Bill Unwin's pretense to be Hamlet in Graham Swift's novel "Ever After"

An analysis of the insignificance of life on the basis of Bill Unwin's failed pretense to be Hamlet

Term Paper, 2013

9 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1 Insignificance of Life

2 Bill Unwin’s Pretense to Be Hamlet
2.1 Shared Character Traits
2.1 Differences between These Figures

3 Swift’s Intention to Chose Hamlet as a Reference Text and to Create His Narrator like This

4 A Story for Reflection

Works Cited

1 Insignificance of Life

“I am who I am. I am Bill Unwin (there, I declare myself!). I am Hamlet theDane” (Swift 173). This citation neatly covers what Graham Swift’s novel EverAfter is about; a no one identifies himself with a world-famous figure, namelyWilliam Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to provide some structure and meaning to hisirrelevant existence.

Swift tries to picture the insignificance of life and therefore, focuses thestory of this middle-aged desperate and childless widower Bill Unwin, whorecently survived an attempted suicide. Searching for clues to understand hislife, Unwin addresses themes such as love, loss, identity, mortality, and theephemeral nature of life. In order to give his own existence a sense of meaning,Bill empathizes with Hamlet, but in the end the reader has to discover thatthese two characters have nothing in common and Unwin’s emptiness of life isstressed. So, if you take all of Unwin’s façade and shape away he tried toconstruct from Hamlet, no meaning to his life, rather nothing remains, thus,this novel is to show how meaningless and transient life actually is.

Therefore, to illustrate this occurrence in this paper, first of all, sharedcharacter traits between Bill Unwin and Hamlet the Dane are listed to later ondestroy the illusion of Bill being Hamlet by outlining the differences betweenthese two figures. Following, the emptiness of Unwin’s life is pointed out andreasons of creating the protagonist like this are specified. Finally, Swift’sintention is reached as the overall insignificance of life becomes obvious.

2 Bill Unwin’s Pretense to Be Hamlet

2.1 Shared Character Traits

The references to Shakespeare’s Hamlet already start to occur from thebeginning of the novel. Thus, the narrator Bill Unwin introduces himself to thereader by comparing himself to Hamlet: “I have imagined myself - surreptitiously, presumptuously, appropriately, perversely - as Hamlet” (Swift 5). In the following, several other similarities between Bill and Hamlet will bedescribed. Unwin is grabbed by Hamlet’s distraught mediations on the meaning oflife and the vengeance theme (see Swift 6). “Hamlet is actuated, orimmobilized, by two questions: 1) Is there or is there not a point to it all? 2)Shall I kill Claudius (…) or shall I kill myself?” (Swift 6). Like Hamlet in hisfirst question after the meaning of life, the narrator himself looks for thefullness of being, for firm ground on which to base his life (see Jacobmeyer“Graham Swift, Ever After: A Study in Intertextuality”). Trying to recover hissense of self, Bill is sitting in some college gardens and reflecting on parts ofhis being. There he is contemplating the meaning of life (see Swift 11).According to that, Hamlet and Unwin both can be seen as meditative andmelancholy people.

The allusions to Hamlet become extensive when Bill is thinking of thereasons for his father’s suicide, “Unwin’s prose [then] becomes permeated byechoes of Shakespeare’s play” (Malcom 145). Just like Hamlet the narratorblames his stepfather Sam for his father’s death, “I thought Sam killed myfather. So to speak” (Swift 12). In 1945 Bill’s mother Silvia started having anaffair with the fairly young American man named Sam, later, in 1946, Silvia’shusband commited suicide. For a long time Bill believed by having had thisaffair with his mother, Sam had caused his father’s suicide and therefore is hismurderer. Thus, Unwin again emphasizes the features he has in common withHamlet: “Not to mention with the role [Sam is] playing of Claudius to myHamlet,” (Swift 159) or, “he is here (Claudius at his prayers) to atone for hispart in my father’s death” (Swift 166). Moreover, Bill describes his stepfatheras his “arch-enemy Sam” (Swift 160), who failed to make him his child (seeSwift 161). The same appears to Hamlet, who does not accept Claudius as afather and loathes him.

One further similarity is the need for revenge both Hamlet and Unwindevelop, but both are reluctant to act upon; “So what should I have done?Drawn my poniard and stabbed his unguarded back?” (Swift 69). Instead, theylive unhappily and without being able to speak openly about matters with theidea that their stepfathers murdered their fathers. Besides, their fathers’ deaths were life-changing experiences, Hamlet grew mad and the narrator’s life “has been so irreversible moulded” (Swift 173).

In addition to this, Unwin likens people in his surroundings with otherfigures from Hamlet to make his identification with Hamlet more reliable.1 Forexample, he compares his wife Ruth with Ophelia and his mother withGertrude. “After all, [Ruth] more than once played Ophelia - the last time, youmight say, for real” (Swift 5), the narrator alludes to Ophelia’s commitedsuicide, because Ruth had been terminally ill with lung cancer and thereforeself-contained ended her life like Ophelia.2 Continuing, Unwin’s relationshipwith his mother can be interpreted as an oedipal one just like Hamlet’s isusually portrayed (see Craps 435). A supporting example might be: “Do up mybuttons, sweetie, would you?” (Swift 18). Furthermore, Hamlet and Unwin donot blame their mothers as much for having remarried with unseemly haste asthey blame their stepfathers for having a new relationship with their mothers.This indicates their pursuit of protecting their mothers.

2.2 Differences between These Figures

On the other hand, differences between Unwin and Hamlet are becomingincreasingly evident throughout the novel. In terms of physical characteristicswe can see that the narrator is 52, while Hamlet is about 30, probably evenabout 18 because he is called a student (see Shakespeare 174). Regarding theircareers, Bill Unwin began his as a lecturer and later on became Ruth’smanager, even though her career predominantly managed itself. Due to asubstantial sum that his stepfather had donated to the university, Bill now is afellow at a prestigious university. As one notices, Unwin is not able to competewith the son of a king, who is already born with an important role in society.Bill Unwin is a loser figure rather than an influential man, a “dowdy forgottenmoth” (Swift 6f.) as he calls himself. He has never achieved particular successin anything.


1 This can only be outlined briefly because Unwin’s pretense to be Hamlet is focused in thisanalysis and a detailed comparison with other figures would exceed the scope of this paper.

2 In Shakespeare’s Hamlet it is not obvious if Ophelia really commits suicide, but derived from Swift’s quote his assumption is that she does.

Excerpt out of 9 pages


Bill Unwin's pretense to be Hamlet in Graham Swift's novel "Ever After"
An analysis of the insignificance of life on the basis of Bill Unwin's failed pretense to be Hamlet
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
718 KB
Hamlet, Ever After, Graham Swift, Bill Unwin, Shakespeare, love, loss, identity, mortality, nature of life
Quote paper
Lena Groß (Author), 2013, Bill Unwin's pretense to be Hamlet in Graham Swift's novel "Ever After", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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