Essay on Poetic Theory

Hamlet (1920)

by T. S. Eliot

Introduction

A towering figure of 20th century poetry, T.S. Eliot also did much to shape critical opinion about poetry, drama, and literary history through his essays, reviews, and work as an editor at Faber and Faber. As a critic Eliot wrote widely on multiple literary traditions, paying special attention to the metaphysical poets, Dante and Shakespeare. Eliot’s impact on the field of literary criticism is immense; F.R. Leavis called him “a very penetrating influence, perhaps not unlike the east wind.” In his criticism Eliot generally emphasized difficulty in poetry, appreciated metaphysical techniques like the conceit, and championed ideas such as “impersonality” and the influence of tradition upon the poet. Eliot also believed that poetry should be judged from an objective set of criteria, and perhaps his most famous formulation of such criterion came in an essay originally titled “Hamlet” and published in his influential volume of criticism, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920). In the essay, Eliot notoriously deems Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy an “artistic failure,” maintaining that the play represents a “primary problem,” and that it contains certain weaknesses as a whole. For Eliot, the most glaring is that Hamlet’s emotional response to his situation exceeds the realities of that situation as dramatized in the play itself: “Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.”

Eliot uses this “problem” to formulate his definition of the “objective correlative”; though not the first person to use the term, Eliot made it a permanent fixture in the literary and critical fields. According to Eliot, Hamlet’s true feelings are unknowable because they do not find adequate representation in the play. The “objective correlative” requires that emotion in art be expressed through an equivalent, or as Eliot puts it, “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of the particular emotion.” Emotion cannot be expressed directly, Eliot says, but “when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” Eliot’s theory has stoked controversy almost from its first appearance. Though popular with the New Critics who wrote after him, Eliot’s presumptions of “objectivity” have fallen under fire. The idea that certain expressions or images will call up the same state in all readers has also been questioned. Some critics have also argued that Eliot does little more than rearticulate Plato’s distinction between mimesis and diegesis. But others, including the psychoanalytic critic Jacques Lacan, who used the essay in his own “Desire and Interpretation,” have found much to ponder in Eliot’s short and pointed critique.

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.

Two writers of our own time, Mr. J. M. Robertson and Professor Stoll of the University of Minnesota, have issued small books which can be praised for moving in the other direction. Mr. Stoll performs a service in recalling to our attention the labours of the critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, observing that:

“they knew less about psychology than more recent Hamlet critics, but they were nearer in spirit to Shakespeare’s art; and as they insisted on the importance of the effect of the whole rather than on the importance of the leading character, they were nearer, in their old-fashioned way, to the secret of dramatic art in general.”

Qua work of art, the work of art cannot be interpreted; there is nothing to interpret; we can only criticise 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.

We know that there was an older play by Thomas Kyd, that extraordinary dramatic (if not poetic) genius who was in all probability the author of two plays so dissimilar as the Spanish Tragedy and Arden of Feversham; and what this play was like we can guess from three clues: from the Spanish Tragedy itself, from the tale of Belleforest upon which Kyd’s Hamlet must have been based, and from 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. From these three sources it is clear that in the earlier play the motive was a revenge-motive simply; that the action or delay is caused, as in the Spanish Tragedy, solely by the difficulty of assassinating a monarch surrounded by guards; and that the “madness” of Hamlet was feigned in order to escape suspicion, and successfully. 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. The alteration is not complete enough, however, to be convincing. Furthermore, there are verbal parallels so close to the Spanish Tragedy as to leave no doubt that in places Shakespeare was merely revising the text of Kyd. And finally there are unexplained scenes—the Polonius-Laertes and the Polonius-Reynaldo scenes—for which there is little excuse; these scenes are not in the verse style of Kyd, and not beyond doubt in the style of Shakespeare. These Mr. Robertson believes to be scenes in the original play of Kyd reworked by a third hand, perhaps Chapman, before Shakespeare touched the play. And he concludes, with very strong show of reason, that the original play of Kyd was, like certain other revenge plays, in two parts of five acts each. The upshot of Mr. Robertson’s examination is, we believe, irrefragable: that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so far as it is Shakespeare’s, is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son, and that Shakespeare was unable to impose this motive successfully upon the “intractable” material of the old play.

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

    Look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
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
That would not let me sleep . . .
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 position. 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.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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 T. S. Eliot

Biography

When T. S. Eliot died, wrote Robert Giroux, "the world became a lesser place." Certainly the most imposing poet of his time, Eliot was revered by Igor Stravinsky "not only as a great sorcerer of words but as the very key keeper of the language." For Alfred Kazin he was "the mana known as 'T. S. Eliot,' the model poet of our time, the most cited poet and incarnation of literary correctness in the English-speaking world." Northrop . . .

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