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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Wilhelm Meister’s Analysis of Hamlet
By Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)
From ‘Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship’: Translation of Thomas Carlyle

SEEING the company so favorably disposed, Wilhelm now hoped he might further have it in his power to converse with them on the poetic merit of the pieces which might come before them. “It is not enough,” said he next day, when they were all again assembled, “for the actor merely to glance over a dramatic work, to judge of it by his first impression, and thus without investigation to declare his satisfaction or dissatisfaction with it. Such things may be allowed in a spectator, whose purpose it is rather to be entertained and moved than formally to criticize. But the actor, on the other hand, should be prepared to give a reason for his praise or censure: and how shall he do this if he have not taught himself to penetrate the sense, the views, and feelings of his author? A common error is, to form a judgment of a drama from a single part in it; and to look upon this part itself in an isolated point of view, not in its connection with the whole. I have noticed this within a few days so clearly in my own conduct, that I will give you the account as an example, if you please to hear me patiently.  1
  “You all know Shakespeare’s incomparable ‘Hamlet’: our public reading of it at the Castle yielded every one of us the greatest satisfaction. On that occasion we proposed to act the piece; and I, not knowing what I undertook, engaged to play the Prince’s part. This I conceived that I was studying, while I began to get by heart the strongest passages, the soliloquies, and those scenes in which force of soul, vehemence, and elevation of feeling have the freest scope; where the agitated heart is allowed to display itself with touching expressiveness.  2
  “I further conceived that I was penetrating quite into the spirit of the character, while I endeavored as it were to take upon myself the load of deep melancholy under which my prototype was laboring, and in this humor to pursue him through the strange labyrinths of his caprices and his singularities. Thus learning, thus practicing, I doubted not but I should by-and-by become one person with my hero.  3
  “But the farther I advanced, the more difficult did it become for me to form any image of the whole, in its general bearings; till at last it seemed as if impossible. I next went through the entire piece, without interruption; but here too I found much that I could not away with. At one time the characters, at another time the manner of displaying them, seemed inconsistent; and I almost despaired of finding any general tint, in which I might present my whole part with all its shadings and variations. In such devious paths I toiled, and wandered long in vain; till at length a hope arose that I might reach my aim in quite a new way.  4
  “I set about investigating every trace of Hamlet’s character, as it had shown itself before his father’s death: I endeavored to distinguish what in it was independent of this mournful event; independent of the terrible events that followed; and what most probably the young man would have been, had no such thing occurred.  5
  “Soft, and from a noble stem, this royal flower had sprung up under the immediate influences of majesty; the idea of moral rectitude with that of princely elevation, the feeling of the good and dignified with the consciousness of high birth, had in him been unfolded simultaneously. He was a prince, by birth a prince; and he wished to reign, only that good men might be good without obstruction. Pleasing in form, polished by nature, courteous from the heart, he was meant to be the pattern of youth and the joy of the world.  6
  “Without any prominent passion, his love for Ophelia was a still presentiment of sweet wants. His zeal in knightly accomplishments was not entirely his own; it needed to be quickened and inflamed by praise bestowed on others for excelling in them. Pure in sentiment, he knew the honorable-minded, and could prize the rest which an upright spirit tastes on the bosom of a friend. To a certain degree, he had learned to discern and value the good and the beautiful in arts and sciences; the mean, the vulgar was offensive to him: and if hatred could take root in his tender soul, it was only so far as to make him properly despise the false and changeful insects of a court, and play with them in easy scorn. He was calm in his temper, artless in his conduct, neither pleased with idleness nor too violently eager for employment. The routine of a university he seemed to continue when at court. He possessed more mirth of humor than of heart; he was a good companion, pliant, courteous, discreet, and able to forget and forgive an injury, yet never able to unite himself with those who overstept the limits of the right, the good, and the becoming.  7
  “When we read the piece again, you shall judge whether I am yet on the proper track. I hope at least to bring forward passages that shall support my opinion in its main points.”  8
  This delineation was received with warm approval; the company imagined they foresaw that Hamlet’s manner of proceeding might now be very satisfactorily explained; they applauded this method of penetrating into the spirit of a writer. Each of them proposed to himself to take up some piece, and study it on these principles, and so unfold the author’s meaning….  9
  Loving Shakespeare as our friend did, he failed not to lead round the conversation to the merits of that dramatist. Expressing, as he entertained, the liveliest hopes of the new epoch which these exquisite productions must form in Germany, he ere long introduced his ‘Hamlet,’ who had busied him so much of late.  10
  Serlo declared that he would long ago have played the piece, had this been possible, and that he himself would willingly engage to act Polonius. He added with a smile, “An Ophelia too will certainly turn up, if we had but a Prince.”  11
  Wilhelm did not notice that Aurelia seemed a little hurt at her brother’s sarcasm. Our friend was in his proper vein, becoming copious and didactic, expounding how he would have ‘Hamlet’ played. He circumstantially delivered to his hearers the opinions we before saw him busied with; taking all the trouble possible to make his notion of the matter acceptable, skeptical as Serlo showed himself regarding it. “Well then,” said the latter finally, “suppose we grant you all this, what will you explain by it?”  12
  “Much, everything,” said Wilhelm. “Conceive a prince such as I have painted him, and that his father suddenly dies. Ambition and the love of rule are not the passions that inspire him. As a king’s son, he would have been contented; but now he is first constrained to consider the difference which separates a sovereign from a subject. The crown was not hereditary; yet a longer possession of it by his father would have strengthened the pretensions of an only son, and secured his hopes of the succession. In place of this, he now beholds himself excluded by his uncle, in spite of specious promises, most probably forever. He is now poor in goods and favor, and a stranger in the scene which from youth he had looked upon as his inheritance. His temper here assumes its first mournful tinge. He feels that now he is not more, that he is less, than a private nobleman; he offers himself as the servant of every one; he is not courteous and condescending, he is needy and degraded.  13
  “His past condition he remembers as a vanished dream. It is in vain that his uncle strives to cheer him, to present his situation in another point of view. The feeling of his nothingness will not leave him.  14
  “The second stroke that came upon him wounded deeper, bowed still more. It was the marriage of his mother. The faithful tender son had yet a mother, when his father passed away. He hoped in the company of his surviving, noble-minded parent, to reverence the heroic form of the departed; but his mother too he loses, and it is something worse than death that robs him of her. The trustful image which a good child loves to form of its parents is gone. With the dead there is no help; on the living no hold. She also is a woman, and her name is Frailty, like that of all her sex.  15
  “Now first does he feel himself completely bent and orphaned; and no happiness of life can repay what he has lost. Not reflective or sorrowful by nature, reflection and sorrow have become for him a heavy obligation. It is thus that we see him first enter on the scene. I do not think that I have mixed aught foreign with the piece, or overcharged a single feature of it.”  16
  Serlo looked at his sister and said, “Did I give thee a false picture of our friend? He begins well; he has still many things to tell us, many to persuade us of.” Wilhelm asseverated loudly that he meant not to persuade but to convince; he begged for another moment’s patience.  17
  “Figure to yourselves this youth,” cried he, “this son of princes; conceive him vividly, bring his state before your eyes, and then observe him when he learns that his father’s spirit walks; stand by him in the terrors of the night, when the venerable ghost itself appears before him. A horrid shudder passes over him; he speaks to the mysterious form; he sees it beckon him; he follows it, and hears. The fearful accusation of his uncle rings in his ears; the summons to revenge, and the piercing oft-repeated prayer, Remember me!  18
  “And when the ghost has vanished, who is it that stands before us? A young hero panting for vengeance? A prince by birth, rejoicing to be called to punish the usurper of his crown? No! trouble and astonishment take hold of the solitary young man; he grows bitter against smiling villains, swears that he will not forget the spirit, and concludes with the significant ejaculation:—
  “‘The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!’
  “In these words, I imagine, will be found the key to Hamlet’s whole procedure. To me it is clear that Shakespeare 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.  20
  “A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him, not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him. He winds, and turns, and torments himself; he advances and recoils; is ever put in mind, ever puts himself in mind; at last does all but lose his purpose from his thoughts; yet still without recovering his peace of mind.”  21
  Aurelia seemed to give but little heed to what was passing; at last she conducted Wilhelm to another room, and going to the window, and looking out at the starry sky she said to him, “You have still much to tell us about Hamlet; I will not hurry you; my brother must hear it as well as I; but let me beg to know your thoughts about Ophelia.”  22
  “Of her there cannot much be said,” he answered; “for a few master strokes complete her character. The whole being of Ophelia floats in sweet and ripe sensation. Kindness for the Prince, to whose hand she may aspire, flows so spontaneously, her tender heart obeys its impulses so unresistingly, that both father and brother are afraid; both give her warning harshly and directly. Decorum, like the thin lawn upon her bosom, cannot hide the soft, still movements of her heart; it on the contrary betrays them. Her fancy is smit; her silent modesty breathes amiable desire; and if the friendly goddess Opportunity should shake the tree, its fruit would fall.”  23
  “And then,” said Aurelia, “when she beholds herself forsaken, cast away, despised; when all is inverted in the soul of her crazed lover, and the highest changes to the lowest, and instead of the sweet cup of love he offers her the bitter cup of woe—”  24
  “Her heart breaks,” cried Wilhelm; “the whole structure of her being is loosened from its joinings; her father’s death strikes fiercely against it; and the fair edifice altogether crumbles into fragments.”…  25
  Serlo, at this moment entering, inquired about his sister; and looking in the book which our friend had hold of, cried, “So you are again at ‘Hamlet’? Very good! Many doubts have arisen in me, which seem not a little to impair the canonical aspect of the piece as you would have it viewed. The English themselves have admitted that its chief interest concludes with the third act; the last two lagging sorrily on, and scarcely uniting with the rest: and certainly about the end it seems to stand stock still.”  26
  “It is very possible,” said Wilhelm, “that some individuals of a nation which has so many masterpieces to feel proud of, may be led by prejudice and narrowness of mind to form false judgments; but this cannot hinder us from looking with our own eyes, and doing justice where we see it due. I am very far from censuring the plan of ‘Hamlet’: on the other hand, I believe there never was a grander one invented; nay, it is not invented, it is real.”  27
  “How do you demonstrate that?” inquired Serlo.  28
  “I will not demonstrate anything,” said Wilhelm; “I will merely show you what my own conceptions of it are.”  29
  Aurelia rose up from her cushion, leaned upon her hand, and looked at Wilhelm; who, with the firmest assurance that he was in the right, went on as follows:—  30
  “It pleases us, it flatters us to see a hero acting on his own strength; loving and hating as his heart directs him; undertaking and completing; casting every obstacle aside; and at length attaining some great object which he aimed at. Poets and historians would willingly persuade us that so proud a lot may fall to man. In ‘Hamlet’ we are taught another lesson: the hero is without a plan, but the piece is full of plan. Here we have no villain punished on some self-conceived and rigidly accomplished scheme of vengeance: a horrid deed occurs; it rolls itself along with all its consequences, dragging guiltless persons also in its course; the perpetrator seems as if he would evade the abyss which is made ready for him, yet he plunges in, at the very point by which he thinks he shall escape and happily complete his course.  31
  “For it is the property of crime to extend its mischief over innocence, as it is of virtue to extend its blessings over many that deserve them not; while frequently the author of the one or of the other is not punished or rewarded at all. Here in this play of ours, how strange! The Pit of Darkness sends its spirit and demands revenge; in vain! All circumstances tend one way, and hurry to revenge; in vain! Neither earthly nor infernal thing may bring about what is reserved for Fate alone. The hour of judgment comes: the wicked falls with the good; one race is mowed away, that another may spring up.”  32
  After a pause, in which they looked at one another, Serlo said: “You pay no great compliment to Providence, in thus exalting Shakespeare; and besides, it appears to me that for the honor of your poet, as others for the honor of Providence, you ascribe to him an object and a plan which he himself had never thought of.”  33
  “Let me also put a question,” said Aurelia. “I have looked at Ophelia’s part again; I am contented with it, and conceive that under certain circumstances I could play it. But tell me, should not the poet have furnished the insane maiden with another sort of songs? Could not one select some fragments out of melancholy ballads for this purpose? What have double meanings and lascivious insipidities to do in the mouth of such a noble-minded person?”  34
  “Dear friend,” said Wilhelm, “even here I cannot yield you one iota. In these singularities, in this apparent impropriety, a deep sense is hid. Do we not understand from the very first what the mind of the good soft-hearted girl was busied with? Silently she lived within herself, yet she scarce concealed her wishes, her longing; the tones of desire were in secret ringing through her soul; and how often may she have attempted, like an unskillful nurse, to lull her senses to repose with songs which only kept them more awake? But at last, when her self-command is altogether gone, when the secrets of her heart are hovering on her tongue, that tongue betrays her; and in the innocence of insanity she solaces herself, unmindful of king or queen, with the echo of her loose and well-beloved songs, ‘To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s Day,’ and ‘By Gis and by Saint Charity.’  35
  “I am much mistaken,” cried he, “if I have not now discovered how the whole is to be managed; nay, I am convinced that Shakespeare himself would have arranged it so, had not his mind been too exclusively directed to the ruling interest, and perhaps misled by the novels which furnished him with his materials.”  36
  “Let us hear,” said Serlo, placing himself with an air of solemnity upon the sofa; “I will listen calmly, but judge with rigor.”  37
  “I am not afraid of you,” said Wilhelm; “only hear me. In the composition of this play, after the most accurate investigation and the most mature reflection, I distinguish two classes of objects. The first are the grand internal relations of the persons and events, the powerful effects which arise from the characters and proceedings of the main figures: these, I hold, are individually excellent, and the order in which they are presented cannot be improved. No kind of interference must be suffered to destroy them, or even essentially to change their form. These are the things which stamp themselves deep into the soul; which all men long to see, which no one dares to meddle with. Accordingly, I understand, they have almost wholly been retained in all our German theatres.  38
  “But our countrymen have erred, in my opinion, with regard to the second class of objects which may be observed in this tragedy: I allude to the external relations of the persons, whereby they are brought from place to place, or combined in various ways by certain accidental incidents. These they have looked upon as very unimportant; have spoken of them only in passing, or left them out altogether. Now indeed it must be owned that these threads are slack and slender; yet they run through the entire piece, and bind together much that would otherwise fall asunder, and does actually fall asunder when you cut them off, and imagine you have done enough and more if you have left the ends hanging.  39
  “Among these external relations I include the disturbances in Norway, the war with young Fortinbras, the embassy to his uncle, the settling of that feud, the march of young Fortinbras to Poland, and his coming back at the end; of the same sort are Horatio’s return from Wittenberg, Hamlet’s wish to go thither, the journey of Laertes to France, his return, the dispatch of Hamlet into England, his capture by pirates, the death of the two courtiers by the letter which they carried. All these circumstances and events would be very fit for expanding and lengthening a novel; but here they injure exceedingly the unity of the piece,—particularly as the hero had no plan,—and are in consequence entirely out of place.”  40
  “For once in the right!” cried Serlo.  41
  “Do not interrupt me,” answered Wilhelm; “perhaps you will not always think me right. These errors are like temporary props of an edifice; they must not be removed till we have built a firm wall in their stead. My project therefore is, not at all to change those first-mentioned grand situations, or at least as much as possible to spare them, both collectively and individually; but with respect to these external, single, dissipated, and dissipating motives, to cast them all at once away, and substitute a solitary one instead of them.”  42
  “And this?” inquired Serlo, springing up from his recumbent posture.  43
  “It lies in the piece itself,” answered Wilhelm, “only I employ it rightly. There are disturbances in Norway. You shall hear my plan and try it.  44
  “After the death of Hamlet the father, the Norwegians, lately conquered, grow unruly. The viceroy of that country sends his son Horatio, an old school friend of Hamlet’s, and distinguished above every other for his bravery and prudence, to Denmark, to press forward the equipment of the fleet, which under the new luxurious King proceeds but slowly. Horatio has known the former King, having fought in his battles, having even stood in favor with him; a circumstance by which the first ghost scene will be nothing injured. The new sovereign gives Horatio audience, and sends Laertes into Norway with intelligence that the fleet will soon arrive, whilst Horatio is commissioned to accelerate the preparation of it; and the Queen, on the other hand, will not consent that Hamlet, as he wishes, should go to sea along with him.”  45
  “Heaven be praised!” cried Serlo; “we shall now get rid of Wittenberg and the university, which was always a sorry piece of business. I think your idea extremely good: for except these two distant objects, Norway and the fleet, the spectator will not be required to fancy anything: the rest he will see; the rest takes place before him; whereas his imagination, on the other plan, was hunted over all the world.”  46
  “You easily perceive,” said Wilhelm, “how I shall contrive to keep the other parts together. When Hamlet tells Horatio of his uncle’s crime, Horatio counsels him to go to Norway in his company, to secure the affections of the army, and return in warlike force. Hamlet also is becoming dangerous to the King and Queen; they find no readier method of deliverance than to send him in the fleet, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be spies upon him: and as Laertes in the mean time comes from France, they determine that this youth, exasperated even to murder, shall go after him. Unfavorable winds detain the fleet; Hamlet returns: for his wandering through the church-yard perhaps some lucky motive may be thought of; his meeting with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave is a grand moment, which we must not part with. After this, the King resolves that it is better to get quit of Hamlet on the spot: the festival of his departure, the pretended reconcilement with Laertes, are now solemnized; on which occasion knightly sports are held, and Laertes fights with Hamlet. Without the four corpses I cannot end the piece; not one of them can possibly be left. The right of popular election now again comes in force, and Hamlet gives his dying voice for Horatio.”  47
  “Quick! quick!” said Serlo; “sit down and work the piece; your plan has my entire approbation; only do not let your zeal for it evaporate.”…  48
  Wilhelm had already been for some time busied with translating Hamlet; making use, as he labored, of Wieland’s spirited performance, by means of which he had first become acquainted with Shakespeare. What in Wieland’s work had been omitted he replaced; and he had at length procured himself a complete version, at the very time when Serlo and he finally agreed about the way of treating it. He now began, according to his plan, to cut out and insert, to separate and unite, to alter and often to restore; for satisfied as he was with his own conception, it still appeared to him as if in executing it he were but spoiling the original.  49
  So soon as all was finished, he read his work to Serlo and the rest. They declared themselves exceedingly contented with it; Serlo in particular made many flattering observations.  50
  “You have felt very justly,” said he, among other things, “that some external circumstances must accompany this piece; but that they must be simpler than those which the great poet has employed. What takes place without the theatre—what the spectator does not see, but must imagine for himself—is like a background, in front of which the acting figures move. Your large and simple prospect of the fleet and Norway will very much improve the piece; if this were altogether taken from it, we should have but a family scene remaining; and the great idea, that here a kingly house by internal crimes and incongruities goes down to ruin, would not be presented with its proper dignity. But if the former background were left standing, so manifold, so fluctuating and confused, it would hurt the impression of the figures.”  51
  Wilhelm again took Shakespeare’s part: alleging that he wrote for islanders, for Englishmen, who generally, in the distance, were accustomed to see little else than ships and voyages, the coast of France and privateers; and thus what perplexed and distracted others was to them quite natural.  52
  Serlo assented; and both of them were of opinion that as the piece was now to be produced upon the German stage, this more serious and simple background was the best adapted for the German mind.  53
  The parts had been distributed before: Serlo undertook Polonius; Aurelia undertook Ophelia; Laertes was already designated by his name; a young, thick-set, jolly new-comer was to be Horatio; the King and the Ghost alone occasioned some perplexity. For both of these was no one but Old Boisterous remaining. Serlo proposed to make the Pedant King; but against this our friend protested in the strongest terms. They could resolve on nothing.  54
  Wilhelm also had allowed both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to continue in his piece. “Why not compress them into one?” said Serlo. “This abbreviation will not cost you much.”  55
  “Heaven keep me from such curtailments!” answered Wilhelm; “they destroy at once the sense and the effect. What these two persons are and do it is impossible to represent by one. In such small matters we discover Shakespeare’s greatness. These soft approaches, this smirking and bowing, this assenting, wheedling, flattering, this whisking agility, this wagging of the tail, this allness and emptiness, this legal knavery, this ineptitude and insipidity,—how can they be expressed by a single man? There ought to be at least a dozen of these people if they could be had, for it is only in society that they are anything; they are society itself; and Shakespeare showed no little wisdom and discernment in bringing in a pair of them. Besides, I need them as a couple that may be contrasted with the single, noble, excellent Horatio.”  56

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