The character of Hamlet, as A. C. Bradley says, 'has been the subject of more discussion than any other in the whole literature of the world.' Not altogether favourable discussion, it might be added. Voltaire said the play was a vulgar and barbarous drama that one would imagine to be the work of a drunken savage. Chateaubriand called it a tragedy of maniacs, in which every character is either crazy of criminal. 'There is no possibility of finding any explanation of Hamlet's actions and speeches', wrote Tolstoy, more in sorrow than in anger, 'and therefore no possibility of attributing any character to him.' But on the whole the hostile critics have done less damage than the majority who believed themselves to be rescuing Shakespeare from his detractors by supplying the psychological analysis or the explanation of historical limitations which he had somehow failed to make for himself.
In later chapters I have made fun of Goethe's solemn improvement to the play as described by Wilhelm Meister, and slighted Samuel Johnson's superior scheme for managing the dénouement. In 1772, David Garrick produced his own version of Hamlet. He modestly undertook to 'rescue that noble play from all the rubbish of the fifth Act' . Hamlet did not go to England; Laertes did not plot with Claudius to murder him. Instead Laertes quarrelled with Hamlet, Claudius intervened and fought with Hamlet who killed him. Laertes mortally wounded the Prince and then died of wounds or, as another report his it, Hamlet prevented Horatio from avenging him and made Laertes and Horatio shake hands. The Queen?--she went mad and died off stage. Who can blame her in the circumstances?
The modern way of maltreating Hamlet is to psychologize . . .