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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 18

To the Editor of the Age

page 31

To the Editor of the Age.

Sir—In one of the earlier numbers of Forbes Winslow's Journal of Psychological Medicine, an article will be found entitled "Madness as treated by Shakspeare." It was written by me at the request of Dr. Window, and certainly the more the subject was studied the more deeply interesting it became, and the more wonderful appeared Shakspeare's intuitive perception, not only of the varieties and peculiarities of the forms of demonstration, but of the fine gradations, as in King Lear, or the abrupt transitions and fitfulness of the lucid intervals, as in Hamlet—supposing him to be, so far, in a state of aberration of intellect. But in any case, among the whole tribe—nation, one might almost say—of Shakspeare's characters, the great psychological puzzle has always been, and perhaps always will be, the character of Hamlet—the fine analyses of Goëthe, Schlegel, Hazlitt, and others notwithstanding.

Another great German author and critic (Ludwig Boern) puts the question of Hamlet's character in a new light. I have not the work at hand, but having translated the whole essay, I am quite clear as to the main points. If Hamlet was not mad, he must have been a very bad fellow. If he had not that excuse for what he says and does in several instances, more shame for him. Boerne thinks he was not mad, and that "the glass of fashion and the mould of form" was a prince of villains. One may feel shocked and indignant when reading such arguments and opinions; but Ludwig Boerne is entitled, like my accomplished literary friends of the firm of Smith, B., J., and R., to his independent judgment.

In the first place, then, according to this German critic, it seems clear that Hamlet had seduced Ophelia. Certain things she utters during her madness greatly help to prove this. According to Boerne's view, Hamlet's desertion of her might or might not be heartless, but his cruel personal conduct towards her was quite inexcusable, or at least unnecessary; it drove her mad, and caused her to commit suicide. Perhaps the critic is wrong as to his first proposition; but the rest may be regarded as page 32 unquestionable. When he finds he has killed the father of the lady thus deeply wronged (in any view), so far from displaying the slightest shock of dismay or touch of grief at the moment, he calls the dead body "names," and says, "I took thee for thy better!" His method of hiding the corpse under the staircase is very like the half-cunningness, half-carelessness, of madness; and when, after equivocating with horrible jests about Polonius being "at supper" (with the worms), he is obliged to confess where he has hidden the corpse, he tells the interrogator he "may nose him, as he goes up the stairs!" Let us hope all this was said during at least a temporary fit of madness. "What else could excuse it? Not even the excellent and nicely-discriminating phrase of "hysteria" employed by one of the learned critical firm of Smith, B., J., and R.

What would be thought, felt, and said of such conduct in real life if recorded as facts of history? If brought home to modern times, how intolerable: Suppose some young duke or prince—say, of Denmark—came out here, and, after winning the affections of the elegant and accomplished only daughter of one of our most eminent official magnates, treated her in so outrageous a manner as to drive her into madness and suicide! It is scarcely possible that we could regard such a prince as being in his proper mind. Then look at the Lord Chamberlain, Polonius—not as he is too commonly mis-represented on the stage, but as an amiable gentleman and scholar; an aged, but faithful official; a man of varied attainments, or the intellect of Claudius would not have held him in such esteem and confidence; one also of great knowledge of men and manners, as specially evidenced by his description of the gradations from love and melancholy into madness, and by his parting advice to his son; and when we thus consider the courtly old Lord Chamberlain, must we not feel that the treatment of him, when alive, by the Prince of Denmark was rude and offensive in the extreme—like the behaviour of one who had lost all command over himself; while the treatment of him when dead was to the last degree revolting? What, then, should we think of the mental condition of any young duke or prince of modern Denmark who treated the father of a deserted young lady—say, one of our learned judges or page 33 the Honourable the Minister of Justice—in so insulting a style when living; who then killed him like a rat, virtually said it served him perfectly right for "intruding," and then, dragging his dead body under the stairs, left him there to rot? It does not bear thinking about. Old times or new times are not the question; it would have been shocking in the time of Nebuchadnezzar or Nero. Let us hope that Hamlet had fits not merely of hysteria, but also of madness and that he was not the wicked villain of Ludwig Boerne.

I had written thus far, when the last letter of Mr. James Smith appeared in this morning's Argus (5th August), and I think he has very well summed up the arguments, and is right in the main. He takes the view of Professor Villemam and Dr. Conolly, and with good grounds. My own opinion has also been that Hamlet presents an extraordinary instance of sudden alternations of madness and sanity. That he could not be mad while uttering the consecutive thoughts of philosophy and meditative speculation for which he is so remarkable, I feel convinced; but it is equally evident that his brain was at the mercy of the next moment of excitement. Madmen reason at times, like the best of us, but they "gambol" from the theme, as Hamlet himself remarks. Madmen are often self-conscious of their state. I think Hamlet sometimes pretended to be more mad than he really was, in order to dis guise the fact of that degree of which he was conscious. He also did some things that may be regarded as the intermediate stages—such as the hiding the body of Polonius under the stairs, where it was sure to be found; and his stealing the despatches on shipboard, in the night, and forging fresh documents, with signature and seal, in order to get the heads of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cut off instead of his own. It is, however, the sudden alternations of an intellect of the first order, with an intellect and with actions which denote a diseased volition, that have rendered his character a psychological problem in years gone by, if not a puzzle, as it certainly has proved a battle-field, at the present day.

So much has been said in the way of criticism on the acting of this tragedy at the Theatre Royal that I must not intrude upon the department of the dramatic critic. Permit me, however, to touch upon a few page 34 points. Thoughtful actors do what they intend, but they often do more than they know. Mr. Montgomery may not intend to show Hamlet as mad, but his performance throughout is so profoundly sad and pathetic, that the author of the Anatomy of Melancholy would have had no doubt as to the illustration. But, apart from this question, the acting of Mr. Montgomery in several scenes is of the highest class, both in pathos and artistic finish. The fine expressions of his face are among the rarest things ever seen on the stage, and often remind one of the pictures of Titian and Guido. His scene with Ophelia when he discovers she is telling him an untruth; his scene with his mother when the ghost of his father appears; and the scene at the grave of Ophelia, are events to the mind that can never be forgotten. It is not only an elegant performance throughout, but more touching and tearful than any Hamlet I have seen. His death is perfectly true to nature, and at the same time the finest example of the histrionic art. It is the most beautifully pathetic picture I ever saw on the stage. Whoever has watched with breathless emotion a beautiful dying face, or a beautiful expression in dying, cannot fail to recognise this as something deep beyond tears, whatever tears may flow.

The lateness of the hour prevents me from saying what I would wish about Claudius, and Mr. Vincent's clear and excellent version of this finely-drawn character. Claudius is the practical mover of the tragedy; the Ghost strives to be so, but fails, for at the last moment Hamlet kills the king, not on account of any of the Ghost's exhortations, but from a mad, or half mad, rage and indignation at finding the treachery that has been practised upon him with the poisoned foils. It is a compliment to a Melbourne audience, not always deserved, to say that the house was crowded in every part. So may it be every time Mr. Montgomery plays Hamlet. It is a fine lesson for a public far too much given to burlesque and vulgarity, to the love of laughing at serious emotions, and at fine subjects made ridiculous.

R. H. H.

Mason, Firth and Co., Printers, Flinders Lane West.