Create two persuasive arguments relating to the thematic topic of power in George Orwell's 1984 and William Shakespeare's Hamlet. 

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are two ways to define something: by what it is and what it is not. In William Shakespeare's Hamlet and George Orwell's 1984, both power and powerlessness are presented.

Big Brother is obviously the embodiment of power in 1984. He is the figurehead, the face, of the Party, and his image is everywhere. The Party, through Big Brother, has the literal power of life and death, but it also has the power to change, create, and erase truth. There is no greater power than Big Brother except the power of the human mind to resist--and even that is taken away from Winston by the end of the novel. Despite his determination to fight, he is powerless to control anything, not even his own thoughts.

Hamlet's situation is not the same as Winston's because he does, in general terms, have the freedom to think and act as he pleases. He has the power over life and death (which he contemplates often), but then, so do Claudius (who takes his own brother's life) and Ophelia (who takes her own life). While he has complete power to seek revenge, Hamlet is powerless to act. He is able to commit second-hand murder (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and accidental murder (Polonius), but he is powerless to do the one thing he knows he must do. 

One argument regarding the theme you mention in these two works is that having power but being powerless to act is the same (just as bad) as having no power at all. While it is true that perhaps Hamlet has the satisfaction of knowing he accomplished his task, he dies moments later and as a direct result of his inability to act. 

An argument can also be made that being powerless and having power can both lead to despair. Winston does not want to live in a world where he is powerless have his own thoughts, and Hamlet is tormented by knowing he has the power to kill Claudius but cannot bring himself to do it. These protagonists each suffer: one from the effects of power exerted upon him and the other from his own sense of powerlessness. 

Orwell describes powerlessness this way:

“If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.” 

While this applies directly to Winston, Hamlet would undoubtedly have understood.