Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Eliot on Hamlet

Ever since I first read it, I've thought I disagreed vehemently with T.S. Eliot's "Hamlet and his Problems". Rereading it just now, I realize I am too hard on him, probably because I take offense at the idea that Hamlet might be an "artistic failure". I still think it's a success, but tonight I'm willing to grant that Eliot makes a good case. And his reading of the play is much more generous than I have been remembering.

It seems that Eliot was aware that Shakespeare was trying to depict a man whose emotions are "in excess of the facts", a man without an "objective correlative". He does not even become a successful madman, just as Shakespeare does not succeed as an artist. Of Hamlet's madness, Eliot says:

In the character Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action; in the dramatist it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art.

Eliot's error, I still think, is in thinking that the relevant emotion is his disgust with his mother. Read as an attempt to portray a man who is more disgusted with his mother than she deserves, Hamlet is indeed a failure. But I take a more transcendental line. Shakespeare was trying to portray a man without objective correlatives full stop. A man whose political and personal life has been entirely undermined, a man who has lost any functional family and community.

I think Mailer got it right when he appropriated Eliot's concept of the "objective correlative" for political purposes. Hamlet, Eliot says, is imprisoned with a "feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action." We are all like that, but not because of our mothers. There are much larger forces at work.

Much probably hinges on whether Hamlet and Hamlet succeed or fail as one, or separately. I think Eliot believes that Hamlet fails ever to correlate his emotion with the facts. I believe that the resolution at the end is, although of course "tragic", nonetheless successful. Understanding this, I think, is the key to appreciating Shakespeare's achievement.

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