Home  »  Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship  »  Chapter IX

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

Book V

Chapter IX

THE NECESSARY preparations for scenery and dresses, and whatever else was requisite, were now proceeding. In regard to certain scenes and passages, our friend had whims of his own, which Serlo humoured, partly in consideration of their bargain, partly from conviction, and because he hoped by these civilities to gain Wilhelm, and to lead him according to his own purposes the more implicitly in time to come.

Thus, for example, the King and Queen were, at the first audience, to appear sitting on the throne, with the courtiers at the sides, and Hamlet standing undistinguished in the crowd. “Hamlet,” said he, “must keep himself quiet; his sable dress will sufficiently point him out. He should rather shun remark than seek it. Not till the audience is ended, and the King speaks with him as with a son, should he advance, and allow the scene to take its course.”

A formidable obstacle still remained, in regard to the two pictures, which Hamlet so passionately refers to in the scene with his mother. “We ought,” said Wilhelm, “to have both of them visible, at full length, in the bottom of the chamber, near the main door; and the former King must be clad in armour, like the Ghost, and hang at the side where it enters. I could wish that the figure held its right hand in a commanding attitude; were somewhat turned away; and as it were looked over its shoulder, that so it might perfectly resemble the Ghost at the moment when he issues from the door. It will produce a great effect, when at this instant Hamlet looks upon the Ghost, and the Queen upon the picture. The stepfather may be painted in royal ornaments, but not so striking.”

There were several other points of this sort, about which we shall perhaps elsewhere have opportunity to speak.

“Are you then inexorably bent on Hamlet’s dying at the end?” inquired Serlo.

“How can I keep him alive,” said Wilhelm, “when the whole piece is pressing him to death? We have already talked at large on that matter.”

“But the public wishes him to live.”

“I will show the public any other complaisance; but as to this, I cannot. We often wish that some gallant useful man, who is dying of a chronic disease, might yet live longer. The family weep, and conjure the physician, but he cannot stay him; and no more than this physician can withstand the necessity of nature, can we give law to an acknowledged necessity of art. It is a false compliance with the multitude, to raise in them emotions which they wish, when these are not emotions which they ought, to feel.”

“Whoever pays the cash,” said Serlo, “may require the ware according to his liking.”

“Doubtless, in some degree,” replied our friend; “but a great public should be reverenced, not used as children are, when pedlars wish to hook the money from them. By presenting excellence to the people, you should gradually excite in them a taste and feeling for the excellent; and they will pay their money with double satisfaction, when reason itself has nothing to object against this outlay. The public you may flatter, as you do a well-beloved child, to better, to enlighten it; not as you do a pampered child of quality, to perpetuate the error you profit from.”

In this manner, various other topics were discussed relating to the question: What might still be changed in the piece, and what must of necessity remain untouched? We shall not enter farther on those points at present; but perhaps at some future time we may admit this altered Hamlet itself to such of our readers as feel any interest in the subject.