Hamlet and the Scottish Succession

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


AND now, what is our main conclusion to be? It seems to me absolutely certain that the historical analogues exist; that they are important, numerous, detailed and undeniable. There are, however, three possible explanations as to how they get in the play:

(1) We may say that they belong to the "atmosphere" of the time and get in unconsciously. Shakespeare sees these things around him, and without knowing it, incorporates them in his drama.

(2) Shakespeare is writing a literary drama in which he incorporates a certain amount of contemporary history deliberately and of set purpose.

(3) Shakespeare is writing what is practically a piece of mythology; it consists mainly of contemporary history only fitted in to a dramatic frame.

Now, it appears to me that (1) may be rejected absolutely: the historical resemblances are so important on the one hand, so numerous, detailed and close on the other, that it does not seem to me they can have got in by any form of accident; when we reflect, moreover, that they were all events of immediate interest the supposition is practically impossible

To me the only choice lies between (2) and (3). I leave it to each reader to decide as to which alternative seems the more likely.

One thing seems, at any rate, absolutely certain, that Shakespeare is using a large element of contemporary history in Hamlet.

It appears to me that in the total construction of the play, the literary source is comparatively unimportant, and the historical source exceedingly important.

All the things that give us the essence of the Shakespearean drama are really historical; the secret murder, the use of poison, the voice of accusation heard in the night, the graphic representation reproducing the murder, the crucial character of Hamlet himself with his hesitancy and his reluctance to punish—the centre of the whole—the character of Claudius and his attitude towards Hamlet, the murder of Polonius, the character of Polonius, Hamlet's relation to the Players, the treatment of the Play which brings Hamlet's own neck into jeopardy, the love-story of Ophelia, the casket motive, the madness motive, the rivalry between Hamlet and Laertes, the way in which they are pitted against each other so that both may be destroyed, the grave-digger's scene, the fight in the grave, the entrance of Fortinbras—for all these no analogues can be found in the saga source (either Saxo or Belleforest), and very minute and close analogues can be found in the contemporary history of most immediate interest.

The Essex conspiracy and the Scottish succession were the questions of burning interest at the time, any audience would be certain to feel their appeal and Shakespeare himself, as I have shown, had a double reason for a strong personal interest.

These events involved the fate of his dramatic company which was compromised by its connection with the Essex conspiracy and involved the fate of the man who was certainly his patron and possibly his dearest friend— Southampton— and who was even then in danger of death. Shakespeare desired to write about these subjects, and he did write about them, only he called them something else.

We have good reasons for believing that this method was fairly often followed.

(1) The authorities continually suspected the players of introducing political motives into their plays.

(2) Dr Haywarde was accused of having turned Henry IV into a contemporary parallel.

(3) Shakespeare's company were accused of having done the same thing in Richard II; Shakespeare's own play.

(4) Shakespeare himself has shown us in Hamlet's treatment of the Gonzago play both how it could be done, and how dangerous it was to do it.

It seems to me that Shakespeare selected the Amleth saga in almost precisely the spirit in which Hamlet selected the Gonzago story. The Amleth story was sufficiently well-known to be excellent as a disguise, it was sufficiently remote to place no restrictions upon his handling, he was free to modify it as much as he chose, and he did modify it till there was hardly any of the original left.

It is not, I think, in the least difficult to see how Shakespeare would naturally arrive at such a method of construction.

We cannot, I think, postulate with certainty many things concerning him, but there are two we do certainly know: one is that he was a man intensely interested in human nature as such, from the statecraft of kings and princes down to the ways of ostlers baiting their horses at an inn; the second is that, as shown by such passages as the speech of Henry V before Agincourt and the dying speech of John of Gaunt in Richard II, Shakespeare must have been an intensely patriotic Englishman.

Such a man would naturally commence his career by attempting to dramatise history, a course which would gratify at once his love of reality and his patriotism. This is exactly what Shakespeare did in the long series of the historical dramas.

However, in the course of writing these dramas, he must have discovered that the choice of historical material unduly fettered his genius. Even in the historical dramas themselves Shakespeare is impelled to take great liberties both with chronology and with character.

Thus he alters considerably the age of Harry Percy to make him more clearly a rival to Prince Hal. In the second part of Henry IV, also, the chronology is very curiously changed so as to convey the impression that the events occupy very much less space of time than they actually did occupy. [See my edition, Henry IV, Part II. D. ( C. Heath & Co., Boston, U.S.A.).] The space of eight years must elapse between the different portions of Act IV, but the impression given by the play is certainly that of a few days only.

Nor is chronology the only difficulty. In history, the interest is too much diffused and is dissipated over to o large a number of characters and incidents; it is distracted instead of being concentrated, and Shakespeare continually allows the dramatic stress to fall where the historic, stress does not fall or would not naturally fall.

Moreover, it is possible that even here he allows himself to be deflected or, at least, influenced by contemporary events. Why, for example, is Falconbridge the real hero of King John?

This is hardly true to the history of that reign even as the Elizabethans conceived it.

It has often been suggested that the prominence given to Falconbridge owes something to Shakespeare's sympathy for Sir John Perrot. Perrot, also, was the illegitimate son of a king, a soldier, a patriot, a man whose blunt speech got him into trouble.

In 1592 he was tried for high treason, and condemned to death, though his death in the Tower forestalled his execution.

This may, or may not, be the true motive for the prominence given to Falconbridge; but whatever the motive, there can be no doubt that Shakespeare lays the dramatic stress where the historic stress would not naturally fall.

In the two parts of Henry IV, the same tendency is accentuated, for there is no doubt that the dramatic stress falls upon the character of Falstaff who certainly did not bear the historic stress; if we change the name to Oldcastle, the prominence given is less extraordinary, though still remarkable. Even here, it is probable that the desire to annoy Cobham, the Puritan persecutor of the stage and one of Essex's chief enemies, was a leading motive. At any rate, Cobham took it so; he complained, the name was altered, and Shakespeare inserted an apology to the effect, "Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man."

Both here and in the case of Falconbridge, it seems probable that we have contemporary events influencing even the case of the definitely historical dramas and producing a deflection of the historic stress. This was certainly the method the authorities suspected both in Henry IV and in Richard II.

And now let us ask what a dramatist who arrived at this point in his artistic development would be likely to do? He has an immense love for reality, he wishes to describe real life as it is actually lived; his audience take an intense interest in the personalities and politics of the time, and having no newspapers, are particularly anxious to see them discussed upon the stage; also the poet is patriotic, and wishes to deal with questions of national importance. On the other hand, he has discovered that history, as it is actually lived, is not really a good subject for dramatic treatment because its interest is too much diffused and its subject is too inelastic. Even if it were good material, which it is not, there remains the unvarying difficulty of the censorship which forbids him to make political references and has already, in Henry IV and Richard II, protested against his doing so.

The obvious expedient is surely to take historic material, preferably those contemporary events in which he and his audience are most interested, and to alter them until they become good dramatic material, concentrating the interest, missing out all that cannot be got into a dramatic frame or which is irrelevant.

In this way a really excellent drama could be built up, only it would not be historic in the ordinary sense of the term; the poet might, therefore, call it by another name; in that case he would gain two great advantages.

(1) He would be able to modify the history as much as necessary to suit his artistic purpose.

(2) He would be able to deal with contemporary events without falling under the ban of the censorship.

If this plan were followed, the first necessity would, of course, be to choose a novel or story whose outline resembled the one desired, and then to modify it freely just as Dr Haywarde was accused of doing in the case of Henry IV, and just as Hamlet did in the Gonzago play.

As we have seen, it was a main count in the indictment against Essex that he had allowed and connived at this method of procedure, both in Haywarde's history and in Shakespeare's play of Richard II. Essex and Southampton, like Hamlet, both damaged themselves by their political association with players.

Shakespeare has the strongest political motive for treating history in this fashion; he has also the strongest artistic motive, for a man naturally writes with more passion and fervour on subjects which interest him profoundly. Let us summarise briefly the way in which we have found political history to be used as material in the case of Hamlet.

(1) At the period when Hamlet was written, the two great subjects of universal interest were the question of the Scottish succession and the fate of the Essex conspirators; moreover, these two subjects were so intimately connected that they formed but one in the popular mind and, therefore, in treating them as one, Shakespeare would be simply working to a unity already existing in the minds of his audience. The fate of Essex and the fate of James have been blent in one destiny, and Shakespeare sees that, by blending them in one play, he can make a really magnificent drama.

(2) Shakespeare himself is particularly and passionately interested in both these subjects, not only as every patriotic Englishman must be interested in the fate of his country, but because the fate of his dramatic company has been involved in that of the Essex conspirators and because his best beloved friend is even then in danger of death.

(3) This theme, as it stands, cannot be treated under actual names, partly because it will only become dramatic if concentrated, and partly because the censorship will intervene if real names are employed.

(4) Shakespeare evades both difficulties by choosing as a disguise, the story of Hamlet; this enables him to concentrate the history and so turn it into magnificent dramatic material and it enables him, also, to evade the censorship.

(5) The process results in what might be termed a "doubling of parts," so that one dramatic figure serves for two or more historic personages.

(6) Hamlet is mainly James I, but these are certainly large elements in his character and story taken from Essex, and probably some from Southampton. It is only the "melancholy" Essex of the last fatal years who could thus be combined with the more sombre James, and even so the character has been found by many eminent critics to be not psychologically consistent, and by almost all critics to be particularly difficult to interpret as a unity.

(7) Claudius, in the murder portion of the story, represents the elder Bothwell, in his relations to Hamlet the younger Bothwell; his attitude towards Laertes, and Hamlet is that of Robert Cecil towards Raleigh and Essex. His character is largely that of the elder Bothwell as drawn by Buchanan, but with added elements of subtlety and treachery. Here again, the blending of the two subjects works into a unity.

(8) Polonius, in most of the relations of his life, is a minute and careful study of Burleigh, but his end is the dramatic end of Rizzio. Here again, the two subjects are blent into a unity.

(9) The play has two sources: the Amleth saga and contemporary history, of which the latter is by far the more important. The intense vibrating, passionate interest of the play is probably due to the fact that the subject was, of all possible subjects, the one most near to the poet and his audience, its eminently artistic form is due to the fact that the poet has moulded his material as much as he pleased, and that his guiding principle has always been the artistic and dramatic effect.

If the account given above of Hamlet be really correct, then the play is mythology rather than psychology, or, perhaps, it would be fairer to define it as mythology on its way towards psychology. For a variety of reasons this seems to me inherently plausible. To interpret Shakespeare almost exactly as if he were nineteenth-century psychology is surely to thrust him out of his place in the order of development. The psychology of the sixteenth century cannot exactly resemble ours, and must have some points of difference. Why not this resemblance to mythology?

In the second place, as even such a thorough-going psychologist as Mr Bradley admits, some, at any rate, of Shakespeare's plays do produce very much the effect of ancient mythology. It seems to me that this effect is characteristic of a good many: that Shakespeare's Hamlet, his Lear, his Prospero, can hold their own even beside Achilles and Priam, Œdipus, Arthur, and Merlin. They are as universal and as romantic.

Now, we know that the great mythologic figures were, in all probability, created in some such way as the one suggested above. They were not copied by the poets from individuals, still less were they pure fiction; they probably represent accretions round some historic centre. Every student of early history knows the facility with which two or more historic figures become grouped in one, especially when they belong to the same family, or have the same name, or perform similar exploits.

Now, this mythologic method was quite well known to Shakespeare's predecessors and contemporaries. As I have shown elsewhere, [Faerie Queene, Books I. and II. (Cambridge University Press).] Shakespeare's greatest contemporary— Spenser—writes what is practically a kind of mythology. He repeatedly [Book III. Introduction, etc., see above.] states that fairyland is really England, and that The Faerie Queene really stands for his own age and time. I think most readers will agree with me that The Faerie Queene looks even less like contemporary history than do Shakespeare's plays, yet we have the repeated assurance of its own author that it is.

Now, Spenser certainly seems to use the method I have described above: that of historic accretions grouped around some central figure. This is most obvious in Book V., where we are able to see with perfect plainness that Artegall must represent both Arthur, Lord Grey of Wilton, and also Leicester, for he performs both Grey's exploits in Ireland and Leicester's in the Low Countries. I have also endeavoured to show that the same principle applies with regard to the other characters; that Duessa is both Mary Tudor and Mary, Queen of Scots, that Una represents sometimes the experiences of Anne Boleyn, sometimes those of Elizabeth.

Nor is the mythological method confined to Spenser! A somewhat similar method is employed by Lyly, one of the dramatic predecessors who influenced Shakespeare most. Lyly writes plays which are ostensibly classical mythology, but which are in reality a kind of court allegory; they represent contemporary characters, and contemporary politics in a classic disguise.

Have we not been inclined to forget too readily how much of the mediaeval mind still remains in the Elizabethans? Why should not Shakespeare have a share of that which is so prominent both in Spenser and in Lyly?

Yet, again, pointing in the direction I have indicated, is the example of Plutarch, who was almost a lay Bible to the Elizabethans.

He would direct Shakespeare's attention not to the study of imaginary characters, constructed on a psychological basis, but to the study of real characters of actual statesmen, with all their idiosyncrasies and peculiarities, and the mere idea of parallel lives grouped in pairs would suggest a grouping of such characters as the elder and the younger Bothwell, of Rizzio and Polonius, and also help towards the main conception—the parallel of Amleth and James I.

It would be, I think, unfair to say that Hamlet is the portrait of anyone; he is more subtle, more interesting, more many-sided than any human being ever has been or could be. Shakespeare has taken from the story of James I all that was most tragic and most pathetic, and from his character all that was most enigmatic, most attractive, and most interesting. He has taken from the story of James the Orestes-like central theme: the theme of the man whose father has been murdered, and whose mother has married the murderer. Shakespeare has also taken from James the central traits of Hamlet's character; the hatred of bloodshed, the irresolution, the philosophic mind, the fear of action, the hesitation to punish which is half weakness and half generosity.

Only in Shakespeare the interest is concentrated as it is not in the history. In the history it was the elder Bothwell who murdered James's father and the younger Bothwell who held James in a kind of duresse vile, and threatened his life. By the simple expedient of combining in one the parts of the two Bothwells, Shakespeare gains dramatic unity and an enormous concentration of interest. The tragic motive of the father's murder is now brought into the closest possible relation with the tragic motive of the son's hesitancy and irresolution, and the two together make a drama of the most powerful and moving kind. What the story gains is what the stage so emphatically demands: compression and unity.

But this is not enough!

The tale of James I is not finished and not complete; nothing is rounded off. But the tragedy can be completed by uniting with it the tragedy of Essex, which, as we have said, is already one theme with it in the minds of the audience. By uniting the tragedy of Essex, Shakespeare gains a whole group more of most dramatic and interesting themes: the longing for seclusion and study, the desire to retire from Court, yet remaining obediently at the express wish and desire of the Queen, even the suit of "inky blackness" is reminiscent of the mourning of Essex as the populace had last seen him at his trial and execution. The feeling of profound melancholy, the longing for death, resembles that of Essex in his later years, so does the rivalry with Laertes, the sense of fatality and doom, it is in the terrible death which befell Essex that we have the clue to Hamlet's shrinking from disfigurement and defilement after death.

It is from this source that we get the generosity and kindness of Hamlet's relation to the players, his tampering with the play and the ill influence this has on his own fate. It is because of this that we have the lack of ambition and the dying voice given to Fortinbras; these resemblances are pointed by giving us in the death-scene a quotation from the dying words of Essex. It is from this source, doubtless, that we have the element of the courtier and the soldier, the winning charm of personality which we are told have been prominent in Hamlet, for the last thing Fortinbras says of him is that he must have "the soldier's music and the rites of war."

If Hamlet were only the philosophic prince why this funeral, and why the body prominent on a stage to be seen of all the people?

But the drama is still incomplete! There is no love-story to add pathos. Now, here again, Shakespeare takes a motive which he may well have found in the drama of Essex, the motive of the innocent and loving woman cruelly used as a decoy, the motive of the stolen love-letters, stolen to injure the lover, but yet found to be love-letters, and nothing more, the motive of the bitter grief and wretchedness of the unhappy woman.

Possibly there is something added from the tale of Southampton which is so intimately bound up with that of Essex.

Ophelia sings a lament for "bonny sweet Robin," and this is the precise title Essex received from his mother and others.

The same method is employed with the other characters in the play. Burleigh was only recently dead. He had been the great opponent of Essex, he had plotted or was believed to have plotted against him, he had once refused the marriage of Essex and his daughter; Essex had certainly made Burleigh his butt often and repeatedly, and had taunted him recklessly and to the amusement of the whole Court; Burleigh, moreover, was supposed to have been the secret enemy of James, and was accused of tampering with the succession in favour of Spain. Burleigh, then, is the main original of Polonius, but he died peaceably in his bed, and such an ending is not really dramatic. Shakespeare gives us, therefore, the dramatic and dreadful death of Rizzio, and points the resemblance once again, as in the case of Essex, by an almost exact quotation.

Claudius is the two Bothwells; he is most closely drawn from the elder, and apparently, from Buchanan's picture of him, he has the drunkenness, lechery, adultery, incest, violence, meanness, cowardice, and personal hideousness which Buchanan declares to have characterised Bothwell.

Notwithstanding these facts, he exercised a curious and unaccountable fascination upon a queen who was already a wedded wife; neither Shakespeare nor Buchanan explain how, if he really was as they describe him, he contrived to fascinate the queen. Every word of Hamlet's terrific indictment of him is probably to be taken as true.

One may further ask: "Has Hamlet a political motive?" It is, of course, quite unnecessary to assume this; the dramatic purpose, the mere desire to hold up, as Hamlet puts it, "the mirror to nature," "to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure," this in itself is motive more than sufficient.

Nevertheless, it does seem possible that Hamlet may have, in addition to its purely artistic motive, a political motive also: that motive being simply the endeavour to excite as much sympathy as possible for the Essex conspirators, and for the Scottish succession, since it really was the accession of James which set Southampton free from the Tower, and restored Shakespeare's company once more to the favour of a monarch; also it is more than probable that Shakespeare thought the Scottish succession would deliver , the whole country from subservience to Spain.

In so far as Hamlet is James I, it seems to me that Shakespeare means to excite in us the desire to withdraw Hamlet, from the Denmark which cannot appreciate him, and to give him a wider and a finer sphere. We know that James himself welcomed with all his heart his release from Scotland with its many restrictions, its many perils, and its necessity for endless subterfuges, and welcomed the greater freedom of the English throne.

In so far as Hamlet is Essex, the political motive is to stress his own unwillingness for the life of courts and of ambition, his noble unsuspiciousness and the generous, but misplaced confidence which led him to his doom; his instability of character is shown, his rashness, his passionateness, but through it all his nobility and the pathos of his fate. Hamlet in death is singularly anxious as Essex was anxious that his memory shall be cleared, and the circumstances are admitted to be strange and doubtful.

Now, if the method of construction be the one explained above, we can hardly expect to find a psychologic unity in Hamlet, and I submit that, as a matter of fact, we do not.

Take, for instance, Hudson's argument:

"In plain terms, Hamlet is mad, deranged, not indeed in all his faculties nor perhaps in any of them continuously that is, the derangement is partial and occasional; paroxysms of wildness and fury alternating with intervals of serenity and composure.

"Now the reality of his madness is what the literary critics have been strangely and unwisely reluctant to admit; partly because they thought it discreditable to the hero's intellect, and partly because they did not understand the exceeding versatility and multiformity of that disease.

"And one natural effect of the disease as we see it in him is, that the several parts of his behaviour have no apparent kindred or fellowship with each other; it makes him full of abrupt changes and contradictions; his action when the paroxysm is upon him being palpably inconsistent with hi action when properly himself. Hence, some have held him to be many varieties of character in one, so that different minds take very different impressions of him, and even the same mind at different times. And as the critics have supposed that amid all his changes there must be a constant principle, and as they could not discover that principle, they have therefore referred it to some unknown depth in his being, whereas in madness the constant principle is either wholly paralysed or else more or less subject to fits of paralysis which latter is the case with Hamlet. Accordingly insane people are commonly said to be not themselves but beside themselves. "

A reference to a Variorum Edition will show that all the alienists, take the same point of view, and consider Hamlet mad because he shows a "disharmonic psychology."

Now, it is exceedingly difficult to see how so many eminent critics could have taken such different views of Hamlet's character had it really been a psychological unity.

I do not think the case could be better summed up than in Hudson's words:

"The several parts of his behaviour have no apparent kindred or fellowship with each other. . . . Hence some have held him to be many varieties of character in one."

Now, this is precisely the effect that would be produced in a mythological figure if Shakespeare were drawing from more than one character at the same time, and if these characters were such as not to amalgamate completely into a unity. The same "disharmonic psychology," has been found by many critics in Lear and Macbeth, and by some in Othello.

The final conclusion I arrive at is that it is not advisable to think our study of Shakespeare's plays complete without careful reference to the history of his own time.

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The Writings of Lilian Winstanley

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