T.S. Eliot’s poem of 1922, “The Waste Land,” lays philosophical and stylistic ground for the Modern literary movement in which human experience takes the performative shape of inner dialog (or soliloquy) for the benefit of the reader/audience. This essay will argue that Eliot’s poem is an existentialist work that is not merely informed by Shakespeare’s Hamlet (the earliest example of British existentialism), but is directly modeled after it, in Eliot’s attempt to rectify the play’s perceived failings. Existentialism as a key to unlocking the mood of Modern literature is overlooked by those critics who relegate existentialist literature to the years following the Modern period. While the official “birth" of the philosophy begins after World War II, this paper will argue that the questions most posed by existentialism are not new to literature. They are at least as old as Shakespeare, in fact, and we see evidence of “the old questions” (to which Beckett alludes in the 1950s) in Hamlet, dated to 1600. It is my argument that, while Eliot’s critique of Hamlet concludes with its failure, there are clear parallels between "The Waste Land" and Shakespeare’s play. Despite Eliot’s critique, within the Modern literary tradition (which at its heart lionizes individual consciousness) Hamlet is never far from the page.
"Something is Rotten in the Unreal City: Hamlet in The Waste Land,"
The Hilltop Review: Vol. 8
, Article 6.
Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/hilltopreview/vol8/iss2/6