The Prince and Pip: the significance of Hamlet in ‘Great Expectations’

In Chapter Thirty One of Great Expectations Pip visits his friend Wopsle in a humorously poor production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, later writing that he “miserably went to bed” upon returning home, and during his sleep dreamt of playing “Hamlet to Miss Havisham’s ghost”. Thus, here lies in this deliberate insertion of Shakespearean high drama (albeit, bitingly mocked by Dickens) a connection between the two works that has prompted literary scholars to search deeply for a more significant interpretation of their relationship. Though the question of what the two works mean in relation to each other has already been explored in depth, as well as the analysis of similarities between the two texts that are easily identifiable (ghosts, revenge, father figures and sons, etc.), there remains an unexplored course of inquiry that revolves specifically around the connections relating to Prince Hamlet and Pip. With a nexus between the two characters so intentionally created by Dickens, it is hard not to question what the two characters provide each other, or rather what it is about Prince Hamlet that imposes meaning onto Pip.  What is Dickens trying to tell us about Pip and the nature of youth? Maybe it is the Prince and Pip’s individual moments of crisis, their mirrored experiences with family, death, and expected behaviors that reveal truths about Pip and his story.

In short, Great Expectations is centered on adolescence and the trials of being raised in the image others have imposed upon your life. The novel is told by Pip, who explains his unprecedented fortune of being raised from the lower ranks of society to achieve financial security. We read about his transformation from a poor blacksmith apprentice to a wealthy, high society gentleman, learning his fortune was given, not earned, and that he himself had been nothing but a vessel by Magwitch and Havisham have used to impose that which they themselves could not achieve.

Francis Moretti explains that youth “becomes for our modern culture the age which holds the ‘meaning of life’”. Pip believes he has control over his life, that he alone has created this meaning, hence the expression of internal fear at the end of Chapter Thirty One after realizing the possibility of being a pawn (a “Hamlet to Miss Havisham’s ghost”).

Similarly, Prince Hamlet is himself a pawn; an actor through which his father can seek revenge upon his treasonous brother Claudius. In addition, Claudius and Gertrude expect him to act in a particular way, to their liking and expectations. In the second scene of the first act, Gertrude tells Hamlet not return to school in Wittenberg, to which Hamlet responds “I shall in all my best obey you, Madam.” For Pip, Hamlet’s fatal end bleakly encapsulates the fate of the individual’s psyche and personal character once one subscribes to the will of others and surrenders their individuality to one that is manufactured or forced upon them by outside actors. Pip’s lack of control over his life therefore prompts this direct connection between the two, for it is his fear of losing autonomy and realizing his free will is just an illusion that causes him distress.

Though, Prince Hamlet and Pip are not at all the same age; Pip is young, in his early twenties when he lives in London, while Hamlet is said to be thirty years old. Why then is it so easy to think of Prince Hamlet as being a young man? This is because, according to Moretti, our culture chooses to forget Hamlet’s age, or rather “has had to alter it, and picture the Prince of Denmark as a young man.” It is because Hamlet openly expresses titular, unavoidable emotions that flood the unstable, always changing and never fair modern lives of the young that we have reimagined the character of Hamlet as a boy in a crisis of identity in the wake of his father’s death. We have altered the image of the play in order to fit it into more realistic representations of our lives, rather than attempting to impose or alter our world to fit into the realm of the play. In this way, with Hamlet functioning as a symbol for indecision, moody and uncertain actions, idleness, performing to either abide by or defy the rules authorities have established, a victim of fate, a symbol for vicissitudinal nature of youth,   Pip recognizing himself in the Prince, and seeing the forces that control Prince Hamlet throughout the play as being familiar to the ones he feels control himself.

It’s these forces that profoundly alter the actions of both men. For Hamlet, the arrival of his father’s ghost prompts him to begin acting erratically. In spite of those around him, the Prince defies orders, breaks Ophelia’s heart, kills Polonius, and ultimately destroys his entire family by leading his mother to be killed, as well as himself. But all of this, every event preceding the arrival of his father’s ghost, occurs due to Hamlet’s inability to act in any direct manner and achieve the desired end goal. He is a master of wit and manipulation, producing an insanity that manifests itself in Ophelia, as well as the tragic and impossible conclusion of the plot. For Pip, it is through his status as a gentleman that he acts out of bounds of what he would have become had he not met Magwitch. It is by chance that he escapes his low social rank, and consistently throughout the novel Pip acts out the part given to him, in effect producing his own unhappiness by playing someone else in life.

Both narratives exhibit lessons about the perils of playing a part, as well as the destructive nature of presenting false images to the world. For Pip, Prince Hamlet exemplifies the worst of this reality, and it is in this way that Prince Hamlet’s presence within Pip’s narrative functions as a symbol; it is not the play itself that is significant but the character of Hamlet. Rather than existing solely in the context of the play, or in a parallel relationship with the novel, Dickens has placed the Prince beneath Pip, as a means of support, imposing external meaning and emotion onto a character who, although does not have the same story as Hamlet, could indirectly become associated with the role of the subordinate son to a father or authoritative figure and assume the crisis of identity and emotional distress (upon the arrival of Magwitch) without the baggage of having to put Pip through similar trials, enabling the “punch” of Hamlet, its depth and meaning, to be transposed onto the modern age.

This connection between Prince Hamlet and Pip is indeed significant, for it draws a parallel between their narratives in order to illustrate what exactly is at stake for Pip, which is important to understand once Magwitch reveals the part he played in altering Pip’s life. In many ways, Great Expectations seems to refashion the themes present in Shakespeare’s work and apply it to Pip’s struggle to deal with the death of his family, the lies he has been told, and the hard truths that eventually find him. ‘

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