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A STUDY OF HAMLET.
The legend from which the outline of the tragedy of Hamlet is taken represents the Prince of Denmark as throughout feigning madness. Shakspeare has so far departed from what has justly been termed a coarse and mean model, and in the progress and termination of his play has so wholly abandoned the ancient story, as to leave us at liberty to say that the legend merely supplied him with a subject which he amplified and surrounded with greater beauty than could be borrowed. But a question has long existed, and still exists,—whether, when partly adopting the model, Shakspeare intended simply to portray the feigning of madness, or designedly drew a representation of one of the most delicate of the
shades of a mind really disordered.
There is, assuredly, sufficient foundation for believing that the mind of Shakspeare, exercised on the old story of a simulated insanity, imagined the finer outline of a mental condition in which there is a partial disturbance of reason, and that not continual, but fitful, often rectified, often returning, and productive of perplexing inconsistency of thought and action. The opinion more generally entertained, that the madness of Hamlet was only assumed, seems to rest principally on his declaration to his friends, in the fifth scene of the First Act,
As I, perchance, hereafter may think meet
and upon his saying to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, in the second scene of the Second Act,
I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a hand-saw.
These expressions, and his positive denial of madness, in answer to his mother's observation in the fourth scene of the Third Act, constitute all the passages that would appear to give direct support to the conclusion that his eccentricities were merely acted.
This view of Hamlet's character, however, although it has been taken by many distinguished commentators, and has been generally, if not universally, adopted on the stage, has occasionally been questioned by critics peculiarly qualified by their mental habits to form a correct judgment concerning it. It is observed by Dr. Johnson that the incidents of this play are so numerous that the mere argument of it would make a long tale : and certainly the diversities of opinion among those who have delighted to dwell on this great production are so many as to make a reconsideration of the question, and a new and careful perusal of the whole of the tragedy, if not absolutely necessary, at least excusable. The habitual readers of Shakspeare will require no excuse for such an attempt, or for its imperfection.
The fidelity of all the stage representations of Hamlet is certainly doubtful, although the names of all the most accomplished tragedians of the last and of the present century are associated with their performance of the principal character. All appear to have adopted the common view of it, as one in which