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To Act or Not to Act: How Coleridge Changed the Way We See Hamlet

The year of our Lord 1813 is recorded as one of the most tempestuous years in the history of mankind.  After a Russian campaign that ended in utter failure, the Napoleonic wars moved to the German lands.  Having triumphed over the Austrians near Dresden, the French Imperial army faced the coalition armies of Russia, Prussia and Austria at the Battle of Leipzig, the largest and bloodiest military confrontation in Europe before World War I.  The clash of European superpowers marked the first defeat of Napoleon in a battle and the end of the French presence east of Rhine.  Around the same time, on the other side of the Atlantic, the young American army defeated the British at the Battle of Thames, in which Tecumseh, the legendary Shawnee leader, completed his journey on Earth.  The same calendar year also saw the birth of two great composers, Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, as well as the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.  Jane Austen published her novel Pride and Prejudice, and pineapple was planted for the first time in Hawaii. 

Regardless of how significant these events were, another occurrence that took place in 1813, just as worthy of attention, is the main topic of this paper. The event we are talking about made one tragedy the most significant and most performed theatre play in the following two hundred years.  Exactly two centuries ago, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known as an English Romantic poet, held a series of lectures about Shakespeare. His revolutionary insights about Hamlet changed the perception of both the public and the critics about the tragedy to such an extent that this hitherto misunderstood and negatively evaluated Renaissance work became, almost overnight, one of the most respected and most frequently studied works of drama, of literature in general.  

It happens very rarely that an individual effort can transform the reception of an art work in such a manner. How did Coleridge accomplish this masterstroke? In short, he recognised his own self in the character of Hamlet, and, being one of the most gifted artists of the written and spoken word, he depicted the complex mental structure of the Danish prince in an original, penetrating and extremely intriguing way. With his new vision of the two-hundred-year-old character and play, Coleridge defeated numerous prejudices about Hamlet and stimulated the imagination of future actors, dramatists, directors and critical interpreters. In a word, Samuel Taylor Coleridge made the great Shakespearean play an inexhaustible source of artistic inspiration.

One cannot argue, nevertheless, that Hamlet was a completely undistinguished drama in the first two centuries of its existence on the stage. Performances of this play were best known for the appearance of the ghost, which was Shakespeare’s frequent stunt, although not in such a dramatic and purposeful manner, and for the picturesque dramatisation of melancholy and madness. The element the critics, and even the public under their influence, could least easily buy, though, was the long delay of Hamlet’s revenge. Did Shakespeare just unskilfully construct the plot, or was there something wrong with the main protagonist? In other words, “Who is crazy here, we or Hamlet?” seemed to be the main question of the audience. For, from the very opening act, the Danish prince is not only convinced who had killed his father, but he also seems determined to avenge him. The bloody reprisal, however, does not happen until the last, fifth act, and in the meantime Hamlet succeeds to delay the unpleasant act in various ways.  

Francis Gentleman, George Stevens and Mark Akenside were especially loud in the accusation and belittlement of Shakespeare’s work, but Coleridge’s reaction was mostly caused by Samuel Johnson’s critique. The tireless literary expert and language reformer had a strong influence on the intellectual climate in the age of a rapid development of English civil society and readership in the 18th century, and a confutation of his offensive evaluation represented a real challenge. Dr. Johnson simply did not understand the character of Hamlet, Coleridge was convinced.

Shakespeare placed Hamlet in the most stimulating circumstances a human being can be placed, the Romantic poet asserted. He is an heir to the throne, his father dies in an unexplainable manner, and his mother deposes him by marrying Hamlet’s uncle. Even this is not enough. The spirit of the murdered father appears to convince the son he was poisoned by his own brother. And what kind of reaction does that produce in the son?  An immediate action and revenge? No: an endless rationalisation and hesitation, a constant instigation of the mind to act, and an equally constant avoidance of action. For an hour and a half or so, the audience witnesses a ceaseless chastisement to oneself because of irresolution and lethargy, and a helpless contemplation of the gradual evaporation of the original energy and determination.  Hamlet does not hesitate because of cowardice, Coleridge convinces us, since he is created as one of the most courageous characters of his age, nor because of a lack of thoughtfulness and slow comprehension, since he sees through the souls of the people surrounding him.  He delays the act exclusively due to an aversion toward action, manifested in those who keep the entire world to themselves. Put in modern terminology of psychoanalysis, Hamlet is introverted, and as such entirely turned toward the inner kingdom of his mind.

Samuel Johnson was especially bothered by the scene in which Hamlet enters the premises of his uncle with a sword and an intention to kill him, but he changes his mind because he finds the king in prayer. For him, Hamlet’s fear that uncle would be saved if murdered in the moment of confession and repentence is so terryfing, it is not worthy of being put into the mouth of a human being. The decision to allow the king to avoid death at that moment is only an expected result of the hero’s irresoluteness, Coleridge protested. Hamlet’s justification has to be understood only as an excuse not to utilise a perfect opportunity for revenge.  

Dr. Johnson also argued that Shakespeare included Hamlet’s journey to England only because it was found in the original story about the Danish prince by François de Belleforest, with no dramatic purposefulness of that episode. But the author took the hero to the trip because he saw that this event contributes to the strengthening and better explanation of the truth peculiar to human nature, Coleridge thought. It suits Hamlet’s character to suddenly let the enemy decide about his fate in the very midst of putting off the execution.  In his interpretation Johnson underestimated Shakespeare, who, according to Coleridge, had perfectly planned his tragedies. The tragic significance Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, Hamlet’s consorts on the ship, attribute to themselves, was later confirmed by Tom Stoppard. The young playwright understood well the role of those two grotesque characters, and he skillfully portrayed their absurd existence. Hamlet is full of decisiveness, Coleridge exclaimed, but deprived of the feature of the mind which executes the decision already made. He is a man who lives in meditation, called on to action by every human and divine motive, but, alas, the grant purpose of his life is defeated by ceaseless planning.

How did Coleridge succeed in describing Hamlet so accurately and convincingly? Because he completely identified with him. In the character of the Danish nobleman he recognised himself, his unconditional dedication to his own thoughts and fantasies, indecisiveness in acting and propensity for endless procrastination. Majority of the critics and Coleridge’s biographers agree on one thing: the gap between his capabilities and his artistic achievement was simply immense. Whoever would meet him would feel a great awe toward the poet’s resonant disposition, amazing erudition, intellectual curiosity and lively, seductive spirit. For a man of such great potential, Coleridge completed very few works. During a life that did not end abruptly or too early, he constructed innumerate plans and projects, but he did not possess the perseverance and patience to finish them. He famously compared himself to a tropic plant with mighty leaves that grows quickly, but remains week, vulnerable and short-lived. It seems that Coleridge has touched upon every possible intellectual and creative effort, but he was not physically able to keep up with his insatiable imagination. He wrote his best known poems – “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner”, “Kubla Kahn” and “Christabel” – in the period of only six months, and of those three he completed only the first one. His excuse for not finishing the unusual and extraordinary “Kubla Kahn” was that a mailman interrupted his dream, which he had after taking a dose of opium, and after the visit the vision permanently evaporated from his mind. If someone was, therefore, capable of understanding the essence of Hamlet’s personality, it was Coleridge. This poet was not assigned an execution of such a responsible act as murder of an uncle and king, but he still constantly berated himself because of all the unfulfilled projects. Just as Hamlet, Coleridge would all too easily fall into the comfort of his imagination and physical immobility.

In the imagination of the 19th century Europe, the Danish prince became famous as a colorful representative of a certain psychological type. Critics and the audience interpreted his character in different ways, but Hamlet did not leave anyone indifferent. Ivan Turgenev, for example, divided all people into two types: you are either a Hamlet or a Don Quixote. If Don Quixote represents faith in something eternal, in truth found outside of every individual, and dedication to an ideal, then Hamlet symbolises the inability to find a guiding idea, and a person always obsessed not with his own duties, but his position. Hamlet is aware of his own weakness, Turgenev asserts, but every self-realisation represents a force – this is the source of his irony, which is opposed to the enthusiasm of Don Quixote. Hamlet is a thinker and not a doer.

Just like Coleridge, Hamlet is turned toward his self and resides only within his own psyche, which implies that he is not capable of external action. Hence, Coleridge concludes: “Action is the ultimate goal of everything.  No intellect, no matter how great, is worthy of taking us away from action and taking us to contemplation until the time for action is gone and there is nothing we can do about it.  Someone told me, ‘This is a satire about oneself.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s an elegy’.” And elegies, as we know, end in sorrow. So Hamlet, although with his goal accomplished, ends up on the ground with a hole in his belly, and Coleridge ends up deeply convinced that he could have achieved much more in life, and, because of that, inconsolably and utterly disappointed.

Svetozar Postic


Bibliography

Farley-Hills, David, ed. Critical Responses to Hamlet 1790–1838. New York: AMS Press, 1996.

Foakes, R. A, ed. Coleridge’s Criticism of Shakespeare. London: Athlone Press, 1989.

Harrison, G. B. „The Tragedy of Hamlet.” Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. London: Penguin, 1997. 15–21.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. London: Penguin, 1997.

Тургенев, Иван Сергеевич. „Гамлет и Дон-Кихот.” Собрание сочинений. T. 4. Москва: Классика, 1999. 33–71.

Yarlott, Geoffrey. Coleridge and the Abyssinian Maid. London: Methuen, 1970.

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