A Comparison of Hamlet and Mcmurphy in "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nes

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A Comparison of Hamlet and McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

It is suggested that in modern literature, the true element of tragedy is not captured because the protagonist is often of the same social status as the audience, and therefor, his downfall is not tragic. This opinion, I find, takes little consideration of the times in which we live. Indeed, most modern plays and literature are not about monarchs and the main character is often equal to the common person; this, however, does not mean the plot is any less miserable nor the outcome any less wretched. The first work I have chosen proves this fact. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a first novel by Ken Kesey published in 1962, is a contemporary tragedy describing the downfall of a rigidly administered ward in a mental institution led by the rebellion of a new admission. The work I have chosen to compare this novel to is the classic play by William Shakespeare, Hamlet. There is an intimate relationship between these to works beyond that they are both tragedies; the protagonist in each lacks conventional hero qualities. Both Hamlet and R.P. McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, can be defined as anti-heroes making these two pieces comparable for study.

To examine the aspect of anti-heroes in tragedy, and how this relates to the characters of R.P.McMurphy and Hamlet, an analysis of the motivation of each is necessary. Motivation is the source of all action, and only in this area these two characters similar to a traditional protagonist. As the character himself evolves through the course of the plot, so do their motives. Hamlet and McMurphy begin at different points with different purposes, but soon meet with a common incentive. For Hamlet, this initial impulse is derived from his embitterment towards his mother for remarrying so soon after his father's death and for selecting her late husband's brother Claudius, as her second partner. In a witty statement to his closest friend Horatio, he expresses his indignation; "The funeral baked meats/ Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables." Entirely unrelated, is McMurphy's need to be "top man". This is the original driving force that inspires him to challenge Nurse Ratchet, the antagonist, for her authority in the ward. In his first appearance in the novel, McMurphy's conduct brands him as a leader in his provocation of the other patients. "It's my first day, and what I like to do is make a good impression straight off on the right man if he can prove to me he is the right man," says McMurphy in an equally witty, yet less subtle passage then Hamlet's comments about his mother's wedding.

It is their behavior in the latter half of each story, that ties these two together. Revenge becomes a common prompt. For Hamlet, this is simply avenging his father's death after much contemplation and indecision. Until this point, doubt and procrastination had him deterred from any action against Claudius. Painfully stagnant deliberation and an inspiring encounter with Fortinbras' army (Act 4, Scene 4), finally persuaded Hamlet to assert himself. He cries at the close of this scene, "O, from this time forth/ My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!" A similar turning point in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest comes after McMurphy too suffers through a period of reflection. For some time he had been "doing the smart thing" and conforming Nurse Ratchet's rules in hopes that his committal would be lifted. This episode allows McMurphy time to contemplate his predicament: "He's got that same puzzled look on his face like there's something isn't right, something he can't put his finger on." The turning point arrives as Ratchet decides to take advantage of McMurphy's subdued state, and reclaim her exclusive access to the "game's room". The room is symbolic of her power of the whole ward, and her sly manipulation of them all. McMurphy realizes this with her attempted repossession, and...
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