Is Hamlet an artistic failure?

T.S. Eliot considers the play an artistic failure. We should better give in his own words why he thinks so:

“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 Balleforest 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 adopted from the earlier, not from the latter 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 especially “blunts” the latter; the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expedience and the effect of ‘Hamlet’s 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 a Spanish Tragedy as to leave no doubt that in places Shakespeare was merely revising the text of Kyd. And finally, there are unexplained scenes and 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 band, 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 play, 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 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”.

Here Eliot compares Kyd’s Hamlet, which is non-existent, with Shakespeare’s. He explains that nothing, but the revenge motive operated in Kyd’s Hamlet and that the delay was caused by practical difficulties. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the revenge motive is subordinate to and clashes with another motive-the motive of a mother’s guilt. So the conclusion drawn by Eliot is that Shakespeare’s Hamlet lacks artistic unity, while it is simplied that Kyd’s Hamlet possesses artistic unity. Eliot has not either read Kyd’s Hamlet and what it was is all guesswork. Then he points out that Shakespeare made use of the text of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy (which verbal parallels account for). And some scenes were the work of Chapman. And Shakespeare could not wield together this divergent material.

Does any reader of Hamlet think that the guilt of a mother is the insistent motive of the play as Robertson does-a view to which Eliot subscribes ? The hasty marriage of his mother is no doubt a shock to Hamlet. In the first soliloquy is expressed his reaction to it. Hamlet is over-sensitive; then again he seems to have idolized his father. Hence, his mother’s marriage outrages his feeling. But it could not have been so serious a matter, but for the revelation, later made by the ghost. The secret murder of Hamlet’s marriage with the murdered Some readers of today think that Hamlet makes a fuss over this marriage. Compare what Schucking says, “Still more striking is Hamlet’s prejudice against his mother. It is true that the modern reader runs a risk of misinterpreting Gertrude’s character, owing to the changes that have taken place in the conception of morality. We can not now regard the Queen’s marriage with her brother-in-law as incestuous, and as the crime it appeared in those days. It must, therefore, not be forgotten that Hamlet’s view was fundamentally different from ours. Furthermore the overhasty remarriage of a woman who has wept many tears for a most loving husband was bound to upset a son devoted to his father. But is Hamlet right in assuming that Queen Gertrude had fallen a prey to lust and had become a victim of her lowest instincts? His attitude in this is evidently influenced by the melancholia’s cynical view of women; for what we know of the Queen’s personality hardly corresponds with Hamlet’s conviction.”

It is a point of view which, it will be urged, could have no bearing upon  Hamlet’s action or conduct. Let us take the position as stated by Robertson  and which is supported by Eliot. The play is ‘dealing with the effect of a  mother’s guilt upon her son.’ The mother’s guilt then enters into the motive of  the play, if it be not the sole motive. The mother’s guilt then should demand  punishment. Is there any hint in the play anywhere that the mother’s guilt has  got to be dealt with? The ghost warns Hamlet against doing anything to the  mother:

 “But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,

Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive 

Against thy mother aught; leave her to heaven, 

And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge 

To prick and sting her.” 

Hamlet strictly carries out his father’s injunction in this matter. When going to see his mother, Hamlet says-

“I will speak daggers to her, but use none.” 

Note again the ghost’s solicitude for the Queen when he appears again to  Hamlet in her bed-chamber, remaining invisible to the Queen;

“But look, amazement on the mother sits, 

‘O step between her and her fighting soul ! 

Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works. 

Speak to her Hamlet.” 

The ghost is likely to know Gertrude better than anybody else, and he wants her to be spared. Gertrude has no suspicion that Claudius has poisoned her husband to death. “Her outlook being limited she has no suspicion of what has been, or still is happening around her.” Let us note here what the ghost says of the Queen:

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“Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast. 

With witchcraft of his wit, traitorous gifts- 

O wicked wit and gifts that have the power 

So to seduce!-won to his shameful lust

The will of my most seeming virtuous queen.”

The ghost condemns not so much the weakness of the Queen as the lasciviousness of Claudius, and he demands the punishment of the murderer, and the seducer of the Queen, and not the punishment of the unfortunate Queen. This disposes of the question that the play deals with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son.

The delay In execution of Hamlet’s revenge upon his father’s murderer, which is also harped upon by Eliot, as we have pointed out above, is seeming and not actual. When we examine Hamlet’s soliloquies, we find that there is no delay. Eliot writes, “So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure.” Eliot first mistakes the purpose or motive of the play. Secondly, he assumes considerable delay in the accomplishment of Hamlet’s task. The practical difficulty which he notes in Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, exist as much for Hamlet. Claudius suspects Hamlet’s design, and is al- ways on the alert, giving very little chance to Hamlet, and finally packing him off to England. Then again Hamlet, too conscientious as he is, could not have secretly disposed of Claudius as the latter had done Hamlet’s father. We quote here again Miss Campbell’s luminous remark: “Hamlet was apparently chosen to execute the public vengeance delegated by God to his representatives, the rulers.” Hamlet’s task is not simple as it appears to Eliot; Eliot seems to have simplified matters, and since the play has little to do with a mother’s guilt he opines that it is an artistic failure.

The motive In Hamlet is very entangled one. Dover Wilson goes into it, and states it as plainly as possible: “…….. Hamlet was thought of as the rightful heir to the throne who had been robbed of his inheritance by an uncle whom he himself describes as ‘a cutpurse of the empire.” Of course he had suffered a more overwhelming wrong in the degrading incestuous marriage of his mother; but this second wrong quite overshadows the other in his thoughts (note that Dover Wilson gives due importance to the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son, but does not take it as a primary motive). But he is unmindful of the crown; and far more important Claudius is not unmindful either. In short, Hamlet’s ambitious designs, or rather what his uncle takes to be such from a very significant element in the relations between the two men right through the play. During the first-half Claudius is constantly trying to probe them: they explain much in the conversation between Hamlet and the two spies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; they clarify the whole puzzling situation after the play-scene; and they add surprising force and meaning to one of the most dramatic moment in the play-scene itself.

“I shall be told that had Shakespeare intended all this he would have made it plainer. The argument really cuts the other way. That Shakespeare did in- tend, it is proved by Hamlet’s two references to his loss of the crown; the one I have just referred to it in III. Iv, and the words :

‘Popped in between the election and my hopes,”

Spoken to Horatio in the last scene. And the fact these references occur so late in the play proves that Shakespeare did not need to make it plainer that he knew his audience would assume the situation from the start.” Eliot’s criticism that Hamlet is an artistic failure, has been examined from different angles of view-and it is found to be baseless, and beside the point.”-W. J. Lawrence.



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