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W. Minto’s First Commentary on Hamlet’s Age

In The Examiner ("An Independent Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, Science, and Art") of Saturday, March 6, 1875, Professor W. Minto wrote a review (transcribed in full below) of Edward Dowden's Shakespeare: a Critical Study of his Mind and Art. At the end of the review, Minto uses a discussion of Hamlet's age as an example of where Dowden goes wrong.

On December 4, Dowden, in the course of a discussion of Werder's Hamlet in The Academy, replied, disparaging Minto's position.

Minto replied in the December 18 issue.

Dowden replied to that on December 25 (quoted at length by Furness).

Following is the full text of Minto's first article of March 6, reviewing Dowden's book.

Jump straight to Minto's discussion of Hamlet's age.

Shakespeare: a Critical Study of his Mind and Art. By Edward Dowden, LL.D. H. S. King

Professor Dowden’s essays are entitled to the honourable distinction due to thoroughly prepared materials and elaborate workmanship. Rashness, flippancy, dogmatism, all the blemishes incidental to immaturity of knowledge and precipitancy of judgment are as foreign as possible to his method. He stands rather at the opposite pole, erring on the side of over-erudition and over-elaboration. One is inevitably tempted, in reading a volume in which every page bears such marks of thought and care both in matter and in manner, to raise the question, whether there is not a point at which conscientious completeness of scholarship and studious elaboration of style cease to be literary virtues. The corresponding vices are, doubtless, most offensive, and a writer who respects his materials and displays an anxiety about his form has, unquestionably, a strong claim on the gratitude of his readers. But there is a danger the other way. If a critic suspends his judgment till he has read what every other critic has to say on the same point, the probability is that he will so overcloud his perception as to be incapable of seeing with his own eyes, or forming an opinion that shall possess any independent value. Excessive elaboration of form, indulged in for any other purpose than to secure the utmost clearness of expression, is a more generally admitted and unprepossessing evil. Mr. Dowden’s errors in this direction have already subjected him to reproof. A critic in the Globe, last week, appeared to be so dissatisfied—legitimately, in our opinion—with Mr. Dowden’s attempts at fine writing, that he was unable apparently to enter into a serious discussion of the book, and contented himself with doing little more than quoting the most displeasing specimens of laboured composition that struck him in the course of a rapid and disdainful perusal. One of the obnoxious sentences was the following:—"Falstaff supposed that by infinite play of wit, and inexhaustible resource of a genius creative of splendid unendacity, he could coruscate away the facts of life, and always remain master of the situation by giving it a clever turn in the idea, or by playing over it with an arabesque or arch waggery." It must be admitted that Mr. Dowden is somewhat too strongly addicted to this kind of painful weaving together of fine phrases; and that he does injustice to the finer qualities of his criticism by the preparation of coruscations which are too obviously hammered out, carefully tipped, and laboriously polished. We understand that the contents of the present volume were originally delivered in the form of lectures to a Dublin audience, which may account for the necessity of coruscations; but Professor Dowden would probably have secured a better consideration for the solid merits of his work, if he had relentlessly, by arch waggery or otherwise, stripped his composition of these artificial flowers. The combination of brilliant expression with solid thinking is by no means a rarity in the Irish capital, and if Professor Dowden cannot coruscate with more freedom, he had better perhaps not coruscate at all.

The mass of Shakespearian literature is so enormous that it is much too late to insist upon a strict rule that a writer shall not add to that mass unless he has something new that he is impelled to say. It would take the labour of a lifetime to make quite sure that a particular view had never been expressed before; it is enough, perhaps, that a writer should find prevailing erroneous notions which he is anxious to dissipate. Professor Dowden’s justification for his essays is stated in the first sentence of his preface:—"The attempt made in this volume to connect the study of Shakespeare’s works with an inquiry after the personality of the writer, and to observe, as far as possible, in its several stages, the growth of his intellect and character from youth to full maturity, distinguishes the work from the greater number of preceding criticisms of Shakespeare." This prepares us to expect an attempt to imagine what sort of man Shakespeare was in private life; but we learn presently that Mr. Dowden has no such intention. Mr. Dowden indeed modifies and qualifies his original abstract statement of his design till his meaning becomes involved in considerable obscurity. "We must not," he says, "attenuate Shakespeare to an aspect, or reduce him to a definition, or deprive him of individuality, or make of him a mere notion. Yet, also, no experiment will here be made to bring Shakespeare before the reader as he spoke and walked, as he jested in his tavern or meditated in his solitude. It is a real apprehension of Shakespeare’s character and genius which is desired, but not such an apprehension the mere observation of the externals of the man, of his life or of his poetry, would be likely to produce." What, then, was it that Mr. Dowden proposed to do? That is difficult to ascertain, from his general expression of his purpose; but what he has done has been to study Shakespeare’s works in what seems to be their chronological order, and to try to express such differences between earlier and later productions as point to development and maturity. Mr. Dowden also declares his wish to attain to "some central principles of life in him which animate and control the rest, for such there are existent in every man whose life is life in any true sense of the word, and not a mere affair of chance, of impulse, of moods, of accidents." It is apparently this same object which Mr. Dowden expresses as an endeavour to attain to "a comprehension of the total product," or "the one vital soul that lies behind this manifold creation." "Plucking the heart out of the mystery" is a phrase "a little variations" from this.

In the course of his volume Professor Dowden remarks, with great justice, that "it is somewhat hard upon Shakespeare to suppose that he secreted in each of his dramas a central idea for a German critic to discover." But would it not have been well for Mr. Dowden to have applied to himself some of that introspective humour which he finds so baffling when he wrestles with the mystery of Shakespeare, and asked himself the question whether it was likely that Shakespeare stowed away a number of central principles in his life for an Irish Professor to discover? In assuming that the variety and complexity of a human life is evolved from a few central principles, those so-called central principles not being the primitive elements of the human constitution, Mr. Dowden seems really to have fallen into the very error which he condemns in the German critics. Certainly there is little light thrown upon Shakespeare by what Mr. Dowden declares to have been his central principles. Studying "the organism in relation to the environment" (Mr. Dowden, in various passages, shows an acquaintance with the work of Mr. Herbert Spencer), he finds that the Elizabethans generally were "essentially mundane" in their "vigorous vitality." "Bacon, Hooker, and Shakespeare alike had a rich feeling for positive concrete fact." "A vigorous mundane vitality—this constitutes the basis of the Elizabethan drama." "Practical, positive, and alive to material interests, Shakespeare unquestionably was." "He had a sufficient recognition of external fact, external claims, and obligations." Now this is quite true, but Mr. Dowden insists upon it with as much emphasis as if he considered it to have been Shakespeare’s unique glory among poets to have sometimes let his thoughts dwell on what he was to have for breakfast. Partly also this vigorous mundane vitality is as characteristic of all English popular poetry as of the Elizabethan drama—of Chaucer’s "Canterbury Tales," of Dryden’s "Satires," of Byron’s "Don Juan." The marvel in Shakespeare is the way in which he combined this practical sagacity with the genius for more airy flights of the imagination. This also Mr. Dowden seems to see, though his way of expressing himself tends to obscure the fact. But the evil tendency of the method of treating this as a "central principle," and not merely as an amplification of the fact that Shakespeare had saved money enough to buy a handsome property at the age of thirty-two, when some of his compeers had dissipated themselves to death, appears when Mr. Dowden proceeds to extend his central principle. By means of it he first makes out that Shakespeare was a type of Mr. Matthew Arnold’s Teauton, possessing a supreme regard for positive fact; and then he proceeds to connect it with Shakespeare’s extreme disdain for affected sentiment. But he forgets that Byron showed an equal desire in his later years towards the humorous treatment of affectation; and yet Byron was so given to running his head against positive facts that Mr. Matthew Arnold is disposed, if we mistake not, to claim him as a typical Celt. It is a mistake to try to put such central principles into dogmatic propositions; they can be felt in a vague way, but they are too relative for precise expression.

It is apparently also in application of his central principle that Mr. Dowden adopts a theory of Shakespeare’s development which is not borne out by such slender facts as remain to be the basis of any theory on the subject. Seeing that Mr. Dowden speaks approvingly of Karl Elze’s wild conjecture that a "Midsummer Night’s Dream" was composed to be performed at the celebration of Essex’s wedding in 1590, and at the same time agrees with Hazlitt in regarding the description of the dogs of Theseus as being more mature work than the description of the horse in "Venus and Adonis," it is obvious that Mr. Dowden places the composition of the latter poem at a period several years anterior to its publication. He would seem, from his quoting Gervinus’s trial in chronological order, in which "Venus" is put down at 1585-7, to suppose that the poem may have been written before Shakespeare left Stratford. Now on what evidence does this rest? Mr. Dowden alleges nothing in support of it, except the following inference from his central principles, which contains the most important part of his conception of Shakespeare’s development:—

When these poems were written Shakspere was cautiously feeling his way. Large, slow-growing natures, gifted with a sense of concrete fact and with humour, ordinarily possess no great self-confidence in youth. An idealist, like Milton, may resolve in early manhood that he will achieve a great epic poem, and in old age may turn into fact the ideas of his youth. An idealist, like Marlowe, may begin his career with a splendid youthful audacity, a stupendous "Tamerlaine." A man of the kind to which Shakspere belonged, although very resolute, and determined, if possible, to succeed, requires the evidence of objective facts to give him self-confidence. His special virtue lies in a peculiarly pregnant and rich relation with the actual world, and such relation commonly establishes itself by a gradual process. Accordingly, instead of flinging abroad into the world while still a stripling some unprecedented creation, as Marlowe did, or as Victor Hugo did, and securing thereby the position of the leader of an insurgent school, Shakspere began, if not timidly, at least cautiously and tentatively. He undertakes work of any and every description, and tries and tests himself upon all. He is therefore a valued person in his theatrical company, ready to turn his hand to anything helpful, a Jack of all trades, a "Johannes factotum;" he is obliging and free from self-assertion; he is waiting his time; he is not yet sure of himself; he finds it the sensible thing not to profess singularity. "Divers of worship" report his "uprightness of dealing;" he is "excellent in the quality he professes;" his demeanour is civil; he is recognised even already as having a "facetious grace in writing." Let us not suppose because Shakspere declines to assault the real world, and the world of imagination, and take them by violence, that he is therefore a person of slight force of character. He is determined to master both these worlds if possible. He approaches them with a facile and engaging air; by and by his grasp upon facts will tighten. From Marlowe and from Milton half of the world escapes. Shakspere will lay hold of it in its totality, and once that he has laid hold of it, will never let it go.

Mr. Dowden proceeds to assert that there was no Sturm und Drang period in Shakespeare’s artistic career, that he never threw himself with energy or passion into the literary movement represented by the Spanish tragedy of Kyd; and on this ground, notwithstanding the strong external evidence, declines to believe that "Titus Andronicus" was written by Shakespeare. This is very bold theorising, and is typical of the very worst vice of historical criticism, the tendency to make facts yield to preconceived ideas. The development of Shakespeare’s mind is a matter on which few would care to dogmatise; but when we bring the facts impartially together, it becomes difficult to accept any theory which places the composition of "Venus and Adonis" so many years before the date of its publication (1593), or which is inconsistent with the supposition that Shakespeare wrote "Titus Andronicus." As regards the poem, we have not the slightest warrant for placing it earlier than its received date, and there are circumstances which make that date the most probable. The composition of poems involving the relations of pairs of lovers was a passing fashion about the beginning of the last decade of the sixteenth century. We have the "Romeo and Juliet" of Brooke, the "Astrophel and Stella" sonnets of Sidney, and later the "Hero and Leander" of Marlowe, the "Endymion and Phœbe" of Drayton, the "Ovid and Julia" of Chapman, the "Henry and Rosamond" of Daniel. Shakespeare’s "Venus" and his "Lucrece" belong to the same cluster; it is a violence to historical probability to detach them, as the German critics propose to do, probably in ignorance of their contemporary relations. Lodge’s poem of "Glaucus and Scylla," published in 1589, has every appearance of being the model of Shakespeare’s first poem. It is in the same metre, and it actually contains the death of Adonis and the grief of Venus as an episode. Who will undertake to say that Lodge received his motive from an unpublished poem by the young Stratford player? Would it have remained so long unpublished if it had attained such notoriety? Then, as regards Shakespeare’s cautious abstention from tragedy, what would seem to have been the facts? Everything points to the conclusion that Shakespeare, when he began to write plays, began, as was natural, by imitating Marlowe in tragedy and Greene in comedy. Marlowe came up from Cambridge with a lofty ambition to introduce a nobler drama on the public stage, and redeem it from the "jigging veins of rhyming mother-wits." It may have been that he had heard of the success of Calderon in a similar achievement; but, at any rate, Spenser’s "Tears of the Muses," and Nash’s preface to Greene’s "Menaphon" may be taken to show that the degradation of the stage, and the possibility of reviving it, was a subject of talk at the Universities. How different must have been the impulse with which Shakespeare, a friendless young man from Stratford, came up to London. It is most reasonable to suppose that he was caught by the prevailing currents. If we suppose this, we explain the facts with which critics have puzzled themselves in the resemblances to Marlowe’s work in productions that external evidence attributes to Shakespeare. "Titus Andronicus" is the most complete remnant of his imitation of Marlowe. But the probability is that the "First Part of the Contention" and the "True Tragedy" are relics of the same first stage in his dramatic development. It is purely conjectural to suppose that he wrote a version of "Hamlet" about the same time; but that also is a conjecture for which something may be advanced.

Among the numerous passages in Professor Dowden’s volume that invite comment, favourable or unfavourable, we shall select the section on "Hamlet," a subject on which difference of constitution forbids that critics can ever wholly agree, but which still contains several points on which it is possible to form a reasoned opinion. Professor Dowden follows the usual course—protests against a too-ready assumption that we know the mystery of Hamlet, and at the same time propounds a very definite conception of the mysterious character. In the main, although he thinks that Goethe directed attention too exclusively to the inner nature of Hamlet, and did not take sufficient account of the circumstances with which he had to contend, Mr. Dowden accepts Goethe’s theory that Hamlet was a studious, delicately-reared prince, unfit for the performance of a great action. The present writer has been rather severely taken to task for youthful presumption in questioning Goethe’s theory as a degradation of the play, as reducing it from the level of a tragedy to a sermon against procrastination, and minimising the effect of the whole by detracting from the nobility of the central figure. It may be obstinacy; but I must confess that the more I look at the play the less I am inclined to withdraw the impeachment. Mr. Dowden strikes, though somewhat vaguely, at the real defect in Goethe’s method—his directing attention too exclusively on the inner nature of Hamlet, and taking too little account of the world of circumstances with which he had to contend. The secret of Goethe’s misconception of the play is to be found in a deficient sense of the enormous proportions of the crime that overclouded the brightness of Hamlet’s youth, and in the undue emphasis that has been given to what is called the speculative cast of his intellect. Goethe, Coleridge, and Schlegel have made it appear as if Hamlet’s despondency and grave reflections on the mysteries of existence were the result of his philosophic habit, and not a mood violently forced upon him by the monstrous crime that met him as he crossed the threshold of active life. Their criticisms imply that Hamlet would have brooded and despaired all the same if his father had not been treacherously murdered by his uncle, and his mother had not "posted with such dexterity to incestuous sheets." It was no mark of weakness, irresolution, or philosophic dreaminess to cry out upon a world in which such monstrosities were possible, and to wish that he had never been born to redress them.

The notion that Hamlet was a full-grown man of thirty considerably assists the prevailing misconception. Mr. Dowden carries this one stage further, when he says that Hamlet "has slipped on into years of full manhood, still a haunter of the University, a student of philosophies, an amateur in art, a ponderer on the things of life and death, who has never formed a resolution or executed a deed." Such a carefully-formulated conception of Hamlet kills off the last remnant of the tragic significance of the play. I admit that there is some ground for holding that Hamlet was a man of thirty; the words of the Gravedigger and the length of the wedded life of the Player King and the Player Queen conspire to that conclusion. How those passages came into the play I am at a loss to understand, but they are utterly opposed to what we learn from more essential parts in its composition. Apart from those passages, the natural construction is that Hamlet and his associates were youths of seventeen, fresh from the University. That was the usual age at which young nobles set out on their travels in Shakespeare’s time, and there is no reason to suppose that he thought of altering the University age in his play, and no hint that Hamlet was so very much older than his companions. On the contrary, when Laertes warns his sister against the young Prince, he speaks of his love as but "a violet in the youth of primy nature," and of himself as an immature boy who does not yet know his own mind, saying, with a sage wisdom worthy of his father Polonius;

For nature, crescent, does not grow alone,
In thews and bulk, but as this temple waxes,
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal.

Even we, in these days, would not talk thus of a man of thirty; and three hundred years ago, when Bacon at that age spoke of himself as "waxing somewhat ancient," such language would have appeared ridiculous to a degree. If Hamlet had been an experienced man of thirty, the whole tone of the advice of Laertes and Polonius must have been different, not to mention the improbability that one who could not choose for himself like an "unvalued person" would have been allowed to remain so long unmarried.

A proper conception of Hamlet’s age is essential to the understanding of the play. He is a youth called home from the University by his father’s death, a youth of the age of Romeo, or young Prince Hal at the time of his father’s accession. There is no trace of delicate nurture in what Shakespeare tells us about him. He has the sword of the soldier as well as the eye of the courtier and the mind of the scholar. He has, in fact, precisely the same range of accomplishments as Prince Henry, whose study of life with wild companions had not prevented him from acquiring a knowledge of statecraft and even of theological controversy. In the grapple with the pirate when he was being conveyed to England, he was the first on board, and fought with such earnestness as to be left there. Prince Henry is Mr. Dowden’s ideal of a practical and positive hero, but there is nothing that was done by Hamlet that might not have been done by Henry under the same circumstances. When Henry received word of his father’s accession, he gave a very wild answer, which seems remote enough from the spirit of Hamlet. Yet he also had his moody and thoughtful times; and if he had received the message that was conveyed to Hamlet at Wittenberg, and had found the same monstrous state of things at Court, it is hard to see that the moody and thoughtful side of his nature would not have assumed the same morbid development. Hamlet’s action is not the weak and petulant action of an emasculated man of thirty, but the daring, wilful, defiant action of a high-spirited sensitive youth, rudely summoned from the gay pursuits of youth, and confronted suddenly with monstrous treachery, with crime that blurs the modesty and grace of nature, that makes the very sunlight fire, and loads the sweet air of heaven with pestilence. The working out of the conception of Hamlet, and the explanation of his delay, and his seeming readiness to start aside from his purpose, is full of difficulties through which it requires some courage to follow the dramatist with assurance, and through which no interpreter can do much to help the individual reader, but those difficulties are enormously increased by the fundamental error in the point of departure, and in the conception of the tragedy as a whole, which was encouraged by the criticism of the early part of this century. W. MINTO.

Jump to Dowden's reply, as quoted in Furness' Variorum.