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Read The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge Volume Ii Part 27

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‘Laer’. Drown’d! O, where?

That Laertes might be excused in some degree for not cooling, the Act concludes with the affecting death of Ophelia,–who in the beginning lay like a little projection of land into a lake or stream, covered with spray-flowers quietly reflected in the quiet waters, but at length is undermined or loosened, and becomes a faery isle, and after a brief vagrancy sinks almost without an eddy!

Act v. sc. 1. O, the rich contrast between the Clowns and Hamlet, as two extremes! You see in the former the mockery of logic, and a traditional wit valued, like truth, for its antiquity, and treasured up, like a tune, for use.

‘Ib.’ sc. 1 and 2. Shakspeare seems to mean all Hamlet’s character to be brought together before his final disappearance from the scene;–his meditative excess in the grave-digging, his yielding to pa.s.sion with Laertes, his love for Ophelia blazing out, his tendency to generalize on all occasions in the dialogue with Horatio, his fine gentlemanly manners with Osrick, and his and Shakspeare’s own fondness for presentiment:

But thou would’st not think, how ill all’s here about my heart: but it is no matter.

[Footnote 1: It is so pointed in the modern editions.–Ed.]


Macbeth stands in contrast throughout with Hamlet; in the manner of opening more especially. In the latter, there is a gradual ascent from the simplest forms of conversation to the language of impa.s.sioned intellect,–yet the intellect still remaining the seat of pa.s.sion: in the former, the invocation is at once made to the imagination and the emotions connected therewith. Hence the movement throughout is the most rapid of all Shakspeare’s plays; and hence also, with the exception of the disgusting pa.s.sage of the Porter (Act ii. sc. 3.), which I dare pledge myself to demonstrate to be an interpolation of the actors, there is not, to the best of my remembrance, a single pun or play on words in the whole drama. I have previously given an answer to the thousand times repeated charge against Shakspeare upon the subject of his punning, and I here merely mention the fact of the absence of any puns in Macbeth, as justifying a candid doubt at least, whether even in these figures of speech and fanciful modifications of language, Shakspeare may not have followed rules and principles that merit and would stand the test of philosophic examination. And hence, also, there is an entire absence of comedy, nay, even of irony and philosophic contemplation in Macbeth,–the play being wholly and purely tragic. For the same cause, there are no reasonings of equivocal morality, which would have required a more leisurely state and a consequently greater activity of mind;–no sophistry of self-delusion,–except only that previously to the dreadful act, Macbeth mistranslates the recoilings and ominous whispers of conscience into prudential and selfish reasonings, and, after the deed done, the terrors of remorse into fear from external dangers,–like delirious men who run away from the phantoms of their own brains, or, raised by terror to rage, stab the real object that is within their reach:–whilst Lady Macbeth merely endeavours to reconcile his and her own sinkings of heart by antic.i.p.ations of the worst, and an affected bravado in confronting them. In all the rest, Macbeth’s language is the grave utterance of the very heart, conscience-sick, even to the last faintings of moral death. It is the same in all the other characters.

The variety arises from rage, caused ever and anon by disruption of anxious thought, and the quick transition of fear into it.

In Hamlet and Macbeth the scene opens with superst.i.tion; but, in each it is not merely different, but opposite. In the first it is connected with the best and holiest feelings; in the second with the shadowy, turbulent, and unsanctified cravings of the individual will. Nor is the purpose the same; in the one the object is to excite, whilst in the other it is to mark a mind already excited. Superst.i.tion, of one sort or another, is natural to victorious generals; the instances are too notorious to need mentioning. There is so much of chance in warfare, and such vast events are connected with the acts of a single individual,–the representative, in truth, of the efforts of myriads, and yet to the public and, doubtless, to his own feelings, the aggregate of all,–that the proper temperament for generating or receiving superst.i.tious impressions is naturally produced. Hope, the master element of a commanding genius, meeting with an active and combining intellect, and an imagination of just that degree of vividness which disquiets and impels the soul to try to realize its images, greatly increases the creative power of the mind; and hence the images become a satisfying world of themselves, as is the case in every poet and original philosopher:–but hope fully gratified, and yet the elementary basis of the pa.s.sion remaining, becomes fear; and, indeed, the general, who must often feel, even though he may hide it from his own consciousness, how large a share chance had in his successes, may very naturally be irresolute in a new scene, where he knows that all will depend on his own act and election.

The Wierd Sisters are as true a creation of Shakspeare’s, as his Ariel and Caliban,–fates, furies, and materializing witches being the elements. They are wholly different from any representation of witches in the contemporary writers, and yet presented a sufficient external resemblance to the creatures of vulgar prejudice to act immediately on the audience. Their character consists in the imaginative disconnected from the good; they are the shadowy obscure and fearfully anomalous of physical nature, the lawless of human nature,–elemental avengers without s.e.x or kin:

Fair is foul, and foul is fair; Hover thro’ the fog and filthy air.

How much it were to be wished in playing Macbeth, that an attempt should be made to introduce the flexile character-mask of the ancient pantomime;–that Flaxman would contribute his genius to the embodying and making sensuously perceptible that of Shakspeare!

The style and rhythm of the Captain’s speeches in the second scene should be ill.u.s.trated by reference to the interlude in Hamlet, in which the epic is subst.i.tuted for the tragic, in order to make the latter be felt as the real-life diction. In Macbeth, the poet’s object was to raise the mind at once to the high tragic tone, that the audience might be ready for the precipitate consummation of guilt in the early part of the play. The true reason for the first appearance of the Witches is to strike the key-note of the character of the whole drama, as is proved by their re-appearance in the third scene, after such an order of the king’s as establishes their supernatural power of information. I say information,–for so it only is as to Glamis and Cawdor; the ‘king hereafter’ was still contingent,–still in Macbeth’s moral will; although, if he should yield to the temptation, and thus forfeit his free agency, the link of cause and effect ‘more physico’ would then commence. I need not say, that the general idea is all that can be required from the poet,–not a scholastic logical consistency in all the parts so as to meet metaphysical objectors. But O! how truly Shakspearian is the opening of Macbeth’s character given in the ‘unpossessedness’ of Banquo’s mind, wholly present to the present object,–an unsullied, unscarified mirror!–And how strictly true to nature it is, that Banquo, and not Macbeth himself, directs our notice to the effect produced on Macbeth’s mind, rendered temptible by previous dalliance of the fancy with ambitious thoughts:

Good Sir, why do you start; and seem to fear Things that do sound so fair?

And then, again, still unintroitive, addresses the Witches:–

I’ the name of truth, Are ye fantastical, or that indeed Which outwardly ye show?

Banquo’s questions are those of natural curiosity,–such as a girl would put after hearing a gipsy tell her schoolfellow’s fortune;–all perfectly general, or rather planless. But Macbeth, lost in thought, raises himself to speech only by the Witches being about to depart:-

Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more:-

and all that follows is reasoning on a problem already discussed in his mind,–on a hope which he welcomes, and the doubts concerning the attainment of which he wishes to have cleared up. Compare his eagerness,–the keen eye with which he has pursued the Witches’


Speak, I charge you!

with the easily satisfied mind of the self-uninterested Banquo:–

The air hath bubbles, as the water has, And these are of them:–Whither are they vanish’d?

and then Macbeth’s earnest reply,–

Into the air; and what seem’d corporal, melted As breath into the wind.–_’Would they had staid!_

Is it too minute to notice the appropriateness of the simile ‘as breath,’ &c. in a cold climate?

Still again Banquo goes on wondering like any common spectator:

Were such things here as we do speak about?

whilst Macbeth persists in recurring to the self-concerning:–

Your children shall be kings.

‘Ban’. You shall be king.

‘Macb’. And thane of Cawdor too: went it not so?

So surely is the guilt in its germ anterior to the supposed cause, and immediate temptation! Before he can cool, the confirmation of the tempting half of the prophecy arrives, and the concatenating tendency of the imagination is fostered by the sudden coincidence:–

Glamis, and thane of Cawdor: The greatest is behind.

Oppose this to Banquo’s simple surprise:–

What, can the devil speak true?


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