One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…and apparently Shakespeare
Over this three day weekend, I stumbled upon one of my favorite movies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Academy Award winner for Best Picture stars younger Jack Nicholson, Danny Devito, and Christopher Lloyd. This movie is about a criminal, McMurphy, who gets sentenced to a mental ward in order to escape prison. He wants to serve his sentence in the hospital environment and pretends to be mentally ill in order to be placed in the ward. He starts to take advantage and be the leader of his fellow patients inside while he butts heads with the head nurse, Nurse Ratched. The tension between Ratchet and McMurphy grows as the plot thickens and in the end McMurphy falls. On the surface it may not relate to Shakespeare, but upon further review it bares resemblance thematically to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The main connection between Hamlet and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest lies in the two lead characters, Hamlet and McMurphy respectively, and the series of events that surround them. In the beginning, McMurphy is disgruntled with his current situation about being sentenced by is not terribly upset, and upon meeting Nurse Ratchet he conforms to her policies and ways. He establishes himself as the leader of his fellow patients when he realizes they all fear the authority of Nurse Ratched instead of thinking about how to one day live in the real world outside of the ward. Upon doing so, he upsets Nurse Ratched when he gambles with the other patients and wins all of their rationed cigarettes. In addition, he asks if she could change the work schedule so that he and his friends in the ward could watch the World Series. In both instances, she calls him out and humiliates him in front of his peers. On the other hand, Hamlet starts off as upset from the death of his father and the fact his mother so readily married his uncle and giving up the throne to him. Claudius, the uncle, tries to suppress Hamlet and keep an eye on him in case he tries to pull off any schemes or causes any trouble. This is very similar to how Nurse Ratched heavily drugs all of the patients with a concoction of daily doses that are required daily and she also intimidates everyone by watching them through the window of her warden office (a symbol of her tyranny and power). Upon seeing the ghost of his father, Hamlet seeks vengeance of Claudius for the murder of his father. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, after a moment of realization, McMurphy seeks revenge on Ratched for how she humiliated him and how she oppresses everyone in the institution.
There are more similarities between these two characters, including their relationship with characters and how they use their wit. Both Hamlet and McMurphy attempt to overthrow and take revenge on the tyrants in their worlds, Claudius and Ratched. Both of these tyrants try to manipulate those below them and make it appear as though all is well in their state. Claudius does this by making Hamlet pretend as though he is happy to make it appear he is a strong leader like King Hamlet. Ratched does this by drugging the patients heavily, watching them from her office window, keeping McMurphy in check, and keeping everyone on a schedule. Hamlet and McMurphy react in similar ways, by keeping their plans low-key and pretending to conform to their tyrants’ ways. Hamlet pretends to be loyal and obedient to Claudius while McMurphy pretends to be truly mentally unstable as though he actually belongs in their (because he is actually not mentally unstable, he just said he was to get out of prison). They both use their wit with other characters. For example, McMurphy escapes the ward to take everyone out on an unauthorized fishing trip and he also tricks everyone to gamble more than they should in their games (poor Martini). On the other hand, Hamlet is very quick in making sure the guards actually saw the ghost of King Hamlet and he also wants to make sure Claudius killed his father.
Hamlet and McMurphy are both anti-heroes asthey are the protagonists of their stories but don’t have all of the ideal qualities of the idealized hero. Being tragedies, the anti-hero ultimately meets their downfall and these two tragedies are no exception. Upon his death in trying to restore the “rotten state of Denmark”, Hamlet dies and he is given a fitting military style burial for all of the recognized good he has done as a noble, respected figure. Similarly after receiving a lobotomy by the hands of Nurse Ratched, the Chief smothers McMurphy with a pillow as he wants his friend to be remembered for who he was and not in the mindless state he was bound to live due to the operation. Thus, the Chief kills his friend and allows him to die with honor as he remembered who he was and what he stood for. This prompted the Chief to symbolically use the sink, that McMurphy tried to throw at the window, to escape and run away. It is amazing how a movie so different in the setting and time can parallel the literature of the past.