Shakespearean Tragedy - Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth
by A. C. Bradley
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(3) Though this movement continues right up to the catastrophe, its effect does not disguise that much broader effect to which I have already alluded, and which we have now to study. In all the tragedies, though more clearly in some than in others, one side is distinctly felt to be on the whole advancing up to a certain point in the conflict, and then to be on the whole declining before the reaction of the other. There is therefore felt to be a critical point in the action, which proves also to be a turning point. It is critical sometimes in the sense that, until it is reached, the conflict is not, so to speak, clenched; one of the two sets of forces might subside, or a reconciliation might somehow be effected; while, as soon as it is reached, we feel this can no longer be. It is critical also because the advancing force has apparently asserted itself victoriously, gaining, if not all it could wish, still a very substantial advantage; whereas really it is on the point of turning downward towards its fall. This Crisis, as a rule, comes somewhere near the middle of the play; and where it is well marked it has the effect, as to construction, of dividing the play into five parts instead of three; these parts showing (1) a situation not yet one of conflict, (2) the rise and development of the conflict, in which A or B advances on the whole till it reaches (3) the Crisis, on which follows (4) the decline of A or B towards (5) the Catastrophe. And it will be seen that the fourth and fifth parts repeat, though with a reversal of direction as regards A or B, the movement of the second and third, working towards the catastrophe as the second and third worked towards the crisis.

In developing, illustrating and qualifying this statement, it will be best to begin with the tragedies in which the movement is most clear and simple. These are Julius Caesar and Macbeth. In the former the fortunes of the conspiracy rise with vicissitudes up to the crisis of the assassination (III. i.); they then sink with vicissitudes to the catastrophe, where Brutus and Cassius perish. In the latter, Macbeth, hurrying, in spite of much inward resistance, to the murder of Duncan, attains the crown, the upward movement being extraordinarily rapid, and the crisis arriving early: his cause then turns slowly downward, and soon hastens to ruin. In both these tragedies the simplicity of the constructional effect, it should be noticed, depends in part on the fact that the contending forces may quite naturally be identified with certain persons, and partly again on the fact that the defeat of one side is the victory of the other. Octavius and Antony, Malcolm and Macduff, are left standing over the bodies of their foes.

This is not so in Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, because here, although the hero perishes, the side opposed to him, being the more faulty or evil, cannot be allowed to triumph when he falls. Otherwise the type of construction is the same. The fortunes of Romeo and Juliet rise and culminate in their marriage (II. vi.), and then begin to decline before the opposition of their houses, which, aided by accidents, produces a catastrophe, but is thereupon converted into a remorseful reconciliation. Hamlet's cause reaches its zenith in the success of the play-scene (III. ii.). Thereafter the reaction makes way, and he perishes through the plot of the King and Laertes. But they are not allowed to survive their success.

The construction in the remaining Roman plays follows the same plan, but in both plays (as in Richard II. and Richard III.) it suffers from the intractable nature of the historical material, and is also influenced by other causes. In Coriolanus the hero reaches the topmost point of success when he is named consul (II. iii.), and the rest of the play shows his decline and fall; but in this decline he attains again for a time extraordinary power, and triumphs, in a sense, over his original adversary, though he succumbs to another. In Antony and Cleopatra the advance of the hero's cause depends on his freeing himself from the heroine, and he appears to have succeeded when he becomes reconciled to Octavius and marries Octavia (III. ii.); but he returns to Egypt and is gradually driven to his death, which involves that of the heroine.

There remain two of the greatest of the tragedies, and in both of them a certain difficulty will be felt. King Lear alone among these plays has a distinct double action. Besides this, it is impossible, I think, from the point of view of construction, to regard the hero as the leading figure. If we attempt to do so, we must either find the crisis in the First Act (for after it Lear's course is downward), and this is absurd; or else we must say that the usual movement is present but its direction is reversed, the hero's cause first sinking to the lowest point (in the Storm-scenes) and then rising again. But this also will not do; for though his fortunes may be said to rise again for a time, they rise only to fall once more to a catastrophe. The truth is, that after the First Act, which is really filled by the exposition, Lear suffers but hardly initiates action at all; and the right way to look at the matter, from the point of view of construction, is to regard Goneril, Regan and Edmund as the leading characters. It is they who, in the conflict, initiate action. Their fortune mounts to the crisis, where the old King is driven out into the storm and loses his reason, and where Gloster is blinded and expelled from his home (III. vi. and vii.). Then the counter-action begins to gather force, and their cause to decline; and, although they win the battle, they are involved in the catastrophe which they bring on Cordelia and Lear. Thus we may still find in King Lear the usual scheme of an ascending and a descending movement of one side in the conflict.

The case of Othello is more peculiar. In its whole constructional effect Othello differs from the other tragedies, and the cause of this difference is not hard to find, and will be mentioned presently. But how, after it is found, are we to define the principle of the construction? On the one hand the usual method seems to show itself. Othello's fortune certainly advances in the early part of the play, and it may be considered to reach its topmost point in the exquisite joy of his reunion with Desdemona in Cyprus; while soon afterwards it begins to turn, and then falls to the catastrophe. But the topmost point thus comes very early (II. i.), and, moreover, is but faintly marked; indeed, it is scarcely felt as a crisis at all. And, what is still more significant, though reached by conflict, it is not reached by conflict with the force which afterwards destroys it. Iago, in the early scenes, is indeed shown to cherish a design against Othello, but it is not Iago against whom he has at first to assert himself, but Brabantio; and Iago does not even begin to poison his mind until the third scene of the Third Act.

Can we then, on the other hand, following the precedent of King Lear, and remembering the probable chronological juxtaposition of the two plays, regard Iago as the leading figure from the point of view of construction? This might at first seem the right view; for it is the case that Othello resembles King Lear in having a hero more acted upon than acting, or rather a hero driven to act by being acted upon. But then, if Iago is taken as the leading figure, the usual mode of construction is plainly abandoned, for there will nowhere be a crisis followed by a descending movement. Iago's cause advances, at first slowly and quietly, then rapidly, but it does nothing but advance until the catastrophe swallows his dupe and him together. And this way of regarding the action does positive violence, I think, to our natural impressions of the earlier part of the play.

I think, therefore, that the usual scheme is so far followed that the drama represents first the rise of the hero, and then his fall. But, however this question may be decided, one striking peculiarity remains, and is the cause of the unique effect of Othello. In the first half of the play the main conflict is merely incubating; then it bursts into life, and goes storming, without intermission or change of direction, to its close. Now, in this peculiarity Othello is quite unlike the other tragedies; and in the consequent effect, which is that the second half of the drama is immeasurably more exciting than the first, it is approached only by Antony and Cleopatra. I shall therefore reserve it for separate consideration, though in proceeding to speak further of Shakespeare's treatment of the tragic conflict I shall have to mention some devices which are used in Othello as well as in the other tragedies.


Shakespeare's general plan, we have seen, is to show one set of forces advancing, in secret or open opposition to the other, to some decisive success, and then driven downward to defeat by the reaction it provokes. And the advantages of this plan, as seen in such a typical instance as Julius Caesar, are manifest. It conveys the movement of the conflict to the mind with great clearness and force. It helps to produce the impression that in his decline and fall the doer's act is returning on his own head. And, finally, as used by Shakespeare, it makes the first half of the play intensely interesting and dramatic. Action which effects a striking change in an existing situation is naturally watched with keen interest; and this we find in some of these tragedies. And the spectacle, which others exhibit, of a purpose forming itself and, in spite of outward obstacles and often of inward resistance, forcing its way onward to a happy consummation or a terrible deed, not only gives scope to that psychological subtlety in which Shakespeare is scarcely rivalled, but is also dramatic in the highest degree.

But when the crisis has been reached there come difficulties and dangers, which, if we put Shakespeare for the moment out of mind, are easily seen. An immediate and crushing counter-action would, no doubt, sustain the interest, but it would precipitate the catastrophe, and leave a feeling that there has been too long a preparation for a final effect so brief. What seems necessary is a momentary pause, followed by a counter-action which mounts at first slowly, and afterwards, as it gathers force, with quickening speed. And yet the result of this arrangement, it would seem, must be, for a time, a decided slackening of tension. Nor is this the only difficulty. The persons who represent the counter-action and now take the lead, are likely to be comparatively unfamiliar, and therefore unwelcome, to the audience; and, even if familiar, they are almost sure to be at first, if not permanently, less interesting than those who figured in the ascending movement, and on whom attention has been fixed. Possibly, too, their necessary prominence may crowd the hero into the back-ground. Hence the point of danger in this method of construction seems to lie in that section of the play which follows the crisis and has not yet approached the catastrophe. And this section will usually comprise the Fourth Act, together, in some cases, with a part of the Third and a part of the Fifth.

Shakespeare was so masterly a playwright, and had so wonderful a power of giving life to unpromising subjects, that to a large extent he was able to surmount this difficulty. But illustrations of it are easily to be found in his tragedies, and it is not always surmounted. In almost all of them we are conscious of that momentary pause in the action, though, as we shall see, it does not generally occur immediately after the crisis. Sometimes he allows himself to be driven to keep the hero off the stage for a long time while the counter-action is rising; Macbeth, Hamlet and Coriolanus during about 450 lines, Lear for nearly 500, Romeo for about 550 (it matters less here, because Juliet is quite as important as Romeo). How can a drama in which this happens compete, in its latter part, with Othello? And again, how can deliberations between Octavius, Antony and Lepidus, between Malcolm and Macduff, between the Capulets, between Laertes and the King, keep us at the pitch, I do not say of the crisis, but even of the action which led up to it? Good critics—writers who have criticised Shakespeare's dramas from within, instead of applying to them some standard ready-made by themselves or derived from dramas and a theatre of quite other kinds than his—have held that some of his greatest tragedies fall off in the Fourth Act, and that one or two never wholly recover themselves. And I believe most readers would find, if they examined their impressions, that to their minds Julius Caesar, Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth have all a tendency to 'drag' in this section of the play, and that the first and perhaps also the last of these four fail even in the catastrophe to reach the height of the greatest scenes that have preceded the Fourth Act. I will not ask how far these impressions are justified. The difficulties in question will become clearer and will gain in interest if we look rather at the means which have been employed to meet them, and which certainly have in part, at least, overcome them.

(a) The first of these is always strikingly effective, sometimes marvellously so. The crisis in which the ascending force reaches its zenith is followed quickly, or even without the slightest pause, by a reverse or counter-blow not less emphatic and in some cases even more exciting. And the effect is to make us feel a sudden and tragic change in the direction of the movement, which, after ascending more or less gradually, now turns sharply downward. To the assassination of Caesar (III. i.) succeeds the scene in the Forum (III. ii.), where Antony carries the people away in a storm of sympathy with the dead man and of fury against the conspirators. We have hardly realised their victory before we are forced to anticipate their ultimate defeat and to take the liveliest interest in their chief antagonist. In Hamlet the thrilling success of the play-scene (III. ii.) is met and undone at once by the counter-stroke of Hamlet's failure to take vengeance (III. iii.) and his misfortune in killing Polonius (III. iv.). Coriolanus has no sooner gained the consulship than he is excited to frenzy by the tribunes and driven into exile. On the marriage of Romeo follows immediately the brawl which leads to Mercutio's death and the banishment of the hero (II. vi. and III. i.). In all of these instances excepting that of Hamlet the scene of the counter-stroke is at least as exciting as that of the crisis, perhaps more so. Most people, if asked to mention the scene that occupies the centre of the action in Julius Caesar and in Coriolanus, would mention the scenes of Antony's speech and Coriolanus' banishment. Thus that apparently necessary pause in the action does not, in any of these dramas, come directly after the crisis. It is deferred; and in several cases it is by various devices deferred for some little time; e.g. in Romeo and Juliet till the hero has left Verona, and Juliet is told that her marriage with Paris is to take place 'next Thursday morn' (end of Act III.); in Macbeth till the murder of Duncan has been followed by that of Banquo, and this by the banquet-scene. Hence the point where this pause occurs is very rarely reached before the end of the Third Act.

(b) Either at this point, or in the scene of the counter-stroke which precedes it, we sometimes find a peculiar effect. We are reminded of the state of affairs in which the conflict began. The opening of Julius Caesar warned us that, among a people so unstable and so easily led this way or that, the enterprise of Brutus is hopeless; the days of the Republic are done. In the scene of Antony's speech we see this same people again. At the beginning of Antony and Cleopatra the hero is about to leave Cleopatra for Rome. Where the play takes, as it were, a fresh start after the crisis, he leaves Octavia for Egypt. In Hamlet, when the counter-stroke succeeds to the crisis, the Ghost, who had appeared in the opening scenes, reappears. Macbeth's action in the first part of the tragedy followed on the prediction of the Witches who promised him the throne. When the action moves forward again after the banquet-scene the Witches appear once more, and make those fresh promises which again drive him forward. This repetition of a first effect produces a fateful feeling. It generally also stimulates expectation as to the new movement about to begin. In Macbeth the scene is, in addition, of the greatest consequence from the purely theatrical point of view.

(c) It has yet another function. It shows, in Macbeth's furious irritability and purposeless savagery, the internal reaction which accompanies the outward decline of his fortunes. And in other plays also the exhibition of such inner changes forms a means by which interest is sustained in this difficult section of a tragedy. There is no point in Hamlet where we feel more hopeless than that where the hero, having missed his chance, moralises over his irresolution and determines to cherish now only thoughts of blood, and then departs without an effort for England. One purpose, again, of the quarrel-scene between Brutus and Cassius (IV. iii), as also of the appearance of Caesar's ghost just afterwards, is to indicate the inward changes. Otherwise the introduction of this famous and wonderful scene can hardly be defended on strictly dramatic grounds. No one would consent to part with it, and it is invaluable in sustaining interest during the progress of the reaction, but it is an episode, the removal of which would not affect the actual sequence of events (unless we may hold that, but for the emotion caused by the quarrel and reconciliation, Cassius would not have allowed Brutus to overcome his objection to the fatal policy of offering battle at Philippi).

(d) The quarrel-scene illustrates yet another favourite expedient. In this section of a tragedy Shakespeare often appeals to an emotion different from any of those excited in the first half of the play, and so provides novelty and generally also relief. As a rule this new emotion is pathetic; and the pathos is not terrible or lacerating, but, even if painful, is accompanied by the sense of beauty and by an outflow of admiration or affection, which come with an inexpressible sweetness after the tension of the crisis and the first counter-stroke. So it is with the reconciliation of Brutus and Cassius, and the arrival of the news of Portia's death. The most famous instance of this effect is the scene (IV. vii.) where Lear wakes from sleep and finds Cordelia bending over him, perhaps the most tear-compelling passage in literature. Another is the short scene (IV. ii.) in which the talk of Lady Macduff and her little boy is interrupted by the entrance of the murderers, a passage of touching beauty and heroism. Another is the introduction of Ophelia in her madness (twice in different parts of IV. v.), where the effect, though intensely pathetic, is beautiful and moving rather than harrowing; and this effect is repeated in a softer tone in the description of Ophelia's death (end of Act IV.). And in Othello the passage where pathos of this kind reaches its height is certainly that where Desdemona and Emilia converse, and the willow-song is sung, on the eve of the catastrophe (IV. iii.).

(e) Sometimes, again, in this section of a tragedy we find humorous or semi-humorous passages. On the whole such passages occur most frequently in the early or middle part of the play, which naturally grows more sombre as it nears the close; but their occasional introduction in the Fourth Act, and even later, affords variety and relief, and also heightens by contrast the tragic feelings. For example, there is a touch of comedy in the conversation of Lady Macduff with her little boy. Purely and delightfully humorous are the talk and behaviour of the servants in that admirable scene where Coriolanus comes disguised in mean apparel to the house of Aufidius (IV. v.); of a more mingled kind is the effect of the discussion between Menenius and the sentinels in V. ii.; and in the very middle of the supreme scene between the hero, Volumnia and Virgilia, little Marcius makes us burst out laughing (V. iii.) A little before the catastrophe in Hamlet comes the grave-digger passage, a passage ever welcome, but of a length which could hardly be defended on purely dramatic grounds; and still later, occupying some hundred and twenty lines of the very last scene, we have the chatter of Osric with Hamlet's mockery of it. But the acme of audacity is reached in Antony and Cleopatra, where, quite close to the end, the old countryman who brings the asps to Cleopatra discourses on the virtues and vices of the worm, and where his last words, 'Yes, forsooth: I wish you joy o' the worm,' are followed, without the intervention of a line, by the glorious speech,

Give me my robe; put on my crown; I have Immortal longings in me....

In some of the instances of pathos or humour just mentioned we have been brought to that part of the play which immediately precedes, or even contains, the catastrophe. And I will add at once three remarks which refer specially to this final section of a tragedy.

(f) In several plays Shakespeare makes here an appeal which in his own time was evidently powerful: he introduces scenes of battle. This is the case in Richard III., Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Richard, Brutus and Cassius, and Macbeth die on the battlefield. Even if his use of this expedient were not enough to show that battle-scenes were extremely popular in the Elizabethan theatre, we know it from other sources. It is a curious comment on the futility of our spectacular effects that in our theatre these scenes, in which we strive after an 'illusion' of which the Elizabethans never dreamt, produce comparatively little excitement, and to many spectators are even somewhat distasteful.[22] And although some of them thrill the imagination of the reader, they rarely, I think, quite satisfy the dramatic sense. Perhaps this is partly because a battle is not the most favourable place for the exhibition of tragic character; and it is worth notice that Brutus, Cassius and Antony do not die fighting, but commit suicide after defeat. The actual battle, however, does make us feel the greatness of Antony, and still more does it help us to regard Richard and Macbeth in their day of doom as heroes, and to mingle sympathy and enthusiastic admiration with desire for their defeat.

(g) In some of the tragedies, again, an expedient is used, which Freytag has pointed out (though he sometimes finds it, I think, where it is not really employed). Shakespeare very rarely makes the least attempt to surprise by his catastrophes. They are felt to be inevitable, though the precise way in which they will be brought about is not, of course, foreseen. Occasionally, however, where we dread the catastrophe because we love the hero, a moment occurs, just before it, in which a gleam of false hope lights up the darkening scene; and, though we know it is false, it affects us. Far the most remarkable example is to be found in the final Act of King Lear. Here the victory of Edgar and the deaths of Edmund and the two sisters have almost made us forget the design on the lives of Lear and Cordelia. Even when we are reminded of it there is still room for hope that Edgar, who rushes away to the prison, will be in time to save them; and, however familiar we are with the play, the sudden entrance of Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms, comes on us with a shock. Much slighter, but quite perceptible, is the effect of Antony's victory on land, and of the last outburst of pride and joy as he and Cleopatra meet (IV. viii.). The frank apology of Hamlet to Laertes, their reconciliation, and a delusive appearance of quiet and even confident firmness in the tone of the hero's conversation with Horatio, almost blind us to our better knowledge, and give to the catastrophe an added pain. Those in the audience who are ignorant of Macbeth, and who take more simply than most readers now can do the mysterious prophecies concerning Birnam Wood and the man not born of woman, feel, I imagine, just before the catastrophe, a false fear that the hero may yet escape.

(h) I will mention only one point more. In some cases Shakespeare spreads the catastrophe out, so to speak, over a considerable space, and thus shortens that difficult section which has to show the development of the counter-action. This is possible only where there is, besides the hero, some character who engages our interest in the highest degree, and with whose fate his own is bound up. Thus the murder of Desdemona is separated by some distance from the death of Othello. The most impressive scene in Macbeth, after that of Duncan's murder, is the sleep-walking scene; and it may truly, if not literally, be said to show the catastrophe of Lady Macbeth. Yet it is the opening scene of the Fifth Act, and a number of scenes in which Macbeth's fate is still approaching intervene before the close. Finally, in Antony and Cleopatra the heroine equals the hero in importance, and here the death of Antony actually occurs in the Fourth Act, and the whole of the Fifth is devoted to Cleopatra.

* * * * *

Let us now turn to Othello and consider briefly its exceptional scheme of construction. The advantage of this scheme is obvious. In the second half of the tragedy there is no danger of 'dragging,' of any awkward pause, any undue lowering of pitch, any need of scenes which, however fine, are more or less episodic. The tension is extreme, and it is relaxed only for brief intervals to permit of some slight relief. From the moment when Iago begins to poison Othello's mind we hold our breath. Othello from this point onwards is certainly the most exciting of Shakespeare's plays, unless possibly Macbeth in its first part may be held to rival it. And Othello is such a masterpiece that we are scarcely conscious of any disadvantage attending its method of construction, and may even wonder why Shakespeare employed this method—at any rate in its purity—in this tragedy alone. Nor is it any answer to say that it would not elsewhere have suited his material. Even if this be granted, how was it that he only once chose a story to which this method was appropriate? To his eyes, or for his instinct, there must have been some disadvantage in it. And dangers in it are in fact not hard to see.

In the first place, where the conflict develops very slowly, or, as in Othello, remains in a state of incubation during the first part of a tragedy, that part cannot produce the tension proper to the corresponding part of a tragedy like Macbeth, and may even run the risk of being somewhat flat. This seems obvious, and it is none the less true because in Othello the difficulty is overcome. We may even see that in Othello a difficulty was felt. The First Act is full of stir, but it is so because Shakespeare has filled it with a kind of preliminary conflict between the hero and Brabantio,—a personage who then vanishes from the stage. The long first scene of the Second Act is largely occupied with mere conversations, artfully drawn out to dimensions which can scarcely be considered essential to the plot. These expedients are fully justified by their success, and nothing more consummate in their way is to be found in Shakespeare than Othello's speech to the Senate and Iago's two talks with Roderigo. But the fact that Shakespeare can make a plan succeed does not show that the plan is, abstractedly considered, a good plan; and if the scheme of construction in Othello were placed, in the shape of a mere outline, before a play-wright ignorant of the actual drama, he would certainly, I believe, feel grave misgivings about the first half of the play.

There is a second difficulty in the scheme. When the middle of the tragedy is reached, the audience is not what it was at the beginning. It has been attending for some time, and has been through a certain amount of agitation. The extreme tension which now arises may therefore easily tire and displease it, all the more if the matter which produces the tension is very painful, if the catastrophe is not less so, and if the limits of the remainder of the play (not to speak of any other consideration) permit of very little relief. It is one thing to watch the scene of Duncan's assassination at the beginning of the Second Act, and another thing to watch the murder of Desdemona at the beginning of the Fifth. If Shakespeare has wholly avoided this difficulty in Othello, it is by treating the first part of the play in such a manner that the sympathies excited are predominantly pleasant and therefore not exhausting. The scene in the Council Chamber, and the scene of the reunion at Cyprus, give almost unmixed happiness to the audience; however repulsive Iago may be, the humour of his gulling of Roderigo is agreeable; even the scene of Cassio's intoxication is not, on the whole, painful. Hence we come to the great temptation-scene, where the conflict emerges into life (III. iii.), with nerves unshaken and feelings much fresher than those with which we greet the banquet-scene in Macbeth (III. iv.), or the first of the storm-scenes in King Lear (III. i.). The same skill may be observed in Antony and Cleopatra, where, as we saw, the second half of the tragedy is the more exciting. But, again, the success due to Shakespeare's skill does not show that the scheme of construction is free from a characteristic danger; and on the whole it would appear to be best fitted for a plot which, though it may cause painful agitation as it nears the end, actually ends with a solution instead of a catastrophe.

But for Shakespeare's scanty use of this method there may have been a deeper, though probably an unconscious, reason. The method suits a plot based on intrigue. It may produce intense suspense. It may stir most powerfully the tragic feelings of pity and fear. And it throws into relief that aspect of tragedy in which great or beautiful lives seem caught in the net of fate. But it is apt to be less favourable to the exhibition of character, to show less clearly how an act returns upon the agent, and to produce less strongly the impression of an inexorable order working in the passions and actions of men, and labouring through their agony and waste towards good. Now, it seems clear from his tragedies that what appealed most to Shakespeare was this latter class of effects. I do not ask here whether Othello fails to produce, in the same degree as the other tragedies, these impressions; but Shakespeare's preference for them may have been one reason why he habitually chose a scheme of construction which produces in the final Acts but little of strained suspense, and presents the catastrophe as a thing foreseen and following with a psychological and moral necessity on the action exhibited in the first part of the tragedy.


The more minute details of construction cannot well be examined here, and I will not pursue the subject further. But its discussion suggests a question which will have occurred to some of my hearers. They may have asked themselves whether I have not used the words 'art' and 'device' and 'expedient' and 'method' too boldly, as though Shakespeare were a conscious artist, and not rather a writer who constructed in obedience to an extraordinary dramatic instinct, as he composed mainly by inspiration. And a brief explanation on this head will enable me to allude to a few more points, chiefly of construction, which are not too technical for a lecture.

In speaking, for convenience, of devices and expedients, I did not intend to imply that Shakespeare always deliberately aimed at the effects which he produced. But no artist always does this, and I see no reason to doubt that Shakespeare often did it, or to suppose that his method of constructing and composing differed, except in degree, from that of the most 'conscious' of artists. The antithesis of art and inspiration, though not meaningless, is often most misleading. Inspiration is surely not incompatible with considerate workmanship. The two may be severed, but they need not be so, and where a genuinely poetic result is being produced they cannot be so. The glow of a first conception must in some measure survive or rekindle itself in the work of planning and executing; and what is called a technical expedient may 'come' to a man with as sudden a glory as a splendid image. Verse may be easy and unpremeditated, as Milton says his was, and yet many a word in it may be changed many a time, and the last change be more 'inspired' than the original. The difference between poets in these matters is no doubt considerable, and sometimes important, but it can only be a difference of less and more. It is probable that Shakespeare often wrote fluently, for Jonson (a better authority than Heminge and Condell) says so; and for anything we can tell he may also have constructed with unusual readiness. But we know that he revised and re-wrote (for instance in Love's Labour's Lost and Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet); it is almost impossible that he can have worked out the plots of his best plays without much reflection and many experiments; and it appears to me scarcely more possible to mistake the signs of deliberate care in some of his famous speeches. If a 'conscious artist' means one who holds his work away from him, scrutinises and judges it, and, if need be, alters it and alters it till it comes as near satisfying him as he can make it, I am sure that Shakespeare frequently employed such conscious art. If it means, again, an artist who consciously aims at the effects he produces, what ground have we for doubting that he frequently employed such art, though probably less frequently than a good many other poets?

But perhaps the notion of a 'conscious artist' in drama is that of one who studies the theory of the art, and even writes with an eye to its 'rules.' And we know it was long a favourite idea that Shakespeare was totally ignorant of the 'rules.' Yet this is quite incredible. The rules referred to, such as they were, were not buried in Aristotle's Greek nor even hidden away in Italian treatises. He could find pretty well all of them in a book so current and famous as Sidney's Defence of Poetry. Even if we suppose that he refused to open this book (which is most unlikely), how could he possibly remain ignorant of the rules in a society of actors and dramatists and amateurs who must have been incessantly talking about plays and play-writing, and some of whom were ardent champions of the rules and full of contempt for the lawlessness of the popular drama? Who can doubt that at the Mermaid Shakespeare heard from Jonson's lips much more censure of his offences against 'art' than Jonson ever confided to Drummond or to paper? And is it not most probable that those battles between the two which Fuller imagines, were waged often on the field of dramatic criticism? If Shakespeare, then, broke some of the 'rules,' it was not from ignorance. Probably he refused, on grounds of art itself, to trouble himself with rules derived from forms of drama long extinct. And it is not unlikely that he was little interested in theory as such, and more than likely that he was impatient of pedantic distinctions between 'pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited.' But that would not prove that he never reflected on his art, or could not explain, if he cared to, what he thought would be good general rules for the drama of his own time. He could give advice about play-acting. Why should we suppose that he could not give advice about play-making?

Still Shakespeare, though in some considerable degree a 'conscious' artist, frequently sins against art; and if his sins were not due to ignorance or inspiration, they must be accounted for otherwise. Neither can there be much doubt about their causes (for they have more than one cause), as we shall see if we take some illustrations of the defects themselves.

Among these are not to be reckoned certain things which in dramas written at the present time would rightly be counted defects. There are, for example, in most Elizabethan plays peculiarities of construction which would injure a play written for our stage but were perfectly well-fitted for that very different stage,—a stage on which again some of the best-constructed plays of our time would appear absurdly faulty. Or take the charge of improbability. Shakespeare certainly has improbabilities which are defects. They are most frequent in the winding up of his comedies (and how many comedies are there in the world which end satisfactorily?). But his improbabilities are rarely psychological, and in some of his plays there occurs one kind of improbability which is no defect, but simply a characteristic which has lost in our day much of its former attraction. I mean that the story, in most of the comedies and many of the tragedies of the Elizabethans, was intended to be strange and wonderful. These plays were tales of romance dramatised, and they were meant in part to satisfy the same love of wonder to which the romances appealed. It is no defect in the Arthurian legends, or the old French romances, or many of the stories in the Decameron, that they are improbable: it is a virtue. To criticise them as though they were of the same species as a realistic novel, is, we should all say, merely stupid. Is it anything else to criticise in the same way Twelfth Night or As You Like It? And so, even when the difference between comedy and tragedy is allowed for, the improbability of the opening of King Lear, so often censured, is no defect. It is not out of character, it is only extremely unusual and strange. But it was meant to be so; like the marriage of the black Othello with Desdemona, the Venetian senator's daughter.

To come then to real defects, (a) one may be found in places where Shakespeare strings together a number of scenes, some very short, in which the dramatis personae are frequently changed; as though a novelist were to tell his story in a succession of short chapters, in which he flitted from one group of his characters to another. This method shows itself here and there in the pure tragedies (e.g. in the last Act of Macbeth), but it appears most decidedly where the historical material was undramatic, as in the middle part of Antony and Cleopatra. It was made possible by the absence of scenery, and doubtless Shakespeare used it because it was the easiest way out of a difficulty. But, considered abstractedly, it is a defective method, and, even as used by Shakespeare, it sometimes reminds us of the merely narrative arrangement common in plays before his time.

(b) We may take next the introduction or excessive development of matter neither required by the plot nor essential to the exhibition of character: e.g. the references in Hamlet to theatre-quarrels of the day, and the length of the player's speech and also of Hamlet's directions to him respecting the delivery of the lines to be inserted in the 'Murder of Gonzago.' All this was probably of great interest at the time when Hamlet was first presented; most of it we should be very sorry to miss; some of it seems to bring us close to Shakespeare himself; but who can defend it from the point of view of constructive art?

(c) Again, we may look at Shakespeare's soliloquies. It will be agreed that in listening to a soliloquy we ought never to feel that we are being addressed. And in this respect, as in others, many of the soliloquies are master-pieces. But certainly in some the purpose of giving information lies bare, and in one or two the actor openly speaks to the audience. Such faults are found chiefly in the early plays, though there is a glaring instance at the end of Belarius's speech in Cymbeline (III. iii. 99 ff.), and even in the mature tragedies something of this kind may be traced. Let anyone compare, for example, Edmund's soliloquy in King Lear, I. ii., 'This is the excellent foppery of the world,' with Edgar's in II. iii., and he will be conscious that in the latter the purpose of giving information is imperfectly disguised.[23]

(d) It cannot be denied, further, that in many of Shakespeare's plays, if not in all, there are inconsistencies and contradictions, and also that questions are suggested to the reader which it is impossible for him to answer with certainty. For instance, some of the indications of the lapse of time between Othello's marriage and the events of the later Acts flatly contradict one another; and it is impossible to make out whether Hamlet was at Court or at the University when his father was murdered. But it should be noticed that often what seems a defect of this latter kind is not really a defect. For instance, the difficulty about Hamlet's age (even if it cannot be resolved by the text alone) did not exist for Shakespeare's audience. The moment Burbage entered it must have been clear whether the hero was twenty or thirty. And in like manner many questions of dramatic interpretation which trouble us could never have arisen when the plays were first produced, for the actor would be instructed by the author how to render any critical and possibly ambiguous passage. (I have heard it remarked, and the remark I believe is just, that Shakespeare seems to have relied on such instructions less than most of his contemporaries; one fact out of several which might be adduced to prove that he did not regard his plays as mere stage-dramas of the moment.)

(e) To turn to another field, the early critics were no doubt often provokingly wrong when they censured the language of particular passages in Shakespeare as obscure, inflated, tasteless, or 'pestered with metaphors'; but they were surely right in the general statement that his language often shows these faults. And this is a subject which later criticism has never fairly faced and examined.

(f) Once more, to say that Shakespeare makes all his serious characters talk alike,[24] and that he constantly speaks through the mouths of his dramatis personae without regard to their individual natures, would be to exaggerate absurdly; but it is true that in his earlier plays these faults are traceable in some degree, and even in Hamlet there are striking passages where dramatic appropriateness is sacrificed to some other object. When Laertes speaks the lines beginning,

For nature, crescent, does not grow alone In thews and bulk,

who can help feeling that Shakespeare is speaking rather than Laertes? Or when the player-king discourses for more than twenty lines on the instability of human purpose, and when King Claudius afterwards insists to Laertes on the same subject at almost equal length, who does not see that Shakespeare, thinking but little of dramatic fitness, wishes in part simply to write poetry, and partly to impress on the audience thoughts which will help them to understand, not the player-king nor yet King Claudius, but Hamlet himself, who, on his side,—and here quite in character—has already enlarged on the same topic in the most famous of his soliloquies?

(g) Lastly, like nearly all the dramatists of his day and of times much earlier, Shakespeare was fond of 'gnomic' passages, and introduces them probably not more freely than his readers like, but more freely than, I suppose, a good play-wright now would care to do. These passages, it may be observed, are frequently rhymed (e.g. Othello, I. iii. 201 ff., II. i. 149 ff.). Sometimes they were printed in early editions with inverted commas round them, as are in the First Quarto Polonius's 'few precepts' to Laertes.

If now we ask whence defects like these arose, we shall observe that some of them are shared by the majority of Shakespeare's contemporaries, and abound in the dramas immediately preceding his time. They are characteristics of an art still undeveloped, and, no doubt, were not perceived to be defects. But though it is quite probable that in regard to one or two kinds of imperfection (such as the superabundance of 'gnomic' passages) Shakespeare himself erred thus ignorantly, it is very unlikely that in most cases he did so, unless in the first years of his career of authorship. And certainly he never can have thought it artistic to leave inconsistencies, obscurities, or passages of bombast in his work. Most of the defects in his writings must be due to indifference or want of care.

I do not say that all were so. In regard, for example, to his occasional bombast and other errors of diction, it seems hardly doubtful that his perception was sometimes at fault, and that, though he used the English language like no one else, he had not that sureness of taste in words which has been shown by some much smaller writers. And it seems not unlikely that here he suffered from his comparative want of 'learning,'—that is, of familiarity with the great writers of antiquity. But nine-tenths of his defects are not, I believe, the errors of an inspired genius, ignorant of art, but the sins of a great but negligent artist. He was often, no doubt, over-worked and pressed for time. He knew that the immense majority of his audience were incapable of distinguishing between rough and finished work. He often felt the degradation of having to live by pleasing them. Probably in hours of depression he was quite indifferent to fame, and perhaps in another mood the whole business of play-writing seemed to him a little thing. None of these thoughts and feelings influenced him when his subject had caught hold of him. To imagine that then he 'winged his roving flight' for 'gain' or 'glory,' or wrote from any cause on earth but the necessity of expression, with all its pains and raptures, is mere folly. He was possessed: his mind must have been in a white heat: he worked, no doubt, with the furia of Michael Angelo. And if he did not succeed at once—and how can even he have always done so?—he returned to the matter again and again. Such things as the scenes of Duncan's murder or Othello's temptation, such speeches as those of the Duke to Claudio and of Claudio to his sister about death, were not composed in an hour and tossed aside; and if they have defects, they have not what Shakespeare thought defects. Nor is it possible that his astonishingly individual conceptions of character can have been struck out at a heat: prolonged and repeated thought must have gone to them. But of small inconsistencies in the plot he was often quite careless. He seems to have finished off some of his comedies with a hasty and even contemptuous indifference, as if it mattered nothing how the people got married, or even who married whom, so long as enough were married somehow. And often, when he came to parts of his scheme that were necessary but not interesting to him, he wrote with a slack hand, like a craftsman of genius who knows that his natural gift and acquired skill will turn out something more than good enough for his audience: wrote probably fluently but certainly negligently, sometimes only half saying what he meant, and sometimes saying the opposite, and now and then, when passion was required, lapsing into bombast because he knew he must heighten his style but would not take the trouble to inflame his imagination. It may truly be said that what injures such passages is not inspiration, but the want of it. But, as they are mostly passages where no poet could expect to be inspired, it is even more true to say that here Shakespeare lacked the conscience of the artist who is determined to make everything as good as he can. Such poets as Milton, Pope, Tennyson, habitually show this conscience. They left probably scarcely anything that they felt they could improve. No one could dream of saying that of Shakespeare.

Hence comes what is perhaps the chief difficulty in interpreting his works. Where his power or art is fully exerted it really does resemble that of nature. It organises and vitalises its product from the centre outward to the minutest markings on the surface, so that when you turn upon it the most searching light you can command, when you dissect it and apply to it the test of a microscope, still you find in it nothing formless, general or vague, but everywhere structure, character, individuality. In this his great things, which seem to come whenever they are wanted, have no companions in literature except the few greatest things in Dante; and it is a fatal error to allow his carelessness elsewhere to make one doubt whether here one is not seeking more than can be found. It is very possible to look for subtlety in the wrong places in Shakespeare, but in the right places it is not possible to find too much. But then this characteristic, which is one source of his endless attraction, is also a source of perplexity. For in those parts of his plays which show him neither in his most intense nor in his most negligent mood, we are often unable to decide whether something that seems inconsistent, indistinct, feeble, exaggerated, is really so, or whether it was definitely meant to be as it is, and has an intention which we ought to be able to divine; whether, for example, we have before us some unusual trait in character, some abnormal movement of mind, only surprising to us because we understand so very much less of human nature than Shakespeare did, or whether he wanted to get his work done and made a slip, or in using an old play adopted hastily something that would not square with his own conception, or even refused to trouble himself with minutiae which we notice only because we study him, but which nobody ever notices in a stage performance. We know well enough what Shakespeare is doing when at the end of Measure for Measure he marries Isabella to the Duke—and a scandalous proceeding it is; but who can ever feel sure that the doubts which vex him as to some not unimportant points in Hamlet are due to his own want of eyesight or to Shakespeare's want of care?


[Footnote 16: The famous critics of the Romantic Revival seem to have paid very little attention to this subject. Mr. R.G. Moulton has written an interesting book on Shakespeare as a Dramatic Artist (1885). In parts of my analysis I am much indebted to Gustav Freytag's Technik des Dramas, a book which deserves to be much better known than it appears to be to Englishmen interested in the drama. I may add, for the benefit of classical scholars, that Freytag has a chapter on Sophocles. The reader of his book will easily distinguish, if he cares to, the places where I follow Freytag, those where I differ from him, and those where I write in independence of him. I may add that in speaking of construction I have thought it best to assume in my hearers no previous knowledge of the subject; that I have not attempted to discuss how much of what is said of Shakespeare would apply also to other dramatists; and that I have illustrated from the tragedies generally, not only from the chosen four.]

[Footnote 17: This word throughout the lecture bears the sense it has here, which, of course, is not its usual dramatic sense.]

[Footnote 18: In the same way a comedy will consist of three parts, showing the 'situation,' the 'complication' or 'entanglement,' and the denouement or 'solution.']

[Footnote 19: It is possible, of course, to open the tragedy with the conflict already begun, but Shakespeare never does so.]

[Footnote 20: When the subject comes from English history, and especially when the play forms one of a series, some knowledge may be assumed. So in Richard III. Even in Richard II. not a little knowledge seems to be assumed, and this fact points to the existence of a popular play on the earlier part of Richard's reign. Such a play exists, though it is not clear that it is a genuine Elizabethan work. See the Jahrbuch d. deutschen Sh.-gesellschaft for 1899.]

[Footnote 21: This is one of several reasons why many people enjoy reading him, who, on the whole, dislike reading plays. A main cause of this very general dislike is that the reader has not a lively enough imagination to carry him with pleasure through the exposition, though in the theatre, where his imagination is helped, he would experience little difficulty.]

[Footnote 22: The end of Richard III. is perhaps an exception.]

[Footnote 23: I do not discuss the general question of the justification of soliloquy, for it concerns not Shakespeare only, but practically all dramatists down to quite recent times. I will only remark that neither soliloquy nor the use of verse can be condemned on the mere ground that they are 'unnatural.' No dramatic language is 'natural'; all dramatic language is idealised. So that the question as to soliloquy must be one as to the degree of idealisation and the balance of advantages and disadvantages. (Since this lecture was written I have read some remarks on Shakespeare's soliloquies to much the same effect by E. Kilian in the Jahrbuch d. deutschen Shakespeare-Gesellschaft for 1903.)]

[Footnote 24: If by this we mean that these characters all speak what is recognisably Shakespeare's style, of course it is true; but it is no accusation. Nor does it follow that they all speak alike; and in fact they are far from doing so.]




Before we come to-day to Hamlet, the first of our four tragedies, a few remarks must be made on their probable place in Shakespeare's literary career. But I shall say no more than seems necessary for our restricted purpose, and, therefore, for the most part shall merely be stating widely accepted results of investigation, without going into the evidence on which they rest.[25]

Shakespeare's tragedies fall into two distinct groups, and these groups are separated by a considerable interval. He wrote tragedy—pure, like Romeo and Juliet; historical, like Richard III.—in the early years of his career of authorship, when he was also writing such comedies as Love's Labour's Lost and the Midsummer-Night's Dream. Then came a time, lasting some half-dozen years, during which he composed the most mature and humorous of his English History plays (the plays with Falstaff in them), and the best of his romantic comedies (the plays with Beatrice and Jaques and Viola in them). There are no tragedies belonging to these half-dozen years, nor any dramas approaching tragedy. But now, from about 1601 to about 1608, comes tragedy after tragedy—Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Timon of Athens, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus; and their companions are plays which cannot indeed be called tragedies, but certainly are not comedies in the same sense as As You Like It or the Tempest. These seven years, accordingly, might, without much risk of misunderstanding, be called Shakespeare's tragic period.[26] And after it he wrote no more tragedies, but chiefly romances more serious and less sunny than As You Like It, but not much less serene.

The existence of this distinct tragic period, of a time when the dramatist seems to have been occupied almost exclusively with deep and painful problems, has naturally helped to suggest the idea that the 'man' also, in these years of middle age, from thirty-seven to forty-four, was heavily burdened in spirit; that Shakespeare turned to tragedy not merely for change, or because he felt it to be the greatest form of drama and felt himself equal to it, but also because the world had come to look dark and terrible to him; and even that the railings of Thersites and the maledictions of Timon express his own contempt and hatred for mankind. Discussion of this large and difficult subject, however, is not necessary to the dramatic appreciation of any of his works, and I shall say nothing of it here, but shall pass on at once to draw attention to certain stages and changes which may be observed within the tragic period. For this purpose too it is needless to raise any question as to the respective chronological positions of Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. What is important is also generally admitted: that Julius Caesar and Hamlet precede these plays, and that Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus follow them.[27]

If we consider the tragedies first on the side of their substance, we find at once an obvious difference between the first two and the remainder. Both Brutus and Hamlet are highly intellectual by nature and reflective by habit. Both may even be called, in a popular sense, philosophic; Brutus may be called so in a stricter sense. Each, being also a 'good' man, shows accordingly, when placed in critical circumstances, a sensitive and almost painful anxiety to do right. And though they fail—of course in quite different ways—to deal successfully with these circumstances, the failure in each case is connected rather with their intellectual nature and reflective habit than with any yielding to passion. Hence the name 'tragedy of thought,' which Schlegel gave to Hamlet, may be given also, as in effect it has been by Professor Dowden, to Julius Caesar. The later heroes, on the other hand, Othello, Lear, Timon, Macbeth, Antony, Coriolanus, have, one and all, passionate natures, and, speaking roughly, we may attribute the tragic failure in each of these cases to passion. Partly for this reason, the later plays are wilder and stormier than the first two. We see a greater mass of human nature in commotion, and we see Shakespeare's own powers exhibited on a larger scale. Finally, examination would show that, in all these respects, the first tragedy, Julius Caesar, is further removed from the later type than is the second, Hamlet.

These two earlier works are both distinguished from most of the succeeding tragedies in another though a kindred respect. Moral evil is not so intently scrutinised or so fully displayed in them. In Julius Caesar, we may almost say, everybody means well. In Hamlet, though we have a villain, he is a small one. The murder which gives rise to the action lies outside the play, and the centre of attention within the play lies in the hero's efforts to do his duty. It seems clear that Shakespeare's interest, since the early days when under Marlowe's influence he wrote Richard III., has not been directed to the more extreme or terrible forms of evil. But in the tragedies that follow Hamlet the presence of this interest is equally clear. In Iago, in the 'bad' people of King Lear, even in Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, human nature assumes shapes which inspire not mere sadness or repulsion but horror and dismay. If in Timon no monstrous cruelty is done, we still watch ingratitude and selfishness so blank that they provoke a loathing we never felt for Claudius; and in this play and King Lear we can fancy that we hear at times the saeva indignatio, if not the despair, of Swift. This prevalence of abnormal or appalling forms of evil, side by side with vehement passion, is another reason why the convulsion depicted in these tragedies seems to come from a deeper source, and to be vaster in extent, than the conflict in the two earlier plays. And here again Julius Caesar is further removed than Hamlet from Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth.

But in regard to this second point of difference a reservation must be made, on which I will speak a little more fully, because, unlike the matter hitherto touched on, its necessity seems hardly to have been recognised. All of the later tragedies may be called tragedies of passion, but not all of them display these extreme forms of evil. Neither of the last two does so. Antony and Coriolanus are, from one point of view, victims of passion; but the passion that ruins Antony also exalts him, he touches the infinite in it; and the pride and self-will of Coriolanus, though terrible in bulk, are scarcely so in quality; there is nothing base in them, and the huge creature whom they destroy is a noble, even a lovable, being. Nor does either of these dramas, though the earlier depicts a corrupt civilisation, include even among the minor characters anyone who can be called villainous or horrible. Consider, finally, the impression left on us at the close of each. It is remarkable that this impression, though very strong, can scarcely be called purely tragic; or, if we call it so, at least the feeling of reconciliation which mingles with the obviously tragic emotions is here exceptionally well-marked. The death of Antony, it will be remembered, comes before the opening of the Fifth Act. The death of Cleopatra, which closes the play, is greeted by the reader with sympathy and admiration, even with exultation at the thought that she has foiled Octavius; and these feelings are heightened by the deaths of Charmian and Iras, heroically faithful to their mistress, as Emilia was to hers. In Coriolanus the feeling of reconciliation is even stronger. The whole interest towards the close has been concentrated on the question whether the hero will persist in his revengeful design of storming and burning his native city, or whether better feelings will at last overpower his resentment and pride. He stands on the edge of a crime beside which, at least in outward dreadfulness, the slaughter of an individual looks insignificant. And when, at the sound of his mother's voice and the sight of his wife and child, nature asserts itself and he gives way, although we know he will lose his life, we care little for that: he has saved his soul. Our relief, and our exultation in the power of goodness, are so great that the actual catastrophe which follows and mingles sadness with these feelings leaves them but little diminished, and as we close the book we feel, it seems to me, more as we do at the close of Cymbeline than as we do at the close of Othello. In saying this I do not in the least mean to criticise Coriolanus. It is a much nobler play as it stands than it would have been if Shakespeare had made the hero persist, and we had seen him amid the flaming ruins of Rome, awaking suddenly to the enormity of his deed and taking vengeance on himself; but that would surely have been an ending more strictly tragic than the close of Shakespeare's play. Whether this close was simply due to his unwillingness to contradict his historical authority on a point of such magnitude we need not ask. In any case Coriolanus is, in more than an outward sense, the end of his tragic period. It marks the transition to his latest works, in which the powers of repentance and forgiveness charm to rest the tempest raised by error and guilt.

If we turn now from the substance of the tragedies to their style and versification, we find on the whole a corresponding difference between the earlier and the later. The usual assignment of Julius Caesar, and even of Hamlet, to the end of Shakespeare's Second Period—the period of Henry V.—is based mainly, we saw, on considerations of form. The general style of the serious parts of the last plays from English history is one of full, noble and comparatively equable eloquence. The 'honey-tongued' sweetness and beauty of Shakespeare's early writing, as seen in Romeo and Juliet or the Midsummer-Night's Dream, remain; the ease and lucidity remain; but there is an accession of force and weight. We find no great change from this style when we come to Julius Caesar,[28] which may be taken to mark its culmination. At this point in Shakespeare's literary development he reaches, if the phrase may be pardoned, a limited perfection. Neither thought on the one side, nor expression on the other, seems to have any tendency to outrun or contend with its fellow. We receive an impression of easy mastery and complete harmony, but not so strong an impression of inner power bursting into outer life. Shakespeare's style is perhaps nowhere else so free from defects, and yet almost every one of his subsequent plays contains writing which is greater. To speak familiarly, we feel in Julius Caesar that, although not even Shakespeare could better the style he has chosen, he has not let himself go.

In reading Hamlet we have no such feeling, and in many parts (for there is in the writing of Hamlet an unusual variety[29]) we are conscious of a decided change. The style in these parts is more rapid and vehement, less equable and less simple; and there is a change of the same kind in the versification. But on the whole the type is the same as in Julius Caesar, and the resemblance of the two plays is decidedly more marked than the difference. If Hamlet's soliloquies, considered simply as compositions, show a great change from Jaques's speech, 'All the world's a stage,' and even from the soliloquies of Brutus, yet Hamlet (for instance in the hero's interview with his mother) is like Julius Caesar, and unlike the later tragedies, in the fulness of its eloquence, and passages like the following belong quite definitely to the style of the Second Period:

Mar. It faded on the crowing of the cock. Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated, The bird of dawning singeth all night long; And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad; The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike, No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.

Hor. So have I heard and do in part believe it. But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, Walks o'er the dew of yon high eastward hill.

This bewitching music is heard again in Hamlet's farewell to Horatio:

If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story.

But after Hamlet this music is heard no more. It is followed by a music vaster and deeper, but not the same.

The changes observable in Hamlet are afterwards, and gradually, so greatly developed that Shakespeare's style and versification at last become almost new things. It is extremely difficult to illustrate this briefly in a manner to which no just exception can be taken, for it is almost impossible to find in two plays passages bearing a sufficiently close resemblance to one another in occasion and sentiment. But I will venture to put by the first of those quotations from Hamlet this from Macbeth:

Dun. This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself Unto our gentle senses.

Ban. This guest of summer, The temple-haunting martlet, does approve, By his loved mansionry, that the heaven's breath Smells wooingly here: no jutty, frieze, Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird Hath made his pendent bed and procreant cradle; Where they most breed and haunt, I have observed, The air is delicate;

and by the second quotation from Hamlet this from Antony and Cleopatra:

The miserable change now at my end Lament nor sorrow at; but please your thoughts In feeding them with those my former fortunes Wherein I lived, the greatest prince o' the world, The noblest; and do now not basely die, Not cowardly put off my helmet to My countryman,—a Roman by a Roman Valiantly vanquish'd. Now my spirit is going; I can no more.

It would be almost an impertinence to point out in detail how greatly these two passages, and especially the second, differ in effect from those in Hamlet, written perhaps five or six years earlier. The versification, by the time we reach Antony and Cleopatra, has assumed a new type; and although this change would appear comparatively slight in a typical passage from Othello or even from King Lear, its approach through these plays to Timon and Macbeth can easily be traced. It is accompanied by a similar change in diction and construction. After Hamlet the style, in the more emotional passages, is heightened. It becomes grander, sometimes wilder, sometimes more swelling, even tumid. It is also more concentrated, rapid, varied, and, in construction, less regular, not seldom twisted or elliptical. It is, therefore, not so easy and lucid, and in the more ordinary dialogue it is sometimes involved and obscure, and from these and other causes deficient in charm.[30] On the other hand, it is always full of life and movement, and in great passages produces sudden, strange, electrifying effects which are rarely found in earlier plays, and not so often even in Hamlet. The more pervading effect of beauty gives place to what may almost be called explosions of sublimity or pathos.

There is room for differences of taste and preference as regards the style and versification of the end of Shakespeare's Second Period, and those of the later tragedies and last romances. But readers who miss in the latter the peculiar enchantment of the earlier will not deny that the changes in form are in entire harmony with the inward changes. If they object to passages where, to exaggerate a little, the sense has rather to be discerned beyond the words than found in them, and if they do not wholly enjoy the movement of so typical a speech as this,

Yes, like enough, high-battled Caesar will Unstate his happiness, and be staged to the show, Against a sworder! I see men's judgements are A parcel of their fortunes; and things outward Do draw the inward quality after them, To suffer all alike. That he should dream, Knowing all measures, the full Caesar will Answer his emptiness! Caesar, thou hast subdued His judgement too,

they will admit that, in traversing the impatient throng of thoughts not always completely embodied, their minds move through an astonishing variety of ideas and experiences, and that a style less generally poetic than that of Hamlet is also a style more invariably dramatic. It may be that, for the purposes of tragedy, the highest point was reached during the progress of these changes, in the most critical passages of Othello, King Lear and Macbeth.[31]


Suppose you were to describe the plot of Hamlet to a person quite ignorant of the play, and suppose you were careful to tell your hearer nothing about Hamlet's character, what impression would your sketch make on him? Would he not exclaim: 'What a sensational story! Why, here are some eight violent deaths, not to speak of adultery, a ghost, a mad woman, and a fight in a grave! If I did not know that the play was Shakespeare's, I should have thought it must have been one of those early tragedies of blood and horror from which he is said to have redeemed the stage'? And would he not then go on to ask: 'But why in the world did not Hamlet obey the Ghost at once, and so save seven of those eight lives?'

This exclamation and this question both show the same thing, that the whole story turns upon the peculiar character of the hero. For without this character the story would appear sensational and horrible; and yet the actual Hamlet is very far from being so, and even has a less terrible effect than Othello, King Lear or Macbeth. And again, if we had no knowledge of this character, the story would hardly be intelligible; it would at any rate at once suggest that wondering question about the conduct of the hero; while the story of any of the other three tragedies would sound plain enough and would raise no such question. It is further very probable that the main change made by Shakespeare in the story as already represented on the stage, lay in a new conception of Hamlet's character and so of the cause of his delay. And, lastly, when we examine the tragedy, we observe two things which illustrate the same point. First, we find by the side of the hero no other figure of tragic proportions, no one like Lady Macbeth or Iago, no one even like Cordelia or Desdemona; so that, in Hamlet's absence, the remaining characters could not yield a Shakespearean tragedy at all. And, secondly, we find among them two, Laertes and Fortinbras, who are evidently designed to throw the character of the hero into relief. Even in the situations there is a curious parallelism; for Fortinbras, like Hamlet, is the son of a king, lately dead, and succeeded by his brother; and Laertes, like Hamlet, has a father slain, and feels bound to avenge him. And with this parallelism in situation there is a strong contrast in character; for both Fortinbras and Laertes possess in abundance the very quality which the hero seems to lack, so that, as we read, we are tempted to exclaim that either of them would have accomplished Hamlet's task in a day. Naturally, then, the tragedy of Hamlet with Hamlet left out has become the symbol of extreme absurdity; while the character itself has probably exerted a greater fascination, and certainly has been the subject of more discussion, than any other in the whole literature of the world.

Before, however, we approach the task of examining it, it is as well to remind ourselves that the virtue of the play by no means wholly depends on this most subtle creation. We are all aware of this, and if we were not so the history of Hamlet, as a stage-play, might bring the fact home to us. It is to-day the most popular of Shakespeare's tragedies on our stage; and yet a large number, perhaps even the majority of the spectators, though they may feel some mysterious attraction in the hero, certainly do not question themselves about his character or the cause of his delay, and would still find the play exceptionally effective, even if he were an ordinary brave young man and the obstacles in his path were purely external. And this has probably always been the case. Hamlet seems from the first to have been a favourite play; but until late in the eighteenth century, I believe, scarcely a critic showed that he perceived anything specially interesting in the character. Hanmer, in 1730, to be sure, remarks that 'there appears no reason at all in nature why this young prince did not put the usurper to death as soon as possible'; but it does not even cross his mind that this apparent 'absurdity' is odd and might possibly be due to some design on the part of the poet. He simply explains the absurdity by observing that, if Shakespeare had made the young man go 'naturally to work,' the play would have come to an end at once! Johnson, in like manner, notices that 'Hamlet is, through the whole piece, rather an instrument than an agent,' but it does not occur to him that this peculiar circumstance can be anything but a defect in Shakespeare's management of the plot. Seeing, they saw not. Henry Mackenzie, the author of The Man of Feeling, was, it would seem, the first of our critics to feel the 'indescribable charm' of Hamlet, and to divine something of Shakespeare's intention. 'We see a man,' he writes, 'who in other circumstances would have exercised all the moral and social virtues, placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress and to perplex his conduct.'[32] How significant is the fact (if it be the fact) that it was only when the slowly rising sun of Romance began to flush the sky that the wonder, beauty and pathos of this most marvellous of Shakespeare's creations began to be visible! We do not know that they were perceived even in his own day, and perhaps those are not wholly wrong who declare that this creation, so far from being a characteristic product of the time, was a vision of

the prophetic soul Of the wide world dreaming on things to come.

But the dramatic splendour of the whole tragedy is another matter, and must have been manifest not only in Shakespeare's day but even in Hanmer's.

It is indeed so obvious that I pass it by, and proceed at once to the central question of Hamlet's character. And I believe time will be saved, and a good deal of positive interpretation may be introduced, if, without examining in detail any one theory, we first distinguish classes or types of theory which appear to be in various ways and degrees insufficient or mistaken. And we will confine our attention to sane theories;—for on this subject, as on all questions relating to Shakespeare, there are plenty of merely lunatic views: the view, for example, that Hamlet, being a disguised woman in love with Horatio, could hardly help seeming unkind to Ophelia; or the view that, being a very clever and wicked young man who wanted to oust his innocent uncle from the throne, he 'faked' the Ghost with this intent.

But, before we come to our types of theory, it is necessary to touch on an idea, not unfrequently met with, which would make it vain labour to discuss or propose any theory at all. It is sometimes said that Hamlet's character is not only intricate but unintelligible. Now this statement might mean something quite unobjectionable and even perhaps true and important. It might mean that the character cannot be wholly understood. As we saw, there may be questions which we cannot answer with certainty now, because we have nothing but the text to guide us, but which never arose for the spectators who saw Hamlet acted in Shakespeare's day; and we shall have to refer to such questions in these lectures. Again, it may be held without any improbability that, from carelessness or because he was engaged on this play for several years, Shakespeare left inconsistencies in his exhibition of the character which must prevent us from being certain of his ultimate meaning. Or, possibly, we may be baffled because he has illustrated in it certain strange facts of human nature, which he had noticed but of which we are ignorant. But then all this would apply in some measure to other characters in Shakespeare, and it is not this that is meant by the statement that Hamlet is unintelligible. What is meant is that Shakespeare intended him to be so, because he himself was feeling strongly, and wished his audience to feel strongly, what a mystery life is, and how impossible it is for us to understand it. Now here, surely, we have mere confusion of mind. The mysteriousness of life is one thing, the psychological unintelligibility of a dramatic character is quite another; and the second does not show the first, it shows only the incapacity or folly of the dramatist. If it did show the first, it would be very easy to surpass Shakespeare in producing a sense of mystery: we should simply have to portray an absolutely nonsensical character. Of course Hamlet appeals powerfully to our sense of the mystery of life, but so does every good tragedy; and it does so not because the hero is an enigma to us, but because, having a fair understanding of him, we feel how strange it is that strength and weakness should be so mingled in one soul, and that this soul should be doomed to such misery and apparent failure.

(1) To come, then, to our typical views, we may lay it down, first, that no theory will hold water which finds the cause of Hamlet's delay merely, or mainly, or even to any considerable extent, in external difficulties. Nothing is easier than to spin a plausible theory of this kind. What, it may be asked,[33] was Hamlet to do when the Ghost had left him with its commission of vengeance? The King was surrounded not merely by courtiers but by a Swiss body-guard: how was Hamlet to get at him? Was he then to accuse him publicly of the murder? If he did, what would happen? How would he prove the charge? All that he had to offer in proof was—a ghost-story! Others, to be sure, had seen the Ghost, but no one else had heard its revelations. Obviously, then, even if the court had been honest, instead of subservient and corrupt, it would have voted Hamlet mad, or worse, and would have shut him up out of harm's way. He could not see what to do, therefore, and so he waited. Then came the actors, and at once with admirable promptness he arranged for the play-scene, hoping that the King would betray his guilt to the whole court. Unfortunately the King did not. It is true that immediately afterwards Hamlet got his chance; for he found the King defenceless on his knees. But what Hamlet wanted was not a private revenge, to be followed by his own imprisonment or execution; it was public justice. So he spared the King; and, as he unluckily killed Polonius just afterwards, he had to consent to be despatched to England. But, on the voyage there, he discovered the King's commission, ordering the King of England to put him immediately to death; and, with this in his pocket, he made his way back to Denmark. For now, he saw, the proof of the King's attempt to murder him would procure belief also for the story of the murder of his father. His enemy, however, was too quick for him, and his public arraignment of that enemy was prevented by his own death.

A theory like this sounds very plausible—so long as you do not remember the text. But no unsophisticated mind, fresh from the reading of Hamlet, will accept it; and, as soon as we begin to probe it, fatal objections arise in such numbers that I choose but a few, and indeed I think the first of them is enough.

(a) From beginning to end of the play, Hamlet never makes the slightest reference to any external difficulty. How is it possible to explain this fact in conformity with the theory? For what conceivable reason should Shakespeare conceal from us so carefully the key to the problem?

(b) Not only does Hamlet fail to allude to such difficulties, but he always assumes that he can obey the Ghost,[34] and he once asserts this in so many words ('Sith I have cause and will and strength and means To do't,' IV. iv. 45).

(c) Again, why does Shakespeare exhibit Laertes quite easily raising the people against the King? Why but to show how much more easily Hamlet, whom the people loved, could have done the same thing, if that was the plan he preferred?

(d) Again, Hamlet did not plan the play-scene in the hope that the King would betray his guilt to the court. He planned it, according to his own account, in order to convince himself by the King's agitation that the Ghost had spoken the truth. This is perfectly clear from II. ii. 625 ff. and from III. ii. 80 ff. Some readers are misled by the words in the latter passage:

if his occulted guilt Do not itself unkennel in one speech, It is a damned ghost that we have seen.

The meaning obviously is, as the context shows, 'if his hidden guilt do not betray itself on occasion of one speech,' viz., the 'dozen or sixteen lines' with which Hamlet has furnished the player, and of which only six are delivered, because the King does not merely show his guilt in his face (which was all Hamlet had hoped, III. ii. 90) but rushes from the room.

It may be as well to add that, although Hamlet's own account of his reason for arranging the play-scene may be questioned, it is impossible to suppose that, if his real design had been to provoke an open confession of guilt, he could have been unconscious of this design.

(e) Again, Hamlet never once talks, or shows a sign of thinking, of the plan of bringing the King to public justice; he always talks of using his 'sword' or his 'arm.' And this is so just as much after he has returned to Denmark with the commission in his pocket as it was before this event. When he has told Horatio the story of the voyage, he does not say, 'Now I can convict him': he says, 'Now am I not justified in using this arm?'

This class of theory, then, we must simply reject. But it suggests two remarks. It is of course quite probable that, when Hamlet was 'thinking too precisely on the event,' he was considering, among other things, the question how he could avenge his father without sacrificing his own life or freedom. And assuredly, also, he was anxious that his act of vengeance should not be misconstrued, and would never have been content to leave a 'wounded name' behind him. His dying words prove that.

(2) Assuming, now, that Hamlet's main difficulty—almost the whole of his difficulty—was internal, I pass to views which, acknowledging this, are still unsatisfactory because they isolate one element in his character and situation and treat it as the whole.

According to the first of these typical views, Hamlet was restrained by conscience or a moral scruple; he could not satisfy himself that it was right to avenge his father.

This idea, like the first, can easily be made to look very plausible if we vaguely imagine the circumstances without attending to the text. But attention to the text is fatal to it. For, on the one hand, scarcely anything can be produced in support of it, and, on the other hand, a great deal can be produced in its disproof. To take the latter point first, Hamlet, it is impossible to deny, habitually assumes, without any questioning, that he ought to avenge his father. Even when he doubts, or thinks that he doubts, the honesty of the Ghost, he expresses no doubt as to what his duty will be if the Ghost turns out honest: 'If he but blench I know my course.' In the two soliloquies where he reviews his position (II. ii., 'O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,' and IV. iv., 'How all occasions do inform against me') he reproaches himself bitterly for the neglect of his duty. When he reflects on the possible causes of this neglect he never mentions among them a moral scruple. When the Ghost appears in the Queen's chamber he confesses, conscience-stricken, that, lapsed in time and passion, he has let go by the acting of its command; but he does not plead that his conscience stood in his way. The Ghost itself says that it comes to whet his 'almost blunted purpose'; and conscience may unsettle a purpose but does not blunt it. What natural explanation of all this can be given on the conscience theory?

And now what can be set against this evidence? One solitary passage.[35] Quite late, after Hamlet has narrated to Horatio the events of his voyage, he asks him (V. ii. 63):

Does it not, thinks't thee, stand me now upon— He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother, Popp'd in between the election and my hopes, Thrown out his angle for my proper life, And with such cozenage—is't not perfect conscience To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be damn'd To let this canker of our nature come In further evil?

Here, certainly, is a question of conscience in the usual present sense of the word; and, it may be said, does not this show that all along Hamlet really has been deterred by moral scruples? But I ask first how, in that case, the facts just adduced are to be explained: for they must be explained, not ignored. Next, let the reader observe that even if this passage did show that one hindrance to Hamlet's action was his conscience, it by no means follows that this was the sole or the chief hindrance. And, thirdly, let him observe, and let him ask himself whether the coincidence is a mere accident, that Hamlet is here almost repeating the words he used in vain self-reproach some time before (IV. iv. 56):

How stand I then, That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd, Excitements of my reason and my blood, And let all sleep?

Is it not clear that he is speculating just as vainly now, and that this question of conscience is but one of his many unconscious excuses for delay? And, lastly, is it not so that Horatio takes it? He declines to discuss that unreal question, and answers simply,

It must be shortly known to him from England What is the issue of the business there.

In other words, 'Enough of this endless procrastination. What is wanted is not reasons for the deed, but the deed itself.' What can be more significant?

Perhaps, however, it may be answered: 'Your explanation of this passage may be correct, and the facts you have mentioned do seem to be fatal to the theory of conscience in its usual form. But there is another and subtler theory of conscience. According to it, Hamlet, so far as his explicit consciousness went, was sure that he ought to obey the Ghost; but in the depths of his nature, and unknown to himself, there was a moral repulsion to the deed. The conventional moral ideas of his time, which he shared with the Ghost, told him plainly that he ought to avenge his father; but a deeper conscience in him, which was in advance of his time, contended with these explicit conventional ideas. It is because this deeper conscience remains below the surface that he fails to recognise it, and fancies he is hindered by cowardice or sloth or passion or what not; but it emerges into light in that speech to Horatio. And it is just because he has this nobler moral nature in him that we admire and love him.'

Now I at once admit not only that this view is much more attractive and more truly tragic than the ordinary conscience theory, but that it has more verisimilitude. But I feel no doubt that it does not answer to Shakespeare's meaning, and I will simply mention, out of many objections to it, three which seem to be fatal. (a) If it answers to Shakespeare's meaning, why in the world did he conceal that meaning until the last Act? The facts adduced above seem to show beyond question that, on the hypothesis, he did so. That he did so is surely next door to incredible. In any case, it certainly requires an explanation, and certainly has not received one. (b) Let us test the theory by reference to a single important passage, that where Hamlet finds the King at prayer and spares him. The reason Hamlet gives himself for sparing the King is that, if he kills him now, he will send him to heaven, whereas he desires to send him to hell. Now, this reason may be an unconscious excuse, but is it believable that, if the real reason had been the stirrings of his deeper conscience, that could have masked itself in the form of a desire to send his enemy's soul to hell? Is not the idea quite ludicrous? (c) The theory requires us to suppose that, when the Ghost enjoins Hamlet to avenge the murder of his father, it is laying on him a duty which we are to understand to be no duty but the very reverse. And is not that supposition wholly contrary to the natural impression which we all receive in reading the play? Surely it is clear that, whatever we in the twentieth century may think about Hamlet's duty, we are meant in the play to assume that he ought to have obeyed the Ghost.

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