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HAZLITT'S SHAKESPEARE - HAMLET.
of conception and expression — frequent rashness and carelessness — constant warmth of admiration for his author — and some fits of extravagance and folly, into which he seems to be hurried, either by the hasty kindling of his zeal as he proceeds, or by a selfwilled determination not to be balked or baffled in any thing he has taken it into his head he should
say. “ Hamlet is a name: his speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet's brain. But are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader's mind. It is we who are Hamlet. This play has a prophetic truth, which is above that of history. Whoever has become thoughtful and melancholy through his own mishaps or those of others; whoever has borne about with him the clouded brow of reflection, and thought himself too much i' th' sun ;' whoever has seen the golden lamp of day dimmed by envious mists rising in his own breast, and could find in the world before him only a dull blank, with nothing left remarkable in it; whoever has known the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, or the spurns which patient merit of the unworthy takes;' he who has felt his mind sink within him, and sadness cling to his heart like a malady; who has had his hopes blighted and his youth staggered by the apparitions of strange things; who cannot be well at ease, while he sees evil hovering near him like a spectre; whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought; he to whom the universe seems infinite, and himself nothing ; whose bitterness of soul makes him careless of consequences, and who goes to a play, as his best resource to shove off, to a second remove, the evils of life, by a mock-representation of them. This is the true Hamlet.
“We have been so used to this tragedy, that we hardly know how to criticise it, any more than we should know how to describe our own faces. But we must make such observations as we can. It is the one of Shakespeare's plays that we think of oftenest because it abounds most in striking reflections on human life, and because the distresses of Hamlet are transferred, by the turn of his mind, to the general account of humanity. Whatever happens to him, we apply to ourselves; because he applies it so himself as a means of general reasoning. He is a great moralizer, and what makes him worth attending to is, that he moralizes on his own feelings and experience. He is not a commonplace pedant. If Lear shows the greatest depth of passion, HAMLET is the most remarkable for the ingenuity, originality, and unstudied development of character. There is no attempt to force an interest: every thing is left for time and circumstances to unfold. The attention is excited without effort; the incidents succeed each other as matters of course; the characters think, and speak, and act, just as they might do if left entirely to themselves. There is no set purpose, no straining at a point. The observations are suggested by the passing scene the gusts of passion come and go
like sounds of music borne on the wind. The whole play is an exact transcript of
what might be supposed to have taken place at the court of Denmark, at the remote period of time fixed upon, before the modern refinements in morals and manners were heard of. It would have been interesting enough to have been admitted as a by-stander in such a scene, at such a time, to have heard and seen something of what was going on. But here we are more than spectators. We have not only *the outward pageants and the signs of grief, but we have that within which passes show. We read the thoughts of the heart, we catch the passions living as they rise. Other dramatic writers give us very fine versions and paraphrases of nature; but Shakespeare, together with his own comment, gives us the original text, that we may judge for ourselves. This is a great advantage. “ The character of Hamlet is itself a pure effusion of genius.
It is not a character marked by strength of will, or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment. Hamlet is as little of the hero as a man can well be: but he is a young and princely novice, full of high enthusiasm and quick sensibility, — the sport of circumstances, questioning with fortune, and refining on his own feelings; and forced from the natural bias of his disposition by the strangeness of his situation.” — p. 104-107.
His account of the Tempest is all pleasingly written, especially his remarks on Caliban; but we rather give our readers his speculations on Bottom and his associates.
“ Bottom the Weaver is a character that has not had justice done him. He is the most romantic of mechanics; He follows a sedentary trade, and he is accordingly represented as conceited, serious, and fantastical. He is ready to undertake any thing and every thing, as if it was as much a matter of course as the motion of his loom and shuttle. He is for playing the tyrant, the lover, the lady, the lion. • He will roar that it shall do any man's heart good to hear him ;' and this being objected to as improper, he still has a resource in his good opinion of himself, and will roar you an 'twere any nightingale.' Snug the Joiner is the moral man of the piece, who proceed3 by measurement and discretion in all things. You see him with hi rule and compasses in his hand. ' Have you the lion's part written ? Pray you, if it be, give it me, for I am slow of study.'--' You may do it extempore,' says Quince, for it is nothing but roaring.' Starveling the Tailor keeps the peace, and objects to the lion and the drawn sword. “I believe we must leave the killing out when all's done.' Starveling, however, does not start the objections himself, but seconds them when made by others, as if he had not spirit to express his fears without encouragement. It is too much to suppose all this intentional : but it very luckily falls out so.
-p. 126, 127. Mr. H. admires Romeo and Juliet rather too much — though his encomium on it is about the most eloquent part of his performance: But we really cannot sym
HAZLITT'S SHAKESPEARE — FALSTAFF.
pathise with all the conceits and puerilities that occur in this play; for instance, this exhortation to Night, which Mr. H. has extracted for praise !
“ Give me my Romeo—and when he shall die,
Take him, and cut him out in little stars,
That all the world will be in love with Night,” &c. We agree, however, with less reservation, in his rapturous encomium on Lear—but can afford no extracts. The following speculation on the character of Falstaff is a striking, and, on the whole, a favourable specimen of our author's manner.
“ Wit is often a meagre substitute for pleasureable sensation ; an effusion of spleen and petty spite at the comforts of others, from feeling none in itself. Falstaff's wit is an emanation of a fine constitution ; an exuberance of good-humour and good-nature ; an overflowing of his love of laughter, and good-fellowship ; a giving vent to his heart's ease and over-contentment with himself and others. He would not be in character if he were not so fat as he is; for there is the greatest keeping in the boundless luxury of his imagination and the pampered self-indulgence of his physical appetites. He manures and nourishes his mind with jests, as he does his body with sack and sugar. He carves out his jokes, as he would a capon, or a haunch of venison, where there is cut and come again ; and lavishly pours out upon them the oil of gladness. His tongue drops fatness, and in the chambers of his brain it snows of meat and drink.' He keeps up perpetual holiday and open house, and we live with him in a round of invitations to a rump and dozen. —Yet we are not left to suppose that he was a mere sensualist. All this is as much in imagination as in reality. His sensuality does not engross and stupify his other faculties, but • ascends me into the brain, clears away all the dull, crude vapours that environ it, and makes it full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes.' His imagination keeps up the ball long after his senses have done with it. He seems to have even a greater enjoyment of the freedom from restraint, of good cheer, of his case, of his vanity, in the ideal and exaggerated descriptions which he gives of them, than in fact. He never fails to enrich his discourse with allusions to eating and drinking; but we never see him at table. He carries his own larder about with him, and he is himself “a tun of man.' His pulling out the bottle in the field of battle is a joke to show his contempt for glory accompanied with danger, his systematic adherence to his Epicurean philosophy in the most trying circumstances. Again, such is his deliberate exaggeration of his own vices, that it does not seem quite certain whether the account of his hostess's bill, found in his pocket, with such an out-of-the-way charge for capons and sack with only one half-penny-worth of bread, was not put there by himself, as
THE COMEDY OF SHAKESPEARE.
a trick to humour the jest upon his favourite propensities, and as a conscious caricature of himself.
“ The secret of Falstaff's wit is for the most part a masterly presence of mind, an absolute self-possession, which nothing can disturb. His repartees are involuntary suggestions of his self-love ; instinctive evasions of every thing that threatens to interrupt the career of his triumphant jollity and self-complacency. His very size floats him out of all his difficulties in a sea of rich conceits ; and he turns round on the pivot of his convenience, with every occasion and at a moment's warning. His natural repugnance to every unpleasant thought or circumstance, of itself makes light of objections, and provokes the most extravagant and licentious answers in his own justification. His indifference to truth puts no check upon his invention ; and the more improbable and unexpected his contrivances are, the more happily does he seem to be delivered of them, the anticipation of their effect acting as a stimulus to the gaiety of his fancy. The success of one adventurous sally gives him spirits to undertake another : he deals always in round numbers, and his exaggerations and excuses are open, palpable, monstrous as the father that begets them.' -p. 189—192.
It is time, however, to make an end of this. We are not in the humour to discuss points of learning with this author; and our readers now see well enough what sort of book he has written. We shall conclude with his remarks on Shakespeare's style of Comedy, introduced in the account of the Twelfth Night.
“ This is justly considered as one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's comedies. It is full of sweetness and pleasantry. It is perhaps too good-natured for comedy. It has little satire, and no spleen. It aims at the ludicrous rather than the ridiculous. It makes us laugh at the follies of mankind ; not despise them, and still less bear any ill-will towards them. Shakespeare's comic genius resembles the bee rather in its power of extracting sweets from weeds or poisons, than in leaving a sting behind it. He gives the most amusing exaggeration of the prevailing foibles of his characters, but in a way that they themselves, instead of being offended at, would almost join in to humour; he rather contrives opportunities for them to show themselves off in the happiest lights, than renders them contemptible in the perverse construction of the wit or malice of others.
“ There is a certain stage of society, in which people, become conscious of their peculiarities and absurdities, affect to disguise what they are, and set up pretensions to what they are not. This gives rise to a corresponding style of comedy, the object of which is to detect the disguises of self-love, and to make reprisals on these preposterous assumptions of vanity, by marking the contrast between the real and the affected character as severely as possible, and denying to those, who would impose on us for what they are not, even the merit which they have. This is the comedy of artificial life, of wit and satire, such as we see it in Congreve, Wycherley, Vanbrugh, &c. But there is a
THE COMEDY OF SHAKESPEARE.
period in the progress of manners anterior to this, in which the foibles and follies of individuals are of nature's planting, not the growth of art or study; in which they are therefore unconscious of them themselves, or care not who knows them, if they can but have their whim out; and in which, as there is no attempt at imposition, the spectators rather receive pleasure from humouring the inclinations of the persons they laugh at, than wish to give them pain by exposing their absurdity. This may be called the comedy of nature ; and it is the comedy which we generally find in Shakespeare. — Whether the analysis here given be just or not, the spirit of his comedies is evidently quite distinct from that of the authors above mentioned ; as it is in its essence the same with that of Cervantes, and also very frequently of Molière, though he was more systematic in his extravagance than Shakespeare. Shakespeare's comedy is of a pastoral and poetical cast. Folly is indigenous to the soil, and shoots out with native, happy, unchecked luxuriance. Absurdity has every encouragement afforded it; and nonsense has room to flourish in. Nothing is stunted by the churlish, icy hand of indifference or severity. The poet runs riot in a conceit, and idolizes a quibble. His whole object is to turn the meanest or rudest objects to a pleasurable account. And yet the relish which he has of a pun, or of the quaint humour of a low character, does not interfere with the delight with which he describes a beautiful image, or the most refined love. The clown's forced jests do not spoil the sweetness of the character of Viola. The same house is big enough to hold Malvolio, the Countess Maria, Sir Toby, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek. For instance, nothing can fall much lower than this last character in intellect or morals: yet how are his weaknesses nursed and dandled by Sir Toby into something 'high fantastical ;' when on Sir Andrew's commendation of himself for dancing and fencing, Sir Toby answers, • Wherefore are these things hid ? Wherefore have these gifts a curtain before them ? Are they like to take dust, like Mrs. Moll's picture? Why dost thou not go to church in a galliard, and come home in a coranto? My very walk should be a jig ! I would not so much as make water but in a cinque-pace. What dost thou mean? Is this a world to hide virtues in? I did think by the excellent constitution of thy leg, it was framed under the star of a galliard !' — How Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and the Clown afterwards chirp over their cups ! how they'rouse the night-owl in a catch, able to draw threes ouls out of one weaver!' What can be better than Sir Toby's unanswerable answer to Malvolio, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale ?' — In a word, the best turn is given to everything, instead of the worst. There is a constant infusion of the romantic and enthusiastic, in proportion as the characters are natural and sincere: whereas, in the more artificial style of comedy, everything gives way to ridicule and indifference ; there being nothing left but affectation on one side, and incredulity on the other.” — p. 255—259.