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Thursday, April 24, 2014

The True Hamlet
The Speaker, June 29, 1901

The True Hamlet of William Shakespeare. Robert Gray. Peterhead Sentinal Office. Aberdeen: A Brown and Co.

Mr. Robert Gray enunciates a view of Hamlet which flies flat in the face of every accepted theory: he maintains that Hamlet was not irresolute, not over-intellectual, not procrastinating, not weak. The challenge, erroneous as it may be, is spirited, ingenious, and well-reasoned, and it can do nothing but good in the controversy and nothing but honour to Shakespeare. The more varied are the versions of friends and enemies, the more flatly irreconcilable are the opinions of various men about Hamlet, the more he resembles a real man. The characters of fiction, mysterious as they are, are far less mysterious than the figures of history. Men have agreed about Hamlet vastly more than they have agreed about Caesar or Mahomet or Cromwell or Mr. Gladstone or Cecil Rhodes. Nobody supposes that Mr. Gladstone was a solar myth; nobody has started the theory that Mr. Rhodes is only the hideous phantom of an idle dream. Yet hardly three men agree about either of them, hardly anyone knows that some new and suggestive view of them might not be started at any moment. If Hamlet can be thus surprised, if he can thus be taken in the rear, it is a great tribute to the solidity of the figure. If from another standpoint he appears like another statue, it shows at least that the figure is made of marble and not of cardboard. Neither the man who thinks Lord Beaconsfield a hero nor the man who thinks him a snob doubts his existence. It is a great tribute to literature if neither the man who thinks Hamlet a weakling nor the man who thinks him a hero ever thinks of doubting Hamlet's existence.
Personally, I think Mr. Gray absolutely right in denouncing the idea that Hamlet was a "witty weakling." There is a great difference between a weakness which is at liberty and a strength which is rusted and clogged. Hamlet was not a weak man fundamentally: Shakespeare never forgets to remind us that he had an elemental force and fire in him, liable to burst out and strike everyone with terror.
"Yet have I something in me dangerous
Which let thy wisdom fear."
But Hamlet was a man in whom the faculty of action had been clogged, not by the smallness of his moral nature, but by the greatness of his intellectual. Actions were really important to him, only they were not quite so dazzling and dramatic as thoughts. He belonged to a type of man which some men will never understand, the man for whom what happens inside his head does actually and literally happen, for whom ideas are adventures, for whom metaphors are living monsters, for whom an intellectual parallel has the irrevocable sanctity of a marriage ceremony. Hamlet failed, but through the greatness of his upper, not the weakness of his lower, storey. He was a giant, but he was top-heavy.

But while I warmly agree with Mr. Gray in holding that the moral greatness of Hamlet is enormously underrated, I cannot agree with him that Hamlet was a moral success. If this is true, indeed, the whole story loses its central meaning: if the hero was a success, the play is a failure. Surely no one who remembers Hamlet's tremendous speech, beginning:
"O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,"
can share Mr. Gray's conclusion:
"He is not here condemning himself for inaction, there is no cause for the reproach, he is using the resources of passion and eloquence to spur himself to action."
It is difficult for me to imagine anyone reading that appalling cry out of the very hell of inutility and think that Hamlet is not condemning himself for inaction. Hamlet may, of course, be only casually mentioning that he is a moral coward: for the matter of that, the Ghost may be only cracking a joke when he says he has been murdered. But if ever there was sincerity in any human utterance, there is in the remorse of Hamlet.

The truth is that Shakespeare's Hamlet is immeasurably vaster than any mere ethical denunciation or ethical defence. Figures like this, scribbled in a few pages of pen and ink, can claim, like living human beings, to be judged by Omniscience. To call Hamlet a "witty weakling" is entirely to miss the point, which is his greatness; to call him a triumphant hero is to miss a point quite as profound. It is the business of art to seize these nameless points of greatness and littleness: the truth is not so much that art is immoral as that art has to single out sins that are not to be found in any decalogue and virtues that cannot be named in any allegory. But upon the whole it is always more indulgent than philanthropy. Falstaff was neither brave nor honest, nor chaste, nor temperate, not clean, but he had the eighth cardinal virtue for which no name has ever been found. Hamlet was not fitted for this world: but Shakespeare does not dare to say whether he was too good or too bad for it.

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