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  • T. S. Eliot’s Impudence: Hamlet, Objective Correlative, and Formulation
  • Bradley Greenburg

You get more credit for thinking if you restate formulae or cite cases that fall in easily under formulae, but all the fun is outside saying things that suggest formulae that won’t formulate—that almost but don’t quite formulate. I should like to be so subtle at this game as to seem to the casual person altogether obvious. The casual person would assume that I meant nothing or else I came near enough meaning something he was familiar with to mean it for all practical purposes. Well well well.

—Robert Frost

When T. S. Eliot revised his English collection Elizabethan Essays for an American edition twenty-two years after its initial publication, he made a number of serious cuts.1 In cutting “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” “Hamlet and His Problems,” and “Four Elizabethan Dramatists,” he remarked that these essays “on re-examination embarrassed me by their callowness, and by a facility of unqualified assertion which verges, here and there, on impudence. The Hamlet, of course, had been kept afloat all these years by the phrase ‘objective correlative’—a phrase which, I am now told, is not even my own but was first used by Washington Alston.”2 Eliot’s greatest impudence, given the conclusions drawn in the other two essays, came, one assumes, in his insistence that Hamlet lacks an “objective correlative.” This formula, attempting as it does to characterize the play’s failure, the “problems” of Hamlet tried and found wanting as a cause for his studied inaction, is a product that far exceeds Eliot’s purported reviewing of two books on Shakespeare’s tragedy and its protagonist. The essay is instead one of the steps in the poet/critic’s efforts to clear the way for, while clarifying the genealogy of, his modernist project. Eliot’s aggressive reading of this play has much to tell us about the role of the critic in configuring the identity of modernist poetic [End Page 215] practice as well as demonstrating how the play lures readers, even one as astute as Eliot, into a fixation with its main character.

The formula-producing moments of Eliot’s early theorizing on the representational practice of poetry are frequently articulated in the context of his work on Renaissance drama and early seventeenth-century poetry.3 What is it about Hamlet the story and Hamlet the character that provokes him, in the midst of working out a genealogical schema for modernist poetics, to invent such “impudent” formulations?4 To answer this question I will explore the essays and book reviews of the late ‘teens and early ‘twenties, where Eliot carefully constructs a relationship between modernist poetics and Renaissance drama and poetry. Further, I want to argue that such a construction is exemplified in Eliot’s reading of Hamlet where, in performing the very analysis he has just warned us about, he misses a crucial element in the representational structure and strategy of the play. Eliot’s “unqualified assertions,” in other words, are impudent in their imprudence: his formulaic turn in “Hamlet and His Problems” marks a failure to attend to the dramatic functioning of Shakespeare’s play.

The dramatic functioning I refer to is Hamlet’s relentless construction of a Hamlet who is captivating and realistic, with a subjectivity so complex and fraught with psychopathology that this character has been called the first “modern subject.”5 What so consistently escapes critical scrutiny is how the play does this. What are the mechanisms the drama employs to construct such a character? Since Eliot’s review essay opens with a response to just this question—“Few critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary”6—we might well expect him to take precisely this line of argument. In other words, how does the play succeed—or, in this case, fail—to dramatize a dizzying array of subjective responses to grief, maternal guilt, murder, oedipal desires, and so forth? Eliot’s essay, and so much of the criticism that follows it, does not provide a response to this question, because after...


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