Though the two stories may have been written hundreds of years apart, Shakespeare’s iconic Hamlet shares much with Arthur Miller’s more modern play, Death of a Salesman. From country ideals to father-son relations and even to the concept of death, these two pieces provide insightful views on many similar issues.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet revolves around Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, and his striving need to avenge his father’s murder. Meanwhile, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman follows the story of salesman father Willy, who desperately wants his son Biff to succeed in the business world. The father-son relations in both of these stories are pivotal to the play’s success. In Hamlet, Hamlet’s revenge upon his murderous uncle is what drives him – but not, specifically, the desire to reacquire the throne of Denmark. Hamlet, in fact, shows little to no inclination towards becoming king. When he speaks of it, it is with fear; he fears taking up the throne, even though part of him may want to. Biff, the struggling son in Death of a Salesman, faces a similar dilemma. His own father, Willy, tries desperately to get Biff involved in the family business – even going so far as to take his own life. By providing Biff with his life insurance money, Willy hopes his son will move into the business world at last. However, just like Hamlet, Biff does not wish to follow in his father’s footsteps. Both sons, it appears, find themselves unwilling to meet the expectations of their fathers.
The father-son dynamics of these two plays are not the only similarity. In both plays, concepts of sanity and otherworldly figures come into play. Hamlet is literally haunted by the ghost of his father, and fluctuates between lucidity and passionate fervor. At certain points in the play, Hamlet’s sanity is questioned by many. At the same time, Willy from Death of a Salesman creates memories and seems unable to accurately perceive the world around him. Willy and Biff are also haunted by memories of the past (mainly revolving around Willy’s marital disloyalty) though these ‘hauntings’ do not happen as explicitly as they do in Hamlet. The concept of sanity, and even the concept of reality is brought into question in both plays, ranging from Hamlet’s ghostly visions to Willy’s imagined past.
There are several more ways in which Hamlet and Death of a Salesman play similar tunes – such as their focus on death and their symbolic representations of true countrymen. Despite possessing completely unique storylines, these plays carry similar themes and messages that transcend the years.