Jonah Goldberg’s October 2010 essay on the television series Sons of Anarchy has held up pretty well, and so has T. S. Eliot’s not-entirely-unrelated essay on the underlying source material: “Hamlet and His Problems.” Unlike such trenchant critics as Ira Glass, Eliot did not have access to Twitter, and so his observations on Hamlet, a play he considered an artistic failure, take a little more digesting than does Mr. Glass’s contention that “Shakespeare sucks,” but doing so is worth the effort if only to shed some light on the bedrock problem of both Hamlet and Sons of Anarchy: motherhood.
“Hamlet and His Problems” is famous less for Eliot’s criticism of Shakespeare than for his invocation of the “objective correlative,” which he defined as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.” The concept has been useful to many literary critics, though the idea that there exists a literary “formula” for a particular emotion is excessively mechanistic. But there is something to it, perhaps even more so in television drama than in stage drama. A motorcycle means something, though it is difficult to say exactly what — which is why we create dramatic works instead of writing psychology papers.
Eliot argued that Hamlet fails as a work of art because Shakespeare cannot produce an objective correlative for the play’s central emotion: the disgust a son feels for his mother’s guilt, in this case for murder and incest. Eliot cites the critic J. M. Robertson’s argument that Hamlet’s “tone is that of one who has suffered tortures on the score of his mother’s degradation. . . . The guilt of a mother is an almost intolerable motive for drama.” He argues that Gertrude is an inadequate channel of Hamlet’s disgust, which “envelops and exceeds her.”
Which brings us back to Sons of Anarchy, the central problem of which is lifted from Hamlet: Outlaw biker Jackson Teller’s father has been murdered through the collusion of his wife and one of his “brothers” in the motorcycle gang, who supplants him as its president, leaving Jackson in the emotionally complicated position of seeking vengeance against his stepfather and, eventually, his mother. But Sons of Anarchy is a much longer story than is Hamlet, and unlike Hamlet, Jackson ascends to the throne, having dispatched his stepfather after many frustrations and false starts, sending dozens of Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns to their graves along the way. The final season sets the stage for what seems likely to be a murderous confrontation with his mother, who, in addition to having conspired in the death of Jackson’s father, has also by this point murdered his wife with her own hands.
“Hamlet and His Problems” was published in 1921. Seven years shy of a century later, Sons of Anarchy presents the question: Is the theme of maternal guilt still “an almost intolerable motive for drama”?
The model of motherhood that prevails in 2014 is fundamentally different from the model of 1921, so different in fact as to be an almost entirely distinct moral and social phenomenon. This begins with the world-changing fact that the progress from conception to birth is today optional. The millions of acts of violence that have been committed in utero since January 1973 inevitably have shaped our views of motherhood. (This is true regardless of one’s views on the desirability of legal abortion.) There is now a fundamentally different kind of motherhood in the world, and we see evidence of this everywhere from political and medical rhetoric, in which pregnancy is understood as a kind of disease; to feminist doublespeak, which regards the developing person as morally indistinguishable from a tumor; to popular culture, the textbook example being the 117-minute meditation on sundry pregnancy horrors that is Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien.
Beyond the violence and cruelty of abortion per se, the “choice” regime established by Roe v. Wade must shape our understanding of motherhood in another, subtler way: The great majority of men and women in the civilized world born in the 1970s or later were optional. Everywhere that the abortion license is extended, every pregnant woman faces an implicit calculation as to the relative value of continuing with a pregnancy or terminating it, effectively reducing the developing person to the status of a consumer good. The most exaggerated version of this is Mia Farrow–style exotic baby-shopping, a perversion of the generous impulse associated with adoption that reconstitutes adoptive parenthood as a species of conspicuous consumption. It is not merely coincidental that feminists have such a soft spot for neo-pagan goddess hokum; all human life is today subordinate to the whimsy of the mother, semper crescis aut decrescis.
And such mothers we have: June Shannon of Honey Boo Boo fame/infamy; Dance Moms; assorted Kardashians; Gwyneth Paltrow; the four out of ten American mothers who are unmarried; World’s Worst Mom; mothers who tremble in fear of grapes and Brillo pads; these inexplicable specimens taking sexualized self-portraits in front of their children.
In that world — this world — meditations upon maternal guilt are hardly intolerable; they are, rather, inevitable.
I concur with Jonah Goldberg’s praise of Katey Sagal’s sublime performance in the role of Gemma Teller, Gertrude to Jackson’s Hamlet. But there is something more at work here than artistic skill. Eliot again: “Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art.” Shakespeare, he writes, fails to examine his material “in the sunlight.” We examine ours in a different light: the cold fluorescent light of the clinic, and the equally clinical, bluish light of the television. And we have a different sort of problem than Hamlet had: His drama had to do with the degradation of his mother; ours has to do with the degradation of motherhood categorically. Dragging that into the sunlight is an unpleasant business, and a necessary one.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving editor at National Review.