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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—With your permission, I will reply to your correspondents on the only material point in controversy between us—the sanity or insanity of my Lord Hamlet. The theory I hold is this:—That he page 25 originally feigned madness; his motive for so doing being left in doubt by the dramatist. It is not improbable that Hamlet's introspective habit of mind had apprised him of the alarming fact that the germs of insanity were latent in his nature, and were liable to be quickened into pernicious activity by severely depressing or greatly exciting circumstances. From the moment the Ghost communicated to him the particulars of the murder, and urged him to revenge, Hamlet's reason was unsettled. But the malady was intermittent. He had lucid intervals, in which he conversed and acted rationally; and it was this very inconsistency of conduct that puzzled the courtiers and has perplexed the critics. Polonius. who, with all his garrulity and pomposity, was an eminently shrewd observer, and who, knowing nothing of Hamlet's supernatural shock, imputed his derangement to love, has described, with perfect accuracy, the stages of physical disorder through which Hamlet passed before reaching a condition of dementia. He

Fell into a sadness; then into a fast;
Thence to a watch; and thence into a weakness;
Thence to a lightness; and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And we all wail for.

Now this, as Dr. Conolly points out, "might have been copied from the clinical notes of a student of mental disorders. We recognise all the phenomena of an attack of mental disorder consequent on a sudden and sorrowful shock; first, the loss of all habitual interest in surrounding things; then, indifference to food, incapacity for customary and natural sleep; and then a weaker stage of fitful tears and levity, the mirth so strangely mixed with 'extremest grief;' and then subsidence into a chronic state in which the faculties are generally deranged." Hamlet, it is true, protests more than once or twice that he is not mad; but such asseverations are constantly made by the insane. He challenges inquisition; but so do madmen, and frequently baffle for hours and days together the inquiries of the ablest barristers and the most experienced physicians. His language is coherent, his reflections are philosophical, and his replies are "pregnant;" but as Polonius sagaciously observes, this is "a happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of." But in the last act page 26 Shakspeare makes Hamlet himself resolve all doubts in the minds of bis family and friends as to the reality of his madness by acknowledging to Laertes that he (Hamlet) had destroyed Polonius and driven Ophelia to distraction, despair, and death under the influence of lunacy:—

You must needs have heard how I am punish'd
With a sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was't Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never, Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong; Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not: Hamlet denies it.
Who does it then! His madness. If't be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.*

Here, then, Hamlet is impaled on the boras of a dilemma. He had been either mad or sane. If sane, such an attempt to evade the moral responsibility of his actions by pretending to Laertes that be had been out of his mind, and excusing bis conduct on that plea, would stamp IBM as guilty of the basest falsehood, chicanery, and cowardice. It is impossible to believe him to have been capable of either. He was brave, honourable, and truthful, though vacillating and irresolute. His brutality to Ophelia and his murder of her father were the acts of a madman; and in this lucid interval, when his mind had been solemnised and tranquillised by the presentiment of his own death, be freely confesses and deplores his madness, and speaks of himself with a self-pity which is very natural and infinitely touching. The shadow of impending death was settling down upon his mind. "Thou would'st not think," he pathetically exclaims to Horatio, "how ill all's here about my heart." His friend interposes with a gentle "Nay, good my lord;" but the Prince, interrupting him, observes, "It is but foolery; but it is such a kind of gain-giving (i.e., misgiving) as would, perhaps, trouble a woman." Horatio offers to employ his mediation with a view to postpone the duel, but Hamlet rejoins, "We defy augury," and proceeds to reason like a fatalist—"If it be now, 'tis not to come;" &c. The next moment his opponent

* A parallel instance is reported by M. Louret, in his Fragmens Psychologiques sur la Folie, 1845, where he mentions that a French Abbé whom he had treated for insanity, apologised to him during: a lucid interval in these words: "Mon délire m'a souvent emporté à des injures el à de faux jugemens: mais si le fon vous calomnie, l'homme sain vous rend justice el vous demande pardon pour l'autre."

page 27 appears upon the scene, and it is at this solemn juncture that Hamlet "proclaims" the reality of his madness, and adjures Laertes to believe him while making this public "disclaimer of a purposed evil." Is it conceivable that if Hamlet had been feigning insanity throughout, he would, at such a time, in such a presence, and with such a presentiment of death at his heart, dare to confront the dread "something after death" with a cowardly lie upon his lips? Would Horatio—of whom Hamlet had said that he was "e'en as just a man as e'er his conversation coped withal"—with a full knowledge of (and who could have known so well?) the falsehood of the plea, have talked of "flights of angels singing" the soul of a slain perjurer "to its rest?' As I have already intimated, many of the doubts which have been entertained with respect to Hamlet's derangement have arisen from the surprising brilliancy and profundity of his mental speculations. But what says one of the greatest French authorities (M. Esquirol) on this very point? "Presque tous les alienés confiés à mes soins . . . avoient eul une grande activité de facultés intellectuelles el morales qui avoient redoubles d'énergie quelque tems avant l'acces." Again, after every such access of frenzy, Hamlet appears to have had a lucid interval; a circumstance which Shakspeare, with his amazing knowledge of mental derangement or disease, has not omitted to acquaint us with; for when the Prince and Laertes, after wrestling on' Ophelia's coffin, leap out of the grave, and Hamlet "mouths" and "rants," the Queen exclaims:—

This is mere madness:
And thus a while the lit will work on him;
Anon as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping.

If any one will be at the trouble to turn up the Anatomy of Melancholy of Shakspeare's contemporary, Burton, he will find all the symptoms of Hamlet's disorder—the "melancholia attonita of nosologists"—described with the minutest accuracy in a chapter from which I cannot forbear making the following quotation:—"They (i.e., the persons so afflicted) are of profound judgments in some things, excellent apprehensions, judicious, wise, and witty; for melancholy advanceth men's conceits more than any humour what- page 28 ever. Fearful, suspicious of all, yet again many of them desperate hairbrains; rash, careless, fit to be assassinates, as being void of all ruth and sorrow. Tedium ritœ: is a common symptom; they soon are tired with all things—sequitur nunc vivendi nunc moriendi cupido; often tempted to make away with themselves—vivere nolunt, mori nesciunt; they cannot die, they will not live; they complain, lament, weep, and think they lead a most melancholy life." To those who lay great stress upon Polonias's remark, "Though this be madness, yet there's method in it," as implying that the chamberlain suspected the reality of Hamlet's frenzy, I would reply in the words of Horace—"Insanire paret certo ratione modoque." Horatio's absolute silence on the subject has little or no significance either way; yet it is interesting to observe that, after the first act, everything he says to Hamlet is soothing and acquiescent. He never thwarts him, never argues with him, never contradicts IBM—he humours and indulges him. He assents to all he says with an invariable "Ay, my good lord," and conducts himself towards the distempered Prince with a delicate and sympathetic consideration, with a lenitive gentleness, in which compassion for his malady is blended with a tender friendship for his old friend and fellow-student. It is unnecessary to occupy your columns with quotations from the tragedy—since everybody can consult it—to show that Hamlet was believed to be mad by his mother, his uncle (whose opinions, however, wavered on the subject), Polomius, Ophelia, and the people of Denmark; but it would help us to a settlement of the matter in controversy if we could ascertain how the character of Hamlet was played in Shakspeare's theatre, under his instruction, or with his sanction. This can only be arrived at inferentially. The lines in Burbage's "Funeral Elegy"—

No more, young Hamlet, though hut scant of breath,
Shall cry "Revenge!" for his dear father's death—

will not assist us much; but in the writings of contemporary poets and dramatists—of men who had seen Hamlet played at the Globe or at the Blackfriars Theatre, and had spent convivial evenings with "Gentle Will" at the Mermaid—we find allusions to the hero of the tragedy, which denote, I think, that his insanity was a commonly- page 29 accepted fact. Thus in Eastward Hoe, the joint production of George Chapman, Ben Jonson, and John Marston, published in 1605, a footman named Hamlet enters, and is accosted by a tankard-bearer in these words:—"'S foote, Hamlet, are you mad?" So, too, in Pecker's Bel-man's Nightwalkes, published in 1612, we read the following:—"But if any mad Hamlet, hearing this, smell villanie, and rush in to see what the tawny deveils are doing," &c. And, again, in Antony Scoloker's poem entitled Daiphantus," published in 1604, occurs this couplet:—

Puts off his clothes; his shirt ho only weaves,
Much like mad Hamlet; thus as passion teares.

It only remains to quote the opinions of some of the greatest of Shakspearian critics and commentators on this much-vexed question. Goëthe's well-known dictum is that "Shakspeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it. In this view the whole piece seems to me to be composed. There is an oak-tree planted in a costly jar, which should have borne only pleasant flowers in its bosom—the roots expand, the jar is shivered."

Professor Gervinus, the latest and not the least eminent of Shakspeare's expositors in Germany, quotes and adopts Goëthe's view of Hamlet's distemper, which he thus analyses and unfolds:—"The cause of this extremity of dejection lies in the events which befall him—events which suddenly impoverish him, which rob him, as Goëthe says, of the true conception he had formed of his parents, which unhinge his mind, and roll upon him a tide of affliction, sorrow, uneasiness, and dire forebodings, which, in the course of their fulfilment, produce unrestrained derangement."

Coleridge declares that "Hamlet's wildness is but half false." Guizot asserts that he was "mad from calculation, and perhaps slightly mad from nature." Thomas Campbell, while disbelieving that Hamlet's mind was absolutely diseased, observes:—"Most certain it is that his whole perfect being had received a shock that had unsettled his faculties." Dr. Maginn says:—"Hamlet is doubtless insane; but the species of intellectual disturbance, the peculiar form of mental malady under which he suffers, is of the subtlest character." page 30 Dr. Ferriar, the learned author of an Essay on Apparitions, published in 1813, terms Hamlet's mental distemper "latent lunacy," and remarks—"He feigns madness for political purposes, while the poet means to represent his understanding as really (and unconsciously to himself) unhinged by the cruel circumstances in which he is placed." Mr. R. G. While, the highest Shakspearian authority in the United States, contrasts "the fierce madness" of Lear with the "weak intellectual disorder" of Hamlet M. Philaréte Chasles traces the derangement of the melancholy prince to the ghostly revelation he had received:—"Sa communication récente avec le monde des esprits jette dans son intelligence les premiers germes de la folic." And Professor Villemain has thus felicitously indicated the mixture of simulated and of real insanity in Hamlet's conduct:—"Par une combinaison singulière, Shakspeare a représenté la folic feinte aussi souvent que la elle-même; enfin il a imaginé de les mêler toutes deux dans le personnage bizarre d'Hamlet, el de joindre ensemble les eclairs de la raison les ruses d'un égarement calculé, et le désordre involontaire de l'âme."

Cardinal Wiseman considered that the question of Hamlet's insanity had been finally disposed of by Dr. Conolly, who had conclusively shown that the Prince was "labouring under real madness, yet was able to put on a fictitious and artificial derangement for the purposes which he kept in view."

I am aware that a contrary opinion was held by Sir Henry Halford; but his excellent 'essay on this subject was effectually dealt with by a Quarterly Reviewer, in 1833, whose article may be consulted with advantage by Shakspearian students and psychologists.

James Smith.


Postcript.—While these sheets are passing through the press, a friend informs me that "Amleth" is an old Danish word signifying intellectual disturbance or "crankiness;" and allied, I presume, to the Gaelic words Ahmluadh and Ahmluaidh, which have the meaning of animi perturbatio.*

* Mr. Smith does not appear to remember that Prince Hamlet's father's name was also Hamlet.—Ed.