Dr. Robert Hickson
24 February 2022
“The man who has the rooms opposite mine [at Balliol College, Oxford University] is a Spaniard. A nobleman very cultivated and amiable. His name is Quixote. Consulted him last night as to what to do about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Quixote said it was entirely a point of honour.” (Hamlet the Dane’s own words taken from his Lost Diary, as presented by Maurice Baring in his 1913 collection, Lost Diaries (London: Duckworth & CO., 1913), page 213—my emphasis added—(The entire entry of Hamlet’s “Lost Diary” will be found on pages 206-215, which is the last presented piece in the book.)
“Yes, but you know I think great men, very great men, are never bitter—men like Goethe and Shakespeare.” (Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929), page 59—my emphasis added.)
“Shakespeare understood everything. Especially young people. I always think someone must have been unkind to him. He talks so painfully of ingratitude, but although he is sad and tragic he is never bitter, he is sweet. He is like Beethoven. Out of his great sadness there comes a fountain of joy.” (Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam , page 50—my emphasis added.)
“Turgenev,” said Yakovlev [the Russian teacher and mentor of Christopher Trevenen], “says that man is either a Hamlet or a Don Quixote. You are a Don Quixote, only you have none of the Spaniard’s kindness and humility. If you are a Don Quixote you should be chivalrous.” (Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam, page 225—my emphasis added.)
This brief essay intends to counterpoise two of Maurice Baring’s own sustained literary efforts—one of them in 1913 and one of them in 1929 after the Great War—namely, first an extended parody of variously imagined Lost Diary Entries from different points of history; and then an Historical Novel about varied temporal and sacred matters, to include various moral purifications from disappointed loves.
Moreover, Hamlet and Don Quixote, especially at two points, are vividly presented together and thus thereby become for us even more distinctive and contrasting characters. The contrast clarifies the mind, especially by way of Baring’s unusual contrasts and magnanimously designed ironies.
Let us resume with Yakovlev’s earlier words to Christopher Trevenen and his growing maturity:
“Turgenev [the Russian author]…says that man is either a Hamlet or a Don Quixote. You are a Don Quixote, only you have none of the Spaniard’s kindness and humility. If you are a Don Quixote you should be chivalrous.”
“Don Quixote, fortunately for him, was mad.”
“He was very sane too.”
“You mean that I am neither mad nor sane?”
“Neither mad, nor sane enough.”
“I will try and improve,” said Christopher, and he laughed.
“For a person who is steeped in oriental literature, it is surprising how little of the oriental serenity you have assimilated.”
“I suppose it is my Irish blood.”
“Yes, but I should have thought that would have been tempered by your mother’s common-sense.”
“That is because I am neither one thing nor the other; an exile everywhere.”
“We are all of us exiles,” said Yakovlev, “one must carry one’s country with one. The Kingdom of Heaven is within.”
“Yes, for those who have found it.” (Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam (1929),1 pages 225-226)
Before Hamlet records his sudden meeting with Quixote at Oxford, and before this visiting Danish Prince only partly then comes to accept what the chivalrous Spaniard had advised in honour, Prince Hamlet had—in bold script—entitled his own overall selective reflections, with these words:
From the Diary of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, during his Stay at England, whither he was Sent to Study at the University at Oxford, under the Special Care of Polonius. (206)
(In Shakespeare’s dark tragedy, Hamlet, Polonius is the father of Laertes and of Ophilia; moreover, after Polonius himself was later accidentally killed by Hamlet, the desire for vengeance was more widely stirred and spreading, all of which the magnanimity of Maurice Baring has attempted to mollify and mitigate in his Lost Diary.)
An earlier entry of Prince Hamlet’s Balliol Diary reads as follows:
Went to Abingdon for the day. When I came back I found that havoc had been made of my rooms [likely done by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?]: both the [musical] virginals broken to pieces—all the furniture destroyed, and all my pictures including a signed portrait of Ophilia [his beloved].
Have my suspicions as to who has done this. Shall first make certain and then retaliate terribly. In the meantime it will be polite to conceal my annoyance. (207)
Then toward the conclusion of his diary-entry, Hamlet resourcefully and honouably says:
Friday. –Must really settle this business of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern [those Danes on a mission] soon. It is beginning to prey upon my mind. They are quite insufferable….Fencing match [against Cambridge University] is to take place next week, here [at Oxford University].
Saturday.–The man who has the rooms opposite mine is a Spaniard. A nobleman very cultivated and amiable. His name is Quixote. Consulted him last night as to what to do about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Quixote said it was entirely a point of honour. That if I were certain they were guilty, and certain likewise that they had purposely insulted me, I should challenge them each, separately, to personal combat, with sword and rapier. I pointed out, however, that whereas I was a champion swordsman, and indeed had been chosen to represent the University, they had no skill at all. Moreover, I considered that to challenge them to fight would be doing them too much honour. Quixote said I must indubitably take action of some kind, or else I would incur the suspicion of cowardice. (213-214)
Then “at that moment” came a stealthy surprise, as was to be seen from their open window:
I [Hamlet] saw in the darkness, walking stealthily along the wall a man whom I took to be Guildenstern. Seizing a bottle of white wine from Xeres with which Quixote had entertained me, I flung it out of the window on to the head of the skulker, but alas! It was not Guildenstern but the [College] Dean himself! (214)
Soon there came some acute and partly comic consequences:
Monday.– [I] Again appeared before a [Balliol] College meeting. Accused of having wantonly wounded, and almost murdered the Dean. Protested my innocence in vain. It was further suggested I was intoxicated. Lost my temper, which was a mistake, and called the Dean a villain, losing control over my epithets.
Sent down [expelled] for the rest of the [academic] term. Polonius is very angry. He has written to my father [King Hamlet the true king, not uncle Claudius the usurper] suggesting that I should not go back to Oxford, nor seek to enter Cambridge either, but to go to Wittenberg instead [where “Mr. Faustus”—Faust—occultly dwells and teaches]. Owing to my abrupt departure the fencing match with Laertes [Polonius’s son] will not come off. No matter, a day will come, when maybe I shall be revenged on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. We go to London to-day. (214-215—Finis)
Once again Maurice Baring transposes with subtlety and modest charm a well-known and deftly interwoven literary text, or fragment. In this case, it was the fuller-developed tragedy of Hamlet.
May this deft parody lead us to re-read and more adequately to appreciate the intimate tragedy with its accompanying burdens of revenge.
May we also now better appreciate the clarifying counterpoise of those vivid characters of Prince Hamlet of Denmark and Don Quixote of La Mancha.
© 2022 Robert D. Hickson
1Maurice Baring, The Coat Without Seam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929). All further references are to this text, and are placed above in the main body of this brief essay for convenience. See also the earlier 1913 text: Maurice Baring, Lost Diaries (London: Duckworth & CO., 1913). Page references are in parentheses above in main body of the essay.