Shakespeare’s literary works are notorious for being complex in nature and with many layers of meaning hidden within characters actions, motifs, and the nature of the genre. Reality, like Shakespeare’s works but on an elevated level, is likewise very complicated and difficult to understand, because of this, it is often looked to literature and film to relate ourselves to fictitious characters and themes in order to find order in the chaos of life. This same can be done when looking to understand literature. Works of fiction, such as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, can be broken down into basic segments and analyze how it is represented in culture other than academics, in doing this, it is able to broaden the understanding of the literary work on many new levels. Using this literary work as an archetype; not only in character, but in motif and the nature of tragedy, in reference to their representations in popular culture, allows for a more profound understanding of the complex text that is Hamlet.
The Genre of Tragedy
To be able to compare the tragedy of Hamlet to others in popular culture, it must first be understood what exactly makes a Tragedy a Tragedy. This specific genre is defined by the story’s hero on a downward spiral usually ending up in his/her inevitable demise. In Hamlet, the hero’s (Hamlet) tragic flaw is his inability to take action, and because of this, it leads to his death; but what exactly makes this tragic? How did all of the other combination of scenes put together before the final act make Hamlet’s death so impactful? The answers to these questions can be found in another tragic story, a film released in 1998 by the name of American History X. In this film, the hero’s name is Danny Vinyard and plays the brother of a Neo Nazi (Derek Vinyard) who just go out of prison. Throughout the film, Danny presents himself as a white supremacist as his older brother did before he went to prison; his tragic flaw being his racism. As the film develops, we learn about Derek who after spending years in prison realizes the error in his ways and refuses his little brother to go down the same path he did. By the end of the film, Derek was able to revert all the damage he had caused on his little brother and made him finally understand that his racist ways were wrong and could get him into serious trouble. The film concludes with Danny being shot to death by a victim of his racist ignorance. What makes this tragic is the irony involved, being killed because of something he did right when he finally broke free of his tragic flaw.
Like Danny, Hamlet finally met his demise as soon as he took action in what needed to be done. American History X really helps understand the complexity of the flaw of inaction and the nature of Tragedy by representing it in a different matter (racism) that in today’s political climate is relatable and easily understood. After analyzing a film like American History X, the tragic irony written within the dialogue becomes more comprehensible; “…Had I but time – as this fell sergeant, Death,/ Is strict in his arrest – O, I could tell you -/ But let it be…” (Hamlet 5.2.329-331) This citation presents the irony in Hamlet’s death as he just recognizes that he would not be able to tell his own story or defend the act of killing the king of Denmark, but instead die because he acted too late, and allowed claudius to manipulate Learties into carrying out his devious plan to kill Hamlet. Thus making his death impactful and tragic because he brought upon his own demise, not by just one single decision, but by every decision he made throughout the play, with each one slowly cementing his fate.
A motif is a recurring object, image, sound, or idea presented throughout the duration of the literary work or film, that is used to develop the central theme or ideology presented in the story. The motifs that are used in Hamlet are very subtly hidden within dialogue, and without further analyzation and academic assistance, would likely be missed. Similar to the genre of tragedy, to really understand the complexity of Hamlet’s motifs, we can use examples from popular culture as a more simple and exaggerated use of motif to learn what to look for when trying to bring light upon these recurring words or ideas. Typically in film, a motif is almost always found in the soundtrack or score of the film, an example of this would be the score of the film Joker, as each time something of importance occurs in the development of his character, the same riff played on the electric cello, in slightly different keys, is played to subconsciously create a link in your mind that every time you now hear that riff again, even without you noticing, will remind you of all of the events that lead up to and created the joker that is presented at the end. It brings you back to all of the disturbing scenes and events experienced by the character.
Because Hamlet is a play or a text, motifs in Hamlet are often represented as words or ideas. The motif of the corrupt ear is one mentioned many times throughout within dialogue, either directly or indirectly referencing it. This specific motif was also used by Francesca Haig in her article Something is rotten in Blue Velvet … an exploration of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet via Shakespeare’s Hamlet that uses Hamlet as a representation of the corrupt ear motif to further understand David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet as she explains; “…the film’s similarities to (and differences from) Hamlet can force a reconfiguration of characters and events within the film, as well as within the play, through providing an added layer of intertextual resonance.” (Haig 4) This passage explains that not only can using Hamlet as an example to better understand the ideologies presented in the film, but can also work in reverse, using the film to give Hamlet a sense of “intertextual resonance”; understanding the text with a deeper more sophisticated manner.
Character archetypes are the idea of archetype that we are most likely more familiar with as they are, in some way, in every work of fiction. Hamlet being one of those works, is full of character archetypes that are stereotypical to a story of its genre, for example; Hamlet – the tragic hero, and Claudius – the villain. In relating these archetypes to a similar story, but with a simpler plot, 1994’s The Lion King, it can be better understood why these characters act the way they do. By relating Hamlet, to Simba, the hero in the lion king, the tragic flaw that Hamlet embodies, inaction, can become more clear as to why he struggles with it. In the climax of The Lion King, Simba and Scar begin to fight each other, and as the fight progresses, Simba, the younger and stronger of the two, begins to gain more and more sovereignty over Scar which then finally leaving him in a position of submission.
During the time that Scar was submissive towards Simba, he desperately tries to stop Simba from hurting him any further and in doing this, he makes the point that he is family and that Simba wouldn’t “kill his own uncle”, to which Simba replies that he wouldn’t because he is better than him. In relating this to Hamlet, a MASSIVE parallel in plot can be drawn between these two works, and that is of the villainous uncle, and because of this it can now be seen that maybe Hamlet’s reluctance of acting against his uncle came from the fact that it was his uncle. What is meant by this is that, in the beginning of The Lion King, young Simba is shown visiting his uncle constantly and telling him all about what his father taught him and what he was going to do when he was king, overall showing that Scar was someone he really looked up to and respected.
The same can be assumed for Hamlet that Claudius was once a man Hamlet respected, so when he received the news of his own uncle being the killer of his father, the actions that Hamlet should have taken became much harder because it was towards someone he knew trusted and respected when he was a kid. Now, moving on to the villainous archetype, Claudius is presented in the play as an insestuous, murderous swine; but was he always like that? And if he wasn’t what caused him to become like that? To find these answers, it can be looked to a certain film that focuses on the villain, how he is created, and why he believes he is not the villain, 2019’s Joker. This film follows the story of Aurther Fleck, who suffers from mental illness provoked by a delusional adopted mother, and strong physical and mental abuse when he was a child. The film follows the story of Aurther and shows how the pressures of being assimilated into stereotypical society and the constant pressure to act normal finally pushes him to his breaking point, turning him into the villainous joker that he is depicted as in the end of the film. A product of modern society.
Like Aurther, Claudius too could have been a product of his own society, the disappointment in always being second to the King his whole life, not getting the attention he deserved as a child, are all things not mentioned in the text of Hamlet and could only be brought to light when analyzing a story that focuses on that specific archetype and his/her motives. “…That cannot be, since I am still possess’d/Of those effects for which I did the murder-/My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen./May one be pardon’d and retain th’offence?” (Shakespeare 3.3.53-56) This citation outlines the fact that Claudius in fact does want to repent for his sins, but also wants to keep the rewards that he earned for his murder, being king, having a queen, and getting the attention and respect he believed he deserved. In the nature of this citation, it can clearly be seen that if it wasn’t for what the royal life had turned Claudius into, the insetuous murderous swine, he would not have killed his brother and would have been content with his life. All of Claudius and Hamlet’s actions can be justified and explained in thorough depth and detain, although not all of their motives were explained in the text of Hamlet, it can instead be understood through the representation of their archetypes in a popular culture film that focuses on the specific aspect archetype, as even though they are in totally different plots or stories, will still have the same characteristics and motives solely because they share the same characteristics as a specific character archetype.
To conclude, it has been shown that because Shakespeare’s Hamlet is so complex, with many layers of understanding, analyzing Hamlet as an archetype and how it is represented in popular culture today is necessary to truly understand what makes the play tragic, and why the characters act the way they do.