Table of ContentsPrevious PageNext Page

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth.
2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.
PAGE 414

     1. If the speech was meant to be ridiculous, it follows either that Hamlet in praising it spoke ironically, or that Shakespeare, in making Hamlet praise it sincerely, himself wrote ironically. And both these consequences are almost incredible.

     Let us see what Hamlet says. He asks the player to recite 'a passionate speech'; and, being requested to choose one, he refers to a speech he once heard the player declaim. This speech, he says, was never 'acted' or was acted only once; for the play pleased not the million. But he, and others whose opinion was of more importance than his, thought it an excellent play, well constructed, and composed with equal skill and temperance. One of these other judges commended it because it contained neither piquant indecencies nor affectations of phrase, but showed 'an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine.'1 In this play Hamlet 'chiefly loved' one speech; and he asks for a part of it.

     Let the reader now refer to the passage I have just summarized; let him consider its tone and manner; and let him ask himself if Hamlet can possibly be speaking ironically. I am sure he will answer No. And then let him observe what follows. The speech is declaimed. Polonius interrupting it with an objection to its length, Hamlet snubs him, bids the player proceed, and adds, 'He's for a jig or a tale of bawdry: or he sleeps.' 'He,' that is, 'shares the taste of the million for sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, and is wearied by an honest method.'2 Polonius later interrupts again, for he thinks the emotion of the player too absurd; but Hamlet respects it; and afterwards, when he is alone (and therefore can hardly be ironical), in contrasting this emotion with his own insensibility, he betrays no consciousness that there was anything unfitting in the speech that caused it.

     So far I have chiefly followed Warburton, but there is an important point which seems not to have been observed. All Hamlet's praise of the speech is in the closest agreement with his conduct and words elsewhere. His later advice to the

   1Clark and Wright well compare Polonius's antithesis of 'rich, not gaudy'; though I doubt if 'handsome' implies richness.
  2Is it not possible that 'mobled queen,' to which Hamlet seems to object, and which Polonius praises, is meant for an example of the second fault of affected phraseology, from which the play was said to be free, and an instance of which therefore surprises Hamlet?

Table of ContentsPrevious PageNext Page