THOMAS FRANCIS ROBERTS,
Principal of the University of the College of Wales
"Revered as a teacher, beloved as a friend,
and remembered as an inspiration."
"Ei fywyd yn fflam dros Addysg ei wlad.
I wish to thank my historical colleagues at Aberystwyth for the
sympathy and help they have given me during the writing of the following
essay: Mr Sidney Herbert for recommending books, Dr E. A. Lewis
for his invaluable assistance in directing me to State Papers
and many other contemporary documents, and especially to Professor
Stanley Roberts for reading my proofs, for giving me much information
on Elizabethan history, and for his unfailing kindness in discussion
THE UNIVERSITY COLLEGE OF WALES,
ABERYSTWYTH, November 1920
IT is the purpose of the following essay to study the play of Hamlet
from a somewhat fresh point of view by endeavouring to show its relation
or possible relation to contemporary history.
My attempt throughout has been to regard the play as it naturally would
be regarded by an Elizabethan audience, for it seems to me that this
particular angle of vision has hitherto been too little considered in
our current criticism. We have not sufficiently realised, I think, that
to consider the Elizabethan audience is our least indirect method of
approach to Shakespeare himself. A dramatic poet cannot possibly ignore
the mentality of his audience; an epic poet may, if he pleases, write,
as we know Milton actually did write, for posterity and for an audience
"fit though few"; but a dramatic poet who does genuinely produce
his plays before a popular audience cannot possibly do anything of the
kind. The mentality of his audience provides him with at least half
of his material. It is through that mentality that his plays must be
reviewed and considered; it is to that mentality they must all appeal.
If the dramatic poet wishes to discuss problems his task is immensely
facilitated by selecting problems in which his audience are already
interested; if he wishes to awaken feelings of terror and pathos, as
every true dramatist must, his task is immensely facilitated if he appeals
to associations already existing in their minds.
The mentality of his audience everywhere shapes and conditions his
work as certainly as the work of a sculptor is shaped by the architecture
and purpose of the building in which it stands. The sculpture of the
Parthenon is not more certainly adapted to the purpose of the Parthenon
than are the plays of a true dramatist to the mentality of his audience.
Now, in the case of Shakespeare, the mentality of the audience is doubly
important, because there is no direct method of approach. Shakespeare
himself has left no letters or prefaces which explain his work; his
contemporaries have left no criticisms; the notices we possess of his
plays are extremely meagre and most of them limited, like those of Forman,
to a mere reference to the subject of the play.
Neither can we judge Shakespeare completely by the effect produced
on our own minds; we, after all, are a remote posterity, and nothing
is more certain than that he did not write for us. We ourselves may
be quite adequate judges, of the purely aesthetic effect of the plays;
but, in order to understand them fully, it is surely necessary to ask
what their effect upon a contemporary audience would be likely to be
and what such an audience would probably think they meant.
The moment we attempt to place ourselves at the same angle of vision
as an Elizabethan audience we see many things in a different light;
many problems solve themselves quite simply; but, on the other hand,
many are suggested which do not occur to the modern reader, and which
nevertheless surely demand solution if we are to comprehend Shakespeare
fully and completely.
I propose to give illustrations of both types of problems, of those
which solve themselves and of those which suggest themselves.
Let us enquire, for instance, why Shakespeare selected the subject
of Macbeth? One reason is obvious. A Scottish king had recently succeeded
to the throne and the choice of a Scottish theme was, in itself, a compliment
to him. Then, again, Banquo was the ancestor of the Stuarts, and the
subject of the play enables Shakespeare to depict Banquo in a favourable
But is there any reason for the selection of Macbeth himself as a hero?
There is, I think, an exceedingly good one; but it only becomes evident
after a careful study of the ideas of the epoch.
Macbeth was the person who fulfilled the Merlin prophecies and, by
so doing, brought about the foundation of the British Empire. The Merlin
prophecies, as interpreted by the so-called Tudor bards, were to the
effect that the ancient British line should once again succeed to the
throne of England and that, when it did so succeed, the different British
kingdoms should be united under one crown and the ancient Arthurian
empire restored. Professor Gwynn Jones assures me that these Merlin
prophecies had an important political bearing in sixteenth-century Wales;
they certainly had in England, and they were celebrated by many poets,
notably Spenser, Drayton, and Ben Jonson.
Drayton's lines happen to be the most apposite for my purpose, so I
"the ancient British race
Shall come again to sit upon the sovereign place. . . .
By Tudor, with fair winds from little Britaine driven,
To whom the goodly bay of Milford shall be given;
As thy wise prophets, Wales, foretold his wish'd arrive
And how Lewellin's line in him should doubly thrive.
For from his issue sent to Albany before,
Where his neglected blood his virtue did restore
He first unto himself in fair succession gained
The Stewards nobler name; and afterwards attained
The royal Scottish wreath, upholding it in state.
This stem, to Tudors, joined . . .
Suppressing every Plant, shall spread itself so wide
As in his arms shall clip the Isle on every side,
By whom three severed realms in one shall firmly stand
As Britain-founding Brute first monarchised the Land."
[Drayton, Polyolbion, Song V.]
Selden's note on the above passage is: "About our Confessor's
time, Macbeth, King of Scotland (moved by prediction, affirming that
his line extinct, the posterity of Banquho, a noble thane of Loqhuabre,
should attain and continue the Scottish reign) and, jealous of others,
hopedfor greatness, murdered Banquho, but missed his design; for
one of the same posterity, Fleanch son to Banquho, privily fled to Gryffith
ap Llewelin (Drayton Polyolbion, Song V.), then Prince of Wales,
and was there kindly received. To him and Nesta, the Prince's daughter,
was issue one Walter. . . . The rest alludes to that: Cambria shall
be glad, Cornwall shall flourish, and the Isle shall be styled with
Brute's name and the name of strangers shall perish: as it is in Merlin's
We are now in a position to see what Macbeth really meant to the Elizabethans:
he was the man who fulfilled the Merlin prophecies, and he fulfilled
them by the very fact that he tried to evade them; when Fleance, the
son of the murdered Banquho, fled to Wales he intermarried with the
ancient British line and thus brought its blood to the throne of Scotland.
Now the Elizabethans always laid immense stress on this genealogy for
their monarchs; anyone who will refer to Camden's genealogy of the Tudors
will see that he derives their line from Brutus the Trojan, and the
Stuarts, as we have just seen from Drayton and Selden, were similarly
derived through Fleance the son of Banquho.
Now an Elizabethan audience would surely see in Macbeth the
same theme as in the lines quoted from Drayton. We have the enormous
stress laid on prophecy throughout the play, we have the question of
the succession prominent in Macbeth's mind, we have the murder of Banquho
and the flight of Fleance, we have the future shown to Macbeth with
the progeny of this Fleance succeeding, and we have the vision of the
unity of the British Isles in the procession of the kings who "twofold
balls and treble-sceptres carry" and whose lines "stretch
out to the crack of doom."
Macbeth has, then, the same theme as the passage already quoted
from Drayton; what they both deal with is the founding or, as they would
have put it, the restoration of the British Empire.
The main conception is exactly similar to those which occur in Greek
tragedy, where the very attempt to evade prophecy brings about its fulfilment,
and the theme is as intimately interwoven with British history in the
widest and truest sense of the term as any theme selected by a Greek
dramatist was interwoven with Greek history. It is difficult to imagine
any subject more appropriate to render before James I.; he was the destined
restorer of the ancient Arthurian empire, the man destined to unite
England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland all under the same crown, as long
ago prophesied by Merlin, and the play shows how the effort to avert
the succession from the line of Banquho led precisely to its fulfilment.
[See note A, Appendix.]
Or let me choose another illustration. Suppose we ask whether Shakespeare's
Denmark, as depicted in Hamlet, is a real country or not and,
if real, what country! Everyone will admit that Denmark makes a singularly
real and vivid impression upon the mind; it is as real, in the dramatic
sense, as any country we have ever known or heard of. But did Shakespeare
invent it as a background for his melancholy prince, or was he describing
any country he knew? It certainly is not the Denmark of his source;
the Denmark of Saxo Grammaticus is an almost entirely barbaric country,
savage and primitive to a degree; even the Hamlet, the hero of the primitive
story, cuts an enemy's body to pieces and boils it and outrages a woman,
and yet he is the best person in the whole piece. Is Shakespeare's Denmark,
then, an imaginary region created by himself?
Let us ask what an Elizabethan audience would have made of it. I do
not think there need be five minutes' delay about the answer to this
question. An Elizabethan audience would almost certainly have thought
Denmark a real country, and they would have believed it to be contemporary
The peculiar combination of circumstances and the peculiar type of
manners depicted in Shakespeare's Denmark are, in the highest degree,
distinctive and strange; but they can every one be paralleled in the
case of sixteenth-century Scotland.
Shakespeare's Denmark, to begin with, is a country where feudal anarchy
reigns; there is no settled law and order: the crown is seized by a
usurper and almost every principal personagethe elder Hamlet,
the younger Hamlet, Polonius, Claudius, the Queenends either by
a violent death or by assassination.
So also was Scotland a feudal anarchy. So also were the powers of the
crown in Scotland in continual danger of being seized by usurpers and
insurgents as in the case of the elder Bothwell and the younger Bothwell:
in Scotland also almost every monarch or prominent statesman did meet
either with a tragic and premature death, or with a death by assassination.
James V., Mary Queen of Scots, Darnley, Rizzio, Murraythese were
only the most prominent among a number of tragedies: assassination was,
indeed, the recognised method by which a great noble removed a rival.
Shakespeare has been blamed for the "holocaust of dead" in
Hamlet; but it is not one whit more remarkable than the mass
of assassinations in sixteenth-century Scottish history. The English
of Shakespeare's day had a bitter prejudice against Scotland, and very
largely on account of this anarchy.
Yet Shakespeare's Denmark is no mere barbaric country; it is distinguished
by its love of education, its philosophical depth, and its power of
thought and meditation. Of all Shakespeare's tragedies Hamlet
is admittedly the most philosophic and the most profound; this has no
parallel whatever in the original saga, but it has a parallel in contemporary
Knox and his body of reformers had already commenced that educational
revival which was to make Scotland one of the most admirably educated
countries in Europe their intellectual interests were largely of a philosophical
Now, it is the combination of these circumstances which is so
peculiar, which is indeed unique, and it is precisely this peculiar
combination which appears in Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Moreover, it should be noted that Shakespeare's Denmark is quite manifestly
a country where the Catholic faith and the Protestant exist side by
side; the ghost is certainly a Catholic, for he laments nothing more
than the fact that he was not allowed absolution at his death, that
"Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhousel'd, disappointed, unaneled,
No reckoning made but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head."
On the other hand, Hamlet is just as plainly a Protestant: he has been
a fellow-student with Horatio at Wittenberg, and it is to Wittenberg
he wishes to return. Now Wittenberg, on account of its connection with
Luther, was one of the most famous of Protestant Universities.
This peculiar combination is, once again, exactly paralleled in contemporary
Scotland; the queen's party were Catholics; her opponents were the Protestant
lords, and there was a specially close connection between Scotland and
German Protestant Universities. Knox himself once had a congregation
at Frankfort-on-the-Main, [Froude, Chap. X.] and there were many other
Scotch Protestants in different parts of Germany. "There was a
whole Scoto-German school, among whom the Wedderburns were predominant."
Again, Shakespeare's Denmark is a place where the king has been murdered
and his wife has married the murderer. This also happened in sixteenth-century
Scotland; Darnley is almost invariably alluded to in contemporary documents
(Buchanan's Oration and Detection, for instance), as the "king";
the "king" had been murdered, and his wife had married the
Shakespeare's Denmark also is a place where a councillor is murdered
in the presence of a queen, and his body disposed of "hugger-mugger"
fashion by a staircase. This, also, had happened in contemporary Scotland
in the case of Rizzio's murder.
I shall show later that in both these cases the resemblances between
the history and Shakespeare are much more close than any possible resemblances
with the saga source.
Moreover, Shakespeare's Denmark is a place where there is, apparently,
no army at the king's disposal, and where, when discontented nobles
desire the redress of grievances, they enter the palace at the head
of an armed band, and threaten the king's person, as happens with Laertes
and Claudius. This was positively the recognised method of conducting
an opposition in sixteenth-century Scotland. When a powerful subject
had a grievance, he did at once put himself at the head of an armed
band, and either threaten the person of the king or attempt to seize
upon the person of the king.
Then, again, there is the love of strong drink which is so marked a
feature in Shakespeare's Denmark, and the drunken carousals. This also
was characteristic of a certain conspicuous group in sixteenth-century
Scotland; Buchanan continually calls the elder Bothwell a drunken beast.
[Oration and Detection.]
Moreover, the resemblance extends even to the smallest details. Shakespeare's
Denmark shows both Italian and Danish names at court; so did contemporary
Scotland, there was a Guildenstern (like Shakespeare's), and a Francesco
(like Shakespeare's), the latter, being a friend of Rizzio's.
Now it seems to me that, with all these resemblances quite obvious
and on the surface, an Elizabethan audience would almost certainly assume
either that Shakespeare was deliberately depicting contemporary Scotland,
or, at the very least, that he was deliberately borrowing many of its
distinctive traits. The resemblances range from the most inclusive circumstances
to the smallest detailsthey embrace the peculiar combinations
of feudal anarchy and philosophy, of strong drink and of students at
German universities, and they even include a Danish Guildenstern and
an Italian Francesco.
And, further, is there anything strange in such a resemblance? Why
should not Shakespeare wish to depict sixteenth-century Scotland?
It was a country in which Shakespeare's audience were intensely interested:
it was the country which was just about to provide them with a king;
it was a country whose crown was to be intimately associated with theirs;
a study of its leading traits would be likely to interest Shakespeare's
audience more than any other subject which, at that particular date,
it would be possible for him to choose.
Another example may be chosen from The Merchant of Venice. It
is very generally admitted that Shakespeare's portrait of a Jew villain
is probably in part due to the great excitement caused by the trial
of a Jew, Roderigo Lopez, for the attempted murder of the queen and
Don Antonio: Lopez was executed in, 1594.
Shakespeare, in drawing the portrait of the Jew villain, was availing
himself of what was just then a strong popular excitement against the
Jews. So much is admitted! [See Boas, Shakespeare and His Predecessors.]
But surely the play suggests a good deal more. Antonio was a claimant
to the throne of Portugal and, as the rival claimant was Philip II.,
Antonio became, on this account, a very popular person with the majority
of the Elizabethans, who hated Philip and instinctively took the side
of anyone opposed to him. Antonio had come to London, bringing with
him exceedingly valuable jewels; his purpose was to pledge these with
the merchants of London, and so to procure the money for ships to fight
Philip of Spain. The Essex and Southampton partyShakespeare's
patronswere keenly in favour of a forward policy against Spain
and consequently in favour of Antonio. On the other hand, Elizabeth
and Burleigh desired peace; Antonio was allowed to pledge his jewels
but, on one pretext or another, he was prevented from getting his ships.
He was thus in the position of a ruined bankrupt, and popular feeling
ran high in his favour.
Essex started, on his own account, a system of espionage which was
deliberately intended to rival that of Burleigh. His spies discovered
evidence that there was a Spanish plot to poison the queen and Don Antonio
by using the physicianLopez, as an intermediary. Elizabeth, at
first, refused wholly to credit the existence of such a plot and blamed
Essex as a "rash and temerarious youth," for bringing accusations
against the innocent. Essex, however, persisted; fresh evidence was
procured, a public trial was ordered, and Lopez was condemned to death.
Still the queen delayed, and it was three months before she could be
induced to sign the death-warrant. Even then she exercised her prerogative
so far as to allow the family of Lopez to retain a considerable portion
of his wealth.
Lopez had professed himself a Christian.
As Naunton points out Elizabeth was regarded as a most merciful princess.
We may remember that one of Spenser's names for her was "Mercilla."
[Faerie Queene, Bk. V] Now this tendency to mercy seemed to the
public to have been exercised too far in the Lopez affair.
We might also observe that Don Antonio himself was partly Jewish; he
was the son of a Jewess who had become converted to Christianity.
Now, surely, we have here very remarkable parallels to Shakespeare's
We have Don Antonio who has been a very wealthy man but who has practically
become a bankrupt through losses incurred over his own ships; a Jew
forms a plot against his life and nearly succeeds, but it is discovered,
and the Jew punished.
So Shakespeare's hero is an Antonio; he also has been wealthy, but
is reduced, apparently, to bankruptcy by losses over his ships. So does
a Jew attempt his life; so is the plot frustrated.
We have Elizabeth, who will not believe in the guilt of the Jew, who
makes every attempt to show him mercy, who delays almost intolerably
over his trial, but who is compelled to give sentence in the end; we
have the fact that she was famous for mercy, and that one of her poetic
names was "Mercilla."
So Shakespeare gives us Portia, who will not believe in the guilt of
the Jew, who gives him every possible opportunity, who identifies herself
with mercy in the noblest of all poetic praises; but who is compelled,
finally, to give sentence.
We have in the play, just as in the history, the fact that the fine
upon the Jew's goods is remitted, and that they are allowed to pass
to his children. Moreover, in the life of Don Antonio, in the fact that
his mother was a Jewess who married a Christian, we have a parallel
to another most interesting episode in Shakespeare's play; that of Lorenzo
Is it not probable that Shakespeare selected his material and chose
his plot largely that his play might appeal to interests then paramount
in the minds of his audience?
Surely nothing can be more plausible?
We have even, in Bassanio, a parallel to the situation of Essex himself;
he is the friend of Antonio; he is the soldier, the man of noble birth
but without fortune, who quite frankly approaches Portia to "repair
his fortunes." So was Essex the friend of Don Antonio; so had Essex
hoped to profit by his ships, so was Essex a soldier, young and of noble
birth, but poor; so did he approach Elizabeth in the frank hope of mending
We also observe that, if Shakespeare be really drawing parallels with
history, many of the adverse criticisms on his play find at least their
Thus there is simply no point in sentimentalising over his cruelty
in compelling Shylock to become a Christian; the actual historic Jew
had professed Christianity and did profess it to the end. Neither need
we blame him for allowing Portia to drag out the trial scene so intolerably
and "get on the nerves" of the spectators; it was just precisely
this delay which had "got on the nerves" of the Elizabethan
public. Neither need we wonder that Shakespeare allows Portia to give
judgment in the Duke's own court: it was with Elizabeth that
the matter finally rested.
Is it not easy to see that Shakespeare has taken his literary source
and has dovetailed into it a great deal of history as well? [See note
Another incident I will select is from Henry IV, Part IIthe
famous incident of the repudiation of Falstaff.
In scene after scene throughout the plays we have seen Henry rejoicing
himself with the inimitable wit of Falstaff, treating him as his boon
companion, and as one of his most intimate friends; then, on his accession,
he repudiates him publicly and orders him to be haled off to prison,
for we hear the Chief Justice giving the order: "Go, carry Sir
John Falstaff to the Fleet." Is not this needlessly harsh and stern?
How often has this particular point been debated! Some of Shakespeare's
critics do accuse Henry of unnecessary harshness; a number of others
find a way out by protesting that it was essential for Henry to effect
a complete severance from Falstaff. Do they think Shakespeare's hero-king
such a moral weakling that he could not guard himself against the temptations
of "sack and sugar" except by putting the tempter in prison?
The truth is that the passage, as it stands, is a perpetual puzzle
to the modern reader who finds Falstaff a very fascinating personage,
sympathises with him, and is convinced that Henry, whatever grounds
he may have had for repudiating Falstaff, cannot have had any for imprisoning
The explanation, I take it, is again historic. The kinga of the house
of Lancaster had an exceedingly bad title in point of law; they won
the all-powerful support of the Church only by engaging in a perpetual
heresy-hunt; hence the many Lollard trials of the reign of Henry V.
Now we know that in the original version of the play, Falstaff was called
Oldcastle, and Sir John Oldcastle was the greatest of all Lollard leaders.
The fact of his imprisonment was simply a historic fact, and the audience
knew well enough the reasons for it; the historic Henry had strained
himself to the utmost in the effort to save his old friend from the
ire of enraged ecclesiastics, and, even when he was imprisoned, had
tried to persuade him to recant. How could the audience think Henry
severe when they knew that the true offence was a political one, and
that a continuance of the friendship on Henry's part would have brought
down the dynasty? Surely this sheds a different light on Henry?
It also throws light on other portions of the play. Falstaff repeatedly
claims a great reputation for military skill, a European reputation
in fact, for he says that he is "Sir John to all Europe."
Now a good many critics treat this as simple absurdity on his part,
but it is perfectly accurate; Oldcastle was acknowledged
as one of the greatest soldiers of his day. Whether Shakespeare meant
him to deserve his reputation or not is an entirely different
point, but he certainly possessed it. Canon Ainger has shown that a
great deal in the character of Falstaff can be explained by the fact
that the Elizabethan conception of him was that of a renegade Puritan,
and it is surely equally appropriate to remember that he had the reputation
of being a great soldier. That is the joke of the battle of Shrewsbury.
[Henry IV, Part 1.] That is precisely why he is able to claim,
with any hope of credence, that he killed Hotspur, and that is precisely
why Sir John Colevile of the Dale surrenders to his reputation only.
[Henry IV, Part II.]
In all these cases the historic method helps us, I think, very markedly
to understand the plays in question; on the other hand, we are bound
to admit that, if we study the peculiar point of view of the Elizabethan
mind, problems are often suggested where all might otherwise to the
modern reader appear plain. It seems to me, however, that it is at least
equally necessary to study the problems which thus arise. How can we
be sure that we understand him fully if we ignore the manner in which
his plays and his subjects were likely to affect contemporary minds?
I will give two instances where important problems suggest themselves
which have not, I think, as yet been resolved.
Let us consider, for instance, the identity of Lear. Lear appears in
Geoffrey of Monmouth as the king who founded the city of Leicester,
and it is ultimately, though not directly, from Geoffrey of Monmouth
that Shakespeare's version of the story is derived. Shakespeare has,
however, altered the conclusion and linked the whole with an entirely
different talethe history of Gloucester and his sonswhose
source is Sidney's Arcadia. Now Lear is not only a character
in Geoffrey of Monmouth; he is also an important figure in Welsh mythology
where his daughterCordeliahas as rival wooers Modred and
Gwynn ap Nudd, the prince of fairyland; these two are doomed to fight
for her every first of May until the Day of Judgment.
In Irish mythology also Lear or Lir plays an important part, and his
children are turned into wild swans.
Now what is Lear's real identity?
Sir John Rhys states that Lir is a Celtic sea-god; Mr Timothy Lewis
tells me that he thinks this a mistake, that Lir is a noun used as an
adjective and means the Ligurian Sea only, but not any other: Lear or
Lir really means the Ligures tribes; there were a number of such personages
in ancient Welsh; they are called the fathers of the British race, and
they really mean the invading tribes from the Continent.
Now it may not be of importance to our Shakespearian study to know
what Lear really and essentially is; but it is surely of considerable
importance to know what the Elizabethans thought he was.
Was Lear a man or a god or a tribe? This question is not even asked.
The majority of critics are like Mr Bradley, they start with the assumption
that Lear was an ancient British king, and they do not even discuss
the possibility that the Elizabethans understood Lear as a mythologic
figure and that Shakespeare himself may have meant him as something
Mr Bradley's omission to ask the question is the more curious because
he himself admits that Lear produces on his mind the impression of being
strangely remote from ordinary life; the tale, as such, is extravagantly
improbable and yet the drama is enormously great.
"This world," says Mr Bradley, "is called Britain; but
we should no more look for it than for the place called Caucasus, where
Prometheus was chained by Strength and Force and comforted by the daughters
And elsewhere he says that he finds that he is often grouping the play
in his own mind "with works like the Prometheus Vinctus,
and the Divine Comedy and even with the greatest symphonies of
Beethoven and the statues in the Medici Chapel."
In other words, the play makes an impression closely resembling that
of mythologic symbolism. Very well! Is it not possible that Shakespeare's
audience would have conceived Lear as a figure in mythology?
Or consider Othello as another case where the Elizabethan point of
view very naturally suggests a problem. From Coleridge to Mr Bradley
most of our critics assume that Othello is meant to be a noble character.
Mr Bradley says: "This character is so noble, Othello's actions
and feeling follow so inevitably from itand his sufferings are
so heartrending that he stirs I believe, in most readers, a passion
of mingled love and pity which they feel for no other hero in Shakespeare."
Now, it is impossible to deny that this "noble" person commits
great crimes; he murders an innocent and devoted wife, and plans the
murder of a loyal friend; it is quite true that Cassio's assassination
is averted, but that is sheer accident; it is not owing to any repentance
in Othello, and Othello remains morally guilty of two murders, both
of innocent people.
These are undeniably great crimes; still the, whole tendency of our
modern criticism is to lay all the stress upon Iago's villainy and to
regard Othello as being almost wholly a victim. But now let us make
one enquiry! Such a subject is, in itself, an excellent dramatic subject,
and it is easy enough to understand Shakespeare's choice. But why if
it be really his intention to show us an innocent noble husband driven
to the murder of an innocent wife, why does he commence with making
his hero a Moor? The audience of the sixteenth century had an intense
prejudice against Moors, a prejudice at least as strong as an audience
of today would have against Prussian officers.
The Moors were, in the sixteenth century, the most formidable opponents
of Christian Europe; their valour had threatened its complete overthrow,
and since they were heathen and formidable opponents at one and the
same time, they were regarded as the accepted types of villainy. We
see this in the second book of Spenser's Faerie Queene, where
the three Saracens are the most formidable opponents of the knight Guyon;
we see it in Shakespeare's own Titus Andronicus where the Moor
is represented as absolutely black, and also a villain of the most dreadful
Even modern critics like Coleridge and Charles Lamb feel a distinct
repulsion. Coleridge argues that Othello cannot have been really black,
but must have been brown; I need not repeat his arguments, for every
one knows them, and they are all contradicted by the simple fact that
Shakespeare makes the Moor Aaron absolutely black.
Then, again, Charles Lamb says that he prefers Othello for reading
rather than for representation on the stage, because on the stage his
black face alienates the sympathy of the audience. Of course it does.
But the prejudice excited in Charles Lamb's mind must have been as nothing
compared to the prejudices excited in the minds of an Elizabethan audience
for whom a Moor's black face was simply the accepted symbol for the
villainy of a Moor's black soul.
Try and imagine a dramatic author of today doing anything really comparable!
Try and imagine him representing a hero who murders an innocent wife
and attempts the murder of an innocent friend; supposing that, notwithstanding
these dreadful facts, he wishes to awaken the utmost sympathy for the
murderous hero. Will be begin by making his hero a Prussian officer?
Of course not! Our dramatist knows perfectly well that his audience
have a prejudice against Prussian officers of the intensest possible
kind, that they will certainly, from the very outset, consider the hero
a villain and that they will certainly, from the very outset, expect
him to do something unjust and abominable. Surely no dramatist would
so far stultify his own dramatic intention?
And yet even the case of the Prussian officer is not strong enough,
for it does not include the colour bar. Imagine a Prussian officer who
is also a negro, and imagine the play acted before an audience of Southern
State Americans! And that the parallel is really true and really just
anyone can see by simply referring to Shakespeare's source. In Cinthio's
novel the conclusion drawn is exactly the one that might have been expected;
the noble Venetian lady marries the Moor, notwithstanding the prohibition
of her parents, and the result is what might have been anticipateda
Now, how do our critics get out of this difficulty? They never meet
it fairly. They simply assume, like Mr Bradley, that Shakespeare was
gloriously original, gloriously in advance of his age. This, when we
consider the character of the villainous Moor Aaron seems very doubtful;
but, even supposing Shakespeare were free from the prejudices of his
age, was his audience free? That is the real crux of the whole
matter. Mr Bradley admits that even Coleridge could not rise to the
"full glory" of Shakespeare's conception. How, then, does
Mr Bradley think the Elizabethan audience could rise to it? Were they
less free from race prejudice than Coleridge, the devotee of the rights
Moreover, the whole difficulty was so needless! Assuming that all Shakespeare
wished to do was to write a story of love and murderous jealousy, he
could have easily found scores and scores of such tales which were intrinsically
better material than Cinthio's novel. The one thing that is peculiar
about Cinthio's novel is the fact that the hero is a Moor; in other
words, Shakespeare chose precisely the story which included the one
thing likely to wreck his dramatic effect at the outset. Is this probable?
Is it not possible that Othello is really meant to be a villain, and
that his great qualities are like the great qualities of Macbeththings
which do not prevent the rest of the man from being evil?
. At any rate the difficulty should be fairly answered, and I submit
that we cannot do this without a most careful historic study.
Moreover, as soon as we take the Elizabethan point of view, another
question at once suggests itself. Are we justified in interpreting Shakespeare,
as completely as we do, from a modern psychological standpoint?
It is quite true that every era which is interested in human nature
must have its own method of psychology; but this psychology also has
its historical development and the method of one age differs considerably
from the method of another.
Let anyone who doubts this take the simplest of tests. Let him turn
to Pope, who explains his own psychology in the Moral Essays,
The Essay on Man, and elsewhere. The virtue of human life depends
on a right balance between passion and reason and, according to him,
the key to character is to be found in the "ruling passion"to
discover a man's ruling passion is to know him. Now, Pope's own method
of character-drawing depends on his own psychology, and is to be explained
by that psychology; but it is quite obsolete for us. Who now thinks
of the "ruling passion" as the key to a man's character?
But if the method of the Queen Anne period is so far obsolete, should
we not expect the method of the Elizabethans to be more obsolete still?
Let us take an Elizabethan example in Ben Jonson's Comedy of Humours.
This is how Mr Gregory Smith explains Jonson's psychology: [Ben
Jonson.] "In the older physiology the four major humours, corresponding
with the four elementsformed according to their proportionate
allowances in each bodythe "temperament" or "complexion"
or "constitution" of a man, and declared his character. Variations
in the relative strength of these humours disclosed the individual differences.
These differences might be great or small in respect of one or more
of the contributing humours. By simple arithmetic it was easy to show
that great odds were against any two men having the same formula of
temperament; and so the theory fitted itself comfortably to experience."
Now, this was the psychology of one of Shakespeare's own contemporaries.
If Ben Jonson's psychology was, to our own thinking, as extraordinary
as this, what was Shakespeare's psychology? Surely we ought to explain
his method? Pope's interpretation of character depends upon the
theory of the ruling passion, which he regards as the key to it. Ben
Jonson's interpretation of character depends upon "humours."
Both these methods are obsolete for us. Are our critics likely to be
right when they represent Shakespeare almost entirely as if he were
a modern psychologist writing plays, instead of novels. This is really
what Mr Bradley does. He interprets Shakespeare from the psychological
standpoint, but without once explaining what Shakespeare's psychology
really was; he assumes that it was like our own, but to do so
is surely to throw Shakespeare out of the line of his historic development.
There must have been differences. What were they? Not even a
genius like Shakespeare can anticipate a method three centuries ahead
of his own, and even if he had possessed such a truly outstanding gift
of prophecy, we are only once more "up against" our main problem,
the mentality of the audience; his audience could not possibly have
The older editors of ShakespeareMalone, for instancedo
often see historical parallels. It was Coleridge who set the fashion
of treating Shakespeare mainly from a psychological standpoint; this
was natural enough, for Coleridge was himself mainly a psychologist,
and as he himself admits, possessed very little historic sense; we may
add that, in addition, there was very little historical material available.
It is, however, somewhat surprising that, as the historical material
became available, it was not more generally employed. Thus Mr Bradley
(whom I quote so often, because he has carried this method to its farthest
point), considers Shakespeare as almost entirely detached from his time
and age; the four great tragedies might almost have been written in
the Age of Pericles or the period of the Romantic Revival for all the
intimate and vital relation that Mr Bradley perceives between them and
their own age.
But is this probable?
We thus arrive at two very startling conclusions. One is that Shakespeare,
though perhaps more interested in human nature than any man who has
ever lived, wrote with almost complete indifference to his own era;
and this in spite of the fact that we know the Elizabethan stage was
continually and closely associated with politics, and that Shakespeare's
own company twice earned the displeasure of authority on account of
Shakespeare's own plays, two [Henry IV. and Richard
II.] of which were certainly represented as having important political
The other is the equally startling conclusion that Shakespeare can
be best interpreted by nineteenth-century psychology, not a sixteenth-century
psychology (for that would probably have to be as obsolete as Ben Jonson's);
but just precisely a nineteenth-century psychology.
Surely these results are very curious?
But, it will be asked, if Shakespeare's greatest characters are not
predominantly psychological, in our sense of the term, what can they
Let me take an illustration.
Suppose we consider again Shakespeare's Lear, and compare it with four
allied characters, four characters who have much in common with him,
choosing two from ancient, and two from modern literature. Suppose we
compare Lear with dipus and Priam on the one side, and on the
other, with Turgenieff's Lear of the Steppes, and Balzac's Père
Goriot. With which group has Lear most in common? To me it seems obvious
that he has most in common with dipus and Priam. And Mr Bradley,
when he compares Lear to the Prometheus Vinctus, is feeling
the same effect that I feel. But dipus and Priam are characters
in Greek mythology, whereas Turgenieff's Lear and Père Goriot
are the characters of modern psychological realists.
Be it observed that it is not simply a question of genius, for the
same hand which drew Lear also drew Nym, Pistol, and Bardolph; but these
latter belong quite plainly to the Comedy of Humours, they are
psychology in the sixteenth-century (i.e. Jonsonian) sense of
the term; but they do not produce at all the same effect as Lear.
What, it may again be asked, is the essential difference between mythology
and psychology? Well, it seems to me that there are two differences
which go to the root of the matter!
One is that the modern psychologist aims especially at the realistic
portraits of individuals. He aims at giving you the sort of man
you might meet anywhere, and this is what, when successful, he does.
We all feel that Turgenieff's Lear and Balzac's Père Goriot are
individuals whom the authors might actually have met, and probably did
meet. They are people of common life.
But do we feel that dipus and Priam are people of common life?
On the contrary. The poets wish to convey the impression that there
is something in their heroes which is more than ordinary; they are not
merely ordinary individuals, they are something above and over. When
Hermes visits Priam he compliments the old man on his great dignity
and compares him to the immortal gods; "divine Priam" is one
of Homer's most constant epithets.
Now, if Hermes had ever met Lear he might have paid him the same compliment.
Surely there is something exceptional and almost superhuman in the greatest
figures of Shakespeare? Do they produce the effect of 'being ordinary
or even extraordinary individuals? Does history record any man
quite as pathetic as Lear, or quite as interesting as Hamlet? And even
Lord Bacon does not seem as wise as Prospero. Read his biography, and
place it side by side with Shakespeare's Prospero, and see.
Has not Shakespeare himself hinted that his figures are partly mythologic
and partly symbolic when he withdraws them so far from the everyday
world. Why is Prospero placed in a magic island? Why are Hamlet and
Macbeth and Lear all withdrawn into a remote and almost legendary past?
Even Othello, who is much more like an ordinary human being, is still
set apart as if he were a symbolic figure by his blackness.
The second great difference between the mythologist and the psychologist
is that the latter is not fundamentally historical, whereas the former
is. The modern psychologist is pre-eminently an egoist and an individualist:
he chooses subjects mainly because they interest him, and all
the importance they receive for others will be due to his method
of treatment. In other words, as Hazlitt says of Wordsworth, he does
not wish to share his own importance even with his subject. Flaubert,
for instance, chooses in Madame Bovary an unimportant and almost trivial
heroine; all the interest is lent by his method of treatment.
The mythologist, on the other hand, deals with the matter which is
traditional, which is a part of national history and which, as such,
is already interesting to his audience as in the case of the Greek dramatists
whose material is chosen from certain definite historic cycles.
Now, in this respect, Shakespeare and his fellows seem to offer a curious
half-way house. Some of their subjectssuch as Lear and Macbethare
genuinely traditional in the Greek sense; otherssuch as Othelloare
derived from known sources but are not exactly traditional.
Now, if Shakespeare be truly a psychologic realist, it is exceedingly
difficult to see why he did not invent his own plots. To economise labour
is the usual replyhe took what was to hand to save himself trouble.
Yes! But the method which he actually did adopt was one which saved
him no labour whatever, not, at least, in the majority of cases.
As anyone can see by comparing the two together, Shakespeare always
reconstructs his source, and often alters it almost beyond recognition.
In the case of Lear, for instance, the original story ended happily,
so far, at any rate, as Lear himself was concerned; the good daughterCordeliarestored
him to his kingdom, and he reigned in peace until his death.
This is the version as we find it in practically all the Elizabethan
sources; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Holinshed, The Mirror for Magistrates,
Spenser's Faerie Queene, etc., etc.
Moreover, in the original story, there was no Gloucester, no Edmund,
no Edgar, all these figures come from a totally different source in
Sidney's Aycadia, and they alter the whole bias of the plot.
Why not recognise that the resulting story is really a new thing, and
call it by a new name?
Surely we find ourselves here on the horns of a very curious dilemma!
Does Shakespeare choose the subject of King Lear, as Coleridge
says he did, because it was already endeared to the minds of his audience?
But, if so, why does he alter it so amazingly, for there is nothing,
as a rule, which people more resent than an unfamiliar ending to a familiar
Moreover, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Lear does not strip himself entirely;
he retains a certain portion of his kingdom for himself, and it is to
gain this portion that Goneril and Regan make war upon him. Thus, in
the original tale, Lear, Goneril and Regan are all of them more intelligible
in their actions than they are in Shakespeare. But why take an improbable
plot, and then proceed to make it still more improbable by your method
The case is even more curious when we turn to compare Hamlet
with its source.
In the original Amleth saga there is no ghost, no Polonius, no Ophelia,
no Laertes; the Polonius and Laertes story simply does not exist in
the Amleth saga, and the ending is totally different, for the prince
conquers his opponents, gets himself happily married to an English princess,
and succeeds triumphantly to his father's throne. When he has killed
his uncle he makes a speech to the assembled people: "It is I who
have wiped off my country's shame; I who have quenched my mother's dishonour;
I who have beaten back oppression; I who have put to death the murderer;
I who have baffled the artful hand of my uncle with retorted arts. Were
he living, each new day would have multiplied his crimes. I resented
the wrong done to father and to fatherland: I slew him who was governing
you outrageously, and more hardly than beseemed men. Acknowledge my
service, honour my wit, give me the throne if. I have earned it."
Amleth makes a long speech to this effect, and the conclusion of the
whole matter is:
"Every heart had been moved while the young man thus spoke; he
affected some to compassion, and some even to tears. When the lamentation
ceased, he was appointed king by general acclaim."
Moreover, the character of the hero is quite different for the hero
of the Amleth saga never hesitates over his vengeance, but pursues it
with undeviating energy. It is lust because he does show such a magnificent
combination of energy and subtlety that the people choose him as king.
In fact, we should hardly know that Hamlet was supposed to be
drawn from the Amleth saga, were it not for the similarity of the names,
and for the fact, that, in each case, the hero is a Prince of Denmark.
Why retain the names when they mean so little? Why not acknowledge
that the story is new?
In the case of Hamlet, at any rate, I shall endeavour to answer
the question in the following pages.
I would sum up as follows:
(1) Shakespeare wrote his plays for a definite audience at a definite
point of time. We know the period at which the plays were written, and
we know, within a few years, the dates of the greater number. It should,
therefore, be possible to discover with more or less accuracy what the
plays would mean for their intended audience, and we cannot be sure
that we comprehend them fully until we study the point of view of this
(2) The point of view of an Elizabethan audience can only be understood
by means of a careful study of the history of the time which should,
therefore, be an integral part of the study of the plays.
(3) It is possible that we interpret Shakespeare too purely from a
psychological standpoint; in any case, the psychology of the sixteenth
century is bound to differ from that of the nineteenth century, and
it is important to show in what its differences consist.
I propose to apply this new method, as fully and as carefully as I
can, in the case of Hamlet.
My one aim throughout will be to get the point of view of, the Elizabethan
audience and to make out, as far as I can, what the play would mean
to them, and what they would be likely to see in it.
I feel sure that the method is valid, though the results obtained from
it certainly differ greatly from any of my own preconceived ideas.