Compare the conflicts of Hamlet in Shakespeare's Hamlet and Willy Loman in Miller's Death of a Salesman.

Quick answer:

Willy and Hamlet are two men who both face difficult choices in life. The world has changed around them, and neither man is able to adapt to the changes. Both men are haunted by their pasts, but Willy seems unable to move beyond that point. As a result, he dies at the end of Miller's play. Hamlet, on the other hand, is able to make some progress in his life—particularly when he learns that an act of revenge can be accomplished without having to live through the pain himself—but he too dies as a result of his inability to deal with the world around him.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Both Hamlet and Death of a Salesman are tragedies. Shakespeare's play, however, is in the Aristotelian tradition. The hero must be a person of the highest rank, because the audience will only care about what happens to an important person. Common people are only fit subjects for comedy. Death of a Salesman is about the tragedy of a common man. This is a deliberate departure from one of Aristotle's rules in his Poetics. With regard to this difference, Arthur Miller himself stated:

Aristotle having spoken of a fall from the heights, it goes without saying that someone of the common mold cannot be a fit tragic hero. It is now many centuries since Aristotle lived. There is no more reason for falling down in a faint before his Poetics than before Euclid’s geometry, which has been amended numerous times by men with new insights; nor, for that matter, would I choose to have my illnesses diagnosed by Hippocrates rather than the most ordinary graduate of an American medical school, despite the Greek’s genius. Things do change, and even a genius is limited by his time and the nature of his society.

Arthur Miller is one of many modern playwrights who proved that Aristotle was often wrong about drama and does not have to be revered and obeyed religiously. Most modern theater goers would agree that they have more sympathy for Willy Loman than for Hamlet or any other the other kings, queens, princes, and elite characters in Greek tragedy or in Shakespeare. What Hamlet and Willy Loman have in common is that they both die tragic deaths. But we relate more to Willy Loman and therefore experience what Aristotle specified as another requirement of tragedy: the combined emotions of pity and terror. What happened to Willy could happen to all of us--and often does!

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Both of these characters have to face conflict that is both internal and external. If the character of Hamlet is examined, it is clear that his conflict in Act I scene 2 is internal. He is struggling massively with his feelings of grief at the death of his father and also his anger at his mother at having re-married so swiftly. This makes him feel that the world is pointless and without worth:

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on't, ah fie, fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed...

However, what introduces the external conflict to the play is the Ghost, who suddenly places Hamlet in a conflict with Claudius which he cannot ignore, although he does his best to procrastinate as much as possible.

In the same way, Willy Loman's principle conflict is internal. He struggles with his delusions and he likewise struggles to maintain his sanity, constantly returning to the past in his own imagination. However, at the same time, his inability to accept himself for who he is and also accept his boys for who they are brings him into conflict with Biff, primarily. Note what he says to Linda about Biff's life in Act I:

How can he find himself on a farm? Is that a life? A farmhand? In the beginning, when he was young, I thought, well, a young man, it's good for him to tramp around, take a lot of different jobs. But it's more than ten years now and he has yet to make thirty-five dollars a week!

It is Willy's high ideals for himself and for Biff that create the source of the external conflict, as Biff tries to get his father to see him, love him and accept him for who he is, rather than what he isn't.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Compare and contrast the development of the two characters: "Willy Loman" from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, and Hamlet, from Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Willy Loman is the main character in Miller's Death of a Salesman, and Hamlet is the main character in Shakespeare's play of the same name.

Superficially, both seem to have little in common. Both men are struggling to survive in a life that has become overwhelming for each. Willie is living in the past, and finds that the world is a place he no longer recognizes. Hamlet, upon discovering that his father has been murdered, also sees the world as a foreign place that is in great part unknown to him. Both men "see dead people" that were dear to them in life: Willy sees his dead brother Ben, and has conversations with him—though these are probably delusions. Hamlet sees the ghost of his dead father, and based upon the time it was written, the presence of the supernatural in the play was not out of place: the audience would have believed it was real.

However, the men are very different in many ways. Willy is married with two children; Hamlet is single. Willy is a workingman, while Hamlet is a prince. Willy is struggling to get by in a world that has changed faster than he can keep up. Hamlet has been charged by his dead father's ghost to avenge his murder.

But, both characters develop based upon major conflicts they face. In each case, these men fail to survive the struggles they encounter. One quote from Miller's play seems to capture the essence of the difficulty in life of each man:'s better for a man just to walk away.

But if you can't walk away?

I guess that's when it's tough.

Willie is unable to walk away from a career that has moved forward without him. In the same way, Hamlet's father exacts his son's promise to make Claudius pay for murdering Old Hamlet. The act of revenge will not bring Old Hamlet back. In fact, it ultimately destroys each relationship Hamlet has, costing him his life—simply because Hamlet believes he does not have the option of walking away.

Both men struggle to survive, but suicide is an important element in the lives of each character. Willy attempts suicide several times, however it is only at the play's end that he is finally successful. Hamlet also considers suicide, but his belief that God has outlawed such an act stops him from carrying out his wish to end his life.

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

As each man moves forward in the play, his attempts to adapt to the heartaches he faces become overwhelming, leading each to his destruction. Willy is increasingly involved in the past, speaking to his dead brother and unable to connect with his wife, sons or friends.

Hamlet is in the same circumstance: he alienates Ophelia and Laertes; he has accidentally killed Polonius; his relationship with is mother is mended, but he has made Claudius suspicious. By the end, Willy feels completely cut off from those closest to him. For Hamlet, Claudius (in the end) kills almost everyone Hamlet has ever cared about, either by poisoning them or causing the deterioration of Hamlet's good judgment (which results in Polonius' death and Ophelia's loss of sanity and, later, her death).

Willy Loman and Hamlet seem to embrace death. Willy succeeds after repeated attempts to take his life. Hamlet has grown weary of life, and, like Willy, does not rage against the end of his life as one might suspect. Dramatically, both are tragic figures that die.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on