The “Objective Correlative”: Hamlet & Macbeth, Part 3 of 3

In his seminal essay “Hamlet and His Problems” from The Sacred Wood (1921), T.S. Eliot states the following:

1)  There is no successful ‘objective correlative’ in the play Hamlet, thereby rendering it an artistic failure.

2)  The character of Hamlet is dominated by a disgust with his mother that is inexpressible.

3)  This emotion of his is in excess of the facts of the case.

An investigation of these three contentions should almost surely prove profitable in our classsrooms, particularly since, correct or not, they strike immediately at the heart of the play.

If we accept Eliot’s definition of the ‘objective correlative’ (OC) as being what it is, and as necessary to a successful work of art, we may be forced to agree with him. Hamlet is, first and foremost, a play of language, a play on language. There is less visceral imagery than in Macbeth, to be sure; this is primarily because Hamlet is a tragedy of thought, whereas Macbeth is a tragedy of action. (This is why, though we may be more terrorized by the events in Macbeth, we don’t leave the theater feeling we truly know the titular character. The same cannot be said for Hamlet. We know this melancholy Dane.)

The OC must come in to play when the writer desires to have forces of nature and/or man encircle the protagonist, swirl through his very being, and point dramatically to the dark tensions within. In Hamlet, the protagonist routinely, some would say obsessively, confides in us, shares his innermost fears and desires. To a large extent, Hamlet is his own force of nature, and his own reckoning.

At the same time, there are plenty of OCs in the play, if we need them. The very motif/action of ‘the play within the play’ at III, ii, serves more than nicely as an outward form of things pointing, like a finger at the moon, to essential thematic concerns. The Ghost, too, while a character in his own right, may also be used symbolically as an emotional referent.

Clifford Rose (The Ghost), Kenneth Branagh (Hamlet), and Jane Lapotaire (Getrude) in the 1992 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

As for Hamlet’s inexpressible disgust, I’m not entirely sure what Eliot is on about. The Queen’s closest scene between Gertrude and Hamlet (after “More light!”), Hamlet’s own soliloquized thoughts on the subject, more than serve to furnish us (and himself) with a reasonable understanding of his tortured psychology.

Are his emotions in excess? From a ‘naturalist’ perspective, perhaps. From the perspective of traditional dramatic art? By no means; in fact, Shakespeare takes great pains to portray a young man doubly haunted: by his mother’s actions, as well as by his father’s death. When Hamlet knows for sure it was his uncle, Claudius, who murdered his father, a trebly-pronged attack of emotion begins. Powerful forces of self-judgement and -castigation are arrayed. Hamlet becomes at once an animal of mere emotion, in addition to, paradoxically, a world-weary, woeful rationalist.

The “Objective Correlative”: Hamlet & Macbeth, Part 2 of 3

Eliot’s anti-Hamlet contention begins as follows:

If you examine any of Shakespeare’s more successful tragedies, you will find this exact [objective correlative]; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; 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.

This bears careful thought, not least in terms of a student discussion of Macbeth: what exactly is the “accumulation of imagined sensory impressions”? How does Shakespeare provide correlatives to Lady Macbeth’s subconsciously guilt-ridden despair for the audience to react to emotionally? Eliot believes that words must be “released” from the event engendering them via a natural process of appropriate cause and effect:

The artistic “inevitability” lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet’s bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem.

Eliot’s insistence on equating what he deems the deficiencies of Shakespeare with the deficiencies of his creation may strike some as misplaced, if not far-fetched; who’s to say there’s a direct, unbreakable connection between the wish of the artist and the resultant function of the created character, or vice versa? What one writer wishes for, he is able to create; what another one wishes for, he isn’t; but surely there are also writers whose characters only seem weak (or are arguably weak) because of the wish of the writer. To travel down this road of fallacy is to wind up in the dusty badlands of authorial responsibility, ultimately leading to the argument of whether or not Stephen King is responsible for the effect, say, a murderous villain of his has on a troubled reader (which has actually been claimed in criminal court).

Googie Withers (Gertrude) and Michael Redgrave (Hamlet) in the 1958 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

But the more pertinent issues at hand are Eliot’s beliefs that 1) the character of Hamlet is dominated by an emotion that is inexpressible, and 2) that the emotion in question is in excess of the facts. To argue that if the character of Hamlet is flawed and, therefore, the play is flawed seems reasonable to me, since the character is unquestionably the mind, heart, and spine of the play.

What is this “emotion” Eliot speaks of? It is Hamlet’s disgust with his mother:

Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him.

More on this in a few days…

The “Objective Correlative”: Hamlet & Macbeth, Part 1 of 3

Washington Allston (1779-1843)

The American painter and poet Washington Allston, though almost entirely unknown today, was in his time rather an influential, even pioneering figure. Admired by many of the Transcendentalists as well as the English Romantic poets, Allston was known as “The American Titian” for his dramatic, Renaissance-like juxtapositions of color. And, charmingly, the genius of his landscape work seems to have been matched only by the high degree of regard his friends held for him: no less a figure than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said about Allston, seventeen years after the artist’s death, “One man may sweeten a whole time. I never pass through Cambridge Port without thinking of Allston. His memory is the quince in the drawer and perfumes the atmosphere.”

Allston, in addition to his prodigious artistic gifts, was also a published poet and essayist, as well as the author of the phrase “objective correlative,” which is what concerns us here. It may cause a start to some of us who equate this idea with T.S. Eliot and his essay “Hamlet and His Problems” (from The Sacred Wood, 1921), but it was Allston who wrote the following in the “Introductory Discourse” of his Lectures on Art (1850) concerning the power potential of visual art:

Take an example from one of the lower forms of organic life,–a common vegetable. Will any one assert that the surrounding inorganic elements of air, earth, heat, and water produce its peculiar form? Though some, or all, of these may be essential to its development, they are so only as its predetermined correlatives, without which its existence could not be manifested; and in like manner must the peculiar form of the vegetable preexist in its life, — in its idea, — in order to evolve by these assimilants its own proper organism.

No possible modification in the degrees or proportion of these elements can change the specific form of a plant, — for instance, a cabbage into a cauliflower; it must ever remain a cabbage, small or large, good or bad. So, too, is the external world to the mind; which needs, also, as the condition of its manifestation, its objective correlative. Hence the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the preexisting idea in its living power, is essential to the evolution of its proper end, — the pleasurable emotion.

One simple way to frame this idea in the context of literature is via the old University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop dictum: “Show, don’t tell.” Instead of describing what a character feels, a writer should fashion a series of objects or situations, some kind of, in the words of Eliot, “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.” As Allston puts it, an “outward object” should correspond and actually point to the inner and, indeed, evolve that inner feeling towards its proper end which, for Allston (though not for all artists, visual or otherwise), is “the pleasurable emotion.”

Take, for example, Allston’s own “Moonlit Landscape” (1809):

The centralized vertical line of:



Boat offsetting Bridge/River/Reflection



represents the main spatial thrust of the piece. What flows through this line, however — haunting tones of muted color, terrestrial swirls, vaporous clouds — are the “assimilants” (in Allston’s words) that place the viewer into a specifically emotional frame of mind; in this case, a feeling of sadness, perhaps peace, even natural transcendence. The sum is greater than the parts.

Eliot’s feelings towards Hamlet are, at best, ambivalent. While recognizing the play’s reputation, Eliot spares no sticks or stones: Hamlet is not a masterpiece; indeed, it is an “artistic failure.” He writes, “[P]robably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the “Mona Lisa” of literature.” Which is neat way of throwing a boomerang and having it hit several targets before it returns to the hand of the thrower. Eliot may have written some of the most exquisite poetry of the 20th century, and also some of its most influential criticism, but when he writes in the same essay, “Coriolanus may be not as “interesting” as Hamlet, but it is [...] Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success,” there is ample room for eye-rolling doubt.

Still, the argument Eliot proposes as to why Hamlet is a failure is a cogent and meaningful one. More of this next time…


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