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The Individuality Of Protagonists In Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird And Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Author : Paul Thomson

Submitted : 2010-06-23 23:23:38    Word Count : 809    Popularity:   34

Tags:   To Kill a Mockingbird, Hamlet, Shakespeare, literature, study guide

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For Western literature, the concept of individuality is a remarkably recent innovation. It goes without saying that the classics feature a lot of remarkable individual characters, but they are only remarkable in their ability to meet and exceed the highest expectations of their roles in society. (Just think Beowulf playing the ultimate male part as the warrior, provider, and peace-keeper.) This is why so many old stories end in weddings, which are basically an initiation rite for turning individuals into a group unit.

To illustrate a point, let’s look at the protagonists of Hamlet and To Kill a Mockingbird. In the former, Prince Hamlet’s nonconformity turns the play into a tragedy, whereas in the latter, Scout’s development into an independent thinker makes the novel a bildungsroman.

Hamlet is brooding, passive aggressive, deceptive, and utterly uncompromising. Even if you love him for it, these aren’t exactly princely qualities. At a time when he (and the rest of the kingdom) is expected to get over the former king and buddy up to the new one, all Hamlet can do is grieve. He even distinguishes himself from his peers visually by wearing the dark clothes of mourning.

When the ghost of Hamlet, Sr. informs Hamlet, Jr. that his death was a murder – and a fratricidal one at that – Hamlet proceeds to… do nothing about it. For four acts. If this strikes you as unthinkably passive, imagine how unacceptable it would have been back in the day when sword fighting was the way to settle a score. To make matters worse, Hamlet is painfully aware of his inaction; for example, when he notices a soldier marching to fight for something that doesn’t even concern him, Hamlet despairs in his failure not only as a male, but also as a prince and a son.

As if he weren’t isolated enough to begin with, Hamlet further distinguishes himself from the royal court by pretending to be insane. He takes on the role of the lunatic outcast with such dedication that even after accidentally slaying his girlfriend’s dad – knowing full well what THAT will do for their relationship – he pretends not to give a damn.

Of course, Hamlet does eventually fulfill his son-ly obligation by murdering his uncle, but only after he’s already been fatally poisoned by Laertes’s sword. The change in Hamlet’s inertia is also the moment of his destruction, symbolically representing the sacrifice of individuality on the altar of the whole. (In case Shakespeare didn’t quite get that across, he also makes Ophelia commit suicide after losing her mind.)

If this isn’t your idea of a pick-me-upper, you’ll be happy to turn your attention to the twentieth-century thinking of To Kill a Mockingbird. According to Harper Lee’s characterization of Scout Finch, developing into an individual is the truest way to become a functioning member of adult society.

While Scout has a very strong personality (not to mention, the remarkable advantage of being Atticus Finch’s daughter), she doesn’t start out as an especially strong character. Much of her knuckle-dusting toughness is simply learned behavior from spending too much time with an older brother. Moreover, despite being (relatively) culturally enlightened, Scout drops the n-bomb with as much ease as the next bigot and expresses utter amazement upon realizing that her black caretaker has a life, family, and community of her own.

Of course, without her eventual foray into the thinking, feeling world of nonconformity, Scout wouldn’t be much of a protagonist. As she matures, she learns to be more “ladylike” – not because her Aunty thinks it’s socially appropriate, but because she no longer feels the need to react against a female stereotype by modeling herself after her big brother. (After all, whether you’re working against it or adhering to it, letting popular opinion dictate your behavior shows a lack of independent thinking.)

When Atticus agrees to defend Tom Robinson in court, Scout witnesses the mindlessness of mob mentality firsthand, as nameless, faceless men attempt to ambush her father in the night. On an even larger scale, witnessing the blatant injustice of Tom Robinson’s conviction (and subsequent slaying) opens Scout’s eyes to the blinding power of group thinking.

Scout’s development as an independent thinker is mirrored by the Boo Radley subplot, wherein she learns to substitute local legend with her own unique experience. For Scout – and for us luck twenty-first-century folk – coming of age means coming into your own.

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Shmoop is an online study guide for Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, and many more. Its content is written by Ph.D. and Masters students from top universities, like Stanford, Berkeley, Harvard, and Yale who have also taught at the high school and college levels. Teachers and students should feel confident to cite Shmoop.

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