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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 18

To the Editor of the Argus

To the Editor of the Argus.

Sir—As I have reason to anticipate that a large number of persons are about to inquire of me my opinion of Mr. Montgomery's Hamlet, I will venture, with your permission, to reply to them through the columns of the Argus.

After the elaborate letter from Mr. James Smith which appeared in your issue of yesterday, it is scarcely necessary for me to premise that, were not my convictions materially opposed to those of that practised critic, I should not now address you. However, it so page 15 happens that I differ from him almost in toto, and cannot conceal my gratification at finding, by to-day's Argus, that so excellent an authority as Mr. John Brown has arrived at a conclusion very similar to my own. I dissent from Mr. Smith's dicta relative to Mr. Montgomery; I protest against his assumptions regarding the character of Hamlet. Mr. Brown has replied to Mr. Smith convincingly upon most of the topics contained in his letter; and 1 now modestly desire to unfold myself upon one or two points which Mr. Brown has thought proper to treat with indifference.

Mr. Smith's principal cause of complaint against Mr. Montgomery is, that he does not represent Hamlet as really mad—that, in short, he takes Hamlet's word in preference to that of many of his critics, and believes that he

—essentially is not in madness,
But mad in craft.

This, which to Mr. Smith is so serious a ground of offence, is to me Mr. Montgomery's surpassing merit. Nothing can be easier than to represent Hamlet as an occasional madman. The actor—incapable of comprehending the full scope of Hamlet's varied and complex character, disinclined to piece out and supplement the meagre stage directions which accompany the text—falls back upon the ready plea of madness, and in a moment finds an excuse for his wildest extravagances, his densest stupidities. Any meaning, or no meaning, can with ease be covered by it. Does the Prince seem to be gratuitously harsh and cruel to Ophelia—it is his madness. Is he apparently merry where good Monsieur Critic thinks he should be doleful, and sad where he should be playful—it is his madness. For resourceless actor and soulless critic, this is alike a city of refuge. But it is a Zoar which cannot much longer be tolerated, and, spite of the illustrious names gilding the imposture, it will come to be regarded as a remnant of the system of false criticism of which Nahum Tate is the arch-apostle, which seeks to twist the mighty utterances of Shakspeare into harmony with foregone conclusions, rather than reverently to investigate, by the best light the age can furnish, the true meaning of his grand creations. And in setting about this task, we must not forget that Shakspeare's plays page 16 are eminently acting plays; that if we have but capable actors, the enjoyment derivable from the presentation of these dramas on the stage must far surpass that to be obtained from closet study. But though conceived with an immediate eye to theatrical exhibition and fitted for the stage as are no other dramatic compositions, they are singularly barren of stage direction. When Hamlet requests young Osric to "put his bonnet to its right use," we are informed for the first time that the latter has entered bare-headed; and so when Macduff is besought not to hide his face with his hat, but to give sorrow vent, the earliest intimation is conveyed of the natural action which marked his reception of the news of his irreparable loss. In these cases the "business" of the scene is unmistakable; but there are others of equal importance where it is more obscure. Among these I rank such scenes as that between Hamlet and Ophelia in the third act; and in these it is not only justifiable, but it is the bounden duty of every actor of mark to study to discover in what way the "business" may be made best conducive to the elucidation of the text. When Shakspeare was by to explain his own ideal, it mattered not that the stage directions were few and meagre; but now, when instead of Shakspeare we have stage tradition, burdened with the fancies cf two and a half centuries, the omission of these finger-posts becomes an important feature, and every original actor must seek by study of the text, and perhaps the text alone, to reconstruct them. It is this which Mr. Montgomery seems to me to have done, and in this way he has produced a Hamlet perfectly sane and consistent with human nature, though not, perhaps, the model, orthodox, methodical character which, if he is not to be mad, some critics would have him be.

The more closely I look into this character of Hamlet the more revolting does the assumption of semi-madness appear. Was there ever mind more thoroughly sane? It is so sane that it cannot take a leap in the dark, though prompted to it by almost ungovernable impulse, but must have

More relative than this.

It is so sane that, when firmly resolved on a course which it clearly page 17 sees to be right, it adheres to it in spite of the most terrible obstacles, as witness the scene in the Queen's chamber, where, though Hamlet has by an unhappy chance killed the father of her he loves he yet, with almost ruthless decision, continues the interview with his mother, and strives to make her

Repent what's past, avoid what is to come.

If his be madness, it is of a strange nature, which can be pre-arranged by himself, and put on or off as his purpose serves. The passages Mr. Smith quotes in token of Hamlet's craziness might well be incorporated in the current acting copy, without in the slightest degree impairing the conception of the character which Mr. "Montgomery presents to us. Besides, Mr. Smith proves too much. If Hamlet be mad when he asks if the success of bis "mouse-trap" scheme might not get him "a fellowship in a cry of players," Horatio cannot be sane to reply, "Half a share." And while on this subject, I may remark how strange it is that, if Hamlet be really touched, he should be deemed mad by all saving the two who may be supposed best acquainted with his "heart of hearts"—his father's ghost, and his dear friend Horatio. Ordinarily, it is those most closely attached to a man who first discern his flightiness.

Another grave fault which Mr. Smith discovers in the Hamlet of Mr. Montgomery is that it lacks force, that it has a large infusion of Werther. Strange how minds differ! It is this very absence of mere brute force, this admixture of German dreaminess, which forms in my estimation one of the charms of this conception. Hamlet is the realization, the embodiment—if I may use the word in this sense—of mental, not physical greatness. He is no savage hodman, who having found out his wronger goes and punishes him, but a man of genius of "large discourse," a free thinker, who dares to condemn the customs of his country when he conceives them to be at odds with reason. He is irresolute through excess of mental clear-seeing, and his is too highly strung a nervous organization to be forcible.

On this theme one might write by the yard, and still have much to say, but as I cannot hope to induce you to publish a Hamlet supplement, I will conclude. Mr. Smith has had his say, happily page 18 for mankind; Mr. Brown has had Ms; and now, by your leave I have had mine. The world may not be much the wiser by our utterances; for, after all, what can we poor criticlings do in front of such a play as "Hamlet," and such a representative of the noble Prince? Mainly, to my thinking, be very thankful. As to comparing this Hamlet with any of those we have seen before in this colony, it is idle. This is flesh and blood, which they were not; and I should as soon think of comparing the genial Arternas Ward, who died at Southampton, with the figure in Mr. Sohier's window. So far as our stage history extends, I may say of Mr. Montgomery in this character, to quote a somewhat hackneyed phrase of Macaulay's, "He has distanced all his competitors so decidedly, that it is not worth while to place them. Eclipse is first, and the rest nowhere."

Thomas Jones