Essay: The theme of disillusionment in Hamlet and Death of a Naturalist

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
  • Reading time: 10 minutes
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  • Published on: August 24, 2019
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  • Number of pages: 2
  • Tags: Hamlet Shakespeare
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The theme of disillusionment is apparent in ‘Hamlet’ Act 3 Scene 4 where Hamlet realises his mother has her own sexual needs and he struggles to comprehend the truth, as he once believed her to be pure and innocent. Similarly in Heaney’s poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, disillusionment is presented through Heaney exploring his childhood fascination with frogs and how his opinion changed as he grew older, along with his perspective. Sexual realisation runs through both texts and creates a theme of disillusionment.

The form of both texts helps to highlight the theme of disillusionment. Firstly in ‘Hamlet’, the extract is written in verse which indicates their high status role in the play. The extract takes the form of an encounter between mother and son, and is ideal for Hamlet to express his thoughts on being disillusioned to another character within the play. Rather than being a soliloquy where Hamlet would express his feelings only to the audience, the scene being between two people, and using dialogue causes a conflict, making the play more enjoyable to watch.

Alternatively, Heaney’s poem is lyrical and written as a first person narrative to act as an anecdote of the poet looking back on his childhood. The narrator has a child’s voice to express naïve fascination for frogs and nature. ‘You can tell the weather by frogs too’. The adverb ‘too’ demonstrates that the child is speaking off the top of his head with very little consideration of what he is saying. This may be an indication of young age or simply the fascination and excitement involved in the topic, causing him to randomly add fragments of speech to his sentences. The convincing childlike voice is developed by using nouns such as ‘mummy’ and ‘daddy’ to refer to the male and female frogs; this is a representation of the speaker being immature as he is still referring to parents in a childlike way. The voice is then adapted to suit a more mature persona further on in the poem, creating a contrast in an effort to clearly indicate the presence of disillusionment.

Structural techniques influence the theme of disillusionment: Shakespeare indicates that Hamlet is the dominant character through the discourse structure in this extract by using lengthy speeches to illustrate the depth of his disillusionment. Contrary to this, Gertrude responds with short blunt answers implying she does not want to face the reality Hamlet has grown to realise. The rhetorical question ‘Have you eyes?’ suggests Hamlet is mocking his mother for her choice of husband, insinuating through the noun ‘eyes’, that she cannot see what he can. This highlights to the listening audience, that Claudius can be seen in two different lights, branding him a character who may not be what he seems to be; he is showing different persona’s to numerous characters and highlights the potential for disillusionment in the play.

‘Death of a Naturalist’ is structured in two contrasting parts, set out in unrhymed iambic pentameter: the first section conveys his fascination with nature; the second demonstrates his disillusionment as he begins to see the frogs not as his playful childhood memories, but as a danger. Security the poet once felt switches to threat, mirroring the transition of the tadpoles into frogs, alongside his own personal development. The loss of innocence is a consequence of growing up, but ironically, it is the awareness of nature that kills the naturalist within Heaney. The idea that Heaney will become aware of his own disillusionment is evident from the title and the first stanza, from the stative verb ‘festered’. This could be to indicate the idea of death and decay has always been there, it is just dependant on the viewer’s perspective. The poem is structured to create chronology in order to indicate the changes that appear over time, alongside the growth in personal maturity. The first stanza presents an idyllic childhood anecdote, ‘I would fill jampotfuls’.The modal verb ‘would’ creates a nostalgic tone as he remembers back. The noun ‘jampotfuls’ is evidently a made up word to create an idea of the child’s young age. The enthusiasm of a child is also present as Heaney is imagined to be getting stuck in and making a mess through the verb ‘fill’. This connotes overflowing to illustrate jam-packed excitement. In the classroom scene, the child’s voice is sustained through the simplicity and high frequency lexis expected from a child. At the end of the first stanza, the idea of the frogs changing colour from ‘yellow’ with connotations of sun and happiness, to ‘brown’ with connotations of mud and dirt, could be foreshadowing there is a change to come. This change is clear in the second stanza, where Heaney creates a more mature voice and an obvious change in tone. The discourse marker “then” signals a change, and the adjectives “hot”, “rank”, “angry” and “coarse” express the effect on the child who in the past had harmlessly engaged with nature, as they all connote with feelings of anger and disgust. There is a transition from innocence when the nature that was once personified to be behaving ‘delicately’, is later presented in disgust through the adjective ‘rank’. This is a clear indication to the disillusionment felt by the poet.

Shakespeare and Heaney both use semantic fields, figurative language and vivid imagery to present the theme of disillusionment. Hamlet appears to be disgusted at the light he now sees his mother in and Shakespeare creates a semantic field of repulsive words to express this. “takes off the rose / From the fair forehead of an innocent love / And sets a blister there, makes marriage vows / As false as dicers’ oath”. The use of the noun ‘blister’ connotes deformity and suggests his idea of once ‘innocent’ love has now been tarnished. The idea of something blistering may allude to a sexually transmitted disease to demonstrate how his idea of innocent love has been corrupted by Gertrude and her behaviour. The simile ‘as false as dicer’s oath’ indicates that Gertrude’s marriage vows, are only as honest as a gambler’s promise, indicating the words mean nothing and physical compulsion is more important. Hamlet refers to Gertrude’s heart and questions if it is ‘made of penetrable stuff’. He is expressing his concern that his mother’s heart is hard, yet wanting it to be penetrable so he can get through to her and make her understand the error in her ways.

Similarly in ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Heaney uses imagery to highlight his disillusionment. The vulgarity is expressed particularly in the description of the frogs, “their blunt heads farting” as well as referring to them as “The great slime kings”. The use of the adjective ‘slime’ ties in with the verb ‘farting’ to create a semantic field of gross and vulgar language. Heaney also utilises the simile “poised like mud grenades”, to indicate danger. The noun ‘grenades’ implies the frogs are now violently unpredictable and Heaney is afraid. This is followed up by the idea that the frogs were ‘gathered there for vengeance’, creating an image that the frogs are an army seeking revenge on Heaney for ‘stealing’ their spawn. The noun ‘vengeance’ is an indication of what Heaney thinks the frog’s intentions are. Heaney recognises this revenge seeking attitude as he goes on to say “I knew / That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it”. This demonstrates his intimidation and fear of the frogs. The verb ‘clutch’ creates an impression of being entrapped. This could be a metaphor of the disillusionment he is feeling. Heaney imagines this as the moment of disillusionment about nature and life where he moves from the idyllic childhood world, where tadpoles burst from jelly, to the muck and ugliness of the adult world.

Similarly to Hamlet Act 3 Scene 4, we see in ‘Death of a Naturalist’ there is an obvious disillusionment where the topic of natural reproduction is involved. Heaney uses deliberately crude onomatopoeia such as ‘slap’ and ‘plop’, which are compared to ‘obscene threats’ to express his disgust at the surprising scene of natural reproduction. To him, this assault on the flax-dam is offensive and nauseating. ‘I sickened, turned, and ran.’ The verb ‘ran’ indicates the speaker is fearful of the event, and needs to escape. The idea that Heaney was ‘sickened’ creates a sense that he is squeamish about the reality of what he always viewed to be so innocent and fascinating. This is similar to Hamlet, in the sense that he is now unable to view his mother in the same light. Hamlet expresses his embarrassment towards his mother, claiming “Heaven’s face doth glow”, insinuating through the adjective ‘glow’, a face blushing, and that even heaven is ashamed of her actions with Claudius. Hamlet uses props of contrasting pictures of Claudius and his brother to Gertrude, to point out a contrast to the audience of the clear difference between the two men. Hamlet points out King Hamlet’s godlike countenance and courage through a series of allusions in list form to show how exceptionally wonderful his father was. Hamlet compares his father to ‘Mars’ and ‘Mercury’. The use of these proper nouns heighten his greatness. On the other hand, Hamlet likens Claudius to an infection in King Hamlet’s ear. ‘Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear, / Blasting his wholesome brother’. Whilst significantly linking with the way in which Claudius killed King Hamlet, this also demonstrates the idea that Claudius is an infection compared to Hamlet’s father and so will never come close to him. It also indicates his idea of his parent’s comparatively perfect marriage as rotten through the adjective ‘mildewed’, which implies infection and rotting. This is correspondent with Hamlets idea of love, which has been damaged by Gertrude allowing Claudius into her romantic life. Hamlet is disillusioned by what this new idea of what love is, as his perception of his mother’s morals have changed and he cannot come to terms with the reality of Gertrude’s actions.

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