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Nebraska State Journal

by Willa Cather

From Nebraska State Journal,  (November 1, 1891):  16.





It is a Better Key to the Dramatic Character Than Any of Donnelly's Ciphers.


A Careful Estimate of the Purpose of the Play and the Humor in Which It Was Written—The Secret of Shakespeare's Power.


How Now, Lord Hamlet?

It is generally conceded that into no other one of his plays did William Shakespeare put so much of himself and of his own soul's life as into "Hamlet." Perhaps this fact will in some measure account for the stress which is laid upon the play and the importance which is given to it in English literature. To the student of Shakespeare the play has proved to be a better key to the real character of the man who wrote the greatest dramas in the English language than the cryptogram of Mr. Donnelly. True, it does not tell his name, but it is time, in this age, that we should at least begin to care very little about the bodies and bones of the promulgators of our great faith and the founders of our great organizations. They, themselves, were more careful of their truths than of their persons. Relic worship and the war for the holy sepulcre are supposed to have ended with the middle ages.

The cause for the various current opinions upon the character of Hamlet, and the root of many of the dissensions and controversies is that many of the best scholars and critics try to make of Hamlet a much grander, more learned and more intellectual personage than the author of the play ever intended him to be. I don't think Shakespeare had any definite purpose even in writing Hamlet. It was not like him to plan a play which should be a puzzle for all time to come. He probably read the legend and felt sorry for the young prince, and as an expression of his sympathy wrote about him. He probably had no intention of giving the drama any more of himself than he gave to any other of his plays. The Danish prince had nothing in common with him except that both were misunderstood, and both suffered. He gradually grew into the play as he wrote it, without any special reason. Perhaps outside matters bore more heavily upon him than usual. It may be his feeling and individuality were wrought up intensely, and crept out into the play which he happened to be writing.

Hamlet was certainly not the philosopher, the intellectual monstrosity which he is often represented to be. He was not even the strong, broad minded, world worn statesman which Edwin Booth makes him. In years, Hamlet was but a boy who pounded at Virgil down at the old university at Wittenburg, and wrote love letters and bad verses to Ophelia. He was galloping about the court yard on Yoric's back only a few years ago, We are given no glimpse of his personal character before his great sorrow came upon him, but even through it some of his old boyish habits cling to him. His illustration of this is very prominent in the unsophisticated way in which, after his first meeting with the ghost, he pulls out his note book to note the fact that, "one may smile and smile and be a villain." Had Hamlet known the world a little better, or had he been a few years older, he would not have thought it necessary to make a note of that fact every time he was brought to a realization of it, or all Denmark could not have furnished him tablets enough. One can almost imagine the contents of that note book. Notes on the old classics, made at Wittenberg, raptures on everything in nature from the moon to roses, and vague effusions respecting his passion for Ophelia.

In the first act, his soliloquy is one of the most simple, touching passages in literature. His cry, "Frailty, thy name is woman!" is no cynical observation on the daughter of Eve. A cynic would have couched the thought in very different lauguage, and would have somewhat enjoyed saying it. This is a boy's first glimpse of a thing that he shudders at. It is no light matter to him that women are fickle: his mother is a woman, and Ophelia is one. His, "Oh Soel! a heart that wants would have mourned longer." Discourse of reason, is no rethorical flourish; it is positively piteous. During the first act, Hamlet learned many bitter lessons from experience, his best, perhaps, his only teacher. But his experience also drove him mad and killed him. Suffering, though it embittered Hamlet's nature, could not poison it. In the second and third acts, his replies to Fauriny, scraping Rosencrantz and Gueldenstern are certainly cynical. It is the tenderest, deepest feeling that, when once it is enbittered, becomes most acrid. That man who had never hoped, never dreamed, never loved, never suffered, is never a cynic. But in the scene with the queen, Hamlet forgets his cynicism and becomes Gertrude's son again.

Hamlet had not the first element of the intellectual or of the philosophical in him. He was never able for a moment to lay aside that intense personality of him and view himself as one individual of great species, a type of a race. He could not see Gertrude merely as a woman, committing an error common to women of her day, but always as "My mother." That the prince should have done much logical reasoning during that period of his life which the play covers, is improbable. Throughout the entire play he was under an intense nervous strain; his feelings were wrought up to the highest possible pitch. Logical reasoning and intense feeling are directly antagonistic. The Egyptian priests knew this when they demanded of a candidate that he first sacrifice his passions and his affections. A man who would be born unto knowledge must indeed become dead to the world. None of his great soliloquies are premeditated; all are perfectly spontaneous. The famous "to be, or not to be," does not look toward a universal affirmation; it is merely a chance remark. It is not very likely that at that particular time Hamlet would undertake a discussion of human destiny. He had at length determinded upon a course by which to touch the king's conscience; but as he reflected upon the consequence, the confusion, the turmoil, the exposure of his mother's guilt, the dishonor to the state, he was almost tempted to take the easiest way out of it, and— rest. Then the question came to him as it has come to many another, if it is applicable to any one else, I suppose Hamlet would not object; but at that particular moment he was thinking entirely too much about my Lord Hamlet to be devoting very much attention to humanity in general.

He is a poor philosopher, for he never reasons, he only suffers. He has premises, hundred of them, and he jumps from major to minor, and from minor back to major, but he stops there; syllogism ends with his premise; he never draws a conclusion. From the first act to the last, he makes but one absolute statement, one assertion of whose truth he is absolutely sure. That he makes when leaping into the grave of his loved Ophelia throwing his arms above his head, at Laertes, his white face glaring, he cries, "This is I, Hamlet the Dane!" In the last act, he even doubts his identity; he doubts everything. His dying words, "the rest is silence," are wonderfully in keeping with his character.

If we refuse to recognize intellect as the cause of that wonderful strength of Hamlet's and lay it aside, we must substitute something, for we must acknowledge with Polomur, "Though this be madmen, yet their method isn't." The keynote of Hamlet's character is merely this: He was very sensitive, he felt intensely, and he suffered more than other people, that was all. The intellectual school insist upon putting props under Hamlet because they do not understand him; for the first instinct of the intellect is to analyze, and you can only sympathize with Hamlet. They attempt to see in his every word a "means," to produce certain "dramatic effects," to account for his every act, when in reality they cannot account for them any more than Hamlet could. Goethe, more aspiring than the rest, but with better sense than most of them, brings his great German capacity to bear upon the subject, and in Wilhelm Meister mildly suggests that to rectify this shocking lack of art the while plot be changed, the whole play be revolutionized, so that every cause may have its perceptible effect and every effect its perceptible cause. He advises in short, that Hamlet be made dramatic! The intellectual school realize the importance of the play, but they never quite like it; they always prefer Macbeth, claiming that there is more art in it. This may be so; in Hamlet certainly we have "more matter with less art." Sometimes I wonder if Shakespeare would have quite known what was meant, if art, or the art purposes in his plays, had been mentioned to him. The emotional and intentional plane of life is infinitely higher than the intellectual: It is the source of every great purpose, of every exalted aim. It is not attained by study; it is not seen through a telescope, nor reached by mastering the pages of a Latin grammar. This upper world is only trodden by those who have reached it through suffering. Some men are born in it, and we call them geniuses. Some attain, but they must travel the old path to paradise, which leads down through hell. What is conceived and written in this rare atmosphere can be appreciated, estimated or judged only by men who breathe the same air.

Hamlet has been accorded the place of the greatest masterpiece of the greatest master, not by literary critics, but by popular taste. The critics themselves, preferring other of Shakespeare's plays, would spend little enough time on it were it not for the constant demand of the public. On the boards it has been presented oftener, and more sucessfully than any other Shakesperian drama. In the schools and colleges it is now indespensible, and by the great "unpopular public" it is more read than any other play in the English language. You will find a worn, marked copy in the office of almost every country doctor, lawyer or tradesman. Among the everday men of the every day world Hamlet, by a broad sort of metonomy, has come to mean Shakespeare. The play is a living, vital force in a living age, a part of the spiritual life of the nineteenth century. The critics have been forced to study it. This they do from a wholly intellectual standpoint, and so see in it only the intellectual. The light streaming in through the stained glass of a cathedral window turns even the marble virgin's face to the color of blood. The critics have no other light than the intellectual, for they have declared that emotions and intentions are not to be trusted. The alter lights they have called ignis fatut, and have put them out. They analyze the play in a scientific manner, and do it most skilfully. They take a microscope and see all the beauty of the cell organization, a field which men of the emotional school never enter. They say, "This caused life," or "This resulted from life," but life they never find. They think they have all, and indeed they have much; the massive frame work, the delicate nerve structure, and all the perfectly formed organism upon which the eye of the anatomist loves to dwell. But they never feel the hot blood riot in the pulses, nor hear the great heart-beat. That is the one great joy which belongs exclusively to those of us who are unlearned, unlettered, to those of us who have nothing else. The critics laugh at us and say, of course there is emotion in Hamlet, but it is merely one of the primary elements of the play, that we have never advanced far enough to appreciate the more finished art. So be it. We can answer them only as an Indian prince answered an English astronomer when reproved for sun worshiping. The old prince patiently heard the man of science through and then lifted his eyes toward the murky London skies, dull and dark with the smoke of traffic and of commerce, and said: "Oh, my Lord, if could but see the sun."

So much for the critic and for the intellectual students of literature. To a young author with his first book under his arm, who has had a great truth to tell, and has told it ill, they seem very strong and very terrible, these scribes and pharisees, who are so spotless in the observance of literary law, and the forms of their religions. Still, they are not so strong as they appear. They did their worst to Keats, and they only killed his body. They tried to change him, to polish him, to conventionalize him, and when he repulsed them and went his own way, they hated him as the Thracran maiden hated Orphem. But their darts were powerless so long as the world stood spell bound at his music. So they raised a great cry through the Edinburgh Review, and drowned the music's voice with their clamor. Drunken with the brutal rites of their god, they rushed upon him and tore him limb from limb and stained with his blood the rocks that were moved and melted by his music. But the lyre by chance fell into a great river, and it floated on past the old cities and the vineyards and the olive crowned hills, silencing the nightingales and waking the soft Italian night with its music. And the children playing under the myrtle trees listened and wondered, and ceased playing, and were children no more. And the women who had trodden the wine press all day heard wearily, and their life seemed not so hard and they were less ashamed, and the red upon their feet seemed not so much like blood as it had seemed yesterday. Yet they murmured, "We will tread the press no more, we will be better to-morrow." And the shepherds far away on the hills, keeping their flocks by night, heard it, and they arose and their hearts grew strong and they whispered, "It is the annunciation; a new Christ comes." Then the lyre floated on, until Zeus, the son of Krouor, took it and placed it among the stars, where it lies, …Born darkly, fearfully afar, Whilst shining through the utmost veil of heaven The soul of Idonair, like a star. Becomes from the abode where the eternal are; And Thracians say, "We put it there."

So it is with all literature which reaches the hearts of the people, where it finds its noblest, surest immortality. The critics may kill the author, they may attach his productions and rend their structure to pieces, and declare the style imperfect; but the soul they never touch, for they have never reached it, the soul they never kill, for they have never seen it.

The position in which Hamlet was placed would not have been so terrible to any one else. It would have been a very simple matter to Laertes indeed when Polonius was killed, and Ophelia driven mad, Laertes was not much burdened by a sense of filial or of fraternal obligation. He tried to throttle Hamlet, and then went through the duel more as a matter of form than anything else. It is not often that a northern country produces such a character as Hamlet. He would have been more natural perhaps, as a lad of Venice or of Verona. To him it seemed that he was born for one end, to avenge his father. Foreign and repugnent as the touch was to his nature, he took it upon him as a sacred mission, a call from God, and broke his great heart upon it. He says himself, "The time is out of joint, oh cursed spite That I was ever ever born to set it right."

He never faltered in the execution of his terrible oath to the ghost in the first act. He did indeed wipe everthing else from his mind: books, art, ambition—yes, even love. He gave himself entirely and completely to his work. Perhaps the saddest part of his great self-sacrifice was his parting from Ophelia. He spoke not a word to her; what could he say? Ophelia loved the queen and would have thought him mad had he mentioned the ghost. She would have been sorry for Hamlet, but she could not have understood the sacredness of his mission nor why he must leave her. She could not have understood, no one could. Ophelia's description of it is one of the most touching things in the play. "He took me by the wrist and held me hard; Then goes he to the length of all his arm; And, with his other hand then e'er his brow, He falls to such perusal of my face As he would draw it. Long stayed he so; At last a little shaking of mine arm And thrice his head then waving up and down He raised a sigh so piteous and profound As it did seem to shatter all his bulk And end his being: that done he let me go; And, with his head over his shoulder turned He seemed to find his way without his eyes, For out of doors he went without their help, And, to the last, he ended their light on me."

Any one else would have married Ophelia, used a little discretion and finally ruled Denmark and Norway. It would have been an infinitly more sensible proceeding, but Hamlet took the most difficult solution of the problem because it seemed to him the right one. He followed no written or spoken law, but the law of his own heart, and just in proportion as it was more delicately organized than the hearts of other men, so the law was more stringent and his conception of honor higher, purer and more intensely vivid. He had infinite charity for everyone else, but none for himself. No wonder Goethe is puzzled to find an explanation for his acts; no wonder that the entire court thought him mad. He was like a man whose eyes are stronger than the eyes of other mortals, and who sees some great star upon the horizon that beckons him, and he followed it. Because other men do not see it they say to him: "Thy sigh is false," or, with the queen say they see "nothing at all, yet all that is free." The far sighted eye is as much diseased as the near sighted one, and it may be as great a flaw in perfect vision to see more than other men as it is to see less than other men.

Some prominent writers upon Hamlet have, with the keenest possible insight into Hamlet's character, and the strongest possible soul sympathy with Hamlet's suffering, after many learned discussions with infinite analysis of motive, decided that Hamlet feigned madness. Poor Hamlet! "Oh to love so, he loved, yet so mistaken!" The very cause of his trouble was that he could not feign anything, as he tells the queen, "seems, madam, nay, it is, I know not seems."

The madness of Hamlet is the highest point in tragedy which Shakespeare ever reached. Here he attains his greatest ends by no trick of introducing witches, or dagger or blood stain. The tragedy of the play does not lie in the fact that a file of corpses covers the stage in the last scene. The real tragedy of the play is breaking of Hamlet's heart fiber by fiber, muscle by muscle. The final snap of the last quivering cord merely closes the tragedy. Hamlet died at the very close of the play, but he has been dying ever since the first act. Some students of the play have said that it would have been bad taste in Shakespeare to have made his first character a monomaniac. Evidently the gentlemen who take this view of the case have not forgotten their childish longing to have all the stories "end right," and the hero "love happily forever after." True tragedy is something more than bloodshed. Suppose Hamlet to have been really mad; suppose him to have suffered until that delicately balanced mind was the seat of dire confusion, "like sweet bells, jangled out of time and harsh." And suppose that he had not fallen in the duel, but that the great artist had left him a hopeless maniac. Suppose on the other hand, Hamlet had eaten, drunk, slept and read as usual, and feigned madness as a matter of convenience, a mark under which he might successfully plot to possess himself of the throne, and to avenge his father. To feign madness was, under the circumstances, the most politic thing Hamlet could have done. It would have made him master of the situation. The only wonder is that with such shrewd diplomancy to start with, he did not succeed better. Perhaps he did not play his little part skilfully enough, was not earnest enough about it. Suppose, I say, that the prudent, well balanced, exemplary Hamlet should have finally been so unfortunate as to have Laerte's sword run through him; now which, I ask, is the higher tragedy, Hamlet mad or Hamlet dead? It is perhaps a sad thought that with such strength there should be such weakness, yet then Shakespeare took his greatest, grandest character, and, like Apollo to the priestess he loved, gave unto him the divine speech, never to be understood, the divine prphecy, never to be believed; which is at once the curse and the highest heritage of genius.

Hamlet feigning madness would have been something of an Iago. Grand and beautiful, noble and upright, a character as Iago certainly is, and pure and elevated as is the taste of those who admired him above all other Shakespearian characters, Shakespeare could not, even had he wished it—as he doubtless did—have given to each and every one of his several thousand characters the ennobling characteristic of Iago without producing an effect almost of monotony.