- "A gross and barbarous composition"Melancholy, National Character, and the Critical Reception of Hamlet in the Eighteenth Century
The contest in twentieth- and twenty-first century critical readings of Hamlet's melancholy between a character analysis of psychological motivations and a historical retrieval of medical theories and dramatic conventions has tended to downplay the relevancy of eighteenth-century pronouncements on the play as beholden either to the inappropriate standards of neoclassical theory or to the inaccurate distortions of nationalist Bardolatry. In the culture wars of the eighteenth century, the melancholy of Hamlet served as a stand-in for either barbarous misanthropy or native genius depending upon the political and ideological commitments of the critic at hand. Recognizing such commitments need not, however, diminish our appreciation for the analytical power and methodological innovation on display in this critical literature. Indeed, the notion that such commitments are inappropriate seems itself a critical fallacy born out of the era of romantic criticism that claimed to supplant them. The reception of Hamlet in the eighteenth century, though but a part of the larger history of Shakespearean criticism and dramaturgy, reflects and participates in developing representations of melancholy and the passions as symptomatic products and transformative agents of cultural mores and social institutions. Revisiting major and minor works of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Hamlet criticism with a more sympathetic attitude towards their [End Page 235] ethical and thereby social and political concerns reveals a critical language well suited for reflecting upon cultural forms within an increasingly secular and national society. Hamlet's melancholy character, in the critical discourse of the eighteenth century, is neither a sign of Saturn nor an expression of ennui, but a dynamic product of a free society and a skeptical age.1
Consider first this assessment of the play by Luigi Riccoboni, director of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris from 1716 to 1729, and author of the boldly original Réflexions historiques et critiques sur les différens théâtres de l'Europe (1738):
In the Tragedy of Hamlet, five principal Characters die violent Deaths during the Action. About the middle of the Play we see the Funeral of a Princess; the Grave is dug on the Stage, out of which are thrown Bones and Skulls: A Prince comes then and takes up a Skull in his Hand, which the Grave-digger informs him was the Skull of the late King's Jester; he makes a moral Dissertation upon the Skull of the Jester, which is reckoned a Master-piece: The Audience listen with Admiration, and applaud with Transport.2
This summary of violent actions and morbid tableaux seems at first glance a perfect instance of what A. C. Bradley had in mind when he speculatively asked,
Suppose you were to describe the plot of Hamlet to a person quite ignorant of the play, and suppose you were careful to tell your hearer nothing about Hamlet's character, what impression would your sketch make on him? Would he not exclaim: "What a sensational story! Why, here are some eight violent deaths, not to speak of adultery, a ghost, a mad woman, and a fight in a grave! If I did not know that the play was Shakespeare's, I should have thought it must have been one of those early tragedies of blood and horror from which he is said to have redeemed the stage"?3
Bradley anxiously surmises that the absence of character description would degrade the drama into a sequence of incoherent sensations, and Riccoboni's summary of the drama's plot does emphasize the brutal and the grotesque. But Riccoboni counterbalances the absence of character analysis as a redemptive strategy by emphasizing the responsive enthusiasm of the English audience. His attention to their admiration and transport in response to Hamlet's graveyard soliloquy ("it is for that Scene that the major Part of the Spectators resort to the Play-house when Hamlet [End Page 236] is performed") alerts us to an essential component of Riccoboni's critical project: namely, to understand theatre in symptomatic terms as an expression of national character, indeed to identify character itself as a cultural category perceptible through the...