Shakspere And Montaigne
Part 2 out of 4
The satire of that famous scene in 'Hamlet' is here apparent. It will
now be understood why the Danish Prince comes with a warning to his
beloved, 'not to admit _honesty_ in discourse with _beauty_,' and why
his resolution is that 'we will have no more _marriage_.' Those words
of Hamlet, too, '_this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives
it proof_,' are easy of explanation. It was not yet so long ago that
celibacy had been abolished in England. The 'time' now confirms
celibacy once more in this French book.
Most characteristic is the following passage: in this scene the only new
one. It goes far to show the intention with which the poet partly
re-wrought the play. I mean the words in which Hamlet confesses to
Ophelia that he has deceived her. The repentant sinner says: '_You
should not have believed me: for virtue cannot so inoculate our old
stock but we shall relish of it_.'
Can a poet who will not convert the stage into a theological Hall of
Controversy, make the soul-struggle of his hero more comprehensible?
Hamlet has honestly tried (we have seen with what means) to inoculate
and improve the sinful 'old stock.' But how far away he still feels
himself from his aim! He calls himself 'proud, revengeful, ambitious.'
These are the three sins of which he must accuse himself, when listening
to the voice of Nature which admonishes him to fulfil the duty of his
life--the deed of blood--that inner voice of his nobler nature which
impels him to seize the crown in order to guide the destinies of his
country; given over, as the latter is, to the mischievous whims of a
Yet he cries out against Ophelia, 'We are arrant knaves all; believe
none of us!' He reproaches this daughter of Eve with her own weaknesses
and the great number of her sins in words reminding us of Isaiah, 
where the wantonness of the daughters of Zion is reproved. He, the
ascetic, calls out to his mistress: 'Go thy ways to a nunnery!... Why
wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?'
Let us hear what his mistress says about him. This passage also,
explaining Hamlet's madness, is new:--
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatched form and feature of blown youth,
Blasted with ecstasy. 
With what other word can Hamlet's passionate utterances be designated
than that of religious ecstasy?
From the first moment when he sees Ophelia, and prays her to remember
his sins in her 'orisons,' down to the last moment when he leaves her,
bidding her to go to a nunnery, there is method in his madness--the
method of those dogmas which brand nature and humanity as sinful,
whose impulses they do not endeavour to lead to higher aims, but which,
by certain mysteries and formulas, they pretend to be able to overcome.
The soul-struggle of Hamlet arises from his divided mind; an inner
voice of Nature calling, on the one hand:--
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest;
whilst another voice calls out that, howsoever he pursues his act, he
should not 'taint his mind.'
In the English translation of the 'Hystorie of Hamblet,' from which
Shakspere took his subject, the art of dissembling is extolled, in
most naive language, as one specially useful towards great personages
not easily accessible to revenge. He who would exercise the arts of
dissembling (it is said there) must be able to 'kisse his hand whome
in hearte hee could wishe an hundredfoot depth under the earth, so hee
mighte never see him more, if it were not a thing _wholly to bee
disliked in a Christian, who by no meanes ought to have a bitter
gall, or desires infected with revenge_.'
We shall find later on that Hamlet's gall also claims its rights; all
the more so as he endeavours, by an unnatural and superstitious use of
dogmatism, to suppress and to drive away the 'excitements of the reason
and of the blood.' We have heard from Polonius that the Prince,
after his 'sadness,' fell into a 'fast.' And everything he says to
his schoolfellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern  about his frame of
mind, confirms us in the belief that he has remained faithful to the
intention declared in the first act--'Look you, I will go pray'--so
as to prepare himself, like many others, to contemplate passively
a world sinful from its very nature, and therefore not to be changed
This scene is, in the first quarto, a mere hasty sketch, but faintly
indicated. In the second quarto it is, so to say, a new one; and a
comparison between the two need, therefore, not be instituted.
Before his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet, for a few
moments, gives up his brain-racking thoughts of penitence; he even
endeavours to philosophise, as he may have done at the University
of Wittenberg before he allowed himself to be lured into dreamland.
He utters a thought--'There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking
makes it so'--which occurs in an Essay of Montaigne, and is thus given
by Florio (127):--
'If that what we call evil and torment be neither torment nor evil,
but that our fancy only gives it that quality, is it in us to change
Hamlet then pictures his mental condition in words of deepest sincerity.
In order to fully understand this description, we have once more to
refer to an Essay of Montaigne,  in which he asserts that man is
not furthered by his reason, his speculations, his passions; that
they give him no advantage over other creatures. A divinely appointed
authority--the Church--confers upon him 'those great advantages and
odds he supposes to have over other creatures.' It is she that seals
to him the patent and privilege which authorises him to 'keep account
both of the receipts and layings-out of the world.' Ay, it is she who
convinces him that '_this admirable swinging-round of the heavenly
vaults, the eternal light of those constellations rolling so nobly over
our heads_, the terrible commotions of this infinite ocean, were
established, and have continued for so many ages, for his advantage and
his service.' To her authority he must wholly surrender himself; by her
he must allow himself to be guided. And in doing so, it is 'better for
us to have a weak judgment than a strong one; better to be smitten with
blindness than to have one's eyes open and clear-sighted.'
Striving to live up to similar views, Hamlet 'lost all his mirth.'
This is the cause of his heavy disposition; of his having 'foregone
all custom of exercise'--so 'that this goodly frame, the earth,' seems
to him 'a sterile promontory,' a mere place of preparation for gaining
the next world through penance and prayer. Verily, '_this brave
o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden
fire_,' appears to him no better 'than a foul and pestilent
congregation of vapours.' Quite in accordance with such tenets which
we need not qualify by name, Man, to him, is but a 'quintessence of
Both man, and still more sinful woman, displease Hamlet. Yet he has
not succeeded in so wholly subjugating Nature within himself as to be
fully secured against her importunate claims. Now we would point out
here that Montaigne  mentions a tyrant of antiquity who 'could not
bear seeing tragedies acted in the theatre, from fear that his subjects
should see him sob at the misfortunes of Hecuba and Andromache--him
who, without pity, caused daily so many people to be cruelly killed.'
Again, Montaigne  speaks of actors, mentioned by Quinctilian, who
were 'so deeply engaged in a sorrowful part that they wept even after
having returned to their lodgings;' whilst Quinctilian reports of
himself that, 'having undertaken to move a certain passion in others,
he had entered so far into his part as to find himself surprised, not
only with the shedding of tears, but also with a paleness of countenance
and the behaviour of a man truly weighed down with grief.'
Hamlet has listened to the player. In the concluding monologue of the
second act--which is twice as long in the new quarto--we are told of the
effect produced upon his mind when seeing that an actor, who merely holds
a mirror up to Nature--
... but in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd....
... And all for nothing!--For Hecuba?
whilst he (Hamlet), 'a dull and muddy-mettled rascal,'  like
John-a-dreams, in spite of his strong 'motive and the cue for passion,'
mistrusts them and is afraid of being guided by them.
All at once, Hamlet feels the weight and pressure of a mode of thought
which declares war against the impulses of Nature, calling man a born
Who calls me villain? ...
... Gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?
'S wounds, I should take it: for it cannot be.
But I am pigeon-liver'd, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter; or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal. 
The feelings of Hamlet, until then forcibly kept down, now get the
mastery over him. He gives vent to them in oaths of which he is himself
at last ashamed, when he compares himself to 'a very drab, a scullion,'
who 'must fall a-cursing.'
He now will set to work and get more natural evidence of the King's
guilt. He begins to entertain doubts as to those mystic views by
which he meant to be guided. He mistrusts the apparition which he
had called an honest ghost ('true-penny'):--
The spirit that I have seen
May be the Devil: and the Devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape. Yea, perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this. 
Over weakness the Devil is potent; all flesh is weak. What mode of
thought is this? What philosophy taught this doctrine? Hamlet's
weakness, if we may believe Polonius,  has been brought on by
fasting and watching.
Over melancholy, too, the Devil is powerful. Are we not here in the
sombre atmosphere of those who turn away their reason from ideal
aspirations; who denounce the impulses of nature as sinful excitements;
who would fain look upon the earth as 'a sterile promontory'--having
dark death more before their mind's eye than beautiful life? Are
such thoughts not the forerunners of melancholy?
Hamlet's incessant thoughts of death are the same as those of his
model, Montaigne. In an Essay,  entitled 'That to Philosophise
is to Learn how to Die,' the latter explains that the Christian
religion has no surer basis than the contempt for the present life,
and that we are in this world only to prepare ourselves for death.
His imagination, he says, has occupied itself with these thoughts
of death more than with anything else. Referring to a saying of
Lykurgos, he approves of graveyards being laid out close to churches
and in the most frequented places of a city, so as to accustom the
common people, women, and children not to be scared at the sight of
a dead person, and to forewarn everyone, by this continual spectacle
of bones, tombs, and funerals, as to our real condition.
Montaigne also, like Hamlet, ponders over suicide. He devotes a whole
Essay  to it. Life, he observes, would be a tyranny if the liberty
to die were wanting. For this liberty, he thinks, we have to thank
Nature, as for the most favourable gift which, indeed, deprives us
of all right to complain of our condition. If--as Boiocal, the German
chieftain,  said--earth is wanting to us whereon to live, earth
is never wanting to us for death. 
That is the wisdom of Montaigne, the admirer of antiquity. But
Montaigne, the modern man, introduces the Essay in which he dares to
utter such bold thoughts with the following restriction:--
'If, as it is said, to philosophise be to doubt, with much more reason
to play pranks (_niaiser_) and to rave, as I do, must be to doubt.
For, to inquire and to discuss, behoves the disciples. The decision
belongs to the chairman (_cathedrant_). My chairman is the
authority of the divine will which regulates us without contradiction,
and which occupies its rank above those human and vain disputes.'
This chairman, as often observed, by which Montaigne's thoughts are
to be guided, is an ecclesiastic authority.
In 'Hamlet,' also, it is a 'canon'  fixed against self-slaughter,
which restrains him from leaving, out of his own impulse, this whilom
paradise, this 'unweeded garden' of life.
Montaigne, whose philosophy aims at making us conversant with death
as with a friend, is yet terrified by it. Altogether, he says, he would
fain pass his life at his ease; and if he could escape from blows,
even by taking refuge under a calf's skin,  he would not be the
man who would shrink from it.
In a few graphic words Shakspere brands this cowardly clinging to life.
In the scene where Hamlet gives to Polonius nothing more willingly
than his leave, the new quarto (in every other respect the conclusion
of this scene is identical in both editions) contains these additional
words:--'Except my life, except my life, except my life.' Of the 'calf's
skin' we hear in the first scene of act v., where those are called sheep
and calves, who seek out assurance in parchments which are made of
sheep-skins and of calves-skins too.
Montaigne, who does not cease pondering over the pale fellow, Death,
looks for consolation from the ancients. He takes Sokrates as the
model of all great qualities; and he reproduces, in his own manner,
the speech this sage, who was fearless of death, made before his
judges. First of all, he makes him say that the qualities of death
are unknown to him, as he has never seen anybody who could instruct
him in them. 'Those who fear death, presuppose that they know it....
Perhaps death may be an indifferent thing; perhaps a desirable one.
However, one may believe that, if it be a transmigration from one
place to another, it will be an amelioration ... and free us from
having any more to do with wicked and corrupt judges. If it be a
consummation (_aneantissement_)  of our being, it is also
an amelioration to enter into a long and quiet night. We find nothing
so sweet in life as a quiet rest--a tranquil and profound sleep without
Now compare the monologue, 'To be or not to be,' of the first quarto
with the one contained in the second. It will then be seen that those
Sokratic ideas, rendered by Montaigne in his own manner, have been
worked into the first quarto. In the latter we hear nothing at all
about the end of our being (a complete destruction or _consummation_)
producing an amelioration.  Shakspere expresses this thought by
the words that if we could say that, by a sleep, we 'end the heartache
and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to--'tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished.' 
Keen commentators have pointed out the contradiction in Hamlet's
monologue, where he speaks of--
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns,
whilst he saw such a traveller in his father's ghost. Certainly there
were then, even as there are now, besides the logical thinkers, also
a considerable number of inconsistent persons who believed in
supernaturally revealed messages, and who, nevertheless, now and then,
felt contradictory thoughts rising within themselves. Why should the
great master, who exhausted in his dramatic personages almost all
types of human nature, not have put such a character also on the stage?
To the poet, whose object it was to show 'to the very age and body of
time his form and pressure' (this passage is wanting in the first
quarto), the presentation of such a psychological problem of
contradictory thoughts must have been of far greater attraction than
an anticipatory description of a metaphysician aching under the heavy
burden of his philosophic speculations. The latter is the character
attributed, by some, to Hamlet. But we think that such an utterly
strange modern creature would have been altogether incomprehensible
to the energetic English mind of this period.
In the course of the drama, Shakspere makes it sufficiently clear that
the thoughts by which Hamlet's 'native hue of resolution is sicklied
o'er,' have come from the narrow cells of a superstitious Christianity,
not from the free use of his reason. According to Montaigne, however,
we ought to 'use our reason only for strengthening our belief.'
Hamlet, with Purgatory and Hell, into which he has cast a glance,
before his eyes, would fain fly, like Montaigne, from them. In his
Essay I. 19  the latter says that our soul must be steeled against
the powers of death; 'for, as long as Death frightens us, how is it
possible to make a single step without feverish agitation?'
Hamlet as little attains this condition of quiet equanimity as the
pensive and pondering Montaigne. The latter, however, speaks of souls
that know no fear. It is true, he has to go to the ancients in order
to meet with this frame of mind. Quoting Horace --
Non vultus instantis tyranni
Mente quatit solida, neque Auster,
Dux inquieti turbidus Adriae,
Nec fulminantis magna Jovis manus--
he describes such a soul as being made '_mistress over her passions
and concupiscence; having become proof against poverty and disgrace,
and all the other injuries of fortune_. Let those who can, gain this
advantage. Herein lies true and sovereign freedom that allows us to
scorn force and injustice, and to deride prisons and fetters.'
To a friend with such a soul, to a living Horace or Horatio, Hamlet
addresses himself. Horatio also is his fellow-student and friend
from the University days at Wittenberg, and he has made the views
of the new philosophical school quite his own. He does not tremble
before the fire of Purgatory and Hell. Despising death, he wishes,
in the last scene, to empty the cup of poison from which his friend
Hamlet has drunk, in order to follow him. When the latter keeps him
back, Horatio makes answer--
I am more an antique Roman than a Dane.
Hamlet, trusting more to this firmer and truly antique character than
to his own, requests Horatio to aid him during the play-scene in
watching the King, so as to procure more natural evidence of his guilt.
This school-friend--how often may he have philosophised with him!--is
as just a man
As e'er my conversation coped withal.
The following passage,  in which Horatio's character is described
by Hamlet, is wanting in the first quarto:--
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice,
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath seal'd thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing;
A man that fortune's buffets and rewards
Hath ta'en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.
How near these words of Shakspere come to those with which Montaigne
describes an intrepid man after the poem of Horace!
But, in spite of subtle reasoning, the French philosopher cannot fathom
the cause why he himself does not attain any mind's ease, and why he
has no plain and straightforward faculty (_nulle faculte simple_)
within himself. He once  uses the expression, 'We trouble death
with the care of life, and life with the care of death;' but he does
not succeed in firmly attaching himself to life with all the fibres of
his nature, and gathering strength from the mother-earth, like Antaeus.
He oscillates between two antagonistic views, and feels unable to decide
for either the one or the other.
We have explained the elements of which Hamlet's complex character is
made up. He is an adherent of old superstitions and dogmas; he believes
in Purgatory, a Hell, and a Devil, and in the miraculous powers of
confession, holy communion, and the extreme unction. Yet, to some
degree, he is a Humanist, and would fain grant to Nature certain
rights. Scarcely has he yielded to the impulses of his blood, than
doubts begin to rise in him, and he begins to fear the Devil, who
might lure him into perdition. This inner discord, creating, as it does,
a mistrust in his own self, induces him, in the most important task of
his life, to appeal to Horatio. To him he says that, if the King's
occulted guilt does not come out ('unkennel itself'), he (Hamlet) will
look upon the apparition as a damned ghost, and (this is new) will
think that his 'imaginations are as foul as Vulcan's stithy.' 
By the interlude, Hamlet--and in this he is confirmed by Horatio--becomes
convinced of the King's guilt. All that he thereupon does is--to recite
a little ditty!
We have already made the acquaintance of Montaigne the soft-hearted,
who, as above mentioned, always was touched when seeing innocent
animals hunted to death, and who felt much emotion _at the tears
of the hart asking us for mercy_. At the same time we have
directed the reader's attention to the fact of his having said that
the 'common weal requires some to betray, some to lie, and some to
massacre,'  and that this task must be left to those who are
ready to sacrifice their honour and their conscience, and that men
who do not feel up to such deeds must leave their commission to the
stronger ones. This French nobleman naively avows that he has resolved
upon withdrawing into private life, not because he is averse to
public life--for the latter, he says, would 'perhaps equally suit
him'--but because, by doing so, he hopes to serve his Prince all the
more joyfully and all the more sincerely, thus following the free
choice of his own judgment and reason, and not submitting to any
restraint (_obligation particuliere_), which he hates in every
shape. And he adds the following curious moral doctrine:--'This is
the way of the world. We let the laws and precepts follow their way,
but we keep another course.' 
Who could mistake Shakspere's satire against this sentimental nobleman,
who fights shy of action, in making Hamlet recite a little ditty at a
moment when he has become convinced of the King's guilt:--
Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
Thus runs the world away.
This gifted Frenchman, Montaigne, was a new, a strange, phenomenon
in the eyes of Shakspere and his active and energetic countrymen.
A man, a nobleman too, who lives for no higher aim; who allows himself
to be driven about, rudderless, by his feelings and inclinations;
who even boasts of this mental disposition of his, and sends a vain
book about it into the world! What is it to teach? What good is it
to do? It gives mere words, behind which there is no manly character.
Are there yet more _beaux esprits_ to arise who, in Epicurean
fashion, enjoy the beautiful thoughts of others, whilst they themselves
remain incapable for action, letting the time go out of joint?
Let us further study the character of Hamlet, and we shall find that
the satire against Montaigne becomes more and more striking--a veritable
The Queen asks for her son. Before he fulfils her wish and comes to her,
he utters a lullaby of superstition (these lines are new), wherewith to
tide over the excitement of his nature:--
'Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.
Hamlet, always shrinking back from the impulses of his blood, fears
that the Devil might once more gain power over him:--
Soft! now to my mother!
O heart, lose not thy nature!
This nature of his, inclining to mildness and gentleness, he wishes
to preserve, and he resolves upon being 'cruel, not unnatural.' In
vain one seeks here for logic, and for the boundary between two words
which to ordinary common sense appear synonymous. In Montaigne,
however, we discover the clue of such a senseless argumentation.
In one of his Essays,  which contains a confusion of ideas that
might well make the humane Shakspere shudder, he writes:--
'Our condition, both public and private, is full of imperfections;
yet there is nothing useless in Nature, not even uselessness
itself.... Our being is cemented with sickly qualities: ambition,
jealousy, envy, vengeance, superstition, despair dwell in us, and
hold there so natural a possession that their counterfeit is also
recognised in beasts; for instance, cruelty--so unnatural a vice.
Yet he who would root out the seed of these qualities from the human
breast would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.'
Now, Hamlet's resolution to be 'cruel, but not unnatural,' is but a
fresh satire against Montaigne's train of thoughts, who would fain be
a Humanist, but who does not break with the reasoning of Loyola and
of the Church, by which he permits himself to be guided as by
the competent authority, and which tolerates cruelty--nay, orders its
being employed for the furtherance of what it calls the 'good aim.'
The idea that cruelty is a necessary but useful evil, no doubt
induced Montaigne  to declare that to kill a man from a feeling
of revenge is tantamount to our protecting him, for we thus 'withdraw
him from our attacks.' Furthermore, this Humanist argues that revenge
is to be regretted if its object does not feel its intention; for,
even as he who takes revenge intends to derive pleasure from
it, so he upon whom revenge is taken must perceive that intention,
in order to be harrowed with feelings of pain and repentance. 'To kill
him, is to render further attacks against him impossible; not to
revenge what he has done.'
Shakspere already gives Hamlet an opportunity in the following scene
to prove to us that there is no boundary between cruel and unnatural
conduct; and that one cannot be cruel and yet remain natural. In
the most telling words, the cause of Hamlet's want of energy is
substantiated. Fate gives the criminal, the King, into the hands of
Hamlet. It is the most important moment of the drama. A stroke of
the sword would be enough to do the deed of revenge. The cause
which makes Hamlet hesitate is, that the criminal is engaged in
prayer, and that--
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?
Does Hamlet, then, _not_ act with refined cruelty?
Here, a new thought is inserted, which we mentioned already in the
beginning, and which turns the balance at the decisive moment:--
But in our circumstance and course of thought
It is heavy with him. 
A Shaksperean hero, with drawn sword, allows himself to be restrained
from action by the thought that, because 'it is heavy' with his own
murdered father, who is suffering in Purgatory, he (Hamlet) ought not
to kill the criminal now, but later on, when the latter is deeply
wading in sin--
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, ...
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As Hell, whereto it goes.
Hamlet has been called a philosopher whose energy has been paralysed
by too great a range of thought. For the sovereignty of human reason
this is a most dangerous premiss. Do we not owe to the full and free
use of that reason everything great which mankind has created?
History speaks of a thousand heroes (only think of Alexander, of Julius
Caesar, of Frederick the Great!) whose doings convince us that a strong
power of thought and action can go hand in hand, nay, that the latter
cannot be successful without the former.
But, on the other hand, there is a way of thinking with preconceived
supernatural conclusions--or rather, we must call it an absence of
thinking--when men allow themselves to be moved by the circumstances
of a traditional course of thought. Against such intellectual
slavery the great century of the Reformation rose. And the greatest
Humanist, Shakspere, scourges that slavery in the catharsis of his
Questions of religion were not permitted to be treated on the stage.
But not merely the one deeply intelligent person for whom Shakspere
asks the players to act, and for whom the great master certainly
endeavoured to write--no, the public at large, too, will have
understood that the 'course of thought' which induced Hamlet to forego
action from a subtle refinement of cruelty, was not the course of
thought prevalent on this side of the Channel, and held up, in this
important scene, as that of a hero to be admired.
Hamlet resolved upon keeping out the soul of Nero from his 'firm bosom.'
(What a satire there is in this adjective 'firm'!) He means to be cruel,
but not unnatural; he will 'speak daggers, but use none.' A man who
lets himself be moved by extraneous circumstances is not his own
master. In cruel, unnatural manner, for no object whatever, he
murders poor Polonius. Then he begins to speak daggers in such a
manner as to get into a perfect ecstasy. Nor need any priest have
been ashamed of the sermon he preaches to his own mother.
In the first edition of 'Hamlet,' the scene between mother and son is
rather like a sketch in which most things are merely indicated, not
worked out. Only the part of the Ghost, with the exception of the line:--
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works,
which is wanting in the first edition, and Hamlet's address to the
Ghost, are in both quartos the same. Even as in the first act, so this
time also, Hamlet, on seeing the Ghost, calls upon the saints:--
Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings,
You heavenly guards!
This was the usual course on the occasion of such doubtful apparitions,
of which one did not know whether they were 'airs of heaven' or 'blasts
A new intercalation is (in the first quarto there is no vestige of it),
that Hamlet reproaches his mother with having degraded 'sweet religion'
to 'a rhapsody of words;' that he says 'the Devil hath conquered her at
hoodman blind ;' that she should confess herself to Heaven, and 'assume
a virtue if she have it not;' that 'virtue itself of vice must pardon
beg in the fatness of these pursy times, yea, curb and woo, for leave
to do him good.' So also is the Queen's question new:--
Ay me, what act,
That roars so loud, and thunders in the _index_? 
There is no trace, in the first quarto, of the following most
For, use almost can change the stamp of Nature 
And either curb (?) the Devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency....
And when you are desirous to be blest,
I'll blessing beg of you.
Let us figure to ourselves before what public Hamlet first saw the
wanderer from Purgatory; before what youth he bade Ophelia go to
a nunnery; before what men he remained inactive at the critical
moment simply because the criminal is engaged in his prayers,
whilst his own murdered father died without Holy Communion, without
having confessed and received the Extreme Unction. Let us remember
before what audience he purposely made the thunders of the Index
roar so loud; at what place he gets into ecstasy; and where he first
preaches to his mother that the Devil may be mastered and thrown out.
Here, certainly, we have questions of religion!
Shakspere's genius has known how to transport these most important
questions of his time, away from the shrill contact with contemporary
disputes, into the harmonious domain of the Muses. He, and his friends
and patrons, did not look upon the subjects discussed in this tragedy
with the passionless, indifferent eyes of our century. Many men, no
doubt, were filled with the thought, to which Bacon soon gave a
scientific form, that the human mind can only make true progress if
it turns towards the inquiry into Nature, keeping far away from the
hampering influence of transcendental dogmas. The liberal, intellectual
tendencies of the Reformation were not yet fettered in England with
the new dogmatic strait waistcoat of a narrow-minded, melancholy sect.
And Shakspere's views, which he has embodied in 'Hamlet,' were not in
divinatory advance of his age; they were easily comprehensible to the
best of his time.
Our chief argument will be contained in the chapter in which we shall
hear Shakspere's adversaries launch out furiously against the tendency
of this drama. Meanwhile, we will exhaust the course of its action.
Hamlet has already come very near to that point of view where Reason
at last ceases to guide his conduct, and where he becomes convinced that
indiscretion often is of better service than deep planning.
Now in Montaigne's Essay  already mentioned we read:--'When an
urgent circumstance, or any violent or unexpected accident of State
necessity, induces a Prince to break his word and faith, or otherwise
forces him out of his ordinary duty, he is to ascribe that compulsion
to a lash of God's rod.'
The passage in which Hamlet consoles himself in regard to the murder
committed against Polonius is new:--
I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this, and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
Hamlet, beholding the victim of his indiscretion, excuses himself thus:--
I must be cruel, only to be kind.
The cruel deed he has done, he palliates with the remark that
lovingkindness has forced him to it. Love of her God also forced
Catherine of Medicis to the massacre of St. Bartholomew.
Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind.
Yes; worse is coming! Hamlet knows that he is to be sent to England;
that the letters are sealed; that his two schoolfellows whom he trusts
as he will adders, bear the mandate. What does he do to prevent further
He rejoices that--
they must sweep my way,
And marshall me to knavery. 
He enjoys, in advance, the sweet presentiment of revenge which he
intends taking upon them. He lets things go without hindrance:--
Let it work!
For 'tis sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard.
He enjoys his own crafty policy which shall blow his school-friends,
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who yet, so far as he knows, have not
been guilty in any way towards him!) 'at the moon:'--
O, 'tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
Because Hamlet gives utterance to high-sounding thoughts, to
sentimental dreams, and melancholy subtleties, it has been assumed
that his character is one nourished with the poet's own heart's blood.
A thousand times the noble sentiment of duty has been dwelt upon,
which it is alleged he is inspired with; and on account of his fine
words he has been more taken a fancy to than any other Shaksperian
figure. But that was not the poet's object. Great deeds were more
to him than the finest words. His contemporaries understood him;
for Montaigne--as we shall prove--was given over to the lowest scorn
of the age through 'Hamlet,' because the whole reasoning of Hamlet not
only was a fruitless, but a pernicious one.
In the fourth scene of the fourth act, the poet describes the frame of
mind of the hero before he steps on board ship. 'Excitements of his
reason and his blood' once more call him to revenge. This monologue,
in which Hamlet gives expression to his feelings and thoughts, is only
in the quarto of 1604. The folio of 1623 does not contain it. Shakspere,
in later years, may have thought that the soul-struggle of his hero had
been ended; and so he may have regarded the passage as a superfluous one,
in which Hamlet's better self once more asks him to seize the reins of
destiny with his own hands.
He sees how young Fortinbras, the delicate and tender prince, 'puff'd
with divine ambition, mouthes the invisible event for a piece of land not
large enough to hide the slain.' Hamlet philosophises that the man who
uses not his god-like reason is but a beast; for--
--He that made us with such large discourse
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason,
To fust in us unused.
We further hear how Hamlet reasons about the question as to how 'to
be rightly great.' All the thoughts he produces, seem to flow from
the pen of the French philosopher. In Essay III. (13) of Montaigne
we read the beautiful words that 'the noblest master-work of man is to
live for a purpose (yivre d fropos),' and:--'The greatness of the soul
does not consist so much in drawing upwards, and haling forwards,
than in knowing how to range and to circumscribe itself. It holds
everything to be great, which is sufficient in itself. It shows
its superiority in more loving humble things than eminent ones.'
To the majesty of the human reason also, Montaigne, in spite of his so
often condemning it, knows how to render justice. In Essay I. (40)
he remarks: 'Shall we then dare to say that this advantage of reason
at which we rejoice so very much, and out of respect for which
we hold ourselves to be lords and emperors of all other creatures, has
been put into us for our torment? Why strive for the knowledge of things
if we become more cowardly thereby? if we lose, through it, the rest and
the tranquillity in which we should be without it? ... Shall we use the
intellect that has been given to us for our greatest good, to effect
our ruin; combating the designs of Nature and the general order of
things which implies that everyone should use his tools and means for
his own convenience?'
Noble thoughts! But it is not enough to play an aesthetic game with
them. The energetic English genius wishes that they should regulate
our life; that we should act in accordance with them, so that no tragic
complication should form itself, which could only be solved by the ruin
and death of the innocent together with the guilty. The monologue
O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
Nevertheless, Hamlet continues his voyage.
The reader will remember that Montaigne spoke of an instinctive impulse
of the will--a daimon--by which he often, and to his final advantage,
had allowed himself to be guided, so much so that such strong impulses
might be attributed to divine inspiration. A daimon of this kind,
under whose influence Hamlet acts, is described in the second scene of
the fifth act. The passage is wanting in the first quarto.  Hamlet
tells Horatio how he lay in the ship, and how in his heart there was a
kind of fighting which would not let him sleep. This harassing condition,
the result of his unmanly indecision, he depicts in these words:--
Methought I lay
Worse than the mutines in the bilboes.
Then all at once (how could an impulsive manner of action be better
described?), before he could 'make a prologue to his brains,' Hamlet
lets himself be overcome by such a daimonic influence. He breaks open
the grand commission of others, forges a seal with a signet in his
possession, becomes a murderer of two innocent men, and draws the evil
Let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our deep plots do pall; and that should learn us,
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
This view we have already quoted from Essay III. (12). In Florio's
translation (632):--'Therefore do our dessigns so often miscarry....
The heavens are angry, and I may say envious of the extension
and large privilege we ascribe to human wisdome, to the prejudice of
theirs: and abridge them so more unto us, by so much more we endeavour
to amplifie them.'
Hamlet takes the twofold murder committed against Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern as little to heart as the 'indiscreet' deed by which
Polonius was killed. Then the consolation was sufficient for him that
lovingkindness had forced him to be cruel. This time, his conscience
is not touched, because--
't is dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.
With such argumentation every tyranny may be palliated, especially by
those who, like Hamlet, think that--
A man's life 's no more than to say 'One.'
Yet another peculiarity of Montaigne's complex being is depicted by
Shakspere in the graveyard scene. He shows us every side of this
whimsical character who says of himself that he has no staying power
for any standpoint, but that he is driven about by incalculable
Let us read a passage in Essay II (12), and compare it with Hamlet's
enigmatic conduct towards Laertes. Montaigne describes himself in
these sentences:--'Being of a soft and somewhat heavy temperament, I
have no great experience of those violent agitations which mostly
come like a surprise upon our mind without allowing it leisure to
collect itself.' In spite of the resistance--he further says--which
he endeavoured to offer, even he, however, was occasionally thus
seized. He felt these agitations rising and growing in, and becoming
master over, himself. As in drunkenness, things then appeared to him
otherwise than he usually saw them. 'I manifestly saw the advantages
of the object which I sought after, augmenting and growing; and I felt
them becoming greater and swelling by the wind of my imagination.
I felt the difficulties of my enterprise becoming easier and simpler,
my reasoning and my conscience drawing back. But, that fire being gone,
all of a sudden, as with the flash of lightning, my mind resumed another
view, another condition, another judgment.'
In this manner Hamlet conducts himself towards Laertes. A great grief
takes possession of him when he hears of the death of Ophelia: he leaps,
like Laertes, into her grave; he grapples with him; he warns him that,
though 'not splenetive and rash,' he (Hamlet) yet has 'something
dangerous' in him. (He means the daimon which so fatally impelled
him against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.) Hamlet and Laertes wrestle,
but they are parted by the attendants. Hamlet begins boasting, in
high-flown language, of what great things he would be able to do.
The Queen describes Hamlet's rage in these words:--
And thus awhile the fit will work on him;
Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping. 
In the meantime, the fire with which Hamlet's soul had been seized,
is gone, like a flash of lightning. He changes to another point of
view--probably that one according to which everything goes its way
in compliance with a heavenly decree. The little verse he recites in
Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day,
quite corresponds to such a passive philosophy which has gained the
mastery over him, and to which he soon falls a victim.
We are approaching the conclusion of the great drama. Here, again, in
order to explain Hamlet's action, or rather his yielding to influences
around him, we have to direct the attention of the reader to Essay
(III. 10), in which Montaigne tells how easily he protects himself
against the dangers of inward agitation by dropping the subject which
threatens to become troublesome to him before he is drawn on and carried
along by it. The doughty nobleman says that he has escaped from
many difficulties by not staking frivolously, like others, happiness
and honour, life and everything, on his 'rapier and his dagger.' 
There may be some truth in Montaigne's charge that the cause of not a
few struggles he has seen, was often of truly pitiful origin, and that
such struggles were only carried on from a mistaken feeling of
self-respect. It may be true also that it is a bad habit--as he
maintains--to proceed still further in affairs of this kind simply
because one is implicated. But how strange a confession of a nobleman
from whom we at all times expect bravery: 'For want of judgement our
hearte fails us.' 
Hamlet is engaged in such a struggle with Laertes through the graveyard
scene. The King, who has had good cause to study Hamlet's character
more deeply than anyone else, reckons upon his vanity in order to
decide him to the fencing-match. 'Rapier and dagger' are forced upon
weak-willed Hamlet by Osric.  How subtle is this satire! For
appearance' sake, in order to outshine Laertes, the Prince accepts
the challenge.  Happiness and life, which he ought long ago to
have risked for the purpose of avenging his father and his honour,
are now staked from sheer vanity. The 'want of prudence' Hamlet displays
in accepting a challenge which he must 'carry out from a (mistaken)
feeling of self-respect,' has the 'intolerable' consequence that,
shortly before he crosses swords with Laertes, he confesses to
Horatio:--'But thou would'st not think how ill all's here about my
Again, Shakspere, very briefly, but not less pointedly, depicts the
way in which Hamlet allows himself to be influenced and driven to a
decision. This time the poet does so by bringing in a clearly expressed
dogmatic tenet whereby Hamlet's fate is sealed. It is 'ill all about
his heart.' He would prefer not going to meet Laertes. 
_Horatio_. If your mind dislike anything, obey it. I will
forestal their repair hither, and say you are not fit.
The fatalist Hamlet, whom we have seen coming ever closer to the doctrine
of Predestination, answers as follows:--
'Not a whit; we defy augury; there is special providence in
the fall of a sparrow.  If it be now, 'tis not to come;
if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet
it will come; the readiness is all. Since no man has aught
of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be.'
This time it is a 'Let be!'--even as it was a 'Let it go' when he was
sent to England.
Now let us read Montaigne's Essay,  'To Philosophise is to Learn
how to Die:'--
'Our religion has had no surer human foundation than the contempt of
life. Not only does the course of our reason lead us that way; for,
why should we fear to lose a thing which, when lost, cannot be
regretted?--but also, seeing that we are threatened by so many kinds
of death, is it not a greater inconvenience to fear them all than to
endure one? What does it matter when Death comes, since it is
inevitable?... Moreover, nobody dies before his hour. The time you
leave behind was no more yours than that which was before your birth,
and concerns you no more.'
No further comment is needed to prove that Hamlet's and Montaigne's
thoughts are in so close a connection that it cannot be a mere accident.
And the nearer we come to the conclusion of the drama, the more
striking become Shakspere's satirical hits.
Hamlet allows his hand to be put into that of Laertes by the King. He
does not think of the wrong he has done to Laertes--of the murder of
the latter's father, or the unhappiness he has criminally brought
upon Laertes' sister. In most cowardly manner, hoping that Laertes
would desist from the combat, Hamlet endeavours to excuse his conduct
at the grave of Ophelia, by pleading his own madness. Laertes insists
on the combat; adding that he would stand aloof 'till by some elder
masters of known honour' the decision were given.
Hamlet avenges the death of his father; he kills the criminal, the
enemy, when his wrath is up and aflame, and every muscle of his is
swelled with indignation--but it is _too late_. Together with
himself, he has dragged them all into the grave. It is blind passion,
unbridled by reason, which does the deed: a sublime satire upon the
words of Montaigne in Essay II. (12), 'that the most beautiful actions
of the soul proceed from, and have need of, this impulse of passion;
valour, they say, cannot become perfect without the help of wrath; and
that nobody pursues the wicked and the enemies with sufficient energy,
except he be thoroughly in anger.'
Even the kind of death by which Shakspere makes Hamlet lose his life,
looks like a satire against Montaigne. The latter, always a coward in
regard to death, and continually pondering over it, says: --'I
would rather have chosen to drink the potion of Sokrates than wound
myself as Cato did.' Their 'virtuous deeds' he calls  'vain and
fruitless ones, because they were done from no love of, or obedience
to, the true Creator of all things.'
Hamlet dies wounded and poisoned, as if Shakspere had intended expressing
his abhorrence of so vacillating and weak-willed a character, who places
the treacherous excesses of passion above the power of that human
reason in whose free service alone Greeks and Romans did their most
exalted deeds of virtue. 
The subtlety of the best psychologists has endeavoured to fix the limits
of Hamlet's madness, and to find the proper name for it. No agreement
has been arrived at. We think we have solved the problem as to the
nature of Hamlet's madness, and to have shown why thought and action,
in him, cannot be brought into a satisfactory harmony. Every fibre
in Shakspere's artistic mind would have rebelled against the idea
of making a lunatic the chief figure of his greatest drama. He wished
to warn his contemporaries that the attempt of reconciling two opposite
circles of ideas--namely, on the one hand, the doctrine that we are
to be guided by the laws of Nature; and on the other, the yielding
ourselves up to superstitious dogmas which declare human nature to be
sinful--must inevitably produce deeds of madness.
The main traits of Montaigne's character Shakspere confers upon the
Danish Prince, and places him before a difficult task of life. He is to
avenge his father's death. (Montaigne was attached to his father with
all his soul, and speaks of him almost in the same words as Hamlet
does of his own.) He is to preserve the State whose legitimate sovereign
he is. The materials for a satire are complete. And it is written in
such a manner as to remain the noblest, the most sublime poetical
production as long as men shall live.
The two circles of ideas which in the century of the Reformation began
a struggle that is not yet brought to an end, are, in that drama,
represented on the stage. The poet shows, by making the gifted
Prince perish, on which side every serious thinker ought to place
himself. That these intentions of Shakspere were understood by his more
intelligent contemporaries and friends, we shall prove when we come to
the camp of his adversaries, at whose head a Roman Catholic stood,
who launches out in very marked language against the derision of
Montaigne as contained in the character of Hamlet.
The noblemen who went to the theatre for the sake of the intellectual
attractions (the fairer sex being still excluded from acting on the
stage and therefore not forming a point of attraction) were initiated
into the innermost secret of what authors meant by their productions.
Dekker, in his 'Gulls Horn Book' (c. 6), reports that 'after the play
was over, poets adjourned to supper with knights, where they, in private,
unfolded the secret parts of their drama to them.'
As in no other of his plays, there is in Shakspere's 'Hamlet'--the drama
richest in philosophy--a perfect wealth of life. Argument is pitted
against argument; every turn of a phrase is a missile, sharp, and
hitting the mark. In not a few cases, the aim and object is no longer
recognisable. Here and there we believe we shall be able to shed the
light of day upon some dark passages of the past.
To the doughty friends of Shakspere, this French Knight of the Order of
St. Michael, who says  that, if his freedom were in the least
encroached upon, or 'if the laws under which he lives threatened
merely the tip of his finger, he would at once betake himself to
any other place to find better ones;' but who yet lets everything
around him go out of joint without offering a helping hand for repair,
because 'the maintenance of States is probably something beyond our
powers of understanding' --verily, to Shakspere's doughty friends,
such a specimen of humanity as Montaigne must have been quite a new and
strange phenomenon. They were children of an age which achieved great
things because its nobler natures willingly suffered death when the
ideals of their life were to be realised. In them, the fire of
enthusiasm of the first Reformation, of the glorious time of Elizabeth,
was still glowing. They energetically championed the cause of Humanism.
The sublime conceptions of their epoch were not yet marred by that
dark and gloomy set of men whose mischievous members were just
beginning to hatch their hidden plans in the most remote manors of
The friends of Shakspere well understood the true meaning of Hamlet's
words: --'What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth
and heaven?'  They easily seized the gist and point of the answer
given to the King's question: --'How fares our cousin Hamlet?'
when Hamlet replies:--
Excellent, i' faith; of the chameleon's dish!
Surely, some of them had read the Essay 'On the Inconsistency of our
Actions,' and had smiled at the passage:--
'Our ordinary manner is, to follow the inclination of our appetite--this
way, that way; upwards, downwards; even as the wind of the occasion
drives us. We never think of what _we would have_, but at the moment
we _would have it_; and _we change like that animal_ (the chameleon)
of which it is said that it takes the colour of the place where it
is laid down.' 
Shakspere's teaching is, that if the nobler-gifted man who stands at
the head of the commonwealth, allows himself to be driven about by every
wind of the occasion, instead of furthering his better aims with all
his strength and energy of will, the wicked, on their part, will all
the more easily carry out their own ends. He therefore makes the King
That we would do,
We should do when we would; for this 'would' changes...
Shakspere's friends understood the allusion contained in the first act,
after the apparition of the Ghost, when Hamlet calls for his 'tablets.'
They knew that the much-scribbling Montaigne was meant, who, as he
avows, had so bad a memory that he could not receive any commission
without writing it down in his 'tablets' (_tablettes_). This defect of
his, Montaigne mentions over and over again, and may have been the
cause of his many most ludicrous contradictions. 
After Hamlet has written down the important fact that 'one may smile,
and smile, and be a villain--at least, I am sure it may be so in
Denmark,' he exclaims:--'Now to my word!' That 'word' undoubtedly
consists of the admonition addressed to him by the Ghost, that Hamlet,
after having heard his duty, also should fulfil it--that is:--
'So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.'
But he only recollects the last words of the Ghost; and Hamlet's parole,
therefore, is only this:--
Adieu, adieu, adieu! Remember me!
The value of Montaigne's book is harshly treated in the second scene of
the second act. To the question of Polonius as to what he is reading,
Hamlet replies:--'Words, words, words!' Indeed, Shakspere did not think
it fair that 'the satirical rogue' should fill the paper with such
remarks (whole Essays of Montaigne consist of similar useless prattle)
as 'that old men have grey beards; that their faces are wrinkled; their
eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum; and that they have a
plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak hams.' 
The ideas of Shakspere as to the duties of a writer were different,
indeed, from the contents of the book which Hamlet characterises by
As to Polonius' answer: 'Though this be madness, yet there's method in
it,' the public had no difficulty in finding out what was meant by
that 'madness,' and to whom it applied.
What may the great master have thought of an author who, as Montaigne
does, jots down everything in kaleidoscopic manner, just as changeful
accident brings it into his head? In Essay III. (2) we read:--
'I cannot get a fixed hold of my object. It moves
and reels as if with a natural drunkenness. I just seize
it at some point, such as I find it at the moment, when I
amuse myself with it. I do not describe its essence, but
its volatile passage ... from one minute to the other.'
Elsewhere he prides himself on his method of being able to write as long
as there is paper and ink.
Hamlet says to the players: 'We'll e'en to it like French falconers: fly
at anything we see.' Montaigne's manner of spying out and pouncing upon
things cannot be better depicted than by comparing it with a French
falconer's manner. In the first act already, Hamlet, after the
ghost-scene, answers the friends who approach, with the holla-call of
Hillo, ho, ho, boy; come, bird, come!
Furthermore, Hamlet says in act ii. sc. 2:--'I am but mad
north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a
handshaw (heronshaw!).' Now, the north-west wind would drive Montaigne
back into his native province, Perigord, where, very likely according
to Shakspere's view, he ought to have remained with his sham logic.
The south wind, on the contrary, brings the able falconer to England.
The latter possesses such a penetrating glance for the nature of
things as to be able to distinguish the bird (the heronshaw) that is
to be pursued from the hawk that has been unhooded and cast.
In the second scene of the fifth act, between Hamlet and Horatio
(to the weak-minded Osrick the words spoken there are incomprehensible),
the excellent qualities of Laertes are apparently judged.  This
whole discussion is meant against Montaigne; and in the first quarto
the chief points are wanting. Florio calls Montaigne's Essays 'Moral,
Political, and Military Discourses.'  Osrick praises the qualities
of the cavalier who has returned from France; and Hamlet replies that
'to divide him inventorily would dizzy the arithmetic of memory.'
The further, hitherto utterly unexplained, words ('and yet but yaw
neither in respect of his quick sail') seem to have reference to the
sonnet  by which the third book of the Essays is dedicated by
Florio to Lady Grey. Montaigne is praised therein under the guise
of Talbot's name, who, 'in peace or war, at sea or land, for princes'
service, countries' good, sweetly sails before the wind.' In act ii.
sc. 2, the north-north-west and the south wind were already alluded
to, which are said to influence Hamlet's madness.
The translators and admirers of Montaigne are meant when Hamlet says
that 'to make true diction of him, his semblable' must be 'his mirror;
and, who else would trace him, his umbrage--nothing more.' That is,
one must be Montaigne, or become his absolute admirer, 'his umbrage,'
'his semblable,' in order to do justice to him. The whole scene is
full of allusions, easily explainable from the point of view we have
indicated. So also, the reference to self-knowledge ('to know himself)
--an art which Montaigne never learnt and the 'two weapons' with which
he fights, are full of deep meaning.
It was probably no small number of men that took delight in the French
essayist. No doubt, the jest of the gravedigger is directed against
them, when he says that if the mad Hamlet does not recover his wits
in England, it is no great matter there, because there the men are
as mad as he.
Montaigne, especially in Essay III. (2) and III. (5), brings forward
indecencies of the most shameless kind. We quite bear in mind what
period it was when he wrote. Our manners and ideas are totally
different from those of the sixteenth century. But what indignation
must Shakspere have felt--he who had already created his noblest female
characters, Helena and Olivia; and who had sung his paean of love,
'Romeo and Juliet'--when he read the ideas of the French nobleman
about love and women! Nowhere, and on no occasion, does Shakspere in
his dramas, in spite of phrases which to-day we qualify as obscene ones,
lower the ideal of the womanly character--of the _ewig Weibliche_.
But let us read Montaigne's view: --
'I find that love is nothing else than a thirst of enjoying a desired
subject; nor that Venus is anything else but the pleasure of emptying
one's seminary vessels, similar to the pleasure which Nature has given
us in discharging other parts.'
Now, this significant quality also, of saying indecencies without shame,
Hamlet has in common with Montaigne. No character in Shakspere's dramas
uses such language as Hamlet; and in this case, let it be observed, it
is not used between men, but towards the beloved one! We shall remark
upon his relations with Ophelia later on.
The frivolous Montaigne speaks of love as one might do of a good dish to
be enjoyed at every degree of age, according to taste and inclination.
In Essay III.(4) we learn how, in his youth, 'standing in need of a
vehement diversion for the sake of distraction, he made himself
amorous by art and study.' Elsewhere he tells what great things he was
able, as a young man, to achieve in this line.  He, therefore,
does not agree with the sage who praises age because it frees us from
He, on the contrary, says:--'I shall never take kindly to impotence,
whatever good it may do me.'
Montaigne, the old and young lover, is lashed in act v. sc. I, in
disfigured verses of a song sung by the grave-digger, which dates about
from the year 1557, and at Shakspere's time probably was very popular.
In the original, where the image of death is meant to be represented,
an old man looks back in repentance, and with great aversion, upon
his youthful days when he found pleasure in love. The original verse
I lothe that I did love,
In youth that I thought swete,
As time requires for my behove,
Methinks they are not mete.
Until now, no sense could be made of the first verse which the
gravedigger sings. It runs thus:--
In youth, when I did love, did love,
Methought it was very sweet,
To contract, OH! the time, for, AH! my behove,
O, methought, there was nothing meet.
Let it be observed what stress is laid on the 'Oh!'--the proper time,
and the 'Ah!'--the delight felt at the moment of enjoyment. The meaning
of the old verse is changed in such a manner as to show that old
Montaigne looks back with pleasure upon the time of his dissolute youth,
whilst the author of the original text shrinks back from it.
The second verse  is a further persiflage of the old song. Its
reading, too, is changed. It is said there that age, with his stealing
steps, as clawed the lover in his clutch  and shipped him into the
land as if he 'never had been such.'
By none has the relation between Ophelia and Hamlet been better felt and
described than by Goethe. He calls her 'the good child in whose soul,
secretly, a voice of voluptuousness resounds.' Hamlet who--driven
rudderless by his impulse, his passion, his daimon, from one extreme to
the other--drags everything that surrounds him into the abyss, also
destroys the future of the woman that might truly make him happy. He
disowns and rejects her whom Nature has formed for love. At a moment when
fanatical thoughts have mastered his reason, he bids her go to a nunnery.
Once more we must point to the Essay in which Montaigne lays down his
ideas about woman and love. French ladies, he says, study Boccaccio
and such-like writers, in order to become skilful (_habiles_). 'But
there is no word, no example, no single step in that matter which
they do not know better than our books do. That is a knowledge bred
in their very veins ... Had not this natural violence of their desires
been somewhat bridled by the fear and a feeling of honour wherewith
they have been provided, we would be dishonoured (_diffamez_).' Montaigne
says he knows ladies who would rather lend their honour than their
'At last, when Ophelia has no longer any power over her own mind,' says
Goethe, 'her heart being on her tongue, that tongue becomes a traitor
against her.' 
In the scene of Ophelia's madness, we hear songs, thoughts, and
phrases probably caught up by her from Hamlet. The ideal which man
forms of woman, is the moral altitude on which she stands. Now, let
the language be called to mind, which Hamlet, before the players'
scene, uses towards his beloved!
Ophelia's words: 'Come, my _coach_ ' will be understood
from the passage in Montaigne above quoted. The meaning of: 'Oh, how
the _wheel_ becomes it!' has reference to a thought developed
by Montaigne in Essay III. (11),  which we cannot render here,
as it is opposed to every feeling of decency.
All commentators agree in thinking that the character of Laertes is in
direct contrast to that of Hamlet. In the first quarto, the figure of
Laertes is but rapidly indicated. Only that scene is worked out where
he cries out against the priest who will not follow his sister to
A ministering angel shall my sister be.
When thou liest howling.
In the second quarto only, we meet with the most characteristic speeches
in which the strong-willed Laertes,  unmindful of any future world,
calls for revenge with every drop of his indignant blood:--
To Hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devils!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation....
... Both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes ...
... to cut his throat i' the church.
That passage, too, is new, in which Ophelia's madness is explained as
the consequence of blighted love:--
Nature is fine in love, and where 't is fine,
It sends some precious instance of itself
After the thing it loves.
Her own reason, which succumbs to her love, is the precious token.
In the same way, those words are not in the first quarto, in which
Laertes gives vent to the oppressed feelings of his heart, on hearing
of the death of his sister:--
Nature her custom holds,
Let shame say what it will. When these (the tears) are gone,
The woman will be out.
All those beautiful precepts, also, which Laertes gives to his sister,
are wanting in the quarto of 1603. 
Hamlet is the most powerful philosophical production, in the domain of
poetry, written at the most critical epoch of mankind--the time of the
Reformation. The greatest English genius recognised that it was
everyone's duty to set a time out of joint to right. Shakspere showed
to his noble friends a gifted and noble man whose life becomes a
scourge for him and his surroundings, because he is not guided by manly
courage and conscience, but by superstitious notions and formulas.
This colossal drama ranges from the thorny, far-stretching fields which
man, only trusting in himself, has to work with the sweat of his brow,
to that wonder-land of mystery--
Where these good tidings of great joy are heard. 
If the principles that are fought out in this drama, in tragic conflict,
were to be described by catchwords, we might say: Reason stands against
Dogma; Nature against Tradition; Self-Reliance against Submission.
The great elementary forces are here at issue, which the Reformation
had unchained, and with which we all have to reckon.
Shakspere's loving, noble heart beautifully does justice to the defeated
Hamlet by making him be borne to his grave 'like a soldier,' with all
the honouring 'rites of war.' The poet who knew the human heart so
well, no doubt had seen many brave and gifted men who, after having
been to Wittenberg's Halls of Intellectual Freedom, and become disciples
of Humanism, once more were turned into slaves of dogmas which, under
a new guise, not less restricted the free use of reason than the tenets
of the old faith had done:--
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
The capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.
The life of the most gifted remains fruitless if, through fear of what
may befall us in a future world, we cravenly shrink back from following
the dictates of our reason and our conscience. From them we must take
the mandate and commission for the task of our life; not from any
mysterious messenger, nor from any ghost out of Purgatory. On the way
to action, no 'goblin damned' must be allowed to cross our path with
his assumed terrors. That which we feel to be right we must do, even if
'it be the very witching time of night, and hell breathes contagion into
Shakspere broke with all antiquated doctrines. He was one of the
foremost Humanists in the fullest and noblest meaning of the word. 
1: Essay II. 12.
2: Essay I. 26.
3: The whole contents of this chapter may be said to be condensed
into two lines of Shakspere:--
'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.'
4: Essay III. 13.
5: See Bacon's Essay 'Of Simulation and Dissimulation,' where
he says that 'dissimulation followeth many times upon secrecy by
a necessity: so that he that will be secret must be a dissembler in
some degree,' &c.
6: The following are Hamlet's modes of asseveration:--
'Angels and ministers of grace,' 'All you host of Heaven,' 'God's
love,' 'God and mercy,' 'God's willing,' 'Help and mercy,' 'God's
love,' 'By St. Patrick,' 'God-a-mercy,' 'By my fay (_ma foi_),'
'S' blood (God's blood),' 'S' wounds,' 'God's bodykins,' 'By'r Lady,'
'Perdy (_Pardieu_),' 'By the rood (Cross),' 'Heavenly guards,' 'For
love and grace,' 'By the Lord,' 'Pray God,' &c.
7: New Shakspere Society (Stubbs, _Abuses in England_), 1879,
8: Act ii. sc. 2.
9: Act ii. sc. i.
10: This description is wanting in the first quarto. The passages
there are essentially different; there is no allusion to Hamlet's
11: About various allusions and satirical hints in this scene later on.
12: Florio, 21; Montaigne, I. ii.
13: Essay III. i.
14: Isaiah, ch. iii. v. 16.
15: The word 'ecstasy,' which is often used in the new quarto, is
wanting in the first edition where only madness, lunacy, frenzy--the
highest degrees of madness--are spoken of.
16: In the old play their names are 'Rosencroft' and 'Guilderstone.'
_Reynaldo_, in the first quarto, is called '_Montano_.'
This change of name in a _dramatis persona_ of minor importance
indicates, in however a trifling manner, that the interest excited
by the name of Montaigne (to which 'Montano' comes remarkably near
in English pronunciation) was now to be concentrated on another point.
17: Essay I. 40.
18: II. 12.
19: Essay II. 27, p. 142.
20: Essay III. 4, p. 384.
21: Rather sharp translations of _songe-creux_, as Montaigne
calls himself (Florio, i. 19, p. 34). 'I am given rather to
dreaming and sluggishness.'
22: ''S wounds' (God's wounds)--a most characteristic expression;
used by Shakspere only in _Hamlet_, in this scene, and again
in act v. sc. 2.
23: As yet, Hamlet has but one ground of action--namely, the one
which, after the apparition of the Ghost, he set down in his tablets:
'that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain; at least, I am sure,
it may be so in Denmark.'
24: Act ii. sc. 2.
25: Essay I. 19.
26: II. 3.
27: Tacitus, _annal_. xiii. 56.
28: Essay I. 19.
29: Act. i. sc. 2.
30: Shakspere already uses this expression in _King John_ (1595) for
purposes of mirthful mockery. He makes the Bastard say to the
Archduke of Austria (act iii. sc. i):--'Hang a calf's skin on
those recreant limbs!'--a circumstance which convinces us that
Shakspere knew the Essays of Montaigne from the original at an
early time. We think it a fact important enough to point out that
Florio translates _peau d'un veau_ by 'oxe-hide' (fo. 34). We
cannot think of any other explanation than that the phrase in
question had become so popular through _King John_ as to render
it advisable for Florio to steer clear of this rock. Jonson, in his
_Volpone_ (act. i. sc. i), makes Mosca the parasite say in
regard to his master: 'Covered with hide, instead of skin.'
31: Florio's translation: 'If it be a _consummation_ of one's being'
(p. 627). Shakspere: 'a _consummation_ devoutly to be wished.' This
word is only once used by Shakspere in such a sense. It occurs in
another sense in _King Lear_ (iv. 6) and _Cymbeline_ (iv. 2), but
nowhere else in his works.
32: Monologue of the first quarto:--
'To be, or not to be, I there's the point,
To Die, to sleepe, is that all? I all:
No, to sleepe, to dreame, I, mary there it goes,
For in that dreame of death, when wee awake,
And borne before an everlasting judge,
From whence no passenger ever returned,
The undiscovered country, at whose sight
The happy smile, and the accursed damned.
But for this, the joyful hope of this,
Whol'd beare the scornes of flattery of the world,
Scorned by the right rich, the rich curssed of the poore?
The widow being oppress'd, the orphan wronged,
The taste of hunger, or a tyrants raigne,
And thousand more calamities besides,
To grunte and sweate under the weary life,
When that he may his full quietus make,
With a bare bodkin, who would this indure,
But for a hope of something after death?
Which pushes the brain and doth connfound the sence,
Which makes us rather beare those evilles we have,
Than flie to others that we know not of.
I that, O this conscience makes cowardes of us all.
Lady in thy orizons, be all my sinnes remembered.
33: On closely examining the copy of Montaigne's Essays in the British
Museum, which bears Shakspere's autograph on the title-page, we
found--long after our treatise had been completed--that on the
fly-leaf at the end of the volume is written: _Mors incrta_,
(Written somewhat indistinctly, meaning probably _incerta_.
It might also be an abbreviation of 'incertam horam' [_incr.
ho_.], as contained in the Latin verse on p. 626:--
Incertam frustra, mortales, funeris horam
Quaeritis, et qua sit mors aditura via.)
626, 627. These two numbers, apparently, refer to the corresponding
pages of Montaigne's work, which contain nothing but thoughts
about the uncertainty of the hour of death and the hereafter. On
p. 627 there is the speech of Sokrates, which in Florio's
translation, as shown above, bears such striking resemblance to
Hamlet's monologue. There are other Latin sentences on the same
fly-leaf, pronounced by Sir Frederic Madden to be written by a
later pen than Shakspere's. To us, at any rate, the above words
and numbers appear to proceed from a different hand than the other
sentences. Judgments thereon from persons well versed in the
writings of that time would be of great interest.
34: P. 103.
35: I. 19.
36: Act iii. sc. 2.
37: III. 12 (Florio, 626).
38: We do not doubt that this is a sly thrust at Florio, who, in the
preface to his translation, calls himself 'Montaigne's Vulcan,' who
hatches out Minerva from that 'Jupiter's bigge brain'.
39: Florio, 476.
40: Florio, 592: 'Thus goe the world, and so goe men.'
41: III. 1.
42: II. 27.
43: Clarendon: 'Circumstance of thought' means here the details
over which thought ranges, and from which its conclusions are
44: '_Index_,' in our opinion, does not signify here either the
title, or prologue, or the indication of the contents of a book,
but is an allusion to the Index of the Holy See and its thunders.
45: Montaigne, III. 10; Florio, 604: 'Custome is a second nature,
and no less powerfull.... To conclude, I am ready to finish this
man, not to make another. By longe custome this forme is changed
into substance, Fortune into Nature.'
46: III. 1.
47: This is wanting in the first quarto, like the whole conclusion
of this scene.
48: This whole scene between Horatio and Hamlet consists of the
following four lines in the old quarto:--
_Hamlet_. Beleeuve me, it greeuves me much, Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myselfe:
For by myselfe methinkes I feel his greefe,
Though there's a difference in each other's way.
Does this not look like a draught destined to be the kernel of a
scene? The end of the scene where Osrick comes in, is also much
shorter in the older play.
49: Florio, 330: 'We amend ourselves by privation of reason and
by her drooping.' Hamlet's conduct is only to be explained by his
quietly sitting down until his reason should droop.--II. 12.
50: Florio, 608.
51: Florio, 609.
52: This whole scene is nearly new (in the first quarto it is a mere
sketch). There are in it several direct allusions to Montaigne's
book, on which we shall touch later on.
53: Here the dramatist, in order to paint a trait of vanity in Hamlet's
character, uses a device. He makes the latter say that, since Laertes
went into France, he (Hamlet) has been in continual practice. Yet we
know (act ii. sc. 2) that he had given up his accustomed exercise.
In that scene the poet wishes to describe Hamlet's melancholy; in
the other, his vanity. He chooses the colours which are apt to
produce quickest impressions among the audience.
54: Act v. sc. 2.
55: See St. Matthew x.29.
56: I. 19.
57: III. 9.
58: II. 12.
59: The Queen describes Hamlet as 'fat, and scant of breath.' Here
is Montaigne's description of himself (Essai II. 27):--'J'ay,
au demourant, la taille forte et ramassee; le visage non pas
gras, mais plein, la complexion entre le jovial et le melancholique,
moyennement sanguine et chaude.' Florio's translation, p. 372:--'As
for me, I am of a strong and well compact stature, my face is not
fat, but full, my complexion betweene joviall and melancholy,
indifferently sanguine and hote--('_not splenetive and rash_').
60: III. 13
61: III. 9.
62: Act iii. sc. 1.
63: We shall now oftener touch upon satirical passages uttered by
the character himself against whom they are directed. The true
dramatist gives the public no time to think over an incident in full
leisure. Every means--as we have already shown before--is welcome to
him, which aids in rapidly bringing out the telling traits of his
figures. No surprise need therefore be felt that Hamlet, though
representing Montaigne, sneers at, and morally flagellates, himself.
64: Act iii. sc. 2.
65: II. 1.
66: Act iv. sc. 7.
67: I. 9, 25; II. 10, &c. If an attentive reader will take the
trouble to closely examine that part of the scene in Shakspere's
_Tempest_ (act ii. sc. 1) wherein the passage occurs, which he
borrowed from Essay I. 30--'On Cannibals'--and compare it with
this most 'strange Essay,' he will clearly convince himself that
Shakspere can only have made use of it as a satire on Montaigne's
defective memory, which entangles this author in the most ludicrous
contradictions. Gonzala declares that, if he were king of the isle
on which he and his companion were wrecked, he would found a
commonwealth as described in the above passage. He concludes this
description, saying he would have 'no sovereignty.'
Sebastian justly remarks: 'Yet he would be king on't;' and
Antonio continues by saying: 'The latter end of his commonwealth
forgets the beginning.'
Even such is the contradiction in Montaigne's fanciful Essay 'On
Cannibals,' where, towards the end, he speaks of a captain who
holds authority over these savages, not only in war, but also in
peace, 'that when he went to visit the village of his dependence,
they cut him paths through the thick of their woods, through which
he might pass at ease.' The beginning of this Essay described the
commonwealth of these cannibals as tolerating no politic superiority,
no use of service, no occupation, &c. 'What short memory!
much wanting tablets!'
In the above-mentioned scene of the _Tempest_ Sebastian makes
the remark: 'No marrying 'mong his subjects,' which evidently is
also meant as a hit against Montaigne's anti-matrimonial ideas,
which we dwelt upon in the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia.
68: Jonson, long afterwards, had not forgotten this hit against
Montaigne. In _Epicoene_ (1609) he makes Cleremont say:--'When
we come to have grey heads and weak hams, moist eyes and shrunk
members ... then we'll pray and fast.'
69: This whole passage of act v. sc. 2 (106-138) is again
only to be found in the quarto of 1604, not in the folio edition of
1623. In later years the poet may have struck it out, as being only
comprehensible to a smaller circle of his friends. In the same way
that passage of act iv. sc. 4, which only contains thoughts
of Montaigne, was not received into the folio of 1623.
70: This is their title in Florio's translation: _Morall, Politike,
Millitarie Discourses of Lo. Michaell de Montaigne, Knight of the
noble order of Saint Michaell, and one of the Gentlemen in ordinary
of the French King Henry III. his Chamber_.
71: The sonnet runs thus:--
_To the Right Honourable Ladie Elizabeth Grey_. (She was a
daughter of Count Shrewsbury, a Talbot.)
Of honorable TALBOT honored farre,
The forecast and the fortune, by his WORD
_Montaigne_ here descrives; what by his Sword,
What by his wit; this, as the guiding starre;
That, as th' Aetolian blast, in peace or warre,
At sea, or land, as cause did use afforde,
_Avant le vent_, to tacke his sails aboarde,
So as his course no orethwart crosse might barre,
But he would sweetly sail _before the wind_;
For Princes service, Countries good, his fame.
Heire-Daughter of that prudent, constant kinde,
Joyning thereto of GREY as great a name, Of
both chief glories shrining in your minde,
Honour him that your Honor doth proclaime.'
We have already learned from the preface of the first book of the
_Essais_ how Florio was 'sea-tosst, weather-beaten,' 'ship-wrackt,'
'almost drowned,' when exerting himself to capture the
whale--Montaigne--and drag him through 'the rocke-rough Ocean'
with the assistance of his colleague Diodati, whom he compares to
'a guide-fish.' Hamlet calls Polonius a fish-monger. The latter
fools Hamlet by pretending that yonder cloud is in the shape of a
whale, which just before appeared to him like the back of a weasel.
Every word almost in this wonderful drama is a well-directed hit.
72: Essay III. 5.
73: _Ibid_. 13.
74: _Ibid_. 2.
75: The quarto of 1623 has only the third verse.
76: The old song has the word 'crouch.'
77: Essay III. 5, p. 460. Florio, p. 529.
78: We think it is worth while to quote the following verse Montaigne
(III. 5) mentions when speaking of that nature of woman, which
he thinks suggests to her every possible act of libidinousness:--
Nec tantum niveo gavisa est ulla columbo
Compar, vel si quid dicitur improbius,
Oscula mordenti semper decerpere rostro,
Quantum praecipue multivola est mulier.
Florio translates (514):--
No Pigeons hen, or paire, or what worse name
You list, makes with hir Snow-white cock such game,
With biting bill to catch when she is kist,
As many-minded women when they list.
Is not this the character of Ophelia, as described by Shakspere--the
virgin inclining to voluptuousness in Goethe's view?
79: Hamlet, act iv. sc. 5. In _Eastward Hoe_, Marston, Chapman,
and Jonson make capital out of this word, and use it as a sneer
against Hamlet and Ophelia. We shall return to this point later on.
80: Florio, 617.
81: Act iv. sc. 5.
82: Laertes, act i. sc. 3:--
For nature crescent does not grow alone
In thews and bulk, but, as this temple waxes,
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal.
Montaigne, II. 12; Florio, 319:
The mind is with the body bred we do behold,
It jointly growes with it, it waxeth old.--Lucr. xliii. 450.
83: Goethe's _Faust_.
84: We must mention that John Sterling, in an essay on Montaigne
(_Westminster Review_, 1838), makes the following introductory
remarks:--'On the whole, the celebrated soliloquy in _Hamlet_
presents a more characteristic and expressive resemblance to much of
Montaigne's writings than any other portion of the plays of the great
dramatist which we at present remember, though it would doubtless be
easy to trace many apparent transferences from the Frenchman into the
Englishman's works, as both were keen and many-sided observers in the
same age and neighbouring countries. But Hamlet was in those days no
popular type of character; nor were Montaigne's views and tone
familiar to men till he himself had made them so. Now, the Prince
of Denmark is very nearly a Montaigne, lifted to a higher eminence,
and agitated by more striking circumstances and severer destiny,
and altogether a somewhat more passionate structure of man. It is
not, however, very wonderful that Hamlet, who was but a part of
Shakspere, should exhibit to us more than the whole of Montaigne,
and the external facts appear to contradict any notion of a French
ancestry for the Dane, as the play is said to have been produced
in 1600, and the translation of the English not for three years later.'
During our long search through the Commentaries written on
_Hamlet_, we also met with the following treatise: 'HAMLET;
_ein Tendenzdrama Sheakspeare's_ (sic!!) _gegen die skeptische
und kosmopolitische Weltanschauung des Michael de Montaigne, von G.
F. Stedefeld, Kreisgerichtsrath_. Berlin, 1871.'
The author of the latter-mentioned little book holds it to be
probable that Shakspere wrote his _Hamlet_ for the object
of freeing himself from the impressions of the famous French sceptic.
He regards this masterwork as 'the Drama of the Doubter;' as 'the
apotheosis of a practical Christianity.' Hamlet, he says, is wanting
in Christian piety. He has no faith, no love, no hope. His last words,
'The rest is silence,' show that he has no expectation of a future
life. He must perish because he has given up the belief in
a divine government of the world and in a moral order of things.
We believe we have read the Essays of Michel Montaigne with
great attention. We not only do not regard him as a 'sceptic' in
the sense meant by Mr. Stedefeld, but we hold him, as well as
Hamlet, to be an adherent of the so-called 'practical Christianity'
--at least, of what both Montaigne and Hamlet reckon to be such.
This 'practical Christianity,' however, is a notion somewhat
difficult to define.
THE CONTROVERSY BETWEEN BEN JONSON AND DEKKER.
MENTION OF A DISPUTE BETWEEN BEN JONSON AND SHAKSPERE IN 'THE RETURN
CHARACTERISTIC OF BEN JONSON.
BEN JONSON'S HOSTILE ATTITUDE TOWARDS SHAKSPERE.
DRAMATIC SKIRMISH BETWEEN BEN JONSON AND SHAKSPERE.
BEN JONSON'S 'POETASTER.'
We now proceed to an inquiry into the 'controversy between Jonson
and Dekker,' which has been repeatedly mentioned before.
Shakspere, we shall find, was implicated in it in a very large degree.
Instead of indicating, however, that controversy by the designation
under which it is known in literature, it would be more correct to
put SHAKSPERE'S name in the place of that of Dekker. Many a reader
who perhaps does not fully trust yet our bold assertion that Hamlet
is a counterfeit of Montaigne's individuality, will now, we hope, be
convinced by vouchers drawn from dramas published in 1604 and 1605,
and which are in the closest connection with that controversy. We
intend partly making a thorough examination of, partly consulting in
a cursory manner, the following pieces:--
1. 'Poetaster' (1601), by Ben Jonson.
2. 'Satiromastix' (1602), by Thomas Dekker.
3. 'Malcontent' (1604), by John Marston.
4. 'Volpone' (1605), by Ben Jonson.
5. 'Eastward Hoe' (1605), by Ben Jonson, Chapman,
In 'The Poetaster' Ben Jonson makes his chief attack upon Dekker and
Shakspere. In 'Satiromastix,' Dekker defends himself against that attack.
In doing so, he sides with Shakspere; and we thereby gain an insight
into the noble conduct of the latter. Between Jonson and Shakspere
there had already been dramatic skirmishes during several years before
the appearance of 'The Poetaster.' We shall only be able to touch
rapidly upon their meaning, considering that we confine ourselves,
in the main, to a statement of that which concerns 'Hamlet.'
After Jonson, in his 'Poetaster,' had exceeded all bounds of decent
behaviour with most intolerable arrogance, Shakspere seems to have
become weary of these malicious personal onslaughts; all the more so
because they were apparently put into the mouth of innocent children.
So he wrote his 'Hamlet,' showing up, therein, the loose and perplexing
ideas of his chief antagonist, who belonged to the party of
Hamlet, as we shall prove beyond the possibility of cavil, is the
hitherto unexplained 'purge' in 'The Return from Parnassus,' which
'our fellow Shakspere' administered to Ben Jonson in return for the
'pill' destined for himself in 'The Poetaster.' After the publication
of 'Hamlet,' Jonson wrote his 'Volpone' as a counterblast to this drama.
Now 'Volpone,' and the Preface in which the author dedicates it to the
two Universities, furnish us with the evidence that our theory must be
a fact; for Jonson therein defended both the party of Florio-Montaigne
Moreover, we shall adduce a series of proofs from 'The Malcontent' and
from 'Eastward Hoe.'
A drama, written by an unknown author, and printed in 1606, offers us
a valuable material wherewith to make it clear that, at that time, a
very bitter feud must have raged between Jonson and Shakspere; for it
is scarcely to be believed that it would have been brought on the
stage had a larger public not been deeply interested in the controversy.
'The Return from Parnassus, or the Scourge of Simony,'  is the title
of the play, mentioned several times before, in which this controversy
is referred to in clear words. Philomusus and Studioso, two poor scholars
who in vain had sought to pursue their calling as medical men, resolve
upon going to the more profitable stage. They are to be prepared for
it by two of the most famous actors from the Globe Theatre (Shakspere's
company), Burbage and Kemp. Whilst these are waiting for their new
pupils,  they converse about the capabilities of the students for
the histrionic art. Kemp, in words which show that the author must have
had great knowledge of the stage, condemns their ways and manners,
mocking the silly kind of acting which he had once seen in a performance
of the students at Cambridge. Burbage thinks they might amend their
faults in course of time, and that, at least, advantage could be taken
of them in so far as to make them write a part now and then; which
certainly they could do. To this Kemp replies:--
'Few of the University pen plaies well; they smell too much of that
writer _Ovid_ and that writer _Metamorphosis_, and talk too much of
_Proserpina_ and _Jupiter_. Why, here's our fellow _Shakespeare_ puts
them all down--I, and _Ben Jonson_ too. O that _Ben Jonson_ is a pestilent
fellow; he brought up Horace giving the poets a pill;  but our
fellow Shakespeare hath given him spurge that made him bewray his
Burbage answers:--'It's a shrewd fellow indeed.'
For the better understanding of this most interesting controversy, the
centre of which Hamlet forms, it is necessary that we should give a
characteristic of Shakspere's adversary, Ben Jonson, whose individuality
and mode of action are too little known among the general reading
Ben Jonson, born in 1573, in the neighbourhood of Westminster, was
the posthumous child of a Scot who had occupied a modest position at
the Court of Henry VIII., but who, under Queen Mary, had to suffer
long imprisonment, probably on account of his religious opinions.
His estates were confiscated by the Crown. After having obtained his
liberation, he became a priest of the Reformed Church of England.
Two years after his death, his widow, the mother of Ben, again
married: this time her husband was a master bricklayer. The education
of the boy from the first marriage, who at an early age showed talent
for learning, was not neglected. It is assumed that friends of his
father, seeing Ben's ability, rendered it possible for him to enter
Westminster School, and afterwards to study at the University of
Cambridge. In his seventeenth or eighteenth year, probably from a want
of means, he had to give up the career of learning, in order to follow
the simple calling of his stepfather. It may be easily understood that
Ben was little pleased with the use of the trowel; he fled to the
Netherlands, became a soldier, and took part in a campaign. After a year,
the youthful adventurer, then only nineteen years old, came back to
London. He talks of a heroic deed; but the truthfulness of his account
may well be doubted. He pretends having killed an enemy, in the face
of both camps, and come back to the ranks, laden with his spoils.
After his return to London, Jonson first tried to earn his livelihood
as an actor. His figure  and his scorbutic face were, however, sad
hindrances to his success. Soon he gave up the histrionic attempts and
began to write additions to existing plays, at the order of a theatrical
speculator, of the name of Philip Henslowe. The only further detail we
have of Jonson's doings, down to 1598,  is, that he fell out with
one of his colleagues, an actor (Jonson's quarrelsome disposition as
regards his comrades commenced very early), and that finally he killed
his antagonist. We then find him in prison where a Catholic priest
induced him to become a convert to the Roman Church which, after the
lapse of about twelve years, he again left, returning to the Established
Protestant Church of England. Jonson himself afterwards said once that
'he was for any religion, as being versed in both.'  It is, therefore,
not to be assumed that he once more changed from conviction. His
reconversion appears rather to have been a prudential act on his part,
in order to conform to the religious views of the pedantic James I.,
and thus to obtain access at Court, which aim he indeed afterwards
reached; whereas he had not been able to obtain that favour under
It is not known by what, or by whom, Ben Jonson was saved from the near
prospect of the gallows. In 1598 his name is mentioned as one of the
better-known writers of comedies, by Francis Meres, in his 'Palladis
Tamia.' His first successful comedy was, 'Every Man in his Humour.' Fama
says that the manuscript which the author had sent in to the Lord
Chamberlain's Company, was on the point of being rejected when Shakspere
requested to have the play given to him, read it, and caused its being
acted on the stage. This anecdote belongs, however, to the class of
traditional tales of that age, whose value for fixing facts is a most
doubtful one. It is more certain that Ben, at the age of twenty, took
a wife; which contributed very little to the lessening of his chronic
poverty with which he constantly had to struggle. It does not appear that
the union was a very happy one; for he relates that he once left his wife
for five years.
A diary written by an unknown barrister informs us, February 12, 1602:
'Ben Jonson, the poet, nowe lives upon one Townesend and scornes the
world.'  In the society of gallants and lords, the young poet felt
himself most at home. All kinds of mendicant epistles, sonnets,
dedications, petitions, and so forth, which he addressed to high
personages, and which have been preserved, convince us that Jonson
neglected nothing that could give an opportunity to the generosity
of liberal noblemen to prove themselves patrons of art in regard to
him. He boasts on the stage of being more in the enjoyment of the
favour of the great ones than any of his literary contemporaries. 
Modesty was certainly not a mitigating trait in the character of
hot-tempered Jonson, whose wrath was easily roused.
Convinced of the power of his own genius, he most eagerly wanted to see
the value of his work acknowledged. Not satisfied with the slow judgment
his contemporaries might come to, or the niggardly reward they might
confer; nor content with the prospects of a laurel wreath which grateful
Posterity lays on the marble heads of departed eminent men, this
pretentious disciple of the Muse importunately claimed his full recompense
during his own life. For the applause of the great mass, the dramatist,
after all, has to contend. Jonson strove hard for it; but in vain. A more
towering genius was the favourite of the age. Ben, however, laid the
flattering unction to his soul that he was above Shakspere,  even
as above all other contemporary authors; and he left nothing unattempted
to gain the favour of the great public. All his endeavours remained
fruitless. On every occasion he freely displays the rancour he felt at
his ill-success; for he certainly was not master of his temper. In poems,
epistles, and epigrams, as well as in his dramas, and in the dedications,
prologues, and epilogues attached thereto, he shows his anger against the
'so-called stage poets.' We shall prove that his fullest indignation is
mainly directed against one--the very greatest: need we name him?
Jonson, resolved upon making the most of his Muse in a remunerative
sense, well knew how to obtain the patronage of the highest persons
of the country; and his ambition seems to have found satisfaction when,
afterwards, a call was made upon him, on the part of the Court, to
compose 'Masques' for Twelfth-Night and similar extraordinary occasions.
He produced a theatrical piece in consonance with the barbaric taste
prevailing in Whitehall, which gave plenty to do to the machinists,
the decorators, and the play-dresser of the stage. With such a division
of labour in the domain of art, it is not easy, to-day, to decide to
whom the greater merit belongs, among those concerned, of having
afforded entertainment to the courtiers. Dramatic or poetical value
is wanting in those productions of Jonson.
From his poems, as well as from the 'Conversations with Drummond,'
we know that among the patronesses of Jonson there were Lucie Countess
of Bedford and Elizabeth Countess of Rutland--two ladies to whom
Florio dedicated a translation of Montaigne. Lady Rutland's marriage
was a most unhappy one. In the literary intercourse with prominent men
of her time she appears to have sought consolation and distraction.
Jonson's relations with this lady must have been rather friendly ones,
for 'Ben one day being at table with my Lady Rutland, her husband
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