Hamlet and the Scottish Succession

Copyright 1921 by Lilian Winstanley
(Cambridge University Press, Cambridge)

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 and criticism.

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 light.

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 quote them:

"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, hoped—for 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 prophecies."

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 Scotland.

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 personage—the elder Hamlet, the younger Hamlet, Polonius, Claudius, the Queen—ends 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, Murray—these 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 Scotland.

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 character.

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 he was

"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 murderer.

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 details—they 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 party—Shakespeare's patrons—were 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 physician—Lopez, 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 play?

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 and Jessica.

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 his fortunes.

We also observe that, if Shakespeare be really drawing parallels with history, many of the adverse criticisms on his play find at least their explanation.

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 B, Appendix.]

Another incident I will select is from Henry IV, Part II—the 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 him.

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 tale—the history of Gloucester and his sons—whose 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 daughter—Cordelia—has 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 mythologic.

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 of Ocean."

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 it—and 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 type.

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 anticipated—a cruel murder.

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 of man?

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 Macbeth—things 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 elements—formed according to their proportionate allowances in each body—the "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 understood him.

The older editors of Shakespeare—Malone, for instance—do 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 bearings.

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 be?

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 Œdipus 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 Œdipus and Priam. And Mr Bradley, when he compares Lear to the Prometheus Vinctus, is feeling the same effect that I feel. But Œdipus 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 Œdipus 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 subjects—such as Lear and Macbeth—are genuinely traditional in the Greek sense; others—such as Othello—are 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 reply—he 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 daughter—Cordelia—restored 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? Quite possibly!

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 tale?

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 of treatment?

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 audience.

(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.

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The Writings of Lilian Winstanley

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