Character Analysis: Citizen Kane and Hamlet

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A screenshot from Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941).

Citizen Kane is a famous film – the Hamlet of the film world, really. Both center around a lonely, disconnected, self-psychoanalyzing man; both are masterpieces in their fields; and both have been studied, dissected, discussed, and over-analyzed nearly to death. But underneath the heavy patina of cultural association, intimidation and snobbishness both stories suffer from, there is a truly interesting story with complicated characters.

If you’ve somehow avoided hearing about Citizen Kane til now, Left Field Cinema gives an overview of the story, historical background and critical response. For most people, however, the story is fairly familiar. The media analysis wiki TV Tropes uses the film’s biggest spoiler as the title example for “a twist ending that used to be guarded carefully as a spoiler, [though, thanks to cultural osmosis,] everyone knows the ending anyway.” And Hamlet, of course, is even more famous.

Hamlet himself is a character tied to many others. He is the dead king’s son, the new king’s nephew, Ophelia’s lover, Horatio’s friend, and so on. In each of those relationships, there is a different dynamic – all of which go a long way towards making up the character. When alone, Hamlet feels powerless and lost. Charles Foster Kane is similarly powerless. After his separation from his mother and his failure to bond with his guardian Thatcher, he lacks any kind of authority in his life. Because of his wealth and status, even society has limited influence over him. Presented with this lack of authority, Kane tries to take control of every relationship he finds himself in.

Kane has two romantic relationships – first with the President’s niece Emily Monroe Norton, and later with singer Susan Alexander. Emily is a strong woman and a strong character, and refuses to let Kane control the relationship or ignore it in favor of his newspaper business. After years of a slowly deteriorating marriage, Kane finds the sweet ingenue Susan much more appealing. But after his scandal-ridden divorce from Emily and marriage to Susan, Kane pushes her to develop her light singing voice into opera, which oversteps Susan’s ability and makes her angry with Kane’s desire for control.

Hamlet, on the other hand, spends most of the play avoiding his designated love interest Ophelia, trying to keep her out of the court intrigue. When he is finally driven to interact with her, his harsh subterfuge shocks her into insanity. He has a much safer relationship with his ally Horatio, who acts as a voice of reason and clarity among the clandestine agendas. Horatio keeps Hamlet sane for as long as Hamlet lets him.

Kane also has a college friend as his ally in the newspaper business: Jedediah Leland. Leland starts out with high ideals that Kane at first shares (writing up a grand “Declaration of Principles” for the newspaper) and then eventually discards. As Leland starts to question Kane’s despotic treatment of the press, he realizes that he cannot keep working closely with him. Leland transfers away to the Chicago department of the paper, and is eventually fired after negatively reviewing Susan Alexander Kane’s first opera. In a poignant moment, he sends Kane the “Declaration of Principles” from the beginning of the paper. Kane reads it and rips it up: if he cannot control the relationship, he will refuse to be in it.

Both characters depend heavily on other characters to define them, and both are built around a core of loss and loneliness. Where Hamlet takes on a questionable mission to fill up his isolation, Kane strives to control others since he cannot control himself. And in the end, who is still left with a friend? Hamlet dies in Horatio’s arms; and when Kane dies, even his last wife’s last possession rolls from his hand and breaks.

October 24th, 2013