Thursday 29 February 2024

On T.S. Eliot's Telling Essay, "Hamlet and His Problems"

Some Casual Thoughts on Why Eliot Was So Critical of Shakespeare's Famous Play 

"He is a ghost, a shadow now, the wind by Elsinore's rocks or what you will, the sea's voice, a voice heard only in the heart of him who is the substance of his shadow, the son consubstantial with the father." - James Joyce: Ulysses (the "Scylla and Caribdes" section)

by James Albert Barr

In 1919, T.S. Eliot wrote a short, but controversial, essay on Shakespeare's most celebrated play, Hamlet. Eliot titled it, "Hamlet and HIs Problems". Now, perhaps he was just being cheekily ironic or unconsciously evasive, but it's interesting that Eliot's title focuses directly on the titular character himself, and "his problems", as opposed to the play in general, because it was, after all, the play, in general, that Eliot took rather bold issue with, as he pretty much cut right to the chase in the essay's opening sentence: "Few critics have ever admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary." 

Eliot went "so far" as to, subsequently, write: "So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure." Eliot attributes the play's alleged "failure" to the "intractable material of the old play." The "old play" Eliot alludes to is Thomas Kyd's, The Spanish Tragedy, which was an initial version, written a couple of decades prior to Hamlet, of the basic events culled loosely from an actual historical incident. In the play, a Knight Marshal of Spain, Hieronymo, cunningly seeks revenge for the murder of his son, Horatio. And there's a German version called Ur-Hamlet too, with an uncertain authorship attached to it. Indeed, they are all based on a well-known Scandanavian story, from the early 13th century, about Amleth (Shakespeare simply moved the 'h" to the front of the name to form Hamlet), which means "mad" or "not sane" in Old Norse, who seeks to avenge his murdered father over the course of many years. Robert Eggers made an exceptional film version of this Norse legend called The Northman in 2022, starring Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke and Anya Taylor-Joy.  

In The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronymo's revenge is engaged more swiftly, whereas Hamlet's is far more complicated and messily executed through clumsiness and happenstance, due to his deeply perturbed state of mind. The reasons behind Hamlet's delays for revenge are far more personally profound and philosophically tangled, provoking Eliot to conclude that Shakespeare lacked an "objective correlative", and thus comes off unconvincingly and ultimately exceeded Shakespeare's ability to wholly successfully express and present in his play.

Eliot employs the word "exceeds" or "exceeded" and "excess" several times in his haunted essay, appropriately enough. Just as Hamlet's father haunts him, so I suspect, also, Eliot's father, and his own restless, malcontented spirit, was haunting Tom around the time he wrote his essay on Hamlet. The timing is interesting and, well, timely. Eliot's father died in January of 1919, nine months before Eliot's essay was published in The Athenaeum on Sept. 26, 1919, which, fittingly, happened to be on Eliot's 31st birthday.

Henry Ware Eliot died with the belief that his son, Thomas, had squandered his considerable education, and, consequently, his very life in the process. Besides the immense sense of grief Eliot must have felt over his father's death, it must have been doubly difficult to realize and accept the unreconciled conditions of his relationship with his somewhat estranged father who, according to Peter Ackroyd's description in his 1984 biography on Eliot, "...represented the American aspiration towards success, thrift and practicality which exerted so powerful an influence throughtout Eliot's life." - a "tenuous influence", it would appear.

Unfortunately, the senior Eliot died thinking his son utterly failed to attain any of the kind of success envisioned, and expected, from his father, by "wasting his time" and efforts on poetry and literature, which Henry Eliot apparently had little interest in or respect for.

It's very interesting, and suspicious, that Eliot would not make any direct reference to Hamlet's murdered father and night-wandering ghost/spirit in his short, relatively brief essay. Why? He makes several references, all with a negative connotation, I might add, towards Hamlet's mother, Gertrude - a "fallen woman" in the eyes and heart of her grieving and discombobulated son. Eliot harshly quips, " is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing." I sense a definitive "intractability" in Gertrude's "character" that, perhaps, was not only difficult for Hamlet to deal with, but for Eliot as well, symbolically via a psychological inversion from mother to father/father to mother, given Eliot's own unconscious state of mind, as a grieving son, at the time of writing his essay. Perhaps an "emotional stratification" of sorts at play here.

Indeed, Eliot charged previous critics of Hamlet with a glaring oversight in regards to their collective interpretations in their "ignoring what ought to be very obvious: that Hamlet is a stratification, that it represents the efforts of a series of men, each making what he could out of the work of his predecesssors." To "stratify" is to "arrange things", or, as in the case of this poly-written play, we're talking, or rather Eliot specifically was implying the different arrangements that were artistically dealt with by Kyd, Shakespeare and so on; of effectively layering the "intractable material", which is to say, more clearly, the tough, stubborn, even perhaps obstinate and incompliant, apparent nature of the source material. 

What exactly, according to Eliot's claim, made this play's material so "intractable"? Well, in evident conjunction with J.M. Robertson's analysis of the disparate plays deriving from the same source material, Shakespeare's Hamlet, in Eliot's opinion, failed to successfully determine a motive of revenge for Hamlet out of the effect of his mother's guilt upon him.. Eliot felt, in the end, that it was ultimately unconvincing, that Hamlet's "madness", which was not wholly feigned, and his character alteration being not complete enough to work structurally successful, because Shakespeare could not ultimately find and utilize an effective enough "objective correlative", the literary concept Eliot famously introduces in his essay; a concept, in fact, that had precedence in the 19th century, namely in Walter Pater's well-renowned 1873 collection of essays, The Renaissance, where, according to Louis Menand, in his 1987 study of Eliot (Discovering Modernism: T.S. Eliot and His Context), Pater, at least, intimates the concept 46 years before Eliot's essay. And just a few years before "Hamlet and His Problems", Richard Aldington writes: "We convey an emotion by presenting the object and circumstance of that emotion without comment.... We make the scene convey the emotion." This description appeared in The Egoist in 1914, And, apparently, John Gould Fletcher also made a preceding allusion to the objective correlative in The Little Review in 1916.

In fairness to Eliot though, I don't think he necessarily made the official claim publicly that the concept was of his making outright. It's just that because his authoritative literary power and considerable influence was so wide-spreading and firm, that it naturally became customary to directly attribute the concept of the "objective correlative" to him. It was perhaps likely because he gave it an "official name".

So, as I was saying, regarding Shakespeare's alleged failure to find an effective, suitable and convincing objective correlative, I would counter-argue (and others already have with their own impressive analyses) that: a) an "irrefragable" objective correlative can indeed be extracted from the play to convey and justify Hamlet's emotions, and perhaps more importantly, his actions, or lack of action, aptly enough, and b) that an objective correlative is in fact besides the point; that the ultimate point of the play is ineluctably and necessarily that which "exceeds" an objective correlative, by virtue of the likelihood that the play's baroque-style tone and Benjamin-cited "Trauerspiel" nature of mournfulness, hence "mourning play", expresses an epochal sense of a late 16th/early 17th century zeitgiest mired in an actual historical crisis reflected within the diegetic confines of Elsinore, and set-off by what Frank Kermode alluded to in his 1957 book, Romantic Image, and Keith Alldritt, in his 1968 book, The Making of George Orwell, more explicitly described as a "bifurcation of human consciousness", brought about, I feel in tenable fashion, by the Protestant Reformation and the cataclysmic fall-out, and many-faceted apogee, that followed over the course of about 130 years, culminating with the English Civil War of 1642-1649, which, in turn, triggered what Eliot called the "dissociation of sensibility" of the latter half of the 17th century and beyond, though he was unaware of the initial "bifurcation of consciousness" in the previous century. This is ultimately, and most pertinently, what I feel Hamlet really meant (even if he didn't know it or understand it wholly consciously, including Shakespeare himself, outside the diegetic events of his play, nor even Eliot, ironically enough) when he declared: "The time is out of joint."

But getting back to the missed "objective correlative", or at least the uncredited one, apparently Eliot was attempting to cite a "particular emotion" in Hamlet that justified and explained his actions and reactions during the course of the play, and the show of disgust and degradation towards Gertrude, his "incestuous" mother, was not ample enough to evoke, or provoke, the kind of neurasthenic and emotionally unhinged behaviour fiercely displayed by the tortured, divided Dane prince.

As Eliot articulated in his famous, if controversial, essay, defining the concept of the "objective correlative", which he insisted is, "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art"  - a rather tellingly revealing declaration when one considers the rigidly reserved, repressed, and socially proper disposition Eliot painstakingly cultivated - he precisely describes it as being, "...a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of the particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked."    

So, the problem Eliot had with Shakespeare's apparent failure to evoke that "particular emotion" he was anticipating, was that the "external facts" throughout the course of the play that were given, via the absorbing, subtle act of "termination in sensory experience", proved incongruous with Hamlet's strange behaviour - the final analysis and judgement proclaimed it an "artistic failure". I think Eliot focused too much attention on the mother and not enough (in fact it was a plumb zero!) on the murdered father, and the theme of fatherhood, in general, infused within the play, significantly enough, given what must have been a personally difficult time for Eliot, having written his essay fairly soon after the death of his own father, whom he, again, had not reconciled with prior to "shuffling off this mortal coil".

Moreover, Eliot seemed to have missed the obversely parallel significance of the Polonius chartacter, whose scenes with his son, Laertes, and his manservant, Reynaldo, Eliot accuses of being completely insignificant and extraneous to the play; in fact he called them "unexplained scenes... for which there is little excuse." I find it very surprising not to notice the incredible irony and consequential hypocrisy found in Polonius' characteristically high-falutin and ostentatious speech to Laertes upon the latter's departure for France.

In the speech, Polonius, with fatally ironic foreshadowing, imparts upon Laertes to, "Give thy thoughts no tongue/ Nor any unproportioned thought his act." The first part of this sentence is amusing to us, because we soon learn that Polonius is quite unable to shut-up and refrain from subjecting others, particularly regarding Claudius and Gertrude, to his irrepressible opinions and inaccurate perceptions. And the second part of Polonius' phony advice to his unwitting son foretells of his own clumsy demise behind the Queen's arras from the undelayed blade of Hamlet's sword in Act 3, Scene 4.

Which brings me directly to my next citation in Polonius' ill-begotten speech, where he then warns Laertes, with almost comical irony, given the hasty, fatal beginning to the aforementioned act and scene: "Beware/ of entrance to a quarrel, but, being in,/ Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee./ Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;/ Take each man's censure. but reserve thy judgement." No doubt, Polonius did not "beware" of his deceptive "entrance to a quarrel" between Hamlet and the Queen, nor was he discerning enough when giving "few thy voice". In the end, Polonius' all too judgemental character got himself killed when he ignorantly meddled in Hamlet's volatile, personal affairs. He was a walking (and incessantly talking) contradiction in ironic reference to his own self-professed maxim: "To thine own self be true" - Pity, in the "pointy" end, that that should be Polonius' "rub".

Furthermore, I think it rather significant that Polonius was, in paternal, and tragic, fact, a father (to both Laertes and Ophelia), who was also killed, which exacerbated an already critical series of circumstances leading to the unabatingly tragic, bloody, and "no exit" style ending. As stated earlier, one of the play's major themes is that of "the father", and its symbolic significance of representing "grace" as opposed to the Queen who represents "nature". Eliot clearly had "father issues", as did Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Ulysses, who puts forth a very trenchant argument for an author's personal biography influencing his work and unconscious workings.

It's this very aspect of Hamlet that Eliot seems to have not understood, perhaps deliberately unconsciously, I suspect, thus provoking his negative opinion and concluding his essay with a rather telling, and ironic, insight: "We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluable puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know. We need a great many facts in his biography; and we should like to know whether, and when, and after or at the same time as what personal experience, he read Montaigne, II. xii, 'Apologie de Raimond Sebond'. We should have, finally, to know something which is by hypothesis unknowable, for we assume it to be an experience which, in the manner indicated, exceeded the facts. We should have to understand things which Shakespeare did not understand himself." 

Eliot once said, allusively, that "'The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.' Precisely, and they are that which we know." Again, precisely, Shakespeare, and subsequently, the German playwrights that Walter Benjamin analysed, in his Origin of German Tragic Drama, felt something they could not articulate at the time of the historical disjointment in its proper "modern terms", and 300 years later neither could Eliot, ironically enough, but we - the "royal We", the present editorial - know more than Eliot now, because he is that which we know within a privileged historical context.  


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