Page images
PDF
EPUB

even with the hilarity of sportive simplicity; an interchange which serves but to render the returning storm more deep and gloomy.

Thus is it with Hamlet in those parts of this inimitable tragedy in which we behold him suddenly deviating into mirth and jocularity; they are scintillations which only light us

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

for no where do we perceive the depth of his affliction and the energy of his sufferings more distinctly than when under these convulsive efforts to shake off the incumbent load.

Of that infirmity of purpose which distinguishes Hamlet during the pursuit of his revenge, and of that exquisite self-deceit by which he endeavours to disguise his own motives from himself, no clearer instance can be given, than from the scene where he declines destroying the usurper because he was in the act of prayer, and might therefore go to heaven, deferring his death to a period when, being in liquor or in anger, he was thoroughly ripe for perdition; an enormity of sentiment and design totally abhorrent to the real character of Hamlet, which was radically amiable, gentle, and compassionate, but affording a striking proof of that hypocrisy which, owing to the untowardness of his fate, he was constantly exercising on himself. Struck with the symptoms of repentance in Claudius, his resentment becomes softened; and at all times unwilling, from the tenderness of his nature, and the acuteness of his sensibility, to fulfil his supposed duty, and execute retributive justice on his uncle, he endeavours to find some excuse for his conscious want of resolution, some pretext, however far-fetched or discordant with the genuine motive, to shield him from his own weakness.

One remarkable effect of this perpetual contest in the bosom of Hamlet between a sense of the duty, enjoined as it were by heaven, and his aversion to the means which could alone secure its accom

* Paradise Lost, book i. 1. 64.

plishment, has been to throw an interest around him of the most powerful and exciting nature. It is an interest not arising from extrinsic causes, from any anxiety as to the completion of the meditated vengeance, or from the intervention of any casual incidents which may tend to hasten or retard the catastrophe, but exclusively springing from our attachment to the person of Hamlet. We contemplate with a mixture of admiration and compassion the very virtues of Hamlet becoming the bane of his earthly peace, virtues which, in the tranquillity either of public or private life, would have crowned him with love and honour, serving but, in the tempest which assails him, to wreck his hopes, and accelerate his destruction. In fact, the very doubts and irresolution of Hamlet endear him to our hearts, and at the same time condense around him an almost breathless anxiety, for, while we confess them to be the offspring of all that is lovely, gentle, and kind, we cannot but perceive their fatal tendency, and we shudder at the probable event.

It is thus that the character of Hamlet, notwithstanding the veil of meditative abstraction which the genius of philosophic melancholy has thrown over it, possesses a species of enchantment for all ranks and classes. Its popularity, indeed, appears to have been immediate and great, for, in 1604, Anthony Scoloker, in a dedication to his poem, entitled " entitled "Daiphantus," tells us, that his "epistle" should be "like friendly Shake-speare's tragedies, where the commedian rides, when the tragedian stands on tiptoe: Faith it should please all, like prince Hamlet." *

We should bear in mind, however, that the favour of the public must, in part, have been attached to this play through the vast variety of incident and characters which it unfolds, from its rapid interchange of solemnity, pathos, and humour, and more particularly from the awful, yet grateful terror which the shade of buried Denmark diffuses over the scene.

* Vide Douce's Illustrations of Shakspeare, vol. ii. p. 265.

That a belief in Spiritual Agency has been universally and strongly impressed on the mind of man from the earliest ages of the world, must be evident to every one who peruses the writings of the Old Testament. It is equally clear that, with little but exterior modification, this doctrine has passed from the East into Europe, flowing through Greece and Rome to modern times. It is necessary, however, to a just comprehension of the subject, that it be distinctly separated into two branches,—into the Agency of Angelic Spirits, and into the Agency of the Spirits of the Departed, as these will be found dissimilar bases.

to rest on very

To the Agency of Angelic Spirits, both good and bad, and to their operation on, and influence over the intellect and affairs of men, the records of our religion bear the most direct and indubitable testimony; nor is it possible to disjoin a full admission of this intercourse from any faith in its Scriptures, whether Jewish or Christian. "That the holy angels," observes Bishop Horsley, "are often employed by God in his government of this sublunary world, is indeed clearly to be proved by holy writ: that they have powers over the matter of the universe analogous to the powers over it which men possess, greater in extent, but still limited, is a thing which might reasonably be supposed, if it were not declared: but it seems to be confirmed by many passages of holy writ, from which it seems also evident that they are occasionally, for certain specific purposes, commissioned to exercise those powers to a prescribed extent. That the evil angels possessed, before the Fall, the like powers, which they are still occasionally permitted to exercise for the punishment of wicked nations, seems also evident. That they have a power over material universe), which they

the human sensory (which is part of the are occasionally permitted to exercise, by means of which they may inflict diseases, suggest evil thoughts, and be the instruments of temptations, must also be admitted.” *

* Sermons, vol. ii. p. 369.

Of a doctrine so consolatory as the ministration and guardianship of benevolent spirits, one of the most striking instances is afforded us by the Book of Job, perhaps the most ancient composition in existence; it is where Elihu, describing the sick man on his bed, declares, that

"As his soul draweth near to the Grave,
And his life to the Ministers of Death,
Surely will there be over him an Angel,
An Intercessor, one of The Thousand,

Who shall instruct the Sufferer in his duty;"

and from the same source was the awful but monitory vision described in the fourth chapter of this sublime poem.

Subsequent poets have embraced with avidity a system so friendly to man, and so delightful to an ardent and devotional imagination. Thus Hesiod, repeating the oriental tradition, seems happy in augmenting the number of our heavenly protectors to thirty thousand, Τρὶς γὰρ μύριοι :

"Invisible the Gods are ever nigh,

Pass through the midst and bend th' all-seeing eye:
The men who grind the poor, who wrest the right,
Awless of Heaven's revenge, are naked to their sight.
For thrice ten thousand holy Demons rove

This breathing world, the delegates of Jove.
Guardians of man, their glance alike surveys,

The upright judgments, and th' unrighteous ways."

ELTON.

But, next to the sacred writers, and more immediately derived from their inspiration, has this heavenly superintendance been best described by two of our own poets: by Spenser with his customary piety, sweetness, and simplicity:

"And is there care in heaven? and is there love

In heavenly spirits to these creatures baçe,

That may compassion of their evils move?

There is: else much more wretched were the cace

* Vide Good's Translation of Job, part v. chap. 33. ver. 22, 23.—I have ventured to alter the language, though I have strictly adhered to the import of the last line. Ministers of Death have also been substituted for Destinies.

Of men than beasts: But O! th' exceeding grace
Of Highest God that loves his creatures so,
And all his workes with mercy doth embrace,
That blessed Angels he sends to and fro,
To serve to wicked man, to serve his wicked foe!

How oft do they their silver bowers leave
To come to succour us that succour want!
How oft do they with golden pineons cleave
The flitting skyes, like flying pursuivant,
Against fowle feends to ayd us militant!

They for us fight, they watch and dewly ward,

And their bright squadrons round about us plant;

And all for love and nothing for reward:

O, why should Hevenly God to men have such regard ;" *

by Milton, in a strain of greater sublimity, and with more philosophic dignity and grace : —

"Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth

Unseen, both when we wake, and when we sleep:
All these with ceaseless praise his works behold
Both day and night: How often from the steep
Of echoing hill or thicket have we heard
Celestial voices to the midnight air,
Sole, or responsive each to others note,
Singing their great Creator? oft in bands

While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk,

With heavenly touch of instrumental sounds

In full harmonick number join'd, their songs

Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to Heaven." +

But mankind, not satisfied with this angelic interposition, though founded on indisputable authority, and exercised on their behalf, has, in every age and nation, fondly clung to the idea, that the souls or

* Vide Todd's Spenser, vol. iv. pp. 1, 2, 3. Faerie Queene, book ii. canto 8. stanz.

1 and 2.

it

+ Todd's Milton, vol. iii. pp. 138, 139. Paradise Lost, book iv. 1. 677.-Shakspeare, may be remarked, occasionally alludes to the same species of spiritual hierarchy, and, in the very play we are engaged upon, Laertes says

VOL. II.

"A minist'ring angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling."

3 F

Act. v. sc. 1.

« PreviousContinue »