Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter IV

J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Book V

Chapter IV

ONE of the conditions, under which our friend had gone upon the stage, was not acceded to by Serlo without some limitations. Wilhelm had required that Hamlet should be played entire and unmutilated; the other had agreed to this strange stipulation, in so far as it was possible. On this point they had many a contest; for as to what was possible or not possible, and what parts of the piece could be omitted without mutilating it, the two were of very different opinions.

Wilhelm was still in that happy season, when one cannot understand how, in the woman one loves, in the writer one honours, there should be anything defective. The feeling they excite in us is so entire, so accordant with itself, that we cannot help attributing the same perfect harmony to the objects themselves. Serlo again was willing to discriminate, perhaps too willing: his acute understanding could usually discern in any work of art nothing but a more or less imperfect whole. He thought, that as pieces usually stood, there was little reason to be chary about meddling with them; that of course Shakspeare, and particularly Hamlet, would need to suffer much curtailment.

But when Serlo talked of separating the wheat from the chaff, Wilhelm would not hear of it. “It is not chaff and wheat together,” said he: “It is a trunk with boughs, twigs, leaves, buds, blossoms and fruit. Is not the one there with the others, and by means of them?” To which Serlo would reply, that people did not bring a whole tree upon the table; that the artist was required to present his guests with silver apples in platters of silver. They exhausted their invention in similitudes: and their opinions seemed still farther to diverge.

Our friend was on the borders of despair, when, on one occasion, after much debating, Serlo counselled him to take the simple plan; to make a brief resolution, to grasp his pen, to peruse the tragedy; dashing out whatever would not answer, compressing several personages into one: and if he was not skilled in such proceedings, or had not heart enough for going through with them, he might leave the task to him, the Manager, who would engage to make short work with it.

“That is not our bargain,” answered Wilhelm. “How can you, with all your taste, show so much levity?”

“My friend,” cried Serlo, “you yourself will ere long feel it and show it. I know too well how shocking such a mode of treating works is: perhaps it never was allowed on any theatre till now. But where indeed was ever one so slighted as ours? Authors force us on this wretched clipping system, and the public tolerates it. How many pieces have we, pray, which do not overstep the measure of our numbers, of our decorations and theatrical machinery, of the proper time, of the fit alternation of dialogue, and the physical strength of the actor? And yet we are to play, and play, and constantly give novelties. Ought we not to profit by our privilege then, since we accomplish just as much by mutilated works as by entire ones? It is the public itself that grants the privilege. Few Germans, perhaps few men of any modern nation, have a proper sense of an æsthetic whole: they praise and blame by passages; they are charmed by passages: and who has greater reason to rejoice at this than actors, since the stage is ever but a patched and piecework matter?”

“Is!” cried Wilhelm; “but must it ever be so? Must everything that is continue? Convince me not that you are right: for no power on earth should force me to abide by any contract which I had concluded with the grossest misconceptions.”

Serlo gave a merry turn to the business; and persuaded Wilhelm to review once more the many conversations they had had together about Hamlet; and himself to invent some means of properly reforming the piece.

After a few days, which he had spent alone, our friend returned with a cheerful look. “I am much mistaken,” cried he, “if I have not now discovered how the whole is to be managed: nay, I am convinced that Shakspeare himself would have arranged it so, had not his mind been too exclusively directed to the ruling interest, and perhaps misled by the novels, which furnished materials.”

“Let us hear,” said Serlo, placing himself with an air of solemnity upon the sofa; “I will listen calmly; but judge with rigour.”

“I am not afraid of you,” said Wilhelm; “only hear me. In the composition of this play, after the most accurate investigation and the most mature reflection, I distinguish two classes of objects. The first are the grand internal relations of the persons and events, the powerful effects which arise from the characters and proceedings of the main figures: these, I hold, are individually excellent, and the order in which they are presented cannot be improved. No kind of interference must be suffered to destroy them, or even essentially to change their form. These are the things which stamp themselves deep into the soul; which all men long to see, which no one dares to meddle with. Accordingly, I understand, they have almost wholly been retained in all our German theaters. But our countrymen have erred, in my opinion, with regard to the second class of objects, which may be observed in this tragedy; I allude to the external relations of the persons, whereby they are brought from place to place, or combined in various ways by certain accidental incidents. These they have looked upon as very unimportant; have spoken of them only in passing, or left them out altogether. Now, indeed, it must be owned, these threads are slack and slender; yet they run through the entire piece, and bind together much that would otherwise fall asunder, and does actually fall asunder, when you cut them off, and imagine you have done enough and more, if you have left the ends hanging.

“Among these external relations I include the disturbances in Norway, the war with young Fortinbras, the embassy to his uncle, the settling of that feud, the march of young Fortinbras to Poland, and his coming back at the end; of the same sort are Horatio’s return from Wittenberg, Hamlet’s wish to go thither, the journey of Laertes to France, his return, the dispatch of Hamlet into England, his capture by pirates, the death of the two courtiers by the letter which they carried. All these circumstances and events would be very fit for expanding and lengthening a novel; but here they injure exceedingly the unity of the piece, particularly as the hero has no plan, and are in consequence entirely out of place.”

“For once in the right!” cried Serlo.

“Do not interrupt me,” answered Wilhelm; “perhaps you will not always think me right. These errors are like temporary props of an edifice; they must not be removed till we have built a firm wall in their stead. My project therefore is, not at all to change those first-mentioned grand situations, or at least as much as possible to spare them, but collectively and individually; but with respect to these external, single, dissipated and dissipating motives, to cast them all at once away, and substitute a solitary one instead of them.”

“And this?” inquired Serlo, springing up from his recumbent posture.

“It lies in the piece itself,” answered Wilhelm, “only I employ it rightly. There are disturbances in Norway. You shall hear my plan, and try it.

“After the death of Hamlet the father, the Norwegians, lately conquered, grow unruly. The viceroy of that country sends his son, Horatio, an old school-friend of Hamlet’s, and distinguished above every other for his bravery and prudence, to Denmark, to press forward the equipment of the fleet, which, under the new luxurious king, proceeds but slowly. Horatio has known the former king, having fought in his battles, having even stood in favour with him; a circumstance by which the first ghost-scene will be nothing injured. The new sovereign gives Horatio audience, and sends Laertes into Norway with intelligence that the fleet will soon arrive, whilst Horatio is commissioned to accelerate the preparation of it; and the Queen, on the other hand, will not consent that Hamlet, as he wishes, should go to sea along with him.”

“Heaven be praised!” cried Serlo; “we shall now get rid of Wittenberg and the university, which was always a sorry piece of business. I think your idea extremely good; for except these two distant objects, Norway and the fleet, the spectator will not be required to fancy anything: the rest he will see; the rest takes place before him; whereas his imagination, on the other plan, was hunted over all the world.”

“You easily perceive,” said Wilhelm, “how I shall contrive to keep the other parts together. When Hamlet tells Horatio of his uncle’s crime, Horatio counsels him to go to Norway in his company, to secure the affections of the army, and return in warlike force. Hamlet also is becoming dangerous to the King and Queen; they find no readier method of deliverance than to send him in the fleet, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be spies upon him; and as Laertes in the mean time comes from France, they determine that this youth, exasperated even to murder, shall go after him. Unfavourable winds detain the fleet; Hamlet returns: for his wandering through the churchyard perhaps some lucky motive may be thought of; his meeting with Laertes in Ophelia’s grave is a grand moment, which we must not part with. After this, the King resolves that it is better to get quit of Hamlet on the spot; the festival of his departure, the pretended reconcilement with Laertes, are now solemnised; on which occasion knightly sports are held, and Laertes fights with Hamlet. Without the four corpses I cannot end the piece; not one of them can possibly be left. The right of popular election now again comes in force, and Hamlet gives his dying voice for Horatio.”

“Quick! quick!” said Serlo; “sit down and work the piece: your plan has my entire approbation; only do not let your zeal for it evaporate.”