Hamlet Critics

AC Swinburne – Mid 19th century from A study of Shakespeare ‘The single characteristic of Hamlet’s innermost nature is by no means irresolution or hesitation…but rather the strong conflux of contending forces.’
Samuel Johnson – 1765 in his version of Shakespeare’s plays ‘Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent. After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing.’
S. T. Coleridge: from Lectures on Shakespeare, 1818 ‘Hamlet’s character is the prevalence of the abstracting an generalizing habit over the practical. He does not want courage, skill, will, or opportunity; but every incident sets him thinking; and it is curious, and, at the same time strictly natural, that Hamlet, who all the play seems reason itself, should be impelled, at last, by mere accident to effect his object. I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so.’
G. H. LEWES (companion of George Eliot): from ‘Life and Works of Geothe’, 1855 ‘It may indeed be called the tragedy of thought, for there is as much reflection as action in it; but the reflection itself is made dramatic, and hurries the breathless audience along ,with an interest which knows no pause. Strange it is to notice in this work the indissoluble union of refinement with horrors, of reflection with tumult, of high and delicate poetry with broad, palpable, theatrical effects.’
T. S. ELIOT: from ‘Hamlet’ 1919 ‘ Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him.’
GEORGE BERNARD SHAW: from Postscript (1945) to ‘Back to Methuselah’, 1921 ‘What happened to Hamlet was what had happened fifteen hundred years before to Jesus. Bom into the vindictive morality of Moses he has evolved into the Christian perception of the futility and wickedness of revenge and punishment, founded on the simple fact that two blacks do not make a white. But he is not philosopher enough to comprehend this as well as apprehend it. ‘
G. Wilson Knight from The Embassy of Death 1930 ‘Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.They are helpless before his very inactivity and fall one after the other, like victims of an infectious disease. They are strong with the strengthof health—but the demon of Hamlet’s mind is a stronger thing than they. Futilely they try to get him out of their country; anything to get rid of him, he is not safe. But he goes with a cynical smile, and is no sooner gone than he is back again in their midst, meditating in grave-yards, at home with death. Not till it has slain all, is the demon that grips Hamlet satisfied. And last it slays Hamlet himself.’
M. Maynard from The World of Hamlet 1951-1952 ‘Thus the mysteriousness of Hamlet’s world is of a piece. It is not simply a matter of missing motivations, to be expunged if only we could find the perfect clue. It is built in. It is evidently an important part of what the play wishes to say to us. And it is certainly an element that the play thrusts upon us from the opening word. Everyone, I think, recalls the mysteriousness of that first scene. The cold middle of the night on the castle platform, the muffled sentries, the uneasy atmosphere of apprehension, the challenges leaping out of the dark, the questions that follow the challenges, feeling out the darkness, searching for identities, for relations, for assurance.’
Eleanor Prosser from Hamlet and Revenge, 1971 ‘I was appalled at Hamlet’s reason for refusing to kill Claudius at prayer. I had always heard, and believed, that the desire to damn one’s victim was merely a convention of Elizabethan revenge plays, a convention that Shakespeare’s audience accepted without question. But was it possible, I know wondered, that Shakespeare expected his audience to approve of Hamlet’s pagan vindictiveness when he had explicitly thrown the scene into a Christian context?’

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