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The plot of Hamlet, — being founded on fratricide and adultery, tending for its culmination to the slaying of a king, the poisoning of a queen, the treacherous killing of a prince; having for its incidents the homicide of the father of two leading personages, the lacerating rupture of love-vows, the lunacy and death of the maiden-lover; and thus involving outrage of the primary affections of humanity, the warm, elementary feelings which are the necessary bonds of the family and society, — this plot harbors within its bosom more of the portentous wreckful elements of tragedy than any other of Shakespeare's great dramas. Here, then, was the poet's richest opportunity. The manifold antagonistic conjunctions, the passionate collisions, calling on him for more than usually diversified utterance, poetical as well as pungent, stirred the deeps of his being and drew delightfully upon his radiant store of ideals.
In so far as logic can work with rather. vague materials, external evidence confirms the internal to show that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet between his thirty-third and thirtyninth years; that is, when he had just entered upon the full enjoyment of his vast mental es
tate, and when all his faculties, ripened by strenuous exercise and various production, were at their flood, boiling, bursting with life, exuberant with power, craving larger delivery. Upon this flood, as his cradle, was Hamlet rocked. Shakespeare wanted a drama, and especially a controlling personage in it, to embody in them, more plenteously than he had yet done, his brimming wealth ; and finding in Belleforest's Historie of Hamblet (borrowed from Saxo Grammaticus) a germ, a rude skeleton, he took it, and out of a crude, semi-barbarous tale, out of an æsthetic nothing, he wrought into grand, graceful porportions a poetic world. He wanted a character through whom he could give issue to that lofty inquisitiveness into man's destiny, that active meditativeness on the mystery and end of being, which are the growth of a mind at once largethoughted and palpitating with sensibility, and which on the wonderfully endowed poet were just then pressing with the fervor of young manhood, now fully launched on infinite seas of thought.
For the seething plot which his poetically imaginative invention had wrought out of a raw, bloody legend he needed, as a more im
mediate representative of himself a protagonist in whom should be active a high reason, ever seeking causes, binding together remotest motions, and with this reason sympathies that should shed their revealing light upon all forms of being. On this broad, profound plan he organized his greatest drama. The whole multitude of personages in his many dramas are, in greater or less degree, exponents of Shakespeare himself, — and this is their deep
– est virtue ; but now he wanted a mouthpiece of his searching meditation and his sententious wisdom, and so he seized upon the Hamlet of Danish legend, transformed and transfigured him, and made him, counter to probabilities, thirty years of age. Counter to probabilities, for the university student-age rarely extends beyond twenty-five; and it was also far less probable that the usurpation of a throne by an uncle would succeed against a man with the ripened feelings and the experience of thirty years in his brain than against a youth who had just reached manhood. In the original story Prince Hamlet, at the time of his uncle's usurpation, is a minor. But these external proprieties Shakespeare readily sacrificed to the internal propriety of not putting into the mind and mouth of a youth of twenty the profound philosophical questionings, the large knowledge, and pithy sayings of a matured man. Hamlet, aged thirty, is the chief agent of the drama ; but behind Hamlet is one more powerful than he. Let us look into the play to learn who this is.
The first scene opens thus: Francisco, sentinel on the platform before the royal castle of Elsinore, anxiously challenges a comer, who turns out to be Bernardo, a fellow-soldier, who to relieve Francisco is come punctually up his hour, which is midnight. The relieved sentinel is most thankful, for it is “bitter cold” and he is “sick at heart.” As he is taking leave arrive Marcellus and Horatio. No
sooner has Bernardo welcomed them than Horatie Marcellus asks eagerly: “What, has this thing
appeared again to-night ?” These few simple words are the hinge upon which turns the greatest tragedy, the highest poem, of literature.
The commentators make no account of the Ghost. They treat him pretty much as the editors of the play treat him who place him towards the end of the Dramatis Persona, not even clothed, like the other personages, in capital letters. In the Rugby edition (1873),
edited by the Rev. C. E. Moberly, the Ghost is put after “Messengers and other attendants," as though he were the most insignificant of the supernumeraries. The editor would apparently like to get rid of him altogether!
Coleridge, in his celebrated essay on Hamlet, gives two or three pages to the Ghost, but only for the purpose of showing the admirable judgment of Shakespeare in preparing for and managing the introduction of the Ghost at his several entrances; and he adds : “ Hume himself could not but have had faith in this ghost dramatically, let his antighostism have been as strong as Sampson against other ghosts less powerfully raised.” I have italicized the last words to show that the verisimilitude and effectiveness of the Ghost are solely due, in the opinion of Coleridge, to the skill with which he is handled by the poet. On the third appearance of the Ghost, in Hamlet's presence, Coleridge speaks of its “fearful subjectivity.” By this he can only mean that the Ghost was a brain-vision, caused by the intensely excited feelings of Hamlet and his companions. On being once asked if he believed in ghosts, Coleridge answered ; "No, I have seen too many