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Nietzsche and Spengler on Hamlet: An Elaboration and Synthesis William R. Brashear I When Hamlet remarks on how “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought” and on how he has thought “too precisely on th’ event” [Italics supplied], his choice of words would suggest that he himself regards as a distinct weakness the power of mind which dissolves meaning and pur­ pose into nothingness and ultimate futility. And within the context of his role or character as Prince of Denmark and wronged and traumatized son he is justified in considering it in this light, for it hinders him from making such decisions and taking such actions as are expected of him or imposed upon him by the milieu in which he exists as character or personality, the stage and setting of his temporal being. Most critics who have found in Hamlet’s reflective powers the primal cause of his in­ action and indecision have agreed with him that this is weak­ ness or imbalance, and here we must acknowledge the persisting influence of the theory of tragic flaw. Not only is something rotten in Denmark, but something must be “wrong” with Hamlet. The view of Hamlet as a tragedy of reflection has, of course, many variations. Schlegel found the Prince lost in “labyrinths of thought” and Coleridge emphasized the imbalance of “an al­ most enormous intellectual activity and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it.” Commentators have always tended to see themselves in Hamlet, and it has been especially remarked that Coleridge saw in him much of his own reflective and vacillating temperament; but it should in addition be ob106 William R. Brashear 107 served that Coleridge was not indisposed to think of himself as weak or ill, and this judgment he may also have transferred to some extent. In the last analysis, perhaps the fullest and most judicious reading of Hamlet as the speculative and imaginative genius is that of A. C. Bradley: There was a necessity in his soul driving him to penetrate below the surface and to question what others took for granted. That fixed habitual look which the world wears for most men did not exist for him. He was for ever unmaking his world and rebuilding it in thought, dissolving what to others were solid facts, and discovering what to others were old truths. There were no old truths for Hamlet.1 In these lines Bradley comes closer than any other English critic to Nietzsche’s view of Hamlet as the profound thinker, the Dionysiac thinker, who sees too deeply into and too fully about life to be able to espouse any cause or commit himself to any action. But Bradley turns off from the path that may have led him to Nietzsche’s conclusions, and his Hamlet in the end is not Nietzsche’s “whole” man, but, again, an overbalanced, flawed character. His habit of mind, his speculative genius, is, for Brad­ ley, a partial cause and a symptom of his malady, and is at once “melancholic,” “morbid,” and “dangerous” (pp. 103-108). What in the end then proves to be Nietzsche’s unique con­ tribution to Hamlet criticism is that he saw unqualified strength and magnitude where others saw weakness in strength and limi­ tation in magnitude. His Hamlet is extraordinary because he is whole and sound. For this same reason he is tragic, and this is in keeping with Nietzsche’s conclusion (which is also Eugene O’Neill’s) that the sound and healthy view of life is the tragic view. To think deeply is to think tragically. We are, indeed, ac­ customed to recognize in tragedy the element of “inevitability,” and this is surely the ultimate psychic inevitability that lies be­ hind tragedy: that to think deeply enough is to see nothingness, and to penetrate the veil of objective and posited values is to be confronted by the terrifying and meaningless chaos of infinity, what Nietzsche named the Dionysiac realm. To be aware of this, to confront this, if only fleetingly, is to attain tragic stature; to evade or suppress it, as we all must in our daily lives, is to...


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pp. 106-116
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