A Discussion on T. S. Eliot's Criticism of William Shakespeare's Play Hamlet

T.S. Eliot’s 1921 essay, Hamlet and His Problems, continues to challenge perceptions of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy as a literary masterpiece. Eliot’s argument surrounding the disparity between dramatic action and emotional reaction provides the basis for his rejection of the play as a structural and “artistic failure”. Eliot’s commentary, however, also provides us with an important opportunity to objectively evaluate Hamlet and its drivers for revenge. An analytical evaluation of Eliot’s main arguments, illuminated by a critical comparison of other commentators’ attempts to grapple with the “mystery of Hamlet”, is crucial in understanding the extent to which Eliot’s main assertions are still relevant to the well plowed field of Shakespearean criticism, and will simultaneously allow us to consider the question of motive in the play from a number of different perspectives.

Modern literary critics have widely sought to reject the 19th century conception of Hamlet, embraced and popularized by Goethe, that “Hamlet, for temperamental reasons, was fundamentally incapable of any decisive action of any kind” (Diamond, 93).

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For Goethe and Coleridge, this seemed to be the essence of the dramatic success in Hamlet. For Coleridge specifically, Prince Hamlet embodied a Renaissance character which was sublime in intellect and, thus, deeply affected by the oppressive nature of Denmark – “we see a great, an almost enormous, intellectual activity, and a proportionate aversion to real action consequent upon it” (Coleridge). Eliot, however, takes issue precisely with the idea that any of Hamlet’s actions throughout the play are “proportionate”.

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For modern critics, solving the mystery of the origins of Hamlet’s motives has become such an important task that the very artistic viability of the play has now been called into question. In his essay, Eliot doesn’t substantively attempt to resolve the “mystery of Hamlet”; instead, he finds that Hamlet is “dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear”, and goes on to dismiss the entire play as an “artistic failure” (Eliot, 98). David Stevenson, in his response to Eliot’s commentary, seeks to resolve the mystery by finding substantive motive for Hamlet’s emotion in the “blind evil” of his uncle and mother; and what he refers to as the repressed “political rivalry” between Hamlet and Claudius (Stevenson, 74).

Like Stevenson, Ernest Jones rejects the conclusion that the tragedy is in its essence “inexplicable, incongruous and incoherent” (Jones, 81) – he identifies a repressed Freudian dynamic to blame for Hamlet’s emotional depth, and finds that a “dilemma” surrounding the confrontation of evil drives the Prince’s paralysis. In Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory, we find another possible motive in the religious incongruences of the play by considering Hamlet to be bound up by the theological implications of a call for revenge that emanates from Purgatory. However, it seems to me that neither Jones nor Greenblatt really engage with Eliot’s invitation to find an “objective correlative” (Eliot, 98) – the motives they identify are motives for inaction and thus essentially vindicate Goethe’s initial argument. Stevenson, however, engages with Eliot’s criticism on a more fundamental level to prove how Shakespeare’s revolutionary structuring of the play does indeed deliver an “objective correlative”, albeit not one that “consists in any fact, or action, or sequence of events” (Eliot, 98).

A more careful, individual, critical analysis of these influential commentaries will lead us to the conclusion that Stevenson’s appraisal of the play is more adequate in solving the “mystery of Hamlet” and dealing with Eliot’s problems with the Prince and his emotions. T.S. Eliot argues that every dramatic emotion must have an external force by which it has been induced. The “Objective Correlative” must be a chain of events, words or situations through which an emotion can be rationally explained. The linchpin of Eliot’s wider argument that Hamlet is an “artistic failure”, however, lies in that he considers the play to be a “stratification” (96) of a number of versions and editions. Eliot believes that in the earlier versions – of which the crude essence he still sees in Shakespeare’s “version” – the Prince’s emotional state is induced by the delay forced by the guards who constantly surround the King.

As a result, Eliot sees the “madness” of the earlier versions as a valid method through which to fool the King’s guard. Indeed, much of modern criticism has focused on Hamlet’s “antic disposition”. Eliot finds that Shakespeare’s Hamlet presents a condition which is “less than madness and more than feigned” but that this is “unconvincing” as proves to be too much of a task for the playwright (Eliot, 104). As part of his argument however, Eliot draws on what he describes as John M. Robinson’s “irrefragable” argument that the motive behind Hamlet’s emotion is his inability to deal with his mother’s “guilt” (95). Eliot’s support for Robinson’s argument is somewhat accurate but rather narrow. It is indeed true that from the outset of the play Hamlet’s pain seems to be intrinsically linked with his strained relationship with Gertrude.

In the context of the first scene, Hamlet’s assertion to his mother that “I shall do my best to obey you, madam” comes with a tone of resentment suggestive of his internal conflict between his filial obligations and moral disappointment with Gertrude’s actions. Furthermore, the Mousetrap seems to provide Hamlet with an ability to not only “catch the conscience of the King” but also that of his mother – he asks directly of Gertrude “madam, how do you like this play” perhaps in an attempt to give her an opportunity to repent for marrying Claudius. In prominent productions of Hamlet, such as in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2009 televised edition with David Tennant, special focus is given to Hamlet’s obsession with Gertrude throughout the playing of The Murder of Gonzago. Overall, it is clear that Hamlet is conflicted as to how to approach his mother: he vows to “speak words not daggers” to her, but then laments the “impenetrability” of Gertrude’s hear to his “reason”. While this evidence certainly supports Robinson’s argument, there is some space to agree with Eliot that Shakespeare is “unsuccessful” in imposing it on earlier versions of the play as the emotional driver (96) – no link is concretely made between Gertrude’s actions in the play and Hamlet’s state of mind in the First Folio, and Hamlet’s nihilism seems to supersede human relations as he declares “man delights not me – no, nor woman either.”

Nevertheless, Eliot’s argument against Shakespeare’s play here takes a very narrow view of Tragedy as “motive revenge simply” (97). While Eliot may perhaps argue validly that Hamlet’s “disgust” with his mother’s moral frailty “envelops and exceeds her” to the point which she becomes “not an adequate equivalent for it” (105), he fails to recognize that the Prince’s “disgust” for familial relations may emanate from sources more obscure and, thus, presents itself in less proportional forms. As we will see, Eliot’s technical argument against Hamlet ignores many of the implicit themes and emotions which continue to enamor modern audiences. In his response to Eliot, Stevenson accepts the analysis that there is a disparity between the narrative action of the play and the hero’s emotions. However, Stevenson rejects Eliot’s “aesthetic” argument that “the play is in some way confused and an artistic failure.” Stevenson bases his argument on the idea that, in discordance with Eliot’s expectations, Shakespeare does not “develop” emotions throughout the play instead attempting to sustain the entire play “in media res” (Stevenson, 70).

This analysis is certainly in line with Hamlet’s sadness from the outset, as highlighted by the first line of the play’s first soliloquy – the Prince’s wish to “resolve into a dew” is delivered to an audience unsuspecting of the real reasons for his sadness. Stevenson’s “media res” argument, which essentially suggests the play is sustained by a tense tenuousness which only comes to a fore in Act III, deals with Eliot’s criticism by rejecting the idea that a play must develop emotions within its narrative corpus in order to be coherent. As Stevenson argues, it is a tribute to Shakespeare’s “originality” that he manages to maintain a hero “emotionally in media res” for five continuous Acts. Stevenson’s argument is to a large extent supported by Hamlet’s persistent intellectual ability which seems to prevail throughout the play – when Hamlet refers to man as a “quintessence of dust” mid-play, we are reminded of the somewhat nihilistic natural imagery, also alluded to in his desire to “resolve into a dew”, which emphasizes a rejection of the earthly as insignificant and shallow.

This persistent nihilism, then, may be what deprives the play from Eliot’s “objective correlative”: the Prince’s emotions shaped more strongly by his own internal philosophical outlook than the play’s narrative action ever could. Indeed, this is supported by the fact that, unlike with other Revenge Tragedies where the revenger indulges in his task, Hamlet questions the ghost’s “shape” and problem, and at every turn and laments the fact he was “ever born to set it right.” David Stevenson goes the furthest to solve the problem of motive and causation identified by Eliot. By putting forward a 2-sided “objective correlative” theory within the context of the play’s structure, Stevenson reinforces the play’s artistic integrity and answers many of the questions raised in Eliot’s thesis. Stevenson argues that the interaction between Hamlet and Claudius in Act I, Scene 2 sets up the Prince’s emotional strain in light of Claudius’ evil arrogance and the underlying political rivalry between the two. Stevenson’s “blind evil” theory dictates that Gertrude’s “passive indifference” to Claudius’ overly triumphant tone makes her complicit to the overarching moral corruption in Hamlet’s eyes (Stevenson, 74).

Claudius’ first interaction with Hamlet – calling him “son” – seems particularly jarring in light of the evidently turbulent atmosphere in Elsinore. Claudius’ public provocation of Hamlet founds itself on the newfound authority granted to Claudius by the Council at Elsinore – as James Andreas argues, Claudius uses the rhetoric of the polis against Hamlet’s vulgus in an attempt to institutionalize the hegemony and thus make it politically acceptable (Andreas, 15). Claudius not only mocks Hamlet’s intellect by dismissing Old Hamlet’s death as natural in that “your father lost a father, that father lost, lost his”, but also goes on to publicly emasculate the Prince calling his melancholy “unmanly grief.”

In this sense, Stevenson’s argument holds against Eliot’s in that Shakespeare’s deliberate beginning of the play “emotionally in media res” does not show us a development from Hamlet on the action-emotion front, but instead gives us an already-explosively charged awareness of what Hamlet is forced to endure in Elsinore. Stevenson’s approach resonates strongly with me, as it seems to value more the unspoken tensions that put Hamlet’s world “out of joint” and at the same time realizes the idea that we do not always know the origins of our emotions. For those sympathetic to the artistic significance of Hamlet, the resonance behind Stevenson’s argument emanates from his rejection of Eliot’s formulaic approach to drama. In Hamlet and His Problems, Eliot points to the fact that, because they do not hold any connection to Hamlet’s struggle to deal with his mother’s guilt, the scenes concerning Polonius, Laertes and Reynaldo are “unexplained” (Eliot, 98) and somehow detrimentally irrelevant for the play. However, in agreement with Stevenson, it seems to me that Shakespeare deliberately and successfully uses those characters to depict Elsinore as an intricate, yet overt, political playground against which he could highlight the more engrained and “inexpressible” evil of Claudius and Gertrude without resorting to “a heavy use of plot and action” (Stevenson, 79).

As Francis Fergusson writes, Eliot’s criticism misleadingly bases itself on a “Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark”- I.e. the character removed from his sociopolitical contexts and aspirations (Fergusson, 95). For Stevenson, the dramatic climax of the play comes in the Closet Scene in Act III, wherein Hamlet’s frustration explodes into “quasi irrational proportions” as Shakespeare imposes the Prince’s rivalry with Claudius on his mother’s impenetrable blindness (78). Hamlet’s denunciation of “the bloat King” who, with his “reechy kisses” tempts his mother to the “rank sweat” of a lovers’ bed serves as further evidence of Hamlet’s intricate rivalry with Claudius. Furthermore, to an Elizabethan audience, Hamlet’s explicit concern with his mother’s sex life would have appeared “unmanly”, reiterating the sense of emasculation first felt by Hamlet in Act I, Scene 2.

On the whole, Stevenson’s argument works well in dealing with both the structural and more abstract sides of Eliot’s argument. By illuminating how Shakespeare’s Hamlet works well as a play and concept, Stevenson does not destroy it in an effort to make it more plausible. While Stevenson finds a justification for Hamlet’s emotions within the structures of the play, Ernest Jones has influentially argued that it is a Freudian dilemma which paralyses the Prince and drives his emotional turmoil. Jones applies the Oedipal Complex to Hamlet to argue that the Prince is driven by a repressed desire to replace his father and have sex with his mother (Jones, 99). This interpretation, as Peter Donaldson contends, strongly influenced Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version of the play and is palpably evident in psychoanalytical readings of the text (Donaldson, 44).

For Jones, the dilemma at the heart of the play revolves around Hamlet’s jealousy of Claudius’ success in replacing Old Hamlet in Gertrude’s bed. Jones states that Hamlet is essentially torn between confronting Claudius and, by doing so, recognizing his own “evil” repressed feelings to replace his own father; and otherwise ignoring his jealousy of Claudius and remaining in a state of emotional and sexual repression (101). In the same way Stevenson sees the Closet scene as an explosion of Hamlet’s angst toward Claudius, Jones sees it as a clear indication of Hamlet’s desire to be with Gertrude. Jones’ view is certainly supported by Hamlet’s aggressive and suggestive language as he lamentably hopes his mother’s heart is “made of penetrable stuff”. Modern productions of Hamlet, such as Olivier’s, have drawn heavily on Hamlet’s concern with his mother’s sex by introducing phallic imagery and suggestive physical scenes. Furthermore, the play’s structure somewhat supports Jones argument in that Hamlet’s death comes immediately after he finally confronts Claudius. In this sense, confronting Claudius is a form of suicide driven by self-realization.

This interpretation also allows us to deal with Eliot’s criticism, as it essentially suggests that it is a repressed oedipal desire that drives Hamlet’s emotion beyond the dramatically rational in a way which cannot be dramaturgically expressed in Eliot’s “developmental” terms. Indeed, Hamlet’s last words in the play – “and the rest is silence” – capture the paradoxical nature of his confrontation of Claudius in the last scene: he has finally spoken and acted upon his feelings, yet he now must be physically silenced by the punishment that consequently follows such confrontation.

Despite Jones’ convincing case for an oedipal current as the motive behind Hamlet’s turmoil, the argument does not deal as well with Eliot’s criticism as Stevenson’s. Firstly, Jones’ argument dismisses Hamlet as a character ultimately governed by forces that exist outside of the action in the play. It seems that Jones’ attempt at applying Freudian interpretation to Hamlet plays directly into Eliot’s criticism that commentators often “find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for the own artistic realization” (Eliot, 95) though it is not supported by the text itself. On the whole, our interpretation of Jones also fails to deal with Eliot’s criticism of the technical dimension of the play. By overemphasizing the intangibility of Hamlet’s possible oedipal complex, Jones forgets to address what Eliot perceives to be the play’s artistic vulnerabilities.

Stevenson’s analysis, which emphasizes how even the scenes which Eliot considers “superfluous” (98) aid Shakespeare in dealing with Hamlet’s emotional state by the middle of the play, then still stands as our best contender against Eliot’s criticism. In Hamlet in Purgatory, Stephen Jay Greenblatt argues that the Ghost’s entrance from Purgatory has negative implications on the validity of the revenge sought in the play. Greenblatt provides a convincing argument that Shakespeare’s Ghost emanates from Purgatory, citing references to “St. Patrick” (the Saint of Purgatory) and the Ghost’s own acknowledgement that he is “doom’d” to “walk the night” till his crimes are “purged and burnt away” as explicitly suggestive of the Ghost’s liminal state (Greenblatt, 233).

However, Greenblatt notes, souls in Purgatory were always eventually saved given that it was only a temporary state. As a result, the Ghost can only reasonably elicit a “call for remembrance” from Purgatory and not a call for revenge. As Greenblatt writes, Senecan calls for revenge must from come from “hell” precisely because they are validated by the soul’s powerful claim that they’ve been condemned to hell unjustly (238). Greenblatt’s argument here is certainly supported by the fact Catholic purgatorial doctrine was banned by the Anglican Church in 1534, leaving many Christians without a way of rationalizing communication with apparitions of their loved ones after their death – the Ghost’s repetitive call “remember me, remember me, remember me” must have resonated more with contemporary audiences than his illogical call for revenge.

We may, however, also be able to find another solution to the “mystery of Hamlet” by looking carefully at some of Greenblatt’s other suggestions. Greenblatt also argues that Hamlet’s emotional state may emanate from the sense of religious confusion initially instigated by the Ghost. For Hamlet, Greenblatt argues, the apparition of his father as being “cast up” from the “jaws” of the earth is a particularly revolting image which is incompatible with the fact Old Hamlet’s bones were properly “canonized” and “hearsed” before his burial. Greenblatt argues that this disparity between ritual and outcome “holds some hidden meaning” (237) for Hamlet and that it is in his frustration to define that meaning that he finds emotional instability. Under this interpretation, Hamlet’s decision not to kill Claudius during the “purging of his soul” in the Chapel is symbolic of the Prince’s wider attempts to grapple with the technicalities of Catholic Purgatory from a “distinctly Protestant” (Greenblatt, 240) perspective – Hamlet wishes to make his revenge “swift”, but he struggles with finding the right moment to ensure Claudius suffers as much as his father in Purgatory.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that, like Eliot’s “objective correlative”, Greenblatt’s emphasis on the “Senecan” format of revenge dangers narrowing the play to fit institutional conventions. Under this interpretation we cannot see Shakespeare as a revolutionary playwright pushing the boundaries of the genre, but only as one who has “failed” at writing a play that fits conventional criteria. From a personal perspective, I would argue that attempting to resolve the “mystery of Hamlet” defeats the purpose of studying and reading the play. As a result, while we may argue that neither Jones nor Greenblatt’s arguments fully respond to Eliot, dismissing their interpretations of the play would implicitly validate Eliot’s narrow objectivism. It is only Stevenson’s ability to find deliberate motive in Shakespeare’s narrative that vindicates the play and its technical integrity.

For Jones and Greenblatt, the motive behind Hamlet’s emotions seems to come from outside the narrative of the play – for Jones it is the inevitable oedipal forces that come as part of the phallic stage of psychosexual development, and Greenblatt’s historicist argument is held together by his personal belief in the influence of oppressed cultural outputs on the production of literary works. Given Eliot’s approach to the play from a purely “objective” standpoint, it is unlikely he would have been convinced by the imposition of these critical narratives as a response to his criticism. All in all, then, we may arrive at the conclusion that Stevenson deals best with Eliot’s criticism by valuing the play as a success both in creation and reception. It is important, however, that despite the increasing opposition to Eliot’s modern objectivity by the increasingly postmodernist mindset of today, we continue to use his commentary as a wall off which we can bounce off the innumerable answers we may find to the “mystery of Hamlet.”

Works Cited

  1. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark Eliot, T. S. “Hamlet and His Problems.” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Methune, 1921.
  2. Greenblatt, Stephen Jay. Hamlet in Purgatory Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
  3. Jones, Ernest. “The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet’s Mystery: A Study in Motive.” The American Journal of Psychology 21.1 (January, 1910): 72-113.
  4. Stevenson, David L. “An Objective Correlative for T.S. Eliot’s Hamlet.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 13.1 (September, 1954): 69-79
  5. Fergusson, Francis. “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: The Analogy of Action.” The Idea of a Theater. London: Oxford University Press, 1949.
  6. Donaldson, Peter. “Olivier, Hamlet and Freud.” Cinema Journal 26.4 (summer, 1987): 22-48
  7. Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets. Ed. T. Ashe. London: George Bell and Sons, 1897.
  8. Diamond, William. “Wilhelm Meister’s Interpretation of Hamlet” Modern Philology 23.1 (August, 1925): 89-101 Andreas, James R. “The Vulgar and the Polite: Dialogue in Hamlet.” Hamlet Studies 15 (1993): 9-23.
  9. Hamlet, dir. Laurence Olivier, perf. Laurence Olivier, et al. Videocassette, Two Cities Films, 1948. Hamlet, dir. Gregory Doran, perf. David Tennant, et al. DVD, BBC Films, 2009.

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A Discussion on T. S. Eliot's Criticism of William Shakespeare's Play Hamlet. (2021, Sep 27). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-discussion-on-t-s-eliot-s-criticism-of-william-shakespeare-s-play-hamlet-essay

A Discussion on T. S. Eliot's Criticism of William Shakespeare's Play Hamlet

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