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I Now proceed to offer some remarks on the character of Hamlet, and to consider whether he is in any degree entitled to the high encomiums, which some of the commentators, particularly Richardson, in his Analysis, have lavished upon him.
On a full review of the whole drama, I am unable to discover a single trait of conduct, calculated to excite respect for the qualities of his head, or esteem for those of his heart—nothing that becomes the hero of a drama—nothing that can rescue him from contempt for his imbecility, or abhorrence for his turpitude.
He in various instances proves himself devoid of truth, justice, honour, and courage—those sterling qualities, the want of any one of which sinks, in public estimation, the character of him who labours under the deficiency. What a hideous object must he be, who is deficient in the whole?
That Hamlet has no pretensions to courage is apparent in almost every scene of the play wherein he appears. But it may be replied that a mere want of courage is much more a misfortune, than a crime—more calculated to excite pity, than any other sentiment. While a free assent is given to this observation, it cannot be denied, that when a man covers a radical and incurable cowardice, under the most bombastic threats—when he excites himself to the most violent rage, and is constantly vowing vengeance, without the slightest effort to carry his threats into execution, he loses all claim to pity, and becomes an object of contempt.
That this is the conduct of Hamlet, a slight examination of the drama will evince. Never did Achilles vent his rage in stronger terms, or more solemnly pledge himself to be avenged of Agamemnon, than the prince of Denmark does to be avenged of his uncle. It might be supposed that myriads of embattled heroes would not appal him, or make him hesitate in the accomplishment of this grand object.
Ham. Haste me to know it; that I, with wings as swift
Vol. IV. 3 C
Ham. 'Tis now the very witching time of night;
Would quake to look on.
Ham. O, all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
But bear me stiffly up! But all these sounding threats evaporate into thin air. They are all“ sound and fury,” totally without meaning, or producing any effect. But, however deficient he may be in courage, he makes ample amends by billingsgate and abuse-he can bellow, and rage and scold, with as much virulence and as much grace, as any of the chaste and refined inhabitants of Billingsgate or St. Giles's.
Bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! A person unacquainted with the denouement of the tragedy, would, in reading the first, second, and third acts, anticipate some magnanimous effort to avenge the wickedness of the usurpersomething that would be worthy of a hero. The circumstances of the case, the solemn injunctions of the ghost, as well as the reiterated pledges of Hamlet, afford strong ground for such a surmise. Hamlet's father had been most basely murdered. He himself had been defrauded of his inheritance. And abase and sanguinary usurper had been foisted upon the Danes, in place of their lawful monarch. He that would not be incited by these circumstances to “ deeds of pith and daring” would be
“ Duller than the fat weed, That rots itself in ease on Lethe's wharf.” And yet there is not one single attempt made throughout the whole drama, to accomplish the object he appeared to have in view.
There were two obvious modes of proceeding. One, boldly to raise an army, and hurl the usurper from the throne, or nobly to perish in the attempt. The other, to have recourse to the stiletto, or to poison.
The first would have been the natural resort of a noble, magnanimous mind. It would have become the hero of a drama, and ex
cited the reverence of an audience. It would have placed Hamlet
“Compunctious visitings of conscience”—
No such scruple darts across his mind. He is withheld solely by
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I'
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
With this slave's offal. The ghost had used every exhortation to excite him to vengeance.
Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand,
Ham. Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose. It was all in vain. Into the heart, wherein nature has planted cowardice, reason can never infuse courage. But when Polonius was behind the arras, Hamlet, supposing it was his uncle, thought he had a safe opportunity of sating his vengeance, without endangering his person, and availed himself of it with avidity.
On this trait of Hamlet's character it is needless to add another word. The man who denies that Hamlet was a base coward, devoid of even a spark of courage, would be deaf to any further
ment that might be adduced upon the subject, even though one were to rise from the dead."
There is in the character of Hamlet a distrust and want of confidence utterly incompatible with honour or dignity. He appears to have but one solitary friend, Horatio, on whom he passes this high encomium, that he was
“ E'en as just a man
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice,
As I do thee. To this tried, this trusty, this faithful friend, how does Hamlet deport himself? Does he unbosom himself, and disclose the secret workings of his soul? No. After the ghost has disappeared, when Horatio eagerly inquires what has been the result of the interview, Hamlet trifles with him in the most puerile manner.
Mar. How is't, my noble lord?