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LAW, PROVIDENCE, ALL-RULING
maintain themselves and the original order of things, in spite of the disturbances and confusions which the errors and crimes of the several actors occasion. The man is to subdue the circumstances, but he is not to throw them into confusion. And in like manner he is not to succeed by mere force and energy of will,' but his will must act according to law also. In this action and re-action of the persons and events on each other, and the progress of the drama by the gradual subjection of the latter to the former, we further discover that their several laws,—the law of free-will and the law of matter-are but two parts of a higher law which comprehends both, and prescribes the triumph of the one over the other: that (as might be expected) the existence of this law involves the existence. not only of an enacting, but also of an executive, Power; and that such a Power is present throughout the drama, invisibly, yet really, sustaining and carrying forward the right cause to its successful termination. If the hero of the piece has a character sufficiently free from weakness and other defects, and if the circumstances he has to contend with are not of the most difficult kind, he succeeds (as in the Comus, or the Tempest,) in overcoming them in the course of the Play, which then closes with a bright prospect of future life, and the invisible, overruling, Power, of which we have just spoken, reveals itself under the form of a beneficent Providence.* When on the other hand the circumstances are overpowering, and the will or strength of him who has to master them is defective in
*The opening speech of the Spirit in Comus, announces that the whole action of the drama will be under the superintendence of Jupiter.
'How came we here? By Providence divine':gives the key-note of the Tempest. Who shall tell us by what happy instinct it was, that the editors of the first collected edition of Shakspeare's Plays, disregarded the chronological order which they recognised in the arrangement of the next following plays, and put the Tempest first, as though conscious that it was a microcosm of the whole? Prospero is the type of Shakspeare : and it was a no less happy choice which fixed on Prospero's words for Shakspeare's epitaph in Westminster Abbey.
any respect, (and there are events of human life, in the presence of which every human will turns weak,) and when consequently the battle must be to the outrance, and the victory only to be gained in, and by, the victor's death, then we have a proper Tragedy, like the Samson Agonistes or Hamlet. Here we have all the same principles at work, the same ideas, of Law, and Order, and Providence, present and powerful in the midst of confusion and conflict, but all in a graver and more solemn manner. The final quiet is the calm of death; and though the prevailing and lasting impression on the mind is no less peaceful and satisfactory than in the former case, it takes the form of a satisfaction arising from a trust in the absolute will, rather than (as in the former case) in the providence, of the all-ruling Power. Just referring the reader to the Eschylean Trilogy of the Agamemnon, Orestes, and Eumenides, and to what Müller says that of the Prometheus would be if it were entire, for illustrations of the principles here laid down, I proceed to try whether they will prove their truth by giving and receiving light in their application to Shakspeare's Hamlet.
PROPER TRAGEDY: HAMLET.
III.—The greater number of the commentators and critics of Hamlet are vague and cloudy, the warmth of their feelings not being equalled by the clearness of their ideas. A modern commentator at once points out and exemplifies this, in an introduction to this play, in which he distinguishes three stages in the progress of the mind of the student of Hamlet, and after giving much excellent
* There's a divinity that shapes our ends
'Why even in that was heaven ordinant.'
And which is best, and happiest yet, all this
GOETHE AND COLERIDGE.
matter as to the first two, tells his reader that he leaves him to find out the third for himself. Perhaps all our really distinct criticisms may be traced to two originals, those of Goethe and Coleridge.* There can be no doubt that each of these had a meaning, and that his words tell us what it was. Goethe, as his wont is, describes with exquisite transparency of thought and word all that meets his piercing, passionless, comprehensive gaze, as he looks on Hamlet, from without. Coleridge, in his way, contemplates his subject from within: and the result shows the superiority of his method. I shall refer to Goethe's criticism again; the sum of Coleridge's is contained in the following extract:
"I believe the character of Hamlet may be traced to Shakspeare's deep and accurate science in mental philosophy. Indeed, that this character must have some connection with the fundamental laws of our nature may be assumed from the fact, that Hamlet has been the darling of every country in which the literature of England has been fostered. In order to understand him, it is essential that we should reflect on the constitution of our own minds. Mau is distinguished from the brute animals in proportion as thought prevails over sense: but in the healthy processes of the mind, a balance is constantly maintained between the impressions from outward objects, and the inward operations of the intellect; for if there be an overbalance in the contemplative faculty, man thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation, and loses his natural power of action. Now one of Shakspeare's modes of creating characters is, to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakspeare, thus mutilated or diseased, under given circumstances. In
* Mr. Collier (in his introduction to Hamlet) confirms, of his personal knowledge, Coleridge's assertion, that he had put forth his views of Hamlet, several years before Schlegel's Lectures were published. In depth and clearness of thought, and in masculine grasp of his subject, the superiority of Coleridge is unquestionable,
COLERIDGE ON HAMLET.
Hamlet he seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to the objects of our senses, and our meditation on the workings of our minds,―an equilibrium between the real and the imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this balance is disturbed: his thoughts, and the images of his fancy, are far more vivid than his actual perceptions, and his very perceptions, instantly passing through the medium of his contemplations, acquire as they pass a form and a colour not naturally their own. Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it, with all its symptoms and accompanying qualities. This character Shakspeare places in circumstances, under which it is obliged to act on the spur of the moment:- Hamlet is brave, and careless of death; but he vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve. Thus it is, that this tragedy presents a direct contrast to that of Macbeth; the one proceeds with the utmost slowness, the other with a crowded and breathless rapidity.
"The effect of this overbalance of the imaginative power is beautifully illustrated in the everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of Hamlet's mind, which, unseated from its healthy relation, is constantly occupied with the world within, and abstracted from the world without,giving substance to shadows, and throwing a mist over all common-place actualities. It is the nature of thought to be indefinite: definiteness belongs to external imagery alone. Hence it is that the sense of sublimity arises, not from the sight of an outward object, but from the beholder's reflection upon it;-not from the sensuous impression, but from the imaginative reflex. Few have seen a celebrated waterfall without feeling something akin to disappointment: it is only subsequently that the image comes back full into the mind, and brings with it a
16 HAMLET NOT A MERE VICTIM OF CIRCUMSTANCE.
train of grand or beautiful associations. Hamlet feels this; his senses are in a state of trance, and he looks upon external things as hieroglyphics. His soliloquy—
O! that this too too solid flesh would melt, &c. springs from that craving after the indefinite-for that which is not-which most easily besets men of genius; and the self-delusion common to this temper of mind is finely exemplified in the character which Hamlet gives of himself:
-It cannot be,
But I am pigeon-livered, and lack gall
He mistakes the seeing his chains for the breaking them; delays action till action is of no use, and dies the victim of mere circumstance and accident."*
This masterly view of Hamlet's character needs no commendation of mine: it is, I suppose, universally recognized by all students of Shakspeare in the present day as the criticism. But I would call attention to the of it which I have marked with italics. Though passages Coleridge is supported by Goethe, Schlegel, and all the commentators I know of in the present and previous centuries, in his assertion that Hamlet' delays action till action is of no use, and dies the victim of mere circumstance and accident,' I must hesitate to agree to his conclusion. Nay, presumptuous as I feel it to be, to set myself against such an array of authorities, I must believe that Hamlet, being exactly the character that Coleridge describes him, does yet end by mastering that his characteristic defect, and that he dies, not a victim, but a martyr,-winning, not losing, the cause for which he dies. I believe that this is the actual plot of the Tragedy, and consequently that Shakspeare's purpose was not merely 'to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between
*Literary Remains, II. 204–207.