Dysfunctional Families In “Hamlet” And “Death Of A Salesman”
For many decades, plays are themed around family dysfunction to help families in real life deal with their own relationships. According to Laurence Smardan in the journal article, “The Use of Drama In Teaching Family Relationships”, Greek plays were able to educate young people with the use of family drama and tragedy to teach aspects of interpersonal relationships within the family. Most family plays end on a realistic tragic note whether it is a death or traumatic experience affecting the family members. Many of the protagonists meant well to the people around them, although their actions may hurt others. Many people were afraid to talk about internal family issues they were dealing with back then so plays enabled a way to talk about controversial family issues. Two plays in particular, Hamlet and Death of a Salesman, show the main protagonist and the family members affected by their selfish actions. In Hamlet, the play shows two dysfunctional families torn apart by revenge and death of their fathers. In Arthur Miller’s, Death of a Salesman, it shows a father that is unable to accept his reality due to mental illness, creating a deep impact on his family relationships, especially to his sons. Analyzing both plays, I’ve determined the characters who are well meaning yet flawed, the characters who lack redeeming characteristics, the family who’s most functional, and the family who is the most dysfunctional.
In Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller, the father means well to his family, but he is very flawed not realizing his actions are causing harm to his family. Due to Willy being fatherless, he tried to find an identity in the only male figure in his life who is Ben, his older brother. Because of a need for a father figure, he seeks Ben for advice and approval on the way Willy is raising his two sons, Biff and Happy. Willy’s issues as a father stems from being a son himself with no father because he was abandoned by him as a child. Not only that but his brother disappeared as well, which made him lose his identity as a male. Not only is he struggling with the identity of being the best father figure to his sons, his constant nagging for his unrealistic idea of perfection begins to cause stress within his family. Although his role as a father wasn’t the best, and might’ve been interpreted as dysfunctional, his character means well for his family. He wanted ultimately to be loved and appreciated by his family members and wanted them to have a better life than he did.
Another aspect of Death of Salesman is that the real problem was the father and not really the wife and two sons. The two sons had relatively a good relationship with their mother, and had the intentions of visiting her, even though they both moved away. The main problem was that the mother didn’t like the fact that the two sons, especially Biff, went to the house to spend time only with his mother. In that case, the mother thought that if they weren’t there to also visit his father, that she would not allow that kind of disrespect. She said that if they come to visit, it’s for both of them, or else they shouldn’t visit at all. Later on, the mother starts explaining her reasons and slowly starts mentioning that Willy already made a few suicide attempts, and therefore that she was worried. Biff and Happy didn’t believe that Willy would do such a thing but Biff started believing that Willy was sick due to his actions.
The father was also not supportive with Biff and his work lifestyle. He had high expectations of him because of his physical characteristics and thought he could do better than work on a farm. According to Harold Bloom in Bloom’s Guides, “Biff can find satisfying work on Texas ranch but finds himself each spring suddenly ensnared in self doubt about not getting’ anywhere!”. This is because Willy made constant comments on manual work and even said “Even your grandfather was better than a carpenter…Go back to the West! Be a carpenter, a cowboy, enjoy yourself!”. This made Biff not have respect for manual labor and treat it as something worthless. Biff always thought Happy was doing better because Although Happy took the footsteps that his father suggested, he was still overall miserable. Happy tells Biff, “I don’t know what the hell I’m workin’ for. And still, goddamnit, I’m lonely. It seems like Happy is just constantly trying to please his father, and does as he says but he’s completely lost on in life. Although Happy is making decent money in the business, he is still confused due to the advice of his father. He thought following what his father said and being successful would allow him to reach a state of happiness, but unfortunately it didn’t work for him like that. He is actually unhappy, no matter how many women he is able to obtain and even mentions about wanting to find someone with substance.
In William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, it shows the events of a family gradually becoming dysfunctional after Old Hamlet dies, and his brother takes over the throne, causing a havoc of events. There’s negative and dark traits within in the family in the play are revealed to the audience as we get to know them. Each family member seeks revenge for their own justice which causes chain accidental deaths. The main character, Prince Hamlet lacks redeeming qualities because he is weakened by guilt from the death of his father and rejection from Ophelia, who is the love of his life. His goal is to kill Claudius, which is revealed that he killed his own brother, King Hamlet, through poison in his ear. Hamlet sees Claudius as evil, questionable, and selfish for marrying his father’s wife and he is incomparable to Old Hamlet. Hamlet accidentally kills Polonius, who is Laertes and Ophelia’s father, when he is trying to kill Claudius instead. Claudius tells Polonius’ son, Laertes, that Hamlet has killed his father, and he sets out to avenge his father’s death on Hamlet. Hamlet combines political corruption in the Danish court as well as the power of emotion in a family crisis. The characters in this play had a sense of unreality due to assumptions of being able to trust family members and those who are close to them. Hamlet’s delay for killing Claudius was due to his beliefs in Christianity, and he did not want to murder Claudius while he was praying because he wanted him to go straight to hell. It seems like Hamlet struggled with his Christian beliefs throughout the play and therefore, that was the main reason a lot of his actions were delayed. Hamlet’s ghost, constantly warns Hamlet to focus on his goal, but Hamlet is distracted and lags the killing of Claudius, therefore he is the source of the chain of deaths following his death.
The most functional family is the family in the play Death of a Salesman. Willy wanted more than just prospering with money, but instead he wanted to gain respect and honor in his home. He wanted to persevere the love of his sons, especially with Biff, who he had a troubling relationship with. All along, what Willy values the most was his family and being able to provide for them. Since most of Willy’s investments were in his own home, he was upset at the fact that no one was there to experience it with him and even began having thoughts that he failed as a father. It seems like most of the time, he’s seeking approval from family members, even Ben, a brother who was known to be more successful than he was. Because Willy doesn’t end up achieving his dreams, he thought his only escape will be suicide. In Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations, it says “he convinces himself that only his death can restore his prominence in his family’s eyes and retrieve for him his lost sense of honor”. Overall, death was the only option that Willy had in his mind in order to able to feel satisfied about being able bequeath his son Biff with money, and therefore proving that he was a good father after all.
The most dysfunctional family is “Hamlet” because the play tells the story of how the entire family ends up killing each other and is the result of their own selfish needs. Hamlet shows the viewpoint of the characters coping with the problems existing in their home. Hamlet seems unprepared to deal with his father’s sudden death, and his uncle’s marriage to his fathers wife. Laertes on the other hand, is shocked by his father’s murder which led to Ophelia’s death due to the depression of her father dying. Both sons react in a realistic manner that readers today may be able to relate their own family issues in relation to shock to sudden trauma. Hamlet is a popular play to read in High School and College. Some students may even sympathize with Hamlet’s family issues such as losing his father and taking revenge on family members through what they think is the best way to cope. They can feel empathy for Hamlet’s confusion, anger and also procrastination through personal life emotions and issues. The families in the play Hamlet are still dysfunctional because instead of solving these problems and talking it out, everyone was just planning each other’s death. As each person in the story kept dying, the revenge for one another became worse. After Ophelia’s sudden death, the tragic event pushed Hamlet over the edge and he had even more of a reason to “have bloody thoughts” and kill Claudius.
In conclusion, although both of these families seem to be dysfunctional, Hamlet takes the title for it being the worst dysfunctional family. In Death of a Salesman, Willy, who is the father, is the main problem in the family. This causes the whole dynamic of the family to be dysfunctional, because he’s separating them and also making his sons feel lost about their direction in life. The mother on the other hand tried keeping the family together, as long as Willy could also be part of it. In Hamlet however, the families involved all seemed to be seeking revenge on one another, which lacks the love and the unity of a family that’s functional. They are constantly against each other, and lacked the communication they needed, which leads to the tragedy of most of them dying. In the end no one in the families of the play Hamlet, survive because of their greed and need for power.
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