“One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” Essay, Research Paper
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 disguises it with ignorance and Hamlet flaunts it in
his wit, another striking resemblance is the aptitude of these two characters.
A consequential parallel between them is also their use of this intellect to set
and trap the other characters. McMurphy does this with interest in personal
gain, as he often maneuvers the other patients into betting against him when
unbeknownst to them, the odds are in McMurphy’s favor:
“He let the odds stack up, and sucked them in deeper and deeper till he had five
to one on a sure thing from every man of them, some of them betting up to twenty
Hamlet as well manipulates for personal gain, though his is not monetary. He
plots to fulfill he need for absolute certainty; his, is a plot for information.
Certainly, the best example of this, is the influence Hamlet uses on the play
staged by the traveling theater company. His insistence the players perform
“The Murder of Gonzago”, a show that eerily shadows the method used by Claudius
himself to murder Hamlet’s father. The purpose of this is to discover if indeed
the ghost of the late king was honest, and if there indeed is treason in
I prithee, when thou seest that act a foot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe my uncle. If his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen
Both Hamlet and McMurphy’s exploits to eventually contribute to their
respective downfalls. To examine this aspect we must observe the similarities
in the antagonist of the two pieces. Ratchet and Claudius are each in high
positions of power and are cunningly deceptive. They likewise resent the
protagonist in an understated manner, and out of fear of revealing their own
guilt, do they maintain this understatement in all public matters. As both
Hamlet and McMurphy become more convinced of their nemesis’ guilt, they each
become more assertive. Both Ratchet and Claudius begin to feel fouled; they are
compelled out of fear for their own well being and fear of being disclosed into
exerting the pressure their power allow them. Claudius expresses it best in Act
4, Scene 3:
Do it, England,
For like the hectic in my blood he rages,
And thou must cure me.
By accounting for every aspect except the power or their foes, Hamlet and
McMurphy inevitably fell victim to these tyrants.
Still another likeness in both men, is their relationships with the
women they are associated with. Each has a distinct interest in young girls.
In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, this aspect of McMurphy’s character is
proven early in the story during his first group meeting. As the doctor
outlines McMurphy’s history of petty crimes, gambling and fighting, special
attention is paid to the statutory rape charge. McMurphy describes it as
“overzealous…sexual relations”, but it is unavoidable that the girl he was
involved with was only of age fifteen. We have learned only moments before that
McMurphy is thirty-five, displaying what is perhaps one of his most despicable
traits. The identical quality can be found in Hamlet, though disguised by the
setting, it becomes less apparent. Ophelia, is barely a woman. Although only
speculation can be done to what exact age this girl is, her innocent embodiment
of the romantic notion womanhood proves her very childish. Hamlet’s age is
revealed by his conversation with the gravediggers in Act 5, Scene 1. The
sexton says that he has held his position since the birth of the prince, thirty
years ago. The only true discrepancy between the actions of McMurphy and those
of Hamlet is that in the days of the latter, there was no issue of legality.
Yet another issue both heroes have with the female gender that is a prominent
characteristic in each, is a lack of respect for women in authority. The
question must be raised that if Nurse Ratchet had not been a woman, would
McMurphy have acted as he did? There was significance to his exposure of her
breast in the climax of the novel as she was forever weakened by the exhibition
of her sex. Ratchet “could no longer conceal the fact that she was a woman.”
Queen Gertrude is viewed in a similar fashion by Hamlet. “O most pernicious
woman!” he says of his mother. His intimidating behavior in her bedroom shows
that he thinks himself the superior:
Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge.
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
Possibly their relationships with females in powerful positions reflects on
their use of non-threatening girls as objects of sexual desire. Although there
is a lack of absolute evidence to this effect, it surely deserves contemplation.
The most uncanny resemblance between the two characters in question, I
found was how each feigned insanity to avoid liability. Hamlet says to his
close friends Marcellus and Horatio in the first act of the play:
Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some’er I bear myself
(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put antic disposition on)
That you, at such times seeing me never shall?
That you know aught of me- this do swear
Despite the school of thought that believes Hamlet is truly insane, I felt this
passage, establishing premeditation, adequately proves he was only posing as a
lunatic. Further proof to this effect is also how Hamlet only acts absurd in
front of Polonius and Claudius. His conduct is otherwise rather sane. This is
similar to the role McMurphy’s assumes, although in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
Nest there is only an insinuation to this, and it is not proven. The file that
holds all information regarding McMurphy, contains a note from the doctor at his
previous institution suggesting the “possibility that this man might be feigning
psychosis to escape the drudgery of the work farm”. Like Hamlet, McMurphy also
only carries himself in the manner of a mentally incompetent person in front of
certain people. For instance, he shows astounding sensibility in his dealings
with Chief Bromden, and how he made him “grow”:
“To hell with what you think; I want to know can you promise to lift it if I get
you as big as you used to be? You promise me that, and you not only get my
special body-buildin’ course for nothing but you get yourself a ten buck fishing
Hamlet and McMurphy both have a common use for employing this disguise of mental
disorder as it allows them to avoid obligation. An excellent example of this is
in Act 4, Scene 3 of Hamlet, where Hamlet comically eludes the king’s
KING Now, Hamlet, where’s Polonius?
HAMLET At supper.
KING At supper where?
HAMLET Not where he eats but where he is eaten. A certain
convocation of political worms are
e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor diet.
We fat all creature else to fat us,
and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and
your lean beggar is but variable
services- two dishes but to one table.
That’s the end.
McMurphy also use the identical technique of avoiding interrogation with wit:
“‘And what do you think about that, Mr.McMurphy?’
‘Doctor’ -he stands up to his full height, wrinkles his
forehead, and holds out both arms, open and honest to
all the wide world- ?do I look like a sane man?’”
Our two protagonists take a cunning approach to dodging such
questioning, and in the process they also induce the pity of others (”O, help
him sweet heavens!”).
The death of McMurphy and Hamlet, is imperative to the story as this is
what defines a tragedy. Despite their inevitable downfall, what makes these two
characters successful is that they were given the proper credit after their
demise. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief Bromden’s suffocation of
McMurphy is an appropriate eulogy as it allows him to die with honor. Hamlet is
also distinguished in his passing as he is giving a military burial. Each of
these acts shows that the secondary characters recognize the nobility of the
heroes. There is also a certain impact evident by the conviction with which the
living esteem the dead. They acknowledge that McMurphy triumphantly overthrew
Nurse Ratchet’s throne, and that Hamlet righted what was “rotten in the state of
As anti-heroes, the parallels between Hamlet and McMurphy are
innumerable; this is intriguing considering one text was written four centuries
after the other. These two characters show us that like “the devil hath the
power to assume a pleasing shape”, good sometimes disguises itself as an uncouth
rogue or an obnoxious young man. That a modern story such as One Flew Over the
Cuckoo’s Nest can be so precisely related to an unquestionable tragedy, proves
that modern fictionists are indeed capable of writing this form of literature.
The success of this novel as a play and as a film also attests to this. It
seems that characters such as R.P.McMurphy are suitable to audiences in the
twentieth century, because the ruling aristocrats of Shakespearean tragedy are
unfamiliar, and do not represent the modern person. Perhaps, it is also that
the contemporary audiences enjoy seeing the underdog prevail, because it
instills hope and inspiration. Both of these texts are fabulous works of art,
and although they are geared to different audiences at different points in
history, this only enhances them as it allows us to examine ourselves. We do
this not through the literature itself, but through the people it is targeted at.
From this we can observe how the human race has reached where we stand today.