Essay: Compare Hamlet and Oedipus

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Hamlet and Oedipus

Though written centuries apart, Sophocles play Oedipus Rex (or Oedipus the King) and William Shakespeare's Hamlet touch upon many of the same themes and images, albeit with slightly different results. Both feature protagonists seeking to avenge the murder of their father but who end up causing the death of their mother, as a result of the hubris that defines their respective characters. However, they also differ in important areas, and it is these areas of difference that reveal the most about what either play seems to be saying about hubris, family relations, and the question of fate. By comparing and contrasting the characters of Hamlet and Oedipus with an eye towards how their hubris affects their relationship with their parents and the course of either play, one can see how Hamlet represents a kind of evolution of the Oedipus myth, wherein the actions of Oedipus' curse are transferred onto Hamlet's uncle while the hubris that defines him remains, such that Hamlet is far more successful in his quest for justice than Oedipus even as he is brought down by the same tragic flaw.

The first obvious connection between Hamlet and Oedipus is either character's relationship (or lack thereof) with his father. At the beginning of both plays, the titular character's father is dead, although Oedipus is not yet aware of this fact. This does not really matter for Oedipus, however, because even though he is not yet aware that Laius is his father, he nevertheless decides to seek vengeance for Laius and says, "since chance / has driven me into that one's powers, / therefore I shall fight for him in this matter, / as if for my own father, and I shall try / everything, seeking to find the one who / committed the murder" (Sophocles 270-275). Hamlet decides much the same thing when he learns of his father's murder at the hands of his uncle, when he remarks "The time is out of joint: O. cursed spite, / that ever I was born to set it right!" (Shakespeare 1.5.188-190). Both characters feel an innate sense of duty to their fathers and a need to right the injustice done to them, even as these fathers are revealed to be less than ideal; Laius bears some responsibility for his own death due to his arrogance, and Hamlet's father is "doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, / and for the day confined to fast in fires, / till the foul crimes done in [his] days of nature / are burnt and purged away" (Shakespeare 1.5.10-13). Of course, Oedipus is the one responsible for his own father's death while Hamlet's uncle is the villain in the latter case, but this distinction cannot be properly understood until one considers either character's relationship with his mother.

Oedipus' relationship with his mother is well-known, as it is perhaps the defining feature of the play; although patricide is widely considered a grave offense, the taboo against incest seems to run deeper and often evokes a more visceral response. This is likely why, when the ghost of Hamlet's father is revealing the truth of his death, he calls his brother "that incestuous, that adulterate beast," and claims that "with witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts, / [he] won to his shameful lust / the will of my most seeming-virtuous queen" (Shakespeare 1.542-46). Oedipus' crime, then, is transferred onto Hamlet's uncle, while Hamlet retains the role of investigator and avenger. This represents the first key difference between Hamlet and Oedipus, because while Oedipus unknowingly marries his mother and thus commits a grave offense, he loves her and treats her with kindness. Hamlet, on the other hand, knows the truth about his father's death and thus treats his mother with contempt, exclaiming "O, most wicked speed, to post / with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!" (Shakespeare 1.2.156-157). The importance of the difference between Hamlet and Oedipus in regards to their mothers will become clearer when one considers the final, and perhaps most crucial, similarity between the two characters: their hubris.

Hamlet and Oedipus both suffer from hubris, and this hubris is ultimately responsible for their fates. In his confidence, Oedipus calls down a curse upon his own head when he dictates the punishment for the person found guilty of Laius murder, saying that:

I ban this man, whoever he is, from all land over which I hold power and the throne.

I decree that no one shall receive him or speak to him, nor make him partner in prayers to the gods or sacrifices, nor allow to him holy water; but instead that everyone must expel him from their homes, as this man is the source of our pollution. (Sophocles 240-248)

Oedipus is the very "pollution" he condemns (much like the something that "is rotten in the state of Denmark"), and while this initial declaration might be considered well within his rights as king, he compounds his own curse and reveals the extent of his hubris when he talks with Tiresias, the prophet (Sophocles 248, Shakespeare 1.4.90). Oedipus does not believe Tiresias when the old man tells him that he is actually "the unholy polluter of this land," and responds with insults that Tiresias merely shrugs off, saying "You are truly pathetic, hurling these insults, / which soon every man here will hurl at you" (Sophocles 372, 392-393). Up until the very end, Oedipus just makes his eventual fate worse and worse because he is incapable of believing that he might be responsible for Laius' death, even as all evidence increasingly points toward this being the case. His ultimate downfall, then, is his own fault, because even though he was apparently fated to murder his father and sleep with his mother due to prophecy, he is the one responsible both for acting out this prophecy and dictating his own punishment.

Hamlet suffers from hubris as well, but again, not in the same way as Oedipus, because Hamlet is not actually guilty of the murderous deed himself. Instead, Hamlet's hubris stems from his self-imposed isolation, wherein he abandons his interpersonal relationships in order to devote himself to revenge. This is crucial to understand because it serves to demonstrate how Hamlet, in some ways, is a kind of modern Oedipus, freed from both the crime and the ignorance of that crime which define Oedipus, but nevertheless afflicted with the kind of hubris that tends to make one imagine all sorts of nasty comeuppances for one's enemies while never imagining that the same consequences might be turned on them. Thus, understanding Hamlet's hubris requires an appreciation of the way in which his character functions as a kind of evolved Oedipus who has shed the character traits responsible for his downfall the first time while retaining the tragic flaw that helps to define the character.

Where Oedipus represents the destruction of familial bonds through ignorant hubris, Hamlet represents the destruction of all interpersonal relationships through an all-consuming hubris in his own knowledge and intelligence; understanding this helps to answer "the so-called 'Hamlet problem' -- in brief, why he does not just go out […] and dispatch his uncle straight away, without all this shilly-shallying?" (Searle 324-325). Hamlet's pride is in his own machinations, such that he actually ends up losing sight of his ostensible goal (avenging his father's death), and instead focuses on getting this vengeance in the best possible way. Put another way, Hamlet's interest shifts away from the actual goal and towards the means of achieving that goal, to the point that it appears he might not ever achieve it by the end of the play (considering that he is sent to England for some time). Both characters ultimately suffer from hubris, then, but because Hamlet is divorced from the actual crime, he suffers less from it; even though Hamlet dies, he is able to revenge himself upon everyone else in the play, such that he dies triumphantly, whereas Oedipus lives, but only as a blinded, banished wanderer forced to relive the consequences of his hubris.

Although both Hamlet and Oedipus suffer at the end of their respective stories, Hamlet can at least be viewed as having succeeded in his goal, whereas Oedipus, although successful in discovering Laius' killer, can only be viewed as successful in that he enacted his own punishment upon himself. This distinction reveals the key difference between either play, because it demonstrates the true "enemy" in either case and goes some way towards explaining the "longer-range Oedipus-Hamlet complex," wherein parricidal tendencies may be viewed as a desire to confront authority and whatever social and cultural hegemony exists (Gillespie 85). Both characters rail against the social systems in which they find themselves, but only Hamlet is successful in taking down that social system; in fact, by the end of the play, Denmark has been sacked and the entire royal family is dead, whereas Oedipus' conclusion ends with Thebes and its political system firmly in place.

This is because in Oedipus, the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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