Which Corrupts More: Power or Powerlessness?
The difference between power and powerlessness is slight. It is all about control—too much, or an utter lack thereof. Hamlet, a classic character of literature, is completely corrupted by powerlessness. It is the zenith of his downfall. He seems above the ways of the conniving courtiers, but is trapped within them. Ophelia, Laertes, and the balanced Horatio, all call Hamlet noble. The poor man was never meant for court life and was never meant to be a murderer, but gets caught up in the twisting lies and schemes surrounding him and can’t survive. He is but a human.
Hamlet is the epitome of the human experience. He faces unspeakable tragedy, confused identity, love, loss, tough decision, and simply existing in a chaotic world. The characters surrounding him in his whirlwind of a life shape his personality, and reflect different parts of him. Claudius represents his need for vengeance and fear. Gertrude stands for family and confused relation. Horatio is nobility and intelligence. Laertes reflects his passion and confusion. Ophelia shows his ability to love and what happens when he experiences loss. Polonius demonstrates gluttony and a hunger for power, and he dies quite early. Power, while dangerous, isn’t as extreme as impotence or lack of power. Hamlet experiences all of these things—and more—and the characters reflect them back as they describe his actions and demeanor. Ultimately, it is his lack of power and control over himself and his situation that kills him. Hamlet is undefinable. Hamlet is complex, like everyone of us; and, like everyone of us, has the capacity to be a hero deep inside of him. Hamlet is human.
Many experts of English say that, when reading literature, one should distance themselves from the piece and observe it from arm’s length, as an art form. They claim that the reader should make no effort to draw personal connections from the work, to make assumptions, or to put it into any sort of context that would potentially redefine it. When considering such characters as Hamlet, Holden Caulfield, Stephen Dedalus, Asher Lev, Huck Finn, Willy Loman, and the like, it is almost impossible to consider such an approach. While each of these characters’ creators came from incredibly different backgrounds from across the globe, they all share similar themes and explorations of what it means to be human. Before any of these people reach their great epiphany, they go through phases of extreme powerlessness that drive them into the mud. None of them achieve great power. None of them do anything particularly extraordinary. It is the mundaneness of their lives that makes the reader intrigued, for the characters’ struggles may parallel their own.
Good literature allows the reader to explore something unsavory, some embarrassing or heartbreaking facet of their existence, through the printed adventures of a novel. Corruption, while having a negative connotation, isn’t all that awful. It is defined as “dishonest or fraudulent conduct… typically involving bribery.” A book is tempting, inviting, encouragingof an unsuspecting reader to pick it up and delve into its smooth pages. That expedition through corrupting powerlessness is what leaves the unexpecting reader a changed, more thoughtful, and even a tad more empathetic individual. Just like Hamlet, we often find ourselves lost and trapped. That pushes us to do crazy, uncharacteristic things. A lack of power, a lack of control, is what drives us to the edge—a far more profound, personal experience than simply being lavished in absolute power.