T.S. Eliot is a towering figure in the field of 20th century literature and criticism, and his influence has been profound and all-pervasive. George Watson says, “Eliot made English criticism look different, though not in a simple sense.” His criticism has been revolutionary; he has turned the critical tradition of the whole English speaking world upside down.
Eliot’s essay on Hamlet is the finest example of what may be called his destructive or iconoclastic criticism. He writes, “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an objective co-relative.” He defines ‘objective co-relative’ as ‘a set of objects, situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of the particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
The phrase ‘objective co-relative’ was first used by Eliot in his essay on Hamlet and His Problems. The phrase has gained such wide popularity that Wimsatt and Brooks write, “The phrase objective co-relative has gained a currency probably far beyond anything that the author could have expected or intended.” The phrase objective co-relative has been discussed threadbare by a number of critics, and most divergent views have been expressed. Thus for Cleanth Brooks, the phrase means ‘organic metaphor’, for Elises Vevas it is ‘a vehicle of expression for the poet’s emotion’, and for Austin, it is ‘the poetic content to be conveyed by verbal expressions.”
In his essay Hamlet and His Problems (1919), 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 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.
According to Eliot 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 or dramatically useless, for example Polonius – Laertes and Polonius – Reynaldo scenes. 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 an unstable condition. As a work of art, it is much inferior to the other Shakespeare’s great tragedies.
Eliot believes that part of the problems of the play is based on earlier plays so much cruder material persists even in the final form. Though the material of the play is intractable and many of the weakness 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. The failure of the drama arises from the fact that Shakespeare could 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 localized in any particular scene or speech. It is all over the play but nowhere in particular. There is not particular object, event or action which adequately expresses this feeding. The artistic weakness of the play arises from the failure of the dramatist to objectify this unrealized emotion.
In other words, according to Eliot, Shakespeare has failed to find a suitable ‘objective co-relative’ for the emotion of Hamlet. The dramatist should present actions, events, characters, situations as would arouse in the reader or the spectators the particular emotion aimed at by him. The emotion of poetry should be provided with motives, and 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 thy 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 this horror at this 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 inexpressibly horrible but the character of Gertrude as well as 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.
However, Eliot’s dictum has been disputed by many critics. Many critics do not agree with Eliot’s view that Hamlet is an artistic failure. W.K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in their essay ‘The Affective Fallacy’ remark that ‘Hamlet’s emotion must be expressible, we submit, and actually expressed too (by some thing) in the play; otherwise, Eliot would know it is there—in excess of the facts.’
Eliot’s essay, Hamlet, reveals more about Eliot than about Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet because Eliot also ultimately falls into the same trap in which the essay is more of Eliot’s own understanding and feeling than the play itself. Eliot could not find exact equivalence between emotion and art in Shakespeare and preoccupied as he was with defining poetry, he failed to appreciate the achievement of Shakespearean tragedy. The accumulated tension and gathering melancholy of his uneasy symbiosis were to find expression in his essay on Hamlet. Eliot who looked “for significant emotion which has its life in the poem and not in history of the poet” found that in Hamlet there was no objective co-relative. M. H. Abrams observes that Eliot’s formulation has been often criticized for falsifying the way a poet actually composes, since no object or situation is in itself a “formula” for an emotion, but depends upon its emotional significance and effect on the way it is rendered by the poet. In other words, Elliot’s essay on Hamle does not talk about Hamlet as a play by Shakespeare but it comments on the function of criticism.
Despite his statement that ‘Hamlet is an artistic failure’, in 1937 when he was invited to Edinburg, German, to give lectures on Shakespeare at the University, he affirmed that ‘if a critic (says Eliot poignantly) tried to prove that Hamlet is a bad play he would convince hardly any one’ (Shakespeare as a Poet and Dramatist, Edinburgh, 1937). Based on his account in the Edinburgh lectures, it is obvious that Eliot himself acknowledges that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a great play, and in fact Hamlet is one of the greatest plays not only in its age but also up to this present day. Eliot’s essay, therefore, is not an example of his arrogance and impertinent pride. Eliot is not derogatory of the play. His essay is more a tribute than a condemnation of the play.