Page images

If this be not the end of the Ghost's appearance to Horatio and the soldiers, what is ? For it might just as well have appeared at first to Hamlet himself, as far as its share in the action of the drama is concerned. To Hamlet himself the Ghost is unreal enough in his more reflecting moods. He alludes to the vision as a bad dream :'he suspects that it may be a temptation of the devil, taking advantage of his weakness and melancholy: he contemplates and speaks of death as the entrance to

The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns : '

he subsequently says to himself of his father's state,

How his audit stands, who knows, save heaven:
But in our circumstance and course of thought,

'Tis heavy with him :'so that he does not recognize the Ghost's statements on this point as matter-of-fact information, but only as his own course of thought upon the subject. And in all his many profound and varied speculations upon man, and man's relations to God and to the world, as illustrated by his own melancholy lot, there is not a trace of his reason being either disturbed or interested by the questions which such a vision must have suggested to him, had that vision been real to his reason. Yet to his senses, to his mind in its immediate relation to his senses, it is real enough, and drives him to the verge of madness-or rather meets him on that verge, when his own morbid thoughts and feelings, first mastering his reason, have led him thither. The mind of the man who has seen a ghost—that is, who has brooded over his own thoughts and feelings till they come back upon him in spectral reality-is in a hazardous state. It totters and reels, it sways from side to side like a tree in a storm, and, each time that it overpasses the line of healthy equipoise, there is danger that the still remaining inherent elasticity and conservative force may be insufficient to recover it. Such is Hamlet's state immediately after he has seen his father's ghost. His head is, as he says, distracted: his words are “wild and hurling :' he tries to relieve his overstrained mind by passing from the terrific to the ludicrous; taking out his note-book to make a memorandum that 'a man may smile, and smile, and be a villain, at least in Denmark;' answering his friend's with a falconer's hillo; and interrupting the solemnity of swearing secrecy with jokes at the fellow in the cellarage,' and the old mole that works i' the ground so fast.' On which Coleridge remarks—A sort of cunning bravado . . he plays that


subtle trick of pretending to act only, when he is very near really being what he acts.

This seems to have been the reading of Ducis, who adapted' Hamlet for the French stage ; of Talma, the great French tragedian who acted the part; and of Madame de Staël, who describes the acting. The ghost is not visible: Hamlet is heard behind the scenes crying out

Fuis, spectre épouvantable,

Port au fond du tombeau ton aspect redoutable:' he enters precipitately, and as if pursued by a phantom, exclaiming

· Et quoi ! Vous ne le voyez pas ?' and he then repeats what the Ghost had said to him. And Madame de Staël thus describes Talma's acting :

• In the French Play the spectators do not see the ghost of Hamlet's father. The apparition shows itself wholly in the expression of Talma's face; and certainly it is not thus less fearful. When, in the midst of a calm and melancholy conversation, he all at once sees the spectre, we follow all its movements in the eyes which look upon it, and it is impossible to doubt the presence of the phantom when such a look bears witness to it.' *

The devilish superstition under which hundreds of miserable old women were tortured and burnt alive, and to which even such men as Sir Matthew Hale, Sir Thomas Browne, and the pious fathers and governors of New England, gave themselves, and which raged through the seventeenth century, took that, its worst, shape from the Treatise and the Statute of James I., and the Puritan doctrine that the Jewish code which declared, • Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,' was a part of the law of the land. Till then, the belief in witchcraft was, no doubt, universal, but men looked on it much as they did on countless unexplained powers of nature which were regarded with childish awe, rather than as something of special wickedness. Wizards and witches were punished either as heretics, or for designing or inflicting criminal injuries on man or beasts as they were for any other crime. There is no reason for doubting that Shakespeare, like other people in his own day, held the ordinary beliefs on this subject, as on that of Ghosts. In the Plays of Henry VI. he shows this witchcraft in its vulgar forms: in that of Macbeth he connects it with the old Northern legends of those primeval powers of nature, the Norns,

*.De l'Allemagne, Deuxième Partie, chap. 27.


or Fates of Scandinavian mythology, and shows it in its twofold aspect.

There is a controversy, which must remain unsettled as there is no sufficient evidence either


whether Shakespeare ennobled the witches of Middleton, or Middleton made vulgar the weird sisters of Shakespeare. What we do know is, that Shakespeare found the outline sketches of these beings, as well as those of Macbeth and Duncan, in the prosaic chronicle of Holinshed; and that he endowed them all with poetic life and substance. And we have to ask again, Are these creations true to nature, if we look at them with the eyes of Macbeth, as we tried to see the Ghost with Hamlet's eyes?

The Play of Macbeth, in which the poet takes us back into the legendary time of Scottish history, is eminently a drama, or Action, in which man's free will strives with his circumstances, his fate or destiny, for the mastery. In some dramas this conflict declares itself in the course of the action : in that of Macbeth it is declared at the beginning. In the opening scene, which strikes the key-note of the Play, the poet represents to us, in the visible shape of the Weird Sisters, those mysterious and terrible powers of nature which prove wholly evil to the man who becomes their slave instead of their master. Like the adversary of Job, who came from going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it, they come, posting over sea and land, through the thunder, wind, and rain, which seem their proper elements, to meet with Macbeth. What their errand is with him they do not say; but we feel that it is for evil, and that like their counterparts, the Norns of Northern legend, they hold his destiny, past, present, and to come. the second scene Macbeth is described as the noble and worthy inan be as yet seems to be; and in the next scene we see him contending with, yet more and more giving way to, the guilty dreams of his ambition, while the tempters, who reflect back his own thoughts, are shown to the spectators, though not yet to him, as the vulgar witches of popular superstition, fit representatives of the degradation into which they will bring him, if he accepts their offers of worldly honours.

Macbeth is a powerful chieftain and able soldier, high in the esteem and favour of Duncan, an amiable and gentle king, who depends much on Macbeth for putting down insurrection at home, and resisting foreign invasion. He has hitherto been loyal to the king who so loves and honours him: but his ambition outstrips his rightful honours ; successive steps seem to be leading him to the throne; possibilities become hopes ; and he broods over these, questioning with himself and with his wife, who not only shares but spurs his ambition, whether



he shall realize these hopes by murdering the king, or leave them to chance. He is not without scruples of conscience while thinking of the deed, nor incapable of remorse when it has been done; and he might have still hesitated, if the king's announcement of his intention to declare his own son his successor had not seemed to compel a decision. Macbeth is a successful general ; and it is said that such men have usually some superstitious belief in a more than ordinary destiny for themselves—possibly from some unconscious sense of the awful power with which they order the will of a host of men like themselves, and so perhaps decide the fate of nations. Macbeth, too, is a Scot, and belongs to the land where the belief in the second sight of the seer has always been specially strong. Sir Walter Scott, in his · Demonology and Witchcraft,' does not allude specially to this second sight, while pronouncing all pretensions to preternatural knowledge to be delusions or impostures. Yet his Meg Merrilies and Allan M-Aulay must have been drawn from life; and though their feeble predictions, like those of all other such seers, fail to suggest the possession of supernatural powers, yet (as we have remarked in the case of ghosts) they suggest to the really impartial sceptic the question whether such second sight may not have been in part a real effect of the operation of some hitherto unknown laws of the human mind.

It is not certain that Macbeth was so unacquainted with the treachery of Cawdor, or of the consequent possibility that he might get that thaneship for himself, as his words to the witches and to Angus seem to imply. The king had received successive posts “thick as hail’ from the seat of war; and the Sergeant told how Macbeth had defeated the rebels, killing their leader, Macdonald, with his own hand, and had then successfully met the onslaught of the King of Norway. Rosse follows and farther reports that Norway had been compelled to 'crave composition after his defeat,' and also that he had been assisted in his enterprise by that disloyal traitor the thane of Cawdor. And Angus, who does not appear till the next scene, would seem in the interval to have brought farther particulars as to Cawdor's treason, which was .confessed and proved,' though whether he had secretly supported both the rebels and Norway, or only one of them, was still unknown to him. And Macbeth, fully occupied in the actual battles in which he was fighting, may have had no certain knowledge of these hidden doings of Cawdor, but yet a suspicion which he very naturally tries to get verified by affecting an ignorance which will call forth farther explanations. If he did know this, the promise of Cawdor's

thaneship thaneship by the Witches is the reflection of his own thoughts; if, with less probability, we take the suggestion as coming first from the Witches, we have the poet's dramatic recognition of that power of second sight in Scottish seers, and so of witches, of which we have just spoken. If we have carried our readers thus far with us, there will be no need for us to add more, as to the other predictions of the Witches : as to their being seen by Banquo, as the ghost of Hamlet's father was seen by Bernardo and Marcellus and Horatio: and as to the appearance to Macbeth of Banquo's ghost. The actual existence of persons claiming to be witches and seers brings in another element besides those we have to consider in reference to Shakespeare's ghosts : but this only affects the form of our argument, while the substance is the same. Let us now turn to the Fairies.

Chaucer, with his wonted humour, tells us in his Wife of Bath's Tale,' how the fairies had vanished from England, driven out, and their places taken, by the holy friars, whom he is never tired of making fun of. And if the Warwickshire peasant had told Shakespeare that they might still be seen, he would have said, with his own Romeo, Peace, peace, thou talk'st of nothing." Yet he saw how to use such dreams as matter for his art, and how to employ them, so as to be true to nature, and at the same time give to this airy nothing a local habitation and a name. This he has done in A Midsummer Night's Dream,' of which Play it has been truly said * that the name is the key to every scene and character. We have only to take the advice of Puck, and think that we did but slumber here, while these visions did appear.' Let us think but this, and we shall find that here, as ever, Shakespeare's was no “irregular genius,'no unbridled imagination, but that here, as always, that genius and imagination were working in accordance with the strict laws of reason, even when most they seem to wander at their own sweet will.'

It is a dream-a Midsummer night's dream-which Shakespeare is showing us, and as a dream it must be studied and understood in all its parts. And the exuberance of poetical fancy in every scene, and the rhythmical and musical tone of the verse, which give it more of the character of an opera than is found in any other of Shakespeare's Plays, are helps to lull us into the appropriate dreamy state required for perfect apprehension as well as enjoyment. The Play then is such stuff as dreams are made of Dreams are facts, phenomena of our

The original suggestion is Coleridge's. It has been worked out in detail by the present writer, in a dialogue on this play in · Frazer's Magazine' for December 1854, which we here follow,


« PreviousContinue »