Graham's Magazine, Vol. XXXVI, No. 5, May 1850
GAY AND SERIOUS.
Engraved & Printed expressly for Graham’s Magazine by S. Dainty
Vol. XXXVI. May, 1850. No. 5.
Table of Contents
Fiction, Literature and Articles
Poetry and Music
Transcriber’s Notes can be found at the end of this eBook.
Vol. XXXVI. PHILADELPHIA, MAY, 1850. No. 5.
ULRICI’S DISCOVERY.—ANALYSIS OF HAMLET.
BY H. C. MOORHEAD.
More than half a century ago, one of Shakspeare’smost illustrious commentators deemed it necessary toaccompany the free expression of his views withwords like these:
“I am almost frighted at my own temerity; andwhen I estimate the fame and the strength of thosethat maintain the contrary opinion, I am ready to sinkdown in reverential silence, as Æneas withdrew fromthe defense of Troy when he saw Neptune shakingthe wall, and Juno heading the besiegers.”
But the enthusiastic study of Shakspeare was thenjust beginning. How many antiquarians, book-wormsand hypercritics have since toiled and quibbled overhim! how many philosophers have deeply meditatedhim! how many ponderous volumes have been writtenupon him? How many great actors have played him?How many nations have heard and read him? Surelythis mine, however deep and fruitful, must long sincehave yielded all its treasures.
If, indeed, the shadows of mighty names could subduethe inquiring spirit of this age to any degree offear or reverence, the Shakspeare student might nowbe content to receive, with implicit confidence, thecreed which has been written. But whilst the worksof Nature are daily undergoing new investigations, andreceiving new illustrations, it is fit that those workswhich of all human productions most resemble them—theworks of Shakspeare—should be subjected to asimilar scrutiny. And so they have been, and withresults worthy of the days of telegraphs and locomotives.A German critic, named Ulrici, has recentlymade a discovery which as far surpasses all formerShaksperian discoveries, as the voyage of Columbussurpassed the voyages of those navigators who beforehim had timorously hugged the shore.
A writer in the North British Review, for November,1849, explains the subject briefly thus:
“Ulrici’s most remarkable discovery is, that each ofShakspeare’s plays has for its foundation some moralidea or theme, which is reflected and echoed over andover again with endless variety and profit, in all thecharacters, expressions, and events of the piece. Thesubtle German critic would have produced more convertsto his doctrine had he illustrated it fully by theanalysis of some one play, instead of having merelysuggested its prevalence by means of a slight sketch ineach.”
The reviewer, then, observing that Ulrici’s viewshad been received in England with a “wide skepticism,”proceeds to prove them by analyzing the“Merchant of Venice.” He also, incidentally, mentionsthe theme of “Timon of Athens,” and of “Love’sLabor Lost.” Beyond this no hint is given as to the“ground-idea” (as it is termed) of any of the plays;and yet so palpable is Ulrici’s theory, that the writer ofthese pages, after having read the reviewer’s remarks,found no difficulty in applying it to any of the playswith which he was familiar, by simply revolving themin his mind. As any person tolerably read in Shakspearemay do the same, the “wide skepticism” abovereferred to must soon give way to universal conviction,accompanied by astonishment that the discoverywas not sooner made, and the frank admission thatShakspeare has been understood by Ulrici alone.
Our author has always been called the Poet of Nature;and the better he is understood, the better he isfound to deserve the title. The leading features of allmountains, of all lakes and rivers, of all mankind, arethe same; yet in the whole world there are no two ofeither precisely alike. The theme in each of Shakspeare’splays is one—pervading every part of it, andgiving tone and color to the whole. Yet how endlessthe variety of character, of action, of sentiment! Sostriking, indeed, is the diversity, that the unity has,for more than two hundred years, been strangely overlooked;so consummate is the art, that it has wholly“concealed the art.”
If we examine the play of Hamlet by the light ofUlrici’s torch, we shall find that its subject, like itsplot, is very comprehensive. Yet there is in it a“central idea,” to which all the various topics discussedare more or less intimately related. This ideamay be expressed by the single word DISCRETION—discretionin its most comprehensive sense, as signifying,“prudence, discernment and judgment, directedby circumspection.” I propose to show that withthis idea every incident, every character, every speech,I might almost venture to say, every sentiment of theplay is connected, by the relation either of resemblanceor of contrast.
It will be most convenient (on account of the intricacyof the play) to examine the several scenesand speeches, in connection with different aspects ofthe theme. I shall therefore employ the followingdivision:
I. Reserve; contrasted with which (1) Extravaganceof conduct and language; (2) Espionage; (3)Inquisitiveness; (4) Flattery.
The reader will readily perceive that all these qualitieshave an intimate relation with the quality of discretion,directly or by contrast, in its use or its abuse.As it is Shakspeare’s custom to pursue his subject intoall its collateral branches, there are doubtless manyother modifications of the theme of Hamlet, but theabove division will answer our present purpose.
In the second scene of Act First, the king and queenexpostulate with Hamlet on his immoderate grief forthe death of his father; reminding him that it is acommon occurrence, and urging him to “cast hisnighted color off.” In the next scene, Laertes, whois about to embark for France, makes a long speech toOphelia, recommending throughout reserve in her conducttoward Hamlet:
The chariest maid is prodigal enough,
If she unmask her beauty to the moon.
The admirable speech of Polonius to Laertes,which immediately follows, is composed of ponderousmaxims, all of the same import; as, for example,“Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;”“Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment;”“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” etc., etc.And the scene closes with a speech from Polonius toOphelia, in which he cautions her respecting Hamlet,telling her to be “somewhat scanter of her maidenpresence,” etc.
In the next scene (the fourth) occurs Hamlet’s speechto Horatio on drunkenness, which, it will be observed,in conformity with the theme, turns entirely upon theimprudence of the practice. In the fifth scene of thesame act, Hamlet, after his interview with the Ghost,baffles the curiosity of Horatio and Marcellus. Notcontent with keeping his own secret, and swearingthem not to reveal what they had seen, he makesthem further promise that if he should see fit “to putan antick disposition on,” they never will, “witharms encumbered thus, or this head-shake, or by pronouncingof some doubtful phrase, as Well, well, weknow; or, we could, and if we would; or, if welist to speak, or such ambiguous giving out,” intimatethat they “knew aught of him.” In the same scenethe Ghost says: “I could a tale unfold,” etc. “Butthat I am forbid to tell the secrets of my prison-house.”
In the first scene of the third act, Hamlet’s rudespeeches to Ophelia, “Get thee to a nunnery,” etc.,are mainly on the same subject; and the next followingscene contains the celebrated advice to the players,every word of which inculcates reserve or moderation;it teaches the same lesson as the speeches ofPolonius and Laertes, above referred to, though it isapplicable to very different circumstances. Hamlet’sspeech to Horatio, immediately after, is to the samepurpose:
“Blessed are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well co-mingled,
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she pleases; Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave,” etc.
In the same scene Rosencrantz and Guildenstern endeavorto find out Hamlet’s secret; but he baffles andrebukes them with the beautiful illustration of theflute:
Ham. Will you play upon this pipe?
Guild. My lord, I can not.
· · · · · · ·
Ham. Why look you, now, how unworthy a thing youmake of me. You would play upon me; you would seemto know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of mymystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to thetop of my compass; and there is much music, excellentvoice in this little organ; yet can not you make it speak.S’blood, do you think I am easier to be played on than apipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you canfret me, you cannot play upon me.
Such are a few of the chief passages in which thelesson of “reserve” is taught directly. The readerwill find many others, (maxims, illustrations and allusions,)in every scene; but I pass on to the notice ofsome instances in which the same lesson is taughtindirectly or by contrast. These passages mayproperly be arranged under several heads.
(1.) Extravagance of conduct and language.
Hamlet is for the most part, calm and self-possessed.But on the occasion of his first interview with theGhost, in the 4th scene of the first act he is transported(as, indeed, he well might be,) beyond all bounds ofmoderation: in the words of Horatio:
He waxes desperate with imagination.
His speech to Laertes at the grave of Ophelia is astill more remarkable example of extravagance:
Zounds, show me what thou’lt do;
Woul’t weep? woul’t fight? woul’t fast? woul’t tear thyself?
Woul’t drink up Esil? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I.
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us; till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt