A few caveats before I begin:
The Last of Us Part 2 is not a re-telling of Hamlet, like Ian McEwan's recent novel Nutshell or The Lion King. But all revenge fiction owes a debt to the most seminal and popular revenge story in the western canon, so – as always – it's worth holding up these two stories and seeing how our understanding of one may inform or challenge our understanding of the other.
Also: I don't know whether or not the developers were consciously influenced by Hamlet, and I'd just like to point out that for the purpose of this discussion it doesn't really matter. I'm just looking at how we might compare these two stories; I'm not trying to claim I know the writers' intentions or influences. With that said, I think it's a fair assumption to make that Dr Uckmann must have had Hamlet either consciously or unconsciously in his mind. Write any piece of revenge fiction and how can Hamlet not have at least crossed your mind at one point? By the way, I noticed a coffee shop in the game's Seattle called "Seneca", the Roman writer of revenge tragedies that inspired our boy Shakey. Coincidence? Probably.
Is Ellie Prince Hamlet?
Not quite, but they're definitely very comparable characters, structurally at least. Hamlet and Ellie are young characters who, at the start of each story, go through the trauma of their father's murder (adopted father in Ellie's case, but it amounts to the same thing) and furthermore both characters know who did the deed.
Ellie and Hamlet strap in for the long, bloody march towards revenge. The obstacles they face on this journey are different: Ellie's quest is a physical one; Abby needs to be hunted down first, and unlike everyone's favourite sulky Dane, Ellie is in no doubt what to do once she finds her target.
Hamlet's obstacles are far more interior: the barrier to revenge lies within his mind. He initially feels the need to try and verify that the ghost told the truth and Claudius is indeed the guy who killed his father, but even after this confirmation (through the staged 'mousetrap') he still misses opportunities to kill Claudius and dallies, preferring instead to sulk around Elsinore brooding on the futility of life and harassing Ophelia and Gertrude.
Hamlet is obviously a more interesting and complex character than Ellie, with more opaque and ambiguous motivations. I favour the psychoanalytic reading, by the way, that Hamlet is actually far more disturbed by his mother's act of marrying his uncle than his uncle's act of killing his father. And so the act of revenge for Hamlet is partly personal, but it also originates from a sense of family duty. Ellie's revenge motive on the other hand has nothing to do with duty. She believes in it far more than Hamlet does, and for her it's entirely personal.
But despite these differences, one very important aspect both both Ellie and Hamlet's characters share is the deterioration of both their moral natures and their mental states. Both let revenge engulf them to the extent that they become numb to collateral damage. A theme of revenge tragedy is the way it swallows up everything and everyone around it, and victims like Nora, Owen, Mel, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildernstern die more just because they're in the track of the runaway revenge train rather than because they're actually the targets of revenge.
Both Hamlet and Ellie are faced with having to remind themselves why they actually want revenge in the first place: before the climax of each story it takes a nagging ghost or the torments of PTSD to put them back on their bloody course.
Is Abby Laertes or Claudius?
She's a bit of both. Like Claudius she's the target of Ellie's revenge after her murder of Joel/Old Hamlet, and like Claudius she is a character who is initially presented as the story's villain, but then it's later on we are given reasons to sympathise with them.
tLoU goes further than Hamlet in this way, and pretty much makes the whole second half of the game's story about trying to re-contextualise Abby's decision for the player. Shakespeare does not offer the same level of connection with Claudius, and perhaps doesn't need to, since he is content with only going part of the way towards winning our sympathies. He's the villain; he's just not evil, and this is fine because it's a wonderful counterpart to our hero Hamlet who isn't 'good'.
Abby also has some Laertes DNA too. Laertes is Hamlet's foil just as Abby is Ellie's. Laertes has nothing against Hamlet until Hamlet kills his father Polonius, and then Laertes becomes obsessed with the same desire to avenge his father's death that Hamlet has. And though Ellie isn't the one who killed Abby's father, Abby's father's death is still reminiscent of Polonius' death. Both characters died because they were 'in the way', killed by a reckless and desperate character who didn't seem to value their life all that much. And both fathers' deaths triggered the vengeance of their children. Abby and Laertes both ultimately succeed in avenging their fathers' deaths, though at great personal cost.
Shakespeare gives us a few scenes with Laertes returning to Elsinore to show us his perspective and help us understand his desire for revenge against the prince. Like Macduff in Macbeth, by this point in the tragedy the audience undoubtedly feels that even though they're not the tragic hero and we don't know them so well, this minor character is more moral than the story's protagonist, and so when they finally clash swords, our feelings are conflicted between the character we know well vs the character who has more sympathetic motives. This is obviously similar to tLoU's conclusion.
TloU takes the Laertes foil character and beefs up the role, giving us Abby's perspective halfway through the game and making it as much about her story as it is about Ellie's story. It's this symmetry and balance which makes it clear, in my mind, that tLoU part 2 is a revenge story but not a revenge tragedy, because the narrative trajectory is not the plummet downwards that all tragedies are, but rather it's more of a V-shape; we plummet downwards tragically as Ellie but then when we switch to Abby we go the other way, towards redemption, since of course her story is the opposite and actually begins with the act of revenge and then follows the restoration of her 'humanity'.
Is Ellie's guitar Yorick?
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