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Nebraska State Journal

by Willa Cather

From Nebraska State Journal,  (November 8, 1891):  14.





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?


In Mr. Bulwer Lytton's novel "Zanoni," he describes as one of the elementary steps to a higher order of manhood, a manhood which shall defy death, fathom space, sovereign the stars, that the candidate be first rendered susceptible to sensations other than those which the flesh is heir to, that he hear music in silence, see light in darkness, and the sunlight becomes a sort of external elixir vitae to him. But at the same time he suffers intolerable pain from the millions of larvae with which the air and water are peopled and trembles in agony at things which fall upon the rest of mankind as humdrum and unnoticed as light falls upon the lids of a sleeper. Hamlet had to contend with the realities not only of this world, but of a world of his own.

Shakespeare had drawn no friendship, not even the friendship of Anthony and Caesar, which is more beautiful than the friendship of Hamlet and Horatio. One especially revolting feature of Goethe's proposed revision of Hamlet is that it degrades the friendship of the prince and Horatio, makes it vulgar and self-interested, gives a reason why Hamlet and Horatio should love each other. He would make Horatio son of the vice regent of Norway, and would have Hamlet give his dying voice to him instead of to Fortinbras, so substituting a political intrigue for the love that sprung up between two men in their old free student life at Wittenberg; that came unbidden, grew unforced, until it was stronger than the men themselves and was only broken at the end with Horatio, "Good night, sweet prince," perhaps not even then. He had come down from the unversity to be near his friend in his sorrow. When he found the extent of Hamlet's grief he would not return, but stand with Hamlet, letting his work and his ambitions go. If we may judge from his own conversation and from remarks let fall by Hamlet he was a scholar, probably a much better one than Hamlet ever was and Hamlet was proud of it. He was the one man who understood or rather appreciated Hamlet and he never doubted him an instant. It was to him that Hamlet poured out his anguish, to him that he wrote and confided the story of the king's treachery. He was with him in the ghost scene, protecting him and curbing his rashness, he was with him at the play, and at Ophelia's grave; and in the duel he was at his side. He was with him where a woman's love failed him. He studied, planned and dreamed with him in their old days; now he suffered and would have died with him had it not been for Hamlet's last request, "Horatio, I am dead, thou livest, report me and my cause aright to the unsatisfied." So the one, Hamlet's other self, lived and worked out the work they had planned to do together. The one was not quite dead while the other lived. Reason for the friendship of Hamlet and Horatio: What is the reason for gratification, the cause of chemical affinity? Hamlet himself give the only reason he knew: "Nay do not think I flatter, For what advancement may I hope from thee That no revenue hast but they good spirits To feed and clothe thee. Since my dear soul was neither of her choise, And could of men distinguish, her election Hath sealed thee for herself; for thou hast been As one in suffering all, that suffers nothing, A man that fortune's buffets and rewards Has taken with equal thanks; and blest are those Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled, That they are not a pipe for fortune's finger, To sound what stay she pleases. Give me that man who is not passion's slave and I will in my heart's care, ay, in my heart of heart, ween him as I do thee."

It is not often that two souls are delicately joined enough to experience as friendship like that of Hamlet and Horatio. It is hardly covered by the word friendship; it is an almost awful thing. Old Damon and his Pythias knew it, and Julius and his Anthony. I think if Julius had gotten up from his tomb and "gone down into Egypt" again, that Anthony would have given him Cleopatra, just as he gave him everything else. He must even have been glad that Julius had loved her for it seemed to draw him closer to his dead hero.

Had Hamlet's first sorrow not have been so heavy that it crushed him, he might have been a great artist of some kind. These strained, exaggerated natures sometimes focus themselves in this way. Had he had a few more years with Horatio down in the silence of Wittenburg he might have been a genius; as it was he was only very miserable. It is strange how delicate is the distinction between miserable men and great men. Through all its existence the charcoal feels within its black breast every throb, every aspiration of the kindred gem. It feels its very being throb and break with light, light quivers through its every atom, but it is all latent, men do not see it. For lack of some crowning touch of the great chemist, it lies always in the dark, and can give back the light which the great sun locked up in it centuries ago, only in one way, through fire, by its own consumption. The gem shines on 1,000 years uninjured, shimmering in its own light. The charcoal gives light too, but it dies in giving light birth. Hamlet's grief killed the creative art in him, and left him only the "bad dreamer." Poor fellow! he lived hard, and he died hard. "The rest is silence."

It was upon this prince perhaps the least powerful and awe inspiring of all Shakespearian heroes, that William Shakespeare exhausted the greatest treasurer of his genius, and into whose life he breathed his own. I think that this is all Shakespeare meant Hamlet to be, a man who suffered. To Macbeth he gave the most finished characteristic art in the world; to Julius Caezar he gave the strongest pathos in literature; Hamlet he pitied, and he gave him the legecy of his love. In a certain way Shakespeare is as much misunderstood as his masterpiece. We try to make him the intellectual giant of the ages, when in truth I do not suppose he was half so intellectual as Newton. He was no great scholar; he took to the soul rather than to the technique of learning. He had little Latin history and more Greek mythology.

The great secret of Shakespeare's power was supreme love, rather than supreme intellect, supreme love for the ideal in art, and for the real in it too, which is but a form of the ideal after all. There have been other men with as much ability, as much talent, but they have contented themselves with being men of letters, rather than creators of thought. They hold a very prominent position in society, they are the presidents of the great literary clubs, they are editors of the leading magazines, they are sought out at every reception. It is a pleasant career, their penning of pretty pieces of literature, and there is fame in it; but it is a very different thing from thought creations, from thought birth, the agony in which all the forces of body, brain and soul are drawn to one vital center in the effort of one life to give individuality to a greater life, the agony of the Doric women who bore the sons of the gods. Modern authors admire the great creations of thought, oh yes, and they would like well enough to produce them, but they are unwilling to either for the sake of the idea itself or for the sake of the truth which inspired it, to underage the pain, the suffering, the separation from other men, the solitude and the loneliness which thought learning involves. They each love, they are not strong enough for the sacrifice, so they say "we will serve both, men and art." They serve the one, but the other they prostitute. They do not intend this, it comes upon them gradually. They forget that an artist should be unlike other men, for he should be a revelation to other men. They forget that conventionalism of art is the death of art. Yet we have conventionalized everything, men and the cities of men. When was it that the gods left Rome? Was it when it was sacked and pillaged, and bought and sold? Ah, no; but when the first locomotive rumbled across the trestle bridge over the Tiber. The railroad did what time, and fire, and steel could not do, made Rome like other cities. The fauns and the nymphs started in terror when they heard that first shrill whistle, and they wept all day in the fountains and at night they said farewell to the tombs along the via Appia and left Rome forever. Now we go there and turn away disappointed, sick at heart. The strength we look for is gone. We go to see the death we envy, we find the life we live.

The artist begins with earnestness and devotion enough, but the sirens sing his praises, and he listens to them. He busies himself with the lighter vein of his art because it is the pleasantest and easiest for the time; but when he seeks his old power it is gone, he knows not whither. He anxiously calls upon his God, but it responds no more. After that he may clasp its kness in desperate entreaty, he may cry and cut himself with sharp stones, and cause his children to pass through the fire before it, but it is of no avail. once silenced, it is silenced forever. To-day all artists see too much of the world, they are alone too little. He who walks with the crowd is drawn to its level. The law of maternal impression is true in the mental as well as in the physical world, and every thought is more or less colored by the atmosphere in which it is conceived. Thought born in a crowd gives men nothing better than they have already, and they soon tire of it. If an artist does any good work he must do it alone. No number of encouraging or admiring friends can assist him, they retard him rather. He must go off alone with his own soul and they too must labor and suffer together, with none seeing but the stars. It was only after Moses had left all the luxury, the learning and the culture of the Egyptian court, and had fled into Midian desert and dreamed for years in the sand hills, that the bush burned before him and was not consumed. Long afterward, when he went up Mount Sinai to receive the great revelation of the law, at the foot of the mountain he left his people, farther up he took Aaron and Hur and the elders, still further up he left even Joshua, and went alone—to God. The Oracle did not speak in the crowded streets of Athens, nor yet in the school of Plato, but out in the solitudes of Delphi.

It is not an easy thing, this separation from the world. Authors are not made of marble or of ice, and human sympathy is a sweet thing. There is much to suffer, much to undergo: the awful loneliness, the longing for human fellowship and for human love. The terrible realization of the soul that no one knows it, no one sees it, no one understands it; that it is barred from the perception of other souls; that it is always alone. It is a hard thing to endure, and only love can endure it, a love as deep and as serene as the eternal force of the universe Shakespeare loved.

It seems strange that many literary men who have so much should yet lack so much, that with all their correctness and elegance of form, they fall so far short of some men who had neither. Their learning burdens rather than aids them. It is just as it was long ago when the model young man came to Christ and said, "Lord, what good thing shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?" And Christ said, "Thou knowest the law and the prophets." And he said, "All these have I kept from my youth up." And Christ looked upon him, and loved him, for there was promise in him, and he said, "One thing thou lackest. Thou hast gained great wealth through observance of the law, and it was well gained. Now go and take all this which is rightfully thine, and sell it and give unto the poor. Give all, and follow me out into the desert and the waste places, and over the rugged mountain sides, and among the publicans and sinners, and over to Calvary." And the youth went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. "Will of Avon" gave all, he was only an English country lad, and had not much to give, and went out into the wilderness with the fishermen while the rest of us stay and worship properly at Jerusalem. Ingersoll says he is glad that Shakespeare never went to Oxford, and took a degree, and became a fellow, and taught Alpha, Beta to the young Englishmen. For myself, I am glad that he was not an ambitious man or a learned man, or a popular man, or even a very good man; but just Will Shakespeare, writer of plays; that he did not know many languages, but saw rather more in English than other writers; that he was not even travelled, and had never seen the lands he worshipped in his dreams, except as he saw the world float by him in the London fogs. He did not want to be studied; he just wanted to be loved. He did not write to make men think; he wrote to make men feel. We insist upon viewing him exclusively in the intellectual sense, we discern the dramatic power in Macbeth and the art purposes in the balcony scene. Probably Shakespeare had no more art purposes in writing the balcony scene than Romeo had when he swung himself up by the balustrades of Capulet's balcony, and lifted his lips to Juliet's. There is no art in the balcony scene, its all heart. There are under all our forms and fashions, a few fundenmental principles which are alive in us all. The different castes of society would almost become different species were it not for those few common touches of nature which make the whole world kin. Shakespeare was master of these few elementary emotions which are the key stones of life. Upon their strength he gathers art, history, poetry, science, philosophy and dramatic law, just as the great ocean surges sweeping up over the rocks gather pebbles, sand, sea wreck, star fish, driftwood and fling them back into the sea.