Unintended consequences was the theme I was introducing to my writing class. It drives much of the action in literature, not to mention real life. I used the plot of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s longest play, as illustration.
Claudius – who has set the action in motion with his offstage, before-the-play killing of his brother, the king – is the self-inflicted victim of an amazing chain of unintended consequences. Not only that, but reviewing his schemes against his nephew Hamlet, I realized that Claudius seems to resemble Wile E. Coyote of the Roadrunner cartoons – or Tom of Tom and Jerry – or Sylvester in his plots against Tweety.
Each of those comic villains might light a stick of dynamite to destroy his enemy – only to have it blow up in his own face. Claudius too – his plot to become king by killing his brother and marrying his widowed sister-in-law results in his own death and the deaths of just about everyone else in Elsinore.
For example, he plots with his counselor, Polonius, to spy on Hamlet. Eventually, this leads to the deaths of Polonius and his daughter Ophelia, and son Laertes.
Directed by her father to spend time with Hamlet, she begins to fall in love with him. Polonius also spies on Hamlet, who kills him, thinking the person spying on him is Claudius. Mad with grief, Ophelia drowns.
Meanwhile, Claudius realizes that Hamlet is becoming dangerous, so he sends him to England, guarded by Rosencrantz and Guilderstern, who have a letter addressed to the English king, ordering him to kill Hamlet. Along the way, Hamlet reads the letter and changes it to make Rosencrantz and Guilderstern the victims.
Hamlet escapes when pirates attack the ship they are traveling on to England. Like the indestructible Roadrunner, he gets back to Denmark to continue the story.
When Laertes also returns to Denmark, wanting revenge on Hamlet for the deaths of his father and sister, Claudius enlists him in another crazy plot to kill Hamlet. They will have a friendly duel, only Laertes’ sword will have a bare point, dipped in poison just to make sure. As a backup plan, Claudius will give a poisoned goblet of wine to Hamlet.
As it turns out, Laertes is scratched with his own sword – and dies. So is Hamlet, and he does too. But not before he sees his mother drinking the poisoned wine by mistake, at which point he finally kills Claudius.
With all the major characters of the play dead – except for Hamlet’s friend Horatio – luckily a Norwegian prince named Fortinbras happens to be wandering through on his way back from defeating a Polish army. He decides to take over the Danish crown.
As anyone who has read or seen the play knows, I am not making any of this up.
Of course, Shakespeare’s genius in his writing makes us overlook – not even notice – the Looney Tunes plot. I saw one performance that was so involving, I heard gasps in the audience as Gertrude took the poisoned wine. And I was teary at Hamlet’s death – at the waste of a brilliant soul.
In real life, tragedy and comedy are pretty much the same. It all depends on how you look at it.