Comparative Study of Protagonists – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Hamlet
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 therefore, 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, the 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 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 behaviour 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 thus the revenge begins. It is apparent to him what is occurring to the patients and to himself; he will no longer allow it to continue:
“The iron in his boot heels cracked lightning out of the tile. He was the logger again, the swaggering gambler, the big redheaded brawling Irishman, the cowboy out of the TV set walking to me a dare.”
The common theme in each plot is a rise against tyranny in defence of one’s honour to defeat the evil repressor. Despite their different methods, it was the eventuality of revenge that drove Hamlet and McMurphy onward to the brutal end of it all.
Although McMurphy disguises it with ignorance and Hamlet flaunts it in his wit, another striking resemblance is the aptitude of these two characters. A consequential parallel between them is also their use of this intellect to set and trap the other characters. McMurphy does this with interest in personal gain, as he often manoeuvres the other patients into betting against him when unbeknownst to them, the odds are in McMurphy’s favour:
“He let the odds stack up, and sucked them in deeper and deeper till he had five to one on a sure thing from every man of them, some of them betting up to twenty dollars.”
Hamlet as well manipulates for personal gain, though he is not monetary. He plots to fulfil the need for absolute certainty; his is a plot for information. Certainly, the best example of this is the influence Hamlet uses on the play staged by the travelling theatre company. His insistence the players perform “The Murder of Gonzago”, a show that eerily shadows the method used by Claudius himself to murder Hamlet’s father. The purpose of this is to discover if indeed the ghost of the late king was honest, and if there indeed is treason in Denmark:
I prithee, when thou seest that act a foot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen
Both Hamlet and McMurphy’s exploits to eventually contribute to their respective downfalls. To examine this aspect we must observe the similarities in the antagonist of the two pieces. Ratchet and Claudius are each in high positions of power and are cunningly deceptive. They likewise resent the protagonist in an understated manner, and out of fear of revealing their own guilt, do they maintain this understatement in all public matters. As both Hamlet and McMurphy become more convinced of their nemesis’ guilt, they each become more assertive. Both Ratchet and Claudius begin to feel fouled; they are compelled out of fear for their own well being and fear of being disclosed into exerting the pressure their power allows them. Claudius expresses it best in Act 4, Scene 3:
Do it, England,
For like the hectic in my blood, he rages,
And thou must cure me.
By accounting for every aspect except the power or their foes, Hamlet and McMurphy inevitably fell victim to these tyrants.
Still another likeness in both men is their relationships with the women they are associated with. Each has a distinct interest in young girls. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this aspect of McMurphy’s character is proven early in the story during his first group meeting. As the doctor outlines McMurphy’s history of petty crimes, gambling and fighting, special attention is paid to the statutory rape charge. McMurphy describes it as “overzealous…sexual relations”, but it is unavoidable that the girl he was involved with was only of age fifteen. We have learned only moments before that McMurphy is thirty-five, displaying what is perhaps one of his most despicable traits. The identical quality can be found in Hamlet, though disguised by the setting, it becomes less apparent. Ophelia is barely a woman. Although only speculation can be done to what exact age this girl is, her innocent embodiment of the romantic notion womanhood proves her very childish. Hamlet’s age is revealed by his conversation with the gravediggers in Act 5, Scene 1. The sexton says that he has held his position since the birth of the prince, thirty years ago. The only true discrepancy between the actions of McMurphy and those of Hamlet is that in the days of the latter, there was no issue of legality. Yet another issue both heroes have with the female gender that is a prominent characteristic in each is a lack of respect for women in authority. The question must be raised that if Nurse Ratchet had not been a woman, would McMurphy have acted as he did? There was significance to his exposure of her breast in the climax of the novel as she was forever weakened by the exhibition of her sex. Ratchet “could no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman.” Queen Gertrude is viewed similarly by Hamlet. “O most pernicious woman!” he says of his mother. His intimidating behaviour in her bedroom shows that he thinks himself the superior:
Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge.
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
Possibly their relationships with females in powerful positions reflect on their use of non-threatening girls as objects of sexual desire. Although there is a lack of absolute evidence to this effect, it surely deserves contemplation. The most uncanny resemblance between the two characters in question, I found was how each feigned insanity to avoid liability. Hamlet says to his close friends Marcellus and Horatio in the first act of the play:
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some’er I bear myself
(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put antic disposition on)
That you, at such times seeing me never shall…
That you know aught of me- this do swear
Despite the school of thought that believes Hamlet is truly insane, I felt this passage, establishing premeditation, adequately proves he was only posing as a lunatic. Further proof to this effect is also how Hamlet only acts absurd in front of Polonius and Claudius. His conduct is otherwise rather sane. This is similar to the role McMurphy’s assumes, although in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest there is only an insinuation to this, and it is not proven. The file that holds all information regarding McMurphy, contains a note from the doctor at his previous institution suggesting the “possibility that this man might be feigning psychosis to escape the drudgery of the work farm”. Like Hamlet, McMurphy also only carries himself in the manner of a mentally incompetent person in front of certain people. For instance, he shows astounding sensibility in his dealings with Chief Bromden, and how he made him “grow”:
“To hell with what you think; I want to know can you promise to lift it if I get you as big as you used to be? You promise me that, and you not only get my special body-building’ course for nothing but you get yourself a ten buck fishing trip free!”
Hamlet and McMurphy both have a common use for employing this disguise of mental disorder as it allows them to avoid obligation. An excellent example of this is in Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, where Hamlet comically eludes the king’s questioning:
KING: Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
HAMLET: At supper.
KING: At supper where?
HAMLET: Not where he eats but where he is eaten. A certain convocation of political worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor diet. We fat all creature else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable services- two dishes but to one table. That’s the end.
McMurphy also uses the identical technique of avoiding interrogation with wit:
” ‘And what do you think about that, Mr McMurphy?’
‘Doctor’ -he stands up to his full height, wrinkles his forehead, and holds out both arms, open and honest to all the wide world- ‘do I look like a sane man?'”
Our two protagonists take a cunning approach to dodging such questioning, and in the process, they also induce the pity of others (“O, help him sweet heavens!”).
The death of McMurphy and Hamlet is imperative to the story as this is what defines a tragedy. Despite their inevitable downfall, what makes these two characters successful is that they were given the proper credit after their demise. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief Bromden’s suffocation of McMurphy is an appropriate eulogy as it allows him to die with honour. Hamlet is also distinguished in his passing as he is giving a military burial. Each of these acts shows that the secondary characters recognize the nobility of the heroes. There is also a certain impact evident by the conviction with which the living esteem the dead. They acknowledge that McMurphy triumphantly overthrew Nurse Ratchet’s throne and that Hamlet righted what was “rotten in the state of Denmark.”
As anti-heroes, the parallels between Hamlet and McMurphy are innumerable; this is intriguing considering one text was written four centuries after the other. These two characters show us that like “the devil hath the power to assume a pleasing shape”, good sometimes disguises itself as an uncouth rogue or an obnoxious young man. That a modern story such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can be so precisely related to an unquestionable tragedy, proves that modern fictionists are indeed capable of writing this form of literature. The success of this novel as a play and as a film also attests to this. It seems that characters such as R.P.McMurphy are suitable to audiences in the twentieth century, because the ruling aristocrats of Shakespearean tragedy are unfamiliar, and do not represent the modern person. Perhaps, it is also that contemporary audiences enjoy seeing the underdog prevail, because it instils hope and inspiration. Both of these texts are fabulous works of art, and although they are geared to different audiences at different points in history, this only enhances them as it allows us to examine ourselves. We do this not through the literature itself, but through the people, it is targeted at. From this, we can observe how the human race has reached where we stand today.