Johnson On Shakespeare – By Samuel Johnson


[189] Act I. Scene i. (I. i. 63.)

He smote the sleaded Polack on the ice.

Polack was in that age, the term for an inhabitant of Poland: Polaque, French. As in a translation of Passeratius‘s epitaph on Henry III of France, published by Camden :

Whether thy chance or choice thee hither brings,
Stay, passenger, and wail the best of kings.
This little stone a great king’s heart doth hold,
Who rul’d the fickle French and 
Polacks bold:
So frail are even the highest earthly things.
Go, passenger, and wail the hap of kings

Act I. Scene i. (I. i. 138.) If thou hast any sound.

The speech of Horatio to the spectre is very elegant and noble, and congruous to the common traditions of the causes of apparitions.

Act I. Scene i. (I. i. 153 foll.) Whether in sea or fire, &c.

According to the pneumatology of that time, every element was inhabited by its peculiar order of spirits, who had dispositions different, according to their various places of abode. The meaning therefore is, that all spirits extravagant, wandering out of their element, whether aerial spirits visiting earth, or earthly spirits ranging the air, return to their station, to their proper limits in which they are confined.

[190] Act I. Scene ix. (I. v. 154) Swear by my sword.

Mr. Garrick produced me a passage, I think, in Brant ôme, from which it appeared, that it was common to swear upon the sword, that is, upon the cross which the old swords had upon the hilt.

Act II. Scene ii. (II. i. 114-17.)

It is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions,
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion.

This is not the remark of a weak man. The vice of age is too much suspicion. Men long accustomed to the wiles of life cast commonly beyond themselves, let their cunning go further than reason can attend it. This is always the fault of a little mind, made artful by long commerce with the world.

Act II. Scene iv. (II. ii.)

Polonius is a man bred in courts, exercised in business, stored with observation, confident of his knowledge, proud of his eloquence, and declining into dotage. His mode of oratory is truly represented as designed to ridicule the practice of those times, of prefaces that made no introduction, and of method that embarrassed rather than explained. This part of his character is accidental, the rest is natural. Such a man is positive and confident, because he knows that his mind was once strong, and knows not that it is become weak. Such a man excels in general principles, but fails in the particular application. He is knowing in retrospect, and ignorant in foresight. While he depends upon his memory, and can draw from his repositories of knowledge, he utters weighty sentences, and gives useful counsel; but as the mind in its enfeebled state cannot be kept long busy and intent, the old man is subject to [191] sudden dereliction of his faculties, he loses the order of his ideas, and entangles himself in his own thoughts, till he recovers the leading principle, and falls again into his former train. This idea of dotage encroaching upon wisdom, will solve all the phænomena of the character of Polonius.

Act II. Scene vi. (II. ii. 269) The shadow of a dream.

Shakespeare has accidentally inverted an expression of Pindar, that the state of humanity is [Greek words], the dream of a shadow.

Act III. Scene ii. (III. i. 56 foll.) To be or not to be?

Of this celebrated soliloquy, which bursting from a man distracted with contrariety of desires, and overwhelmed with the magnitude of his own purposes, is connected rather in the speaker’s mind, than on his tongue, I shall endeavour to discover the train, and to shew how one sentiment produces another.

Hamlet, knowing himself injured in the most enormous and atrocious degree, and seeing no means of redress, but such as must expose him to the extremity of hazard, meditates on his situation in this manner: Before I can form any rational scheme of action under this pressure of distress, it is necessary to decide, whether, after our present state, we are to be or not to be. That is the question, which, as it shall be answered, will determine, whether ’tis nobler, and more suitable to the dignity of reason, to suffer the outrages of fortune patiently, or to take arms against them, and by opposing end them, though perhaps with the loss of life. If to die, were to sleep, no more, and by a sleep to end the miseries of our nature, such a sleep were devoutly to be wished; but if to sleep in death be to dream, to retain our powers of sensibility, we must pause to consider, in that sleep of death what dreams may come.  This consideration [192] makes calamity so long endured; for who would bear the vexations of life, which might be ended by a bare bodkin, but that he is afraid of something in unknown futurity? This fear it is that gives efficacy to conscience, which, by turning the mind upon this regard, chills the ardour of resolution, checks the vigour of enterprise, and makes the current of desire stagnate in inactivity.

We may suppose that he would have applied these general observations to his own case, but that he discovered Ophelia.

Act III. Scene ii. (III. i. 70.) The whips and scorns of time.

It may be remarked, that Hamlet, in his enumeration of miseries, forgets, whether properly or not, that he is a prince, and mentions many evils to which inferior stations only are exposed.

Act III. Scene ii. (III. i. 89). Nymph, in thy orisons, &c.

This is a touch of nature. Hamlet, at the sight of Ophelia, does not immediately recollect, that he is to personate madness, but makes her an address grave and solemn, such as the foregoing meditation excited in his thoughts.

Act III. Scene v.

I know not why our editors should with such implacable anger, persecute our predecessors. [Greek words], the dead it is true can make no resistance, they may be attacked with great security; but since they can neither feel nor mend, the safety of mauling them seems greater than the pleasure; nor perhaps would it much misbeseem us to remember, amidst our triumphs over the nonsensical and the senseless, that we likewise are men; that debemur morti, and as Swift observed to Burnet , shall soon be among the dead ourselves.

[193] Act III. Scene ix. (III. iii. 94-5.)

That his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto it goes.

This speech, in which Hamlet, represented as a virtuous character, is not content with taking blood for blood, but contrives damnation for the man that he would punish, is too horrible to be read or to be uttered.

Act IV. Scene v. (IV. v. 84.) In hugger mugger to inter him.

All the modern editions that I have consulted give it,

In private to inter him; –

That the words now replaced are better, I do not undertake to prove; it is sufficient that they are Shakespeare‘s: If phraseology is to be changed as words grow uncouth by disuse, or gross by vulgarity, the history of every language will be lost; we shall no longer have the words of any authour; and as these alterations will be often unskilfully made, we shall in time have very little of his meaning.

Act IV. Scene ix. (IV. vii. 20-1.)

Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces.

This simile is neither very seasonable in the deep interest of this conversation, nor very accurately applied. If the spring had changed base metals to gold, the thought had been more proper.

Act V. Scene i. (V. i. 84-5.)

This might be the pate of a politician, which this ass o’er-offices.

In the quarto, for over-offices is, over-reaches, which agrees better with the sentence. I believe both the words were Shakespeare‘s. An author in revising his work, when his original ideas have faded from his [194] mind, and new observations have produced new sentiments, easily introduces images which have been more newly impressed upon him, without observing their want of congruity to the general texture of his original design.

Act V. Scene ii. (V. i. 254.)

Allow’d her virgin RITES.
The old quarto reads virgin CRANTS.

I have been informed by an anonymous correspondent, that crants is the German word for garlands, and I suppose it was retained by us from the Saxons. To carry garlands before the bier of a maiden, and to hang them over her grave, is still the practice in rural parishes.

Crants therefore was the original word, which the authour, discovering it to be provincial, and perhaps not understood, changed to a term more intelligible, but less proper. Maiden rites give no certain or definite image. He might have put maiden wreaths, or maiden garlands, but he perhaps bestowed no thought upon it, and neither genius nor practice will always supply a hasty writer with the most proper diction.

Act V. Scene iii. (V. ii. 6-7.)

And prais’d be rashness for it.

Hamlet, delivering an account of his escape, begins with saying, That he rashly – and then is carried into a reflection upon the weakness of human wisdom. I rashly – praised be rashness for it – Let us not think these events casual, but let us know, that is, take notice and remember, that we sometimes succeed by indiscretion, when we fail by deep plots, and infer the perpetual superintendence and agency of the Divinity. The observation is just, and will be allowed by every [195] human being who reflects on the course of his own life.

Act V. Scene iii. (V. ii. 41-2.)

As Peace should still her wheaten garland wear,
And stand a 
COMMA ‘tween their amities;

The expression of our authour is, like many of his phrases, sufficiently constrained and affected, but it is not incapable of explanation. The Comma is the note of connection and continuity of sentences; the Period is the note of abruption and disjunction. Shakespeare had it perhaps in his mind to write, That unless England complied with the mandate, war should put a period to their amity; he altered his mode of diction, and thought that, in an opposite sense, he might put, That Peace should stand a Comma between their amities. This is not an easy style; but is it not the style of Shakespeare?

Act V. Scene v. (V. ii. 240.)

HAMLET. Give me your pardon, Sir. I’ve done you wrong.

I wish Hamlet had made some other defence; it is unsuitable to the character of a good or a brave man to shelter himself in falsehood.

If the dramas of Shakespeare were to be characterised, each by the particular excellence which distinguishes it from the rest, we must allow to the tragedy of Hamlet the praise of variety. The incidents are so numerous, that the argument of the play would make a long tale. The scenes are interchangeably diversified with merriment and solemnity; with merriment that includes judicious and instructive observations, and solemnity, not strained by poetical violence above the natural sentiments of man. New characters appear from time to time in continual succession, exhibiting various forms of life and particular modes [196] of conversation. The pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth, the mournful distraction of Ophelia fills the heart with tenderness, and every personage produces the effect intended, from the apparition that in the first act chills the blood with horror, to the fop in the last, that exposes affectation to just contempt.

The conduct is perhaps not wholly secure against objections. The action is indeed for the most part in continual progression, but there are some scenes which neither forward nor retard it. Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.

Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent. After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing.

The catastrophe is not very happily produced; the exchange of weapons is rather an expedient of necessity, than a stroke of art. A scheme might easily have been formed, to kill Hamlet with the dagger, and Laertes with the bowl.

The poet is accused of having shewn little regard to poetical justice, and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability. The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it; and the gratification which would arise from the destruction of an usurper and a murderer, is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia, the young, the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious.