Though many regard Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, the play is much more thrilling than tragic. Aside from the death of most characters at its close, bewilderment and action mark Hamlet’s plot. Thus ‘Tragedy’, a genre marked by conflict and suffering, does not fit the mysterious plot of Hamlet well; rather, the play, like the movie Shutter Island, is in fact a psychological thriller.
Some Context: Shutter Island Plot
In 1954, US Marshal Teddy Daniels takes on a case at Ashecliffe Mental Hospital on Shutter Island in search of missing patient, Rachel Solando. He and his partner, Chuck, investigate Rachel’s mysterious disappearance with minimal help from the hospital’s head, Dr. Crawley, and his staff and a single clue, a note Rachel left in her room saying “The Law of 4. Who is 67?”. The action seems relatively mundane until Teddy reveals his true motive for taking on the case: to find Andrew Laeddis. Teddy, haunted by memories of his wife Dolores, who died in a fire set by Laeddis, declares he will have revenge on Laeddis.
As their investigation and search for Laeddis continues, the Teddy’s understanding of reality becomes blurred. Strange things begin to happen: Teddy is refused access to any hospital documents, banned from C Ward where Laeddis would be, and begins to have vivid hallucinations of his wife and a young girl. Teddy starts questioning what really happens on the island, suggesting Nazi experiments may be occurring, and seems to be uncovering more and more truth. It seems the closer he gets to truth, the further away he his from his own mind or reality.
Stranger and stranger events take place on the island and Teddy becomes suspicious of Chuck. The partners go exploring on the island near the bluffs and lighthouse. Teddy follows Chuck but eventually loses sight of him and instead finds a cave where the mysterious Rachel Solando lives. She tells him she was really a doctor on the island, but when she disagreed with the experimental procedures they used, she herself was committed. Rachel warns Teddy to leave the island because they will use any trauma from the past as an excuse to commit Teddy and psychotropic drugs put in the food and cigarette will begin to take effect. Teddy leaves to confront Dr. Crawley and find Chuck.
Dr. Crawley tells Teddy he had no partner, he came to the island alone. Teddy becomes paranoid about the Dr.’s plan to commit him and once again begins hallucinating. He sees his wife Dolores with a little girl telling him not to go to the lighthouse, but Teddy needs answers and does not heed their warning. Instead he uses an explosion as a diversion to sneak down to the lighthouse alone. Teddy reaches the lighthouse and sprints up the stairs searching each room for evidence of experimental surgeries and find nothing. He reaches the top only to find Dr. Crawley seated at a desk waiting for him.
Crawley unveils what the ‘Law of 4’ is showing him that Teddy Daniels and Rachel Solando are anagrams for Andrew Laeddis and Dolores Chanal. Finally Teddy has a flashback where he watches his wife drown their children and shoots her. Dr. Crawley tells him he is in fact Andrew and he invented Teddy to cope with the grief and guilt of his actions. Dr. Crawley allowed him to play the part of Teddy where his partner was truly his primary care, Dr. Sheehan, in hopes that he would understand reality, but if he cannot see the truth, Crawley cannot prevent his lobotomy.
The next day Teddy and Chuck sit on the steps of the hospital. Andrew has reverted back to Teddy and still plays the part of US Marshall. Teddy asks whether it is better to live as a monster or die a good man as he willingly stands and leaves with the orderlies.
“Shutter Island Synopsis”. IMDb. 2010. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1130884/synopsis
The Main Conflict
Both Hamlet and Shutter Island center around a main character struggling to avenge the death of a loved one. Hamlet, determined to avenge his father’s death by killing Claudius, plots to feign an ‘antic disposition’ as a means to achieve his goals. He uses a false pretense to gain access to Claudius, yet as soon as he begins working toward his goal, the line between appearance and reality blurs, his sanity becomes questionable, and though he does kill Claudius, it does offer the satisfaction of revenge as he dies swiftly after.
Teddy, obsessed with finding his wife, Dolores’, killer, Andrew Laeddis, accepts an investigation at Ashecliffe, a mental institution on Shutter Island, where he believes Laeddis lives, in order to find him and avenge Dolores’ death. Just as Hamlet does, Teddy uses a false pretense to find revenge, but as soon as his investigation begins, reality becomes twisted. As the story progresses, it becomes clear Teddy is simply Andrew’s alter ego, and as soon as Andrew begins to accept reality, he reverts back to Teddy, leaving his doctors no choice but to perform a lobotomy; therefore, in subjecting himself to a lobotomy, Teddy has caused both the death of Andrew and earned his revenge as well as his own demise.
Essentially both characters become obsessed with revenge for the death of a loved one. As a means of achieving their goal each uses misdirection. Eventually, both attain revenge, but in doing so, also cause their own death.
The Ghost of the Elder Hamlet appears to his son in order to tell him he was murdered and prompt him to take revenge on Claudius. Ultimately, the Ghost motivates Hamlet to plot and continue his antics. Though other characters also see the Ghost, it is impossible to be certain the ghost exists and not simply a figment created by Hamlet to cope with the death of his father. Similarly, Teddy is constantly visited by his Dolores, whom he murdered, and his daughter, whom Dolores murdered. Throughout the movie, she constantly tells him what to do and provides information needed to advance the plot. At first, it seems as though Dolores may not be a hallucination, but a dream or memory, but towards the end of the movie, Dolores is clearly a figment of Teddy;s imagination.
In both stories, the main character is visited by a beloved family member who has previously been murdered. These ghosts serve not only to advance the plot but to motivate and inform the main character. They also indicate the main character may not be experiencing reality.
Both Teddy and Hamlet are manipulated by characters close to them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, return at the request of the king and queen to spy on Hamlet. The betrayal continues when Polonius and Claudius use Ophelia to bait Hamlet and determine why he has been acting so strange. Comparatively, Dr. Sheehan, Teddy’s primary caregiver, pretends to be Chuck while spying on Teddy for Dr. Crawley. The King and Dr. Crawley both use people Hamlet and Teddy trust as sources of information. The characters feel betrayed when they learn the truth about their ‘trusted’ friends and this realization has detrimental effects on each character.
Appearance vs. Reality
One of the most obvious and scrutinized themes in Hamlet, appearance vs. reality, appears in Shutter Island as well. In fact the very question, “What is really going on here?” distinguishes a psychological thriller from tragedy or any other genre. The idea that everything is not as it seems is crucial to both stories. It draws the audience in and leaves immense room for interpretation.
Ultimately, the interpretation we choose to believe does not matter, but the simple fact that there are endless options makes the psychological thriller. A tragedy is driven by conflict and some form of resolution, usually in death. Both story-types center around death and ‘tragic’ events but never reach a true resolution. Rather they focus on the ‘maybes’.
Though Hamlet and Shutter Island have very distinct plots, most of the characters are quite similar and follow the same trajectory throughout each story.
Hamlet ~ Teddy/Andrew
Aside from their obvious similarities in character trajectory and role as the main character, Hamlet and Teddy/Andrew share many similar characteristics. Both characters are extremely contemplative. Much of both stories happens inside the main character's head and expressed to the audience through soliloquy, dreams, or flashbacks. Along the same line, they are both isolated and continue towards isolation. As the stories progress, the characters trust in and willingness to talk to others declines. The less they interact with others, the more obsessed each becomes with revenge. Finally, each causes their own demise.
Hamlet, known for the famed ‘To be or not to be…’ speech, often delivers soliloquies to the audience. Shakespeare uses the literary device to give the audience a glimpse of what characters may be thinking. In Shutter Island, Martin Scorsese, rather than using soliloquies, utilizes the options in the film medium to allow the audience inside Teddy’s mind. For much of the movie, Teddy confides in his partner Chuck, though Dr. Sheehan plays the part of Chuck, realistically Chuck does not exist and Teddy simply talks to himself. Scorsese uses the same effect when Teddy talks to Dolores’ ghost even after she has disappeared. It could even be said the majority of the movie happens within the main character's mind because nearly all of the characters Teddy interacts with are creations of Andrew's mind.
In III.i, Hamlet delivers his famous soliloquy in which he ponders life.
To be, or not to be? That is the question—
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And, by opposing, end them?
Hamlet poses the same question Teddy does at the close of Shutter Island after he has reverted back to his alter ego and insured he will undergo a lobotomy.
“Which would be worse--to live as a monster? Or to die a good man?”
The two are comparing two unfortunate choices, either to live on suffering because of the choices one has made or end the suffering entirely in death.
Claudius ~ Dr. Crawley
Dr. Crawley rules Ashecliffe just as Claudius rules Elsinore. Claudius manipulates Hamlet through his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and betrays him in killing his father. Similarly, Dr. Crawley betrays Andrew by creating a massive role play where he can ‘be’ Teddy and using Dr. Sheehan (Chuck) to spy on him the entire time. Inevitably, both are responsible for the psychological break and death of Hamlet and Teddy, respectively.
Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Horatio, and Polonius ~ Dr.Sheehan/Chuck
Dr. Sheehan is Dr. Crawley’s right-hand man throughout the movie and takes part in the role playing game as a spy for Dr. Crawley, thus he occupies the roles of Polonius, right-hand man to the king, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet acting as spies. At the same time, he has been Andrew Laeddis’ primary caregiver at Ashecliffe and plays the part of Teddy’s partner, Chuck, in the illusion so he also acts as Horatio, Hamlet’s best friend and the only person he truly trusts.
Ghost, Gertrude, and Ophelia ~ Dolores and Child
Just as Hamlet is visited by the ghost of his deceased father, Teddy is constantly visited by the ghost of his deceased wife and child. Teddy’s wife Dolores constantly tells him to act in certain ways like the King’s ghost does to Hamlet, but she also takes on the roles of Ophelia and Gertrude. Hamlet loved these women deeply and unfortunately takes on responsibility for their deaths. In reality, Teddy is Andrew who killed his wife Dolores for drowning all three of their children.
A tragedy in the classical sense features a main character with a fatal flaw whose life follows a downward path. Once this character realizes their error, they cannot change the path they have set for themselves; therein lies the tragedy. Though Hamlet’s life spirals downward and nearly all those he loves die, his story is not tragic. Hamlet lacks the key aspect of tragedy which makes it so: understanding. Hamlet never realizes his fatal flaw. Even as the nobility of Elsinore die and Hamlet himself nears the end, he does not understand what his actions have caused. In Hamlet we are never certain of reality; therefore, the play is not a tragedy, but a psychological thriller. The play bears a shocking resemblance to the psychological thriller, Shutter Island, in its main conflict, character interactions, and lack of commitment to reality.
The very same distinction between a tragedy and a psychological thriller found in literature can be applied to our own lives. For some, life is tragic and though we realize our flaws, we have no control and cannot prevent our own downfall. Life is tragic because we have made a fundamental error, assuming our own powerlessness, to which we are blind.For others, life is confusing and we constantly find ourselves asking “What is going on? What am I doing?” but never getting a concrete answer.
I see life as a psychological thriller. I see people every day working hard for something they have been taught to aspire to but do not understand as well as people doing very little because they do not know what to do. In almost all cases, I see a lack of understanding--a not knowing what life really is. I also notice a sense of control, something a tragedy inherently lacks. Life, though confusing, is not really tragic because people always have some control over their future and only experiencing the downward spiral of a tragedy of their own volition.