From God's immediate creation emerges Adam, the prototype. From God's intermediate creation, that is, from humanity, emerge other Adams, other types. ... Homer's man, Achilles, is an Adam; from him derives the species of killers; Aeschylos's man, Prometheus, is an Adam; from him comes to us the race of fighters; Shakespeare's man, Hamlet, is an Adam; to him is connected the family of dreamers. Other Adams created by the poets are incarnations, this one of passion, that one of duty, the next one of reason, yet another of conscience, others still of the Fall, and of the Ascension.
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Prometheus is action. Hamlet is hesitation. In Prometheus the obstacle is exterior; in Hamlet it is interior. In Prometheus the will is securely nailed down by nails of brass and cannot get loose; besides, it has by its side two watchers – Force and Power. In Hamlet the will is more tied down yet; it is bound by previous meditation – the endless chain of the undecided. Try to get out of yourself if you can! What a Gordian knot is our reverie. Slavery from within, that is slavery indeed. Scale this enclosure, "to dream!" escape, if you can, from this prison, "to love!" The only dungeon is that which walls conscience in. Prometheus, in order to be free, has but a bronze collar to break and a god to conquer; Hamlet must break and conquer himself. Prometheus can raise himself upright, if he only lifts a mountain; to raise himself up, Hamlet must lift his own thoughts. If Prometheus plucks the vulture from his breast, all is said; Hamlet must tear Hamlet from his breast. Prometheus and Hamlet are two naked livers; from one runs blood, from the other doubt.
Aeschylos and Shakespeare are usually compared through Orestes and Hamlet, those two tragedies comprising but one single drama. Never has a subject been treated in a more identical way. Learned men point out an analogy; the weak and ignorant, the envious and imbecilic believe themselves in possession of the small joy of having uncovered an instance of plagiarism. Otherwise, this is a possible field for comparative scholarship and serious criticism. Hamlet follows Orestes, patricide stemming from filial love. This easy comparison, superficial rather than profound, surprises less than the mysterious confrontation of those two enchained men, Prometheus and Hamlet.
Lest we forget, the human spirit, halfway divine as it is, creates, every so often, works that are larger than life. ... Prometheus and Hamlet are such larger-than-life works.
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Hamlet is prince and demagogue, sagacious and extravagant, profound and frivolous, man and neuter. He has little faith in the sceptre, rails at the throne, has a student for his comrade, converses with any one passing by, argues with the first comer, understands the people, despises the mob, hates violence, distrusts success, questions obscurity, and is on speaking terms with mystery. He communicates to others maladies that he has not himself; his feigned madness inoculates his mistress with real madness. He is familiar with spectres and with actors. He jests, with the axe of Orestes in his hand. He talks literature, recites verses, composes a theatrical criticism, plays with bones in a churchyard, dumbfounds his mother, avenges his father, and closes the dread drama of life and death with a gigantic point of interrogation. He terrifies, and then disconcerts. Never has anything more overwhelming been dreamed. It is patricide saying: What do I know?
Patricide? Let us halt on that word. Is Hamlet patricidal? Yes and no. He restrains himself to threatening his mother, but the threat is so ferocious that the mother trembles. – "These words like daggers enter in mine ears! ... What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murther me? Help, help, ho!" – And when she dies, without mourning her Hamlet hits Claudius with this tragic outcry: Follow my mother! Hamlet is that sinister thing, the potential patricide.
Replace in his veins the northern spirit of his head with the Mediterranean running through the veins of Orestes, and he will kill his mother.
This drama is stern. In it truth doubts, sincerity lies. Nothing can be vaster, nothing subtler. In it man is the world, and the world is zero. Hamlet, even in full life, is not sure of his existence. In this tragedy – which is at the same time a philosophy – everything floats, hesitates, shuffles, staggers, becomes discomposed, scatters, and is dispersed. Thought is a cloud, will is a vapour, resolution a twilight; the action blows every moment from a different direction; the mariners card governs man. A work which disturbs and makes dizzy; in which the bottom of everything is laid bare; where the pendulum of thought oscillates only from the murdered king to buried Yorick; and where that which is most real is kingliness impersonated in a ghost, and mirth represented by a death's head.
Hamlet is the supreme tragedy of the human dream.
One of the probable reasons for Hamlet's feigned madness has heretofore not been identified by the critics. They have said: Hamlet plays the fool to conceal his thoughts, like Brutus. It is easy to see supposed foolishness as a veil for a greater design; the supposed idiot's vision is unimpeded. But Brutus's case is not that of Hamlet. Hamlet plays the fool for his own safety. Brutus conceals his plans, Hamlet his person. Given the morals underpinning this tragic course of events, the moment that Hamlet, through the ghost's revelations, learns of Claudius's deed, Hamlet is in danger. Herein manifests himself the superior historian within the poet, and one can see Shakespeare's profound perception of the old royal undepths. In the Middle Ages and the late empire, and even before that, woe to anyone who had become aware of a murder or a poisoning committed by a king. Ovid, conjectures Voltaire, was exiled from Rome because he had seen something shameful in the house of Augustus. To know that the king is a murderer was a capital crime. If it pleased the prince not to have any witnesses, people's heads would ensure it, come what may. It was bad politics to have good eyes. A man suspected of suspicion was lost. There was only one refuge, madness; to pass for an "innocent"; people would despise him, and all was said. Remember the counsel that, in Aeschylos, Okeanos gives to Prometheus: to seem a fool is the wise man's secret. When chamberlain Hugolin found the brooch that Edric the Conqueror had used to impale Edmund II, "he hurried to strike a pose of stupefaction," reports the Saxon chronicle of 1016, and that way he saved himself. After Heraclion of Nisibis had, by accident, discovered that Rhinometus had committed fratricide, he let the doctors declare him mad, and succeeded in having himself locked up in a cloister for the rest of his life. Thus he lived in peace, grew old, and awaited death with an air of dementia. Hamlet is running the same risk, and he takes refuge in the same method. Like Heraclion, he lets others declare him mad, and like Hugolin, he adopts an air of stupefaction. Which does not prevent the restless Claudius from trying to get rid of him twice, in the middle of the play by the axe or the sword, and at the end by poison.
We find the same indication in King Lear; the Duke of Gloucester's son likewise takes refuge in apparent lunacy; this provides a key to unlocking and understanding Shakespeare's thoughts. In the eyes of the philosophy of art, the feigned folly of Edgar illuminates the feigned folly of Hamlet.
The Amleth of Belleforest is a magician, Shakespeare's Hamlet, a philosopher. We have discussed the singular reality that behooves the creations of poets. There is no more striking example than this Hamlet. Hamlet has nothing of abstraction. He has been to university; in him the wild Danish nature is sweetened by Italian politeness; he is small, fat, a bit phlegmatic, he is good with his foil, but easily runs out of breath. He does not want to drink too soon during the armed exchange with Laertes, probably out of the fear of breaking out a sweat. And after he has thus clothed his character in real life, the poet can then present his full idealism. There is great power in that.
Other works of the human mind equal Hamlet; none surpasses it. There is in Hamlet all the majesty of the mournful. A drama issuing from an open sepulchre, this is colossal. Hamlet seems, to us, Shakespeare's capital work.
No figure among those that poets have created is more poignant and more disquieting. Doubt counselled by a ghost, that is Hamlet. Hamlet has seen his dead father and has spoken to him. Is he convinced? No: he shakes his head. What shall he do? He does not know. His hands clench, then fall by his side. Within him are conjectures, systems, monstrous apparitions, bloody recollections, veneration for the ghost, hate, tenderness, anxiety to act and not to act, his father, his mother, conflicting duties, – a profound storm. His mind is occupied with ghastly hesitation. Shakespeare, wonderful plastic poet makes the grandiose pallor of this soul almost visible. Like the great spectre of Albrecht Dörer, Hamlet might be named Melancholia. Above his head, too, there flits the disembowelled bat; at his feet are science, the sphere, the compass, the hourglass, love; and behind him, at the horizon, a great and terrible sun which seems to make the sky but darker.
Nevertheless, at least one half of Hamlet is anger, transport, outrage, hurricane, sarcasm to Ophelia, malediction on his mother, insult to himself. He talks with the grave-digger, almost laughs, then clutches Laertes by the hair in the very grave of Ophelia, and tramples furiously upon that coffin. Sword-thrusts at Polonius, sword-thrusts at Laertes, sword-thrusts at Claudius. At times his inaction gapes open and from the rent, thunderbolts flash out.
He is tormented by that possible life, interwoven of reality and dream, concerning which we are all anxious. Somnambulism is diffused through all his actions. One might almost consider his brain as a formation: there is a layer of suffering, a layer of thought, then a layer of dream. It is through this layer of dream that he leefs, comprehends, learns, perceives, drinks, eats, frets, mocks, weeps, and reasons. There is between life and him a transparency – the wall of dreams; one sees beyond it, but cannot step over it. A kind of cloudy obstacle everywhere surrounds Hamlet. Have you never, while sleeping, had the nightmare of pursuit or flight, and tried to hasten on, and felt the anchylosis of your knees, the heaviness of your arms, the horrible paralysis of your benumbed hands? This nightmare Hamlet suffers while awake. Hamlet is not upon the spot where his life is. He has ever the air of a man who talks to you from the other side of a stream. He calls to you at the same time that he questions you. He is at a distance from the catastrophe in which he moves, from the passer-by he questions, from the thought he bears, from the action he performs. He seems not to touch even what he crushes. This is isolation carried to its highest power. It is the loneliness of a mind, even more than the unapproachableness of a prince. Indecision is, in fact, a solitude; you have not even your will to keep you company. It is as if your own self had departed and had left you there. Hamlet's fardel is less rigid than that of Orestes, but lither; Orestes carries fate, Hamlet destiny.
And thus, apart from men, Hamlet still has within him an undefined something which represents them all. Agnosco fratrem. [I recognise a brother.] At certain hours, if we were silent, we could feel his fever. His strange reality is our reality, after all. He is the mournful man that we all are in certain situations. Unhealthy as he is, Hamlet expresses a permanent condition of man. He represents the discomfort of the soul in a life unsuited to it. He represents the shoe that pinches and stops our walking; this shoe is the body. Shakespeare delivers him from it, and rightly. Hamlet – prince if you like, but king never – is incapable of governing a people, so wholly apart from all does he exist. On the other hand he does better than to reign; he is. Take from him his family, his country, his ghost, the whole adventure at Elsinore, and even in the form of an inactive type he remains strangely terrible. This results from the amount of humanity and the amount of mystery in him. Hamlet is formidable – which does not prevent his being ironical. He has the two profiles of destiny.
Let us take back something we have said further above. Shakespeare's capital work is not Hamlet. Shakespeare's capital work is all of Shakespeare. That, incidentally, is true of all spirits of this magnitude. They are massive, blocks, majestical, bible, and their solemnity lies in their entirety. ... Genius is a promontory into the infinite.
Victor Hugo: William Shakespeare (1864; translated by Melville B. Anderson, first published in English by A.C. McClurg and Co., Chicago, IL, USA, 1886). Facsimile of the French original, as contained in Hugo's 1882 "Complete Works" (Oeuvres Complčtes) edition, made available online as part of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France's Gallicadatabase.