The dreamy student of Wittenberg

December 21 2013

In Shakespeare’s tragedy of Hamlet, the dreamy student of Wittenberg is suddenly confronted, by the revelation of his mother’s guilt, with the prospect of having to do the deed of Orestes. In face of this dreadful challenge, which finds him unfitted by temperament and unprepared by experience for making the response that his conscience demands, Hamlet does not resort to a physical withdrawal from the tragic scene in the fashion of his Hellenic counterpart. Orestes is conveyed away secretly, as a child, from the clutches of his mother and her lover and is brought up in distant Phocis in order to return to Argos in his manhood as his father’s avenger. Since his earliest memory, Orestes has grown up with the knowledge that this is the deed which it has been laid upon him to do. Hamlet learns his fate by a sudden intimation at an age when he has already passed the threshold of maturity; and the manner in which he withdraws in order to return is characteristically different. Understanding, from the first, that his spiritual agony cannot be escaped by physical flight, he deliberately assents to his mother’s request that he stay in Denmark instead of returning to Wittenberg; and thereupon he withdraws – on a far longer spiritual voyage – into the innermost depths of the Microcosm, in order to return to the Macrocosm, in the fullness of time, transformed, for the Orestian deed, into a demonic “man of action”.

A Study of History, Vol III, OUP, 1934

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