Home  »  Volume V: English THE DRAMA TO 1642 Part One  »  § 16. Tragicomedies: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

VIII. Shakespeare: Life and Plays

§ 16. Tragicomedies: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear

It might be questioned whether this power actually went further in any other direction. But, possibly, between Julius Caesar and the other two Roman plays—certainly in the same general period, and, according to popular reckoning, between 1602 and 1605—Shakespeare produced, it is thought in the order to be named, what are pre-eminently the four wheels of his chariot, the four wings of his spirit, in the tragic and tragicomic division, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and Lear. To condense the enormous mass of discussion on these, and especially on the first, were here impossible. The puzzles of the text of Hamlet (which differs most remarkably in the quarto of 1602, apparently pirated, in that of 1604, which at least claims authenticity and in that of the folio), though perhaps less than they seem, and much less than they have been thought to be, are considerable; and the problems of the play are infinite. Its immediate, lasting and now world-wide popularity is not surprising. For, though Hamlet himself is capable of being problematised to the nth, he is a sufficiently taking figure (especially as introduced by the ghost scenes) to persons who care little indeed for problems. The enormous length of the play is diversified by the most varied, and, at times, most exciting, action. In the common phrase, there is something for everyone—the supernatural, the death of Polonius, that of Ophelia, the fight or almost fight in the churchyard, the duel, the final slaughter scene (simply an exciting moment for the mere vulgar)—the pity of all these things for the sentimental, the poetry of them for those who can appreciate it. And, above all, and with all, there is the supreme interest of the character presentment, which informs and transforms the incidents, and which, not merely in the central figure, is the richest and most full to be found in Shakespeare. This may be developed in one instance.

It has been impossible, in the scale and range of the present notice, to dwell on individual characters. But, putting sheer poetical expression aside, the Shakespearean character is the Shakespearean note; and, for more reasons than one, it would be an incorrectness not to offer a specimen of dealing with this feature. No better suggests itself than the character of Claudius. For it seems to have escaped even some elect wits; and it is very typical. There were at least two ways in which an ordinary, or rather more than ordinary, dramatist might have dealt with this other “majesty of Denmark.” He could have been made a crude dramatic villain—a crowned “Shakebag” or “Black Will,” to use the phraseology of his creator’s own day. He could have been made pure straw—a mere common usurper. And it would appear that he has actually seemed to some to be one or other of these two. Neither of them is the Claudius which Shakespeare has presented; and those who take him as either seem to miss the note which, putting sheer poetic faculty once more aside, is the note of Shakespeare. It is not to be supposed that Shakespeare liked Claudius; if he did, and if he has produced on respectable readers the effect above hinted at, he certainly was as ineffectual a writer as the merest crétin, or the merest crank, among his critics could imagine. But neither did he dislike Claudius; he knew that, in the great Greek phrase, it was the duty of creators to “see fair”—[char]—in the handling of their creations. It would appear that the successor of Hamlet I might have been a very respectable person, if his brother had not possessed a kingdom and a queen that he wanted for himself. But this brother did, unluckily, possess these things and the Claudian—not [char], not “tragic frailty,” but outrageous, unforgivable, fully punished—crime was that he would not tolerate this possession. He put an end to it, and—let those laugh at him who like—he seems to have thought that he could trammel up the consequence. Macbeth was wiser. If it were not for the ugly circumstances and the illegitimate assistance of the ghost, we might be rather sorry for Claudius at first. There was nothing out of the way in the succession of brother before son. There was nothing (except, perhaps, undue haste) out of the way, under the dispensation of dispensations, in the successive marriage of one woman to two brothers. Fifty years before Shakespeare’s birth, queen Katharine did it, and few people, thought or think her other than a saint. A hundred years after Shakespeare’s birth, Louise de Gonzague, queen of Poland, did it, and nobody thought the worse of her at all. It is clear that there was not much likelihood of offspring from the second marriage: even Hamlet himself, in the very scene where his abusive description of the king (“not evidence,” if ever anything was not) has prejudiced many against Claudius, seems to admit this. Claudius himself would probably—his very words could be cited—have been most happy to regard Hamlet as crown prince, would not have objected to receive Ophelia (perhaps with a slight protest against derogation) as crown princess and, after a due enjoyment of his kingdom and his wife, to assign the former to them and die quite comfortably.

But this could not be: the gods would not have “seen fair” if they had allowed it, and the [char] of the crime in the orchard bears its fruit. Yet Claudius behaves himself by no means ill. He meets Hamlet’s early, and, as yet, ungrounded, or only half grounded, sulks with a mixture of dignity and kindness which is admirable in a difficult situation. There does not appear any prejudice against Hamlet (though, of course, guilt makes the king uneasy) when Polonius first tells him of the prince’s antics. When he has eavesdropped, a proceeding fully justified by the statecraft of the time, his desire to get rid of Hamlet, somehow, is natural, and it does not yet appear that he has any design to “get rid” of him in criminal kind. Even after the play—an outrageous insult in any case—there is no sign of murderous purpose either in his words to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern or in the prayer soliloquy. Only after the killing of Polonius, which might have alarmed an innocent man, does he decide on the litera Bellerophontis. Few who have paid any attention to it have denied the combined courage and skill with which he meets the émeute headed by Laertes. Even thenceforward, he is not pure villain, and, though it endangers all his plans, he tries to save the queen, between whom and himself it is quite certain that a real affection exists. He is a villain, but he is a man; and there are probably lesser villains who are rather poorer personages as men. Now, is this mere whitewashing on the critic’s part, or the puerile and sneaking kindness for villainy which is not quite unknown in men of letters? Not at all. No better deserved swordthrust was ever given than Hamlet’s last; and Shakespeare never palliates the crime of Claudius in the very least degree. But he knows that a criminal is not necessarily bad all through; and he knows that there is no cheaper or falser morality than that which thinks that you must represent a criminal as bad all through lest you tempt people to sympathise with his crime. May it be added that, at this time of his career, he simply could not “scamp” his work in the direction of character any more than in the direction of poetry? Others might throw in “supers” to fill up a play—he would not. Claudius, of course, in no way disputes the position of hero; but there is stuff in him, as he is presented, for half a dozen heroes of the Racinian type.

Of Ophelia, and Polonius, and the queen and all the rest, not to mention Hamlet himself (in whose soul it would be absurd to attempt to discover new points here), after this we need not say anything. But it is observable that they are not, as in the case of Coriolanus, interesting merely or mainly for their connection with the hero, but in themselves. And it must be added that, not merely in the soliloquies and set speeches, but in the dialogue, even in its least important patchwork, Shakespeare’s mastery of blank verse has reached complete perfection.

If Othello came next, as it may very well have done—it has been asserted, on the faith of a document not now producible, to have been acted at court on 1 November, 1604—there was certainly no falling off. The pity, if not the terror, is made more intense than even in Hamlet. And, though for complexity Iago cannot approach Hamlet, he is almost as interesting. Once more, the Shakespearean impartiality is shown in this character. Iago, in the ordinary sense, is a much “worse” man than Claudius; and, unlike Claudius, he has no compounction. But you see his point of view. It is by no means so certain as some critics have thought that his suspicions of Othello and Emilia are merely pretended; it is quite certain that he has never forgiven, and never will forgive, Othello or Cassio for the preference accorded by the former to the latter. Against Desdemona, he probably has no personal spite whatsoever; but she is the most convenient instrument that suggests itself for embroiling his two foes with each other and plaguing them both; so he uses her, once more without compunction of any kind. Roderigo is another instrument and a useful pigeon as well. But this newer “ancient”—very different from Pistol!—has an admirable intellect, a will of steel and a perfectly dauntless courage. “I bleed, sir; but not killed” is one of the greatest speeches in Shakespeare, and the innocent commentators who have asked whether Shakespeare “did not hate Iago” can never have apprehended it. As for Desdemona herself, an interesting point arises in connection with another of Shakespeare’s most pity-claiming figures, Cordelia, and may be noticed when we come to her.

Those who (if there be any such) believe that Shakespeare wrote the whole of Macbeth and that he wrote it about 1605, must have curious standards of criticism. To believe that he wrote the whole of it is quite easy—indeed, the present writer has little or no doubt on the matter; but the belief is only possible on the supposition that it was written at rather different times. The second scene, that in which the “bleeding sergeant” appears, and some few other passages, are, in verse and phrase, whole stages older than the bulk of the play, which, in these respects, is fully equal to its great companions. The character interest is limited to the hero and heroine. But in the thane and king—who is a marvellous variant sketch of Hamlet, except that he can never leave off, while Hamlet can never begin, and that, also, he can never leave off metaphysicalising on the things he does, while Hamlet’s similar self-indulgence is confined to those he does not do—its intensity and variety yield only to that of Hamlet himself; while Lady Macbeth is quite peerless. And the fresh handling of the supernatural illustrates, fortunately not for the last time, the curious fertility of the writer in a direction where, especially when it is blended with events and motives not supernatural, failure is not so much the usual, as the invariable, result. That the Shakespeare of one play, or part, should be the Shakespeare of another, is a constantly repeated marvel; but it is scarcely anywhere more marvellous than in the fact that the same writer wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Othello and The Tempest.

Early British history seems at this moment to have had a fascination for Shakespeare; for Macbeth appears to have been followed pretty quickly by King Lear, and the date of Cymbeline cannot have been very distant as it was certainly a stage play in 1610. King Lear, like its companions in the great quatuor, has special virtues, but it resembles them and Antony and Cleopatra in a certain regality of tone which hardly appears elsewhere. It resembles Macbeth, also, in being a tragedy of pity above all things; and it offers, perhaps, the most notable opportunity for the examination of the Shakespearean [char] which at once agrees and contrasts strikingly with the Aristotelian. The terrible fate of Lear—which the poet wisely introduced instead of the happy (or differently unhappy) ending which occurs in the chronicles and in a worthless contemporary play, a little earlier than his own—may seem excessive. As a punishment for his selfish abandonment and parcelling out of the kingdom, his general petulance and his blind misjudgment of his daughters, it may be so; as the consequence of his frailty, not. So, too, Cordelia’s disinheritance and her ultimate fate are caused (whether deserved or not is, as before, a different question) by her self-willed and excessive want of compliance with her father’s foolish, but not wholly unnatural, craving for professions of affection. The calamities of Gloster are a little more in the way of strict poetical justice of the ordinary kind; but they coincide well enough. The character of Edmund is a pendant to that of Iago, and his final speeches “The wheel is come full circle: I am here,” and “Yet Edmund was beloved,” are even more revealing than the stoical finale of the ancient. The extraordinary success of the fool has never been denied save by his unofficial successors; nor the superhuman poetry of the heath scenes. That the tragedy is too tragical, may be an argument against tragedy, or against the theatre generally; but not against this play. The one accusation of some weight is the horror of the Gloster mutilation scene, a survival of the old Andronicus days which, in a way, is interesting, but which, perhaps, could have been spared. The fact that it actually is a survival is the most interesting thing about it, except the other fact that it shocks, as, in an earlier play, it certainly would not. Nothing can show better the enormous lift which Shakespeare had himself given to the stage in, at most, some fifteen years, than the demand made on him, by modern criticism, not to do what everyone had been doing.