What Makes Hamlet Romantic is Also What Makes Him Human
The idea, shared by Hamlet
, that it is through our self-reflection that we give meaning to our existence
is not so much the theme of an artistic movement as a defining characteristic of humanity
. As Harold Bloom
writes, “without the introspective conciousness
the Canon is not possible and, to put it most bluntly, neither are we.” Bloom is not so much saying that we could not exist today were it not for Shakespeare
’s creation of Hamlet as that what Hamlet is is what we are. To deny Hamlet’s self-analysis is to deny human nature. It is no wonder Hamlet shares so many preoccupations with the Romantics, concerned as they were with exploring and understanding for themselves the human condition
For the Romantic, being human meant taking the solitary path to enlightenment, always questioning himself while remaining observant of the outside world, pushing the boundaries that his father the Neoclassicist so carefully skirted. Byron’s Manfred broods in his high perches, tormenting himself with regrets about his own actions and nature, above all adamant that he live and die on his own terms. Hamlet, too, questions his own behavior (in his case, his inaction) and personality. Frustrated with his situation, he, like Manfred, wishes for death. In Act I, Scene ii, he moans, “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d his cannon ‘gainst self-slaughter!” What holds him back—religion—is as much a curse as Manfred’s supernatural immortality. Haunted by familial ghosts, people they both loved dearly, Hamlet and Manfred are impelled to action, to play out the scenes that will lead to their deaths.
Rather than suicide, these protagonists suffer the “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable” (Act I, scene ii) world until their tasks are completed, and then are allowed to die for their pursuits. Before he dies, Hamlet avenges the death of his father; in the duel scene in Act V, all who have done wrong, participating in some form of deception, die, although Hamlet also must die for this end. Manfred’s task is somewhat different. It is to affirm his independence. He accomplishes this by declining the offers of both man and spirit in his last hours. He tells the abbot that “whate’er I may have been, or am, doth rest between Heaven and myself.—I shall not choose a mortal to be my mediator.” (Manfred, Act 3, scene 3) and the spirit that comes to claim him that““I do not combat against death, but thee and thy surrounding angels…I stand upon my strength—I do defy—deny—spurn back, and scorn ye!” (Act 3, scene 4) Manfred faces death on his own. Yet both are seeking truth, an honest and uncompromised way to live. For both, death is a kind of relief: “’tis not so difficult to die!” Manfred tells the abbot (Act 3, scene 4), and indeed, in death, the doubts and fears of both characters, as well as the harm they both inflict on loved ones, are eased.
While both characters study great things, for them, especially for Hamlet, the real lesson is not learned in books. It is on returning to Denmark that he learns of human nature from observing real life. Upon being commanded by his father’s ghost to avenge him in Act I, he promises to “wipe away all trivial fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past that youth and observation copied” in his mind and concentrate on the task before him. In doing so, he learns about the reality not talked about in schoolbooks. He learns that all people are not good, even those who appear to be, and that those who are good do not necessarily triumph. That the true learning happens when a person looks up out of his books and experiences life for himself is another Romantic idea. Although Hamlet’s version of living real life isn’t to enjoy nature and converse with commoners, it, like the Romantic’s detached, yearning appreciation of simple, uninhibited life, is something ironically unattainable. His very thoughtfulness is what separates Hamlet from this spontaneity without second-guessing.
Still, “spontaneous overflow of emotion” is what drives the Romantic artist from the stupor of too much thought. These passions are spur-of-the-moment ones, leaving no room for the normally pensive artist to change his mind. Wordsworth writes in his “Introduction to the lyrical ballads” that poetry is such spontaneous overflow. Hamlet’s actions, especially his killing of Polonius, is also such an overflow. It is the pressure and tension of knowing that he must but cannot kill Claudius that boils over and causes him to strike out blindly when he hears a male voice behind his mother’s curtain. Unfortunately for both Hamlet and Polonius, Claudius is not the one behind the curtain. With this action, the chain of events leading up to villain’s and hero’s deaths is begun. No action after this is truly Hamlet’s alone. Claudius, Laertes, and even now-insane Ophelia contribute to the events that allow Hamlet to kill and be killed in a rigged duel against Laertes. This killing of Polonius is the unpremeditated action that allows the Romantic mind, otherwise bogged down by self-questioning, to function.
Hamlet holds that “He that made us with such large discourse…gave us not that capability and godlike reason to fust in us unus’d” for “what is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.” (Act IV, scence iv) What separates man from animal is his ability to ponder. Yet, thought can be debilitating, “conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” (Act III, scene I) Although the problem of the play is Hamlet’s trying to reconcile his thoughtfulness with his need to act, he cannot ever do so. He must rely on what spurts of unplanned action sometimes propel him.
This sporadic energy is what moves the Romantic being. Crippled by but richer for his reflection, questioning all his own actions, he is isolated, pensive, and anxious to shape the world according to his perceptions. Hamlet, too, is this solitary, uncertain character, but it is this uncertainty, this willingness to look at a situation from a different point of view (or from several different points of view), this need to question that makes Hamlet, Romantics, and indeed the thinkers of any age, human beings, not thoughtless animals.