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Victor Hugo : Prometheus and Hamlet

Dernière mise à jour : 11 sept. 2022

Gustave Moreau - Prometheus, 1868

Extract from:

Victor Hugo

William Shakespeare



"The characteristic of men of genius of the first order is to produce each a peculiar model of man. All bestow on humanity its portrait, - some laughing, some weeping, others pensive. These last are the greatest.

Plautus laughs, and gives to man Amphitryon; Rabelais laughs, and gives to man Gargantua; Cervantes laughs, and gives to man Don Quixote; Beaumarchais laughs, and gives to man Figaro; Molière weeps, and gives to man Alceste; Shakespeare dreams, and gives to man Hamlet; Æschylus meditates, and gives to man Prometheus.

The others are great; Æschylus and Shakespeare are immense.

These portraits of humanity, left to humanity as a last farewell by those passers-by, the poets, are rarely flattered, always exact, striking likenesses. Vice, or folly, or virtue, is extracted from the soul and stamped on the visage. The tear congealed becomes a pearl; the smile petrified ends by looking like a menace; wrinkles are the furrows of wisdom; some frowns are tragic.

This series of models of man is the permanent lesson for generations; each century adds in some figures, -- sometimes done in full light and strong relief, like Macette, Célimène, Tartuffe, Turcaret, and the Nephew of Rameau; sometimes simple profiles, like Gil Bias, Manon Lescaut, Clarissa Harlowe, and Candide. God creates by intuition; man creates by inspiration, strengthened by observation. This second creation, which is nothing else but divine action carried out by man, is what is called genius.


Two marvellous Adams, we have just said, are the man of Æschylus, Prometheus, and the man of Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Prometheus is action. Hamlet is hesitation.

In Prometheus the obstacle is exterior; in Hamlet it is interior.

In Prometheus the will is securely nailed down by nails of brass and cannot get loose; besides, it has by its side two watchers, — Force and Power.

In Hamlet the will is more tied down yet; it is bound by previous meditation, — the endless chain of the undecided. Try to get out of yourself if you can ! What a Gordian knot is our revery ! Slavery from within, that is slavery indeed. Scale this enclosure, "to dream !" escape, if you can, from this prison, "to love!" The only dungeon is that which walls conscience in.

Prometheus, in order to be free, has but a bronze collar to break and a god to conquer; Hamlet must break and conquer himself. Prometheus can raise himself upright, if he only lifts a mountain; to raise himself up, Hamlet must lift his own thoughts. If Prometheus plucks the vulture from his breast, all is said; Hamlet must tear Hamlet from his breast. Prometheus and Hamlet are two naked livers ; from one runs blood, from the other doubt.

We are in the habit of comparing Æschylus and Shakespeare by Orestes and Hamlet, these two tragedies being the same drama. Never in fact was a subject more identical. The learned mark an analogy between them; the impotent, who are also the ignorant, the envious, who are also the imbeciles, have the petty joy of thinking they establish a plagiarism.

It is after all a possible field for erudition and for serious criticism. Hamlet walks behind Orestes, parricide through filial love. This easy comparison, rather superficial than deep, strikes us less than the mysterious confronting of those two enchained beings, Prometheus and Hamlet.

Let us not forget that the human mind, half divine as it is, creates from time to time superhuman works. These superhuman works of man are, moreover, more numerous than it is thought, for they entirely fill art. Out of poetry, where marvels abound, there is in music Beethoven, in sculpture Phidias, in architecture Piranesi, in painting Rembrandt, and in painting, architecture, and sculpture Michael Angelo. We pass many over, and not the least.

Prometheus and Hamlet are among those more than human works.

A kind of gigantic determination; the usual measure exceeded; greatness everywhere; that which astounds ordinary intellects demonstrated when necessary by the improbable; destiny, society, law, religion, brought to trial and judgment in the name of the Unknown, the abyss of the mysterious equilibrium; the event treated as a rôle played out, and, on occasion, hurled as a reproach against Fatality or Providence; passion, terrible personage, going and coming in man; the audacity and sometimes the insolence of reason; the haughty forms of a style at ease in all extremes, and at the same time a profound wisdom; the gentleness of the giant; the goodness of a softened monster; an ineffable dawn which cannot be accounted for and which lights up everything, — such are the signs of those supreme works.

In certain poems there is starlight.

This light is in Æschylus and in Shakespeare.



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