Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of The Characters of Shakspeare,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 226-228


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[page 226:]

WILEY AND PUTNAMS LIBRARY OF CHOICE READING. NO. XVII. THE CHARACTERS OF SHAKSPEARE. BY WILLIAM HAZLITT.

[Broadway Journal, Aug. 16, 1845.]

THIS is one of the most interesting numbers of “The Library” yet issued. If anything could induce us to read anything more in the way of commentary on Shakspeare, it would be the name of Hazlitt prefixed. With his hackneyed theme he has done wonders, and those wonders well. He is emphatically a critic — brilliant, epigrammatic, startling, paradoxical, and suggestive, rather than accurate, luminous, or profound. For purposes of mere amusement, he is the best commentator who ever wrote in English. At all points, except perhaps in fancy, he is superior to Leigh Hunt, whom nevertheless he remarkably resembles. It is folly to compare him with Macaulay, for there is scarcely a single point of approximation, and Macaulay is by much the greater man. The author of “The Lays of Ancient Rome” has an intellect so well balanced and so thoroughly proportioned, as to appear, in the eyes of the multitude, much smaller than it really is. He needs a few foibles to purchase him éclat. Now, take away the innumerable foibles of Hunt and Hazlitt, and we should have the anomaly of finding them more diminutive than we fancy them while the foibles remain. Nevertheless, they are men of genius still.

In all commentating upon Shakspeare, there has been a radical error, never yet mentioned. It is the error of attempting to expound his Characters — to [page 227:] account for their actions — to reconcile his inconsistencies — not as if they were the coinage of a human brain, but as if they had been actual existences upon earth. We talk of Hamlet the man, instead of Hamlet — the dramatis persona — of Hamlet that God, in place of Hamlet that Shakspeare created. If Hamlet had really lived, and if the tragedy were an accurate record of his deeds, from this record (with some trouble) we might, it is true, reconcile his inconsistences and settle to our satisfaction his true character. But the task becomes the purest absurdity when we deal only with a phantom. It is not (then) the inconsistencies of the acting man which we have as a subject of discussion — (although we proceed as if it were, and thus inevitably err,) but the whims and vacillations — the conflicting energies and indolences of the poet. It seems to us little less than a miracle, that this obvious point should have been overlooked.

While on this topic, we may as well offer an ill-considered opinion of our own as to the intention of the poet in the delineation of the Dane. It must have been well known to Shakspeare, that a leading feature in certain more intense classes of intoxication, (from whatever cause,) is an almost irresistible impulse to counterfeit a farther degree of excitement than actually exists. Analogy would lead any thoughtful person to suspect the same impulse in madness — where beyond doubt, it is manifest. This, Shakspeare felt — not thought. He felt it through his marvellous power of identification with humanity at large — the ultimate source of his magical influence upon mankind. He wrote of Hamlet as if Hamlet he were; and having, in the first instance, imagined his hero excited to partial insanity by the disclosures of the ghost — he (the [page 228:] poet) felt that it was natural he should be impelled to exaggerate the insanity.

 


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Notes:

None.


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[S:0 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of The Characters of Shakspeare)