Similarities in the Writing of William Shakespeare and T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot is most famous for his own works such as “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” However, his 1922 work “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism” features a well-known essay in which Eliot criticizes William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” saying that the lack of an objective correlative was a major flaw in the play.

“Objective Correlative” is a term that wasn’t used prior to Eliot’s essay. According to the literary definition, it is “a chain of events, or a situation, which makes objective a particular (subjective) emotion.”
In his essay, Eliot says objective correlative is “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art.” He later adds, “The artistic ‘inevitability’ lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet.”

Eliot wrote in his essay that when external facts are given, an emotion is immediately invoked. What does that mean exactly? Eliot believed that most people that read Hamlet are inclined to solve the age-old mystery of “Hamlet.” Was the character of Hamlet insane or just really cleaver? Eliot believes that people who read Hamlet the play, infuse part of themselves into the play’s main character, which can really alter and blur Shakespeare’s intent.

Eliot says that “Hamlet the man is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.” Eliot is not Shakespeare-bashing though, because he speaks highly of Shakespeare and another Shakespearean work, MacBeth, which Eliot feels contains an object correlative.

In his essay, Eliot wrote that critics tend to “find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization.” He supported this theory by the work of Goethe and Coleridge. “Such a mind had Goethe, who made Hamlet a Werhter; and such had Coleridge, who made Hamlet a Coleridge, and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that the first business was to study a work of art.”

In addition, Eliot says the play was “most certainly an artistic failure,” adding that the play can be puzzling and some of the scenes are inconsistent and called the Shakespeare’s workmanship and thought throughout the play “unstable.”

Theodore Weiss wrote in his article “Soiled in the working: Hamlet and Eliot” that he had the good sense to fight the urges to try to answer the unanswered questions. He hints that he disapproves of people trying to infuse themselves into Shakespeare’s play and single-handedly come up with the magic answer and bring to light one thing that everyone else has somehow either overlooked or been unable to see.

It is of no surprise then that Weiss sides with Eliot’s perception. It appears that Weiss is opposed to anyone trying to solve the mystery and most closely agrees with Eliot’s theory that doing so takes away from the art – that the Hamlet that is created by others infusing their life and their problems into it makes it a different Hamlet than Shakespeare actually envisioned.

One of the problems in the play could be the subject matter. Even Eliot admits that conveying the guilt of a mother cannot be done in the same way that Shakespeare conveyed suspicion in Othello. Eliot argues that the only way to express emotion in art is to have an objective correlative. He cites Shakespeare’s MacBeth as having an objective correlative by successfully conveying the emotion with scenes such as Lady MacBeth sleepwalking. He argues there is no such scenes in Hamlet that would give that type of emotion.

As a fan of Hamlet, I am inclined to disagree with Eliot. I think certain scenes like the conversation between Hamlet and his father’s ghosts, or the scene where the reader learns that Ophelia has drowned, pack a wallop of emotion.

More specifically, Shakespeare’s use of language throughout the play does invoke certain emotions. For example, Hamlet’s ghost says “Murder most foul, as in the best it is/Murder most foul, most strange and unnatural.” (I,V) This line, I believe, does invoke emotions of anger and feeling that King Hamlet was betrayed. Coupled with the rest of the lines in the scene, the act ends with the reader being fully aware of the murder (and the affair that led to it), leaving the reader, like Hamlet, longing for revenge. Furthermore, Shakespeare selects words of anger through this scene such as “Ay, that incestuous, that adulterous beast” and “A serpent stung me.” The scene concludes with the ghost of Hamlet asking his son, “Remember me.”

All in all, the ghost is urging Hamlet to avenge his death and bring justice into the world that has been thrown out of alignment due to Hamlet’s uncle’s actions.

I cannot claim that my emotional reaction was the same for every reader. My difference of opinion does illustrate one thing – the idea of an objective correlative is very subjective. The definition of objective correlative is clear enough, but the interpretation of it is left up to individual opinion.

The idea of “objective correlative” still remains a point of debate, particularly when it comes to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Eliot’s essay comes up even in the 21st century. For example, the online blog “For the Love of Literature” debated the topic in 2005. According to Adian, “he takes on Fraudian concepts (no not Oedipus) and causes us to get inside the Id and the Ego, far more than we are able to get inside any other Shakespeare character. Eliot seems to take a more Aristotelian (of time, place, and action) approach, signifying the digression of Shakespeare’s emotion. I would therefore assume that he did not like the ” To be or not to be. “

In contrast, Eliot uses symbolism in some of his writing that do evoke imagery. In “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Eliot uses such phrases very successfully. One of the more common lines of the poem – “a patient etherized on a table” – has the ability to conjure mental images in the reader, which in turn makes that poem have a greater impact. With such phrases, the reader not only can understand some of the emotions the characters go through, but also can put the reader in the character’s shoes and allow them to feel what he is feeling.

Does this mean that “objective correlative” has been fulfilled? According to the definition, the answer is yes. The words describe a situation in the life of the main character that does evoke a particular emotion.

While there are notable symbols in “The Waste Land,” the types of phrases that are present in “Prufrock” and other notable writings seem to be absent in “The Waste Land.” In the Essay “Symbolism is T S Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ and ‘The Waste Land,’ Moahmed Nadi says that Eliot uses phrases of symbolism in Prufrock such as ‘the muttering retreats’ and ‘one night cheap hotels’ to suggest Prufrock’s alienation and drabness.

Similarly, he believes that the same type of symbolism appears in ‘The Waste Land’ where Eliot uses words and phrases such as ‘garden,’ ‘tarot cards’ and ‘stairs’ as symbols. “All employed to refer to the theme of death rebirth, levels of love and aesthetical levels .”

Even though Weiss did side with Eliot on some issues, he does elevate the poet entirely. He recognizes that Eliot was right in some of his perceptions of Hamlet. However, he argues that Eliot made some of the same mistakes in his writing, including his masterpiece “The Waste Land.”

Here again, the issue of objective correlative is debatable. I see “The Waste Land” as containing “objective correlative” for the same reason I see an objective correlative – the feeling of emotion I get as I am reading the lines.

One famous line – “A heap of broken images” (line 22) – goes very far to give the reader a sense of what the area looks like. I believe Eliot’s goal in “The Waste Land” is to use words to create a waste land in the minds of the reader. At least for me, Eliot succeeds. Critics such as Weiss are that the classic poem is extremely fragmented and in some areas inconsistent. I can see this logic. However, I believe that Eliot intended it that way to be able to create the mental images he does. As a writer, it can be sometimes very difficult to paint a picture with words and convey the emotion that you want the reader to feel, often the same emotion that prompted you to write the piece in the first place.

One of Eliot’s main issues with Hamlet was he felt Shakespeare was trying to convey indescribable emotions. It is much harder to describe emotions like anger and betrayal than the ones Eliot touches on in “The Waste Land” or “Prufrock.”
Also, Eliot doesn’t take on the same vastness of story and emotion that Shakespeare did. Instead, Eliot stuck to a simple emotion and then gave the reader a very detailed, raw feeling of what the character is feeling. In “Hamlet,” Shakespeare touches on so many different aspects that it is difficult for the reader to truly understand and comprehend the powerful raw emotion behind any of them.

However, that doesn’t mean that both works in question didn’t contain an objective correlative. Furthermore, as previously stated, there are not enough specific criteria to be able to positively identify whether a work of literature has or lacks an objective correlative.

Since Eliot’s essay criticizing Hamlet is one of his most recognizable pieces, it is ironic that Eliot writing styles has been compared to Shakepeare’s writing citing, mostly just comparing the conversation style each of them use when writing. Both Eliot and Shakespeare use this to their advantage when writing to draw the reader into the work of literature.

Eliot uses the voice exquisitely in “Prufrock” and to draw the reader in and evoke emotion in the reader. By doing so, he successfully give the reader some ownership of what is going on. In this way, Eliot uses phrases such as “we drown.”
It is necessary for Eliot to have the conversative voice to tie all the broken images together successfully and turn random thoughts and phrases into something that might actually infuse some type of emotion in the reader.

In conclusion, objective correlative is a literary term coined by Eliot reffering to a chain of events or a situation that invokes a particular emotion in the reader. Eliot has criticized William Shakespeare because Eliot believe that Shakespeare doesn’t include any type of objective correlative.

Despite all this, Shakespeare and Eliot do have a similar writing style. Both writers use a conversational style when writing. The issue is not whether Shakespeare is an effective writer, but specifically about Shakespeare. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot uses random images tied together with conversational style to infuse a emotion within the reader.

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