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

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  • The theme of disillusionment in Hamlet and Death of a Naturalist
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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.

It isn’t only Heaney who uses phonology to express disgust to the process of reproduction, Shakespeare also directs Hamlet to use plosive sounds of ‘B’ and ‘P’ words to indicate his anger and disillusionment towards the un-natural behaviour of Claudius and Gertrude. ‘Blasting’, ‘brother’, and ‘blood’, are all harsh sounding and may be used for Hamlet to express the anger in his voice. The sibilance in the words ‘seem’, ‘set’ and ‘assurance’ work in a similar way, however they create a tone that may be an indication to how Hamlet was disillusioned in the first place. The sibilance connotes poison and secrets which could now be how he views his past. The consonance of ‘rebellious’ and ‘hell’ highlight the accusation and anger that his mother has created a mess similar to ‘hell’, with all the connotations of wickedness associated with these two proper nouns.

Another poem in which we see Heaney develop the theme of disillusionment is ‘Blackberry Picking’. Heaney writes in a first person narrative to unlock his thoughts and allow the reader to follow his journey of disillusionment as he expresses his personal account of the changes he feels. It also allows the poet to use anecdotes to illustrate his disillusionment, “I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair’. The dynamic verb ‘crying’ indicates his disillusionment is emotional and hard to cope with. Similarly in Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1, Shakespeare uses form to imply anger and frustration. Hamlet speaks in prose to express these emotions, as he becomes aware that Ophelia could be deceiving him.

Heaney, again, has a clear two stanza structure to highlight a contrast between his views before and after he realises he has been disillusioned by the blackberries. In the first stanza, Heaney describes his excitement for picking blackberries, including the enthusiasm he feels for tasting them and picking them. “At first, just one, a glossy purple clot / Among others, red, green, hard as a know.” The adjectives ‘purple’ and ‘glossy’ describe the season’s first berry as rich in colour and taste. The adjective ‘purple’ in particular connotes royalty, implying he has high regards for the first berry. The metaphor “a glossy purple clot” compares the first berry as a blood clot, suggesting its rich juiciness. Additionally, this is amongst a collection of flesh/blood associations, insinuating the violent and sensual associations that Heaney sees in the berry picking process. Imagery and figurative language is heavily used in Blackberry picking to express the ongoing theme of disillusionment. The simile “hard as a knot” creates a comparison between the hard un-ripened berries, amongst the softer, ripened berries. The adjective ‘hard’ describes tightness, showing clear division between the two variations of the fruit, this could be a metaphor to highlight the change Heaney sees as he becomes older and more aware that the berry picking process is not always beautiful.

Hamlet’s disillusionment about women is often highlighted throughout the play as a whole, his anti-feminist beliefs may suggest he believes makeup is a mask that covers age with a pleasant view. Imagery is presented in Hamlet, as Shakespeare intends his character to create an idea that beauty corrupts honesty in an effort to express his disillusionment. “for the power of beauty will soon transform honesty from what it is to bawd, than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness.’ The personification of power creates an image that the abstract noun ‘beauty’ is a powerful ‘force’, of which should be addressed with caution as it can be deceitful. The verb ‘transform’ to describe honesty is parallel to Hamlet’s own feelings as he becomes aware of his own disillusionment. Alongside this, Shakespeare uses the metaphor to indicate that ‘I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God hath given you one face and you make yourselves another.’ The singular pronoun ‘you’ is ironic as he is using it in a plural manner to address all women, indicating the mass of his disillusionment. The dynamic verb ‘make’ suggests women create their faces themselves and therefore can trick people into getting the wrong idea. This also links the poem and the play together, as Hamlet and Heaney are both undergoing the same realisation of reality being different to what it once seemed.

The use of phonology across both texts is a key element to expressing the theme of disillusionment, the first being rhyme. Blackberry picking is majority un-rhymed, however ‘clot’ and ‘knot’ is one of only two full rhymes in the poem. The choice to rhyme just these two invites comparison, reinforcing the contrast between the ripe and un-ripe berries, mirroring the contrast between the two stanzas, and furthermore, the contrasting opinions from Heaney as he becomes aware of his disillusionment. However, Shakespeare uses rhyme to indicate a lack of sincerity. The rhyming couplet ‘mind’ and ‘unkind’ used by Ophelia is planned to make her sentence appear false. This is noted by Hamlet who then interrogates Ophelia by asking, “Ha, ha, are you honest?” The rhetoric is ironic as Hamlet already knows the answer. The adjective ‘honest’ suggests purity, therefore highlighting the obvious presence of disillusionment as he questions it. Ophelia’s response, “My Lord?” does not complete the adjacency pair and may indicate that she is avoiding answering the question. Furthermore, the term of address ‘Lord’ highlights a difference in status pulling them apart. This may be mirroring Hamlet’s awareness of disillusionment creating a gap between the two.

Alternatively to the first stanza in Blackberry picking, the second stanza shows a change in attitudes and opinions as Heaney becomes aware of the berries not always remaining rich and ripe. This disillusionment is expressed through alliteration of ‘F’ sounding words, “But when the bath was filled we found a fur, / A rat grey fungus, glutting on our cache.” ‘Filled we found a fur’ expresses quick disintegration of the berries during the decay process, as well as expressing Heaney’s disgust. The adjective ‘rat-grey’ to describe the fruit creates a revolting image whilst it introduces the idea of a rat-like existence feeding on the left overs of the healthy berries. This image of the mould engulfing the healthy berries helps to convey the pace of the mould spreading. To imply the value the children originally placed on the berries, Heaney uses the noun ‘cache’ as it is a place where precious goods are kept. Furthermore, the rotting blackberries act as an extended metaphor for the poets increasing disillusionment towards the agricultural lifestyle; the ‘rat-grey fungus’ may represent his aim to achieve more with his life and how it contaminates his enjoyment of his rural lifestyle, hence creating a sense of disillusionment for his life.

Despite the topics in question being very different, the protagonist in both texts are undergoing similar feelings as they watch their reality come to light. Heaney deals with a loss of innocence as he matures in regards to nature, whereas Hamlet is presented as being disillusioned by women. There is an underlying disillusionment towards sex and reproduction present in all texts, yet each writer expresses it differently.

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