A summary of an influential essay – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Hamlet and his Problems’ is one of T. S. Eliot’s most important and influential essays. It was first published in 1919. In ‘Hamlet and his Problems’, Eliot makes the bold claim that Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, far from being a triumph, is an artistic failure. Why? Eliot is being provocative with such a statement, but he does provide some reasons for this position. In this article, we’re going to analyse Eliot’s essay, which you can read here.
In summary, Eliot’s argument in ‘Hamlet and his Problems’ is that Shakespeare’s play is a ‘failure’, but the play has become so familiar and ubiquitous as a work of art that we are no longer able to see its flaws. This bold revisionist claim is founded on several points, not least of which is the fact that Shakespeare inherited the original play-text of Hamlet from another writer (probably Thomas Kyd, who also wrote The Spanish Tragedy). This earlier play contained many of the ingredients that appear in Shakespeare’s later rewriting of the story of Hamlet, but is a cruder example of the revenge tragedy. Shakespeare rewrote it and updated it for a later, more refined theatre audience – but the Bard failed to graft his more sophisticated reading of the character of Hamlet (notably, his odd feelings towards his own mother) onto Kyd’s more primitive version of the character. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is too ‘big’ for the plot of the play and the ‘intractable material’ Shakespeare is being forced to work with. It’s as if a master analyst of the human mind, such as Dostoevsky, tried to rewrite the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a psychologically complex novel. (That’s our analogy, not Eliot’s.)
So, far from being a literary masterpiece, Shakespeare’s reworking of the Hamlet story fails, according to Eliot, because Shakespeare attempted to do too much with the character and, as a result, Hamlet’s emotions in the play seem unclear. There is a gulf between the emotion felt by the character and the way this is worked up into drama in the play.
Eliot goes on to argue that Coriolanus, a late tragedy by Shakespeare, is, ‘with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success.’ This is a contrarian view and should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt: in 1919 Eliot wanted to stand out as a new critic on the literary scene, and slaughtering sacred Shakespearean cows is one way to get yourself noticed. Championing a relatively little-read tragedy by Shakespeare (why not Macbeth, King Lear, or Othello?) is another way of getting people talking about you. Eliot’s view of Coriolanus continues to be one of the more famous things about the play. A recent review of Ralph Fiennes’ film adaptation of Coriolanus even quotes from Eliot’s essay, showing how his critical pronouncement has endured.
Eliot justifies his analysis of Hamlet – and the play’s problems – by referring to what he calls the ‘objective correlative’ of the play: the ‘only way of expressing emotion in the form of art’, Eliot tells us, is by finding an ‘objective correlative’. He defines this as ‘a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.’ Eliot provides an example from another Shakespeare play, Macbeth, arguing that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep is ‘communicated to [the audience] by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions’. There is an air of ‘inevitability’ about Lady Macbeth’s fate, thanks to the careful accumulation of images, stage-effects, and emotional details which precede her death.
This idea of the ‘objective correlative’ (Eliot did not invent the term, but he made it his own with the above definition of it) would prove to be hugely influential on mid-twentieth-century criticism, which was often concerned with interpreting the symbols and images employed by writers to convey the emotional ‘life’ of a character.
Can we analyse T. S. Eliot’s own poetry in light of the idea of the ‘objective correlative’? Think about the images of ‘ragged claws’, the ‘yellow fog’, or the ‘patient etherised upon a table’ in his own ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, all of which are outward and visible signs of an inward feeling or mood. So the patient on a table at the start of ‘Prufrock’ conveys J. Alfred Prufrock’s own attitude to the sunset – it evokes in him torpidity and inaction, as if he himself is barely conscious. The image of the ‘yellow fog’ and the ‘pair of ragged claws’ are continuations of this mood.
‘Hamlet and his Problems’ is not without its problems, not least because it remains difficult to pin down precisely how T. S. Eliot sees the ‘objective correlative’ working (or not working) in great literature. Nevertheless, his analysis of Hamlet and his thoughts about how writers can successfully convey internal moods and emotions remain worthy of study and analysis in their own right.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: David Garrick as Hamlet, Wikimedia Commons.