Friday, December 10, 2010

A Translation of Two Essays on Shakespeare by Ludwig Börne

For Michael Goldfarb
Shakespeare's Hamlet

Among those of the English poet's plays that do not unfold within the context of British history or legend, Hamlet is the only one set on northern soil and under northern skies.  Qua natural historian, Shakespeare fully understood and paid due heed to the matter of pairing each nation he treated of with the climate best suited to it.  To the parti-colored sallies of mirth, to the streaming effusions of joy, to peremptory passions, to clear and sharply circumscribed actions, he bequeathed the sunny, azure-vaulted south, where night is but a dormant day; the wistful, brooding, dreamy Hamlet he set in a land of fog and long nights, under an overcast sky, in a region where day is but an insomniac night.  From the beginning, this tragedy holds us captive as inmates of the dank prison of nature, and we are refreshed, as by a ray of sunlight shining through a chink in the wall, when we encounter in its course—as we do on one occasion apiece—the warmth of the name "Rome," and the brightness of "France."

The most exacting connoisseurs of the drama, together with the Bard's most ardent champions, have maintained that Hamlet is his masterpiece.  We must test the limits of this assertion.  Hamlet is not the most admirable of Shakespeare's works, but Shakespeare is at his most admirable in Hamlet.  To wit: we marvel at exceptional ability not when it begins to become effectual, but when it ceases to remain so; for it is from its persistence alone that an ability derives its greatness.  Such is the case here.  We travel the full length of the poet's shining path and, having reached the goal of our admiration, we turn round and make our weary way back towards our starting point, only to encounter Hamlet en route, to our great surprise.  Shakespeare was obliged to redouble his steps; he was obliged to step outside himself in order to call this play into being, and in so doing he overtook himself.  I say this not in the hyperbole of encomiastic rhetoric, but rather in the coolness of deliberation.  Hamlet is a colony of Shakespeare's mind that is situated at a different latitude, possessed of a different natural history, and governed by completely different laws from those of the mother country.  Shakespeare is a nature-worshiper, a shaman of nature-worship.  His God is a manifest God; the reflection of the world in the mind of man is his shamanistic wisdom.  Whatever he may show us—heaven and earth, hell and paradise, life and death—he allows it to take the form of a genial human face.  Everything breathes, everything lives, and death is merely the ledger wherein are recorded the credits and debits of life.  Hamlet is completely different; in it everything is mystical.  Everywhere else, heroism is at center stage; in Hamlet dim-witted ingenuity remains in the background.  In Hamlet resides the nocturnal side, the feminine essence, of life; the receptive, the parturient; in Hamlet we hear the labor pains of creation.  Elsewhere in Shakespeare philosophy appears on the scene and takes shape as experience; in Hamlet, experience vanishes, and philosophy ascends to the cloudy skies as vapor.  All other characters are concave and constitute points of focus; Hamlet is the only convex character, the only one whose rays diverge.  Elsewhere everything, however abominable, however execrable it may be, appears in the light of day.  In Hamlet even the jokes appall, for they are blenched by moonlight.  The ghost of the murdered king is hardly the most terrifying apparition in the play; he shows himself at night, in that tenebrous residence of spirits, where we are but unassuming guests.  Much more shocking is the daytime ghost at large in our own house—the ghost of young Hamlet.
Shakespeare is a king, and he is not subject to laws.  If he were like anybody else, one could get away with saying, "Hamlet is a lyrical character, he resiles from all dramatic structuring; Hamlet is the Unthing that is worse than death; he is the Unborn."  But this is Shakespeare!  We must obey him and hold our peace.
Over the canvas hangs a veil.  We would like to pull it away to contemplate the painting more closely, but the veil itself is painted.  The proximity of the eye must compensate for the dimness of the light.  We first take a look around the neighborhood of our hero of suffering.  Hamlet is not the central point, we must make him into one; we intend first to trace his circle and only then to set him inside it.  But above all we shall manfully fortify ourselves against the error that so often worsts us in life as it does in the theater.  In life we judge people by their reputations; in the theatre we believe in the figures portrayed there without scrutinizing everything said and thought about them by the virtuous members of the dramatis personae.  This is not the right way of going about it; we must observe them and analyze then on our own.  Hamlet is hardly as noble and likeable as he appears in the eyes of his sweetheart; the king is not by a long shot as worthless as Hamlet's aspersions against him suggest; indeed, we cannot but be seriously mistaken in our preference of the good nephew to the evil uncle.
The scene is a northern court, half clad in the unwrought iron of ancient times, half in the ordinary cloth worn by the heroes of our own day, who use their swords to cut quills backstage.  The rust of politics is already beginning to mottle the army's stable.  Straight flights of stairs and tortuous passageways [are laid out] in parallel; barbaric rudeness converges with civilized flattery.  The courtiers have already caught the scent of the eighteenth century and know where the rub is.  We have intelligence enough, but are lacking in spirit, in wit, and in breeding.  The two students, Hamlet and Horatio, are [oral] oracles, and their book-learned erudition is bottled up inside them.  The jokes are somewhat loutish and bawdy; the pricking out of the meter is characteristic of the jousting exercises of the literati of that age.  The people are revolting: the queen addresses them as "You false Danish dogs."
The king has murdered his brother, married his brother's sister, and crowned himself.  He is uncommunicative; we cannot see into his breast, but it would appear that he is sincerely devoted to the queen, and we are allowed to believe that his love is older than his ambition and his crime.  He has done the deed; he has sold his soul to the infernal powers, but he is aware of how much he owes; he knows how much he has spent and also how much he has obtained.  The king is just like the rest of Shakespeare's villains, in that—to put it in good, old-fashioned pedestrian terms—his morals are none too sound.  It is hard to hold a proper grudge against any of Shakespeare's villains; they are not bad for their own sakes alone; they bear on their foreheads the mark of Cain, the title-page of mankind's book of sins, which page is not answerable for the contents that are betokened by it.  The king, after his great offence, does no further evil than is needful to his own self-interest and security, and even that not until he is as close as can be to both danger and the means of avoiding it.  Even when he is harmful, he is unmoved by untoward suspicion of being done harm to by others.  He is extremely patient, extremely forbearing, towards Hamlet, whose true frame of mind he and he alone manages to discern, the first time he observes him in secret.  He is a noble spirit who allows his ignoble conscience to confide in him only at moments of silent seclusion.  On one occasion, he is overwhelmed by this conscience and bends his sinewy knees before God; we are moved, and it pains us that he cannot manage to pray, and that his sense of guilt is not outweighed by his capacity to repent.  He is a grand seigneur, both awe-inspiring and politically shrewd, both eloquent and good-natured.  He treats the old and no longer-serviceable Polonius with genuine respect, Laertes and the other courtiers with ingratiating consideration.  Like his countrymen he drinks heartily; it comes naturally to him, and for political reasons he makes no secret of it.  He has a truly miraculous presence of mind that never fails him.  It is not because he cannot quell his inner tumult that he abruptly walks out of Hamlet's play, for if that were the problem, he would have left immediately after the dumb-show, which could not but have made an overwhelming first impression on him.  He withdraws only to save himself, for he fears that this play will have a very serious ending, and that Hamlet's unstinting sentence will be all too summarily executed.  In this he misjudges Hamlet; he fails to consider that a man of strength who has firmly resolved to do something never makes threats.  His pacific equanimity and regal bearing are unruffled by Laertes's invasion of the palace at the head of a rebellious mob; by Hamlet's unexpected homecoming and frustration of his plans; by the slumping to the floor of the poisoned queen, whose unconsciousness he explains away as an attack of nerves induced by the sight of blood; and even by his own descent into death, whose irremediability he dissembles in calling for help.  In this final, terrible moment, on the verge of death, the king does not forsake his fellow human beings, grateful as he is for the sacrifices that they have made.  They escort him across the border into the next world, and aloft into the presence of that eternal judge, before whom he must attempt to vindicate himself.  We are suffered to hope that our gracious Lord will forgive the king his trespasses; it was a crime to be king, but it was a crime committed not by him but, rather, by his nation.

The queen is frail; she is Hamlet's mother.  Her share in the crime is twofold: she purchases cheap stolen goods, and she never even asks whether there has been a theft.  The king's manly comportment has overpowered her; the lamp of conscience within her, lit for the first time by her son at midnight, burns out before dawn, and she awakes flush with the sins of the day before.

In juxtaposition with the heir apparent the poet has circumspectly placed Fortinbras and Laertes, Hamlet's contemporaries, so that his shadow may have some light thrown on it.  With wonderful impudence Fortinbras reaches out his hand towards Hamlet's patrimony, and being caught in the act, placidly wends his way to a more pillageable purse.  He keeps up an almost laughably steady tattoo throughout Hamlet's otherwise silent slumbers, and when Hamlet wakes up and dies, he is once again ready to hand, primed to ascend in broad daylight to that throne towards which he had formerly been obliged to creep furtively in the darkness.  Laertes, the reckless youth, precipitously forsakes the flagitious debauchery of Paris to avenge his father's death and is more than happy to have the interest of his impatience repaid in the form of a crown; while the serious, virtuous Hamlet, whose father has also been murdered, who has been deprived of his kingly birthright, slinks on to the scene from out of the pristine chastity of Wittenburg, and creeps forth and dreams and ponders and accomplishes nothing.  With Laertes's vociferous lamentations over Ophelia he strives only to compete; he has no desire to share his silent sorrow with any fellow-mourners.

Horatio has also studied at Wittenburg and has returned thence with a willing spirit and weak flesh.  He has been molded into a perfect Latinist and can retail all the famous stories about Rome and the mighty Julius Caesar.  The younger courtiers will surely have poked a great deal of fun at him behind his back.  In a world bereft of Hamlet, Horatio avers, he would not be a Dane, but an antique Roman, and follow his friend into the grave; but in the end he does nothing of the sort.     
Polonius in his youth was a clever fellow.  In his old age, he has come to find thoughts heavy and unwieldy things, and he can no longer manage to unsheathe them at will.  He is fond of displaying them, as if he still had them at his command, and he delights in brandishing the tried-and-true, combat-tested weapon.  Only unseasonably sarcastic natures will find it in their hearts to laugh at this poor old man.  He is admittedly none too well acquainted with love, madness, or enthusiasm; for his practical experience of life at court has not presented him with any cases of these maladies.  But he is equally unacquainted with underhanded maneuvering, and in his gullible integrity he allows himself to be struck dead in place of his master the King.  The much-lauded wisdom of old age he possesses in abundance.  He gives his son excellent rules to live by during his travels; he is a loving father and has nothing about him of the cantankerous oldster.  He remonstrates sternly but not unkindly with his daughter regarding her association with Hamlet, and he is never tempted by ambition to countenance a liaison that offends his sense of the decorum of political hierarchy.  And yet this liaison would certainly not have been an inauspicious one, for as we learn from the queen, she has seriously entertained the thought of her son's marrying Ophelia.  Polonius is a loyal servant of his master, an honest fellow, and no mean courtier.  If he humors Hamlet's spleenish meteorology, he does so not out of fatuous sycophancy, but because he thinks he is being mocked by a madman.  We are glad for his sake that he does not live to see the demise of the royal dynasty and the attendant extinction of his own family line.
Ophelia is sweet-tempered and as unsophisticated as the average middle-class girl.  She has been neither spoiled by the court nor refined by it.  Hamlet seduced her, and she never noticed what she had lost until, with the murder of her father, she lost all possibility of recovering it.  Luckily for her virtue, the etiquette of piety, the policy of morality, came to the rescue.  She loses both her mind and her life without knowing why.  The little creature was trampled underfoot in one of fate's broad strides; the tiny violet was crushed by the mighty oak felled by the rainstorm.

Is the ghost really as sublime as it is so often made out to be? It enters togged out in a complete suit of armor, but it seems to me that all this iron-plating is but skin-deep; the ghost's inner soul is tender and pure. The ghost's familial resemblance to his son Hamlet is downright uncanny. He is a weak, philosophical, winged ghost most at home in the sky. Such beings are like birds that sing a song whose words have no bearing on the flesh. Hamlet's father talks willingly, at length, and with great rhetorical artistry; one almost fancies one is listening to a transfigured actor. The time granted him to wander is so very brief, and he almost completely wastes it. Instead of beginning with the most important things—with the facts of the case, with his murder—he first tells of the infernal torments he is obliged to endure, and evinces immense delight in producing a lengthy poetic description of them. He wants to build to a proper dramatic climax and end with the fratricide, but this is a mistake. The most nightmarish thing about a ghost is the fact that it appears and talks; next to this, what it says and does, be it ever so terrible, is mere childish tomfoolery. This ghost seems, moreover, not to have improved his knowledge of human nature a jot in the next world; otherwise, he would have chosen anybody but Hamlet as his avenger. Perhaps this was not even his reason for appearing. He roamed around haphazardly in search of someone to avenge him, but unfortunately Hamlet was the only Sunday's child in the entire court. The ghost is desperately keen to have Horatio and his fellow witness sworn never to speak of what they have seen, but he neglects the much more needful task of advising his son to keep his secret. This son gabs and blabs about the whole thing, and thereby confounds his father's desire and his own enterprise. To be sure, the king eventually perishes, but he is targeted as his nephew's murderer, not as his brother's. The old mole was blind.

Back into this country, into this court, into the midst of these people, comes Hamlet, still warm with the air of Wittenberg, and instantly catches a cold complete with the snuffles that so often afflict tender souls. He is plucked from the school playground and set down in the great wide world, whereupon he begins to waste away. Having been brought up for a soldier and a hunter like every king's son, once at Wittenberg he did nothing but practice disputing outlandish theses and marshalling hare-brained sophistries. To be sure, the nimble-minded prince wears this heavy German philosophy gracefully, but only to his own detriment: whereas a simple and inflexible philosophy blocks only the principal veins of life, a subtle, pliant one works its way into the pettiest artures and impedes the circulation of the most eager blood. Among the arts he has picked up at the prestigious university, the only one of any use in dirty everyday life—that of fencing—proves his bane. He is farsighted enough to perceive the danger that menaces him in distant England, and yet he fails to see the glint of the sharply honed rapier-point only an inch away from his eye. Hamlet is a man who lives for holidays only, and he is entirely irreconcilable with this working-day world. He lampoons the vain hustling and bustling of human beings, who in turn reprehend his vain inactivity. A night-watchman, he observes and announces the time when other people are asleep and wish to have nothing to do with him, and he sleeps while others are awake and going about their business. Like a Fichtian, he thinks nothing but "I am I," and does nothing but position his ego. He lives in words, and as the historian of his own life he keeps a notebook in his pocket. He is all feeling, and the heart that ought to warm him incinerates him. He is well-acquainted with humanity in the abstract; individual human beings nonplus him. He is far too philosophical to love and hate. He cannot love other people, and he cannot hate them; accordingly, he feels neither sympathy towards his friends nor antipathy towards his enemies. As for courage, that bailsman of immortality—for who but a man who believes himself immortal can be courageous?—he, the son of the king, is entirely lacking in it. Because he descries the supergargantuan human race in every human being, he is timorous, as others are not because with their beady little eyes they can discern only particulars in particulars. In his mother's guilt he perceives the frailty of woman; in his uncle's misdeed the smiling villainy of the world. He is expected to involve himself in this dangerous and foolish strife; he is trembling. He is not wanting in intellectual courage, by which a doughty master of ideas is engirded; he is wanting in the courage of the heart, that heart in whose cause only its own blood fights. This is why he is audacious in devising schemes and timid in carrying them out. Hamlet is very well acquainted with the exorbitance of corruption, and his tragic flaw demoralizes him all the more because he is aware of it.
Hamlet is a philosopher of death, a student of the school of night. When the night is cloudy, he stands there irresolute, unbudgeable; when it is clear, it never serves as anything but a moon-dial indicating the shadows of the passing hours; he acts at untimely moments and wanders erringly by the light of a deceptive source. For him life is a grave, the world a churchyard. Hence the churchyard is his world; it is his kingdom; in it he is king. How likeable he seems there! Elsewhere sorrowful, there he is cheerful; elsewhere murky, there he is clear; elsewhere agitated, there he is calm. How penetrative, ingenious, and witty he there proves himself to be! Otherwise dejected by thoughts of death, when standing amidst the graves he becomes our consoler. While he scoffingly belittles life as a dream, he also scornfully disparages death as nothing.  In the churchyard he is not weak—[and] who[, after all,] is strong in the face of death? In the churchyard, all power, all merit ends; there all calculation, all appraisal, all contumely, every comparison, ceases. There Hamlet is suffered to forget his father’s command without rebuke; there he need not avenge his father’s death. Is he required to drag on to the scaffold a felon who is in the midst of the last throes of a mortal illness? How barbarous! To slay a man who is within sight of death—how risible, and what a manifestation of childish impatience! One might as well expect a snail to overtake a windward squall!
In this iniquitous world, virtue must be forceful if it is to be effectual; it must be presumptuous enough to take on presumption, and to fight for heaven’s sake using the weapons of hell. Hamlet’s virtue has none of the vitality of violence. Such a tender youth with such an eternally youthful heart can never flourish in a royal castle, where people are born old. Hamlet has the titled pride of nobly-born souls, and he is incapable of stooping to the level of anyone of base spiritual constitution. Nimble-minded and exquisitely polite as he is, he will never be comfortable in a nation of drunkards. As he has shown himself to be of a gloomy and dreamy disposition, he despises and derides everyone who happens to be cheerful; he will even be a full-time derider, which goes unpunished by anyone; but on the king, against whom such weapons may not be openly brandished, he avenges himself in secret, and in the most perilous manner. Hamlet upbraids the court for its bibulousness, makes a mockery of Polonius’s loyal obsequiousness, and scoffs at the abject mopping and mowing of the courtiers. He finds his uncle insufferable, and would hate him even if he were not his father’s murderer. Intellect without character is squared off against character without intellect, with the latter being ever inimical to the former. Hamlet feels overwhelmed by the silent, placid, authoritarian demeanor of the king. He knows full well that he is pitted against nothing more material than empty fencemanship, but he is incapable of engaging with it; he has never even taken a stab at learning how; whence his savage animosity, that animosity by which self-conscious weakness is invariably attended. In the king’s presence he is shy and ill-at-ease, and out of the entire horde of scorn and spite encamped around his heart, there seldom emerges one of those mighty words by means of which Hamlet is so hell-bent on provoking the pacific king. How merry Hamlet will be upon discovering that his uncle is a villain; how relieved he will feel when his hatred acquires a rational pretext, when his aversion is transformed into an obligation! The murder of his father is not Hamlet’s true affliction; it is merely the receptacle of his suffering; now he grasps the source of his torment. But even otherwise, he would have been unhappy.

Hamlet is summoned homeward by the death of his father. In the midst of his mourning, he takes in the news of his mother’s marriage. If Hamlet knows anything better than anyone, it is that all men are mortal. But the realization that feelings—which the youth has always regarded as eternally durable entities—are also mortal, that love can end, that it is possible for a person to love twice, and to decline from loving nobly to loving ignobly—this realization grievously overwhelms and bewilders him; even his broad circle of despondency is too narrow to encompass this new discovery. Hamlet’s imaginative faculty is intrepid; it overcomes everything in its path. His uncle has received a crown from Hamlet’s mother’s hands; he has profited from Hamlet’s father’s death; he wished him dead; he murdered his brother.  Hamlet suspected all this before the ghost revealed it to him. The ghost appears and says aloud what his son has already said silently to himself, and he calls upon this son to avenge him. Hamlet is horrified—not by the murder, but by his obligation to avenge it. Accustomed to thinking and feeling completely ad libitum, he is now obliged to cogitate purposively and to act; nature has made him transparent, and he is now obliged to practice artifices and to conceal them; he was born to forbear and to suffer, and now he is expected to act. Crammed between his father’s sacred prescription and the exacting proscriptions enjoined by his own nature, he is repulsed hither and thither; all freedom of movement vanishes; and so we witness him being dragged along by schemes that make a mockery of his powerlessness, by attempts that miscarry, by mighty words that render him laughable, and trivial acts that render him contemptible; and so at length we witness him perishing in a common brawl, and all and sundry around him perish not at the hands, but, rather, at a single thumb and forefinger, of fate.

The direful moment is when Hamlet is waiting to see his father’s ghost. And if he had a thousand souls, they would not suffer themselves to stir; and if he had a thousand hearts, they would be obliged to fall silent and pay heed.  But in the midst of this disquietude, in which even we, the indifferent auditors of a fairy tale, are blind of eye and deaf of ear, what does Hamlet do?  He pads out the interval with pointless twaddle.  He delivers an anthropological lecture, inveighs like a preacher against the odiousness of sinful habits by which the primmest of goody-goodies are routinely tainted, and retails banal observations on excessive drinking.  The ghost startles him; he had quite completely forgotten about him.  The ghost utters words of fire; Hamlet burns; he is an ember.  A minute later, the ember has burnt out, and the ashes of his enthusiasm are blowing in the wind.  He plans to attend to his fair deed with expedition; he wishes he could fly; the way back to the palace is too long by a world’s breadth.  But in advance of taking so much as a step in that direction, he has discovered the means of uniting his vendetta with his deliberative habitus, his duty with his frailty.  He plans to use wit to begin what can be initiated only by intelligence and completed only by courage.  He plans to act subtly, to be politic, to feign madness.  What does he expect to achieve by this?  Is madness meant to facilitate his access to the king?  It will only make him more vigilant.  Is he trying to conceal his dejection?  He must lay it bare; he must avenge it.  Is Hamlet playing dead?  He is dead.  There are some lunatics who have periods of lucidity, and there are others who have spaces of lucidity within which they confine themselves at all times, and from them they are able to contemplate their own lunacy.  Hamlet is a lunatic of the second type.  He fancies that he is toying with his lunacy, and his lunacy is toying with him.

Hamlet begins his mad game and makes his first test move against the most innocent person in his circle, the affectionate and credulous Ophelia. There is something ineffably loathsome about such conduct. Earlier on, he should have let the girl in on his secret instead of imposing its outward manifestation on her. Hamlet’s derangement does not go unnoticed; the observant king sends Hamlet’s boyhood friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after him to descry the cause of his dejection. Hamlet is conceited; he is playing dumb, but at the same time he wants to show off his fancy brain and let it be seen that he is only putting on an act. He will not allow himself to be pumped for answers, but he is happy to let everyone know he has a secret. The spies are naturally obliged to return from their mission empty-handed, but this is only because as courtiers they are not particularly good at interpreting visionary ramblings. Hamlet stays his course of ignominious inactivity; instead of mounting counteroffensives against attacks from without, he resists them by digging himself in and staying put. Although he is a man and a son, he may not on any account forget that he is also a prince; in punishing the murder of his father he must also punish the murder of his crown. He is determined not to kill the king by stealth like an assassin; he is determined to make a loud and clear announcement of the king’s crime and to set himself at the head of the mass of the people, that same mass that is so ill-disposed to the king and so ductile to leadership by other powers, as the example of Laertes’s rebellion proves. But Hamlet peaks like John-a-dreams. He realizes this upon seeing the players; he wakes up; he lives again. He is a sound judge of the art of acting; he is an aficionado of it. One of the actors declaims a speech about Hecuba; he works himself into a lather reciting this fustian rubbish, and turns color and weeps. Hamlet is abashed, overloads himself with abusive reproaches and gets drunk on words to give himself courage. It does not last long, and he talks himself back into a skeptical frame of mind so that he can keep deferring the moment of action. Perhaps he has been deceived by a damnèd ghost; perhaps his uncle is innocent. He will administer to him a psychological test; he will carry out a chemical experiment; the players shall reveal the king’s true colors. He gives them a play in which a murder takes place; he writes original lines for it, and he evinces less worry about his father than about the possibility of the players’ defacing his fine verses with lousy elocution. He tutors them with such placidity, with such circumspection, with such ceremoniousness, as though he were all set for life and had not a care in the world. The king is caught; Hamlet is positively delighted that his cunning has paid off; he gives not a thought to making any use of the knowledge he has just acquired. His mother sends for him; on his way to her he makes a lengthy stop in the antechamber; there, he philosophizes. He recites a soliloquy that, for all its beauty, sounds atrociously amiss in the mouth of a prince. Life is odious to him, not on account of its suffering, but on account of the things that it requires one to do. There is no other means of defending oneself against the vexations of the world apart from flight, suicide; the fear of death must be healed by death. He happens upon the king unobserved; now he could cover him in crimson, but he is praying. Hamlet intends to be inhumanly ferocious; he will send him to hell when he is in his cups; now he has a talk with his mother; in her company he is contented and comfortable; there duty and pleasure are in harmony. The ghost himself evinces some consideration for him: he is permitted to speak daggers, but to use none. Something is stirring behind the arras; Hamlet is courageous; he cannot see his adversary; he stabs the soft, defenseless tapestry and alights on good, old, worthy Polonius.             

Hamlet’s lunacy mounts; half of his player’s mask falls away, the other half he pulls off himself. The king has been brought to an extreme pass; he must either perish himself or destroy Hamlet. At this point he resolves to send him to England, where he is to meet his end. He gives him an entirely friendly account of the necessity of his removal to such a distance. Hamlet is quite content to go along with the plan; that niggling little word “no” is not in his vocabulary; he says, “good,” and allows himself to be sent off. He is thinking of nothing; he distances himself from everyone. Aboard ship, he plays a rascally trick, commits a poltroonish outrage, against his escorts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. These young men simply want to make their fortunes; they have shown themselves to be complaisant to the king, but they are oblivious of his perfidy; they know nothing of the contents of the message that they are bearing to England. Like a petty fraudster, he forges letters with new instructions, substitutes them for the originals, and consigns his escorts and boyhood chums to the end that was fixed for him. He does this not out of depravity, nor out of vindictiveness; he does it out of vanity. So far he has never managed to accomplish a single thing; now he will do something to be proud of twice over; he will indulge himself with a single clever stroke.

Chance wafts him back to Denmark. But now he is brooding over something, the nature of which he does not betray. He is challenged to a fencing match with Laertes. No sooner has he accepted the challenge than all is ill about his heart; it is merely a premonition that he will have to do something that ails him. He shall act; he shall die. Before the match he makes his peace with Laertes in a moving and dignified manner; once again the noble swan emerges from the water cleansed of the grit and grime of this earth. Hamlet fences, is mortally wounded, and finally, when he has nothing more to lose, when he has no more need of courage, he slays the king. This is the audacity of a thief who is already standing at the gallows and calumniates God, the world, and his judge. Thus ends a noble human being, the son of a king! He who cursed the spite that he had ever been born to set right the joints of time, treads the wheel of fortune like a blind horse until he tumbles to his destruction, a poor piece of livestock worsted by the whips and scorns of his taskmaster!

Such is the lot of the fair in this world.

Much has been said on the subject of Shakespeare’s irony.  Perhaps I have not properly understood what [is meant by that], but I have looked for irony everywhere [in the Shakespearean corpus] in vain. Irony is limitedness of conception, or self-limitation. For the latter Shakespeare was too regal, for the former he had too clear a philosophical worldview: he sees no contradiction between being and seeming; he perceives no fallacy there. He often shows up life’s pretentiousness for us with a smile, but never shows up its risible seriousness with a sneer. But in Hamlet I detect irony, and irony of a none-too pleasant sort. The poet who elsewhere unfailingly instructs us in such a friendly spirit, who resolves all our doubts for us, abandons us here amid insuperable dubieties and terrible apprehensions. Those that perish are not the just and the virtuous, but even worse, justice and virtue. Nature rebels against her creator and triumphs; the present moment reigns supreme with the moment to come as its successor; infinity is subordinate to space; eternity to time. In vain our own heart warns us not to respect evil because it is strong, not to despise the good because it is weak; we put more trust in our eyes. We see that he who has endured much has lived little, and we falter. Hamlet is a Christian tragedy.

The world gazes [awestruck] at Shakespeare’s marvels. Why? Are they really as marvelous as all that? Nothing is required but genius; the rest is easy. Shakespeare chooses a seed of a given species, casts it on to the ground; it germinates, sprouts, shoots up, produces leaves and flowers, and when the fruits appear, the poet returns and picks them. He has not done any tending of any sort; the air and sunshine of his spirit have taken care of everything, and the species has to its own self remained true. But at Hamlet I do gaze [awestruck]. Hamlet follows no course, describes no vector, belongs to no genre. It is impervious to inspection, to criticism, to analysis. Just think of what it means never to forget oneself! To be constantly thinking about oneself, so that one has nothing to think about! To let that self be nothing and everything simultaneously! To allow it constantly to temporize and never to act, to allow it to be constantly moving and never progressing! To allow it to be constantly spun like a top without letting it turn! That was difficult. And Shakespeare was an Englishman! If a German had written Hamlet, I would not be impressed by it in the least. Any German with a fair and legible hand could have done it. A German dictates himself to himself, and the result is Hamlet, complete and ready for performance.

Shylock the Jew in The Merchant of Venice

When the women got home from the theater, they remarked that the actor from out of town who was playing Shylock had been granted a curtain call, had uttered the usual elegant formulas of thanks, and had said among other things that fortunately one never met with monsters like Shylock in real life. On hearing this, I was sincerely glad that a terrible cough had prevented me from attending the performance. But perhaps the philanthropic gentleman had said this out of mere good-naturedness. In this city live many rich Jews who are hated and chaffed by their Christian fellow-citizens. Because the out-of-towner took it for granted that the Schadenfreude of the Christian segment of the community had been responsible for the selection of The Merchant of Venice as his benefit play, he wished to say something complimentary to the Jews who were helping to fill the house. But the actor had not been permitted to be serious in this whimsical speech of his; if he had been, he would have demonstrated that he had absolutely no understanding of his role. Understanding Shylock requires one not to have an opinion on whether there really are such creatures as Jewish vampires and cannibals, but to realize that the great poet had no intention of presenting us, à la Hundt-Radowsky, with a Pocket-Mirror of Judaism in exchange for a lump [i.e., Jewry en masse? (DR)]. When heaven sends us ignorant men and women a prophet like Shakespeare, it is surely for a greater purpose than simply teaching us how to read. Preaching and teaching is the last thing Shakespeare is interested in doing. But even supposing that in The Merchant of Venice he wanted to be a schoolmaster for a change, he certainly had Christians rather than Jews in mind as his pupils.

To give it its due, Shylock’s Jewishness—this lovely morality that contemns all non-numismatic passions—constitutes despite itself a kind of genuine interior greatness, a kind of sublimity that is suffered to cast a haughty eye down on his abjection. Shylock is a spiritual Jew, an avenging angel; he has felt his way up to a height at which he is capable of doing something besides breeding interest in his own purse, of doing something for everybody. He intends to avenge his abused, downtrodden people by attacking its tormenter, Christendom. We abhor Shylock’s moneybags; we tolerate Shylock the long-sufferer, but we adore and marvel at Shylock the avenger of the victims of inhuman persecution. Let it not be supposed that it is a trifle to cut a pound of flesh out of the breast of a worthy Christian gentleman! It is admittedly a trifle for a wicked Christian, but not for a Jew. The Jew can be ferocious in spirit, but he can never be ferocious at heart; he has a pure, weak heart; he is compassionate; he cannot stand the sight of blood.  Who knows whether Shylock would have carried out the act, who knows whether the knife that he whet[ted] so gloatingly on the sole of his foot would not have fallen out of his hand with the shedding of the first drop of blood; Antonio would have been allowed to take his chances.  And what a sacrifice Shylock brings to the altar of his revenge!  Three thousand, six thousand, nine thousand ducats!  And Jews’ ducats are no ordinary ducats; they are worth much more; the Jews’ love for them increases their value in their eyes.  And he ventures not only this bare sum; he ventures more, namely the interest on it, for acquisition is more important than possession for the Jew.  Might not Antonio manage to repay his debt by the appointed day?  But Shylock puts his trust in the furies, in sea-tempests and the destructive winds of spiteful rumors, and they do not let him down.  Moreover, one is hardly deceived by Shylock’s assertion that he hates Antonio because in low simplicity he lends out money gratis and brings down the rate of usance in Venice, and that were he out of town Shylock can make what merchandise he will.  No, this is not the reason why Shylock hates Antonio.  Christian commerce in Venice cannot be sustained entirely by honest, simple, noble Antonio; and one man, no matter how rich he is, cannot devalue the local currency on his own.  Shylock is a Jew; he blushes to sacrifice ready cash to a figment of his imagination, and so he tries to behave sensibly.  The Jew also fancies—fancies, not knows—on one occasion that he is not well.  But Shylock really is unwell; it is not the scourge of trade but the scourge of faith that he is persecuting in Antonio, and in his fevered delirium he remits solid, weighty ducats in exchange for a figment that is as light and insubstantial as air.

Any actor who undertakes to play Shylock will want to get a firm purchase on how to tackle the role.  The Jew’s bloodthirsty hatred should horrify us like any form of madness or religious zeal, but it ought not to arouse loathing and disgust after the manner of a physical disease.  Shylock’s accursed avarice and the convulsions into which his demented selfishness throws him should outrage us to the core, but we ought not to find them laughable: when the Devil appears before us in the flesh, it is certainly no time to laugh.   Simply revealing the divine within the Devil, simply trudging through a desert of sins all the way to the trickling headwaters of love that rise so far away and flow so inconspicuously, gives the expressive thespian plenty to work on.  For Shakespeare, unlike ordinary people and ordinary poets, does not, after the manner of an analytical chemist, dissolve living, multifariously constituted things into their lifeless constituent elements in order to make them more palatable to his sensibility or artistic practice, and thereby produce and present chemically pure characters—some of them specializing exclusively in hate, others in love; some of them wholly attractive, others wholly repellent.  He never takes sides; he grants no legal charter to anything but a morality that never appears in unadulterated form in life; rather, he lets the phenomena of life fight it out amongst themselves and holds himself aloof of their squabbles.  The poet has done everything possible to justify the Christian’s hatred of the Jew, and taken equally exacting pains to excuse the Jew’s hatred of the Christian.  Why should Shylock not hate rather than love Antonio for his nobility?  Antonio is good, noble, and charitable—but not towards the Jew.  He reviles him in public; he maltreats him whenever he encounters him.  Indeed, at the very moment when he has need of his complaisance, of his money, he cannot manage to conceal his hatred, his contempt; and the worthy, noble Antonio, who sacrifices everything for his friend, is not noble enough to speak courteously to the Jew for this friend’s sake.  Then a coxcomb of a Christian runs off with Shylock’s daughter, who steals from and abandons her old father; and it is only upon resolving to become a Christian, only upon her conversion, that she begins to contemn her father, because he is a Jew.  Thus might a dove’s blood very well metamorphose into a dragon’s.  The Christian hates the Jew; the Jew repays him in kind, and in so doing, Shylock avenges derided virtue even at his own expense.  He gives away money to avenge his people, and he learns that gold is not the master of the world, as the Jew believes; that indeed love is more powerful than gold, even for Jews. 

Whenever I read Shakespeare, I am genuinely sad that he is not alive to enlighten us today.  When there is no genius around to narrate historical events properly, it is as if they have never taken place.  An historical type, a relation between such types, that has not been portrayed by this great poet, because he was unaware of it, is like a book without a title, whose contents we are obliged to gather by reading it all the way through.  It often happens that great ages lack great historians, poets, or artists who are capable and worthy of describing them, of portraying or figuratively depicting them.  The most illustrious events are too proud, too restless, or too busy, to hold a pose for mediocre artists.  Such artists can only snatch at their features on the fly, or they must wait until the age is dead, when they can take its death mask, a mask that is as lifeless as the corpse from which it is taken.  But for a painter like Shakespeare the ages sit still, knowing well as they do that nature has art alone to thank for its immortality.   How Shakespeare would have depicted our Shylocks, the Shylockian grandees, with their Christian ribbons and medals pinned to the breasts of their Jewish gowns!  How he would have limned the paper-plying gownless Shylocks, who possess the flesh and blood of entire peoples in semblance and who make, not paper out of rags, but rags out of paper!   How he would have painted the reprobates for whom God is a finance minister, who says, “Let there be a world!”; and a paper world comes into being, with Adam as its first banker; Paradise, a blissful [Pari-Stand] of government securities; the Fall of Man, the first stock-market crash; [a world] in which the pages of history are precious metals, banknotes, shares; in which Judgment Day is the closing trading day of the month; the god Mars, a bearish speculator who [has] sacrificed the peace of the exchange to glory, honor, the happiness of nations, religion, justice, and other such despicable things; Sultan Mahmud, the guardian of the Christian newspapers, a great man, a mightily great man, a second Joshua; the Austrian Observer, the sixth book of Moses!  Oh, how Shakespeare, that great discount broker between nature and art, who barters the specie of one for the paper of the other, would have laid bare the secrets of the hearts of financiers!  How he would have incorporated into his composition our denizens of the exchange, whom the Greeks depreciated as a “race of rags”!  Do you hear Cato’s ashes laughing?  Of what was the Venetian Shylock guilty?  Sacrificing three thousand ducats for a wretched pound of Christian flesh; at least a craving was to be satisfied at such a dear rate.  But our Shylocks, men of the combined Old and New Testament, drown the entire Hellenic world like a blind kitten to obtain one tiny octavo volume!  The Venetian Shylock was a lamb, a child, a worthy soul; and yet the actor [from] up [there] in Frankfurt says that there are no such monsters as Shylock and that Shakespeare is a libeler!  Oh, worthy actor!  History lies if it calls people Christians because their forefathers ate pork sausage, but Shakespeare does not lie.

Translation © 2010 by Douglas Robertson