25 February 2015
Hamlet and Oedipus the King
According to Aristotle’s characteristics of a typical tragic hero, which are described in his Poetics, the tragic hero is the one that belongs to nobility or high class, does not wholly deserve his or her misfortunate, and partially responsible for his or her own hamartia, which is a tragic flaw that leads to the downfall of a hero. What is more, Aristotle points out that, “The change of fortune [of a tragic hero] should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad.” The Aristotle’s traits of a tragic hero and a hero’s transition from being almost perfectly good and innocent (or normal) in the beginning of a tragedy and ending up with almost nothing can be observed in both Oedipus the King by Sophocles and Hamlet by William Shakespeare. Even though the two writings were composed in a completely different epoch, the protagonists themselves, Oedipus and Hamlet, share most of the Aristotle’s characteristics of a tragic hero, which makes each of the characters a tragic hero.
The nobility of Hamlet and Oedipus can be easily observed from almost the beginning of both the pieces of art. Hamlet belongs to the royal family of Denmark. His father, whose name is also Hamlet, was the previous king of Denmark until he got murdered by the current king of Denmark, Claudius. Hamlet thinks of his father as being perfect in everything. Horatio, the best friend of Hamlet, says that Hamlet’s father “was a goodly king”. Danish people certainly loved the older Hamlet as a king, and they loved him as much as they love Hamlet due to the father’s good deeds. He would definitely be a good ruler and he is supposed to be one after Claudius’s death. Claudius even tells Hamlet that he is “the most immediate to our throne”. In the Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus is considered to be the true hero of the city that he rules, Thebes. He once saved all the people of Thebes from a terrible monster with woman’s head, lioness’ body and eagle’s wings called Sphinx. Oedipus solved a very complicated monster’s riddle that could not be solved by anyone else and immediately gained fame in the city. People of Thebes were grateful and they made him a king of their city. What is more, Oedipus shares the same opinion about himself as the people of Thebes do. He speaks of himself as being a man “whose fame all men acknowledge”. The priest of Zeus refers to Oedipus as “[the] most powerful in all men’s eyes”. Hamlet and Oedipus are definitely two very remarkable noblemen that are respected and loved by a lot of people, but each of them has his own tragic flaw that results in the downfall.
Even though in the beginning of both the plays it seems like Oedipus and Hamlet are good people that hold an important position in their societies, they both lose almost everything by the end of each of the play. Appearance of the ghost of the Hamlet’s father at the gates where Horatio guards the castle of the royal family every other day triggers the chain of events that leads to downfall of Hamlet. As soon as Hamlet gets the idea from the ghost that he must avenge his father, this idea becomes the primary goal of his whole life, which eventually kills him. But timely act of revenge or murder of Claudius may not lead to the downfall. Instead, Hamlet’s inability to act is his main problem. He postpones the assassination several times during the play. Hamlet does not even kill Claudius while the second is in the middle of act of praying and is completely alone, justifying it by saying: “Am I then revenged to take him in the purging of his soul when he is fit and seasoned for his passage? No.” Hamlet eventually waits until Claudius kills him with the help of Laertes, though Hamlet manages to kill Claudius and avenge his father. In the beginning of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Oedipus is at his full potential of his whole life. Hamartia of the whole play for Oedipus is the knowledge of