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TOPIC: Hamlet as the mouthpiece of Shakespeare

Hamlet as the mouthpiece of Shakespeare 10 years 1 month ago #98

  • William Shakespeare
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All lovers of Shakespeare must admit the force of these words from Kreyssig, a German critic: "From the rich troop of his heroes, Shakespeare has chosen Hamlet as the exponent, to the spectators and to posterity, of all that lay nearest to his own heart." The American poet-critic, Jones Very, speaks of "the tendency of Shakespeare to overact this particular part of Hamlet, and thus give it an obscurity from too close a connection with his own mind."

Though Rümelin goes too far in this particular direction, the following words concerning Shakespeare's tendency to make Hamlet his own mouthpiece have much force:

"We must not fail to see that this use of the legend enters into the dramatic subject and into the course of the action as a somewhat foreign and disturbing element; we must perceive that the legend, whose essential features the play still keeps, is in itself little fitted for the interpolation of an element so subjective and so modern."

Let us look at some specific passages in the play that are evidently the personal utterances of Shakespeare. The reference to child-actors, added in the First Folio, is clearly a "local hit"; it comes from the dramatist, not from Hamlet and Rosencrantz (II. ii. 353-79). The character of Osric is undoubtedly a satire on certain affectations of Shakespeare's own day. That Shakespeare himself is speaking when Hamlet instructs the players in the art of acting seems certain. Though Loening defends it ingeniously, the passage has no vital connection with the plot. The real reason why we have the lines is that Shakespeare had some things to say concerning the proper carriage, gesture, and elocution of an actor; and no man will ever know how much strutting and bellowing the world has escaped because of this simple text-book of histrionics, known and read of all men.

The Sonnets of Shakespeare, in which he "unlocked his heart," echo with striking distinctness some of the complaints of the melancholy Prince of Denmark. The connection is especially marked between the sixty-sixth Sonnet and some portions of the soliloquy beginning "To be or not to be."

Brandes points out that the following lines of the soliloquy just mentioned are "felt and thought from below upwards, not from above downwards, and that the words are improbable, almost impossible, in the mouth of the Prince":

"For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?"

III. i. 70-6.

In any performance of Hamlet, that pearl, the Grave-diggers' scene, is sure to be presented (V. i. 1-240); but it has no dramatic justification -- that is, the action is in no way advanced. These are the deep musings of Shakespeare's own mind and heart, and we do not estimate them according to their purely dramatic value.

Our love for this play springs largely from the fact that Shakespeare, disregarding strictly dramatic considerations, has given freely to Hamlet the charm, the warmth, and the boundlessness of his own nature.

The bearing of this discussion upon our central inquiry may be stated as follows: our impression of Hamlet's dilatoriness is intensified by his long soliloquies and by his abundant comments upon the various problems of life; but these utterances are in part the personal outpourings of Shakespeare himself, not called for by either the plot of the piece or the characterization: the hands are the hands of Esau, but the voice is the voice of Jacob.



The following essay is reprinted from The Views About Hamlet and Other Essays. Albert Harris Tolman. New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1904. pp. 41-4.
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