IN an essay on 'The Sense of the Past', Professor Lionel Trilling observes:
'To suppose that we can think like men of another time is as much of an illusion as to suppose that we can think in a wholly different way'; and he adds: 'It ought to be for us a real question whether, and in what way, human nature is always the same.'
The justice of the observation and the pertinence of the question are shown by the fact that we can hardly conceive of such a statement being made, or of such a question being posed, before about the middle of the last century.
Dryden, in this as in other things, deserves the title of being the first modern critic. He is aware, as his predecessors are not, that poets are 'of an age'. He means more by this than Ben Jonson did when he said Shakespeare was not 'of an age', but 'for all time'. To Dryden every poet is to some degree 'of an age' and one of his fundamental critical positions is that 'the genius of every age is different'. Along with many of his contemporaries he had an acute sense of the time he lived in as 'an age', and he is constantly concerned with the relation of his own poetry and plays to contemporary tastes and fashions. His sense of period, which he extended from his own sense that the Elizabethans were writers of 'the last age', is one of his most valued weapons as a critic. He uses it to reconcile his acceptance of the standards of his own day with his admiration of the poetry of the past. What would be gross in a modern writer can be excused in an Elizabethan, since the manners and tastes of his age were different. It is also a means by which he can indulge in his favourite exercise of comparison and bring together writers who, at first sight, seem too far apart to be compared. If we make proper allowances for the differences between the age of Augustus and the later empire, Horace and Juvenal can be set side by side as satirists. As always, Dryden is content to open up a way of thinking without feeling any need to explore its implications and make clear his theoretical position. But his implications are quite clear. In spite of his constant references to 'the age' of writers, he assumes, though he never actually states the position, that if you will allow for the differences between one period and another, you will find them comparatively unimportant. Poets of all ages and all tongues can be compared on a basis of what is common to them: the 'general nature' which they imitate, the life and passions of men. He takes the same attitude here as he does to the parallel problem of differences of language, where he is also a critical pioneer. Just as 'a thing well said will be wit in all languages', so a passion well painted will be true in all periods and for all time. Dryden deals lightly with the historical because he is writing before the development of the historical imagination. He has historical information to hand, and thinks it should be used: he does not think historically.
Johnson also took the historical in his stride. He had far more historical knowledge than Dryden, and, with his work as lexicographer and editor behind him, is the patron of all scholar-critics, as Dryden is the patron of all men of letters and of the poet turned critic. But their fundamental position is the same.
In order to make a true estimate of the abilities and merit of a writer, it is always necessary to examine the genius of his age, and the opinions of his contemporaries. A poet who should now make the whole action of his tragedy depend upon enchantment, and produce the chief events by the assistance of supernatural agents, would be censured as transgressing the bounds of probability, be banished from the Theatre to the nursery, and condemned to write fairy tales instead of tragedies.
So Johnson opens his long and very learned note on the first stage-direction of Macbeth: 'Enter three Witches.' And he concludes:
Upon this general infatuation Shakespeare might be easily allowed to found a play, especially since he has followed with great exactness such histories as were then thought true; nor can it be doubted that the scenes of enchantment, however they may now be ridiculed, were both by himself and his audience thought awful and affecting.
Johnson suggests here, en passant, that we ought to take into our account how a work appeared to its first audiences, a theory much in vogue today. He does not appeal to the audience to help him to interpret the work, a dangerous enterprise which often involves the critic who attempts it in a perfectly circular argument. He appeals to the audience to acquit Shakespeare from the charge of having chosen a childish plot. Johnson is dealing with something much more interesting and more difficult to handle than the changing manners and tastes and ideals of linguistic correctness which Dryden was concerned with. He is facing the problem of changing beliefs. How are we to respond to a work of art which embodies assumptions which were once accepted as true but are now unacceptable and appear to us as aberrations of the human intellect? He handles the problem with characteristic robustness, because, like Dryden, he is able to make a clear division. The historical is something to be got out of the way. The notion that we should ourselves find the scenes of enchantment 'awful and affecting' he does not consider for a moment. Changing beliefs, like changing customs and manners, are accidents. The whole basis of Johnson's criticism is the belief that human nature is always essentially the same and that the poet's concern is with general truth. He recognizes the genius of an age in order to discount it. Mrs. Thrale reports that he had not much respect for the study of History: 'He disliked the subject exceedingly and often said it took up room in a man's head which might be better filled.' To Johnson history means information about the past which makes it possible for the critic to find universal moral truth in ancient works of art. He praises Shakespeare for making
'nature predominate over accident'. 'His story requires Romans and Kings, but he thinks only on men.... A poet overlooks the casual distinctions of country and condition.'
Holding such views he can take up a commonplace like 'the Genius of an Age' without examining it or inquiring into it. His defective theory of the imagination, which he saw not as creative and magisterial but as ancillary to reason, allowed him to distinguish in a work such as Macbeth the 'Elizabethan' from that which is 'for all time'. What matters to him is that 'the danger of ambition is well described' and that 'the passions are directed to their true end'. The parts which now seem improbable may have had a moral intention once also:
'It was perhaps necessary to warn credulity against vain and illusive predictions.'
Criticism after Coleridge, which accepts as axiomatic the integrity of a work of art as the product of a creative imagination, cannot make this distinction between the kernel of eternal moral truth and the shell of outmoded belief. Coleridge himself, although eager enough to use an historical argument in defence of romantic drama against neo-classical, when he approaches the work itself salves its imaginative integrity by ignoring the historical.
'The weird sisters are as true a creation of Shakespeare's as are his Ariel and Caliban, the Fates, Furies and materializing witches being the elements.'
This invites the question of what are the elements equivalent to 'the materializing witches' in the creation of Ariel and Caliban, and ignores the difference which Johnson sees clearly between comedy, where the fantasies of fairy-tale are in place, and tragedy, where they infect our sense of the seriousness of the issues with which the play is concerned. Coleridge's intense reverence for Shakespeare, and the strength with which he grasped the conception of the imagination as the prime and master faculty of the human mind, finding in it the image of the Creator, made him unwilling to take account of the limitations of the poet's historical situation. The greatest example of a fundamentally unhistoric approach is Coleridge's treatment of Hamlet. Like Johnson, it is the eternal which he looks for. But for that general knowledge of human life which Johnson sought in poetry Coleridge substitutes knowledge of the working of the mind. 'Know mankind' becomes 'Know thyself'. He thought it essential to the understanding of Hamlet that we should reflect on the constitution of our own minds. Coleridge no more questions than Johnson that human nature is always the same. But while Johnson makes allowance for the accidents of history, Coleridge ignores them. He thereby preserves the integrity of the work, but he does so at the cost of remaking it in his own image. He ignores the fact that Hamlet was written for the stage, and for a stage whose conventions were very different from the conventions of the stage of antiquity and the stage in his own day. He ignores also the fact that Shakespeare did not invent the story of Hamlet. Nobody would guess from reading Coleridge on Hamlet that the play had any other source than Shakespeare's imagination creating an image of human life as he knew it.
The great tradition which Coleridge inaugurated is still very powerful. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy stands in a direct line from him; and a study such as D. G. James's brief, but suggestive, The Dream of Learning (1951) shows the continuing strength, as well as the defects, of the unhistorical approach. The most interesting development from Coleridge is the attempt to interpret a work through the pattern of its images. This corresponds to developments in psychology since Coleridge's day and reflects the new knowledge of the workings of the mind gained by depth psychology. Its most notable exponent, Professor G. Wilson Knight, shows clearly his attitude to the temporal by calling his method 'spatial analysis'. It leads, I think, to a subjectivism far more extreme than Coleridge's. And in spite of Coleridge, Johnson's attitude still persists. It is well expressed by a great scholar-critic, Sir Herbert Grierson, like Johnson an editor:
For the lover of literature, literary history has an indirect value. He studies history that he may discount it. What he relishes in a poet of the past is exactly the same essential qualities as he enjoys in a poet of his own day — life and passion and art. But between us and every poet or thinker of the past hangs a thinner or thicker veil of outworn fashions and conventions. The same life has clothed itself in different garbs; the same passions have spoken in different images; the same art has adapted itself to different circumstances. To the historian these old clothes are in themselves a subject of interest. ... To the lover of literature they are, until by understanding he can discount them, a disadvantage because they invest the work of the poet with an irrelevant air of strangeness. He studies them that he may grow familiar with them and forget them, that he may clear and intensify his sense of what alone has permanent value, the poet's individuality and the art in which it is expressed! — 'The Poetry of Donne', H. J. C. Grierson, The Poems of John Donne, 1912, vol. ii, p. vi.
On the other side stand many scholars and historians and critics who agree with the sociologists and anthropologists — not to mention the dialectical materialists — and declare that all works of art are historically conditioned and that if you are to understand a poet you must understand him as the product of his age. In order to grasp what he is saying you must by an effort of the historical imagination leave in abeyance the assumptions of your own age and education, and attempt to make alive in your own mind the assumptions of his. You must consider the audience for whom he was writing, not merely to assess his success and failure in terms of the artistic standards of his day, but also to respond to him as they did. For, and it is here that Professor Trilling's questions arise, you must, if you wish to understand a poet, live imaginatively in his period, recreate his intellectual environment, so that the whole complex situation in which he was born, grew up, and wrote is imaginatively familiar to you. Here, it is claimed, we can find objective standards of interpretation. If we want to understand Shakespeare we must read him 'as an Elizabethan would'. The assumption of the extreme historical school appears to be that the age is something which we can reach certainty about, and that armed with this certainty we can approach the unknown quantity, the play or poem.
The difficulty of attempting to turn oneself into an Elizabethan reader or spectator can easily be exposed. Historical investigation, which attempts to construct a narrative of what happened, can trace the development of the mining industry, or of astronomical thought, or of a literary style. Here we can clearly see achievement, the correction of error and the discovery of information. But the historical imagination which attempts to recreate a whole past situation is a very different matter. The historical imagination, itself of comparatively recent growth, is itself historically conditioned. Its weakness and contingency are obvious if we consider historical novels. Most of them are not even convincing at the time they are written, and as they recede into the past even those which seemed most successful are seen to tell us less and less about the age they were created to recreate and more and more about the age in which they were created. Contemporaries of Shorthouse found John Inglesant a wonderfully vivid and convincing recreation of the climate of opinion in mid-seventeenth-century England. Anyone who reads it today reads it as a highly coloured romance which has the added interest of revealing very clearly the climate of opinion among English Churchmen after Newman's secession to Rome. Scrupulousness in avoiding anachronism in ideas and language makes no difference. The underlying assumptions of Esmond are unmistakably Victorian and Miss Rose Macaulay's They Were Defeated, although it uses no word which was not current in the seventeenth century, reflects clearly the mood of an intelligent and sensitive Liberal faced with the barbarity of the ideological conflicts of 'the thirties'. And if we turn from those rash enough to attempt to recreate the past in fiction to those who are content to describe it, the historians of various epochs, we find their emphasis shifts from decade to decade, so that 'the age' undergoes extraordinary transformations. In the last hundred years the conception of 'the Elizabethans' has been as unstable as the conception of Hamlet. To Froude and Kingsley they were God-fearing, Protestant, and patriotic. In the nineties they were Italianate and much less manly and God-fearing. In the twenties they were subtle, sensual, and sceptical. Recently they have become pious again, but in a different way, obsessed with the idea of hierarchy, the Great Chain of Being and Natural Law, crypto-Catholics and heirs to the Middle Ages. If I read the signs of the times rightly, they are now becoming rather more vigorous, adventurous, and Protestant again.
I do not wish to suggest that one cannot and should not — indeed I hold that one must build up over the years a conception of a writer's life and times which has some consistency and which, though constantly modified, has yet some validity. But the literary critic needs to be aware how provisional such a conception is. It is an imaginative construction, made up of scraps of information and insecure generalizations, influenced by its creator's preconceptions, particular interests, and historical circumstances. It needs to be kept fluid and not allowed to harden into a fixed background. The fundamental danger of the approach to a writer through the study of his age is that it encourages us to attempt to interpret the concrete by the abstract, the particular by the general, even more the exceptional by the average. We are rightly sceptical when we read statements about modern man and the modern mind and dismiss both as figments of journalism. We ought to be at least as sceptical about statements about the 'Elizabethan mind'. The 'Elizabethan World Picture' tidily presented to us as a system of thought cannot tell us how much of that picture had truth and meaning for any single Elizabethan. And even if we could discover a kind of highest common factor of contemporary beliefs and attitudes, it could not tell us what any individual believed, and certainly not what Shakespeare believed. We do not know very much about Shakespeare outside his plays, but at least we know from them that he was not an average Elizabethan. Our sense of a period is far too arbitrary, unstable, and conjectural to provide us with an objective field of reference by which we can assert, 'This is what the work must have meant.'
The historical approach to a work of art is, as I see it, more modest and tentative. Professor Trilling's suggestion, that to suppose we can think like men of another time is an illusion, seems to assume that we can think like men of our own time, or indeed like anyone else: We can understand, to a greater or less degree, how men of our day think if they try to communicate their thoughts to us. I have no idea how my silent companions in a bus or tube are thinking, although they, like me, have modern minds. If one speaks to me I can understand his thought; or, if I do not, I can ask him questions. I may have failed to grasp what he is saying because he has assumed that I have some information which in fact I do not possess. He has perhaps listened to the six o'clock news, or seen something in the stop press of his evening newspaper. Or perhaps he is speaking from assumptions which I do not share. When I ask him what he means he may tell me that he is a British Israelite, and then, if I want to understand what he has to say, I must listen while he explains his tenets to me. Or perhaps his mind is obsessed by some personal or family trouble, or is coloured by the circumstances in which he has grown up, and then I must listen while he explains to me what complex of feelings and events prompted a remark which it seemed to him important to make, but whose import I did not grasp. When we are confronted with the expression of the mind of someone long dead, embodied in a work of art, the process of coming to understand it seems to me fundamentally the same, although we cannot ask our questions directly. We have to develop a technique of questioning, asking questions which arise out of the work itself. We can only judge whether the answer to any particular question is a good answer by its consistency with our answers to other questions.
To illustrate what I mean I am going to consider some questions about Hamlet. An example of an unfruitful question, because it is too large and too general and leads inevitably to an answer which we ought to have known before we asked it, is the question which some writers seem to feel bound to raise before they approach a play built on the theme of revenge. What did the Elizabethans think of the ethics of private revenge? I have read more than one book in which the author establishes by detailed, indeed relentless, accumulation of statements by preachers and moralists that the Elizabethans thought murder unethical and private revenge sinful. What else should we expect preachers and moralists to say? Questions which lead us to platitudes and foregone conclusions are not worth asking. We might more profitably ponder over the temper of mind which lay behind the Bond of Association of 1584. The councillors who drafted this document, among them the pious Burghley, and the thousands up and down the country who signed it, pledged themselves 'in the presence of the eternal and ever-living God', whom they knew to have claimed vengeance as his prerogative, that, in the event of an attack on Elizabeth's person, they would 'prosecute to the death' any pretended successor to her throne by whom, or for whom, such an act should be attempted or committed. They swore
'to take the uttermost revenge on them ... by any possible means . . . for their utter overthrow and extirpation'.
That is, if Elizabeth were assassinated, Mary Stuart should be murdered, whether she were a party to the murder of her cousin or not, and beyond Mary, her son James, as a beneficiary of the crime.
'Discarding all scruples', comments Sir John Neale, 'they descended to the utter ruthlessness of their enemies.'
These were law-abiding and God-fearing men. But they believed that the safety of the country and the preservation of the Protestant religion hung on the single life of Elizabeth. They were probably right in believing this. Perhaps if Elizabeth had met the same fate as William the Silent and Henry of Navarre, and England had fallen into the chaos of civil and religious wars, the play of Hamlet, along with other precious things, would not exist for us to talk about. We may be horrified at their forgetting that vengeance was forbidden by their religion, but we must recognize the appalling nature of their dilemma.
As an example of a fruitful question which it did not occur to Bradley to ask I would cite Professor Dover Wilson's question:
'What opinions were current when Shakespeare was writing about the nature of apparitions?'
This is a modest question to which an answer can be found, and the answer Professor Dover Wilson found — that there was a conflict of opinion — is an illuminating one. It is consonant with the impression which the whole play makes upon us and adds to our feeling that Hamlet is moving in a world where there are no certainties. It casts light on the relation of Hamlet to Horatio. It gives meaning to a scene which had puzzled all critics, the cellarage scene. And, lastly, it casts a light upon the whole development of the play's action. By showing us how serious and widespread was the debate on the nature of ghosts, it makes us less ready to accept the notion that Hamlet arranges the play scene as an excuse for delaying his revenge. The information which Professor Dover Wilson made available to us strengthens our conception of Hamlet as a man of intellectual integrity and moral sensibility. To give a parallel from our own day: two hundred years hence, when, for all I know, modern psychology will seem as outmoded as alchemy or the theory of the humours, a critic, living in an age of chemical therapy, might fruitfully inquire what were some of the current opinions on the psychiatrist's role in society which might help to explain the rather ambiguous treatment of Reilly in Mr. Eliot's comedy The Cocktail Party. Mr. Eliot, as we are all perfectly aware without considering the matter at all, has been able to exploit for comic purposes our ambivalent feelings about 'mind doctors', as Shakespeare exploited for tragic purposes the conflict of opinion in his day about the reality and reliability of apparitions of departed persons. We are not asking what Mr. Eliot's own opinions about psychiatrists are, any more than we are asking whether Shakespeare believed in ghosts. Nor are we asking what attitude the plays demand that we should assume to the interference of Reilly or to the moral authority of the Ghost of Hamlet's father. These are questions which cannot be answered by historical inquiries alone, but historical inquiries can help us to answer them.
A much more complex and delicate question, which takes us near to the heart of the play, is raised by the complaint which Johnson makes about the plot of Hamlet.
'Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent. After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing.'
Bradley's celebrated question, which he thinks anyone would ask on hearing the plot of Hamlet, converts Johnson's objection to the conduct of the plot into censure of the conduct of the hero:
'But why in the world did not Hamlet obey the ghost at once, and so save seven of those eight lives? '
And a highly unsympathetic aside of Mr. Eliot's converts Bradley's complaint at Hamlet's incompetence into a reproach to him for not being aware, as we are, that he 'has made a pretty considerable mess of things'. Mr. Eliot's rebuke to Hamlet for 'dying fairly well pleased with himself' is only logical from a severe moralist if we accept that what the play has shown us is the mess which Hamlet has made of things. Mr. Eliot might, however, have noticed that it is not merely Hamlet who appears to feel at the close that if only the whole truth were known — as we, the audience, know it — the name which he leaves behind him would not be 'a wounded name'. Horatio's farewell to him and Fortinbras's comment make no suggestion that what we have witnessed is a story of personal failure and inadequacy; and Horatio's summary of what he will tell 'the yet unknowing world' does not include any hint that these things have come about through the bungling of the dead Prince. No need of extenuation appears to be felt. On the contrary, the play ends with 'the soldiers' music and the rites of war' and a final volley in salute of a dead hero.
The question here, which arises out of the play itself, is how we are to find consistency between the fact of Hamlet's delay, with which he bitterly reproaches himself, the fact, which Johnson pointed out, that the final denouement is not of his making, and the tone of the close of the play, which suggests so strongly that Hamlet has 'parted well and paid his score'. It hardly seems possible to answer this question, as Mr. Eliot does, by ascribing to Hamlet at the moment of his death, and by implication to his creator, a moral sensibility inferior to our own. When faced with a contradiction of this kind, the critic is bound to ask himself whether he has got the play out of focus. Is there some element in it which he is unaware of, which will, when perceived, make the close seem a full and fitting close? He needs to discover whether there is any means by which he can decide whether Shakespeare intended his audience to regard Hamlet as having 'made a mess of things'. And he must ask himself whether what Johnson thought an objection to the conduct of the plot, that the hero does so little to forward it, is a real objection: whether it does actually affect the 'satisfaction' which Johnson thought we should feel at the close of the play. The historical fact to which we can turn is that Shakespeare did not invent the plot of Hamlet. He chose, presumably because it in some way appealed to his imagination, to remake an older play. And, although this older play no longer exists, there exist other plays on the same kind of subject. A study of these, to see what they have in common with Hamlet, may, at the least, suggest to us things which we should take into account in trying to understand the masterpiece which Shakespeare created in this genre. Such a study shows that the answer which Bradley gave to his question 'Why in the world did not Hamlet obey the ghost at once?' is only a partial answer. To Bradley's assertion, 'The whole story turns upon the peculiar character of the hero', we can object that heroes of very different character also fail to act promptly and also involve themselves and others in the final catastrophe. As for Johnson's comment on the conduct of the plot, we can say that the same complaint can be made to some degree against the plots of other revenge tragedies in the period. What Johnson thought to be a weakness in the plot of Hamlet appears to be a feature of the plots of other plays of the same kind and may point us towards a reason for their popularity and even towards what attracted Shakespeare in the old play which he re-made.
The essence of any tragedy of revenge is that its hero has not created the situation in which he finds himself and out of which the tragedy arises. The simplest of all tragic formulas, that a tragedy begins in prosperity and ends in misery, does not fit revenge tragedies. When the action opens the hero is seen in a situation which is horrible, and felt by him and the audience to be intolerable, but for which he has no responsibility. The exposition of such plays does not display the hero taking a fatal step, but the hero confronted with appalling facts. This is as true in Argos as it is in Denmark. But in Elizabethan revenge plays it is not merely the initial situation which is created by the villain. The denouement also comes about through his initiative. It is not the result of a successfully carried out scheme of the revenger. The revenger takes an opportunity unconsciously provided for him by the villain. Given this opportunity, which he seems unable to create for himself, he forms his scheme on the spur of the moment. Thus, in The Spanish Tragedy, Lorenzo, believing himself safe and that the secret of Horatio's murder lies buried with Serberine and Pedringano, feigns reconcilement with Hieronymo and invites him to provide a play for the entertainment of the court. By means of this play Hieronymo achieves his vengeance and brings to light the secret crime of Lorenzo. Similarly, in Titus Andronicus, which is obviously modelled on The Spanish Tragedy, although it exceeds it in horrors, the denouement comes about because Tamora believes she can deal with the old mad Titus and, through him, with his dangerous son Lucius who threatens her and her husband, the Emperor. Confident in her scheme, she delivers herself and her sons into Titus' hands. Up to the point when she calls upon him, disguised as Revenge, Titus has done nothing but indulge in wild gestures of grief and distraction; just as Hieronymo has done nothing to avenge his son before Lorenzo's initiative suggests to him a way of destroying his enemies and revealing their wickedness. Again, in a play written after Hamlet, Tourneur's The Revenger's Tragedy, the Duke himself asks Vendice, whose mistress he has poisoned because she would not yield to him, to find him a new mistress. He himself arranges the place, a hidden pavilion, and allows his courtiers to believe that he has gone away, so as to ensure secrecy. He thus provides Vendice with the perfect place and time for his vengeance. It seems as if in plays of this kind it was a necessary part of the total effect that the villain should be to some extent the agent of his own destruction. As initiator of the action he must be the initiator of its resolution. The satisfaction of the close included to a less or greater degree the sombre satisfaction which the Psalmist felt at the spectacle of the wicked falling into pits which they had digged for others. Here, obscurely, the hand of heaven could be felt, as Raleigh felt it in the bloody pageant of history:
Oh by what plots, by what forswearings, betrayings, oppressions, imprisonments, tortures, poisonings, and under what reasons of State, and politique subtlety, have these forenamed Kings, both strangers, and of our owne Nation, pulled the vengeance of GOD upon themselves, upon theirs, and upon their prudent ministers! and in the end have brought those things to passe for their enemies, and seene an effect so directly contrary to all their owne counsels and cruelties, as the one could never have hoped for themselves, and the other never have succeeded, if no such opposition had ever been made. GOD hath said it and performed it ever: Perdam sapientiam sapientium; I will destroy the wisdom of the wise.' — Preface to The History of the World, 1614.
'In the end' the wicked will destroy themselves and 'purposes mistook' will fall on 'the inventors' heads'. The hero waits for his opponent, as if for a signal, and the initiative and activity which Johnson expected from the hero of a play seems not to have been required from heroes in situations of this kind. This conception of a hero who is committed to counter-action, and to response to events rather than to the creation of events, is very powerfully rendered by Tourneur in the exposition of The Revenger's Tragedy. The personages of court pass across the stage, while Vendice, holding in his hands the skull of his dead mistress, comments on the parade of vicious power and wealth. He is waiting for 'that bald Madam, Opportunity'.
When we turn back from reading these plays to Hamlet we see that Shakespeare has very greatly developed this basic element in the revenge play of his day. He has developed it to make clear what in them is confused by sensationalism, and by that moral indignation which so easily converts itself to immorality. Great writers perceive what is only half perceived by their lesser contemporaries and express what in them finds only partial or imperfect expression. In other revenge plays, once the signal is given, the revenger produces a scheme of horror by which he destroys his opponent. He becomes an agent, bent on fulfilling the hateful Senecan maxim that crimes are only to be avenged by greater crimes. The irony is only mild. It is ironic that the villain, acting as if all were well, invites his destroyer to destroy him. Once invited, the hero descends with alacrity to the moral level of his opponent. The vengeance when it comes is as hideous as the original crime, or even more hideous, and the moral feelings of the audience are confused between satisfaction and outrage. In the denouement of Hamlet the irony is profound. Claudius, who has arranged the whole performance in order to destroy Hamlet, is himself destroyed and destroys his Queen. He is 'hoist with his own petard'. His tool Laertes acknowledges the justice of his fate as he reveals the plot to which he had consented: 'I am justly killed with mine own treachery.' Claudius himself makes no such acknowledgement. He dies impenitent; there is 'no relish of salvation' in his death. Kyd, with Hieronymo left alive on his hands at the end of the general holocaust, was forced to the weak expedient of making him commit suicide as the only way to preserve any sympathy for him. Hamlet dies as a victim to that constancy to his purposes which has made him 'follow the king's pleasure' throughout. The end comes because he has accepted every challenge: 'If his fitness speaks, mine is ready.' Unlike Hieronymo, Titus, and Vendice, he remains to the last, in his adversary's words, 'most generous, and free from all contriving'. For there is another point in which an Elizabethan tragedy of revenge differs from the legend of Orestes and from the original Hamlet legend. Everyone in Argos is perfectly well aware that Clytemnestra, with the help of her paramour, Aegisthus, murdered her husband, Agamemnon, just as in the old story of Hamlet everyone knows that his uncle Feng is the murderer of his father. In these ancient stories of revenge for blood the criminals are known to be criminals by all their world. They are not 'secret men of blood'. The secrecy with which Kyd invests the murder of Horatio is carried to such fantastic lengths that at one point in the play it appears that the world in general does not even realize that he is dead. In Hamlet, as we know it, whether it was so in the old play or not, only his murderer among living men knows at the beginning of the action that Hamlet the elder was murdered. The Spanish Tragedy is built on a powerful moral contrast between the treacherous, subtle, politic Lorenzo and the honest man, Hieronymo, who lives by conscience and the law. At the crisis of the play this contrast is blurred and Hieronymo becomes as crafty as his enemy. In Hamlet it is preserved to the end, and Hamlet himself is far more of an instrument and far less of an agent than are his fellow revengers.
The view that the revenger's role was essentially a waiting role, that he was committed by the situation in which he found himself to counter-action, and differentiated from his opponent by lack of guile, does not answer the question 'Why does Hamlet delay?' It sets it in a different light. We must still find consistency between his character and his actions, and Bradley's statement that 'the whole story turns on the peculiar character of the hero' retains its truth. But to set Hamlet against other plays of its time which handle the same kind of subject is to suggest that however much he may reproach himself with his delay, that delay is part of a pattern which is made clear at the close. To ask 'Why in the world did not Hamlet act at once' is to fail to grasp the nature of the dilemma which Kyd crudely adumbrated when he set the man of conscience and duty against the conscienceless and treacherous villain. Hamlet's agony of mind and indecision are precisely the things which differentiate him from that smooth, swift plotter Claudius, and from the coarse, unthinking Laertes, ready to 'dare damnation' and cut his enemy's throat in a churchyard. He quickly learns from Claudius how to entrap the unwary and the generous, and betters the instruction. 'He will never have a better opportunity', say many critics, when Hamlet, convinced of his uncle's guilt and hot for vengeance, comes on Claudius on his knees. Even Browning's ruthless tyrant, after having long schemed his enemy's destruction, shrank back and 'was afraid' when his victim 'caught at God's skirts and prayed'. Do we really want to see Hamlet stab a defenceless, kneeling man? This 'opportunity' is no opportunity at all; the enemy is within touching distance, but out of reach. Hamlet's baffled rage finds an outlet in the speech which shocked Johnson by its depth of hatred. The speech reveals more than its speaker's character. Like many soliloquies; it is proleptic. The moment which Hamlet here declares that he will wait for, the real opportunity, will come. When Hamlet has gone and Claudius has risen from his knees, and not before, we know that Claudius has not found grace. The opportunity which Hamlet awaits Claudius will now provide. The play has made Hamlet certain of his uncle's guilt; it has also shown Claudius that his guilt is no longer his own secret. If he cannot repent, he must, for his own safety, destroy Hamlet. He will do it in his own characteristic way, by the hand of an accomplice and by the treacherous man's characteristic weapon, poison. And Hamlet will destroy Claudius in his own characteristic way also, by 'rashness' and 'indiscretion', and not by 'deep plots'. He will catch him at the moment when his guilt has been made clear to all the by-standers, so that as he runs the sword through him he will do so not as an assassin but as an executioner. The dark and devious world in which Hamlet finds himself, when he accepts the necessity of obeying the command of the Ghost, involves all who enter it in guilt. But Hamlet's most terrible deed, when he allows himself to be 'marshalled to knavery' and is most contaminated by his world, the sending of the traitors Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths, is a spontaneous, savage response to the discovery of their treachery; and his other crime, the killing of Polonius, with its consequence in the madness and death of Ophelia, is also unpremeditated.
In Othello, Iago, speaking in the role of an honest man, puts crudely to his master the code of a soldier:
Though in the trade of war I have slain men,
Yet do I hold it very stuff o' the conscience
To do no contrived murder.
Hamlet is fittingly borne 'like a soldier, to the stage', because in the secret war which he has waged he has shown a soldier's virtues. Pre-eminently he has shown the virtue of constancy. He has not laid down his arms and quitted the field. For Bradley's comment, 'Two months have passed and he has done nothing', we might better say, 'Two months have passed and he is still there, at his post, on guard.' The play ends with a soldier's funeral. It opens with sentries at their watch, being relieved. In his four great tragedies, when his imagination was working at its highest pitch, Shakespeare relates his beginnings to his ends particularly closely. Granville Barker pointed out how King Lear ends as it began with Lear and his three daughters on the stage and with the old king hanging on the hope of words from Cordelia's lips. Any writer dramatizing Cinthio's story of the Moor of Venice would end with the midnight scenes of the attempted murder of Cassio and the death of Desdemona. Shakespeare has invented a great midnight opening to balance this close, with brawling in the streets followed by the midnight scene before the Senate, where, with the approval of Venice, Othello is united to Desdemona, as in the last scene he is united to her in death before the eyes of the envoys of Venice. Macbeth begins and ends with battles. It opens with the epic narrative of the defeat of the thane of Cawdor who had rebelled, and closes with the defeat of the thane of Cawdor who had usurped. And here there is contrast. The first thane confessed his treasons 'very freely' and died well, giving up his life, 'the dearest thing he owed', 'as 'twere a trifle': his successor in the title, Macbeth, fought desperately to the last to preserve a life which had become meaningless to him. The opening and the close of Hamlet have the same kind of relation to each other. The soldier on guard, who cannot leave his post until he is relieved or given permission from above, is a metaphor for the soul in this world which comes very easily to Renaissance writers. Its source is Cicero's gloss on the 'secret doctrine' which Socrates appealed to in his argument against suicide in the Phaedo. The Red Cross Knight uses it against Despair:
The soldier may not move from watchfull sted
Nor leave his stand, untill his Captain bed.
And Donne, speaking of this world as 'the appointed field', refers to the same commonplace when he chides the 'desperate coward' who yields to the foes of him
who made thee to stand
Sentinell in his worlds garrison.
The play of Hamlet continually recurs to the thought of suicide, and the temptation to give up the battle of life. Hamlet's first soliloquy opens with the lament that the Almighty has 'fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter', and his last action is to snatch the poisoned cup from the lips of Horatio. Within this frame of soldiers on the watch, being relieved, and of a soldier's laying to rest, I do not believe that the Elizabethans thought that they were witnessing a story of personal failure. Nor do I think that we should do so either, unless we are certain of what, in this situation, would be success.
The tragedy of Hamlet, and of plays of its kind, of which it is the supreme example, does not lie in 'the unfitness of the hero for his task', or in some 'fatal flaw'. It is not true that a coarser nature could have cleansed the state of Denmark, some 'Hotspur of the North':
'he that kills me some six or seven of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, "Fie upon this quiet life! I want work."'
The tragedy lies in the nature of the task, which only the noble will feel called on to undertake, or rather, in the nature of the world which is exposed to the hero's contemplation and in his sense of responsibility to the world in which he finds himself. Hamlet towers above other plays of its kind through the heroism and nobility of its hero, his superior power of insight into, and reflection upon, his situation, and his capacity to suffer the moral anguish which moral responsibility brings. Hamlet is the quintessence of European man, who holds that man is
'ordained to govern the world according to equity and righteousness with an upright heart',
and not to renounce the world and leave it to its corruption. By that conception of man's duty and destiny he is involved in those tragic dilemmas with which our own age is so terribly familiar. For how can man secure justice except by committing injustice, and how can he act without outraging the very conscience which demands that he should act?
It will have been apparent for some time that I am coming round to a point where I am demonstrating the historical nature of my own answer to my question. Although I have gone to the Elizabethans to ask how Hamlet appeared to audiences which had applauded The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus, it is the moral uncertainties and the moral dilemmas of my own age which make me unable to see Hamlet in terms of the hero's failure or success in the task which the Ghost lays upon him.
For this same lord,
I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
Hamlet, speaking over the body of one of his victims, Polonius, speaks for all those called on to attempt to secure justice, the supporters of 'just wars' as well as those who fight in them. In trying to set Hamlet back into its own age, I seem to have found in it an image of my own time. The Elizabethan Hamlet assumes the look of the Hamlet of the twentieth century.
That the answers we find are conditioned by our own circumstances does not destroy their value. Hamlet is not a problem to which a final solution exists. It is a work of art about which questions can always be asked. Each generation asks its own questions and finds its own answers, and the final test of the validity of those answers can only be time. Johnson, Coleridge, Bradley, all tell us things about Hamlet which are consistent with the play as we read it. A critic today cannot hope for more than that his questions and answers will seem relevant, and will continue to seem relevant, to others who read and ponder the play. The reward of the historical approach is not that it leads us to a final and infallible interpretation.
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