The Orthodoxy of Hamlet
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The Orthodoxy of Hamlet

Chesterton's essay on Shakespeare's Hamlet

I am sometimes tempted to think (like every other person who does think) that the people would always be right if only they were not educated. But this is, of course, quite the wrong way of putting it. The truth is that there is no such thing as education; there is only this education and that education. We are all ready to die in order to give the people this education, and (I hope sincerely) we are all ready to die to prevent the people having that education. Dr. Strong, in David Copperfield, educated little boys; but Mr. Fagin, in Oliver Twist, also educated little boys; they were both what we now call “educationalists”.

But though the first mode of statement is certainly erroneous, one is driven back upon it sometimes in considering the case of the drama. I enjoy the drama far too much ever to be a dramatic critic; and I think that in this I am at one with that real people which never speaks. If anybody wants to know what political democracy is, the answer is simple; it is a desperate and partly hopeless attempt to get at the opinion of the best people – that is, of the people who do not trust themselves. A man can rise to any rank in an oligarchy. But an oligarchy is simply a prize for impudence. An oligarchy says that the victor may be any kind of man, so long as he is not a humble man.

A man in an oligarchical state (such as our own) may become famous by having money, or famous by having an eye for colour, or famous for having social or financial or military success. But he cannot become famous for having humility, like the great saints.

Consequently all the simple and hesitating human people are kept entirely out of the running; and the cads stand for the common people, although as a matter of fact the cads are a minority of the common people. So it is quite especially with the drama. It is utterly untrue that the people do not like Shakespeare. That part of the people that does not like Shakespeare is simply that part of the people that is depopularised. If a certain crowd of Cockneys is bored with Hamlet, the Cockneys are not bored because they are too complex and ingenious for Hamlet. They feel that the excitement of the saloon bar, of the betting ring, of the halfpenny paper, of the topical music hall, is more complex and ingenious than Hamlet; and so it is.

In the absolutely strict sense of the word, the Cockneys are too aesthetic to enjoy Hamlet. They have goaded and jaded their artistic feelings too much to enjoy anything simply beautiful. They are aesthetes; and the definition of an aesthetic is a man who is experienced enough to admire a good picture, but not inexperienced enough to see it. But if you really took simple people, honourable peasants, kind old servants, dreamy tramps, genial thieves, and brigands, to see Hamlet, they would simply be sorry for Hamlet.That is to say, they would simply appreciate the fact that it was a great tragedy.

Now I believe in the judgment of all uncultured people; but it is my misfortune that I am the only quite uncultured person in England who writes articles. My brethren are silent. They will not back me up; they have something better to do. But a few days ago when I saw Miss Julie Marlowe and Mr. Sothern give their very able representation of Hamlet, certain things came into my mind about that play which I feel sure that the other uncultured persons share with me. But they will not speak; with a strange modesty they hide their lack of cultivation under a bushel.

There is a threadbare joke which calls the gallery in a theatre “the gods”. For my part I accept that joke quite seriously. The people in the gallery are the gods. They are the ultimate authority so far as anything human is the ultimate authority. I do not see anything unreasonable in the actor calling upon them with the same gesture with which he calls upon the mountain of Olympus. When the actor looks down, brooding in despair or calling up black Erebus or the evil spirits, then, in such moments, by all means let him bend his black brows and look down into the stalls. But if there be in any acted play anything to make him lift up his heart to heaven, then in God’s name, when he looks up to heaven, let him see the poor.

There is one little point, for instance, upon which I think the public have mistaken Hamlet, not through themselves but through the critics. There is one point on which the uneducated would probably have gone right; only they have been perverted by the educated. I mean this: that everybody in the modern world has talked of Hamlet as a sceptic. The mere fact of seeing the play acted very finely and swiftly by Miss Marlowe and Mr. Sothern has simply swept the last rags of this heresy out of my head. The really interesting thing about Hamlet was that he was not a sceptic at all. He did not doubt at all, except in the sense that every sane man doubts, including popes and crusaders. The primary point is quite clear. If Hamlet had been a sceptic at all there would have been no tragedy of Hamlet. If he had had any scepticism to exercise, he could have exercised it at once upon the highly improbable ghost of his father. He could have called that eloquent person a hallucination, or some other unmeaning thing, have married Ophelia, and gone on eating bread and butter. This is the first evident point.

The tragedy of Hamlet is not that Hamlet is a sceptic. The tragedy of Hamlet is that he is very much too good a philosopher to be a sceptic. His intellect is so clear that it sees at once the rational possibility of ghosts. But the utter mistake of regarding Hamlet as a sceptic has many other instances. The whole theory arose out of quoting stilted passages out of their context, such as “To be or not to be”, or (much worse) the passage in which he says with an almost obvious gesture of fatigue, “Why then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either bad or good, but thinking makes it so”. Hamlet says this because he is getting sick of the society of two silly men; but if anyone wishes to see how entirely opposite is Hamlet’s attitude he can see it in the same conversation. If anyone wishes to listen to the words of a man who in the most final sense is not a sceptic, here are his words:

This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave overhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Oddly enough I have heard this passage quoted as a pessimistic passage. It is, perhaps, the most optimistic passage in all human literature. It is the absolute expression of the ultimate fact of the faith of Hamlet; his faith that, although he cannot see the world is good, yet certainly it is good; his faith that, though he cannot see man as the image of God, yet certainly he is the image of God. The modern, like the modern conception of Hamlet, believes only in mood. But the real Hamlet, like the Catholic Church, believes in reason. Many fine optimists have praised man when they felt like praising him. Only Hamlet has praised man when he felt like kicking him as a monkey of the mud. Many poets, like Shelley and Whitman, have been optimistic when they felt optimistic. Only Shakespeare has been optimistic when he felt pessimistic. This is the definition of a faith. A faith is that which is able to survive a mood. And Hamlet had this from first to last. Early he protests against a law that he recognises: “O that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” Before the end he declares that our clumsy management will be turned to something, “rough-hew it how we will”.

If Hamlet had been a sceptic he would have had an easy life. He would not have known that his moods were moods. He would have called them Pessimism or Materialism, or some silly name. But Hamlet was a great soul, great enough to know that he was not the world. He knew that there was a truth beyond himself, therefore he believed readily in the things most unlike himself, in Horatio and his ghost. All through his story we can read his conviction that he is wrong. And that to a clear mind like his is only another way of stating that there is something that is right. The real sceptic never thinks he is wrong; for the real sceptic does not think that there is any wrong. He sinks through floor after floor of a bottomless universe. But Hamlet was the very reverse of a sceptic. He was a thinker.

This essay originally appeared in Lunacy and Letters (currently out of print). Read more about this essay in The Soul of Wit. For more information on Chesterton’s writings on Shakespeare, read the Chesterton University lecture.