How does the presence, or intrusion, of the past in William Shakespeare's Hamlet and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman heighten the dramatic effect of tragedy within each drama?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The past permeates Arthur Miller's tragedy Death of a Salesman. It hangs over the proceedings, casting a pallor over the story of an aging traveling salesman who never finds the success he envisioned and whose grown sons exhibit every indication of being unproductive members of society. Miller's play features a number of flashbacks, or scenes from the past, often depicting Willy's interactions with his then-young sons, such as when the boys, Biff and Happy, are washing Willy's car, the father instructing his sons on the finer points of the activity, or when advising the handsome, athletic Biff to eschew serious relationships with girls until he is older. The most important such reference to the past, however, involves the shadow hanging over Willy and Biff's relationship. Late in Act II, Miller shows a scene that illuminates the tense relationship and explains some of Biff's criticisms of Willy. The scene in question depicts a young Biff surprising Willy at a hotel, only to discover his father with another woman.

Willy's extramarital affair illuminates the extent of the aging salesman's hypocrisy. Throughout Death of a Salesman, Willy lectures Biff and, to a lesser extent, Happy, about the responsibilities of adulthood and the need to be well-liked as a key to success in the world. Biff is ashamed of himself. He has ventured to the city to visit his father because he has failed math and is unlikely to graduate. He urges his father to intercede on his behalf with the professor:

Biff: You gotta talk to him before they close the school. Because if he saw the kind of man you are, and you just talked to him in your way, I'm sure he'd come through for me.... Would you talk to him? He'd like you, Pop.

Biff, yet to discover that his father is cheating on his mother, still views Willy with a degree of admiration. The discovery of "The Woman" in Willy's hotel room, however, destroys not just Biff's image of his father but their relationship forever. The conflict that exists throughout Death of a Salesman between Willy and Biff is little understood until this defining scene from the past.

If Willy's extramarital affair casts a pallor over Miller's play, the past similarly dominates Shakespeare's tragedy. Hamlet is about a young Danish prince whose father was murdered by his uncle, who ascended to the throne while taking as his wife the existing queen, Hamlet's mother and widow of the murdered monarch. Hamlet is ignorant of the cause of his father's death until his fateful encounter with the ghost, who instructs the young man to avenge his murder, a "murder most foul."

Unlike the revelation of Willy's infidelity late in Miller's play, the revelation that Hamlet's father has been murdered by his uncle--"The serpent that did sting thy father's life now wears his crown"--occurs early in the play, specifically, in Act I, Scene V. If the revelation of the murder occurs early in Hamlet, however, it dominates the ensuing action. Hamlet's enlightenment regarding the recent past drives his conspiratorial actions intended to trick King Claudius, his uncle/stepfather, into exposing his guilt.

The past is a vital component of both Shakespeare's and Miller's tragedies. Betrayal is a common theme that drives the atmosphere in which both plays take place.

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