Hamlet And The Objective Correlative Essay Examples
The William Shakespeare play Hamlet has often been the object of much discussion among critics and literary scholars; while most consider it one of the greatest plays ever written, T.S. Eliot himself criticizes the play in his essay “Hamlet and His Problems.” His central issue, in essence, is that it lacks an appropriate objective correlative – namely, a personification of the emotional state of the character in the form of “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events” (Eliot). Eliot attempts to argue that Hamlet has no objective correlative, and therefore the play fails to convey Shakespeare’s attempted points to his audience. However, as Stevenson notes in “An Objective Correlative for TS Eliot’s Hamlet,” the very same things Eliot criticizes in Hamlet are precisely what makes the play so genius in its execution, and ostensibly forms the objective correlative. While Eliot dismisses the idea of an objective correlative, it is the very same scattershot nature of Hamlet’s emotions that is being expressed – the apparent lack of an objective correlative becomes the objective itself.
At the center of Eliot’s claim that there is no objective correlative is Hamlet’s own indecision and his “inexpressible” emotions due to his own mental illness and instability (Eliot). Hamlet spends the majority of the play in a state of “antic disposition,” which is either entirely put on or an earnest result of his trauma about his father’s murder and the change in his family (I.v.172). Whereas Eliot would deride Shakespeare for this, as it provides no definitive way to tell the audience what they should be feeling, it is clear that Hamlet’s own ambiguity is what is meant to be felt in the audience themselves. Hamlet’s own feelings are not truly objectified within the play, but this is purposeful; his madness and manic schizophrenia is a result of his own inability to process the information, which becomes its own strange manner of objective correlative. As Stevenson notes, “It is in fact precisely an imbalance between the character of Hamlet’s expressed feelings and the events by which they seem to be evokedwhich forms the essentially distinguishing nature or quality of the play” (Stevenson 70).
The objective correlative being Hamlet’s anarchic madness is shown in many different ways For example, when Hamlet first encounters the ghost, this is the first time we see him so disturbed (bordering on madness), creating a clear cause and effect for the audience – seeing his father’s spirit has a disquieting effect on him, becoming itself an objective correlative for Hamlet’s own state of mind. In fact, it is here that Hamlet spells out his major emotional arc: “Haste me to know ’t, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge” (I.v.29-310). This is something that Eliot notably ignores, in favor of chastising Shakespeare for a variety of conflicting actions that apparently demonstrates that “nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him” (Eliot). However, similar to what Stevenson expresses, Hamlet “is almost wholly concerned with the moment by moment exposition of the consequences of [Hamlet’s] feelings” (Stevenson 70). Instead of creating larger, more comprehensive expressions for the entirety of Hamlet’s character, Shakespeare acknowledges Hamlet’s contradictions, and his contradictory nature itself defines the character.
For Eliot, the play itself (and Hamlet’s character in it) is far too mercurial and withholding in its portrayal of the point of the work to the audience, thus making him think it lacks an objective correlative. Hamlet’s madness itself, rather than being complicated and multifaceted, is simply confused: “For Shakespeare it is less than madness and more than feigned” (Eliot). However, this same back and forth is itself the objective correlative of Hamlet’s character; by expressing uneven ideas, Hamlet himself is expressed as a man of uneven ideas and opaque motivations, if not a total nihilist – “O God! God! How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable, Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (I.ii.133-134). Through his unwillingness to lay his cards on the table, Hamlet shows himself to be just that kind of man, and this is the point of the play.
Just as referenced by Stevenson, Eliot’s criticisms are “casual and adventitious,” preferring a lack of engagement with the play in favor of engaging with the work itself in its multi-faceted, intentionally contradictory manner (Stevenson 70). Where Eliot sees flaws are in fact the point of the play and Hamlet’s character; his uncertain motivations and true emotional state place the audience in a similar state of tension as those around him, as they are not able to make anything of him. Even Polonius notes at one point that “he is far gone, far gone,” being just one of the characters in which Hamlet’s confusing ruse works (II.ii.189). If Polonius is representative of the audience’s confusion, his statement here may echo Eliot’s assertion that, since he cannot understand Hamlet, Hamlet himself is a lost cause and deeply flawed. As Stevenson notes, the lack of action in the play is “a deliberate, a necessary result of Shakespeare’s sense of the inherent design of the play” (Stevenson 71). The aimlessness is meant to be felt by us as well, instead of feeling like a narrative cheat (as Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative would imply). To that end, Hamlet’s uneven nature is meant to confuse the characters and the audience, thus becoming the objective correlative in the overall framework of the play.
In conclusion, Eliot’s notion of the objective correlative being missing from Hamlet is false, as it is simply misappropriated. The objective correlative of Hamlet is, collectively, the mishmash of emotional states, diversions and tactics the main character takes in order to accomplish his goal of avenging his father’s murder. Hamlet’s own madness is not something that Shakespeare simply could not figure out, or a failed attempt at conveying Shakespeare’s real point, as Eliot argues; the madness and unpredictability is the actual point. The fact that his central motivations are not spelled out for the audience is not a failure on the part of Shakespeare. Far from it; in fact, the uncertain, myopic nature of the character is the character’s essential nature. Even in his mysteriousness and chaotic actions, his motivation is extremely straightforward – perform a sideshow that throws off the other characters in order to lull them into a false sense of security in order to make his move. In this way, Shakespeare creates order from chaos by making chaos the method of Hamlet’s madness; rather than it being a failing on the part of the playwright, it is the masterful work of someone who trusts his audience to not need the motivation of a character spelled out for them.
Eliot, T.S. “Hamlet and His Problems.” The Sacred Wood, 1921.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.
Stevenson, David L. “An Objective Correlative for T.S. Eliot’s Hamlet.” The Journal of
Aesthetics and Art Criticism 13(1) (Sept. 1954): 69-79.