Front Page Titles (by Subject) PLAN OF THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET. - The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters)
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PLAN OF THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET. - Voltaire, The Works of Voltaire, Vol. XIX (Philosophical Letters) 
The Works of Voltaire. A Contemporary Version. A Critique and Biography by John Morley, notes by Tobias Smollett, trans. William F. Fleming (New York: E.R. DuMont, 1901). In 21 vols. Vol. XIX.
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PLAN OF THE TRAGEDY OF HAMLET.
The subject of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, is pretty nearly the same as that of Electra.
Hamlet, king of Denmark, was poisoned by his brother Claudius and his queen, Gertrude, who poured poison into his ear while he was asleep. Claudius succeeded the deceased; and a few days after the burial, the widow married the brother–in–law.
Nobody had ever entertained the least suspicion of the late King Hamlet’s having been poisoned in the manner above related. Claudius reigns in peace. Two soldiers being upon guard before the gate of Claudius’s palace, one says to the other, “How has your hour passed?” The other answers, “Very well, I have not heard a mouse stir.” After some discourse of the same nature, the ghost appears, dressed like the late King Hamlet; one of these soldiers says to his comrade: “Speak to this ghost; you are a scholar.” “That I will,” says the other; “stay and speak, phantom, I command you.” The apparition disappears without answering. The two soldiers, in astonishment, talk of this apparition. The learned soldier remembers that he had heard that “the same thing had happened at the time of the death of Cæsar; tombs were opened, the dead in their shrouds screamed and leaped about in the streets of Rome; it without doubt is a presage of some extraordinary event.”
At these words the ghost appears a second time; then one of the guards cries out, “Phantom, what would you have? Can I do anything for you? Is your coming occasioned by any hidden treasures?” Then the cock crows. The ghost walks off slowly; the sentinels propose striking it with a halberd in order to stop it; but it flies; and the soldiers conclude that it is customary for ghosts to vanish at the crowing of the cock, “For,” say they, “at the time of Advent (Christmas eve) the bird of dawning sings all night, and then spirits dare not wander any longer; the nights are wholesome, the planets shed no bad influence; fairies and sorcerers are without power at so holy and blessed a season.”
Observe, by the by, that this is one of the striking passages that Pope has marked with commas in his edition of Shakespeare, to make readers take notice of its excellence.
After the ghost has thus made his appearance, King Claudius, Gertrude, his queen, and the courtiers, join in a conversation in the hall of the palace. Young Hamlet, son of the poisoned monarch, the hero of the piece, receives with sadness and melancholy the marks of friendship shown him by Claudius and Gertrude; this prince was far from suspecting that his father had been poisoned by them; but he was highly displeased that his mother had so soon married the brother of her first husband. Gertrude dissuades her son from continuing to wear mourning for his father, to no purpose. “It is not,” says he, “my coat as black as ink, nor the appearances of grief, which constitute the real mourning; this mourning is at the bottom of the heart, the rest is only vain parade.” He declares that he has an inclination to quit Denmark, and go to school to Wittenberg. “Dear Hamlet,” says the queen, “do not go to school to Wittenberg; stay with us.” Hamlet answers that he will endeavor to obey her. Claudius is charmed at the answer; and orders that all of his court should go and drink, while the cannons were fired off; though gunpowder was not then invented.
Hamlet, left alone a prey to his reflections, makes the following soliloquy: “What, my mother, whom my father loved to such a degree; my mother, for whom my father found his appetite increase the longer he ate! My mother marries another at the end of a month—another, no more to be compared to him than a satyr is to be compared to the sun! the month being scarce elapsed! What do I say? before she had worn out the shoes with which she followed the body of my poor father! Ah, frailty is the name of woman; my heart bursts,1 for I must hold my tongue.” Here again Pope gives notice to his readers that this passage is worthy of their admiration.
In the meantime the two sentinels come to inform Prince Hamlet that they had seen a ghost which bore a strong resemblance to his father; this gives the prince great uneasiness; he is impatient to see this apparition; he swears that he will speak to it, though hell should gap and bid him hold his peace; and he goes home to wait the close of the day with impatience.
While he is in his apartment at the palace, a young person named Ophelia, daughter of Lord Polonius, great chamberlain, appears in the house of her father, with her brother Laertes. This Ophelia has some inclination for Prince Hamlet. Laertes gives her very good advice.
“Do you see me, sister, a prince, the heir to a kingdom, should not carve for himself; his morsels should be chosen for him; take care how you lose your heart with him, and how you open your chaste treasure to his violent importunities. It is dangerous to pull off one’s mask, even by moonlight; putrefaction often destroys the children of the spring before their buds are blown; and in the morning, and the dew of youth, contagious winds are much to be feared.”
Ophelia answers, “Ah, dear brother, don’t deal with me as some ungracious pastors do, who show the steep and thorny road to heaven, whilst they themselves, like bold libertines, do the reverse of what they preach.”
The brother and sister having had this conversation, leave the stage to Prince Hamlet, who returns with a friend and the same sentinels who had seen the ghost. The apparition again presents itself before them; the prince speaks to it with respect and resolution; the ghost answers only by making Hamlet a sign to follow him. “Ah, do not follow him,” said his friend; “he that follows a ghost is in danger of losing his senses.” “No matter,” answers Hamlet, “I will go with him.” They endeavor to prevent him, but without success. “My destiny cries out to me to go,” says he, “and makes the smallest of my arteries as strong as the lion of Nemea. Yes, I’ll follow him, and I’ll make a ghost of whoever opposes me.”
Then he goes out with the ghost, and they both return soon after, quite familiar with each other. The ghost informs him that he is in purgatory, and that he is going to relate to him things that will make his hair stand on end like quills upon a porcupine. “’Tis thought,” says he, “that I died of the bite of a serpent in my garden, but the serpent is the man who wears my crown; it is my brother; and what is most horrible is, that he put me to death without my so much as receiving extreme unction. Avenge me; farewell, my son; glow–worms show that the morning approaches; farewell, remember me.” The friends of Prince Hamlet then return, and ask him what the ghost had said. “It is a very honest ghost,” answers the prince, “but swear that you will divulge nothing of what it has intrusted me with.” Immediately the voice of the ghost is heard, which cries out to Hamlet’s friends, “Swear.” “You must swear by my sword,” says the prince to them. The ghost cries underground, “Swear by his sword.” They swear. Hamlet goes with them without forming any resolution. You may remember that this same Prince Hamlet was in love with Ophelia, daughter of Lord Polonius, great chamberlain, the sister of young Laertes, who travels to France for his improvement. The good man, Polonius, recommends Laertes to his governor, and tells him in plain terms that the young man sometimes goes to the bawdy–house, and that he should be narrowly watched. While he is giving directions to the governor, his daughter Ophelia enters in a terrible fright, “Ah, my lord! while I was at work in my closet, Prince Hamlet entered with his waistcoat unbuttoned, without hat or garters, with his stockings upon his heels, with knees trembling and knocking against each other, pale as his shirt; he a long time examined my face, as if he was going to draw it, shook my arm, shook his head, heaved several deep sighs, and went off like a blind man who gropes his way.” The chamberlain, Polonius, who does not know that Hamlet has seen a ghost, and that he may possibly have lost his senses, thinks that his excessive love for Ophelia may have turned his head; and here the matter rests. The king and queen talk a long time of the madness of the prince. Ambassadors from Norway arrive at court, and hear this accident. The good man, Polonius, who is an old dotard, much more crazy than Hamlet, assures the king that he will take care of this disordered person; “’Tis my duty,” says he, “for what is duty? ’Tis duty just as day is day, night, night, and time, time; therefore since brevity is the soul of wit, and loquacity the body, I will be brief: Your noble son is mad; I call it mad: for what is madness but being mad? In fine, madam, he is mad; this is fact; it is a great pity, it is a great pity it should be true; the only business now is to find the cause of the effect. Now the cause is, that I have a daughter.” To prove that it was love that had deprived the prince of his senses, he reads to the king and queen the letters that Hamlet had written to Ophelia.
While thus the king, the queen, and all the court talk of the melancholy condition of the prince, he arrives in great disorder, and by his discourse confirms the opinion that had been conceived of his madness; he however sometimes makes answers that reveal a soul deeply wounded, and which are replete with good sense. The chamberlains, who have orders to amuse him, propose to him to hear a company of comedians, who had just arrived. Hamlet talks very rationally of plays; the players act a scene before him, he gives his opinion of it with great good sense. Afterward, when he is alone, he declares that he is not so mad as he appears to be. “What,” says he, “a player has wept for Hecuba! What’s Hecuba to him? What would he then do if his uncle and his mother had poisoned his father, as Claudius and Gertrude have poisoned mine? Ah, cursed poisoner, assassin, fornicator, debauchee, base villain, and I now, what an ass am I? is not this fine conduct in me, the son of a king who has been poisoned; me, from whom heaven and hell demand vengeance, to content myself with evaporating my resentment in words like a common whore? I am satisfied with cursing like a slut, a beggar–woman, a scullion.”
He then forms a resolution to avail himself of the above–mentioned players, to discover whether his uncle and his mother had in fact poisoned his father; “for after all,” says he, “the apparition may have deceived me; it is perhaps the devil that hath spoken to me; this matter must be cleared up.” Hamlet then directs the players to play a pantomime, in which one is to sleep, and another to pour poison into his ear. It is very certain, that if King Claudius is guilty, he will be greatly surprised when he sees the pantomime; he will turn pale, his guilt will be seen upon his face; Hamlet will be sure of the crime, and will have a right to revenge.
Thus said, thus done. The company comes and represents this scene in dumb show before the king, the queen, and the whole court; and the dumb show is succeeded by a scene in verse. The king and queen look upon these two scenes as highly impertinent; they suspect Hamlet of having played them this trick, and of not being quite so great a madman as he appeared to be; this idea gave them great perplexity; they trembled with fear of having been detected. What course could they take? King Claudius resolves to send Hamlet to England, upon pretext of curing his madness; and writes to his good friend, the king of England, to desire it as a favor of him, that he would hang the young traveller upon the receipt of his letter.
But the queen is desirous of questioning and sounding Hamlet before his departure; and for fear he should do some mischief in his madness, the old chamberlain, Polonius, hides himself behind a tapestry hanging, in order to come to the queen’s assistance, if there should be occasion.
The prince, who was mad, or who pretended to be so, comes to confer with his mother, Gertrude. In his way, he sees in a corner King Claudius, who was seized with a fit of remorse; he is afraid of being one day damned for having poisoned his brother, married his widow, and usurped his crown. He kneels down and makes a short prayer, not worth repeating. Hamlet, at first, has an inclination to grasp the opportunity to kill him; but reflecting that Claudius is in a state of grace, because he is then offering up his prayers to God, he takes care not to kill him in such circumstances. “What a fool I should be,” says he; “I should send him directly to heaven, whereas he sent my father to purgatory. Come, my sword, wait for another time in order to stab him; wait till he is drunk, gaming, or swearing, or till he is in bed with some incestuous woman,1 or till he is doing some other deed that is not likely to work out his salvation; then fall upon him, that he may kick at heaven, and that his soul may be damned, and black as hell, to which he will descend.” This likewise is a passage which Pope’s commas direct us to admire.
Hamlet then having deferred the murder of Claudius, in order to damn him, comes to confer with his mother; and notwithstanding his madness, overwhelms her with such bitter reproaches of her crime, as pierce her to the very heart. The old chamberlain, Polonius, is apprehensive of his carrying matters too far; he cries out for help behind the hanging; Hamlet takes it for granted that it was the king who had hid himself there, to listen to their conversation. “Ah mother,” cries he, “there is a great rat behind the hangings.” He thereupon draws his sword, runs to the rat, and kills the good man Polonius. “Ah my son, what are you about?” cries the queen. “Mother,” returns Hamlet, “it is the king that I have slain!” “It is a wicked action to kill a king;”1 “Almost as wicked, my good mother, as to kill a king and lie with his brother.” This conversation lasts a long time; and Hamlet, as he goes out, walks upon the dead body of the old chamberlain, and is ready to fall down.2
The good lord chamberlain was an old fool, and is represented as such, as has already been seen; his daughter Ophelia, who, no doubt, resembled him in this respect, becomes raving mad when she is informed of her father’s death: she runs upon the stage with flowers and straw upon her head, sings ballads, and then goes and drowns herself. Thus there are three mad people in the play, the chamberlain, and Hamlet, without reckoning the other buffoons who play their parts.
The corpse of Ophelia is taken out of the river, and her funeral is prepared. In the meantime King Claudius had made the prince embark for England; Hamlet, while upon his passage, had conceived a suspicion that he had been sent to London with some treacherous design: he finds in the pocket of one of the chamberlains, his conductor, the letter of King Claudius to his friend, the king of England, sealed with the great seal; in it he finds the king of England earnestly recommended to despatch him the moment of his arrival. What does he do? He happened luckily to have the great seal of his father in his purse; he throws the letter into the sea, and writes another which he signs with the name of Claudius, and requests the king of England to hang the bearers upon their arrival: then he folds up the whole packet, and seals it with the seal of the kingdom.
This done, he finds a pretext for returning to court. The first thing he sees is two grave–diggers digging Ophelia’s grave; these two laborers are likewise buffoons in the tragedy. They discuss the question whether Ophelia should be buried in consecrated ground after having drowned herself, and they conclude that she should be buried in Christian burial because she was a young lady of quality. Then they maintain that laborers are the most ancient gentlemen upon earth, because they are of the same trade as Adam. “But was Adam a gentleman?” says one of the grave–diggers. “Yes,” answers the other, “for he was the first that ever bore arms.” “What, did he bear arms?” says the grave–digger. “Without doubt,” says the other; “can a man till the ground without spades and pickaxes? He therefore bore arms; he was a gentleman.”
In the midst of these fine harangues, and the songs sung by these gentlemen in the parish church of the palace, arrives Prince Hamlet with one of his friends, and they contemplate the skulls found by the grave–diggers. Hamlet thinks he has discovered the skull of a statesman able to cheat God, then that of a courtier, then the skull of a court lady, and of a knavish lawyer, and he is very liberal of his railleries upon the owners of those skulls. At last the skull of the king’s jester is found, and it is concluded that there is not any great difference between the brain of Cæsar or Alexander and that of this jester; in fine, the grave is made while they thus dispute and sing. Holy water is brought by the priests. The body of Ophelia is brought upon the stage. The king and queen follow the bier; Laertes in mourning accompanies the corpse of his sister Ophelia; and when the body is laid in the ground, Laertes, frantic with grief, leaps into the grave. Hamlet, who remembers that he had once loved Ophelia, leaps in likewise. Laertes, enraged at seeing in the same grave with him the person who had killed Polonius, taking him for a rat, flies in his face; they wrestle in the grave, and the king causes them to be parted, in order to preserve decency in the funeral ceremonies.
In the meantime, King Claudius, who is a great politician, perceives that it is absolutely necessary to despatch such a dangerous madman as Prince Hamlet; and since that young prince had not been hanged at London, it is thought highly proper that he should be despatched in Denmark.
The artful Claudius has recourse to the following stratagem. He was used to poisoning: “Hark ye,” says he to young Laertes, “Prince Hamlet has killed your father, my great chamberlain; that you may have it in your power to revenge yourself, I shall propose to you a little piece of chivalry: I will lay a wager with you that in twelve passes you will not hit Hamlet three times; you shall fence with him before the whole court. You shall have a sharp foil, the point of which I have dipped in a poison exceeding subtile. If you unluckily should not be able to hit the prince, I will take care to have a bottle of poisoned wine ready for him upon the table. People that fence must drink: Hamlet will drink, and one way or other must lose his life.” Laertes thinks the expedient, for amusement and revenge, admirably devised.
Hamlet accepts the challenge; bottles are placed upon the table; two champions appear with foils in their hands in the presence of King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, and the whole Danish court; they fence; Laertes wounds Hamlet with his poisoned foil. Hamlet, finding himself wounded, cries out: “Treachery”; and, in a rage, tears the poisoned foil from Laertes, stabs him, and stabs the king: Queen Gertrude, in a fight, drinks, in order to recover herself; thus she is poisoned likewise; and all four, that is, King Claudius, Gertrude, Laertes, and Hamlet, die upon the stage.
It is remarkable that an express just then arrives that the two chamberlains, who had sailed for England with the packet sealed with the great seal of Denmark, had been despatched upon their landing. Thus there does not remain one person of the drama alive: but, to supply the place of the deceased, there is one Fort–en–bras, a relative of the family, who had conquered Poland during the representation of the piece, and who comes at the conclusion of it to offer himself as a candidate for the throne of Denmark.
This is the whole plan of the celebrated tragedy of “Hamlet,” the masterpiece of the London theatre. Such is the work that is preferred to “Cinna”!
Here there are two important questions to be solved; the first is, How could so many wonderful things be generated in one head alone? For it must be acknowledged that all the plays of the divine Shakespeare are in the very same taste. The second is, How have audiences been able to work themselves up to see these pieces with transport, and how can they still be attended to in an age which has produced the “Cato” of Addison?
The astonishment occasioned by the first wonder will cease entirely when it is known that Shakespeare has taken the subjects of all his tragedies from history or romances; and that he has done nothing more than turn into dialogues the romances of Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet, written entirely by Saxo, the grammarian, to whom the whole glory of the performance is due.
The second question, that is, as to the pleasure taken in seeing these tragedies, is somewhat more difficult to be accounted for; but this seems to be the reason of it, according to the profound reflections of certain philosophers:
Chairmen, sailors, hackney–coachmen, apprentice boys, butchers, and clerks are passionately fond of fights; give them cock–fights, bull–fights, or prize–fights, buryings, duels, executions, witchcraft and ghosts, and they crowd to the theatre; many a nobleman is as curious as the populace. The citizens of London found in the tragedies of Shakespeare everything that can please the curious. Those at court were obliged to conform to the current taste: how could they avoid admiring what the most rational of the citizens admired? There was nothing better to be seen during a hundred and fifty years; admiration gathered strength, and was converted into idolatry. A few strokes of genius, a few happy lines replete with nature and force, which spectators got by heart whether they would or no, procured indulgence for the rest; and soon the whole piece succeeded by means of a few detached beauties.
Certain it is, that such beauties are to be met with in Shakespeare. M. de Voltaire is the first who caused them to be known in France; it is he who taught us, about thirty years ago, the names of Milton and Shakespeare: but the translations which he has given us of some passages of these authors, are they faithful? He apprises us himself that they are not; he has rather copied than translated. In this manner he has rendered in verse the soliloquy of Hamlet at the beginning of the second scene of the third act1 :
Through all the obscurity of this literal translation, which can only render each word of the English by the word which answers to it in French, it is easy to discover the genius of the English language; its natural turn, which is afraid neither of the lowest nor of the most gigantic ideas; its energy, which other nations would look upon as harshness; its boldness, which minds not accustomed to foreign turns of expression would look upon as bombast; but under these veils may be discovered profoundness, something that engages and that affects much more than eloquence could. Hence it is that almost all the English have this soliloquy by heart. It is an unpolished diamond that has spots; but if it was polished it would lose part of its weight.
There, perhaps, is not a more striking example of the diversity of tastes in different nations. After this let critics talk of the laws of Aristotle, the three unities, decency, and the necessity of never leaving the stage empty as well as of never making any person of the drama enter or go out without an obvious reason; of connecting an intrigue with art, and unravelling it naturally; of expressing oneself in terms at once noble and simple; of making princes speak in such a manner as becomes their quality, and as they would choose to do; of never deviating from the rules of language. It is evident that there is a way of charming a whole nation without taking all this trouble.
If Shakespeare, for these reasons, bears the palm from Corneille, we will acknowledge that Racine is contemptible in comparison with the tender and elegant Otway. To be convinced of this, it will be sufficient to cast an eye upon the following abstract of the tragedy entitled “The Orphan.”
[1 ]Here M. de Voltaire’s translation of Shakespeare is evidently defective; the line in the original is, “But burst my heart, for I must hold my tongue.”
[1 ]A mistranslation. The verse in Hamlet is, “Or in the incestuous pleasures of his bed.” Meaning in the embraces of Gertrude, who had been his brother’s wife.
[1 ]This passage is manifestly translated wrong.
[2 ]This circumstance is entirely of the invention of M. de Voltaire; not contented with depreciating Shakespeare, he even misrepresents him.
[1 ]Voltaire’s French paraphrase is given in a preceding article on “English Tragedy.”