Shakspere And Montaigne by Jacob FeisAn Endeavour to Explain the Tendency of ‘Hamlet’ from Allusions in Contemporary Works

E-text prepared by Bill Boerst, Juliet Sutherland, and Tonya Allen Editorial note: “Shakspere” is the spelling used by the author and therefore was not changed. SHAKSPERE AND MONTAIGNE An Endeavour to Explain the Tendency of ‘Hamlet’ from Allusions in Contemporary Works BY JACOB FEIS CONTENTS. I. INTRODUCTION II. THE BEGINNINGS OF THE ENGLISH DRAMA THE
This page contains affiliate links. As Amazon Associates we earn from qualifying purchases.
Buy it on Amazon FREE Audible 30 days

E-text prepared by Bill Boerst, Juliet Sutherland, and Tonya Allen

Editorial note: “Shakspere” is the spelling used by the author and therefore was not changed.


An Endeavour to Explain the Tendency of ‘Hamlet’ from Allusions in Contemporary Works




























It has always been a daring venture to attempt finding out Shakspere’s individuality, and the range of his philosophical and political ideas, from his poetical productions. We come nearest to his feelings in his ‘Sonnets;’ but only a few heavy sighs, as it were, from a time of languish in his life can be heard therefrom. All the rest of those lyrical effusions, in spite of the zealous exertions of commentators full of delicate sentiment and of deep thought, remain an unsolved secret.

In his historical dramas, a political creed has been pointed out, which, with some degree of certainty, may be held to have been his. From his other dramas, the most varied evidence has been drawn. A perfect maze of contradictions has been read out of them; so much so that, on this ground, we might almost despair of trustworthy results from further inquiry.

The wildest and most incongruous theories have been founded upon ‘Hamlet’ –the drama richest in philosophical contents. Over and over again men have hoped to be able to ascertain, from this tragedy, the great master’s ideas about religion. It is well-nigh impossible to say how often such attempts have been made, but the reward of the exertions has always remained unsatisfactory. On the feelings which this masterwork of dramatic art still excites to-day–nearly three hundred years after its conception–thousands have based the most different conclusions; every one being convinced of the correctness of his own impressions. There is a special literature, composed of such rendering of personal impressions which that most enigmatical of all dramas has made upon men of various disposition. Every hypothesis finds its adherents among a small group, whilst those who feel differently smile at the infatuation of their antagonists. Nothing that could give true and final satisfaction has yet been reached in this direction.

It is our intention to regard ‘Hamlet’ from a new point of view, which seems to promise more success than the critical endeavours hitherto made. We propose to enter upon a close investigation of a series of circumstances, events, and personal relations of the poet, as well as of certain indications contained in other dramatic works–all of the period in which ‘Hamlet’ was written and brought into publicity. This valuable material, properly arranged and put in its true connection, will, we believe, furnish us with such firm and solid stepping-stones as to allow us, on a perfectly trustworthy path, to approach the real intentions of this philosophical tragedy. It has long ago been felt that, in it, Shakspere has laid down his religious views. By the means alluded to we will now explain that _credo_.

We believe we can successfully show that the tendency of ‘Hamlet’ is of a controversial nature. In closely examining the innovations by which the augmented second quarto edition [1](1604) distinguishes itself from the first quarto, published the year before (1603), we find that almost every one of these innovations is directed against the principles of a new philosophical work–_The Essays of Michel Montaigne_–which had appeared at that time in England, and which was brought out under the high auspices of the foremost noblemen and protectors of literature in this country.

From many hints in contemporary dramas, and from some clear passages in ‘Hamlet’ itself, it follows at the same time that the polemics carried on by Shakspere in ‘Hamlet’ are in most intimate connection with a controversy in which the public took a great interest, and which, in the first years of the seventeenth century, was fought out with much bitterness on the stage. The remarkable controversy is known, in the literature of that age, under the designation of the dispute between Ben Jonson and Dekker. A thorough examination of the dramas referring to it shows that Shakspere was even more implicated in this theatrical warfare than Dekker himself.

The latter wrote a satire entitled ‘Satiromastix,’ in which he replies to Ben Jonson’s coarse personal invectives with yet coarser abuse. ‘Hamlet’ was Shakspere’s answer to the nagging hostilities of the quarrelsome adversary, Ben Jonson, who belonged to the party which had brought the philosophical work in question into publicity. And the evident tendency of the innovations in the second quarto of ‘Hamlet,’ we make bold to say, convinces us that it must have been far more Shakspere’s object to oppose, in that masterly production of his, the pernicious influence which the philosophy of the work alluded to threatened to exercise on the better minds of his nation, than to defend himself against the personal attacks of Ben Jonson.

The controversy itself is mentioned in ‘Hamlet.’ It is a disclosure of the poet, which sheds a little ray of light into the darkness in which his earthly walk is enveloped. The master, who otherwise is so sparing with allusions as to his sphere of action, speaks [2] bitter words against an ‘aery of children’ who were then ‘in fashion,’ and were ‘most tyrannically clapped for it.’ We are further told that these little eyases cry out on the top of the question and so berattle the common stages (so they call them), that many, wearing rapiers, are afraid of goose-quills, and dare scarce come thither.’ The ‘goose-quills’ are, of course, the writers of the dramas played by the ‘little eyases.’ We then learn ‘that there was for a while no money bid for argument’ (Shakspere, we see, was not ashamed of honest gain) ‘unless the poet and the player went to cuffs in the question.’ Lastly, the reproach is made to the nation that it ‘holds it no sin to tarre them (the children) to controversy.’ This satire is undoubtedly–all commentators agree upon this point–directed against the performances of the children who at that time flourished. The most popular of these juvenile actors were the Children of Paul’s, the Children of the Revels, the Children of the Chapel Royal.

Shakspere’s remarks, directed against these forward youngsters, may appear to us to-day as of very secondary importance in the great drama. To the poet, no doubt, it was not so. The words by which he alludes to this episode in his life come from his very heart, and were written for the purpose of reproving the conduct of the public in regard to himself.

‘Hamlet’ was composed in the atmosphere of this literary feud, from which we draw confirmatory proof that our theory stands on the solid ground of historical fact.

Even should our endeavour to finally solve the great problem of ‘Hamlet’ be made in vain, we believe we shall at least have pointed out a way on which others might be more successful. In contradistinction to the manner hitherto in use of drawing conclusions from impressions only, our own matter-of-fact attempt will have this advantage, that the time spent in it will not be wholly wasted; for, in looking round on the scene of that eventful century, we shall become more intimate with its literature and the characters of Shakspere’s contemporaries.

Before entering upon the theme itself, it is necessary to cast a rapid glance at the condition of the dramatic art of that period.

1: ‘Enlarged to almost as much-againe as it was.’

2: Act ii. sc. 2.






Long before Shakspere, perhaps with fardel on his back, travelled to London, the stage, not only in the capital, but in the whole country, had begun to exercise its attractive power upon the people’s imagination.

In the year 1586, a Protestant zealot, a soldier, [1] writes:–‘When the belles tole to the Lectorer, the trumpetts sound to the Stages, whareat the wicked faction of Rome lawgeth for joy, while the godly weepe for sorrowe. Woe is me! the play houses are pestered when the churches are naked. At the one it is not possible to gett a place; at the other voyde seates are plentie…. Yt is a wofull sight to see two hundred proude players jett in their silks where five hundred pore people sterve in the streets.’

Already in the reign of Henry VIII. a ‘Master of the Revels’ was required, whose task it was to control the public representations and amusements. Queen Elizabeth had to issue several special ordinances to define more closely the functions, and provide with fresh power this office, which had been created by her father.

Like all other great achievements of the English nation, the drama, too, developed itself in this country unhampered by foreign influence. Its rapid growth was owing to the free and energetic spirit of Englishmen, to their love for public life. Every event which in some way attracted public attention, furnished the material for a new ballad, or a new drama.

Among the dramatists of that time, there was a specially active group of malcontents–men of culture, who had been at the colleges and universities; such as Peel, Greene, Marlowe, Chapman, Marston, Ben Jonson, and others. If we ask ourselves how it came about that these disciples of erudition turned over to a calling so despised in their days (for the dramatist, with few exceptions, was then mostly held in as low a repute as the player), the cause will be found in the peculiar circumstances of that epoch.

The revival of classical studies, and the art of printing, were, in the hands of the peace-loving citizen, fresh means for strengthening his position in the State. The handicraftsman or the merchant, who had gained a small fortune, was no longer satisfied with the modest prospects which he could offer to his talented son in an ordinary workshop, or in his narrow store-rooms. Since Rome no longer exercised her once all-powerful influence in every walk of life, university men, owing to their superior education, saw before them a brighter, a more hopeful, future.

In the sixteenth century the number of students in colleges and at theuniversities increased in an astonishing degree, especially from the middle classes. The sons of simple burghers entered upon the contests of free, intellectual aspirations with a zeal mostly absent in those whose position is already secured by birth. At Court, no doubt, the feudal aristocracy were yet powerful indeed. They could approach their sovereign according to their pleasure; influence him; and procure, by artful intrigue, positions of dignity and useful preferments for themselves and their favourites. Against these abuses the written word, multiplied a thousandfold, was a new weapon. Whoever could handle it properly, gained the esteem of his fellow-men; and a means was at his disposal for earning a livelihood, however scanty.

Towards the middle and the end of the sixteenth century there were many students and scholars possessing a great deal of erudition, but very little means of subsistence. Nor were their prospects very encouraging. They first went through that bitter experience, which, since then, so many have made after them–that whoever seeks a home in the realm of intellect runs the risk of losing the solid ground on which the fruits for maintaining human life grow. The eye directed towards the Parnassus is not the most apt to spy out the small tortuous paths of daily gain. To get quick returns of interest, even though it be small, from the capital of knowledge and learning, has always been, and still is, a question of difficult solution.

These young scholars, grown to manhood in the Halls of Wisdom, were unable, and even unwilling, to return to simple industrial pursuits, or to the crafty tactics of commerce. Alienated from practical activity, and too shy to take part in the harder struggles of life, many of them rather contented themselves with a crust of bread, in order to continue enjoying the ‘dainties of a book.’ The manlier and bolder among them, dissatisfied with the prospect of such poor fare, looked round and saw, in the hands of incapables, fat livings and lucrative emoluments to which they, on account of their superior culture, believed they had a better claim.

There were yet many State institutions which by no means corresponded to the ideal gathered from Platon, Cicero, and other writers of antiquity. Men began expressing these feelings of dissatisfaction in ballads and pamphlets. Even as the many home and foreign products of industry were distributed by commerce, so it was also the case with these new products of the intellectual workshop, which were carried to the most distant parts of the land. At the side of his other wares, the pedlar, eager for profit, offered the new and much-desired achievements of the Muse to the dwellers in the smallest village, in the loneliest farm.

Moreover, the cunning stationers had their own men, to whom they lent ‘a dossen groates worth of ballads.’ If these hucksters–as Henry Chettle relates–proved thrifty, they were advanced to the position of ‘prety (petty) chapman,’ ‘able to spred more pamphlets by the State forbidden, then all the bookesellers in London; for only in this Citie is straight search, abroad smale suspition, especially of such petty pedlars.’ [2]

Chettle speaks strongly against these ‘intruders in the printings misserie, by whome that excelent Art is not smally slandered, the government of the State not a little blemished, nor Religion in the least measure hindred.’

Besides the profit to be derived from the Press by the malcontent travelling scholars, there was yet another way of acquiring the means of sustenance and of making use of mental culture; and in it there existed the further advantage of independence from grumbling publishers. This was the Stage. For it no great preparations were necessary, nor was any capital required. A few chairs, some boards; in every barn there was room. Wherever one man was found who could read, there were ten eager to listen.

A most characteristic drama, ‘The Return from Parnassus,’ depicts some poor scholars who turn away from pitiless Cambridge, of which one of them says–

For had not Cambridge been to me unkind, I had not turn’d to gall a milky mind. [3]

After having long since completed their studies, they go to London to seek for the most modest livelihood. Bitter experience had taught these disciples of learning that the employment for which they waited could only be gained by bribery; and bribe they certainly could not, owing to their want of means. Some of them already show a true Werther-like yearning for solitude:–

We will be gone unto the downs of Kent….


So shall we shun the company of men, That grows more hateful as the world grows old. We’ll teach the murm’ring brooks in tears to flow, And sleepy rocks to wail our passed woe. [4]

Another utters sentiments of grief, coming near the words of despair of Faust. There is a tone in them of what the Germans call _Weltschmerz_:–

Curs’d be our thoughts, whene’er they dream of hope, Bann’d be those haps that henceforth flatter us, When mischief dogs us still and still for aye, From our first birth until our burying day. [5]

In the difficult choice of a calling which is to save them from need and misery, these beggar-students also think of the stage:–

And must the basest trade yield us relief?

So Philomusus, in a woebegone tone, asks his comrade Studioso; and the latter looks with the following envious words upon the players whose prospects must have been brighter and more enticing than those of the learned poor scholars:–

England affords those glorious vagabonds, That carried erst their fardles on their backs, Coursers to ride on through the gazing streets, Sweeping it in their glaring satin suits, And pages to attend their masterships:
With mouthing words that better wits have framed, They purchase lands, and now esquires are made. [6]

Shakspere, as well as Alleyn, bought land with the money earned by their art. For many, the stage was the port of refuge to which they fled from the lonely habitations of erudition, where they–

… sit now immur’d within their private cells, Drinking a long lank watching candle’s smoke, Spending the marrow of their flow’ring age In fruitless poring on some worm-eat leaf. [7]

Many of these beggar students sought a livelihood by joining the players. That which the poor scholar had read and learnt in books old and new; all that he had heard from bold, adventurous warriors and seamen returning from foreign lands or recently discovered islands; in short, everything calculated to awaken interest and applause among the great mass, was with feverish haste put on the stage, and, in order to render it more palatable, mixed with a goodly dose of broad humour.

The same irreconcilable spirit of the Reformation, which would not tolerate any saint’s image in the places of worship, also destroyed the liking for Miracle Plays. The tendency of the time was to turn away from mysteries and abstract notions, and to draw in art and poetry nearer to real life. Where formerly ‘Miracles and Moralities’ were the delight of men, and Biblical utterances, put in the mouth of prophets and saints, served to edify the audience, there the wordy warfare and the fisticuffs exchanged between the Mendicant Friar and the Seller of Indulgences [8] or Pardoner, whose profane doings were satirised on the stage, became now the subject of popular enjoyment and laughter. Every question of the day was boldly handled, and put in strong language, easily understood by the many, before a grateful public of simple taste.

The drama, thus created anew, soon became the most popular amusement in the whole country. Every other sport was forgotten over it. In every market town, in every barn, a crowd of actors met. In those days no philosophical hair-splitting was in vogue on the boards. Everything was drawn from real life; a breath of freedom pervaded all this exuberant geniality. That which a man felt to-day, tomorrow he was able to communicate to his public. The spoken word was freer than the printed one. The latter had to pass a kind of censorship; the author and the publisher could be ascertained, and be made responsible. But who would be so severe against an extemporised satirical hit, uttered perhaps by a clown? Who would, for that sake, be the denouncing traitor?

Yet it must not be thought that poets and players could do exactly as they listed. They, too, had their enemies. More especially, the austere Puritans were their bitter foes; they never ceased bringing their influence to bear upon highly-placed persons, in order to check the daring and forward doings of the stage, whose liberty they on every occasion wished to see curtailed, and its excesses visited by punishment. The ordinary players, if they did not possess licences from at least two justices of the peace, might be prosecuted, in accordance with an old law, as ‘rogues and vagabonds,’ and subjected to very hard sentences. It was not so easy to proceed against the better class of actors, who, with a view of escaping from the chicanery which their calling rendered them liable to, had placed themselves under the protection of the first noblemen, calling themselves their ‘servants.’ An ordinance of the Privy Council was required in order to bring actors who were thus protected, before a court of justice.

Nevertheless, these restless people got into incessant conflicts with the authorities. Actors would not allow themselves to be deprived of the right of saying a word on matters of the State and the Church; and what did occupy men’s minds more than the victory of the Reformation?

Already, in the year 1550, Cardinal Wolsey felt bound to cast an author, Roo, [9] and ‘a fellow-player, a young gentleman,’ into prison, because they had put a piece on the stage, the aim of which was to show that ‘Lord Governaunce (Government) was ruled by Dissipation and Negligence, by whose misgovernment and evil order Lady Public-Weal was put from Governaunce; which caused Rumor-populi, Inward Grudge, and Disdain of Wanton Sovereigntie to rise with a great multitude to expel Negligence and Dissipation, and to restore Publike-weal again to her estate–which was so done.’

The reproaches made to the bishops about the year 1544 prove, that the stage had already long ago boldly ventured upon the territory of religion, in order to imbue the masses with anti-ecclesiastical tendencies. In this connection the following words of an actor, addressed to the clerics, are most significant. ‘None,’ he says, ‘leave ye unvexed and untroubled; no, not so much as the poor minstrels and players of interludes. So long as they played lies and sang bawdy songs, blaspheming God, and corrupting men’s consciences, ye never blamed them, but were very well contented; but since they persuaded the people to worship the Lord aright, according to His holy laws and not yours, ye never were pleased with them.’ [10]

The first Act of Parliament for ‘the controul and regulation of stages and dramatic representations’ was passed in the reign of Henry VIII. (1543). Its title is, ‘An Act for the Advancement of True Religion and the Punishment of the Contrary.’

In 1552 Edward VI. issued a further proclamation both in regard to the stage and the sellers of prints and books; this time mainly from political reasons.

Whilst poets and players under Henry VIII. and his youthful successor could bring out, without hindrance, that which promoted their ideas of ‘true religion,’ they ran great risk, in the reign of Queen Mary, with any Protestant tendencies; for, scarcely had this severe queen been a month on the throne than she issued an ordinance (August 16, 1553) forbidding such dramas and interludes as were calculated to spread the principles and doctrines of the Reformation.

Under this sovereign, spectacles furthering the Roman Catholic cause were of course favoured. On the other hand, it may be assumed that, during the long and popular reign of Queen Elizabeth, Protestant tendencies on the stage often passed the censorship, although from the first years of her government there is an Act prohibiting any drama in which State and Church affairs were treated, ‘being no meete matters to be written or treated upon but by men of authoritie, nor to be handled before any audience, but of grave and discreete persons.’

However, like all previous ordinances, proclamations, and Acts of Parliament, this one also remained without effect. The dramatists and the disciples of the mimic art continued busying themselves, in their customary bold manner, with that which awakened the greatest interest among the public at large; and one would think that at a certain time they had become a little power in the State, against which it was no longer possible to proceed in arbitrary fashion, but which, on the contrary, had to be reckoned with.

Only such measures, it appears, were afterwards passed which were calculated to harmonise the religious views uttered on the stage with the tenets of the Established Church. This follows from a letter of Lord Burleigh, addressed, in 1589, to the Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he requests him to appoint ‘some fytt person well learned in divinitie.’ The latter, together with the Master of the Revels and a person chosen by the Lord Mayor of the City of London, were to form a kind of Commission, which had to examine all pieces that were to be publicly acted, and to give their approval.

It would be an error to believe that this threefold censorship had any greater success than the former measures. The contrary was the case; matters rather became worse. Actors were imprisoned; whereupon they drew up beautiful petitions to their august protectors who brought about their deliverance–that is, until they were once more clapped into prison. Then they were threatened with having their ears and noses cut off; [11] but still they would not hold their tongues. We know from a letter of the French ambassador (1606)–who himself had several times to ask at the Court of James I. for the prohibition of pieces in which the Queen of France and Mademoiselle Verneuil, as well as the Duke of Biron, were severely handled–that the bold expounders of the dramatic art dared to bring their own king on the stage. Upon this there came an ordinance forbidding all further theatrical representations in London.

In the words of the French ambassador:–‘I caused certain players to be forbid from acting the history of the Duke of Biron. When, however, they saw that the whole Court had left the town, they persisted in acting it; nay, they brought upon the stage the Queen of France and Mademoiselle de Verneuil…. He (the King) has upon this made order that no play shall henceforth be acted in London; for the repeal of which order they (the players) have offered 100,000 livres. Perhaps the permission will be again granted, but upon condition that they represent no recent history, nor speak of the present time.’ [12]

From this sum–a very large one at that time–the importance of the theatre of those days may be gathered.

The Corporation of the City of London was among those most hostile to all theatrical representations. It exerted itself to the utmost in order to render them impossible in the centre of the capital; issuing, with that object, the most whimsical decrees. Trying, on their part, to escape from the despotic restrictions, the various players’ companies settled down beyond the boundary of the Lord Mayor’s jurisdiction. The citizens of London, wishing to have their share of an amusement which had become a national one, eagerly flocked to Bankside, to Blackfriars, to Shoreditch, or across green fields to the more distant Newington Butts.

Comparatively speaking, very little has come down to us from the hey-day of the English drama. That which we possess is but an exceedingly small portion of the productions of that epoch. Henslowe’s ‘Diary’ tells us that a single theatre (Newington Butts) in about two years (June 3, 1594, to July 18, 1596) brought out not less than forty new pieces; and London, at that time, had already more than a dozen play-houses. The dramas handed down to us are mostly purged of those passages which threatened to give offence in print. The dramatists did not mean to write books. When they went to the press at all, they often excused themselves that ‘scenes invented merely to be spoken, should be inforcibly published to be read.’ They were well aware that this could not afford to the reader the same pleasure he felt ‘when it was presented with the soule of living action.’ [13]

The stage was the forum of the people, on which everything was expressed that created interest amidst a great nation rising to new life. The path towards political freedom of speech was not yet opened in Parliament; and of our important safety-valve of to-day, the public press, there was yet only the first vestige, in the shape of pamphlets secretly hawked about. The stage as rapidly decayed as it had grown, when the chief interest on which it had thriven for a while–namely, the representation of affairs of public interest–obtained more practical expression in other spheres. In the meantime, however, it remained the platform on which everything could be subjected to the criticism and jurisdiction of public opinion.

In Chettle’s ‘Kind-Harte’s Dreame’ (1592) the proprietor of a house of evil fame concludes his speech with reproaches against actors on account of their spoiling his trade; ‘for no sooner have we a tricke of deceipt, but they make it common, singing jigs, and making jeasts of us, that everie boy can point out our houses as they passe by.’ Again, in Ben Jonson’s ‘Poetaster,’ we read that ‘your courtier cannot kiss his mistress’s slippers in quiet for them; nor your white innocent gallant pawn his revelling suit to make his punk a supper;’ or that ‘an honest, decayed commander cannot skelder, cheat, nor be seen in a bawdy house, but he shall be straight in one of their wormwood comedies.’ [14]

Not less boldly than social affairs were political matters treated; but in order to avoid a prosecution, these questions had to be cautiously approached in parable fashion. Never was greater cleverness shown in this respect than at Shakspere’s time. Every poet, every statesman, or otherwise highly-placed person, was ‘heckled’ under an allegorical name–a circumstance which at present makes it rather difficult for us to fully fathom the meaning of certain dramatic productions.

In order to attract the crowd, the stage-poets had to present their dishes with the condiments of actual life; thus studying more the taste of the guests than showing that of the cook. Prologues and Epilogues always appealed more to the public at large as the highest judge; its verdict alone was held to be the decisive one. Manuscripts–the property of companies whose interest it was not to make them generally known in print–were continually altered according to circumstances. Guided by the impressions of the public, authors struck out what had been badly received; whilst passages that had earned applause, remained as the encouraging and deciding factor for the future.

At one time dramas were written almost with the same rapidity as leading articles are to-day. Even as our journalists do in the press, so the dramatists of that period carried on their debates about certain questions of the day on the stage. In language the most passionate, authors fell upon each other–a practice for which we have to thank them, in so far as we thereby gain matter-of-fact points for a correct understanding of ‘Hamlet.’

In the last but one decennium of the sixteenth century, the first dramatists arose who pursued fixed literary tendencies. Often their compositions are mere exercises of style after Greek or Roman models which never became popular on the Thames. The taste of the English people does not bear with strange exotic manners for any length of time. It is lost labour to plant palm-trees where oaks only can thrive. Lily and others endeavoured to gain the applause of the mass by words of finely-distilled fragrance, to which no coarse grain, no breath or the native atmosphere clung. A fruitless beginning, as little destined to succeed as the exertions of those who tried to shine by pedantic learning and hollow glittering words.

Marlowe’s powerful imagination attempts marshalling the whole world, in his booth of theatrical boards, after the rhythm of drumming decasyllabon and bragging blank-verse. In his dramas, great conquerors pass the frontiers of kingdoms with the same ease with which one steps over the border of a carpet. The people’s fancy willingly follows the bold poet. In the short space of three hours he makes his ‘Faust’ [15] live through four-and-twenty years, in order ‘to conquer, with sweet pleasure, despair.’ The earth becomes too small for this dramatist. Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, have to respond to his inquiries. Like some of his colleagues, Marlowe is a sceptic: he calls Moses a ‘conjurer and seducer of the people,’ and boasts that, if he were to try, he would succeed in establishing a better religion than the one he sees around himself. The apostle of these high thoughts, not yet thirty years old, breathed his last, in consequence of a duel in a house of evil repute.

Another hopeful disciple of lyric and dramatic poetry and prose-writer, Robert Greene, once full of similar free-thinking ideas, lay on his deathbed at the age of thirty-two, after a life of dissipation. Thence he writes to his forsaken wife:–

‘All my wrongs muster themselves about me; every evill at once plagues me. For my contempt of God, I am contemned of men; for my swearing and forswearing, no man will believe me; for my gluttony, I suffer hunger; for my drunkenesse, thirst; for my adulterie, ulcerous sores. Thus God has cast me downe, that I might be humbled; and punished me, for examples of others’ sinne.’

Greene offers his own wretched end to his colleagues as a warning example; admonishing them to employ their ‘rare wits in more profitable courses;’ to look repentingly on the past; to leave off profane practices, and not ‘to spend their wits in making plaies.’ He especially warns them against actors–because these, it seems, had given him up. His rancorous spite against them he expresses in the well-known words:–‘Yes, trust them not: for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that _with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide_, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blank verse as the best of you; and being an absolute _Johannes Fac-totum_, is in his owne conceit the onely ‘SHAKE-SCENE in a countrie.’

This satirical point, directed, without doubt, against Shakspere, is the only thing reliable which, down to the year 1592, we know of his dramatic activity. He had then been only about four years in London. Yet he must already have wielded considerable authority, seeing that he is publicly, though with sneering arrogance, called a complete Johannes Fac-totum–a man who has laid himself out in every direction.

It is the divine mission of a genius to bring order out of chaos, to regulate matters with the directing force of his superior glance. Certainly, Shakspere, from the very beginning of his activity, sought, with all the energy of his power, to rule out all ignoble, anarchical elements from the stage, and thus to obtain for it the sympathies of the best of his time. Fate so willed it, that one of the greatest minds which Heaven ever gave to mankind, entered, on this occasion, the modest door of a playhouse, as if Providence had intended showing that a generous activity can effect noble results everywhere, and that the most despised calling (such, still, was that of the actors then) can produce most excellent fruits.

Shakspere’s life is a beneficial harmony between will and deed; no attempt to draw down Heaven to Earth, or to raise up Earth to Heaven. His are rather the ways and manners peculiar to a people which likes to adapt itself to given circumstances, to make use of the existing practical good, in order to produce from it that which is better.

It is an ascertained fact that Shakspere, who had received some training at school–but no University education–began, at the age of twenty-four, to arrange the pieces of other writers, to make modest additions to them; in short, to render them fit and proper for stage purposes. This may have been one of the causes why Greene dubbed him a ‘Johannes Fac-totum.’ Others, too, have accused him, during his lifetime, of ‘application’ (plagiarism), because he took his subjects mostly from other authors. Among those who so charged him, were, as we shall show, more especially Ben Jonson and Marston.

Shakspere never allowed himself to be induced by these reproaches to change his mode of working. Down to his death it remained the same. Is his merit, on that account, a lesser one? Certainly not: in the Poetical Art, in the Realm of Feeling and Thought, there are no regular boundary-stones. No author has the right to say: ‘Thou must not step into the circle drawn by me; thou hast to do thy work wholly outside of it!’

An author who so expresses an idea, or so describes a situation as to fix it most powerfully in men’s imagination, is to be looked upon as the true owner or creator of the image: to him belongs the crown. The Greeks reckoned it to be the highest merit of the masters of their plastic art when they retained the great traits with which their predecessors had invested a conception; only endeavouring to better those parts in which a lesser success had been achieved–until that section of the work, too, had attained the highest degree of perfection. Thus arose the Jupiter of Pheidias, a Venus of Milo, an Apollo of Belvedere. Thus the noblest ideal of beauty as created, and in this wise the Greek national epic became the model of all kindred poetry.

There is a most characteristic fact which shows how greatly the drama had risen in universal esteem after Shakspere had devoted to it twelve years of his life. It is this. The Corporation of the City of London, once so hostile to all theatrical representations, and which had used every possible chicanery against the stage, had become so friendly to it towards the year 1600, that, when it was asked from governmental quarters to enforce a certain decree which had been launched against the theatre, it refused to comply with the request. On the contrary, the Lord Mayor, as well as the other magistrates, held it to be an injustice towards the actors that the Privy Council gave a hearing to the charges brought forward by the Puritans. Truly, the feelings of this conservative Corporation, as well of a large number of those who once looked down upon the stage with the greatest contempt, must, in the meanwhile, have undergone a great change.

Unquestionably the Company of the Lord Chamberlain–which in summer gave its masterly representations in the Globe Theatre, beyond the Thames, and in winter in Black-Friars–had been the chief agency in working that change. The first noblemen, the Queen herself, greatly enjoyed the pieces which Shakspere, in fact, wrote for that society; but the public at large were not less delighted with them.

When, the day after such a representation, conversation arose in the family circle as to the three happy hours passed in the theatre, an opportunity was given for discussing the most important events of the past and the present. The people’s history had not yet been written then. Solitary events only had been loosely marked down in dry folios. The stage now brought telling historical facts in vivid colours before the eye. The powerful speeches of high and mighty lords, of learned bishops, and of kings were heard–of exalted persons, all different in character, but all moved, like other mortals, by various passions, and driven by a series of circumstances to definite actions. It was felt that they, too, were subject to a certain spirit of the time, the tendency of which, if the poet was attentively listened to, could be plainly gathered. In this way conclusions might be drawn which shed light even upon the events of the present.

True, it was forbidden to bring questions of the State and of religion upon the stage. But has Shakspere really avoided treating upon them?

Richard Simpson has successfully shown that Shakspere, in his historical plays, carried on a political discussion easily understood by his contemporaries. [16] The maxims thus enunciated by the poet have been ascertained by that penetrating critic in such a manner that the results obtained can scarcely be subjected to doubt any more.

On comparing the older plays and chronicles of which the poet made use for his historical dramas, with the creations that arose on this basis under his powerful hand, one sees that he suppresses certain tendencies of the subject-matter before him, placing others in their stead. Taking fully into account all the artistic technicalities calculated to produce a strong dramatic effect, we still find that he has evidently made a number of changes with the clear and most persistent intention of touching upon political questions of his time.

If, for instance, Shakspere’s ‘King John’ is compared with the old play, ‘The Troublesome Raigne,’ and with the chronicles from which (but more especially from the former piece) the poet has drawn the plan of his dramatic action, it will be seen that very definite political tendencies of what he had before him were suppressed. New ones are put in their place. Shakspere makes his ‘King John’ go through two different, wholly unhistorical struggles: _one against a foe at home, who contests the King’s legitimate right; the other against Romanists who think it a sacred duty to overthrow the heretic_. These were not the feuds with which the King John of history had to contend.

But the daughter from the unhappy marriage of Henry VIII. and the faithless Anne Boleyn–Queen Elizabeth–had, during her whole lifetime, to contend against rebels who held Mary Stuart to be the legitimate successor; and it was Queen Elizabeth who had always to remain armed against a confederacy of enemies who, encouraged by the Pope, made war upon the ‘heretic’ on the throne of England.

Thus, in the Globe Theatre, questions of the State were discussed; and politics had their distinct place there. Yet who would enforce the rules of censorship upon such language as this:–

This England never did, and never shall, Lie at the proud feet of a Conqueror
But when it first did help to wound itself. … Nought shall make us rue
If England to herself do rest but true?

Such thoughts were not taken from any old chronicle, but came from the very soul of the age that had gained the great victory over the Armada. They emphasized a newly-acquired independent position, which could only be maintained by united strength against a foreign foe.

Even as ‘King John,’ so all the other historical plays contain a clearly provable political tendency. Not everything done by the great queen met with applause among the people. Dissatisfaction was felt at the prominence of personal favourites, who made much abuse of commercial monopolies granted to them. The burdens of taxation had become heavier than in former times. In ‘Richard the Second’ a king is produced, who by his misgovernment and by his maintenance of selfish favourites loses his crown.

Shakspere’s sympathies are with a prince whom Nature has formed into a strong ruler; and such an aristocrat of the intellect is depicted in his ‘Henry the Fifth.’ In this ideal of a king, all the good national qualities attain their apotheosis. This hero combines strength of character with justice and bravery. With great severity he examines his own conscience before proceeding to any action, however small. War he makes with all possible humanity, and only for the furtherance of civilisation. Nothing is more hated by Shakspere than a government of weak hands. From such an unfortunate cause came the Wars of the Two Roses. It seems that, in order to bring this fact home to the understanding of the people, Shakspere put the sanguinary struggles between the Houses of York and Lancaster on the stage. (See Epilogue of ‘King Henry the Fifth.’)

More strongly even than in his plays referring to English history, the deep aversion he felt to divided dominion pierces through his Roman tragedies; for in Shakspere the aristocratic vein was not less developed than in Goethe. To him, too, the multitude–

…This common body,
Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, Goes to, and back, lackeying the varying tide To rot itself with motion. [17]

As in politics, so also in the domain of religion (of all things the most important to his contemporaries), Shakspere has made his profession of faith. For its elucidation we believe we possess a means not less sure than that which Richard Simpson has made use of for fixing the political maxims of the great master.

‘Hamlet’ first appeared in a quarto edition of the year 1603. The little book thus announces itself:–

‘The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke, By William Shakespeare. As it hath been diverse times acted by his Highnesse servants in the Cittie of London: as also in the two Vniversities of Cambridge & Oxford, and elsewhere.’

This drama is different, in most essential traits, from the piece we now possess, which came out a year later (1604), also in quarto edition. The title of the latter is:–

‘The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. By William Shakespeare, Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much-againe as it was, according to the true & perfect coppie.’

The most diverse hypotheses have been started as to the relation between the older ‘Hamlet’ and the later one. [18] We share the view of those who maintain that the first quarto edition was a rough-draught, advanced to a certain degree, and for which the poet, as is the case with so many of his other plays, had used an older play as a kind of model. A ‘rough-draught advanced to a certain degree’ may be explained as a piece already produced on the stage. The public, always eager to see novelties, allowed the dramatists little time for fully working out their conceptions. The plays matured, as it were, on the stage itself; there they received their final shape and completion. As mentioned before, that which had displeased was struck out, whilst the passages that had obtained applause were often augmented, in order to confer upon the play the attraction of novelty. ‘Enlarged to almost as much-againe as it was’ is an expression which shows that ‘Hamlet’ had drawn from the very beginning. The poet, thereby encouraged, then worked out this drama into the powerful, comprehensive tragedy which we now possess.

Now, in closely examining the changes and additions made in the second ‘Hamlet,’ we find that most of the freshly added philosophical thoughts, and many characteristic peculiarities, have clear reference to the philosophy of a certain book and the character of its author–namely, to Michel Montaigne and his ‘Essais.’ This work first appeared in an English translation in 1603, after it had already been entered at Stationers’ Hall for publication in 1599. The cause which may have induced Shakspere to confer upon his ‘Hamlet’ the thoughts and the peculiarities of Montaigne, and to give that play the shape in which we now have it, will become apparent when we have to explain the controversy between Jonson and Dekker. We have thus the advantage over Simpson’s method, that our theory will be confirmed from other sources.

Montaigne’s ‘Essais’ were a work which made a strong mark, and created a deep sensation, in his own country. There, it had already gone through twelve editions before it was introduced in England–eleven years after the death of its author–by means of a translation. Here it found its first admirers among the highest aristocracy and the patrons of literature and art. Under such august auspices it penetrated into the English public at large. The translator was a well-known teacher of the Italian language, John Florio.

From the preface of the first book of the ‘Essais’ we learn that, at the request of Sir Edward Wotton, Florio had first Englished one chapter, doing it in the house of Lady Bedford, a great lover of art. In that preface, Florio, in most extravagant and euphuistic style, describes how this noblewoman, after having ‘dayned to read it (the first chapter) without pitty of my fasting, my fainting, my laboring, my langishing, my gasping for some breath … yet commaunded me on’–namely, to turn the whole work into English. It was a heavy task for the poor schoolmaster. He says:–‘I sweat, I wept, and I went on sea-tosst, weather-beaten … shippe-wrackt–almost drowned.’ ‘I say not,’ the polite maestro adds, ‘you took pleasure at shore’ (as those in this author, iii. 1). No; my lady was ‘unmercifull, but not so cruell;’ she ever and anon upheld his courage, bringing ‘to my succour the forces of two deare friends.’ One of them was Theodore Diodati, tutor of Lady Bedford’s brother, the eldest son of Lady Harrington whose husband also was a poet.

The grateful Florio calls this worthy colleague, ‘Diodati as in name, so indeed God’s gift to me,’ and a ‘guide-fish’ who in this ‘rockie-rough ocean’ helped him to capture the ‘Whale’–that is, Montaigne. He also compares him to a ‘bonus genius sent to me, as the good angel to Raimond in “Tasso,” for my assistant to combat this great Argante.’

The other welcome fellow-worker was ‘Maister Doctor Guinne;’ according to Florio, ‘in this perilous, crook’t passage a monster-quelling Theseus or Herkules;’ aye, in his eyes the best orator, poet, philosopher, and medical man (_non so se meglior oratore e poeta, o philosopho e medico_), and well versed in Greek, Latin, Italian, and French poetry. It was he who succeeded in tracing the many passages from classic and modern writers which are strewn all over Montaigne’s Essays to the divers authors, and the several places where they occur, so as to properly classify them.

Samuel Daniel, a well-known and much respected poet of that time, and a brother-in-law of Florio, also made his contribution. He opens this powerful, highly important work with a eulogistic poem. Florio, in his bombastic style, says:–‘I, in this, serve but as Vulcan to hatchet this Minerva from that Jupiter’s bigge braine.’ He calls himself ‘a fondling foster-father, having transported it from France to England, put it in English clothes, taught it to talke our tongue, though many times with a jerke of French jargon.’

The ‘Essais’ consist of three different books. Each of them is dedicated to two noblewomen, the foremost of this country. The first book isdedicated to Lucy, Countess of Bedford, and her mother, Lady Anne Harrington. The second to Elizabeth, Countess of Rutland, daughter of the famous poet Sir Philip Sidney, therefore a near relation of Shakspere’s youthful friend, William Herbert, the later Earl of Pembroke (‘the only begetter’ of the ‘Sonnets’), whose mother also was a daughter of that much-admired poet.

The second book is dedicated to the renowned as well as evilly notorious Lady Penelope Rich, sister of the unfortunate Earl of Essex. She shone by her extraordinary beauty as well as by her intellectual gifts. Of her Sir Philip Sidney was madly enamoured, but she married a Croesus, Lord Rich. This union was a most unhappy one. Her husband, a man far below her in strength of mind, did not know how to value the jewel that had come into his possession. A crowd of admirers flocked around her, among whom was William Herbert, much younger in years than herself. It is suspected that Shakspere’s last sonnets (127-152) touch upon this connection, with the object of warning the friend against the true character of that sinful woman.

The last book is dedicated to Lady Elizabeth Grey, the wife of Henry Grey, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and to Lady Mary Nevill, the latter being the daughter of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and wife of Sir Henry Nevill of Abergavenny.

Each of the noblewomen mentioned is praised in a sonnet. No book of that period had such a number of aristocratic sponsors. Yet it was of foreign origin, and for the first time a French philosopher had appeared in an English version on this side of the Channel. His easy, chatty tone must have created no small sensation. The welcome given to him by a great number of men is proved by the fact of the ‘Essais’ soon reaching their third edition, a rare occurrence with a book so expensive as this. [19]

We will endeavour to sketch the character of Michel Montaigne and his writings. His individuality, owing to the minute descriptions he gives of his own self in the Essays, comes out with rare distinctness from the dark environs of his time–more clearly so than the personality of any other author, even of that seventeenth century which is so much nearer to us.

This French nobleman devoted the last thirty years of his life to philosophical speculations, if that expression is allowable; for fanciful inclination and changing sentiment, far more than strict logic and sound common sense, decided the direction of his thoughts. The book in which he tries to render his ideas is meant to be the flesh and blood of his own self. The work and the author–so he says–are to be one. ‘He who touches one of them, attacks both.’ In the words of Florio’s translation, he observes:–‘Authors communicate themselves unto the world by some speciall and strange marke, I the first by my generall disposition as Michael Montaigne; not as a Grammarian, or a Poet, or a Lawyer.’

Few writers have been considered from such different points of view as Montaigne. The most passionate controversies have arisen about him. Theologians have endeavoured to make him one of their own; but the more far seeing ones soon perceived that there was too much scepticism in his work. Some sceptics would fain attach him to their own ranks; but the more consistent among them declined the companionship of one who was too bigoted for them. The great mass of men, as usual, plucked, according to each one’s taste and fancy, some blossom or leaf from his ‘nosegay of strange flowers,’ [20] and then classified him from that casual selection.

Montaigne, a friend of truth, admonishes posterity, if it would judge him, to do so truthfully and justly. With gladsome heart, he says, he would come back from the other world in order to give the lie to those who describe him different from what he is, ‘even if it were done to his honour.’

We shall strive to comply with his wish by drawing the picture of this most interesting, and in his intellectual features thoroughly modern, man, from the contours furnished by his own hand. We shall exert ourselves to lay stress on those characteristics by which he must have created most surprise among his logically more consistent contemporaries on the other side of the Channel.

In taking up Montaigne’s ‘Essais’ for perusal we are presently under the spell of a feeling as though we were listening to the words of a most versatile man of the world, in whom we become more and more interested. We find in him not only an amiable representative of the upper classes, but also a man who has deeply entered into the spirit of classic antiquity. Soon he convinces us that he is honestly searching after truth; that he pursues the noble aim of placing himself in harmony with God and the world. Does he succeed in this? Does he arrive at a clear conclusion? What are the fruits of his thoughts? what his teachings? In what relation did he stand to his century?

As in no other epoch, men had, especially those who came out into the fierce light of publicity, to take sides in party warfare during the much-agitated time of the Reformation. To which party did Montaigne belong? Was he one of the Humanists, who, averse to all antiquated dogmas, preached a new doctrine, which was to bring mankind once more into unison with the long despised laws of Nature?

We hope to show successfully that Shakspere wrote his ‘Hamlet’ for the great and noble object of warning his contemporaries against the disturbing inconsistencies of the philosophy of Montaigne who preached the rights of Nature, whilst yet clinging to dogmatic tenets which cannot be reconciled with those rights.

We hope to prove that Shakspere who made it his task ‘to hold the mirror up to Nature,’ and who, like none before him, caught up her innermost secrets, rendering them with the chastest expression; that Shakspere, who denied in few but impressive words the vitality of any art or culture which uses means not consistent with the intentions of Nature:

Yet Nature is made better by no mean, But Nature makes that mean; so o’er that art Which, you say, adds to Nature, is an art That Nature makes; [21]–

we hope to prove successfully that Shakspere, this true apostle of Nature, held it to be sufficient, ay, most godly, to be a champion of ‘natural things;’ that he advocated a true and simple obedience to her laws, and a renunciation of all transcendental dogmas, miscalled ‘holy and reverent,’ which domineer over human nature, and hinder the free development of its nobler faculties.

Let us then impartially examine the character and the work of Montaigne. If we discover contradictions in both, we shall not endeavour to argue them away, but present them with matter-of-fact fidelity; for it is on those very contradictions that the enigmatic, as yet unexplained, character of Hamlet reposes.

1: Collier’s _Drama_, i. 265.

2: _Kind-hartes Dreame_, 1592.

3: Act v. sc. 4.

4: Act v sc. 4.

5: Act iii sc. 5.

6: _The Return from Parnassus_, act v. sc. I.

7: _Ibid._, act iv. sc. 3.

8: _The Pardoner and the Friar_: 1533.

9: Collier’s _Drama_, i. 104.

10: _The Political Use of the Stage in Shakspere’s Time_. New Shakspere Society: 1874, ii. p. 371. Henry Stalbrydge, _Epistle Exhortatory_, &c.: 1544.

11: This threat was uttered against Chapman, Ben Jonson, and Marston on account of _Eastward Hoe_.

12: Von Raumer, ii. p. 219.

13: Marston’s _Malcontent_: Dedication.

14: Act i. sc. I.

15: It is very characteristic that, in this serious piece also, low humour was still largely employed. In printing–the publisher remarks–the passages in question were left out, as derogatory ‘to so honourable and stately a history.’

16: _The Politics of Shakspere’s Historical Plays_. New Shakspere Society, ii. 1874.

17: _Antonius and Cleopatra_, act i. sc. 4.

18: We mean the usually received text, seeing that the folio edition of 1623 contains some passages which are wanting in the quarto edition, and _vice versa_.

19: Montaigne’s _Essays_, which were published in folio, may have had the same price as Shakspere’s folio of 1623. The latter was only re-issued in 1632 and 1664, whilst the former came out in new editions in 1613 and 1632.

20: ‘Icy un amas de fleur estrangieres, n’y ayant fourny du mien que le filet a les lier’ (iii. 12).

21: _Winter’s Tale_, act iv. sc. 3.



Michel Montaigne was favoured by birth as few writers have been. He was the son of a worthy nobleman who gave him, from early childhood, a most carefully conducted education. He never tires in praising the good qualities of his father, who had followed Francis I. to his Italian campaigns, and, like that monarch, had conceived a preference for those classical studies which were then again reviving. Even as his king, he, too, wished to promote the new knowledge, and was bent upon so initiating young Michel into it as to make him in the fullest manner conversant with the conquests of Greece and Rome in the realm of intellect.

In this, as a practical man who felt the greatest respect for erudition without personally possessing a proper share of it, he allowed himself to be thoroughly guided by ‘men of learning and judgment.’ He had been told that the only reason why we do not ‘attain to the greatness of soul and intellect of the ancient Greeks and Romans was the length of time we give to learning these languages which cost them nothing.’ In bringing up the boy, to whom the best masters were given, the procedures chosen were therefore such that young Michel, in his sixth year, spoke Latin thoroughly before he was able to converse in his own mother-tongue.

Montaigne relates [1] that he was much more at home on the banks of the Tiber than on the Seine. Before he knew the Louvre, his mind’s eye rested on the Forum and the Capitol. He boasts of having always been more occupied with the life and the qualities of Lucullus, of Metellus, and Scipio, than with the fate of any of his own countrymen. Of the hey-day of classic Rome he, who otherwise uses such measured terms, speaks with a glowing enthusiasm. He often avers that he belongs to no special school of thought; that he advocates no theory; that he is not the adherent of any party or sect. To him–so he asserts–an unprejudiced examination of all knowledge is sufficient. His endeavour was, to prove the devise of his escutcheon: ‘Que scais-je?’

Have the humanistic studies not given to him, as to so many of his contemporaries, a distinctive mental bent? Have Greek and Roman philosophy and poetry remained without any influence upon him? Has his character not been formed by them? Does he not once reckon himself among ‘nous autres naturalistes?’ [2]

Once only, it is true, he does this; but even if he who would not belong to any special school of thought, and who would rather be ‘a good equerry than a logician,’ [3] had not ascribed to himself this designation, a hundred passages of his work would bear witness to the fact of his having been one of the Humanists, on whose banner ‘Nature’ was written as the parole. Ever and anon he says (I here direct attention more specially to his last Essays) that we ought willingly to follow her prescriptions; and incessantly he asserts that, in doing so, we cannot err. He designates her as a guide as mild as she is just, whose footprints, blurred over as they are by artificial ones, we ought everywhere to trace anew. ‘Is it not folly,’ he asks with Seneca, [4] ‘to bend the body this way, and the mind that way, and thus to stand distorted between two movements utterly at variance with each other?’

To bring up and to guide man in accordance with his capacities, is with him a supreme law. ‘Le glorieux chef-d’oeuvre de l’homme, c’est de vivre a propos.’ He, the sage, is already so much in advance of his century that he yearns for laws and religions which are not arbitrarily founded, but drawn from the roots and the buds of a universal Reason, contained in every person not degenerate or divorced from nature _desnature_. A mass of passages in the Essays strengthen the opinion that Montaigne was an upright, noble-minded Humanist, a disciple of free thought, who wished to fathom human nature, and was anxious to help in delivering mankind from the fetters of manifold superstitions. Read his Essay on Education; and the conviction will force itself upon you that in many things he was far in advance of his time.

But now to the reverse of the medal–to Montaigne as the adherent of Romanist dogmas!

‘The bond,’ he says–and here we quote Florio’s translation, [5] only slightly changed into modern orthography–‘which should bind our judgment, tie our will, enforce and join our souls to our Creator, should be a bond taking his doublings and forces, not from our considerations, reasons, and passions, but from a divine and supernatural compulsion, having but one form; one countenance, and one grace; which is the authority and grace of God.’ The latter, be it well understood, are to Montaigne identical with the Church of Rome, to which he thinks it best blindly to submit.

Men–he observes–who make bold to sit in judgment upon their judges, are never faithful and obedient to them. As a warning example he points to England, which, since his birth, had already three or four times changed its laws, not only in matters political, in which constancy is not insisted upon, but in the most important matter imaginable–namely, in religion. He declares himself all the more ashamed of, and vexed by, this, as his own family were allied by close private ties with the English nation.

An attempt has been made to show [6] that in Montaigne’s ‘Apologie de Raymond Sebond,’ in which he expounds his theological opinions in the most explicit manner, a hidden attack is contained upon the Church. But it bespeaks an utter misconception of the character of this writer to hold him capable of such perfidious craftiness; for he calls it ‘a cowardly and servile humour if a man disguises and hides his thoughts under a mask, not daring to let himself be seen under his true aspect.’ [7]

We know of not a few, especially Italian, Humanists who publicly made a deep bow before the altar, whilst behind it they cynically laughed, in company with their friends; making sport of the silly crowd that knelt down in profound reverence. Montaigne was no such double-dealer. We can fully believe him when he states that it is to him no small satisfaction and pleasure to ‘have been preserved from the contagion of so corrupt an age; to have never brought affliction and ruin upon any person; not to have felt a desire for vengeance, or any envy; nor to have become a defaulter to his word.’ [8]

His word, his honour, were to him the most sacred treasure. He never would have descended so low as to fling them to the winds. Let us, therefore, not endeavour to deny any logical inconsistencies in his writings–inconsistencies which many other men since his time have equally shown. Let us rather institute a strict and close inquiry into these two modes of thought of his, which, contradictory as they are, yet make up his very character and individuality.

We can fully believe in Montaigne’s sincerity when elsewhere he asserts that we must not travel away from the paths marked down by the Roman Catholic Church, lest we should be driven about helplessly and aimlessly on the unbounded sea of human opinions. He tells us [9] that ‘he, too, had neglected the observance of certain ceremonies of the Church, which seemed to him somewhat vain and strange; but that, when he communicated on that subject with learned men, he found that these things had a very massive and solid foundation, and that it is only silliness and ignorance which make us receive them with less reverence than the other doctrines of religion.’ Hence he concludes that we must put ourselves wholly under the protection of ecclesiastical authority, or completely break with it.

He never made a single step to withdraw himself from that authority. He rather prides himself on having never allowed himself, by any philosophy, to be turned away from his first and natural sic opinions, and from the condition in which God had placed him; being well aware of his own variability _volubilite_. ‘Thus I have, by the grace of God, remained wholly attached, without internal agitation and troubles of conscience, to the ancient beliefs of our religion, during the conflict of so many sects and party divisions which our century has produced.’ [10]

Receiving the holy Host, he breathed his last.

In the ‘Apologie de Raymond Sebond,’ Montaigne defends the ‘Theologia Naturalis’ of the latter–a book in which the author, who was a medical man, a philosopher, and a theologian, endeavours to prove that the Roman Catholic dogmas are in harmony with the laws of nature. That which is to be received in full faith, Sebond exerts himself to make comprehensible by arguments of the reason. This book–so Montaigne relates–had been given to his father, at the time when Luther’s new doctrines began to be popular, by a man of great reputation for learning, Pierre Bunel, who ‘well foresaw, by his penetration, [11] that this budding disease would easily degenerate into an execrable atheism.’ Old Pierre Montaigne, a very pious man, esteemed this work very highly; and a few days before his death, having fortunately found it among a lot of neglected papers, commanded his son to translate it from ‘that kind of Spanish jargon with Latin endings,’ in which it was written.

Michel, with filial piety, fulfilled his task. He translated the work, and in the above-mentioned Essay–the largest of the series–he advocates its philosophy. The essence of this panegyric of the Church (for logic would in vain be sought for in that Essay) is: that knowledge and curiosity are simply plagues of mankind, and that the Roman Catholic religion, therefore, with great wisdom, recommends ignorance. Man would be most likely to attain happiness if, like the animal, he were to allow himself to be guided by his simple instinct. All philosophising is declared to be of no use. Faith only is said to afford security to the weakest of all beings, to man, who more than any other creature is exposed to the most manifold dangers. No elephant, no whale, or crocodile, was required to overcome him who proudly calls himself the ‘lord of creation.’ ‘Little lice are sufficient to make Sylla give up his dictatorship. The heart and the life of a mighty and triumphant emperor form but the breakfast of a little worm.’ [12] (Compare ‘Hamlet,’ iv. 3).

Montaigne, who, in his thirty-eighth year, ‘long weary of the bondage of Court and of public employment, while yet in the vigour of life, hath withdrawn himself into the bosom of the Learned Virgins (Doctarum Virginum),’ [13] so as to be able to spend the rest of his days in his ancestral home, in peaceful, undisturbed devotion to ennobling studies, and to present the world with a new book, in which he means to give expression to his innermost thoughts–Montaigne, in his Essay ‘On Prayers,’ calls his writings ‘rhapsodies,’ which he submits to the judgment of the Church, so that it may deal with anything he, ‘either ignorantly or unadvisedly, may have set down contrary to the sacred decrees, and repugnant to the holy prescriptions of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church, wherein I die, and in which I was born.’

Let us not dwell too long on the contradictions of a man who professes to think independently, and who yet is content with having a mind-cramping dogmatic creed imposed upon him. Let us look at a few other, not less irreconcilable, inconsistencies of his logic.

Montaigne, the Humanist, advocates toleration. Justice, he says, is to be done to every party, to every opinion. ‘Men are different in feeling and in strength; they must be directed to their good, according to themselves, and by diverse ways.’ [14] He bears no grudge to anyone of heterodox faith; he feels no indignation against those who differ from him in ideas. The ties of universal humanity he values more than those of national connection. He has some good words for the Mexicans, so cruelly persecuted by the Spaniards. ‘I hold all men to be my compatriots; I feel the same love for a Pole as for a Frenchman.’ [15]

But when we read what the Roman Catholic Montaigne writes, there is a different tone:–

‘Now that which, methinks, brings so much disorder into our consciences–namely, in these troubles of religion in which we are–is the easy way with which Catholics treat their faith. They suppose they show themselves properly moderate and skilful when they yield to their adversaries some of the articles that are under debate. But–besides that they do not see what an advantage it is to your antagonist if you once begin making a concession, thus encouraging him to follow up his point–it may further be said that the articles which they choose as apparently the lightest, are sometimes most important indeed.’ [16]

Again, the humane nobleman who looks with pity and kindliness upon ‘the poor, toiling with heads bent, in their hard work;’ he who calls the application of the torture ‘a trial of patience rather than of truth’–he maintains that ‘the public weal requires that one should commit treachery, use falsehoods, and perform massacres.’ [17] Personally, he shrinks from such a mission. His softer heart is not strong enough for these deeds. He relates [18] that he ‘never could see without displeasure an innocent and defenceless beast pursued and killed, from which we have received no offence at all.’ He is moved by the aspect of ‘the hart when it is embossed and out of breath, and, finding its strength gone, has no other resource left but to yield itself up to us who pursue it, asking for mercy from us by its tears. He calls this ‘a deplorable spectacle.’

Yet, this sentimental nobleman advocates the commission of treachery and cruelty, in the interest of the State, by certain more energetic, less timorous men. Nor does he define their functions so as to raise a bar against a second St. Bartholomew massacre. A deed of this kind he would submissively take to be an act of Heaven, shirking all responsibility for, or discussion of, anything that ‘begins to molest him.’ He merely says:–‘Like those ancients who sacrificed their lives for the welfare of their country, so they (the guardians of the State) must be ready to sacrifice their honour and their conscience. We who are weaker, take easier, less risky parts.’ [19]

In Montaigne, the Humanist, we read that beautiful passage (in his last Essay [20]) where he says that ‘those who would go beyond human nature, trying to transform themselves into angels, only make beasts of themselves.’ [21] Yet, elsewhere [22] he writes that he shall be exalted, who, renouncing his own natural means, allows himself to be guided by means purely celestial–by which he clearly understands the dogmas of Roman Catholicism.

As a humanistic thinker, Montaigne fears nothing more than any strivings after transcendentalism. Such yearnings terrify him like inaccessible heights. In the life of Sokrates, of that sage for whom he felt a special preference, the ‘ecstasies and daimons’ greatly repel him. Nevertheless, Montaigne, the mystic, attributes a great magic power to such daimons; for he says: ‘I, too, have sometimes felt within myself an image of such internal agitations, as weak in the light of reason as they were violent in instinctive persuasion or dissuasion (a state of mind more ordinary to Sokrates), by which I have so profitably, and so happily, suffered myself to be drawn on, that these mental agitations might perhaps be thought to contain something of divine inspiration.’ [23]

Montaigne, the admirer of classic antiquity, says that serving the Commonwealth is the most honourable calling. [24] Acts without some splendour of freedom have, in his eyes, neither grace, nor do they merit being honoured. [25] But elsewhere [26] we come upon his other view, less imbued with the spirit of antiquity–namely, that ‘man alone, without other help, armed only with his own weapons, and unprovided with the grace and knowledge of God, in which all his honour, his strength, and the whole ground of his being are contained,’ is a sorry specimen of force indeed. His own reason gives him no advantage over other creatures; the Church alone confers this privilege upon him!

During several years, Montaigne was Mayor of Bordeaux. With great modesty, he relates [27] that in his mere passive conduct lay whatever little merit he may have had in serving his town. This fully harmonises with the view expressed in his last but one Essay, in which he declares that we are to be blamed for not sufficiently trusting in Heaven; expecting from ourselves more than behoves us: ‘Therefore do our designs so often miscarry. Heaven is envious of the large extent which we attribute to the rights of human wisdom, to the prejudice of its own rights; and it curtails ours all the more that we endeavour to enlarge them.’ [28]

Montaigne by no means ignores the troublous character of the times in which he lived. He often alludes to it. He thinks astrologers cannot have any great difficulty in presaging changes and revolutions near at hand:–‘Their prophetic indications are practically in our very midst, and most palpable; one need not search the Heavens for that.’

‘Cast we our eyes about us’ (here again we follow Florio’s translation), ‘and in a generall survay consider all the world: all is tottring; _all is out of frame_. Take a perfect view of all great states, both in Christendome and where ever else we have knowledge of, and in all places you shall finde a most evident threatning of change and ruine … Astrologers may spout themselves, with warning us, as they doe of iminent alterations and succeeding revolutions: their divinations are present and palpable, we need not prie into the heavens to find them out.’ [29]

But Montaigne, always resigned to the will of God, inactively stands by. Not even a manly counsel comes from his lips. He believes he has fulfilled his Christian duty by trusting in Heaven for the conduct of human affairs, and trying to comfort his fellow-men by the hollow words that he ‘sees no cause for despair. Perchance we have not yet arrived at the last stage. The maintenance of states is most probably something that goes beyond our powers of understanding.’ [30]

Montaigne, the Humanist, says that ‘it is an absolute perfection, and, as it were, a divine accomplishment for a man to know how to loyally enjoy his existence.’ The most commendable life for him is ‘that which adapts itself, in an orderly way, to a common human model, without miracle, and without extravagance.’ [31]

But Montaigne, the Christian, relates that he has ‘never occupied himself with anything more than with ideas of death, even at the most licentious time of his youth.’ With touching ingenuousness he confesses his weaknesses and his vanities, of which he scarcely dares to think any longer. The descriptions he often gives of himself–such as, ‘a dreamer’ (_songe-creux_), ‘soft’ (_molle_), ‘heavy’ (_poisante_), ‘pensive,’ and so forth [32]–prove that he cannot have arrived at a pure enjoyment of life. He questions the happiness of being a husband and father. We shall touch upon his views as regards woman, and many other peculiarities of his, in the passages of ‘Hamlet’ referring to them.

In nothing does Montaigne arrive at any clear conclusion within himself. Though he knows how to speak much and well about everything, it is all mere _bel esprit_, a display of glittering words, hollow verbiage, which only lands us in a labyrinth of contradictions, from which we seek an issue as vainly as the author himself. Striving, through all his life, to arrive at a knowledge of himself, he at last lays down his arms, considering the attempt a fruitless and impossible task, and, in his last Essay, [33] he makes this avowal:–

‘That which in Perseus, the King of Macedon, was remarked as a rare thing–viz. that his mind, not settling down into any kind of condition, went wandering through every manner of life, thus showing such flighty and erratic conduct that neither he nor others knew what sort of man he was: this seems to me to apply nearly to the whole world, and more especially to one of that ilk whom this description would eminently fit. This, indeed, is what I believe of him (he speaks of himself):–“No average attitude; being always driven from one extreme to the other by indivinable chances; no manner of course without cross-runnings and marvellous controversies; no clear and plain faculty, so that the likeliest idea that could one day be put forth about him will be this: that he affected and laboured to make himself known by the impossibility of really knowing him” (‘qu’il affectoit et estudioit de se rendre cogneu par estre mecognoissable’).’ This is Montaigne all over.

In the British Museum there is a copy of the Essays of Montaigne, in Florio’s translation, with Shakspere’s name, it is alleged, written in it by his own hand, and with notes which possibly may in part have been jotted down by him. Sir Frederick Madden, one of the greatest authorities in autographs, has recognised Shakspere’s autograph as genuine. [34] Whatever disputes may be carried on on this particular point, we think we shall be able to prove that Shakspere about the year 1600 must have been well acquainted with Montaigne. We shall show that in the first text of ‘Hamlet,’ which, it is assumed, was represented on the stage between 1601 and 1602, there are already to be found some allusions to Montaigne, especially as far as the middle of the second and towards the end of the fifth act. In all likelihood, Shakspere knew the ‘Essais’ even in the original French text or perhaps from the manuscript of the translation which, as above stated, had been begun towards the year 1599; for Shakspere, it is to be supposed, had access to the houses of, at least, two of the noble ladies to whom the Italian teacher dedicated his translation.

In the ‘Tempest,’ assumed to be of later date than ‘Hamlet,’ there is a passage unmistakably taken from Florio’s version of Montaigne. [35]

Ben Jonson, the most quarrelsome and the chief adversary of Shakspere, was an intimate friend of Florio. When Montaigne, in ‘Hamlet’–as Jonson says–became the target of ‘railing rhetoric,’ the latter took sides with Florio and his colleagues; launching out against Shakspere in his comedy, ‘Volpone.’ This play, as well as an Introduction in which it is dedicated to the two Universities, gives us a clue to a great many things otherwise difficult to understand.

A new book, especially a philosophical work like that of Michel Montaigne, was then still a remarkable event. [36] To counteract the pernicious influence which the frivolous, foreign talker threatened to exercise, in large circles, through an English translation–this, in our opinion, was the object which Shakspere had when touching upon ground interdicted, as a rule, to the stage–namely, upon questions of religion. We shall find that it was not through any preference for ghost and murder scenes that, a year after the second quarto, in 1605, ‘Hamlet’ was reprinted–a circumstance occurring with but one other drama of Shakspere; which testifies that this particular play attained great popularity from its first appearance. [37]

A very instructive insight into the intellectual movement of the great Reformation epoch here opens itself to us. In this case, also, we shall gain the conviction that a true genius takes the liveliest interest in the fate of his own nation, and does not occupy himself with distant, abstruse problems (such as fussy metaphysicians would fain philosophise into ‘Hamlet’), whilst the times are going out of joint. The greatest Englishman remained, in the most powerful drama of his, within the sphere of the questions that agitated his time. In ‘Hamlet’ he identifies Montaigne’s philosophy with madness; branding it as a pernicious one, as contrary to the intellectual conquests his own English nation has made, when breaking with the Romanist dogmas.

What sense of duty do Montaigne’s Essays promote? What noble deed can ripen in the light of the disordered and discordant ideas they contain? All they can do is, to disturb the mind, not to clear it; to give rise to doubts, not to solve them; to nip the buds from which great actions may spring, not to develop them. Instead of furthering the love for mankind, they can only produce despair as to all higher aims and ideals.

In ‘Hamlet,’ Shakspere personified many qualities of the complex character of Montaigne. Before all, he meant to draw this conclusion: that whoever approaches a high task of life with such wavering thoughts and such logical inconsistencies, must needs suffer shipwreck. Hamlet’s character has only remained an enigma to us for so long a time because he is flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood; ‘but, to knew a man well, were to know himself.’

1: Essay III. 9.

2: Essay III. 12, 235.

3: _Ibid_. 9.

4: Essay III. 13 (_Edition Variorum_, par Charles Louandre, Paris; which we always refer to).

5: The _Essayes, or Morall, Politike, and Millitarie Discourses_ of Lo. Michaell de Montaigne, London, 1603, p. 256.

6: Sainte-Beuve.

7: Essay II. 17, p. 71.

8: III. 2, 330.

9: Essay I. 26, 257.

10: II. 12, 487-8.

11: Montaigne, _Discours de Raison_ (Discourse of Reason). Florio, 252.

12: Essay II. 12, 297. Florio, 266.

13: Part of an inscription still legible in Montaigne’s castle.

14: Essay II. 12.

15: III. 9.

16: I. 26.

17: Essay III. 1

18: II. 11.

19: III. 1.

20: III. 13.

21: Essay III. 13.

22: II. 12.

23: I. 11.

24: III. 9.

25: _Ibid_.

26: II. 12.

27: Essay III. 10.

28: _Ibid_. 12.

29. Florio, 575.

30: Essay III. 9.

31: III. 13.

32: Essay II. 12.

33: III. 13.

34: _Observations on an Autograph of Shakspere_. London, 1838.

35: This is the passage, which occurs in the _Tempest_, act ii. sc. I:

‘_Gonzalo_.–I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries Execute all things: for no kind of traffic Would I admit; no name of magistrate: Letters should not be known; riches, poverty, And use of service, none; contract, succession, Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none; No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil; No occupation: all men idle, all;
And women too.’

This passage is almost literally taken from Essay I. 30, ‘On Cannibals.’ We shall later on show Shakspere’s reason for giving us this fanciful description of such an Utopian commonwealth.

36: Florio, after enumerating the difficulties he encountered in the translation of the _Essays_, concludes his preface to the courteous reader with the following words:–

‘In summe, if any think he could do better, let him trie, then will he better think of what is done. Seven or eight of great wit and worth have assayed, but found those Essais no attempt for French apprentises or Littletonians. If thus done it may please you, as I wish it may and I hope it shall, and I with you shall be pleased: though not, yet still I am.’

We learn, from this remark, of what great importance the _Essais_ must have been considered in literary circles, and it is not improbable that a few attempts ‘of the seven or eight of great wit and worth’ may have appeared in print long before Florio’s translation. We may well ask: Is it likely that the greatest literary genius of his age should have been unaware of the existence of a work which was considered of such importance that ‘seven or eight of great wit and worth’ thought it worth while to attempt to translate it? Shakspere, who in _King Henry the Fifth_ (1599) wrote some scenes in French, must surely have had sufficient knowledge of this language to read it.

37: Besides the quartos of 1603 and 1604, thee were reprints of the latter in 1605 and 1611; also another edition without date.



In the foregoing sketch of Montaigne our especial object was to point out the inconsistency of the French writer in advising us to follow Nature as our guide, yet at the same time maintaining a strict adherence to tenets and dogmas which qualify the impulses and inclinations of nature as sinful, and which even declare war against them.

Let us see how Shakspere incarnates these contrasts in the character of Hamlet.

He makes the Danish Prince come back from the University of Wittenberg. There, we certainly may assume, he has become imbued with the new spirit that then shook the world. We refrain from mentioning it by name, because the designation we now confer upon it has become a lifeless word, comprising no longer those free thoughts of the Humanist, for which Shakspere, in this powerful tragedy, boldly enters the lists.

Hamlet longs to be back to Wittenberg. This desire represents his inclination towards free, humanistic studies. On the other hand, his adherence to old dogmatic views can be deduced from the fact of his being so terribly impressed by the circumstance of his father having had to die

Unhousel’d, disappointed, unaneled;

a fact recorded with a threefold outcry:–

Oh, horrible! Oh, horrible! most horrible!

Again, we must direct the reader’s attention to this very noteworthy point, that the first quarto edition of ‘Hamlet’ was already worked out tolerably well as far as the middle of the second act. For the completion of this part, only a few details were necessary. From them, we must all the more be enabled to gather Shakspere’s intention.

In the speech of the Ghost in the second quarto–otherwise of well-nigh identical contents with the one in the first edition–there is only one new line, but one which deserves the closest consideration. It is that which we have quoted–

Unhousel’d, disappointed, unaneled.

The effect this statement has on the course of the dramatic action we shall explain later on. In act iii. sc. 3, where Hamlet’s energy is paralysed by this disclosure of the Ghost, we afterwards again come upon a short innovation, and a most characteristic one, though but consisting of two lines.

In the first quarto we see Hamlet, in the beginning of the play, seized with an unmanly grief which makes him wish that heaven and earth would change back into chaos. But a new addition to this weariness of life is the contempt of all earthly aspirations: the aversion to Nature as the begetter of sin. The following passages are not to be found in the first quarto:–

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! Ah fie! ‘t is an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely.

The scene between Hamlet and Horatio (act i. sc. 4), which in both texts is about the same, contains an innovation in which the Prince’s mistrust of nature is even more sharply expressed. These lines are new:–

This heavy-headed revel east and west Makes us traduced and tax’d of other nations–

as far as–

… The dram of eale (evil)
Doth (drawth) all the substance of a doubt To his own scandal.

The contents of this interpolated speech may concisely be thus given: that the virtues of man, however pure and numerous they may be, are often infected by ‘some vicious mole of Nature,’ wherein he himself is guiltless; and that from such a fault in the chance of birth a stamp of defect is impressed upon his character, and thus contaminates the whole.

These innovations are evidently introduced for the purpose of making us understand why Hamlet does not trust to the excitements of his own reason and his own blood, in order to find out by natural means whether it be true what his ‘prophetic soul’ anticipates–namely, that his uncle may ‘smile and smile, and yet be a villain.’

Man, says Montaigne, has no hold-fast, no firm and fixed point, within himself, in spite of his apparently splendid outfit. [1]

Man can do nothing with his own weapons alone without help from outside. In the Essay ‘On the Folly of Referring the True and the False to the Trustworthiness of our Judgment,’ [2] he maintains that ‘it is a silly presumption to go about despising and condemning as false that which does not seem probable to us; which is a common fault of those who think they have more self-sufficiency than the vulgar. So was I formerly minded; and if I heard anybody speak either of ghosts coming back, or of the prophecy of coming things, of spells, of witchcraft, or of any other tale I could not digest–

Somnia, terrores magicos, miracula, sagas, Nocturnos lemures, portentaque Thessala–

I felt a kind of compassion for the poor people who were made the victims of such follies. And now I find that I was, at least, to be as much pitied myself…. Reason has taught me that, so resolutely to condemn a thing as false and impossible, is to boldly assume that we have in our head the bounds and limits of the will of God and of our common mother, Nature; and I now see that there is no more notable folly in the world than to reduce them to the measure of our capacity and of our self-sufficient judgment.’ [3]

Not less weak than Montaigne’s trust in human reason is that of Hamlet when he fears ‘the pales and forts of reason’ may be broken down–

by the o’ergrowth of some complexion.

With such a mode of thought it is not to be wondered at that he should welcome the first occasion when the task of his life may be revealed to him by a heavenly messenger. Hoping that ‘the questionable shape’ would not let him ‘burst in ignorance,’ but tell him why ‘we fools of Nature so horridly shake our disposition with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls,’ he follows the spectral apparition. Good Horatio does his best to restrain his friend, who has waxed ‘desperate with imagination,’ from approaching the ‘removed ground,’ that might deprive him of the ‘sovereignity of reason,’ and whither the Ghost beckons him.

Here there are several new lines:–

Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff…. The very place puts toys of desperation, Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea, And hears it roar beneath.

Here we have one of those incipient ecstasies of which Montaigne says that ‘such transcending humours affright me as much as _steep, high, and inaccessible places_.’ [4]

In the following scene between Hamlet and the Ghost the introduction is new:–

_Ghost_. My hour is almost come,
When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames Must render up myself.
_Hamlet_. Alas, poor ghost!
_Ghost_. Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing To what I shall unfold.
_Hamlet_. Speak; I am bound to hear. _Ghost_. So art thou to revenge, when thou shall hear.

This picturing of the torments of hell–how very characteristic! It is forbidden to the Ghost to communicate to ‘ears of flesh and blood’ the secrets of its fiery prison-house. Yet it knows how to tell enough of the horrors of that gruesome place to make the hair of a stronger mortal than Hamlet is, stand on end, ‘like quills upon the fretful porcupine.’

With masterly hand, the poet depicts the distance which henceforth separates Hamlet’s course of thought from that of his friends who have remained on the firm ground of human reason. Hamlet cannot say more than–

that there’s ne’er a villain dwelling in all Denmark But he’s an arrant knave.

When Horatio answers that ‘there needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave to tell us this,’ [5] Hamlet asks his friends to shake hands with him and part, giving them to understand that every man has his own business and desire, and that–

for my own poor part,
Look you, I’ll go pray.

Horatio calls this ‘wild and whirling words.’ The Prince who at this moment, no doubt, expresses his own true inclination, says:–‘I am sorry they offend you–heartily; yes, ‘faith, heartily.’ It is difficult for him to justify his own procedure. He feels unable to explain his thoughts and sentiments to the clear, unwarped reason of a Horatio, to whom the Ghost did not reply, and to whom no ghost would.

Hamlet assures his friend, for whose sympathy he greatly cares, that the apparition is a true one, an honest ghost. He advises Horatio to give the ‘wondrous strange’ a welcome even as to ‘a stranger;’ and, lest he might endeavour to test the apparition by human reason, he speaks the beautiful words:–

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy

Hamlet tells his friends that in future he will put on ‘an antic disposition.’ Towards them he has, in fact, already done so. His desire for a threefold oath; his repeated shifting of ground; his swearing by the sword on which the hands are laid (a custom referable to the time of the Crusades, and considered tantamount to swearing by the cross, but which, at the same time, is an older Germanic, and hence Danish, custom); his use of a Latin formula, _Hic et ubique_–all these procedures have the evident object of throwing his comrades into a mystic frame of mind, and to make them keep silence (‘so help you mercy!’) as to what they have seen. These are the mysterious means which those have to use that would make themselves the medium of a message supernaturally revealed. [5]

A perusal of the fifty-sixth chapter of the first Essay of Montaigne will show with what great reverence he treated ceremonial customs and hollow formulas; for instance, the sign of the cross, of which he ‘continually made use, even if he be but yawning’ (_sic_). It is not a mere coincidence, but a well-calculated trait in the character of Hamlet, that in his speech he goes through a scale of exclamations and asseverations such as Shakspere employs in no other of his poetical creations. Hamlet incessantly mentions God, Heaven, Hell, and the Devil, the Heavenly Hosts, and the Saints. He claims protection from the latter at the appearance of the Ghost. He swears ‘by St. Patrick,’ by his faith, by God’s wounds, by His blood, by His body, by the Cross, and so forth. [6]

Stubbs, in his ‘Anatomy of Abuses’ (1583), [7] lays stress, among other characteristics of the Papists, upon their terrible inclination to swearing: ‘in so muche, as if they speake but three or fower words, yet must thei needes be interlaced with a bloudie othe or two, to the great dishonour of God and offence of the hearers.’

An overwhelming grief and mistrust in his own nature filled Hamlet’s bold imagination with the desire of receiving a complete mandate for his mission from the hands of superior powers. So he enters the realm of mysticism, where mind wields no authority, and where no sound fruit of human reason can ripen.

Between the first and the second act there is an interval of a few months. The poet gives us no other clue to the condition and the doings of his hero than that, in the words of Polonius, [8] he ‘fell into sadness; then into a fast; thence to a watch; thence into a weakness,’ and so forth. We may therefore assume that he has followed his inclination to go to pray; that he tries by fasting, watching, and chastising, as so many before him, to find his way in the dreamland which he has entered following the Ghost; sincerely striving to remain true to his resolution to ‘wipe from the table of his memory all pressures past.’

A new passage in the monologue of Hamlet, after the Ghost has left him, is this:–

And thy commandment all alone shall live Within the book and volume of my brain, Unmix’d with baser matter; yes, by Heaven! O most pernicious woman!

We next hear about the Prince from Ophelia after the interval which, as mentioned above, lies between the first and the second act. [9] In the old play she relates that, when ‘walking in the gallery all alone,’ he, the lover, came towards her, altogether ‘bereft of his wits.’ In the scene of the later play he comes to her closet with a purpose, appearing before her in a state of mental struggle. No doubt, he then approaches her with the intention, which afterwards he carries out, of renouncing woman, the begetter of all evil in the world, which makes such monsters of wise men. The sight of his true love has shaken him. He stands before her: [10]

… with a look so piteous in purport As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors…
And thrice his head thus waving up and down, He raised a sigh so piteous and profound As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being.

Thus he leaves her, not daring to speak the word which is to separate him from her.

In the following scene between Hamlet and Polonius (act ii. sc. 2 [11]) there is again a new passage which equally proves that Hamlet’s thoughts only dwell upon one theme; that is, the sinfulness of our human nature:–

_Hamlet_. For if the sun breed maggots in a dead dog, being a god, kissing carrion–Have you a daughter? _Polonius_. I have, my lord.
_Hamlet_. Let her not walk i’ the sun. Conception is a blessing; but not as your daughter may conceive:–friend, look to’t.

Hamlet said before, that ‘To be honest, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.’ There is method in Hamlet’s madness. With correct logic he draws from dogmas which pronounce Nature to be sinful, the conclusion that we need not wonder at the abounding of evil in this world, seeing that a God himself assists in creating it. He, therefore, warns Polonius against his daughter, too, becoming ‘a breeder of sinners.’

Before we follow Hamlet now to the scene with Ophelia, where, ‘in an ecstasy of divine inspiration, equally weak in reason, and violent in persuasion and dissuasion,’ [12] he calls upon her to go to a nunnery, we must direct attention to the concluding part of an Essay [13] of Montaigne. It is only surprising that nobody should as yet have pointed out how unmistakeably, in that famous scene, the inconsistencies of the whimsical French writer are scourged. In that Essay the following thought occurs, which one would gladly accept as a correct one: ‘Falsely do we judge the _honesty_ and the _beauty_ of an action from its usefulness. Equally wrong it is to conclude that everyone is bound to do the same, and that it is an honest action for everybody, if it be a useful one.’

Now, Montaigne endeavours to apply this thought to the institution of marriage; and he descends, in doing so, to the following irrational argument:–‘Let us select the most necessary and most useful institution of human society: _it is marriage_. Yet the counsel of the saints deems the contrary side to be more _honest_; thus excluding the most venerable vocation of men.’