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Hamlet, Birthday Letters, and Atonement although diverse in terms of their form and narrative structure, are in many ways connected through the central theme of the fracturing of relationships on which, arguably, the foundation of each text rests. Notions of betrayal permeate Shakespeare and McEwan’s texts with dire consequences for the key characters, and although the same can be said for Hughes’ Birthday Letters, the text is more poignant as the collection is not a work of fiction but a documentation of Hughes’ “cosmic disaster” of his relationship to Plath. Although both were written in the late 20th century, Atonement and Birthday Letters share few similarities regarding their form, with Hughes choosing to write confessionally in what was to be his final collection of poetry and McEwan experimenting with the concept of a post-modern novel. Comparisons can be made, however, when considering the confessional style Hughes employs to convey his thoughts and the elaborate exploration of the psyche as we see represented through Hamlet’s soliloquies. Interestingly, Freud considered Hamlet to be Shakespeare’s “most modern play” and his analysis of Hamlet as a persona has played a critical role in elucidating the Oedipus complex despite the play being contextually rooted within the 16th century. Atonement’s sophistication perhaps comes from its complex meta-narrative structure whereas, in contrast, Hamlet’s structure is arguably more simplistic; the complexity stems from the moral confusion Hamlet is seen to struggle with throughout the play. Birthday Letters’ by comparison is ostensibly a reflection of ‘real life’, however, the events in the poems are replayed in the context of the uncertainty of memory. The collection is undeniably, however, what Erica Wagner has termed, “one of the most intimate and personal collection of poems ever written” making it “the fastest-selling volume of verse in the history of English poetry.” Although the breakdown of relationships pervades all three texts, the way in which each writer chooses to deliver the resulting events is diverse.
A consideration of Freud’s Oedipus and Electra complexes lends insight to the causes of the breakdown of relationships in both Hamlet and Birthday Letters but it cannot explain the fracturing of Briony and Cecilia’s relationship in Atonement. A Freudian interpretation of Shakespeare’s play suggests that the oedipal desire Hamlet has for his mother prevents him from killing Claudius or forgiving Gertrude for marrying the king; his love for Gertrude makes the betrayal impossible for Hamlet to overcome, allowing the relationship to further fracture until it becomes irreparable. As a counterpart to an Oedipal reading of Hamlet, the theory that underpins the Electra complex is useful when considering Plath’s obsession with her father; in Hughes’ view at least, one of the causes for the breakdown of his and Plath’s relationship. After visiting Otto Plath’s grave in Winthrop for the first time Plath subsequently wrote the poem ‘Electra on Azealia Plath’ and stated “The day you died I went into the dirt.” The complex can similarly be applied to Hamlet as Freud’s colleague, Ernest Jones, wrote in his study Hamlet and Œdipus “the son continually postpones the act of revenge because of the impossibly complicated psychodynamic situation in which he finds himself.” The closet scene in Act III, the first dramatic climax of the play, presents a heated exchange between mother and son and reveals evidence of Hamlet’s oedipal complex; in his emotive description of “the rank sweat of an enseamed bed stewed in corruption, honeying and making love” we are privy to Hamlet’s real disgust in his mother’s sexual proclivities. His obsession with Gertrude’s neglected “virtue” her “incestuous” relationship with Claudius reveals a particularly complex mother-son relationship where Hamlet seems to experience sexual jealousy in that another man is sleeping with Gertrude, fracturing the already fragile relationship. Although there is no notion in Birthday Letters, overtly at least, of any forbidden relations between Plath and her father, Hughes’ presentation of Plath highlights her obsession with him– the Electra complex – this becomes apparent when the male sexual partner resembles the father. This is a concept which Hughes makes reference to in one of his later poems ‘Black Coat’ whereby he considers the idea of Plath fusing his own persona with Otto where “the body of the ghost and me the blurred see-through came into single focus”. Towards the end of the poem Hughes uses accusatory language in his address of Plath which suggests that her sublimation of the idea of the father with Hughes was intentional, “I did not feel how, as your lenses tightened, he slid into me”.
A consideration of the Oedipus complex can also go some way to explain the procrastination Hamlet is subject to up until Act V; again Earnest Jones’ view here is interesting in that he suggests that Hamlet’s hatred towards Claudius stems from him unconsciously identifying with his uncle, in the sense that Claudius has himself carried out Hamlet’s own desires – to kill his father and marry his mother. It is notable, perhaps, that Hamlet is finally able to kill him in Act V scene II, significantly after Gertrude had been poisoned. In keeping with the theory, as Gertrude was the object of Hamlet’s unconscious desire, her death allows Hamlet’s strength and purpose to be invigorated as he no longer has to repress feelings, thus enabling him to enact his desires. Claudius is perceived entirely negatively by Hamlet and in connection with this the negative imagery linked with Otto Plath throughout Birthday Letters also similarly reveals Hughes’ anger towards Plath’s father for being, as he saw it, the root of their problems. Notably in the poem ‘Portraits’ where Hughes recalls the dark smudge the painter had drawn on Plath’s shoulder whilst painting her portrait, which he believes to be Otto he claims, “I saw it with a horrible premonition, you were alone there… in some inaccessible dimension where that creature had you to himself.” Similarities can not only be drawn between Hughes’ anger towards Otto and Hamlet’s hatred towards Claudius but also with Briony’s unjustified depiction of Robbie as a sexual deviant. Both Hughes and Hamlet believe the men to be instrumental in the undoing of their respective relationships and their consternation finds expression in sexual imagery. Hughes even goes as far to accuse Otto of being an interloper in their marital bed in the poem ‘The Table’ “he snuggled shivering between us… he had got what he wanted.” Contrastingly Briony understands that it was not Robbie who caused the breakdown of her relationship with Cecilia but her own misconstrued vision of him.
Hughes also draws upon the Greek notion of fatalism in order to explain the inevitability of Plath’s death by believing that significant events and decisions have been predetermined and are therefore inevitable. The reader may perceive Hughes’ reliance on astrology and fatalism as a useful tool to convince the reader that he was unable to help Plath from the beginning, Leonard Scigaj wrote in his paper entitled ‘The Deterministic Ghost in the Machine of Birthday Letters’ that “The aura of predestination is the book‘s strongest texture. The poems find different ways to accuse destiny.” Interestingly we see this view reflected in Hamlet; whilst Oedipus believed that his fate to sleep with his mother and kill his father had been preordained by the gods; in connection with this, despite his uncertainty in avenging his Old Hamlet’s death, Hamlet also seems to believe in some higher power that is responsible for his fate as he asserts to Horatio in Act V scene II, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” This sense of one’s destiny being preordained is reflected in the poem ‘Ouija’ in Birthday Letters. Here, Hughes recounts his and Plath’s experimentation with the supernatural. Hughes recalls the disturbing reply Plath received from their spirit they named as ‘Pan’ when asked about her future, “Fame will come… you will have paid for it with your happiness, your husband and your life”. This strangely accurate ethereal response is difficult for the reader to believe in particularly as the collection was written retrospectively after Plath’s death but this sense of predestination is reiterated later on in the collection in ‘Horoscope’, “You only had to look/ into the face of the nearest metaphor… to see your father, your mother, or me/ bringing you your whole fate”. According to Hughes and Hamlet, therefore, fate can be considered to be a motivating factor in the breakdown of relationships.
Notions of fatalism and Freud’s Oedipus complex interesting though they may be, do not, by contrast, permeate Atonement; McEwan instead uses the metanarrative structure of the novel in order to explain the causes of the breakdown of Briony and Cecilia’s relationship. Using what Geoff Dyer called the “the pallid qualifiers and disposable adverbs” McEwan creates a languid setting in part 1 where we are transported into the mind of the naïve, 13 year old Briony. Although the novel is written in the third person, McEwan adopts the perspective of Briony in part 1 of the novel and his evocation of her is as convincing as the first person narrative of Hughes and Hamlet’s thought processes, as revealed in his soliloquies; the power of Briony’s testament allows the reader to understand or at least recognise why she chose to lie to the police resulting in Robbie’s conviction. Briony’s tendency to imagine and exaggerate perhaps could be considered to be the protagonist’s fatal flaw which leads to the breakdown of relationships. In comparison to Plath’s and Hamlet’ compulsions, Briony’s ‘flaw’ appears at first to be much less destructive until the epilogue where it is revealed that, partly due to her actions, both Cecilia and Robbie died. Her need to create drama “it was a temptation for her to be dramatic and magical” causes her to ignore the truth she sees before her, what McEwan elegantly terms “burying her conscience beneath her stream of consciousness.” Brian Finney, a literary scholar, writes that “a major theme of Atonement is Briony’s dangerous blurring of the fiction and nonfiction worlds” which causes her to wrongly accuse Robbie of the rape of Lola as she feels after the early ‘attack’ on her sister he deserves to be punished “Now there was nothing left of the dumb show by the fountain beyond what survived in memory, in three separate and overlapping memories. The truth had become as ghostly as invention.” The night of the incident exposes Briony’s furtive imagination fully but it is the epilogue where McEwan reveals the meta-narrative structure, that an aged Briony is the narrator and has control over the events that unfold in what we come to see as her own novel.
In connection with Briony’s over fertile imagination and obsession with playwriting creating a dramatized fiction, throughout ‘Birthday Letters’, Hughes makes reference to the ‘drama’ he felt he was subject to, almost from the moment he met Plath. First noted in ‘Visit’ Hughes states he “did not know [he] was being auditioned for the lead in [her] drama.” We see further evidence of this soon after in ’18 Rugby Street’ which to Hughes was a “stage-set” where Plath’s “perpetual performance” played out. The imagery associated with the ‘performance’ almost becomes a motif in the poems of the collection. It is also in this poem where the idea of the labyrinth is introduced. Early on in the collection Hughes purposefully positions Otto in the role of the “Minotaur” using monstrous language to describe him “the thing” and “the goblin”. By according him animalistic qualities, Hughes can dehumanise Otto, allowing for easier accusation. Similarly, Both Briony and Hamlet cast male figures in the role of a ‘monster’; “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark” Hamlet observes in the first scene of Act I in reference to Claudius’ perceived machinations with Hamlet later referring to him as “that adulterous beast.” McEwan also draws upon the ‘beastly’ imagery with Briony concluding that Robbie was a “maniac, a beast” after reading the explicit letter send to Cecilia. In Birthday Letters Hughes begins to place blame on Otto Plath for the breakdown of their relationship by strategically placing Otto at the centre of the labyrinth in the later poem ‘The Minotaur’. Contrastingly, aged Briony recognises that her obsession with fiction directly led to the breakdown of relationships with Cecilia and Robbie and her depiction of him as an ‘animalistic beast’ was incorrect. As Briony has initially made Robbie the target of her fantasies, Hughes chooses to use Otto as a scapegoat; in his view his and Plath’s relationship broke down due to Otto’s influence. Again in the poem ‘The Table’ Hughes insinuates that Plath reconnecting with her father through her work led to her death “you engraved your letters to him, cursing and imploring.”
After experiencing the breakdown of a relationship in some form, all three protagonists develop certain characteristics through the process of self-evaluation. Hughes clearly has the benefit of hindsight – what Katha Pollitt calls “retrospective-determinism” which in her opinion allows him to exonerate himself from any responsibility for Plath’s suicide. Hughes is able to look back at events and revaluate them from the perspective of distance, for example as in the poem ‘The Table’ whereby he recalls building Plath the writing table on which she wrote her infamous ‘Ariel’poems. He states “I did not know I had made and fitted a door/ opening downwards into your daddy’s grave” showing that in hindsight, he can see how by encouraging Plath to channel feelings about Otto into her work he allowed her to succumb to the depression that had tormented her since her father’s death, effectively “leaving [you] to him”. Hughes doesn’t, however, admit the part he played in the breakdown of their relationship or even sound apologetic, instead explaining that he knows now, due to the retrospective power of hindsight, what Plath was subject to. This particular poem is placed towards the end of the loosely chronological collection and by writing some years after Plath’s suicide Hughes has given himself more time to evaluate his actions and the effect he had upon his wife. Unlike in earlier poems such as ‘The Minotaur’ where he paints Plath to be rather overdramatic by her becoming “demented by my being 20 minutes late for baby minding” blaming her father for “unravelling [their] marriage”, in other poems there is evidence of personal growth, which results from the ability to retrospectively assess his marriage.
The idea that the protagonist can use hindsight to their advantage is not just applicable to Birthday Letters; in Atonement, McEwan uses the metanarrative structure in order to allow Briony to ‘atone’ for the betrayal which caused the fracturing of the relationship with her sister and Robbie. The haunting image in Hughes’ ‘The Blue Flannel Suit’ “I am stilled permanently now/bending so briefly at your open coffin” allows for similarities to be drawn between his own loss and the loss Briony must deal with. In a sense Briony too has been “stilled permanently” by Robbie and Cecilia’s death and this is evidenced in the epilogue where the reader comes to realise that Briony has spent her life writing the novel, hoping to effect a ‘poetic justice’ by allowing them to survive in the version we read. Arguably Hughes also spent the rest of his life dealing with the death of his wife, but Marjorie Perloff believes in Birthday Letters that Hughes justifies his actions by casting doubt over Plath’s mental health rather than giving an impartial view. McEwan does prompt us to reflect, however, by having Briony state she could even rewrite the epilogue and have Cecilia and Robbie watching the play in the library “I had the power to conjure them at my birthday celebration…Robbie and Cecilia, still alive, sitting side by side in the library”. Hamlet, however, is not subject to the influence of hindsight as the plot is linear, Shakespeare instead must have Hamlet make decisions in real-time rather than looking back retrospectively. Despite this, Hamlet still experiences some aspect of personal growth in the final act. At the end of Act I, Hamlet curses his fate “O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!” the apostrophe underlines the exclamatory tone, evidence of his annoyance at the ghost’s request to have him avenge his father by killing Claudius. Through a number of soliloquies we see the process of self-evaluation that Hamlet is subject to, beginning with his first soliloquy in Act I scene II “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt.” Hamlet’s clear longing for death can be compared with Plath’s identical desire to “find oblivion” according to Hughes in the poem ‘Fever’. Hamlet however, in his fifth soliloquy, is inspired by Fortinbras “a delicate and tender prince… to all that fortune, death and danger dare for an eggshell” who defends his land in Poland and finds the courage to commit his act of revenge after hesitating for so long and finally succumbing to death just as he yearned for in Act I “O, I die Horatio.” The audience sees that Hamlet is led to reassess his actions before his final breath, “how stand I then that have a father killed and a mother stained… and let all sleep.” This new found motivation has more connection with Briony as rather than falling into depression, the breakdown of relationships has acted as an incentive for her to make it up to Robbie and Cecilia. The novel was written and she accepted the blame for causing the fracturing of the relationship. Birthday Letters ends on a different tone with the poem ‘Red’ however, as Hughes adopts a rather subtle yet accusatory tone “You hid from the bone-clinic whiteness.” He directly accuses Plath of being consumed by ‘red’ and ‘white’ as a representation of the lives she struggled to choose between, passion and vitality or death.
In conclusion, the breakdown of relationships in Hamlet can be seen as a natural by-product of his assimilated role as a revenge hero. Similarly, the role of adjudicator Briony embraces ultimately causes the fatal fracturing of relationships in Atonement. In contrast to the familial concern of Briony, Hamlet’s resolution is political in the final scene. He is aware that the breakdown of relationships is irreversible and in his final moments there is little he can do to atone whereas Briony’s much more personal resolution comes in the form of the novel as she is able to spend her life making amends. The most personal resolution is in Birthday Letters however, and as Jacqueline Rose puts it “these poems offer their readers an account of a failure.” In the end the collection proposes no concrete reason for the breakdown of Hughes’ and Plath’s relationship, it only highlights Hughes very real and moving uncertainty as he ponders the “cosmic disaster” that was their marriage.
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