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Hamlet
William Shakespeare

REFERENCE THE CRITICS

Probably more criticism has been written about Hamlet than about any other work of literature in the English language. The changing views of Hamlet as a character are summarized in the Characters section of this guide. The following quotes are a sampling of major views of the play over the past three centuries. They are intended to open the discussion for you, not end it.

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY

...we must allow to the tragedy of Hamlet the praise of variety. The incidents are so numerous, that the argument [summary] of the play would make a long tale.... The action is indeed for the most part in continual progression, but there are some scenes which neither forward nor retard it. Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty. Samuel Johnson, from the notes to his Edition of Shakespeare's Dramatic Works, 1765

Tender and nobly descended, this royal flower [Hamlet] grew up under the direct influences of majesty; the idea of the right and of princely dignity, the feeling for the good and the graceful, with the consciousness of his high birth, were unfolded in him together. He was a prince, a born prince. Pleasing in figure, polished by nature, courteous from the heart, he was to be the model of youth and the delight of the world.... A beautiful, pure, noble and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which makes a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it can neither bear nor throw off.... Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, from Wilhelm Meister, Book V, 1795


NINETEENTH CENTURY

One of Shakespeare's modes of creating characters is to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakespeare, thus mutilated or diseased, under given circumstances. In Hamlet he seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance- between our attention to the objects of our sense and our meditation on the working 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.... Hence we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it.... This character Shakespeare places in circumstances under which he 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.... He mistakes the seeing of his chains for the breaking of them, delays action till action is of no use, and dies the victim of mere circumstance and accident. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from Notes and Lectures on Shakespeare, 1808

Hamlet is single in its kind: A tragedy of thought inspired by continual and never-satisfied meditation on human destiny and the dark perplexity of the events of this world, calculated to call forth the very same meditation in the minds of the spectators.... Respecting Hamlet's character, I cannot pronounce altogether so favorable a judgment as Goethe's.... The weakness of his volition is evident: He does himself only justice when he says there is no greater dissimilarity than between himself and Hercules. He is not solely impelled by necessity to artifice and dissimulation; he has a natural inclination to go crooked ways; he is a hypocrite towards himself, his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his lack of resolution... he is too much overwhelmed with his own sorrow to have any compassion to spare for others.... On the other hand we evidently perceive in him a malicious joy when he has succeeded in getting rid of his enemies more through necessity, and accident, which are alone able to impel him to quick and decisive measures, than from the merit of his courage.... Hamlet has no firm belief in himself or anything else.... The destiny of humanity is here exhibited as a gigantic Sphinx, which threatens to precipitate into the abyss of skepticism whoever is unable to solve her dreadful enigma. August Wilhelm Schlegel, from Lectures on Art and Dramatic Literature, 1809

Hamlet is a name: His speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet's brain. What, then 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.... We have been so used to this tragedy, that we hardly know how to criticize it, any more than we should know how to describe our own faces.... 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 to himself as a means of general reasoning.... [He] is not a character marked by strength of will, or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment.... He is the prince of philosophical speculators, and because he cannot have his revenge perfect, according to the most refined idea his wish can form, he misses it altogether.... His ruling passion is to think, not to act; and any vague pretense that flatters this propensity instantly diverts him from his previous purposes.... The character of Hamlet is made up of undulating lines; it has the yielding flexibility of 'a wave o' th' sea.' William Hazlitt, from Characters of Shakespeare's Plays, 1812

[Hamlet] is not master of his acts; occasion dictates them; he cannot plan a murder, but must improvise it. A too-lively imagination exhausts energy by the accumulation of images, and by the fury of intentness which absorbs it. You recognize in him a poet's soul, made not to act but to dream, which is lost in contemplating the phantoms of its own creation, which sees the imaginary world too clearly to play a part in the real world; an artist whom evil chance has made a prince, whom worse chance has made an avenger of crime, and who, destined by nature for genius, is condemned by fortune to madness and unhappiness. Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine, from History of English Literature, 1866

Much discussion has turned on the question of Hamlet's madness, whether it be real or assumed. It is not possible to settle this question.... Shakespeare meant Hamlet to be in a state of intense cerebral excitement, seeming like madness. His sorrowing nature has suddenly been ploughed to its depths by a horror so great as to make him recoil every moment from a belief in its reality. The shock, if it has not destroyed his sanity, has certainly unsettled him. George Henry Lewes, from On Actors and the Art of Acting, 1875

[Hamlet] is a man in whom the common personal passions are so superseded by wider and rarer interests, and so discouraged by a degree of critical self-consciousness which makes the practical efficiency of the instinctive man on the lower plane impossible to him, that he finds the duties dictated by conventional revenge and ambition as disagreeable a burden as commerce is to a poet. Even his instinctive sexual impulses offend his intellect; so that when he meets the woman who excites them he invites her to join him in a bitter and scornful criticism of their joint absurdity... all of which is so completely beyond the poor girl that she naturally thinks him mad. And, indeed, there is a sense in which Hamlet is insane; for he trips over the mistake which lies on the threshold of intellectual self- consciousness: That of bringing life to utilitarian or Hedonistic tests, thus treating it as a means instead of an end. George Bernard Shaw, from his review of Johnston Forbes-Robertson's production of the play, in Our Theatres in the Nineties, Vol. 3, 1897

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