There’s a very good reason the most widely published books in history were works of fiction, chronicling the tales of ordinary men locked in an often fatal battle with a fellow man or a supernatural monster. While non-fiction can express revolutionary ideas, it is fiction that captures the nuances of those ideas and imbues them in an ageless magic that enables them to last through centuries of change. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Miller’s Death of a Salesman were written hundreds of years apart, but man’s struggle for power over his own life remains constant. What changes is the stadium in which the battle takes place and the monsters which represent the actualization of this conflict in physical, palpable entities.
Theatre’s capacity to combine the written word, visual arts, and sensory experience into one facilitates a story to emerge that represent an overarching tension. In Hamlet, the prince’s struggle for power over his own destiny becomes his conflict with his father’s ghost. Willy Loman’s struggle is actualized in his battle with his boss Howard. Both plays orchestrate these battles by establishing the dynamics of power through stage directions, clarifying character motivations through tematic patterns, and portraying the ensuing tension through the use of the set and theatrical effects.
For the audience’s benefit, a drama’s first role is to establish the dynamics of the power relationships between the two sparring characters using dialogue and characterization. In both plays, Hamlet and Willy Loman face an internal struggle: their visions of their life purposes is at odds with that which the world seems to have in store for them. Having been written nearly 500 years apart, however, the real-life monsters are quite different; Hamlet’s decisions are challenged by the contrary wishes of his dead father’s ghost, while the everyday man Willy Loman engages in a dispute over his salary and job responsibilities with his boss Howard.
The first technique that establishes Hamlet and Willy Loman in positions of lower power is the mere authority of their opponents. Old King Hamlet is a king and Hamlet’s father, and Howard is not only a prominent businessman but also owns expensive technology and employs a maid to clean his house. These qualities ensure that our main characters are immediately humbled in their presence.
Furthermore, King Hamlet and Howard exploit that power by dominating the conversations in which they appear on stage. Hamlet himself bows down before his father in acceptance of his lower status, saying, “speak, I am bound to hear”. Howard, in a more 20th century approach, frequently interrupts Willy Loman in his show of power. In their conversation, Willy’s attempts to steer the topic of discussion to his request are cut short by Howard’s anecdotes from his personal life.
Finally, and to bring home the internal nature of power conflicts in the plays, it is only the main character who ultimately gets to interact with the theatrical embodiment of their superiors. Being a ghost, Old King Hamlet primarly communicates with Hamlet. Similarly, Howard’s scene alone in a room with Willy is his only appearance in the play. Thus, in both plays, the power balances between a powerful and a powerless are established through the dialogue and characterization of Old King Hamlet’s ghost and Howard.
Furthermore, the plays clarify the motivations of either side in the power conflicts through the characters’ thoughts and actions, and portrays the tension by employing thematic patterns of freedom throughout. In Hamlet, Old King Hamlet’s power combined with Hamlet’s own powerlessness causes him significant agony. His ultimate question, “to be or not to be” is a cry at the pressures he faces. More than anything, he wants to be free of the burden of truth and the heavy task of avenging his father’s death by becoming a murderer himself. His destiny is no longer his – he is powerless, and Hamlet expresses the inconsequentiality of his own desires when he says, “if it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not come, it will be now […] the readiness is all”. (Shakespeare 5.2)
Similarly, Willy Loman’s current career predicament and his path in life is at odds with what he truly desires – the latter being evident in his many recollections of past successful and liked salesmen. He builds up an image for himself in which, “Selling was the greatest career a man could want”. (Miller Act 2) However, his inability to change his situation in life puts him in a position in which Howard fires him from the firm he has worked at for thirty-four years. Thus, the repeated motifs of freedom depict something that both main characters desire but are unable to attain because of their lack of power over their lives.
Finally, the tensions that ensue as a result of an externalized struggle for power represents the climaxes of the plays and are highlighted through theatrical effects. In Hamlet, the atmosphere which accompanies Old King Hamlet’s appearances is anything but warm and relaxed. When he first appears to hamlet, Horatio states, “it is a nipping and eager air”. (Shakespeare 1.4) When the Ghost appears during Hamlet’s conversation with his mother, he says, “Look you how pale he glares./ His form and cause conjoined”. (Shakespeare 3.4)
In Death of a Salesman, the scene between Willy and Howard is equally tense and supernatural. Not only does the recording machine turn on accidentally as soon as Howard leaves the room, but a light appears on Howard’s chair that is described as “very bright and strange”. (Miller Act 2) Both plays make use of Howard and Old King Hamlet as the embodiment of a far greater power which conflicts with the powerless desires of our main characters. However, as tension ensues, expressionist theatrical effects depict what is in actuality an internal struggle.
Therefore, through the use of stage directions to establish the dynamics of power, thematic patterns to clarify character motivations, and theatrical effects to portray tension, both Hamlet and Death of a Salesman take audiences through an internal struggle that is acted out on stage. Though they are set centuries apart and inevitably have very different types of characters that embody the struggle of man to obtain power of autonomy in his own life, both plays present a very similar battle. In the end, there must be a powerful and a powerless – whether this dynamic takes the shape of kings and their subjects, supernatural beings and mortals, or bosses and employees – it is an undeniable source of turmoil in our lives. The dramas of Hamlet and Willy Loman represent man’s aspiration for greatness. It is a status that is achieved by gaining power and control over one’s own life, and one which, in both cases, is only actualized with both characters’ deaths.
Miller, Arthur, and Gerald Clifford Weales. Death of a Salesman. Penguin Books, 1996.
Shakespeare, William, and Roma Gill. Hamlet. Oxford University Press, 2001.