Turgenev on Hamlet and Don Quixote


On 10 January 1860, Ivan Turgenev gave a speech to the Society for the Aid of Needy Writers and Scholars.  He began by observing that the first edition of Hamlet and the first part of Don Quixote appeared in the same year.  (Later he remarked that people then thought that both authors died on 26 April 1616 – so that Anzac Day this year would be the eve of a big anniversary – if you accepted those dates.)  The substance of Turgenev’s views was as follows.

Don Quixote is entirely committed to ideals for which he will give anything, including his life.  He opposes himself to ‘the forces ranged against humanity – magicians and giants – which is to say oppressors.’  These ideals may come from what we call madness, but there is no self-interest.  There is only a ‘benign resignation’ that does not constrain him.  ‘He knows little – but then, he does not need to know much.’  This is because he knows what he is here for.  Half measures are not for him.  He is an enthusiast.  And Turgenev offers a startling insight in parenthesis – ‘notice that this mad wondering knight is the most moral element in his universe.’

Hamlet is consumed by his analysis of himself.  He is centred on himself.  He worries about himself and not his obligations.  ‘He is a sceptic – and he eternally struggles with himself….Doubting everything, Hamlet understandably does not spare even himself; his mind is too well developed to be satisfied with what he finds within himself.’

Don Quixote is ridiculous; Hamlet has an attractive appearance.  But while it is hard to like Hamlet – he does not like himself – it is harder to dislike the Don.  We sympathise with Hamlet – the bond we share with the Don is of a different order.

We can assess their reaction to the people – ‘the masses’ – by looking at Polonius and Sancho Panza.  Hamlets do nothing for the people – they are removed from the common people.  ‘They are vulgar and dirty; Hamlet by contrast is an aristocrat, and not by birth alone.’  But Don Quixote is a true hidalgo.  His simplicity comes from his want of self-regard.  ‘Don Quixote is not self-absorbed, and yet he has respect for himself and others.’  He does not show off, but Hamlet has the airs of a parvenu.  His feel for refinement is almost as strong as the feel for duty in Don Quixote.

Putting to one side the fox and the tortoise, the two characters reflect different types – the force that considers itself the centre of creation and sees everything else as relating to it; and the contrasting view under which all things exist in order to benefit something else.  There is the spirit of the north – ‘a spirit of reflection and analysis, a ponderous gloomy spirit, one deficient in harmony and bright colours.’  The spirit of the south is bright, cheerful, naïve, and receptive, one not plumbing the depths of life, but brightly reflecting all its aspects.

Don Quixote respects all institutions while ‘Hamlet scorns kings and courtiers – and is in essence oppressive and intolerant.’

Now, these large views or types may appeal to some more than others, but they offer a kind of prism to reflect on probably the two most famous characters in our letters.  I offer a couple of observations.

The madness of Don Quixote is real and essential to his role; the madness of Hamlet is not real, and I find it hard to come to terms with this pose.

The Don is madly in love with Dulcinea, and is ready to die for her.  There is no Dulcinea.  How do things stand between Hamlet and Ophelia?  The great Russian novelist says that we have Shakespeare’s word that Hamlet only pretended to love Ophelia.  That is what you take from the Hamlet feigning madness in the third act.  But what, then, are we to take from the histrionics of the forty thousand brothers of the fifth act?  Was this all show too, and if so, for whose benefit?  Either way the hero’s treatment of ‘an innocent creature, pure to the point of saintliness’ is very hard for us to take.  Is this uncertainty part of the charm of the show on the stage?

The people of Spain look on Don Quixote with an almost religious devotion that we rarely see with Shakespeare.  The madness is a real part of this.  I wonder if Don Quixote is our champion against those forces that oppress all of mankind.  I wonder if the Don is a celebration of freedom, and the right of each of us to be different.  I wonder if this mad knight stands for the dignity that each of us claims just because we are human.

These thoughts are prompted by these beautiful lines of Turgenev.

But here [where the Don is trampled on by pigs], Cervantes was ruled by the instinct of genius – and beneath the very ugliness of this adventure lies a profound truth.  In the lives of Don Quixotes, swine trample their legs all the time – especially just before those lives end.  This is the final tribute such individuals must pay to coarse randomness, to indifferent, insolent incomprehension.  This is the scorn of the Pharisee.  Then Don Quixotes can die.  They have passed through all the fires of the crucible.  They have won immortality for themselves – and it opens up before them….

There may be an allusion to the holy man who entered Jerusalem on a donkey, but the one word that you would hardly apply to Hamlet is humility.


Freud said this about Don Quixote.

Don’t you find it very touching to read how a great person, himself an idealist, makes fun of his ideals?  Before we were so fortunate as to apprehend the deep truths in our love, we were all noble knights passing through the world caught in a dream, misinterpreting the simplest things, magnifying commonplaces into something noble and rare, and thereby cutting a sad figure.  Therefore we men always read with respect about what we once were and in part still remain….

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