I SEE that Mr John M. Robertson has written a book about the problem of ‘Hamlet’, round which the critics still revolve with all the irresolution of which they accuse the hero. I have not read Mr Robertson’s book and am thus inhibited by a fine fantastic scruple from reviewing it. But I gather from one of the shrewdest and sanest of critics, Mr J. C. Squire, that it explains the inconsistencies of the play as mainly the rugged remains of the old romances or chronicles. It may be suggested that in truth a hero is made human when he is made inconsistent. This is true; but the explanation is at least a great improvement on the insane seriousness of the German psychologists. They talked of Hamlet not merely as a human character but as a historical character. They talked as if he had secrets not only hidden from Shakespeare’s readers, but hidden from Shakespeare. This is madness; it is merely staring at a portrait till you think it is alive. It is as if they undertook to tell me the real truth about the private life of Oberon.
Moreover, the case of Hamlet does happen to be one in which Mr Robertson’s theory seems relatively right. I should deny any inconsistency in a dreamer doing sudden things like stabbing Polonius; they are just the sort of things a dreamer would do. But it is true that some things out of the old story seem harsh and irrelevant and it is truer still that the old story contains less than usual of the soul of the new story. I say ‘less than usual’, for I should like to point out that the general rule is rather the other way. Mr Robertson’s thesis may be true of ‘Hamlet’, but it is not so true of Shakespeare.
Of course, much can be said by this time both for and against the national poet. But if it be hopeless to denounce Shakespeare, it may appear almost as impertinent to defend him. And yet there is one point on which he has never been defended. And it is one on which I think he should not only be defended but admired. If I were a Shakespearean student or any kind of student (the improbability of which prospect words wholly fail me to express), I should specialize in the part of Shakespeare that is certainly not Shakespeare. I mean I should plead for the merit of Shakespeare’s plots; all the more because they were somebody else’s plots. In short, I should say a word for the poet’s taste; if only his taste in theft. It is the fashion to abuse Shakespeare as a critic, if only to exalt him the more as a creator. It is the fashion to say that he built on a foundation of mere rubbish and that this lifts to a greater glory the cloud-capped pinnacles he reared upon it. I am not sure that it is such pure praise for a practical architect to say that he was totally in different to the basement and cellars, and interested exclusively in the roof and chimney-pots. But, anyhow, I am sure that Shakespeare did not forget the foundation or despise the basement or the cellars.
Shakespeare enjoyed the old stories. He enjoyed them as tales are intended to be enjoyed. He liked reading them as a man of imagination and intelligence today likes reading a good adventure story, or still more a good detective story. This is the one possibility that the Shakespearean critics never seem to entertain. Probably they are not simple enough and therefore not imaginative enough to know what that enjoyment is. They cannot read an adventure story or indeed any story. For instance, nearly all the critics apologize, in a prim and priggish manner, for the tale on which turns the Trial Scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. They explain that poor Shakespeare had taken a barbarous old story and had to make the best of it. As a matter of fact, he had taken an uncommonly good story; one of the best that he could possibly have had to make the best of. It is a clear, pointed, and practical parable against usury; and if a large number of modern people do not appreciate it, it is because a large number of modern people are taught to appreciate and even admire usury. The idea of a man forfeiting part of his body (it might have been an arm or leg) is a highly philosophical satire on unlimited recovery of ruinous debts. The idea is embodied in all those truly Christian laws about wainage and livelihood which were the glory of the Middle Ages. The story is excellent, simply as an anecdote working up to a climax and ending in an unexpected retort. And the end is a truth and not merely a trick. You do prove the falsity of pedantic logic by a reductio ad absurdum.
While we have had masses of learned work about the Shakespearean origins, we have had very little about the Shakespearean origin. I mean we have had very little on the main matter of his human and natural inheritance of the whole civilization of Christendom from which he came. It is a commonplace that Shakespeare was a result of the Renaissance; but the Renaissance itself was a result of the Middle Ages; nor was it by any means merely a revolt against the Middle Ages. There are a thousand things in which Shakespeare would be much better understood by Dante than he was by Goethe. I will take one example, all the stronger for being always taken the other way. English patriotism is one of the more manly realities of the modern world; and Shakespeare was a passionate patriot. But in that very passage in praise of England which is hackneyed without ceasing to be holy, about half is a medieval memory of the sort called a medieval superstition. It is not about the spacious days of Elizabeth, but the cloistered days of Peter the Hermit. It is not about the Armada but about the Crusades—
That note was neglected and nearly lost in the whole modern world; and scarcely any modern critic would have cared to notice it. Only the prodigious events of yesterday have brought us back, half-bewildered, into the footsteps of our fathers; and the vision of John of Gaunt was fulfilled in the hour when a great English soldier entered Jerusalem on foot.