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Compare and Contrast Shakespeare and Tennessee WilliamsEssay

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¶ … Shakespeare's Hamlet and Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire are both commonly thought of as tragic dramas. Each play is dominated by its protagonist -- the title character in Shakespeare's play, and Blanche du Bois in Williams's play -- and while each script is structured around a clearly-defined conflict with a central antagonist (Claudius, Stanley Kowalski), the biggest single factor that demands understanding these dramas as tragedies is the focus in each on the consciousness of the central protagonist. In Hamlet, the issue of consciousness is made explicit throughout the play, as when Hamlet, in his most famous soliloquy, describes how "the native hue of resolution ... sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought" (III.1 85-6). Here, the simple word "thought" -- which is a fair description of what Hamlet spends most of the play engaged in -- is described by metaphor as a sickness or disease. Hamlet's intellectual and almost bookish habits of mind, which in the soliloquy he blames for his failure to take action, are also responsible for the depth and eloquence of expression whereby the complications of his character can be articulated so elaborately. In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche du Bois exhibits a similar but contrasting sort of consciousness to that of Hamlet. No other character in the play has the level of verbal or cognitive adroitness that Blanche exhibits, which is comparable to Hamlet's position in Shakespeare. But if Hamlet's problem is an excess of self-awareness, Blanche presents a genuine point of contrast: her problem is diagnosed by Stanley with crude accuracy as "imagination!...And lies and conceit and tricks!" (123). On some deep level, Blanche may indeed have the same problem as Hamlet: her constant projection of a fictionalized persona, where "imagination and lies and conceit and tricks" serve to present a false image of Blanche to other people, indicates that she must actually have the same kind of excessive self-awareness that afflicts Hamlet. But how each character responds to this self-awareness exhibits some similarities but also crucial divergences. If both Hamlet and Blanche are alike in being driven close to insanity and in experiencing a horrified fascination with sexuality, they differ in how they approach other people. When Hamlet creates a drama, he does so with a troupe of actors, hoping that the costumes and artificial dialogue will ultimately uncover the truth. But when Blanche du Bois creates a drama, it is to put herself in costume and keep the truth at bay. This difference creates the biggest contrast between the two plays, even as both plays focus on a troubled, possibly sick psychology.

The idea that an excess of consciousness or awareness pushes the main protagonist close to insanity is central to both Hamlet and A Streetcar Named Desire. How each playwright handles this issue is very different, however. For a start, there is a question as to whether or not Hamlet actually does experience any real insanity, or if it is a kind of performance. The evidence offered in the play's text is ultimately somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, Hamlet does announce that he plans to feign insanity for strategic reasons, informing Horatio in case he "perchance hereafter shall think meet / to put an antic disposition on" (I.v.174-175). Additionally this is what Polonius suspects when he is sent by Claudius to investigate whether Hamlet has gone mad: "though this be madness, yet there is method in't ... How pregnant sometimes his replies are. A happiness that often madness hits on, which reason and sanity could not so prosperously be delivered of" (II.ii.-195-200). Although the famous phrase about having method in his madness sounds like Polonius has figured out that Hamlet is actually faking the insanity, it is crucial to realize that Polonius -- who is not in any case presented in the play as a wise or intelligent judge of anything -- does not actually indicate that he believes Hamlet to be sane. In point of fact, the full version of Polonius's response indicates that what he responds to is the almost poetic nature of Hamlet's "mad" talk, where real and cogent points are expressed through extravagant language. Polonius recognizes that Hamlet's mad talk does not seem meaningless, and in fact looks like barely-disguised insults aimed at Polonius himself. The more suggestive evidence that perhaps Hamlet is mad comes actually in the scene where he discusses the "antic disposition" with Horatio. The return of the Ghost, who tells Hamlet to make the others swear secrecy, is only perceptible to Hamlet, who responds to the Ghost on these occasions with bizarre-sounding language: "Ha, ha, boy! Sayst thou so? Art thou there truepenny?" (I.iv.152). The other characters do not seem to hear the ghost or react, and Hamlet's language in response to the Ghost continues to be bizarrely antic-sounding. This seems more significant when later in the play, in Act III Scene iv, the Ghost reappears as Hamlet is confronting Gertrude in the "closet scene": on this occasion, Hamlet reacts by crying out "Save me and hover o'er me with your wings, / You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure?" to which Gertrude responds "Alas, he's mad!" (III.iv.105-7). In other words, Gertrude does not see the Ghost, and reacts as though what Hamlet says is insane. The evidence of the play is ambiguous.

A Streetcar Named Desire treats Blanche's mental state differently, as the audience experiences her troubling thoughts in an expressionistic way: the use of the music cue of the "Varsouviana" heard when Blanche is in emotionally extreme situations has no such ambiguity, as it is clear that the other characters do not hear it. Only Blanche and the audience do. Also the meaning of this recurring motif is made clear in the text: this is the music that played on the night that Blanche's young husband committed suicide when she discovered he was secretly a homosexual and told him "You disgust me!" (92). The "Varsouviana" therefore has the weight of the kind of repetitive thought-patterns associated with traumatic events, suggesting that Blanche's psychological difficulties are almost a form of post-traumatic stress. But there is also another lurking meaning in the music, if we recognize that "Varsouviana" is a polka; in fact, "Varsouviana" is named after the city of Warsaw just as the polka is named after Poland itself. In the play, much is made of the fact that Blanche's antagonist Stanley Kowalski is a "Polack -- disgusting -- vulgar -- greasy" and therefore of a lower social class than Blanche or her sister Stella (103). Consequently, the fact that this recurrent music cue has strong associations with Poland also makes it feel not only like a traumatic flashback to the death of Blanche's husband, but also like an eerie fatalistic harbinger of the brutality with which Stanley will ultimately rape Blanche. As Stanley prefaces the rape by saying "We've had this date with each other from the beginning," the sense of fatalism is seemingly confirmed -- as though the "Varsouviana" was both flashback and foreshadowing simultaneously (130).

There are, of course, similarities, in how the troubled psychology of both Blanche and Hamlet are handled. Sexuality is one obvious arena, as Hamlet expresses a kind of fascinated disgust with the sexuality of his mother and women in general. We can see this in his famous speech to Ophelia where he tells her "get thee to a nunnery," suggesting that all sexual activity should be avoided (III.i.124). This tendency becomes even more lurid in his confrontation with Gertrude in the closet scene, where he berates her for "liv[ing] in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed / Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love / over the nasty sty" (III.iv.92-5.) With Blanche, we can see a contradictory attitude toward sex most clearly in her relationship with Mitch. She begins by playing elaborately prudish with Mitch, telling him "I liked the kiss very much. It was the other little -- familiarity -- that I -- felt obliged to -- discourage," suggesting Mitch touched her sexually and she stopped him (87). But the play gradually reveals that Blanche has come to New Orleans after a period of extreme promiscuity, where "intimacies with strangers was all I seemed able to fill my empty heart with" finding opportunities for promiscuous sex "even, at last, in a seventeen-year-old boy" (118). Blanche blames the promiscuity to the suicide of her homosexual husband, just like the "Varsouviana" music is linked to it, and it is worth noting that the suicide was prompted by Blanche's expression of disgust -- "You disgust me!" -- over the sex she saw him having (92). Both plays link the character's obsessive sexual thoughts with their mental distress, but the obsessiveness goes in different directions. Hamlet expresses a horrified fascination with female sexuality, while Blanche has descended into promiscuity after expressing a horrified disgust with the sexual behavior of the man she loves.

In the final analysis, however, the thing that links both plays most securely is the use of dramatic… [END OF PREVIEW]

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