Imatges de pÓgina

of keeping the plot in motion. Shakspeare is the parent of many such insignificant, though necessary beings; but it is delightful to contemplate the extent and variety of his observation, in the numerous short parts which he has dashed off with all the vividness of colouring which distinguishes many of his more extended efforts. Such is the portrait of the light, frivolous, and contemptible “ water-fly,” Osric, who boasts a distinctness of individuality, which effectually distinguishes him from every other creation of his author's imagination.

Not even the gravity of Hamlet, the most sublime and high-toned of the bard's

performances, could secure it against the introduction of characters, which debase its dignity by their meanness, and detract from its simplicity, since they contribute nothing to the progress of the plot.

Notwithstanding all that may be urged in favour of the inimitable humour displayed in their delineation, the grave-diggers are unsightly excrescences on a surface exquisitely beautiful and polished.

In the black letter history of Hamlet, Fengon's murder of his brother is openly avowed; and justified on the plea that the king would have slain his wife but for the interposition of Fengon, who was obliged to sacrifice his brother

to secure the safety of the queen. Shakspeare converted this murder into a secret, cowardly assassination, and thus created an opening for the mysterious agency of the Ghost.

Furnished so thickly as it has been by the credulous and the designing, the spiritual world affords almost as ample a field for a history of its inhabitants as the material. Fairies, or spirits of the earth, engaged our attention in a Midsummer Night's Dream; witches, and their attendant imps, will demand a lengthened notice in Macbeth ; aërial spirits in the Tempest; and Hamlet drags the demons of darkness from their subterranean abodes.

The doctrine of the middle ages, that all spirits, and especially subterranei, were under the influence, if not immediate agents, of the devil, was a little puzzling when it came to be applied to the pagan notion of the return of departed souls, with the view of conferring benefit on mankind. The doctrine, however, was admitted, and the subterranean inhabitants were divided into two classes, the friends and the enemies of the human race. The object of the latter, in their appearance, was to entrap the unwary into the commission of some heinous crime, or, by continual torment, to excite mortals to mistrust or to blaspheme God, and

thus alienate their souls from his service to that of Satan.

In perfect accordance with these notions, Hamlet thus interrogates the apparition of his father,

“ Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damn'd;

Bring with thee airs from heaven, or blasts from hell ;

Be thy intents wicked, or charitable?” And when his sceptical disposition subsequently betrays him into unreasonable doubts, he

pauses on the reflection,

“ The spirit, that I have seen,

May be a devil : and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness, and my melancholy,
(As he is very potent with such spirits,)
Abuses me to damn me.

Among other horrible projects attributed to malignant spectres, were those of weakening the bodies, and afflicting their victims with incurable diseases ; of enticing them into places of gloom and peril, and exciting in them the deepest terror. Such is the foundation of the argument urged by Horatio to dissuade Hamlet from following the apparition “ to a more removed ground:"

* Act II. sc. 2.

“ What, if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff,
That beetles o'er his base into the sea ?
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason,
And draw you into madness ?"*

A knowledge of the future, as well as of thepast, was generally assigned to the inhabitants of the world of spirits, and the souls of departed mortals were still supposed to be actuated by the samepredilections, antipathies, and dispositions that influenced them in the body. Their appearance, therefore, set expectation on the rack: dire misfortunes were anticipated, futurity was to be laid open, or past events and crimes hitherto secret to be revealed. Spirits friendly to man were most desirous of bringing to light and punishment horrible offences against God, of forewarning those they loved of sudden and .mminent peril, and of watching generally over their good : they interfered for the restitution of money unjustly withheld ; and they informed their heirs in what secret places were hidden valuable


and hoards of plate and money. An address of more strict propriety, therefore, could not have been framed than that of Horatio to the Ghost :

[ocr errors]

* Act I. sc. 4.

Stay, illusion !
If thou hast any sound, or use of voice,
Speak to me:
If there be any good thing to be done,
That may to thee do ease, and grace to me,
Speak to me:
If thou art privy to thy country's fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid,
O, speak!
Or, if thou hast uphoarded in thy life,
Extorted treasure in the womb of earth,
For which, they say, you spirits oft walk in death,
Speak of it: — stay, and speak.”

From the relation of those who saw the phantom, Hamlet immediately concludes, that

66 All is not well;
I doubt some foul play:

Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes." +

and the issue is precisely accordant with his conception.

Common church-yard ghosts, who had no particular affairs, but appeared only to scare drunken rustics from rolling over their graves, sometimes appeared clothed in white, perhaps, in their winding sheets; but, when the business of spirits was important, they came in earthly

* Act I. sc. 1.

+ Act I. sc. 2.

« AnteriorContinua »