What persuasive argument(s) might prove that the texts 1984 and Hamlet have powerful themes? [George Orwell's 1984 and William Shakespeare's Hamlet]

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Arguably, 1984 and Hamlet, deal with existential themes as both protagonists contemplate their individual identities within their environments. Here are some aspects of each work that can be considered:

  • Alienation

Both Winston Smith and Hamlet--albeit much more complex a personage--are alienated in their societies. In the exposition of 1984, for instance, Winston finds himself forced to create a facade; as he makes his way through the street of "gorilla-faced guards," under the scrutiny of telescreens, he

...set his features into the expression of quiet optimism which it was advisable to wear when facing the telescreen.

Unable to trust anyone, Winston feels himself alone. However, he finds solace in writing in a book he has secretly purchased, a book of "peculiar" beauty found in a junk shop, a relic of a time in which the expression of the soul was not dead. It is in this diary that Winston bares his soul, venting his hatred of Big Brother and his feelings "in sheer panic," but also in the desperate need to express himself freely as a thinking man.

Similarly, Hamlet feels himself alone in the corrupt court of Denmark where he, too, is watched by the sycophants of the usurper, King Claudius. To Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern Hamlet presents a facade, but his soliloquies are the private expressions of his inner being as he vents his hatred for Claudius and his disgust with his mother, that "pernicious woman" as well as his own self-examination. In his first soliloquy, for example, after having spoken with his father's ghost, interestingly, Hamlet uses the metaphor of "book" for his consciousness:

Remember thee [King Hamlet]?
....thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter.(1.5.97-103) 

Further in the two narratives, both Winston and Hamlet become confused and disturbed by their alienation. This emotional turbulence within them causes Winston to seek a surcease of his angsts with Julia, who shares his psychological rebellion against the tyranny of their government. He commits these "thoughtcrimes" in his diary and with Julia knowing that he will be arrested and tortured if caught. But, without this expression of his humanity, Winston is bereft. In Chapter II of Part Two, the first contact of Winston with Julia is especially poignant as he cannot feel many natural impulses at first with her because of the alienation from feeling that has so long been imposed upon him. In Hamlet, the paranoia that develops from his mistrust and its resulting alienation leads him, also, to a confusion of feelings ranging from deep melancholy, paranoia, and rage. Finally, he, too, rebels and follows a course of action.

  • Fatality

In both protagonists, there is a sense of the tragic state of their lives as the meaninglessness of life and the imminent presence of death is clearly in the minds of these men.  While Winston Smith cannot not possess the depth of introspection of the perspicacious and deeply poetic Hamlet because of the world in which he has been thrown after the disappearance of his mother, he, nevertheless, has an innate understanding of the fatality of one's inner being in Oceania that can only find expression by breaking the law. Throughout Shakespeare's play, not completely unlike Winston, Hamlet wrestles with the concepts of freedom, meaning in life, and nihilism. For, he, too, realizes as does Winston, that only in challenging death can he find meaning to his life.