How can I compare and contrast The Great Gatsby and Hamlet?

There are numerous similarities between The Great Gatsby and Hamlet, many related to the central themes of power and class within a society. The two protagonists, Jay Gatsby and Prince Hamlet, have to face their individual internal struggles due to their position of birth and choices they make in their lives. The time periods in which each was written, 1600 for Hamlet and 1925 for The Great Gatsby, greatly influenced their themes and reception.

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The Great Gatsby and Hamlet are similar in that they both give us an insight into the often dysfunctional lives of the rich and powerful. We may, like Nick Garraway in Fitzgerald's story, find these people utterly repellent in so many respects. But at the same time, we cannot avoid finding them rather fascinating.

The kind of people we're dealing with are completely different than most of us, and this, more than anything else, is what makes them so compelling. Most of us like to be drawn into a world with which we are not familiar, and The Great Gatsby and Hamlet both do that with considerable aplomb.

A further interesting parallel between the two comes in the shape of their respective lead characters. Both Jay Gatsby and Prince Hamlet spend most of the time involved in a forlorn quest, a quest that ultimately leads them to tragedy. In the case of Gatsby, it's his quixotic quest for the hand of Daisy Buchanan that eventually, and by a very circuitous route, leads to his tragic, untimely demise.

As for Hamlet, he spends most of the play trying to settle accounts with his wicked stepfather/uncle Claudius for murdering his father. Yet this quest too leads to tragedy, as Hamlet dies at the tip of a poisoned sword.

In Hamlet, as with The Great Gatsby, we're presented with the tragic spectacle of two basically decent young men coming to grief through their inability to live in the world in which they find themselves.

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To begin, consider how The Great Gatsby and Hamlet are similar. They each have an eponymous male protagonist whose identity and personal conflict is specific to his class or station within society. Jay Gatsby is the adopted identity of James Gatz, a poor young man who leaves home to find wealth and prestige. In his quest, he falls in love with Daisy Fay, which only intensifies his desire to join the elite social circles to which she belongs. Prince Hamlet, the title character of Shakespeare's Hamlet, faces conflict as a result of his social standing and the power struggle for his late father's throne. He is also conflicted about his relationship with Ophelia, his love interest, in part because she is of a lower rank than he is.

There are also significant differences between the two works. To contrast them, begin by considering the time periods in which they were written. Shakespeare's Hamlet was written around 1600, whereas F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was written in 1925. Both are excellent representations of the literature of their respective eras, and both have been influential on works that followed. For example, the issue of internal struggle in Hamlet can be seen in reflected in works such as Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The Great Gatsby's depiction of the unfulfilled longing for the American Dream has influenced more recent works, such as Stephanie Powell Watts's novel No One Is Coming to Save Us.

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Hamlet's father is deceased, cruelly murdered by his own brother, while Gatsby figuratively "kills" his own father by changing his last name and telling everyone that his entire family is dead. Hamlet feels a strong loyalty to his father and takes up the challenge of avenging his death, while Gatsby likewise feels great loyalty to his father and pays off Mr. Gatz's home, attempting to render his life easier in the man's old age. In this way, they are both loving sons. Hamlet often feels as though he's being a coward for not acting more quickly or decisively to avenge his father's murder, and the fact that Gatsby never sees his family now that he has his new identity could allow us to surmise that he feels some guilt about this (and could provide the reason for his generosity toward his father).

Further, both Hamlet and Gatsby are unlucky in love: both are unsuitable mates for the women they love. Hamlet's lover, Ophelia, abandons him when her father tells her she must refuse Hamlet's romantic advances. Gatsby's lover, Daisy, abandons him when her husband makes a compelling case for why she ought to stay faithful to him. Both Ophelia's father, Polonius, and Daisy's husband, Tom, paint the women's love interests, Hamlet and Gatsby respectively, as unsuitable for a number of reasons. However, these reasons differ: Hamlet is too elevated in rank for Ophelia, while Gatsby is too low for Daisy.

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At first glance, it would appear F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and William Shakespeare's Hamlet are too dissimilar to warrant any kind of comparison. Upon further analysis, however, the two works do have some similarities. The Great Gatsby could be seen as a modern take on Shakespeare's tragic template; just as Hamlet is a member of the Danish royal family, Gatsby is also a member of a kind of royalty, one that draws its power from wealth and social fame. Therefore, Gatsby becomes a kind of modernist king, and so the arc of his downfall can be seen to parallel the downfall of tragic Shakespearean heroes like Hamlet. There are also reasons why Gatsby's love for Daisy, like Hamlet's love for Ophelia, is not considered a good idea by many of the characters, although the issue in The Great Gatsby is that Daisy is already married, while the concerns about Ophelia and Hamlet's relationship lie in the fact that Hamlet is a prince (Ophelia is not a member of royalty) and his seeming descent into insanity. Additionally, like Hamlet (and Lear, and most of Shakespeare's tragic protagonists), Gatsby possesses tragic flaws (such as an addiction to superficial, material wealth) that ultimately lead to his downfall. The comparison isn't perfect by any means, but it is intriguing to think of Gatsby as Fitzgerald's Americanized version of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. 

It's important to remember, however, that there are still many differences between the two works. Hamlet, for example, is at its core a tale of revenge, while Gatsby focuses on yearning for fulfillment and an exploration of the American Dream. Additionally, the forms of the two works are radically different: Fitzgerald's is a novel, while Shakespeare's is a play written primarily in verse. As such, while it's useful to try comparing the two pieces, it's also important to remember significant differences exist between them.  

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