Cambridge Sketches
by Frank Preston Stearns

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Hawthorne and Hamlet

A Reply to Professor Bliss Perry.

To compare a person in real life with a character in fiction is not uncommon, but it is more conducive to solidity of judgment to compare the living with the living, and the imaginary with the imaginary. The chief difficulty, however, in Hamlet’s case, is that he only appears before us as a person acting in an abnormal mental condition. The mysterious death of his father, the suspicion of his mother’s complicity in crime, which takes the form of an apparition from beyond the grave, is too much of a strain for his tender and impressible nature. His mental condition has become well known to physicians as cerebral hyperaemia, and all his strange speeches and eccentric actions are to be traced to this source; and it is for this reason that the dispute has arisen as to whether Hamlet was not partially insane. If the strain continued long enough he would no doubt have become insane.

As well as we can penetrate through this adventitious nimbus, we discover Hamlet to be a person of generous, princely nature, high-minded and chivalrous. He is cordial to every one, but always succeeds in asserting the superiority of his position, even in his conversation with Horatio. If he is mentally sensitive he shows no indication of it. He never appears shy or reserved, but on the contrary, confident and even bold. This may be owing to the mental excitement under which he labors; but the best critics from Goethe down have accredited him with a lack of resolution; and it is this which produces the catastrophe of the play. He must have realized, as we all do, that after the scene of the players in which he “catches the conscience of a king,” his life was in great danger. He should either have organized a conspiracy at once, or fled to the court of Fortinbras; but he allows events to take their course, and is controlled by them instead of shaping his own destiny. Instead of planning and acting he philosophizes.

Of Hawthorne, on the contrary, we know nothing except as a person in a perfectly normal condition. His wife once said that she had rarely known him to be indignant, and never to lose his temper. He was the most sensitive of men, but he also possessed an indomitable will. It was only his terrible determination that could make his life a success. Emerson, who had little sympathy with him otherwise, always admired the perfect equipoise of his nature. A man could not be more thoroughly himself; but, such a reticent, unsociable character as Hawthorne could never be used as the main-spring of a drama, for he would continually impede the progress of the plot. A dramatic character needs to be a talkative person; one that either acts out his internal life, or indirectly exposes it. Hawthorne’s best friends do not appear to have known what his real opinions were. This perpetual reserve, this unwillingness to assimilate himself to others, may have been necessary for the perfection of his art.

The greater a writer or an artist, the more unique he is,—the more sharply defined from all other members of his class. Hawthorne certainly did not resemble Scott, Dickens, or Thackeray, either in his life or his work. He was perhaps more like Auerbach than any other writer of the nineteenth century, but still more like Goldsmith. The “Vicar of Wakefield” and the “House of the Seven Gables” are the two perfect romances in the English tongue; and the “Deserted Village,” though written in poetry, has very much the quality of Hawthorne’s shorter sketches. “And tales much older than the ale went round” is closely akin to Hawthorne’s humor; yet there was little outward similarity between them, for Goldsmith was often gay and sometimes frivolous; and although Hawthorne never published a line of poetry he was the more poetic of the two, as Goldsmith was the more dramatic. He also resembled Goldsmith in his small financial difficulties.

In his persistent reserve, in the seriousness of his delineation, and in his indifference to the opinions of others, Hawthorne reminds us somewhat of Michael Angelo; but he is one of the most unique figures among the world’s geniuses.


Preface  •  The Close of the War  •  Francis J. Child  •  Longfellow  •  Lowell  •  Cranch  •  T. G. Appleton  •  The Whip of the Sky  •  Pompeii  •  Doctor Holmes  •  Frank W. Bird, and the Bird Club  •  Sumner  •  Chevalier Howe  •  The War Governor  •  The Colored Regiments  •  Emerson’s Tribute to George L. Stearns  •  Elizur Wright  •  Dr. W. T. G. Morton  •  William T. G. Morton  •  Leaves From a Roman Diary  •  My Last Visit to the Longfellows  •  Centennial Contributions  •  The Emerson Centennial  •  The Hawthorne Centennial  •  Hawthorne and Hamlet  • 

[Buy at Amazon]
Cambridge Sketches
By Frank Preston Stearns
At Amazon