Thomas Stearns Eliot is famous for his poetry. “The Waste Land.” “The Hollow Men.” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” All classics. Less known to most (save for English majors and their ilk) is that he was also a literary critic. Not a “thumbs-up/thumbs-down’ kind of reviewer, but one who delved deeply into the concept of criticism, laying the foundation for the creation of a new brand called “new criticism.”
What does any of this have to do with Hamlet or Hamlet?
In 1919, he wrote an essay titled “Hamlet and His Problems.” He begins boldly enough:
- “Hamlet and His Problems,” paragraph 1
Of course, there’s an irony here, one of which you’d think Eliot would be aware, but he doesn’t seem to be: he’s exactly the kind of critic who he says is tempted by the character-one with “a mind which is naturally of the creative order.” That’s himself in a nutshell.
But he doesn’t stop there, he goes on to say that these critics inevitably “make their critical aberrations the more plausible by the substitution—of their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s—which their creative gift effects” (para 1). And he goes on to–in my opinion–do that very same thing.
That would be all very modernist, very meta, but I don’t think that’s what Eliot intended. But more about that in a minute. He was certainly more focused on trying to cast a contrary light on the play.
He goes about discussing what he believes to be the sources of the play (Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, the Ur-Hamlet, and “a version acted in Germany in Shakespeare’s lifetime which bears strong evidence of having been adapted from the earlier, not from the later, play” [para 4]). He states the motive in all the previous versions was “a revenge-motive simply” (para 4), the delay was because of the difficulty trying to kill a well-guarded king, and the faked madness of Hamlet was to avoid suspicion. In contrast, Eliot writes,
- para 4
The problem for Eliot is that with these changes, including a motive of “a mother’s guilt upon her son” (para 4), the “alteration is not complete enough, however, to be convincing” (para 4). Because of this, the conclusion Eliot reaches grows bolder:
- para 5
Ouch. Hamlet is an artistic failure? If that wasn’t bad enough, Eliot draws a parallel that even the most perfunctory of art critics would understand:
- para 5
DaVinci was a genius, but the “Mona Lisa” isn’t listed as one of his greatest achievements, only one of his most famous.
From that, Eliot moves into critical theory:
- para 7
While Macbeth features success in this area–Lady Macbeth’s frame of mind near the end of the play seems the logical extension of her sensory impressions, leading to her sleepwalking and suicide, and Macbeth’s response to her death seems “automatically released” (para 7) by that event–Hamlet doesn’t achieve this. Eliot writes,
- para 7
In other words, Hamlet’s dominant emotion doesn’t add up from the sum of the events of the play. The problem it seems is the prince’s madness:
- para 8
Hamlet’s madness in the play is unclear–factual for feigned, we’ll never know–and because of this, Eliot writes that “Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him…things which Shakespeare did not understand himself” (para 8).
Of course, all this is kind of ironic. How can we know what Shakespeare understood or not? We can’t. And that was one of the major points of “new criticism”: the author’s intention was separate from the work itself. Thus, how ca I say Eliot intended to “cast a contrary light on the play” as I wrote above? I can’t and still be a new critic. But I am not a new critic, nor was meant to be…
This scholarly attempt at a beat-down of Hamlet is not the first reference in Eliot’s oeuvre. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” written a few years before the essay, the poem’s narrator says,
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
At this point in his exploration of Hamlet, the poem’s character is less than the prince but suffers the same inability to act as the prince: “Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?”
And at this point in my exploration of Hamlet, I feel a bit like “Prufrock”’s narrator. Vacillating. Unsure of my own feelings about this play.