A Comparison of Hamlet and McMurphy in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo\'s Nest"


It is suggested that in modern literature, the true element of tragedy
is not captured because the protagonist is often of the same social status as
the audience, and therefor, his downfall is not tragic. This opinion, I find,
takes little consideration of the times in which we live. Indeed, most modern
plays and literature are not about monarchs and the main character is often
equal to the common person; this, however, does not mean the plot is any less
miserable nor the outcome any less wretched. The first work I have chosen
proves this fact. One Flew Over the Cuckoo\'s Nest, a first novel by Ken Kesey
published in 1962, is a contemporary tragedy describing the downfall of a
rigidly administered ward in a mental institution led by the rebellion of a new
admission. The work I have chosen to compare this novel to is the classic play
by William Shakespeare, Hamlet. There is an intimate relationship between
these to works beyond that they are both tragedies; the protagonist in each
lacks conventional hero qualities. Both Hamlet and R.P. McMurphy in One Flew
Over the Cuckoo\'s Nest, can be defined as anti-heroes making these two pieces
comparable for study.
To examine the aspect of anti-heroes in tragedy, and how this relates to
the characters of R.P.McMurphy and Hamlet, an analysis of the motivation of each
is necessary. Motivation is the source of all action, and only in this area
these two characters similar to a traditional protagonist. As the character
himself evolves through the course of the plot, so do their motives. Hamlet and
McMurphy begin at different points with different purposes, but soon meet with a
common incentive. For Hamlet, this initial impulse is derived from his
embitterment towards his mother for remarrying so soon after his father\'s death
and for selecting her late husband\'s brother Claudius, as her second partner.
In a witty statement to his closest friend Horatio, he expresses his
indignation; "The funeral baked meats/ Did coldly furnish forth the marriage
tables." Entirely unrelated, is McMurphy\'s need to be "top man". This is the
original driving force that inspires him to challenge Nurse Ratchet, the
antagonist, for her authority in the ward. In his first appearance in the novel,
McMurphy\'s conduct brands him as a leader in his provocation of the other
patients. "It\'s my first day, and what I like to do is make a good impression
straight off on the right man if he can prove to me he is the right man," says
McMurphy in an equally witty, yet less subtle passage then Hamlet\'s comments
about his mother\'s wedding.
It is their behavior in the latter half of each story, that ties these
two together. Revenge becomes a common prompt. For Hamlet, this is simply
avenging his father\'s death after much contemplation and indecision. Until this
point, doubt and procrastination had him deterred from any action against
Claudius. Painfully stagnant deliberation and an inspiring encounter with
Fortinbras\' army (Act 4, Scene 4), finally persuaded Hamlet to assert himself.
He cries at the close of this scene, "O, from this time forth/ My thoughts be
bloody or be nothing worth!" A similar turning point in One Flew Over the
Cuckoo\'s Nest comes after McMurphy too suffers through a period of reflection.
For some time he had been "doing the smart thing" and conforming Nurse Ratchet\'s
rules in hopes that his committal would be lifted. This episode allows McMurphy
time to contemplate his predicament: "He\'s got that same puzzled look on his
face like there\'s something isn\'t right, something he can\'t put his finger on."
The turning point arrives as Ratchet decides to take advantage of McMurphy\'s
subdued state, and reclaim her exclusive access to the "game\'s room". The room
is symbolic of her power of the whole ward, and her sly manipulation of them all.
McMurphy realizes this with her attempted repossession, and thus the revenge
begins. It is apparent to him what is occurring to the patients and to himself;
he will no longer allow it to continue:

"The iron in his boot heels cracked lightening out of the tile. He was the
logger again, the swaggering gambler, the big redheaded brawling Irishman, the
cowboy out of the TV set walking to me a dare."

The common theme in each plot is a rise against tyranny in defense of one\'s
honor to defeat the evil repressor. Despite their different methods, it was the
eventuality of revenge that drove Hamlet and McMurphy onward to the brutal end
of it all.
Although McMurphy