Edgar Allan Poe
Born Jan 19, 1809 - died Oct 7, 1849
"The Radical Error"
Edgar Allan Poe
POE ON THE CHARACTERS OF SHAKESPEARE
In all commenting on Shakespeare, there has been a radical error, never yet mentioned. It is the error of attempting to expound his characters – to account for their actions –- to reconcile his inconsistencies – not as if they were the coinage of a human brain, but as if they had been actual existences upon earth. We talk of Hamlet the man, instead of Hamlet the dramatis persona – of Hamlet that God, in place of Hamlet that Shakespeare created. If Hamlet had really lived, and if the tragedy were an accurate record of his deeds, from the record (with some trouble) we might, it is true, reconcile his inconsistencies and settle to our satisfaction his true character. But the task becomes the purest absurdity when we deal only with a phantom. It is not (then) the inconsistencies of the acting man which we have as a subject of discussion (although we proceed as if it were, and thus inevitably err,) but the whims and the vacillations-the conflicting energies and indolences of the poet. It seems to us little less than a miracle, that this obvious point should have been overlooked.
While on this topic we may as well offer an ill-considered opinion of our own as to the intention of the poet in the delineation of the Dane. It must have been well known to Shakespeare, that a leading feature in certain more intense classes of intoxication, (from whatever cause,) is an almost irresistible impulse to counterfeit a farther degree of excitement than actually exists. Analogy would lead any thoughtful person to suspect the same impulse in madness – where beyond doubt it is manifest. This, Shakespeare felt-not thought. He felt it through his marvelous power of identification with humanity at large –- the ultimate source of his magical influence upon mankind. He wrote of Hamlet as if Hamlet he were; and having, in the first instance, imagined his hero excited to partial insanity by the disclosures of the ghost – he (the poet) felt that it was natural he should be impelled to exaggerate the insanity.
Reprinted on page 71 of "The Unknown Poe, An Anthology of Fugitive Writings by Edgar Allan Poe" published by City Lights Books, 1980.
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Original Page October 8, 2023