“We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him.” T. S. Eliot The real tragedy of Hamlet is that it is so far from being a masterpiece of Shakespeare – the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the other plays of Shakespeare. Of all the plays it is the longest and is possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed. The versification is variable. Lines like
Look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill,
are of the Shakespeare of Romeo and Juliet. The lines in Act v. sc. ii.,
Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep…
Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarf’d about me, in the dark
Grop’d I to find out them: had my desire;
Finger’d their packet;
are of his quite mature. Both workmanship and thought are in an unstable condition. We are surely justified in attributing the play, with that other profoundly interesting
play of “intractable” material and astonishing versification, Measure for Measure, to a period of crisis, after which follow the tragic successes which culminate in Coriolanus. Coriolanus may be not as “interesting” as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success. And probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the “Mona Lisa” of literature.
The grounds of Hamlet’s failure are not immediately obvious. It is undoubtedly correct to conclude that the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother. Hamlet’s tone is that of one who has suffered greatly as a direct result of his mother’s degradation. The guilt of a mother is an almost intolerable motive for drama, but it had to be maintained and emphasized to supply a psychological solution, or rather a hint of one.
This, however, is by no means the whole story. It is not merely the “guilt of a mother” that cannot be handled as Shakespeare handled the suspicion of Othello, the infatuation of Antony, or the pride of Coriolanus.
Inconsistency in The Character of Hamlet
Inconsistency in The Character of Hamlet
The perfection of Hamlet’s character has been called in question – perhaps by those who do not understand it. The character of Hamlet stands by itself. It is not a character marked by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment. Hamlet is as little of the hero as a man can be. He is a young and princely novice, full of high enthusiasm and quick sensibility – the sport of circumstances, questioning with fortune and refining on his own feelings, and forced from his natural disposition by the strangeness of his situation.
Hamlet seems incapable of deliberate action, and is only hurried into extremities on the spur of the occasion, when he has no time to reflect, as in the scene where he kills Polonius, and again, where he alters the letters which Rosencraus and Guildenstern are taking with them to England, purporting his death. At other times, when he is most bound to act, he remains puzzled, undecided, and skeptical, until the occasion is lost, and he finds some pretence to relapse into indolence and thoughtfulness again. For this reason he refuses to kill the King when he is at his prayers, and by a refinement in malice, which is in truth only an excuse for his own want of resolution, defers his revenge to a more fatal opportunity, when he will be engaged in some act “that has no relish of salvation in it.”
“Now might I do it pat now he is praying;
And now I’ll do ‘t; – and so he goes to heaven;
And so am I reveng’d? – that would be scanned:
A villain kills my father; and for that
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge …
Up sword; and know thou a more horrid hent,
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… explaining the cause of his alienation, which he hardly trust himself to think of. It would have taken him years to have come to a direct explanation on the point. In the harassed state of his mind, he could not have done much other than what he did. His conduct does not contradict what he says when he sees her funeral,
“I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum” – [Act v., sc. 1.]
In conclusion, Shakespeare has been accused of inconsistency with Hamlet only because he has kept up the distinction which there is in nature, between the understandings and the moral habits of men, between the absurdity of their ideas and the absurdity of their motives. Hamlet is not a fool, but he makes himself so. His folly, whether in his actions or speeches, comes under the category of impropriety of intention.