Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Eliot’s views on “Hamlet”: Their significance and Originality

In his essay “Hamlet and His Problems”, Eliot points out that critics have generally concentrated their attention on Hamlet, the character, and ignored Hamlet, the play, which raises a number of problems of great significance. There has been a dangerous tendency among critics to forget that their primary business is to study the work of art concerned and base their conclusions on such a study. As a result, the criticism on Hamlet has often been quite misleading. Even such men of genius as Coleridge and Goethe have substituted, “their own Hamlet for Shakespeare’s”. In their criticism they have presented an image of Hamlet out of their own fancy, instead of remaining true and faithful to the Hamlet of Shakespeare’s play.

The material of the play is certainly intractable. Shakespeare failed to impose order and arrangement on this material, and as a consequence, “the play is most certainly an artistic failure.” There is much in the play that is puzzling and which cannot be justified. First, it is the longest play of Shakespeare and there is much in it that is superfluous and inconsistent (Polonius-Laertes scenes and Polonius-Reynaldo scene for example). This superfluity is so obvious that it can be noticed even in a hasty-revision and yet it has been allowed to persist. Secondly, its versification is uneven and variable. Immature and defective lines alternate with quite mature ones. Both workmanship and thought are in a unstable condition As a work of art, it is much inferior to the other great tragedies of the dramatist.

Though the material of the play is intractable and many of the weaknesses of the play are accounted for in this way, the source of its real weakness lies much deeper, The central motif of the play is the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son. A mother’s degradation no doubt causes unutterable torture and anguish in the son, and therefore “the guilt of mother is an almost intolerable motive for drama.” In other words, the failure of the drama arises from the fact that Shakespeare could not handle the effect of a mother’s guilt, with the same success as he could handle the jealousy of Othello, or the infatuation of Antony, or the pride of Coriolanus. As in the sonnets, so in the play, there is some mysterious diffused feeling to which the dramatist has failed to give artistic expression. This mysterious, all-pervasive emotion cannot be localised in any particular scene or speech. It is all over the play but nowhere in particular. There is no particular object, event or action which adequately expresses this feeling. The artistic weakness of the play arises from the failure of the dramatist to objectify this unrealised emotion.

In other words, Shakespeare has failed to find a suitable, “Objective Co-relative” for the emotions of Hamlet. Eliot defines ‘‘Objective Co-relative’ 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.” The dramatist should present such actions, events, characters, situations as would arouse in the readers or the spectators the particular emotion aimed at by him. The emotions of poetry should be provided with motives, or that the responses of the poets should be responses to a defined situation For example, the action, gestures and words of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep arouse the same sense of anguish in the readers as they do in Macbeth himself, and hence his words on hearing of his wife’s death seem quite inevitable and natural under the circumstances. This is also the case with the anguish of Othello. This is so because external action and situation are quite adequate for the internal emotion. But this is not so in Hamlet. There is no object, character, situation or incident which adequately expresses the inner anguish of the Prince of Denmark. His suffering is terrible, but the full intensity of his horror at his mother’s guilt is not conveyed by any character or action in the play. He suffers terribly, but his suffering is far in excess to the character and situation as presented in the play. A similar situation in real life would not arouse equally intense emotion in normally constituted people. Shakespeare wanted to convey something unexpressibly horrible but the character of Gertrude and the whole plot of the play is inadequate for the purpose. In other words, Shakespeare has failed to find a suitable, “Objective Co-relative”, for the emotion he wanted to convey. Herein lies the real source of the artistic failure of the play.

Hamlet is an artistic failure, but this failure arises only from the fact that in it Shakespeare tried to tackle a problem which proved too much even for him. He was trying to express an unexpressible horror and, therefore, as some critics have rightly stressed, his failure itself is a measure of his artistic greatness and not of his lack of genius. He failed because his chosen plot and his characters were inadequate for the purpose, just as a great artist would fail to draw a magnificent picture in the absence of adequate colours and canvas.

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