According to T.S. Eliot, Shakespeare actually failed as an artist in Hamlet. Those who have read the relevant critical essay by Eliot, could you kindly let me in on the title of that essay and explain what Eliot really meant by that statement?

  • 3
    The essay is "Hamlet and His Problems" — perhaps after reading it you could edit your question to say exactly which bits you had trouble with. Feb 28, 2019 at 16:58
  • Thanks a million, Gareth. Your answer means a lot to me and I will certainly edit my question in near future, to be sure. Feb 28, 2019 at 17:03
  • There may also be some bias, in that Eliot, following Frazer, was very interested in the idea of the "broken king". "It would be the same at the end of the journey, If you came at night like a broken king," (Four Quartets) which recalls "Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus" (The Wasteland). That said, Eliot's critique of Hamlet is not unfounded, just that, in art, it is sometimes the flaws that make a work great. The idea that "the cracks are where the light shines through." This is similar to an Asian aesthetic which includes "Kintsugi".
    – DukeZhou
    Feb 28, 2019 at 18:57
  • There may also be an element of trying to raise interest in the excellent and underrated Coriolanus of Shakespeare. Compare the production history of Hamlet to the production history of Coriolanus.
    – DukeZhou
    Feb 28, 2019 at 19:12

2 Answers 2


In the essay ‘Hamlet and His Problems’, collected in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920), Eliot describes Hamlet as an artistic failure because Hamlet’s emotions and actions cannot be fully explained as responses to the events of the play:

Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear

his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but […] his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it

the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expediency

Eliot contrasts these inadequacies with cases in Shakespeare’s other plays where emotions can be fully explained as responses to stimuli:

the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife’s death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet.

He builds this into an artistic theory:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, 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.

We deduce that Eliot thinks Coriolanus is “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success” because it has ‘objective correlatives’ for the characters’ behaviour in every case.

Obviously we’re not obliged to accept this theory. We might reply that the gap between the stimulus of events and the character’s response requires the actor and the audience to construct hypotheses about the character’s mental state that would be capable of filling the gap; and that this need for psychological theorizing is one of the features that makes Hamlet more interesting than Coriolanus.

  • According to Aristotle, in great tragedy the hero must have a fatal flaw that leads to his downfall. What Eliot failed to recognize was that Hamlet's fatal flaws were intellectualism and indecisiveness (maybe because he saw these as positive character traits). The delay in revenge has no simple, rational explanation, because it's Hamlet's fatal flaw. If there had been a good reason for him to delay his revenge, the ending wouldn't be Aristotelean tragedy but just bad luck.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 9, 2019 at 13:39
  • @PeterShor I don't think Shakespeare worked according to the rules of Aristotle's Poetics. For example, he did not consistently use a five-act division (those divisions were typically introduced by later editors) and he disregarded the three unities in all of his plays except (more or less) The Tempest. Eliot's point is not whether Hamlet's character has "fatal flaw" but that that flaw, if it's there, is not successfully communicated.
    – Tsundoku
    Mar 10, 2019 at 21:57
  • @ChristopheStrobbe: Certainly, Shakespeare certainly did not follow all the rules of Poetics, and I am not sure whether all his tragic heroes have "fatal flaws." But in my opinion, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet pretty clearly work along these lines. Is there any doubt at all that Othello says something about jealousy and Macbeth says something about ambition?
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 10, 2019 at 22:04
  • And surely Eliot at some level knew Hamlet was about indecisiveness. Just read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
    – Peter Shor
    Mar 10, 2019 at 22:15

The relevant essay is "Hamlet and His Problems", written in 1919 and first published in the collection The Sacred Wood: : Essays on Poetry and Criticism in 1920. It has been reprinted in other collections, for example, Selected Prose, edited by John Hayward (Penguin Books, 1953). In this collection the essay was simply entitled "Hamlet" and followed by a "Postscript" excerpted from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933).

Eliot makes several points in this essay:

  • Since the late eighteenth century, critics, especially if they were authors in their own right (e.g. Goethe and Coleridge), have often been fascinated by the play's leading character at the expence of looking at the play as a whole.
  • Hamlet is superposed on older material, probably including a lost play by Thomas Kyd. Thomas Kyd is best remembered as the author of The Spanish Tragedy, which, like Shakespeare's Hamlet, includes elements such as revenge, a play-within-the-play and feigned madness. (Kyd's version of Hamlet is often referred to as the Ur-Hamlet, but Eliot does not use that phrase.)
  • Eliot maintains that in Shakespeare's Hamlet there is another motive that is more important than the revenge motive and that delays the revenge. Since we don't know what that other motive is, "the delay in revenge is unexplained on grounds of necessity or expediency". (Eliot does not comment on any specific scenes that are relevant to this delay, e.g. Act III, scene 3, where Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius, but refrains from doing so since killing him during prayer would send him to heaven instead of hell.)
  • Hamlet contains a few "unexplained scenes", such as the Polonius-Laertes scene (in Act I, scene 3) and the Polonius-Reynaldo scene (Act II, scene 1). (Eliot borrowed the last three points from The Problem of "Hamlet" by John Mackinnon Robertson, published in 1919.)
  • Eliot concludes from this (emphasis mine)

that Shakespeare's Hamlet, so far as it is Shakespeare's, is a 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.

This is why he says that "the play is most certainly an artistic failure".

Eliot goes on to say that Hamlet belongs "to a period of crisis, after which follow the tragic successes which culminate in Coriolanus". "Coriolanus may not be as 'interesting' as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's most assured artistic success."

In the "Postscript", which John Hayward extracted from The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933), Eliot says that his essay on Hamlet had, by some, been interpreted as saying "that Coriolanus is a greater play than Hamlet". However, he points out that he is not interested in determining which Shakespeare play is greater than which other; instead, he is interested "in Shakespeare's work as a whole". He also adds,

I do not think it any derogation to suggest that Shakespeare did not always succeed; such a suggestion would imply a very narrow view of success. His success must always be reckoned of what he attempted; and I believe that to admit his partial failures is to approach the recognition of his real greatness more closely than to hold that he was always granted plenary inspiration.

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