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Identification of Characters
Attempts have been made to identify the characters of Hamlet with actual men and women of Shakespeare's day. If one critic holds that the hero is throughout a satire on the famous essayist, Montaigne, another is equally certain that the whole tragedy is a veiled picture of the relations between the Queen of Scots, Darnley, Bothwell and James I. Other theorists identify Hamlet with Sir Philip Sidney; Polonius with Lord Burghley; Laertes and Ophelia with Robert and Anne Cecil; and Bernardo with Sir Walter Raleigh. According to another theory, the dramas of Shake speare, whether comedies or tragedies, are largely Aristophanic in their intent, and are filled with topical sketches and allusions to which in many cases the clue is now lost. These theories, though entertaining to the curious reader, seem with the exception of that in regard to Sir Philip Sidney and Lord Burghley to have little objective reality, and to be the product of a playful imagination, rather than of sound critical judgment.
It is, however, highly probable that in moulding the character of the melancholy Dane, Shakespeare took a contemporary as a model in certain traits. Sir Philip Sidney had a remarkable personality, and was the most accomplished courtier of the Elizabethan era. He was curiously lacking in the characteristic blitheness of his times, and looked by preference on the gloomy side of things. Like Hamlet, he was a scholar and an idealist, and, living in an uncongenial environment, was ever striving in vain to escape from it into a life of action; and again, like Hamlet, in the lingering and futility of his later years, which were due in a great measure to the force of external circumstances, may be clearly traced the Dang apparent irresolution and impotence of will.?
Siduej. was a special favorite of “Queen Bess," and, when rishing to sail with Sir Francis Drake on an expeditaon against the Spaniards in the West Indies, was expressly tosidden, because of Elizabeth's anxiety. "lest she should .. lose the jewel of her dominions." Though no brilliant achievement illustrated his short life, the singular beauty of his character won for him the universal love and esteem of his countrymen. "The nobility of his nature and the winning courtesies in which its gentle magnanimity expressed itself, took captive all hearts while he lived, and have since kept sweet his memory. Sublimely mild, a spirit without spot, he lives in the history of his country as a rare and finished type of English character, in which the antique honor of chivalry is seen shading into the graces of a modern gentleman. His sonnets are of rare merit; and his Arcadia is a work of indisputable genius, flushed with the light of a fine imagination, and its purity and tenderness of sentiment gives an authentic reflex of the lovely moral nature of the writer." The universal esteem in which he was held was strikingly manifested at his death, when a general mourning was observed throughout the country. Another parallel is noted in the plaintive verses of the wits and poets of his day. They lament him, “The prince of noblesse and chivalry,” in language, which naturally suggests Ophelia's moaning over her distracted lover :
“Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
Others, again, see in Hamlet a reflex of Shakespeare himself. The Prince is generally conceded to be in advance of
'Hamlet'', Introd. : Fox Bourne's "Memoirs of Sir Sidney''.
1 C1. E. K. Chambers'
It may, then, well be questioned how came the Poet to create a character so foreign to the spirit of his times ? In the light of history, we are wont to view the Elizabethan era as ardent and vigorous. It was animated by a spirit which, restless at home, looked abroad, and, enamored of maritime greatness, reached out to enterprises of discovery and colonization. Laertes rather than Hamlet was its exponent. The national life, wholly absorbed in material growth and development, was little troubled with vexed questions and intellectual subtleties. What, therefore, so stirred the Poet's soul as to prompt him to create a character so remarkable and born out of time ?
We know that Shakespeare was not Hamlet, but, nevertheless, he seems to touch him on many sides. “The concentration of interest, the intensity of feeling, the hushed passion which characterize the play, make us feel that it has some exceptionally close relation to the Poet's own experience, and that, in an unusual degree, his personality pervades it.” Is there perhaps something to connect the tragedy with the happenings of his own life and the development of his own spirit? Is there anything in the fact that it was produced in the tragic period of his dramatic labors and immediately precedes his two most sombre dramas? In their creation, we seem to see the creator's world-weariness reflected, and to catch his repeated sighs for a peaceful rest from the turmoil of a religious persecution which was harassing so many of his friends.
Commentators are in agreement that a dark shadow had fallen upon the Poet, overclouding his spirits, and filling his mind with gloom. He was stirred to his inmost soul, and, in the grand series of tragedies composed at this period, reveals the thoughts and feelings then most agitating his troubled mind. In them he struggles with the stern realities of life as he felt them under the political abuses and religious
“Shakespeare, Poet, Dramatist, and Man'.
persecution of the day:in them he emphasizes the weaknesses of human-kind in its baseness, laxless lust, un governed jeal. ousy, serpent-ilke ingratitude. disregard of human rights, and shareless treaebery; and over all he holds, as a moralist, the terrors of conscience and the uniailing vengeance of the gword of fate.' Some commentators ignore the cause of this gloom as something unfathomable, others assign only partial reasons, and others again explain it in a manner wholly unsatisfactory. This, no doubt, is due to one-sided views, which arise from the perusal of imperfeet or distorted histories of those troublesome times. But modern authors, less biased and more critical, enable the open-minded reader to see light amid darkness. Former historians, following in the wake of their predecessors, were accustomed to repeat the story of the golden days of Elizabeth, and to portray with magic pencil the unprecedented happiness of her people. The sunlit cloud, however, bears a very dark side, as is shown by the dismal picture drawn by Catholic writers of the same period.
The nation was divided by religious dissensions into opposite parties of almost equal numbers, the oppressed and the oppressor. The operation of the penal statutes had ground many ancient and opulent families to the dust; and, enriched by their impoverishment, new families had sprung up in their place; and these, as they shared the plunder, naturally eulogized the new anti-Catholic system to which they owed their wealth and ascendency. But their prosperity was not the prosperity of the nation; it was that of one half obtained by the legalized robbery of the other. It is evident that neither Elizabeth nor her ministers understood the benefits of civil and religious liberty." The great stain on the character of Elizabeth, affirms Macaulay, is the fact that, being herself an Adiaphorist without scruples about * Cf. Furnival apud Gervinue, Introduction, * 01. "Lingard's History of England”', vol. VI, C. 9, p. 664.
Edition.) • Essays, "Lord Burghley and his Times''.