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

Book V

Chapter XI

THE FORENOON and the afternoon fled rapidly away. The playhouse was already full; our friend hastened to dress. It was not with the joy which it had given him when he first essayed it, that he now put on the garb of Hamlet: he only dressed himself that he might be in readiness.

On joining the women in the stage-room, they unanimously cried that nothing sat upon him right; the fine feather stood awry, the buckle of his belt did not fit: they began to slit, to sew, and piece together. The music started: Philina still objected somewhat to his ruff; Aurelia had much to say against his mantle. “Leave me alone, good people,” cried he, “this negligence will make me like Hamlet.” The women would not let him go, but continued trimming him. The music ceased: the acting was begun. He looked at himself in the glass; pressed his hat closer down upon his face, and retouched the painting of his cheeks.

At this instant, somebody came rushing in and cried: “The Ghost! The Ghost!”

Wilhelm had not once had time all day to think of the Ghost, and whether it would come or not. His anxiety on that head was at length removed, and now some strange assistant was to be expected. The stage-manager came in, inquiring after various matters: Wilhelm had not time to ask about the Ghost; he hastened to present himself before the throne, where King and Queen, surrounded with their court, were already glancing in all the splendours of royalty, and waiting till the scene in front of them should be concluded. He caught the last words of Horatio, who was speaking of the Ghost in extreme confusion, and seemed to have almost forgotten his part.

The intermediate curtain went aloft, and Hamlet saw the crowded house before him. Horatio having spoken his address, and been dismissed by the King, pressed through to Hamlet; and, as if presenting himself to the Prince, he said; “The Devil is in harness; he has put us all in fright.”

In the mean while two men of large stature, in white cloaks and capuches, were observed standing in the side-scenes. Our friend, in the distraction, embarrassment and hurry of the moment, had failed in the first soliloquy; at least such was his own opinion, though loud plaudits had attended his exit. Accordingly he made his next entrance in no pleasant mood, with the dreary wintry feeling of dramatic condemnation. Yet he girded up his mind; and spoke that appropriate passage on the “rouse and wassel,” the “heavy-headed revel” of the Danes, with suitable indifference; he had, like the audience, in thinking of it, quite forgotten the Ghost; and he started in real terror, when Horatio cried out, “Look, my lord, it comes!” He whirled violently round; and the tall noble figure, the low inaudible tread, the light movement in the heavy-looking armour, made such an impression on him, that he stood as if transformed to stone, and could utter only in a half-voice his: “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” He glared at the form; drew a deep breathing once or twice, and pronounced his address to the Ghost in a manner so confused, so broken, so constrained, that the highest art could not have hit the mark so well.

His translation of this passage now stood him in goodstead. He had kept very close to the original; in which the arrangement of the words appeared to him expressive of a mind confounded, terrified and seized with horror:

  • “Be thou a spirit of health, or goblin damn’d,
  • Bring with thee airs from Heaven or blasts from Hell,
  • Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
  • Thou com’st in such a questionable shape,
  • That I will speak to thee; I’ll call thee Hamlet,
  • King, father, royal Dane: O answer me!”
  • A deep effect was visible in the audience. The Ghost beckoned, the Prince followed him amid the loudest plaudits. The scene changed; and when the two had re-appeared, the Ghost on a sudden stopped, and turned round; by which means Hamlet came to be a little too close upon it. With a longing curiosity, he looked in at the lowered vizor, but except two deep-lying eyes, and a well-formed nose, he could discern nothing. Gazing timidly, he stood before the Ghost; but when the first tones issued from the helmet, and a somewhat hoarse yet deep and penetrating voice pronounced the words: “I am thy father’s spirit,” Wilhelm, shuddering, started back some paces, and the audience shuddered with him. Each imagined that he knew the voice; Wilhelm thought he noticed in it some resemblance with his father’s. These strange emotions and remembrances; the curiosity he felt about discovering his secret friend, the anxiety about offending him, even the theatric impropriety of coming too near him in the present situation, all this affected Wilhelm with powerful and conflicting impulses. During the long speech of the Ghost, he changed his place so frequently; he seemed so unsettled and perplexed, so attentive, and so absent-minded, that his acting caused a universal admiration, as the Spirit caused a universal horror. The latter spoke with a feeling of melancholy anger rather than of sorrow; but of an anger spiritual, slow and inexhaustible. It was the mistemper of a noble soul, that is severed from all earthly things, and yet devoted to unbounded woe. At last he vanished; but in a curious manner; for a thin, gray, transparent gauze arose from the place of descent like a vapour, spread itself over him, and sank along with him.

    Hamlet’s friends now entered, and swore upon the sword. Old Truepenny, in the mean time, was so busy under ground, that wherever they might take their station, he was sure to call out right beneath them: “Swear!” and they started, as if the soil had taken fire below them, and hastened to another spot. On each of these occasions, too, a little flame pierced through at the place where they were standing. The whole produced on the spectators a profound impression.

    After this, the piece proceeded calmly on its course: nothing failed, all prospered; the audience manifested their contentment, and the actors seemed to rise in heart and spirits every scene.