In his (in)famous—and woefully misguided—1919 essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T.S. Eliot argues that Shakespeare’s Hamlet—arguably the greatest single work of English literature, just as The Cosby Show is arguably the greatest single work of American television—is an aesthetic failure for, as Eliot argues, “Hamlet… is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art. And when we search for this feeling, we find it… very difficult to localize. You cannot point to it in the speeches… We find Shakespeare’s Hamlet not in the action, not in quotations…” Eliot argues the play lacks what he refers to as an “‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a 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.”
The same argument can be applied, however misguidedly, to The Cosby Show, which itself lacks an apparent objective correlative. Cliff Huxtable and Hamlet share much in common (the extent of their psychological and intellectual connection will be explored at greater length in a future column, as will some of the connections between Hamlet and Theo Huxtable): both Hamlet and Cliff Huxtable are men of fierce and unbridled intellect and humor whose emotions and intelligence—not to mention humor—lack an apparent outlet in their respective narratives. Eliot believed that the fundamental imperfection of Hamlet was Shakespeare’s inability—which was, in fact, probably his willful refusal—to directly spell out Hamlet’s motive and reasoning for his actions and professed feelings throughout the play. If that is accepted as a flaw in Shakespeare’s play, then the seemingly inexplicable darkening of Cliff Huxtable—particularly in terms of his spirits during the sixth, seventh and eight seasons of The Cosby Show—must itself be understood as a fundamental flaw in the Huxtable narrative. But to accept this Eliotian conclusion—which so many might be tempted to do—serves only to lead the viewer away from a proper sense and understanding of the essence of the Huxtable narrative and what it means.
The Cosby Show is not a thing of classicism nor neo-classicism; rather it is a product of Romanticism—the brand of Romanticism given birth to, in part, by Shakespeare’s Hamlet and continued, nearly two centuries later, by Goethe, Coleridge, Keats, the Shelleys, Byron and their artistic kin—a thing born kicking and screaming from, in Nietzschian terms, the Dionysian rather than the Apollonian. The Cosby Show does not portray—nor does it pretend to nor claim to portray—a mimetic representation of “reality” (unlike such sitcoms as M*A*S*H, All in the Family, or even The Jeffersons, all of which are decidedly mimetic works), but rather a reality which, while it may be localized in the mind(s) or Cliff and Rudy Huxtable, does not operate in accordance with the rules and structures applied to the reality(ies) the viewer might know; The Cosby Show is, beyond all else, set within a world structured upon the vague and dark principles of, two speak in perfectly appropriate contradictory terms, ostensible otherness.
Like the jazz music (the 20th century’s Romantic art par excellence) of Miles Davis, the narrative of The Cosby Show follows an organic rhythm and logic that is not carefully set nor readily structured. Instead there is a delightful jazz-like breeziness to the movements of the show and its characterizations, an implicit appreciation and celebration of that which cannot—and perhaps should not—be expressed fully in speech-acts or physical actions. Not every aspect of the psychology of Cliff Huxtable—or the rest of the Huxtable clan, for that matter—is ever fully revealed. To bring such fully to light, to lay the essence of Cliff Huxtable—a man who transforms over the course of seven years from a noble, if doomed, figure akin to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar into a haunted, distraught, and broken father-king akin to Shakespeare’s King Lear—on the proverbial table, to hand over the key(s) by which the secrets of his psyche might be unlocked and retrieved, would corrupt the very ambiguity and complexity that underlies his psyche, not to mention the psyches of the rest of the Huxtable clan (intensive explorations of the psyches of Claire, Theo, Rudy and Kenny (a.k.a.“Bud”), among others, are forthcoming). The character of Cliff Huxtable—a man prone to manic fits of humor and melancholy (sometimes within the span of a single episode), a man of tremendous ego who once boldly claimed to have delivered 10,000 babies in one night, a man reduced to tears at even the mention of Old Yeller, a man unable to make for his wife a room of her own or even repair a broken doorbell, a man of apparent reason and discipline who nevertheless consumes countless hoagies despite his highly cholesterol count and who impulsively purchases whatever gadget catches his eye at Jake’s Appliance Store, a man keenly aware of his existential ability to take his son out of the very world he brought him into, a man given to sudden bursts of musical, comedic and culinary performance, a man of disturbing paranoia who comes to believe his own children are trying to take his home away from him and spend all of his money—is beyond simple characterization or understanding. Cliff Huxtable’s psychology is to be glimpsed rather than recognized; he is to be felt more than comprehended, loved or despised rather than understood or realized, pondered, and debated rather than merely categorized and resolved.
Like Prince Hamlet (as well as Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, Goethe’s Faust, Byron’s Manfred, Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, Conrad’s Kurtz, Woolf’s Dalloway, Beckett’s Malone, Marshall’s Arthur Fonzarelli, Yerkovich and Mann’s Crockett and Tubbs and Zlotoff, Winkler and Rich’s Angus MacGyver, to name a few), Cliff Huxtable is a reflection of “us” by sheer virtue of being so particularly and decidedly “other” to “us.”