T. S. Eliot calls "Hamlet an Artistic Failure"

T. S. Eliot calls that Hamlet is an artistic failure. According to him, Hamlet is the Monalisa of literature, a work that is interesting, but not a work of art. It means the writer is unable to objectify the emotions. There are two reasons for it. First a work of art should be read in the context of the literary tradition on which an individual work is built and of which it is a part.

William Shakespeare

Shakespeare drew the material for his Hamlet from the plays of Thomas Kyd, but failed to make his play correspond to the original material. The second reason for calling Hamlet an artistic failure has to do with the lack of objective correlative. Shakespeare creates the character possessing emotion in excess because the emotion has no equivalence to the action of the character and the other facts and details in the play.

We can only criticize a work of art according to certain standards by comparing it to other works of art. Hamlet by Shakespeare owes its content to play by Thomas Kyd. In Kyd’s version of Hamlet the revenge motive is at the core of the play. Hamlet’s madness was mainly designed to avoid the people’s suspicion of his ability to murder a king surrounded by body guards and Hamlet did it successfully. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the title character’s madness, on the contrary serves to arouse the king’s suspicion. This change is not complete enough. The delay in revenge goes unexplained. Moreover the Polonius-Laertes and Polonius-Reynaldo scenes are not explained satisfactorily. There is a little excuse for it. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son, but Shakespeare was unable to impose this motive successfully upon the material of the old play. The variable versification shows that both workmanship and thought are in an unstable position. Thus the play cannot do justice to the original play to which it is indebted for its material.

Hamlet also fails as a work of art due to the obvious lack of objective correlative which is the only way of expressing emotion with the help of a set of objects, situations, and a chain of events which will be the formula of that particular emotion. The presentation of facts and external situation should be adequately used for the full realization of the pent up emotional energies. This is lacking in Hamlet. Hamlet is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. Hamlet suffers from bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings and emotions. Hamlet’s disgust is caused by his mother, but his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it. His disgust exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand. He fails to objectify it. It poisons his life and works as a hindrance to action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it. His mother’s character is so negative and trivial that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing. In Hamlet it is the buffoonery of an emotion which he cannot express in art. If Hamlet were an adolescent, his inability to express the intense emotion would be understandable, but he is a mature person. There is no excuse for him. Eliot’s comment on Shakespeare’s Hamlet is justified as the play fails to do justice to the original material and it lacks an objective equivalent for the externalization of the repressed emotions and feelings.

Hamlet Study Center

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