What is a common theme between George Orwell's 1984 and William Shakespeare's Hamlet?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

George Orwell's novel 1984 and William Shakespeare's play Hamlet do not, at first, appear to have much in common. A closer look, however, reveals that both of the protagonists in this work suffer because they live in worlds that are out of order.

Winston lives in Oceania, a place which is both unchanging in its monotony and ever-changing due to the capriciousness of the Party and Big Brother. In WInston's world, what is true and real today may not be true or real tomorrow--or even ten minutes form now. It is a disconcerting world for Winston because he has not relinquished control of his mind to the Party (at least not for a time) and he knows what he sees and hears is in conflict with reality and truth. Winston struggles with how to cope in this world, and he chooses to live a secret life as an act of defiance toward the Party and an act of sanity for himself. 

Cut off from contact with the outer world, and with the past, the citizen of Oceania is like a man in interstellar space, who has no way of knowing which direction is up and which is down. The rulers of such a state are absolute, as the Pharaohs or the Caesars could not be. They are obliged to prevent their followers from starving to death in numbers large enough to be inconvenient, and they are obliged to remain at the same low level of military technique as their rivals; but once that minimum is achieved, they can twist reality into whatever shape they choose.

Hamlet's world is also in disorder. He has come back to his familiar Denmark from school to find that everything is changed--his father has been murdered and his mother has hastily wed her dead husband's brother, the man who killed King Hamlet, as we discover. Hamlet does not know how to act in these unfamiliar and rather surreal circumstances; his parents tell him to stop pretending to mourn, his friends want him to go talk to a ghost (the ghost of his father, no less), and his friend tells him not to trust his instincts. He struggles to find truth in the middle of such chaos. 

After talking to his father's ghost, Hamlet relinquishes his mind, in a sense, by announcing that he will be putting on an "antic disposition." After that it is a struggle for anyone to know whether what Hamlet says is real, and even Hamlet seems to be confused at times. He retreats into the world of madness, feigned or not, as an act of defiance against Claudius, usurper king of Denmark. Knowing what is truth and what is a lie, what is false and what is reality, is one of Hamlet's major internal conflicts in the play. 

Both Winston and Hamlet inhabit worlds in which truth and reality are changeable and are therefore disorderly; each man tries to maintain his sanity by retreating, one into a secret hideaway and the other into madness.