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Essay On The Character Of Hamlet

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AN ESSAY ON THE CHARACTER OF HAMLET.

THE writings of Shakespear have main|tained the post of eminence so long, that most people feign or possess some relish for them: his beauties have been acknowledged by every man of fine taste, and his obscurities eluci|dated, by the most subtle, elaborate, and learn|ed commentators this country has produced; to venture therefore upon the investigation of a sub|ject, apparently exhausted, might be as hazard|ous, as it seems barren. But though it would be presumption in an artist, to design the model of a temple, or a palace, after a master in architecture, it surely cannot arraign his dis|cretion, Page  2to fix on a single column, and catch some minute beauty in the architrave or frieze, which may have escaped a mind expanded to embrace a vaster object.

The writer of this essay, means to insulate the character of Hamlet, from the other persons of the drama; and after having considered the philosophic Prince, in regard to situation, temper, passions, and understanding, to ex|amine with coolness and impartiality, Mr. Henderson's representation of him; compare shade, with shade, and tint, with tint, then finally ascertain the degree of conception, and execution, that gentleman exhibited in his performance.

This speices of criticism has at least novelty to recommend it; for though taste and learning dedicate every effort to establish the reputation, and perpetuate the memory of the poet, the actor, to whom he is often indebted for more than one laurel, is rarely honored with a leaf, to protect him from oblivion. The graces of action, the harmony of elocution, and the energy of soul which distinguishes the favourite of the sister muses purchase a transitory fame which perishes with the possessor, and had Gar|rick Page  3no personal interest with Apollo, the smiles of Thalia, and the favor of Melpomene, would have been a precarious tenure on immortality.

The character of Hamlet, though not the most finished, is certainly one of the most splendid efforts of Shakespear's genius. He has combined in it, every circumstance which can affect the heart, or interest the understanding. He represents a Prince, in the bloom of life, plunged into a deep melancholy, at the death of a father, whom he tenderly loved. The filial piety of a son, is finely contrasted by the levity of a mother, who in defiance of censure, and the ties of consanguinity, marries her deceased husband's brother.

Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears,

Had left the flushing in her gauled eyes,

Hamlet's understanding is sound, and his sensibility exquisite. He is moreover adorned with every liberal accomplishment, which can distinguish the gentleman and the scholar: his reasonings are deep, and his passions ardent; and as both are excited by great and adequate motives, his character affords the most ample field for the display of theatrical abilities. Such Page  4is the contour of Hamlet, as delineated by Shakespear, and which he has filled with as rich and glowing colours, as ever dropped from the pencil of imagination. The appearance of a young performer in a character of this importance, must excite the curiosity of every admirer of the drama. But in this sickly win|ter, this blight of the stage, when figure and voice, in general are the only substitutes for feeling, conception, and imagination; it is no wonder, every dawn of those fine faculties, is received with pleasure, and fostered with ap|probation.

Mr. Henderson, after having given infinite satisfaction in the character of Shylock, ap|peared for the first time in Hamlet. His suc|cess must have surpassed his most sanguine ex|pectations; he deserved, and obtained great praise; but in justice to his abilities, and in order to maintain the candour, and ascert the dignity of taste, it is necessary to examine with coolness, and precision, his per|formance; and judging by the standards of nature and truth, pronounce where he merited censure, and where approbation. It has often been contested by theatrical polemicks, whether figure may not be dispensed with in an Page  5actor of real genius. It must be allowed, that a man of sense and feeling, with a tolerable per|son, will please a judicious audience, much more than a blockhead, with beauty and grace; but in order to compleatly fill the idea, im|pressed on the mind by the poet, every youth|ful personage, that stands eminently forward in the drama, unless marked by record or tra|dition, with deformity, should certainly possess those external requisites, which at sight conci|liate respect and esteem; they augment our in|terest in the happiness or misery of the character, and render sympathy more exquisite. From the express words of the poet, Hamlet should have the most prepossessing aspect and demeanor.

The courtier's, soldier's scholar's eye, tongue, sword,

Th' expectancy and rose of the fair state

The glass of fashion, and the mould of form

And again,

That unmatch'd form and feature of blown youth

Mr. Henderson's person is far from striking; it is rather under the middle size, and moulded with no extraordinary elegance, or symmetry. His eye is good, and all his other features, bold and marking; but his countenance seemed Page  6incapable of assuming the pathetic engaging look, which should peculiarly distinguish the character; his deportment was easy, but not graceful; and was considerably injured by his appearing over solicitous about the disposal of his hands; it is particular, and ungraceful, to confine them too much to the bosom. Mr. Henderson's first impression therefore was not very favorable to him. But if he appeared inadequate to the character in aspect, and de|portment, he soon convinced his auditors, that he was not deficient in judgment and feeling. When the Queen charges Hamlet, almost in direct terms, with hypocrisy, persevering in obstinate sorrow, for a loss which could not be retrieved, Mr. Henderson delivered his pathetic reply with great sensibility; his look, tone, and gesture, were as well conceived, as exe|cuted, and finely marked the resentment of a delicate, and liberal spirit hurt by a reproach it was conscious of not meriting. Excellence in speaking a soliloquy, is one of the greatest difficulties in the art of acting. Nature is the only dictator inspirited and impassioned scenes, moreover in dialogue, the eye of the speaker is fixed by the person addressed; but in those cool deliberations which the mind holds with itself, when reason drops a curtain before the Page  7eye of sense, and every external object is ex|cluded, it is then the genius of the actor is tried, for unless he has a strong imagination to render him thoroughly possessed of the character, united to a sound judgment, and the happiest powers of execution, his attention will unavoidably be solicited by the audience, and render his words ridiculous and unnatural. Though we cannot pronounce Mr. Henderson excellent in this department of the histrionic art, yet he was far from reprehensible; he appeared to want practice more than judgment, and a young actor seldom possesses his powers at once in full flexibility. When the mind is strongly agitated, the body is restless and unsettled—therefore Mr. Henderson's walking to and fro during the time he waited to see his father's spirit was extremely natural; however we most earnestly intreat him never in future to prepare us for a start by pulling off his hat immediately before the appearance of the ghost; if he apprehends that appendage to dress may conceal the part of his face, where terror and anxiety are most strongly expressed, let him contrive to get rid of it in his first confu|sion; which if he cannot do with ease, let him remember, that in the fine arts, nothing is a beauty which militates with Page  8nature and truth. In the solemn address to the Ghost, Mr. Henderson's voice was low, tre|mulous, and interrupted; rising gradually to a more confirmed tone, as his fears subsided; but his ejaculation to the protecting Angels of grace, was offered up before he saw the spirit; his succeeding pause was just and natural; for terror incites an instantaneous wish for safety; and it is always some time before the mind recovers itself enough to attend to any other object. There is a very capital blunder in the conduct of this scene, of which most Hamlets are guilty; when the spirit appears, Horatio and Marcellus, instead of consulting their own safeties, seize Hamlet's arms; as if, from their prior acquaintance with the Ghost, they were become familiar. This is not only absurd and unnatural, but robs the principal object of a picturesque and striking attitude. Hamlet, when first acquainted of the appari|tion, seems to have a precognition that his fa|ther was come to reveal some important secret; for he says.

I pray you all, if you have hitherto conceal'd this sight

Let it be treble in your silence still;

And whatsoever shall befall to night,

Give it an understanding, but no tongue.

Page  11 And from the following passage, he appears determined, in spite of opposition, to interro|gate the spirit, and know what seduced him from the bourne of eternity—

If it assume my noble father's person,

I'll speak to it, tho' hell shou'd gape

And bid me hold my peace.

The apparition, instead of replying, continues to make repeated signals, as if he wished to impart something to Hamlet alone.—He prepares to follow, but is held by his friends; it is natural to suppose that this check must rather increase than diminish his anxiety; and by his own words he appears worked up to the most extravagant pitch of desperation —he declares that he does not value his life, that he thinks himself summoned by the voice of fate, and that he feels the pettiest channel that throbs with life in his body as hardy as the Nemaean lion's nerve. Therefore during the struggle to disengage himself from Marcellus and Horatio, his look and gesture should be wild, and his voice piercingly ener|gic.—Mr. Henderson fell infinitely short of this conception, either from want of viva|city of passion, or a deficiency of power in the upper tones of his voice; his painting was Page  12just, but not bold or masterly; from faintness of colouring the effect of light and shade was inconsiderable, had he been more animated, the transition from extremity of emotion to respect and duty, when he bids the ghost proceed, would have had a prodigious fine effect.—Short as this scene is, Garrick's ex|cellence in it was astonishing; he preserved Shakespear's fire undiminished, faithful as the electric, and sent the animated shock of na|ture's flame home to the heart.—It is to be regretted that a young performer of Mr. Hen|derson's abilities can never behold this great model of Theatrical Perfection; for men of real genius profit from each other, without descending to the servility of imitation.— During the subsequent scene with the Ghost, Mr. Henderson was every thing that criticism could wish; but if he would observe the mi|nutiae of propriety, he would drop his sword when the spirit tells him that he is his father; hitherto he had but presumptive proofs.

It must be confessed that this is a piece of stage etiquette, which may be complied or dis|pensed with AD LIBITUM; and perhaps it ne|ver would have been noticed by the writer of this essay, but for the extraordinary ingenuity Page  13of a news-paper Drawcansir, who most saga|ciously remarked, in one of his daily critique's, that Hamlet's promising to revenge his father's death after he had dropped his sword, was ab|surd, judiciously supposing that he could not take it up again.

From the disappearing of the Ghost to the close of the first act, there are few opportuni|ties for the display of superior talents. Mr. Henderson spoke the soliloquy previous to the entry of Horatio and Marcellus, with great feeling and propriety, and preserved a beauty in this speech which is either lost or rendered rediculous by the generality of performers; it is Hamlet's taking his tablets out, in order to set down—

That man may smile, and smile and be a villain.

This is an action strong emotion may dic|tate, but which nothing else can authorize. Therefore, if the actor be not animated, it will pass unnoticed, or appear like the flight of a lunatic. Mr. Henderson felt, and nature sus|tained no injury. At the conclusion of the first act, Hamlet becomes a new character, de|termined on avenging the murder of his fa|ther, and justly alarmed for his own safety, he Page  14assumes the mask of insanity, to conceal his intentions, and lull the suspicions of the king his uncle. There is no part of acting more difficult to exhibit, than that of madness. It requires great flexibility of voice, and counte|nance, to express the rapid succession of ima|ges, that float across a distracted fancy. The eye should be wild, yet vacant, and the tones piercing. It is true, Hamlet's madness is feigned; but it is evident from the following lively description, that the poet meant, it should be counterfeited with great strength of imagination and masterly touches of nature.—

My Lord as I was sewing in my closet

Lord Hamlet with his doublet all unbraced

No hat upon his head, his stockings loose,

Ungartered, and down gyred to his ankle,

Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other

And with a look so piteous, in purport,

As if he had been loosed out of hell

To speak of horrors, thus he comes, before me.

In the first scene with Polonius, Mr. Hen|derson would have been unexceptionable, had he paid more regard to a striking and pic|turesque manner. He looked, and conceived the poet justly, but diminished the fine effect his disordered appearance would have had, by inattention to attitude and grace. There never Page  15was perhaps a more admirable description of a rooted melancholy, than the relation Ham|let gives to Rosincraus and Guildenstern, of the progress of his distemper. It rises with striking and noble images, in grand succession to an astonishing pitch of sublimity. The last objection made to Mr. Henderson, stands here also against him. His tones and manner had not the correspondent weight, which the majesty of the sentiments he uttered required. If he delivered this speech less rapidly, and made a short pause previous to the words—

What a piece of work is man,

it would have had a much better effect. In his scene with the players he was easy, sensi|ble and spirited; and gave the charge to them, as well, perhaps, as any man who ever per|formed the character.—It is painful to point out blemishes, where many beauties are to be met with. But the parterre will be soon over-run, if the weeds are suffered to remain, lest the act of removing them should lacerate the flowers.— Hamlet is stung with shame, to see a player, by the force of imagination, deeply affected, for the calamities of a person who has been dead for centuries, and naturally asks, "what would such a man do, had he motives to stir the cause of vengeance which he himself had. Page  16In enumerating them, his passion kindles, till he becomes frantic with rage. Mr. Hender|son wanted fire and rapidity. In reasoning up|on the imagination of the player, and his own tardiness to revenge, he was striking and na|tural, but his indignation was not vented with the energy of strong passion. When the mind is shook with violent anger, every sentence is uttered in the highest key of the voice. It is the native tone of rage, and if the performer cannot reach it, he comes tardy of the poet's conception. Mr. Henderson never employs the upper key, which we are inclined to attri|bute to want of judgment rather than to want of genius. Rant consists in the misapplication, not in the great exertion of the voice. For in the impassioned part of this speech, every word Mr. Garrick utters, seems to rush from the burning mint of sensibility; which proves, that the loudest extent of voice will not offend, when the heart replies to it in sympathy. Mr. Henderson laid a glaring false emphasis in this speech. In repeating

What is Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,

That he should weep for her?

he puts the stress upon HER, though there is no antithesis. Hamlet is not surprised at the Page  17player's weeping for Hecuba in PARTICU|LAR, but that he shou'd weep for any per|son, with whom he was utterly unconnected; if this passage be received as Mr. Henderson spoke it, one would be apt to conclude, that there was something in the miseries of Hecuba, which excluded her from compassion.

The third act opens with the celebrated so|liloquy upon suicide. Hamlet, weary of be|ing obliged to procrastinate his revenge, and sick of the calamities of life, from which he saw no rank or condition to be exempted, reflects which should be preferred in adversity, existence or death * the magnitude of this subject gives Page  18great scope to an actor of genius. Mr. Henderson appeared in every respect equal to it; his words and action seemed to flow from deep and strong thinking; and both were regulated by the strictest rules of taste and judgment. Hamlet's meditations are interrupted by the presence of Ophelia. He addresses her at first, with gen|tleness and delicacy. But recollecting the cha|racter he had to sustain, he starts wildly from the point, and under the shelter of frenzy, vents the keenest satyr against the sex in gene|ral. Here Mr. Henderson was too tame. He should remember, that though there be truth, and strong sense in what he says, that he is still the mad-man; and that unless his look and manner be wild, and his utterance rapid, he will be discovered. No actor will perform this scene well, without a fine imagination, to catch the enthusiasm of the poet; and out of love to the expiring genius of the stage, we hope Mr. Henderson possesses it. It would be tedious Page  19and unnecessary to dwell upon passages which any performer of good sense may execute with|out incurring censure, or extorting applause. We shall confine our observations to those parts alone where excellence may be displayed. From the king's confusion at the murder of Gonzago, Hamlet is convinced of his guilt. His doubts therefore are removed, respecting the veracity of the ghost, and he determines upon revenge the first opportunity. Upon find|ing the king at prayers, he is about to put him to death; but recollecting that it was not in the moment of contrition, he killed his father, that he took him, full of bread,

With all his crimes, broad blown, as flush as May.

he resolves to defer his vengeance to the un|prepared hour of pleasure and debauch. This principal link, being omitted in the represen|tation, and no other cause substituted, for Hamlet's continuing to procrastinate, he ap|pears 'weak and inconsistent, during the last two acts. At the private interview Ham|let has with his mother, Mr. Henderson was rather too boisterous and irreverent to a queen and his parent. A liberal mind will preserve delicacy, even in reproaches. In speaking,
Page  20

You are the queen, your husband's, brother's wife,

Wou'd it were not so; you are my mother,

he pauses after the words, "Your husband's, brother's wife," and by uttering the rest of the passage in one continued tone, perverts the sense, appearing to desire, that the queen was not his mother, when the poet means he should wish, that she was not married to his uncle. This interpretation of the passage is sanctified, not only by Hamlet's general character, but by his own words. Notwithstanding the in|continence of his mother, he constantly be|trays the tenderness of a son, and feels for her weakness as a woman.

O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever

The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom;

Let me be cruel, but not unnatural,

'Twill speak daggers to her, but use none.

Hamlet's producing the picture of his father and his uncle, is a happy and affecting inci|dent; but we think Mr. Henderson's concep|tion, in one part of it, erroneous. When the pious prince dwells upon the personal beauty of his father, and contrasts it with the defor|mity of his uncle, admiration, not grief, is the Page  21predominant passion; sorrow chills the fancy, and the following images appear to be the offspring of the most glowing imagination.—

An eye, like Mars, to threaten or command,

A station like the herald Mercury;

New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill,

A combination, and a form indeed;

Where ev'ry God had set his seal,

To give the world assurance of a man.

Imagery rich as this, requires a firm animated tone of grandeur. But Mr. Henderson's voice broke into a boyish whimper, which not a syl|lable he had to utter could justify, or dictate. Throwing away the king's picture, savours ra|ther of trick; besides it does not seem to aug|ment our sensibility. Mr. Henderson's terror was finely expressed upon the appearance of the ghost; his voice, countenance and attitude, consprired with united force to strike us with awe, pity, and admiration; and if he would avoid the errors hinted at, his closet scene would be a most capital piece of acting.—One of the principal defects in this tragedy, is the almost total exclusion of Hamlet from the fourth act; so long losing sight of the chief personage in the drama, our interest for him is diminished: as the piece was originally written, Hamlet has Page  22three scenes in the fourth act, but two of which are retained, though the third con|tains a most beautiful soliloquy, in which Hamlet justifies himself, for suspending the revenge he promised his father. In Mr. Gar|rick's alteration this speech is preserved. The opening of the fifth act is stained with low ri|baldry, but so intimately connected with stri|king beauties, that it would be impossible to expunge the one without losing the other. Hamlet's reflections upon the last humiliating state of human nature, are awful and affecting, particularly those upon the skull of Yorick, when he beholds the sad disfigured remains, of a man who was once dear to him, mouldring into dust, hideous with deformity, the food and habitation of the worm; but the genius of Shakespear penetrated all nature, and his voice is heard from the tomb. We were surprized and chagrined, to find Mr. Henderson fell short of our expectations in this scene. His expression was languid and unimpassioned. He appeared over solicitous to give force and so|lemnity to his manner, and in the attempt lost the fine spirit of the poet. In uttering the rant into which Hamlet breaks at Ophelia's fune|ral, Mr. Henderson distorts the sense of one line by a false emphasis. Laertes, when his Page  23sister's obsequies are nearly finished, overcome with sorrow, leaps into her grave, and cries,

Now heap your mountains on the quick and dead,

desiring, in the extravagance of grief, to be interred alive with one so dear to him. Ham|let, whose affection for Ophelia was not less ardent, challenges him to give a proof of su|perior tenderness, and after proposing the wildest tests which frenzy could dictate, says,

BE buried quick with her and so will I.

As this was a proposal of Laertes, not Ham|let, the emphatical word undoubtedly is the monosylable BE. Mr. Henderson does not observe this emphasis, therefore from his tone we would conclude that Laertes had not, pri|or to Hamlet, desired to be interred with O|phelia, but that this thought was originally the latter's, and only in the climas of extrava|gant images which burst from him in the ef|fervescence of imagination. When Ostrick cries a hit, a palpable hit; Laertes' point is at Hamlet's breast, owing to Mr. Henderson's ignorance of the sword. Fencing is an ac|complishment, not to be dispensed with in an actor; and nothing so much promotes grace|fulness Page  24of deportment. Mr. Henderson's dy|ing scene was capital, it appeared indeed the last struggle of the spirit, when life hangs quivering to a point, and death extinguishes it.—

Having thus progressively traced Mr. Henderson through the character of Hamlet, and remarked with equal candour upon his merits and imperfections; we must pronounce him, notwithstanding some blemishes, the best performer now left to support the drooping trophies of the stage. He possesses taste, feel|ing and good sense; and though not blessed by nature with that portion of aetherial fire, which alone could once purchase him emi|nence on the stage, he must always main|tain the superiority of men, who in general are indebted to accident, person, or interest, for their situations.

Is it not ridiculous and disgusting to hear a man without an atom of feeling draul out in one uniform, unvaried tone, the most point|ed observation or lively passion? Is it not monstrous to behold another with the sepul|chral aspect of an undertaker, and a voice as dismal as the hooting of the owl warbling out Page  25Romeo, and putting Shakespear to death? But what is infinitely, if possible, more pre|posterous, we are sometimes obliged to bear a man, whose enormous bulk and drousy eye would incline us to believe, that he had bet|ter taste in Calipash and Calipee, than in de|licacy of sentiment, and resembles an alderman or a butcher more than a lover or a hero * For heaven's sake, does a manager ever purchase actors by the pound, tha he will employ such people? We congratulate the public upon their acquisition in Mr. Henderson, and hope his genius will protect us at least in part from like mortifications in future.

FINIS.

Hamlet -  The Prince of Denmark, the title character, and the protagonist. About thirty years old at the start of the play, Hamlet is the son of Queen Gertrude and the late King Hamlet, and the nephew of the present king, Claudius. Hamlet is melancholy, bitter, and cynical, full of hatred for his uncle’s scheming and disgust for his mother’s sexuality. A reflective and thoughtful young man who has studied at the University of Wittenberg, Hamlet is often indecisive and hesitant, but at other times prone to rash and impulsive acts.

Read an in-depth analysis of Hamlet.

Claudius -  The King of Denmark, Hamlet’s uncle, and the play’s antagonist. The villain of the play, Claudius is a calculating, ambitious politician, driven by his sexual appetites and his lust for power, but he occasionally shows signs of guilt and human feeling—his love for Gertrude, for instance, seems sincere.

Read an in-depth analysis of Claudius.

Gertrude -  The Queen of Denmark, Hamlet’s mother, recently married to Claudius. Gertrude loves Hamlet deeply, but she is a shallow, weak woman who seeks affection and status more urgently than moral rectitude or truth.

Read an in-depth analysis of Gertrude.

Polonius -  The Lord Chamberlain of Claudius’s court, a pompous, conniving old man. Polonius is the father of Laertes and Ophelia.

Horatio -  Hamlet’s close friend, who studied with the prince at the university in Wittenberg. Horatio is loyal and helpful to Hamlet throughout the play. After Hamlet’s death, Horatio remains alive to tell Hamlet’s story.

Ophelia -  Polonius’s daughter, a beautiful young woman with whom Hamlet has been in love. Ophelia is a sweet and innocent young girl, who obeys her father and her brother, Laertes. Dependent on men to tell her how to behave, she gives in to Polonius’s schemes to spy on Hamlet. Even in her lapse into madness and death, she remains maidenly, singing songs about flowers and finally drowning in the river amid the flower garlands she had gathered.

Laertes -  Polonius’s son and Ophelia’s brother, a young man who spends much of the play in France. Passionate and quick to action, Laertes is clearly a foil for the reflective Hamlet.

Fortinbras -  The young Prince of Norway, whose father the king (also named Fortinbras) was killed by Hamlet’s father (also named Hamlet). Now Fortinbras wishes to attack Denmark to avenge his father’s honor, making him another foil for Prince Hamlet.

The Ghost -  The specter of Hamlet’s recently deceased father. The ghost, who claims to have been murdered by Claudius, calls upon Hamlet to avenge him. However, it is not entirely certain whether the ghost is what it appears to be, or whether it is something else. Hamlet speculates that the ghost might be a devil sent to deceive him and tempt him into murder, and the question of what the ghost is or where it comes from is never definitively resolved.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern -  Two slightly bumbling courtiers, former friends of Hamlet from Wittenberg, who are summoned by Claudius and Gertrude to discover the cause of Hamlet’s strange behavior.

Osric -  The foolish courtier who summons Hamlet to his duel with Laertes.

Voltimand and Cornelius -  Courtiers whom Claudius sends to Norway to persuade the king to prevent Fortinbras from attacking.

Marcellus and Bernardo -  The officers who first see the ghost walking the ramparts of Elsinore and who summon Horatio to witness it. Marcellus is present when Hamlet first encounters the ghost.

Francisco -  A soldier and guardsman at Elsinore.

Reynaldo -  Polonius’s servant, who is sent to France by Polonius to check up on and spy on Laertes.

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