Problems with Hamlet and His Problems

Paul Fischer
John Zimmerman
     Problems with Hamlet and His Problems

    Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, is among the greatest works of arts in the English language; for centuries the play has been rehearsed, performed and reviewed. The gloomy Prince of Denmark, Hamlet, is undoubtedly among Shakespeare’s greatest feats of characterization, appealing to audiences through his many human weaknesses, most notably his indecisiveness and inconsistency. At least this was the tragedy’s reputation for over three hundred years until a stinging critique by TS Eliot changed the way in which teachers and students looked at Hamlet forever.

    TS Eliot wrote the essay Hamlet and His Problems in 1920 as an attempt to redefine the manner in which critics looked at literary work. Right at the beginning of his essay, Eliot makes it clear that critics have failed in their attempts at critical insight, claiming they stretched their interpretation of the play “by the substitution—of their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s.” (1) Rather than looking at Hamlet the play, former critics such as Coleridge and Goethe instead focused on Hamlet the character, who they easily identified with.
    The main argument is that, in fact, as a work of art, the play Hamlet fails completely. In order to prove this, Eliot invents a standard, the objective correlative, that never existed before. He defines the objective correlative as “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” (7). For example, a writer who presents the audience with a thump outside a house, a scratching at the door, and a hideous scream would expect the audience to feel fear when the main character felt fear.
    Where Hamlet fails, Eliot writes, is that “Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear” (7). Eliot goes on to suppose that Shakespeare finds himself in a paradox, as Hamlet’s disgust for Gertrude (his mother) is occasioned “because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.” If Shakespeare changed Hamlet’s character, there would be no plot, but as he made the mother even more despicable the play is rapidly exposed as illogical.
    Perhaps the most illogical part of Hamlet, however, is Hamlet’s complete disregard for the throne. To a contemporary reader, it would seem that an even greater offense than the murder would be Claudius’ usurping the throne. Yet only one line in the last act is devoted to resolving why Hamlet did not simply inherit the throne himself. Hamlet tells us in the last act that Claudius has “Popp’d in between the election and my hopes.” In fact, in 1600 when Hamlet was written, Denmark did not have a hereditary monarchy but actually held elections among a council of nobles. Claudius was elected to be king following his brother’s death. Certainly this must have been an unforgivable affront to Hamlet and his supporters.
    The “madness” of Hamlet is not, as Eliot writes, “the buffoonery of an emotion which can find no outlet in action” (8) but instead is the legitimate anger and confusion conflicting within Hamlet because of the horrendous crimes his mother and uncle have committed. When Eliot writes his criticism a difference was drawn between biological and foster parents so he is unable to feel the rage that Hamlet feels. He writes that “we must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him,” (8) that Shakespeare was unable to artistically portray, with objective correlative, the intense emotion that Hamlet felt.
    This is where Eliot’s own logic falls apart. The objective correlative is among his greatest contributions to the literary community; it remains a standard for determining the artistic validity of many works, but Eliot failed in his own application of the objective correlative to Hamlet. The audiences of Shakespeare in the early 1600’s  would be able to feel the anger that Hamlet felt, for at that time marriage was binding, and Claudius was, in Hamlet’s mind, marrying his own sister after killing his brother. Indeed, this would have been viewed as a crime against God and Christianity, justifying Hamlet’s need to seek not just Claudius’ death, but also his eternal damnation. Eliot writes that Hamlet’s emotions are in “excess of the facts as they appear” (7). In fact, Hamlet’s emotions are precisely in keeping with the complete revenge which he not only expects, but which the audience expects. An Elizabethan audience would have felt aghast, not out of mere “adolescence,” but out of genuine hatred for the villain Claudius and contempt for the fool mother Gertrude.
    The burning passion for justice to be served is not portrayed disproportionately, rather Shakespeare accurately reflects Hamlet’s emotions. Eliot writes that Shakespeare cannot handle the “guilt of a mother” as he “handled the suspicion of Othello, the infatuation of Antony, or the pride of Coriolanus” (7). Eliot attempts in this to erase the validity of Hamlet as an artistic work and a failure in its attempt to convey a concrete emotion. He even attacks the consistency of the play, writing the he found, “Shakespeare’s Hamlet not in the action, not in any quotations that we might select, so much as in an unmistakable tone which is unmistakably not in the earlier play” (6). What the reader would be well advised to keep in mind, however, is that in the beginning of the play Hamlet did not know for sure that Claudius had murdered Hamlet’s father. Indeed, a modern viewer would be justified to express some concern over how quickly and rashly Hamlet affirms the guilt of his uncle.
    Eliot’s does have a point in this, that to a modern reader or viewer, there are multiple discrepancies in the play. Where an Elizabethan viewer would have been horrified with the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, a modern viewer cannot be expected to feel the same way. Today we have a concept of uncles, aunts, and “in-laws.” At a time before a family member could be just “in-law” but not related by blood, Gertrude and Claudius are committing a horrible act of incest and every action of theirs would be viewed with suspicion. Eliot claims “the ‘madness’ of Hamlet lay to Shakespeare’s hand; in the earlier play a simple ruse,” (8) that Hamlet’s madness is merely a play on the audience as Shakespeare attempts to stretch a character over a much larger emotion. This is completely logical and lucid with a modern viewer in mind, but an Elizabethan viewer would understand that Hamlet’s madness was not merely a literary device, but an actual emotional reaction to the incest that was surfacing around him.
  It is with this viewer in mind that Shakespeare writes Hamlet, and therefore the play is vindicated as a work of art. Assuming, then, that Hamlet’s “madness” is no blunder of Shakespeare’s writing, but actually an important theme in the play, Eliot’s problems with Hamlet begin to evaporate, as the rest of his arguments fall by the wayside. To an Elizabethan audience, Hamlet, the gloomy prince of Denmark, resolved the issue of confused revenge, feeling appropriate suspicion of the incestuous couple, finding them to be in murderous wedlock, and acting with decisive vengeance, standing up for the throne that was bought out of his grasp and the familial honor that was stained by the hateful sexual relationship of his own blood.

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