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Willlam Hazlitt largely comments on the contemporariness and universality of Hamlet's character: that although Shakespeare wrote the play more than 500 years ago, we have come to know the character of the tragic Prince quite well. Not only because we read about him in school, but also -- and more -- because we know his thoughts as we do our own. (Hazlitt 1900) His sayings and speeches are not only real but are as real as our own thoughts when we ponder and despair over our or others' misfortunes and grief. Each of us becomes Hamlet, in Hazlitt's view, whenever we bear the weight of reflection (Hazlitt), when the sun in us is made dim by "envious mists" in our hearts, whenever the world looks nothing better than a "dull blank," when our love is despised, or when sadness sticks to us and makes our mind sink within. Hazlitt goes on and on in graphically describing the extremely painful condition of Hamlet's soul in many different but familiar ways that each of us recognizes in ourselves. He says that we think and refer to this particular play most often because it is full of " reflections on human life" itself. His agonies and helplessness seem to transfer to "the general account of humanity." He views Hamlet as a "great moralizer" who rationalizes about his own feelings and experience and Hazlitt hails the play once again as the most remarkably ingenious and original and for its "unstudied" development of character.
How does it develop such character? Hazlitt sees that the play does not immerse too much on any interest, yet engages the reader or audience "without effort" Events occur according to the natural course, without outside control, and the characters behave as people naturally do. Hazlitt notes the absence of pressure and purpose to the point that the play may well be the "exact transcript" of what could have actually happened at the court of Denmark at that time. And in Hazlitt's eyes, we are more than readers and spectators, but actual "recorders of the thoughts of the heart," which we catch as living passions as they rise. (Hazlitt) He sees other dramatic writers as giving very fine versions of nature all right, but Shakespeare actually hands his audience the original text of nature in his works and comments. (Hazlitt)
Hazlitt does not view Hamlet -- in his indecisiveness -- as weak or passionate, rather as possessing refined thoughts and sentiments. He will have us remember that Hamlet is a young prince, full of enthusiasm and sensibility. He interprets his unusual situation by means of his "natural bias and disposition" (Hazlitt), which renders him incapable of action. It is only when he kills Polonius by accident that he is driven to act without reflecting. When the need to decide and act comes upon him, he is confused and skeptical until he reverts to accustomed reflections and laziness. (Hazlitt) Hazlittl reveals that when the time finally comes for Hamlet to execute his plans of killing Claudius as the latter prays, Hamlet once more recoils from the act by convincing himself that killing Claudius in prayer would send him to heaven, so he has to wait for a more opportune time. This postponement is, of course, due to his lack of decisiveness. Rather than proceed to perform his plan, Hamlet instead listens to the suggestions of the ghost and resorts to the presenting a play to take a preview of his uncle's probable guilt for the murder of his father. Hamlet is not really a weak creature but a creature who strongly dwells and indulges in his habit of reflection. Hazlitt says that Hamlet's "ruling passion is to think, not to act." And every excuse that enhances this inclination quickly drives him away from his original purpose. He seems sensitive and pliable only to his inner jury and verdict and his own thoughts, so much that they take him away from the need to act on matters of practical consequences for each day. His habit of inaction is in itself also out of sync in his own time.
As with the rest of the cast, Shakespeare shows his reader just what a masterful hand he has in revealing, not creating, the mixed motives of truly human characters. His exposition of Gertrude shows both her criminal intents and sensibility and even affection towards other personages. Ophelia is too touchy, too tender and too pathetic to dwell in. But Laertes is a not-too-pleasant character, with his father Polonius on the other end of the scale as the "perfect character of its kind." (Hazlitt) For the thoroughness of the characterization of the play, Hazlitt feels that the play suffers very much when acted out on stage: Hamlet himself, in Hazlitt's view, is hardly capable of being acted out, in the first place.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge notes that the manifest inconsistencies of Hamlet's conduct and character, rather than drawing from human nature's imperfections, can be traced to Shakespeare's own irregular genius. (Coleridge 1904), which in turn is derived from his own deep and acurrate science in mental philosophy. Coleridge suggests that, in order to understand Hamlet, the reader must approach and understand the very constitution of "our own minds." He reminds the reader that man differs from the brute in that thought prevails over sense in man, whereby there should be a healthy and constant balance between impressions of the external world and the inner operations of the mind. Should there be an overemphasis on the latter, the person is driven to become a creature of mere meditation, thus losing his natural and necessary faculty for action. He also stresses Shakespeare's method of creating characters with an excess of either extreme of the balance, which in Coleridge thinking, is the Bard's way of emphasizing precisely the need to maintain that healthy balance between outside stimulation and inner reflection with responsiveness. He sees this balance as the "equilibrium" between fact and fantasy, inner and outer, objective and subject. This balance is grossly disturbed in Hamlet, whereby his thoughts and fancies are far clearer and stronger than actual perceptions and experience, thus acquiring "a form and a color not naturally their own." (Coleridge) Thus we read or watch a preponderance of mental or intellectual activity and in equal aversion to concrete, visible action, along with the symptoms and qualities of that aversion. And Shakespeare very skillfully places Hamlet in situations, which compel him to take concrete action with very little notice. But if one looks more closely, Hamlet is really a courageous person and fearless of death, but he loses the power to act with determination.
Shakespeare's genius discloses this power failure in Hamlet's constant broodings and the excesses of his mind in its undue preoccupation with what goes on in his inner world in the abstract. Living much more in abstractions, Hamlet assumes that shadows and ghosts have substance and are real, thus withdrawing illumination over commonplace and concrete situations and experience. We know that thought is an abstraction, which requires the definiteness of outside imagery only. An aberration, thus, takes place in Hamlet because his senses are in a constant state of "trance" and external realities are grossly misinterpreted, such as by perceiving his chains for their breaking, which leads him to delay action until it becomes useless to act.." (Coleridge)
Sigmund Freud opines that the play and the character are based on the same source and cause as "Oedipus Rex," differing only in the psychic life of the different periods in which the plays were written. While "Oedipus Rex" lifts the repression of the child's basic wish-fantasy to the surface, it remains immersed and repressed in "Hamlet." And its existence as neurosis is discovered only through the inhibitory effects that proceed from it. (Freud 1911).
James Calderwood sees Hamlet as occupied with a many great truths, which can be grouped into two kinds: the truths and suggestions transmitted to him by the ghost, the secret details surrounding the death or murder of his father, and his mother's loveless and unfaithful remarriage to his uncle. Then his sad distresses he collects in this passing world where decorative lies and contrivances conceal the passing world's ugliness and make it worse. These latter dissimulations extremely occupy him and which he tells and "un-tells" in his soliloquy -- through these, according to Calderwood, he engages in a verbal balancing act between silence and noise. this finds parallel only in Hamlet's taking a disposition that is between inaction and action.
TS Elliot, on the other hand, perceives the play as the primary problem and the character as jus secondary. For him, Hamlet the character is a susceptible object to dangerous type of critic, who is one with a mind that is naturally functioning creatively, "but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism, instead." (Eliot) Minds like these experience Hamlet vicariously, according to Eliot, for their own artistic realization and fulfillment. Examples of such minds are Goethe's and…[continue]
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