An exceptional, long A.L.S., John Quincy Adams, four pages, 4to, Washington, 19th February 1839, to the actor James H. Hackett in New York. Adams writes, in full, ‘Dear Sir, I return herewith your Tragedy of Hamlet with many thanks for the perusal of your manuscript notes, which indicate how thoroughly you have delved into the bottomless mine of Shakespeare’s genius. Well I remember the conversation more than seven years by gone, at Mr. Phillip Hone’s hospitable table, where at the casual induction of the name of Hamlet the Dane, my enthusiastic admiration of the inspired (muse inspired) Bard of Avon commenced in childhood before the dawn had darkened by lip and continued, through five of the seven ages, the drama of life, gaining judgement as it loses to the imagination, seduced me to expatriate at a most intellectual and lovely convivial board, upon my views of the character of Hamlet until I came away ashamed of having engrossed an undue proportion of the conversation to myself. That my involuntary effusions and diffusions of mind on that occasional were indulgently viewed by Mr Hone, so as to have remained with kindness upon his memory to this day is a source of much gratification to me, and still more pleasing it is to me that he should have thought any of the observations with fell from me at the time worthy of being mentioned to you. I look upon the tragedy of Hamlet as the Master Piece of drama, the Master Piece of Shakespeare- I had almost said the Master Piece of the human mind. But I have never committed to but outlines and etchings. I can give no more now, snatching as I do from the morning lamp, to commune with a lover and worthy representative of Shakespeare upon the glories of the immortal Bard. What is tragedy? It is an imitative representation of human action and the Pope’s most beautiful lines, in the prologue to Cato, are but an expansion of the same idea. Hamlet – is the personification of man, in the prime of life, with a mind cultivated by the learning acquirable at an University, combining intelligence and sensibility in their highest degree, within a step of the highest station attainable upon earth, crushed to extinction, by the pressure of calamities inflicted not by nature buy against nature – not my physical but moral evil. Hamlet is the heart and soul of man, in all their perfection and all their frailty, in agonizing youthful love-manly ambition. His commanding principles are filial duty-generous friendship-love disappointed and subdued ambition and life sacrificed to avenge his father. Hamlet’s right to the throne has been violated, and his darkest suspicions roused by the marriage of his mother with his uncle so speedily succeeding his father’s death. His love is first trammeled by conflicting pride of his birth and station operating upon his ambition, and although he has ‘made many tenders of his affection’ to Ophelia and ‘hath importun’d her with love in honourable fashion, ‘yet he has made no proposal of marriage to her-he has promised her nothing but love and, cautioned both by her brother and father, she meets the advances of Hamlet with repulsion. Instead of attributing this to its true cause, he thinks she spurns his tenderness. In his enumeration of the sufferings which stimulate to suicide he names ‘the pangs of despised love’ and his first experiment of assumed madness, is made upon her. He treats her with a revolting mixture of ardent passion of gross indelicacy and of rudeness, little short of brutality-at one moment, he is worshipping at her feet, at the next insulting her with coarse indecency-at the third, he is taunting her with sneering and sarcastic advice to go to a nunnery. And is this the language of splendid intellect, in alliance with acute feeling? Aye, under the insupportable pressure of despised love; combined with a throne lost by usurpation-a father murdered by a mother and an uncle; an incestuous marriage between the criminals, and the apparition from the eternal world, of his father’s spirit, commanding him to avenge the dead. The revelation from the ghost caps the climax of calamity. It unsettles that ardent and meditative mind-you see it in the tone of levity instantly assumed upon the departure of the ‘perturbed spirit’, ‘you see it in the very determination to ‘put on an antic disposition’. It is the occasion, and to fore-arrange the most convenient opportunity, will feign occasional madness with intervals of clear and steady rational conversation. And thus it is that ‘the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought’. This perpetual action and reaction between the mind and heart; the feeling spurring him on, and the reflection holding him back, constitute that the most admirable portrait of human nature in its highest estate, little lower than the angles, little above the Hottentot of the African cape, which pervades every part of the character and conduct of Hamlet. The habitual turn of his mind is to profound meditation. He reflects upon life, upon death, upon the nature of man, upon the physical composition of the universe. He indulges in minute criticism upon the performance of the players; he reads and comments upon the satire of a juvenal; he quibbles with a quibbling grave-digger – commemorates the convivial attractions of an old jovial table companion, whose bones the good man Delver turns up in digging the grave for Ophelia, and philosophises upon the dust of Imperial Caesar, metamorphosed into the bung of a beer barrel. During all this time he is charged with the command of his father, risen from the dead, to take opportunities for the execution of it which he suffers to escape him; and is constantly reproaching himself for his delays. He shrewdly detected and ingeniously disconcerts the practices of the murdered against his life, discloses to his mother his knowledge of her guilt, kills Polonius most rashly pretending to kill a rat, and intending to kill the king, whom he supposes to be the person behind the arras and to have been listening and overhearing his terrible expostulations with his mother. When he discovers that the person he has killed was, not the king but Polonius, instead of compunction and remorse, he begins a cruel joke upon the dead body and finishes by an apologetic burst of indignation at the wretched, rash, intruding fool, who has hidden himself behind the arras, to overhear his interview with his mother. Yet the man who he has killed is the father of Ophelia, whom he loves to distraction; and whose madness and death are the immediate consequences of this murder of her father. Shakespeare has taken care not to bring Hamlet and Ophelia into the presence of each other after this event. He takes no notice at the grave-digging scene, that the grave over which he has so pathetically and humorously disserts upon the bones of Yorick, the kings jester, was about to receive the corpse of Ophelia. Afterwards, at the end of the funeral scene, he treats Laertes as roughly, but finally apologises to him and desires him to attribute his violence and unkind treatments to his madness. The reasoning faculty of Hamlet is at once sportive, sorrowful, indignant and melancholy. His reflections always take the tinge of the passion under which he is laboring, but his conduct is always governed by the impulse of the moment. Hence his madness as you have remarked is sometimes feigned, and sometime real. His feigned madness, Polonius, without seeing through it, perceives has method in it. His real madness is towering passion-transient, momentary, the furor brevis which was the ancient definition of danger. It overwhelms at once the brightest genius, the soundest reason, and the kindliest heart that ever was exhibited in combination upon the stage. It is Man in the ideal perfection of his intellectual and moral nature, struggling with the calamity beyond his power to bear, inflicted by the crime of his fellow man-struggling with agonising energies against it-sinking under it, to extinction. What can be more terrific? What can be more piteous? This is the hasty outline of my view of the character of Hamlet. I regret that time will not allow me to fill the canvas with lights and shades borrowed from the incidents and Dialogue of the Play. But After bestowing so much of my own tediousness upon you, I can only repeat my thanks for the perusal of your own very ingenious comments upon this incomparable Tragedy; and add the assurance of my best wishes, for your health and happiness, and of my cordial sympathies with your devotion to the memory of the immortal Bard. John Quincy Adams’
A very fine letter of remarkable association and content for its intellectual discussion of The Tragedy of Hamlet, William Shakespeare’s longest play and among the most powerful and influential tragedies in English Literature. Some light age wear at the folds, some professionally repaired, overall VG.