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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—I think it is only what the public expect of the editor of the Argus, that he should keep his columns open for me. I do not write these words in any light spirit, for during the growing interest generated of the criticism of Smith, Brown, and Jones, my neighbours have been, one and all, at me with such expressions as this—"Well, Robinson, what are you going to say to all this?" or, "Robinson, are you a Smithian or a Brownist," &c. Apprehending, therefore, as I do, that the vital statistics of the colony may be most unfavourably affected from mere anxiety of mind unless I complete the quartette, I at once, without apology, conquer my constitutional indolence, and throw my critical cap into the ring.

And surely, at starting, my excellent friend Jones is on the right track for truth when he calls attention to the great fact that Shakspeare's plays are, and were intended by their author to be, acting plays. As affording a boundless field for subsequent criticism, it was an advantage that Shakspeare was an actor as well as an author. In every line he wrote he had evidently, and almost page 19 instinctively, an eye to the mise en scene: and thus his men and women always talk and act as do men and women in real life. Action and passion, impulse and reason, storm and calm, interrupt and cross each other, just as they do wherever our nature is wrought upon by the actual business of the world. What has traditional acting to do with such scenes as these I What is it, or what should it be, to Mr. Montgomery how Garrick played Hamlet, or what Partridge thought of it? If Mr. Montgomery can see a ghost as well as Garrick, and feel the presence of a ghost as well as Garrick, he will (physical qualities being equal) play Hamlet as well as Garrick. Those who cultivate the superstitions of the stage will, of course, laugh at bringing Garrick's and Montgomery's names in juxtaposition. So has tradition derided the mention of Garrick's name by the side of Betterton's; and yet, different as they were from each other, both were excellent, because both were natural and original. The same remark may be made on the exceedingly diverse styles—if Hazlitt and all the critics of that day are to be believed—of John Kemble and Edmund Kean.

Why, therefore, should Mr. Smith subject Mr. Montgomery to a standard—the traditional one—which every original actor has a right to disregard wherever that standard conflicts with his own convictions? Mr. Smith relies (in his second letter of yesterday) on "nearly all the commentators of Shakspeare" as authority for requiring us to believe that the Hamlet of Shakspeare is really mad. But if an actor by close study of the part, lighted up by his observation of human creatures, shall come to a different conclusion, what is the choice before him? He must give us a mechanical, lifeless, unreal copy of the rendering authorised by the commentators, or he must trust to nature and his convictions, and give us his own conception. Mr. Montgomery has, I think, wisely acted on the latter alternative. I have not seen (it is my loss) his Hamlet, but crediting Jones, Brown, and the apparently responsive public, Mr. Montgomery has done wisely. Relying, therefore, on nature and observation—as I think every great actor has always done, and to be really great must always do [Edmund Kean once, as Richard III., thrilled the house by a last abortive attempt to strike Richmond, page 20 an attempt acknowledged to have been borrowed from an exhausted and fainting prize-fighter in the ring], he becomes a true and honest interpreter at any rate, and stands just as good a chance of being a faithful interpreter as if he were to become the copy of a copy, Rachel, the little orange girl of Paris, was wise enough to know this. Fechter has achieved his fame by knowing this, and acting on it. Melius est petere fontes, quam sectari rivulos, is a sound old maxim, which, freely rendered, assures us that it is better to seek the fountain-head, human nature, than slavishly to follow the commentators.

For doing this, it appears, from the testimony of Brown and Jones, that Mr. Montgomery may be left to his own resources. That he is not wrong in giving us a sane Hamlet will, I think, appear by portions of the text not yet referred to by Brown or Jones. Following the "Well said, old mole," which, in its apparently shocking irreverence towards his father's ghost, is only, as Mr. Smith thinks, to be explained by insanity, we have the not very insane words—

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come;—
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself—
As I, perchance, hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on;
That you, at such times, &c.

Have we not here a distinct intimation that Hamlet purposes to assume madness—"to put an antic disposition on"—a passage frequently altogether disregarded by "the commentators." And as to the "Well said, old mole," which so staggers Mr. Smith's sense of filial duty, the expression is consistent with perfect, although highly-excited sanity. It is akin to the light jests sometimes heard under the scaffold at a public execution. There is a condition of the mind—especially in nervous and highly-organised natures, such as Hamlet's—not unlike hysteria; your correspondent Brown refers to it, and it is common in Italy and other southern climes. Whilst a man is in this state, you cannot always tell what is in the heart merely from what comes out of the mouth, Shakspeare understood this fact in our nature so well that he frequently employs it with marvellous effect After the awful scene page 21 between Hamlet and his fathers ghost, the former utters the magnificently sane soliloquy, commencing—

O, all you host of heaven! O earth!

interrupted by Horatio and Marcellus

Horatio (within)—" Hillo, ho, ho, my lord."
Hamlet—"Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come, bird, come."

Does Mr. Smith think that Hamlet is at this point suddenly struck mad, or that he says, "Come, bird, come," as a sportsman might say it? In Lear and other plays are many other indications of the feeling to which I refer—indications as true to human nature as they are apparently incongruous.

I venture to think that the charge against Hamlet of being irresolute is not much better founded than the suggestion of Ms madness. Where, and when, and how is he irresolute? Hamlet was a scholar, a gentleman, a man of thought; not a headstrong fool to kill his uncle, when that killing might be a murder. An ignorant rustic might have been resolute enough to act on the Ghost's evidence alone; not so Hamlet

———Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core.

Hamlet, distrusting the Ghost, gets up the play to see how the king's demeanour will answer to and confirm the Ghost's revelations. He says to Horatio

There is a play to-night before the king;
One scene of it comes near the circumstance
Which I have told thee of my father's death.
I prythee when thou see'st that act a-foot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle: if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy.

It is not, indeed, until the scene where Hamlet enters and finds his uncle in the very act of confession and prayer that he shows any symptom of vacillation—

Now might I do it pat—now he is praying,
And now I'll do't:—and so he goes to heaven,
And so am I revenged? That would be scanned.
A villain kills my father; and for that
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
page 22 Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May,
And how his audit stands, who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought
'Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and seasoned for his passage?
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent
When he is drunk, asleep, or in his rage;
Or in th' incestuous pleasures of his bed—
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't.

This, the first good opportunity Hamlet has—after reasonable conviction of his uncle's guilt—for revenge, is about the only good opportunity he loses. He would have been overpowered by guards and attendants in the interview with his uncle, after the disastrous killing of old Polonius. Hamlet does his work promptly enough in the fencing scene. He has fulfilled his destiny—

The time was out of joint; oh, cursed spite,
That ever he was born to set it right.

Yet, in the last grand scene, we learn how sane, and thoughtful, and unselfish Hamlet's soul was; how it could forget its own personal sorrows in the high thoughts which became a great prince. We there see the real greatness which, having shown itself in public affairs (not before us in the play), had made him "loved of the distracted multitude." With his last breath he thinks only of the charge which might have been his—

I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophecy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence. (Dies.)

I have altogether outrun my own purpose, and committed an unwitting trespass on your columns, by the length of this letter. The offence, however, is committed, and it may be that other members of our numerous family are erring in like fashion. If so, you have the editorial remedy in your own hands, by choosing from amongst us, and for yourself, your own

Jack Robinson.