'Victor Hugo’s Analysis of Hamlet' – No by-line (but likely Curtin), Westralian Worker, 10 January 1919, page 2

This article had no by-line. Fitzgerald described its summary of part of Hugo’s book on Shakespeare as:

A (skilfully) edited extract….Intelligent selection. [1]


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Victor Hugo’s Analysis of Hamlet

Here is what the greatest literature of France has to say concerning Shakespeare’s Hamlet:-

Hamlet is prince and demagogue, sagacious and extravagant, profound and frivolous, man and neuter. He has little faith in the sceptre, rails at the throne, has a student for his comrade, converses with any one passing by, argues with the first comer, understands the people, despises the mob, hates violence, distrusts success, questions obscurity, and is on speaking terms with mystery. He communicates to others maladies that he has not himself; his feigned madness inoculates his mistress with real madness. He is familiar with spectres and with actors. He jests, with the axe of Orestes in his hand. He talks literature, recites verses, composes a theatrical criticism, plays with bones in a churchyard, dumbfounds his mother, avenges his father, and closes the dread drama of life and death with a gigantic point of interrogation. He terrifies, and then disconcerts. Never has anything more overwhelming been dreamed.

This drama is stern. In it truth doubts, sincerity lies. Nothing can be vaster, nothing subtler. In it man is the world, and the world is zero. Hamlet, even in full life, is not sure of his existence. In this tragedy - which is at the same time a philosophy -–everything floats, hesitates, shuffles, staggers, becomes discomposed, scatters, and is dispersed. Thought is a cloud, will is a vapour, resolution a twilight; the action blows every moment from a different direction; the mariner’s card governs man. A work which disturbs and makes dizzy; in which the bottom of everything is laid bare; where the pendulum of thought oscillates only from the murdered king to buried Yorick; and where that which is most real is kingliness impersonated in a ghost, and mirth represented by a death’s head.

Hamlet is the supreme tragedy of the human dream.

Other works of the human mind equal Hamlet; none surpasses it. There is in Hamlet all the majesty of the mournful. A drama issuing from an open sepulchre, - this is colossal.

No figure among those that poets have created is more poignant and more disquieting. Doubt counselled by a ghost – such is Hamlet. Hamlet has seen his dead father and has spoken to him.

Is he convinced? No: he shakes his head. What shall he do? He does not know. His hands clench, then fall by his side. Within him are conjectures, systems, monstrous apparitions, bloody recollections, veneration for the ghost, hate, tenderness, anxiety to act and not to act, his father, his mother, conflicting duties, - a profound storm. His mind is occupied with ghastly hesitation. Shakespeare, wonderful plastic poet makes the grandiose pallor of this soul almost visible. Like the great spectre of Albrecht Durer, Hamlet might be named “Melancholia”. Above his head, too, there flits the disembowelled bat; at his feet are science, the sphere, the compass, the hourglass, love; and behind him, at the horizon, a great and terrible sun which seems to make the sky but darker.

Nevertheless, at least one half of Hamlet is anger, transport, outrage, hurricane, sarcasm to Ophelia, malediction on his mother, insult to himself. He talks with the grave-digger, almost laughs, then clutches Laertes by the hair in the very grave of Ophelia, and tramples furiously upon that coffin. Sword-thrusts at Polonius, sword-thrusts at Laertes, sword-thrusts at Claudius. At times his inaction gapes open and from the rent, thunderbolts flash out.

He is tormented by that possible life, interwoven of reality and dream, concerning which we are all anxious. Somnambulism is diffused through all his actions. One might almost consider his brain as a formation: there is a layer of suffering, a layer of thought, then a layer of dream.


It is through this layer of dream that he leefs, comprehends, learns, perceives, drinks, eats, frets, mocks, weeps, and reasons. There is between life and him a transparency – the wall of dreams; one sees beyond it, but cannot step over it. A kind of cloudy obstacle everywhere surrounds Hamlet. Have you never, while sleeping, had the nightmare of pursuit or flight, and tried to hasten on, and felt the anchylosis of your knees, the heaviness of your arms, the horrible paralysis of your benumbed hands? This nightmare Hamlet suffers while awake. Hamlet is not upon the spot where his life is. He has ever the air of a man who talks to you from the other side of a stream. He calls to you at the same time that he questions you. He is at a distance from the catastrophe in which he moves, from the passer-by he questions, from the thought he bears, from the action he performs. He seems not to touch even what he crushes. This is isolation carried to its highest power. It is the loneliness of a mind, even more than the unapproachableness of a prince. Indecision is, in fact, a solitude; you have not even your will to keep you company. It is as if your own self had departed and had left you there.

And thus, apart from men, Hamlet still has within him an undefined something which represents them all. He is the mournful man that we all are in certain situations. Unhealthy as he is, Hamlet expresses a permanent condition of man. He represents the discomfort of the soul in a life unsuited to it. He represents the shoe that pinches and stops our walking; this shoe is the body. Shakespeare delivers him from it, and rightly. Hamlet – prince if you like, but king never – is incapable of governing a people, so wholly apart from all does he exist. On the other hand he does better than to reign; he is. Take from him his family, his country, his ghost, the whole adventure at Elsinore, and even in the form of an inactive type he remains strangely terrible. This results from the amount of humanity and the amount of mystery in him. Hamlet is formidable – which does not prevent his being ironical. He has the two profiles of destiny.

Books to Read

“Eureka: Freedoms Fight of ’54,” by R. S. Ross. This work by the editor of the Melbourne “Socialist” tells the story of the Ballarat miners’ revolt against Governmental tyranny. 1s 3d, postage extra.

“Jail From Within” Eighty pages in size, this little book constitutes a notable contribution to prison literature. “Jail From Within” is not a chronicle of dry-as-dust matter-of-factness, but is a radiant flashlight upon prison methods, customs, treatment, routine, degradation and the whole wretched system generally. The book is published at 1s and can be posted anywhere for 1s 2p.

“Outlines of Working Class History,” sold at 1s 3d, posted 1s 4 ½ p. The book is 130 pages in size, rammed, jammed and crammed with the essence of the periods under review. It is attractively got up, being subdivided into sections and sub-headed throughout.

“The Union’s Place and Power,” written by R. S. Ross and published by the Australian Workers’ Union, Queensland. A 24-page pamphlet which is an historical outline and a defence of trade unionism, a case for the One Big Union and Labor-in-politics, and a plea for fundamental action. Incidentally it contains a word to non-unionists. Can be had for 3d.

“Betrayed,” a propagandist play by Adela Pankhurst which is an eye-opener. We sell it at 1s 3d. Postage is another 2p.

“The Story of the Red Flag,” by H. Scott Bennett and R. S. Ross. Sold at 3d, posted 4 ½ p.

“History of Freedom of Thought,” by Professor Barry. 2s, posted 2s 2d.


1. John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library. Records of Tom Fitzgerald. Curtin: Book discussions (largely from Our Bookshelf), 1917 - 1988. JCPML00653/36