Published in 1919, Hamlet and His Problems may be considered an example of "destructive criticism" in that it challenges established critical perspectives on a work of art. The essay is of greatest interest in it's formulation of the doctrine of the "Objective Correlative."
When T.S. Eliot revised his English collection Elizabethan Essays for an American edition twenty-two years after its initial publication, he made a number of serious cuts. In cutting "Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca," "Hamlet and His Problems," and "Four Elizabethan Dramatists," he remarked that these essays "on re-examination embarrassed me by their callowness, and by a facility of unqualified assertion which verges, here and there, on impudence. The Hamlet, of course, had been kept afloat all these years by the phrase 'objective correlative'--a phrase which, I am now told, is not even my own but was first used by Washington Alston [sic]." Allston coined the term in 1840 in his "Introductory Discourse" of his Lectures on Art. Interestingly, these lectures were edited by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. and published in 1850. Dana was the noted author of Two Years Before the Mast and his grandson was a noted Madison Ave. architect with Murphy & Dana.
Critics of "Hamlet and His Problems" tend to treat it as a patient etherized upon a table (language from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock), from which they feel able to surgically remove the idea of the "objective correlative," dissociating it from its context. The essay itself is rarely discussed as having any bearing on Hamlet whatsoever, and has become little more than a vehicle for bringing into the critical vocabulary a conceptual formulation that has proved difficult and often unwieldy for criticism. It is surely one of Eliot's most epigrammatic, gnomically formulated pieces of literary criticism.
Eliot posits that most criticism is directed at the character Hamlet, rather than the play. He cites Goethe and Coleridge, who were not immune to this fallacy, who have substituted "their own Hamlet for Shakespeare's." Eliot claims they have imposed their personalities on Shakespeare's Hamlet. The reader may want to keep in mind that the logic and consistency advocated by Eliot are not essential to a play's success, nor to its greatness and immortality.
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. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art. The kind of criticism that Goethe and Coleridge produced, in writing of Hamlet, is the most misleading kind possible. For they both possessed unquestionable critical insight, and both make their critical aberrations the more plausible by the substitution—of their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s—which their creative gift effects. We should be thankful that Walter Pater did not fix his attention on this play.
Eliot, on the other hand praises Robrtson and Stoll, who tried to shift the critical focus of Hamlet to a right direction by pointing out the genesis of Shakespeare's play from his predecessors: "Hamlet is a stratification."
Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticize it according to standards, in comparison to other works of art; and for “interpretation” the chief task is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know. Mr. Robertson points out, very pertinently, how critics have failed in their “interpretation” of Hamlet by 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 predecessors. The Hamlet of Shakespeare will appear to us very differently if, instead of treating the whole action of the play as due to Shakespeare’s design, we perceive his Hamlet to be superposed upon much cruder material which persists even in the final form.
Eliot goes on to examine the play from a historical perspective. Eliot argues that the revenge motives in the earlier plays are dramatically justified, but in Hamlet, there is a failure in establishing motive of the character. Eliot maintains that Shakespeare made certain changes from Kyd's play, but these changes were far from convincing.
Eliot then claims the play is an artistic failure. Shakespeare failed to impose a dramatic order. Eliot relates it to another great failure, the Mona Lisa, creating more controversy !
Of the intractability there can be no doubt. 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. The versification is variable. Lines like
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill,
are of the Shakespeare of Romeo and Juliet. The lines in Act v. sc. ii., Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarf’d about me, in the dark
Grop’d I to find out them: had my desire;
Finger’d their packet;
are of his quite mature. Both workmanship and thought are in an unstable condition. We are surely justified in attributing the play, with that other profoundly interesting play of “intractable” material and astonishing versification, Measure for Measure, to a period of crisis, after which follow the tragic successes which culminate in Coriolanus. Coriolanus may be not as “interesting” as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success. 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.
The grounds of Hamlet’s failure are not immediately obvious. Mr. Robertson is undoubtedly correct in concluding that the essential emotion of the play is the feeling of a son towards a guilty mother:
[Hamlet’s] tone is that of one who has suffered tortures on the score of his mother’s degradation.… The guilt of a mother is an almost intolerable motive for drama, but it had to be maintained and emphasized to supply a psychological solution, or rather a hint of one.
This, however, is by no means the whole story. It is not merely the “guilt of a mother” that cannot be handled as Shakespeare handled the suspicion of Othello, the infatuation of Antony, or the pride of Coriolanus. The subject might conceivably have expanded into a tragedy like these, intelligible, self-complete, in the sunlight. Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art. And when we search for this feeling, we find it, as in the sonnets, very difficult to localize. You cannot point to it in the speeches; indeed, if you examine the two famous soliloquies you see the versification of Shakespeare, but a content which might be claimed by another, perhaps by the author of the Revenge of Bussy d’ Ambois, Act v. sc. i. We find 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.
Finally, Eliot uses a term (Objective Correlative) which would draw the attention of the critical community and goes on to put a solution through this. Eliot feels Shakespeare made use of the concept successfully in Othello and Macbeth, precisely not the case in Hamlet. Shakespeare could not project ant external elements or events which would fitfully reflect his inner world and could not present external events or elements which would justify his terrible mental anguish. According to Eliot, Hamlet's case is over-reaction. "Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her." In other words, Eliot made the point that in the "Closet Scene," when Hamlet confronts Queen Gertrude, his mother, in her bedchamber, his words demonstrate an animosity and a vindictiveness for which the audience is totally unprepared. There is a greater inconsistency than Hamlet's attitude toward his mother - it is Hamlet's almost total lack of concern for his loss of the Kingdom of Denmark.
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. If you examine any of Shakespeare’s more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. 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. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him. And it must be noticed that the very nature of the données of the problem precludes objective equivalence. To have heightened the criminality of Gertrude would have been to provide the formula for a totally different emotion in Hamlet; it is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.
Finally, Eliot takes up the case of Hamlet's Madness and tries to refute conventional wisdom by arguing that Hamlet's madness "is less than madness and more than feigned." Eliot assigns the genesis of the drama to an unknown state of mind of the creator and hopes for exploration on the part of the Contemporary Literature Scholars and critics to solve "an insoluble puzzle."
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. The levity of Hamlet, his repetition of phrase, his puns, are not part of a deliberate plan of dissimulation, but a form of emotional relief. 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. The intense feeling, ecstatic or terrible, without an object or exceeding its object, is something which every person of sensibility has known; it is doubtless a study to pathologists. It often occurs in adolescence: the ordinary person puts these feelings to sleep, or trims down his feeling to fit the business world; the artist keeps it alive by his ability to intensify the world to his emotions. The Hamlet of Laforgue is an adolescent; the Hamlet of Shakespeare is not, he has not that explanation and excuse. We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble 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.
Note 1. I have never, by the way, seen a cogent refutation of Thomas Rymer’s objections to Othello.