TS Eliot does not like Hamlet

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:

Few critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead.
  • “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,

In the final play of Shakespeare, on the other hand, there is a motive which is more important than that of revenge, and which explicitly “blunts” the latter; the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expediency; and the effect of the “madness” is not to lull but to arouse the king’s suspicion.
  • 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:

So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others. Of all the plays it is the longest and is possibly the one on which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed.
  • 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:

And probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the “Mona Lisa” of literature.
  • 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:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, 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.
  • 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,

The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.
  • 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:

The “madness” of Hamlet lay to Shakespeare’s hand; in the earlier play a simple ruse, and to the end, we may presume, understood as a ruse by the audience. For Shakespeare it is less than madness and more than feigned.
  • 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,

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
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.

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