfulness; and to point out how they may be corrected in the discipline of the world. A nobleman of the court of Queen Elizabeth, differed widely from one of our present House of Lords; and, in this instance, the scene being laid in France, we may suppose him invested with the rights of a feudallord to their fullest extent. Bertram is, by nature, generous and affectionate.

and affectionate. His vices are factitious as the heraldic records of his ancestry, and, like his inheritance, belong to him by legitimate descent. His father, I suspect, was not a jot better in his youth. Among his many virtues there is one mentioned, which lets us a little into his patrician character, and it comes most appropriately from the mouth of majesty:

66 Who were below him,
He used as creatures of another place;
And bow'd his eminent top to their low ranks,

Making them proud of his humility." Praise from a king sounds bravely within the walls of a palace, but loses elsewhere. It is not enough that we should be told the old count was excellent as a soldier and a courtier, in order to make us esteem him. We understand his value better when his widow prays that her son

may succeed his father in manners as in shape,” and willingly join in her love of his memory; for the word of such a lady is worth a thousand kings; and, in all probability, it was her strength of mind, aided by his own experience, that made him a man to be lamented.

[ocr errors]

The young count comes before us possessed of a good heart, and of no mean capacity, but with a haughtiness of rank, which threatens to dull the edge of the kinder passions, and to cloud the intellect. This is the inevitable consequence of an illustrious education. The glare of his birthright has dazzled his young faculties. Perhaps the first words he could distinguish were from an important nurse, giving elaborate directions about his lordship’s pap. As soon as he could walk, a crowd of submissive vassals doffed their caps, and hailed his first appearance on his legs. His spelling-book had the arms of the family emblazoned on the cover. He had been accustomed to hear himself called the great, the mighty son of Roussillon, ever since he was a helpless child. A succession of complacent tutors would by no means destroy the illusion, and it is from their hands that Shakespeare receives him, while yet in his minority.

It is too much to say that Bertram “marries Helen as a coward." He is ward to the king who commands the marriage

“Which both thy duty owes, and our power claims ;" and he backs his authority with threats of

“both my revenge and hate, Loosing upon thee in the name of justice,

Without all terms of pity. Speak, thine answer !" His Majesty may be a moody old gentleman, but not the less fearful on that account.

The most bigoted bachelor would prefer a wife to irretrievable ruin. If ever there was little shame in yielding to compulsion, here is a case in point. Helvetius

« ZurückWeiter »