Is Hamlet a Failed Play?

I just read a collection of literary criticism about the character of Hamlet.  By far the most intriguing piece of criticism was from TS Eliot.

TS Eliot argues that Hamlet is a failed play.  He argues that Shakespeare wanted to tell the story of a young man who feels betrayed by his mother, and superimposed it on Thomas Kyd’s revenge play.  He argues that this simply does not work, and that when people such as Coleridge and Goethe talk about Hamlet, they are really talking about themselves as Hamlet.

My opinion is basically this:  Hamlet is by no means a perfect play, but I hope I write something some day that fails as badly as Hamlet.

Thoughts anyone?  Is T S Eliot right?

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7 Responses to Is Hamlet a Failed Play?

  1. I have not read any literary criticism on the subject. What would be one’s criteria for failure? On the face of it, what I would disagree about with T S Eliot is that it is “the story of a young man who feels betrayed by his mother”. No doubt that is an element of the plot, but I do side with those (whoever they are) that would see in the play the problem of decision making and of action. This problem is not inserted in the mouth of Hamlet alone. Consdier the King, (III. iii. 41), “And like a man to double business bound I stand in pause were I shall first begin, and both neglect”. Or consider Hamlet’s harsh interrogation of his mother in III, iv, .c 70-89. where he explores the contours of her choice and looks for blame, “but it reserved some quantity of choice”.

    Hamlet is a man who bemoans the burden set upon him to set something aright in his world. He would much prefer not to, and the gravity of his situation and his inability to be truly resolved to correct the injustice means he wobbles to the end, where the tragedy exacterbated beyond what was needful. Perhaps the play itself wobbles somewhat too, but even in painting that picture.

    Consider Hamlet overlooking the marching armies of Norway, “examples as gross as earth exhort me” (IV. iv. 46). He can not understand how these men turn themselves into the instrument of fate or of some greater purpose, even if it be just toys of some other man’s fame. Hamlet is afraid to subject his agency as an individual to something that will fill it with content up to the point even of death. In that sense, I almost feel as though he suffers from too much individuality– he’s afraid to put it to use. Yet, he is jealous of other men who are more forthwright than he. Consider his envy of Laertes, his need to outdo Laertes in grief over Ophelia, to suddenly prove he loved her more. He was surely out of place here at her graveside. His antics betray his need to be better than Laertes, more alive. And we do see Laertes be a man of action, acting (almost) with the all the conciseness Hamelt is wanting when he returns to avenge Polonius’s death.

    Upon his encounter with the ghost, we see Hamlet *resolve to be resovled*, “all thy commandment alone shall live within the book and volume of this brain/ unmixed with baser matter” (I.v. c. 100). Yet he laments “The time is out of joint. O curse spite that ever I was born to set it right” (I.v. c. 189).

    “My thoughts be bloody or nothing worth!”. I think the whole play is about his steady ascent to finally acting and the tragic outcome of his delay. But, as they say, “when the task is neglected, the task suffers”.

    • That’s a good point, the idea of a failed play is very much in the eye of the beholder. I think for T.S. Eliot it means that the problems of the play override its artistic merit, he does call Hamlet “an artistic failure.” He feels that Hamlet’s inability to take action and his character’s madness is simply the result of Shakespeare biting off more than he could chew.
      I don’t fully agree TS Eliot’s assertion, but I do appreciate the fact that he draws attention to the source material for Hamlet, to point out that Hamlet did not spring from Shakespeare’s head fully formed, but that he was indebted to other plays and playwrights, and trying to capitalize on the revenge tragedy theme.

    • As for Hamlet being inactive and tragically unable to act, I do have some thoughts about that, but I’m saving those for another post.

  2. Further; consider in that speech overlooking Fortinbras army, IV, iv, 32- 66, which I believe is key:

    Fortinbras is a man of passion and action, and this stirs Hamlet to admiration and perhaps envy. He goes so far as to say this “tender prince” is in some sense touched by divinity– for divinity doesn’t dawdle, but seizes its rights or creates them where they’ve not yet appeared. “Exposing what is mortal to all that death and danger dare”, and he gives us here a definition of “greatness”, which is his aspiration to be, an aspiration which he realizes only in a tangled, partially successful way. Hamlet’s particular “mole of nature” (I, iv, 22-37) corrupts him generally. At least, in the end, he tried.

  3. So many typing errors, I think faster than I write, and post sooner than I ought!

  4. I came across this passage from Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy” which I thought you’d find interesting if you have not already encountered it yourself,

    “In a sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities can not get around to action. Not reflection, no– true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweights any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man” (end of section 7).

    Walter Kaufmann comments, “It is doubtful wehther anyone before him had illuminated Hamlet so extensively in so few words…”

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