Oedipus Rex and Hamlet Essay Sample
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Oedipus Rex and Hamlet Essay Sample
Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are two tragedies with regicide at the centre of their plots. The theme of the first play by Sophocles is subjection of free will to divine design. William Shakespeare’s play is also about the limitation of man in respect to the divine. The latter is however more concerned with the limitations of human knowledge, and the paralysis of the will when one confronts this limitation. The arrogance that stands against divine will is also a theme discovered in both plays. In the Sophocles’ play the effort is to avert the higher will, and it is demonstrated that those who make the effort suffer accordingly. Hamlet, on the other hand, explores the consequences of intellectual arrogance, that which strives for absolute knowledge.
Shakespeare’s play is written in the context of the Renaissance, which was characterized by the rise of humanism. It is a philosophy that maintains that the human potential should be allowed full reign in order that society and knowledge advance. In the beginning the Renaissance imagination was fired by the possibility that absolute knowledge is in the grasp of the human, which was instrumental in establishing the scientific method as the basic criterion of truth. But as the movement progressed the earlier positivism merged into skepticism. Michel de Montaigne in France espoused a philosophy that maintains that appearances are not to be equated with reality. All effort towards knowledge is an ongoing venture, where the soul grapples with appearances in order to arrive at understanding. The influence of Montaigne is obvious in every aspect of the play Hamlet.
The protagonist delivers the longest soliloquies in the entire Shakespearian opus, in which he grapples with appearance and its import. This is above all the theme of the play. Hamlet’s is an act of heroic inner exploration. The ghost of his dead father comes and tells him that he has been murdered at the hands of his brother Claudius, who is now sitting on the throne of Denmark having married his widow. He is told to avenge this murder. Apart from this there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that what the ghost says is true. And yet he is paralyzed by indecision, because he wants “facts” before he can act. We know that he was a student before he was called back to the palace by the news of his father’s death. We assume that he is fired by the Renaissance spirit that harks after facts. The following oration of Hamlet demonstrates this spirit:
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! (II.ii.293–297)
It is almost a transcription of a passage from the Renaissance humanist Pico Della Mirandola, and indeed it discloses the true context of the play. We know that Hamlet is not cowardly, or lacking in initiative. He duels with Laertes, and he stabs Polonius in a compulsive streak. He feigns madness convincingly, and stages an elaborate play in the court designed to expose Claudius’ guilt. But in order to carry out revenge he must be absolutely sure of guilt, and here Hamlet is stuck. It is the tragedy whereby he falls. He does take his revenge in the end, but only after he is mortally wounded, and being the cause of the death of many more who are innocent. The final message of Shakespeare is that there is a price to pay if one aspires to God-like knowledge, and this is the paralysis of the will.
Sophocles conveys the same message in a more forthright way. The protagonist here comes to know God’s will and wants to avert it. But in the very effort to avert it he fulfils it. This is not only the case with Oedipus, but with all those who want to avert the design of God. When Laius and Jocasta, the king and queen of Thebes, learn through a Delphic oracle that their son is destined to kill the father and cohabit with the mother, they decide to kill their first-born. The baby is tied by the legs and given to a servant to dispatch in the forest. But the servant takes mercy on the infant and hands it over to a shepherd to carry it off to distant Corinth.
The royal couple in Corinth is childless, and so they bring up the infant as their own. As the youthful prince of Corinth Oedipus consults at a Delphic shrine and learns of the same oracle, that he is destined to kill his father and cohabit with his mother. He loves the king and queen of Corinth as his father and mother, and therefore to avert the divine decree he flees the land. He finds himself at a crossroads near Thebes, where he accosts Laius, his biological father, mistakes him for a bandit and kills him. He then goes on to win the favor of the Theban people by solving the riddle of the Sphinx, and they place him on the vacant throne, where he is obliged to marry the widow of the late king, and thus fulfilling the second part of the prophecy, having married his mother. Therefore, the three who try to avert their fate – Laius, Jocasta and Oedipus – all end up fulfilling the same by the very act of running away.
The fact that the divine decree is repugnant does not effect the central message, which is that human will cannot override the divine one. Examining the Delphic oracle, Sigmund Freud sees it as expressing the “Oedipal complex”. This is the suppression of the latent desire in all to kill one’s father and cohabit with one’s mother. This is not unlikely, for Freud is after all describing the most powerful of taboos. Some commentators also identify the Oedipal complex as being expressed in the character of Hamlet. But Ernest Jones is more close to the mark when he says “that Hamlet, for temperamental reasons, was fundamentally incapable of decisive action of any kind” (31). Oedipus, on the other hand, is always decisive, even when he is suppressing unpalatable truths. When it begins to dawn on him that the Delphic oracle has already been fulfilled he engages in willful suppression, and latches onto the tiniest shreds of evidence that would nullify events.
He even appears upbeat when a messenger from Corinth brings him news of his supposed father’s death, simply because is contradicts the divine oracle, and expresses, “the oracles are dead— / Dust, ashes, nothing, dead as Polybus” (Sophocles 67). This may be deceptive, but it is not lacking in will. From the very first Oedipus is characterized by a vigorous and decisive will, whereas Hamlet is indecisive. The proper theme of Shakespeare’s play can only be located here, opines Jacques Lacan. Like Freud he also attempts to psychoanalyze the character of Hamlet, which is to guess at the unconscious substratum of the mind using extant clues. But instead of sexual suppression he finds epistemological ambiguity to be the substance (Hopkins 53). He finds that the dialogue of Hamlet is laced with an endless steam of ambiguities, and so is the structure of the play. Hamlet is not suppressing anything, but is instead giving full vent to all the ideas in his head. We can say that he is ‘essaying’ in the manner of Montaigne.
In conclusion, both Oedipus Rex and Hamlet are plays that portray the finite extent of human will, and its subjection to the higher will of God. In the former play the message is put forward in a straightforward manner. In the latter and more recent play, however, it is framed through a corollary to it, that human knowledge is finite in extent, and that any presumption to absolute knowledge delivers paralyzing indecision.
Hopkins, Lisa. Beginning Shakespeare. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2005.
Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Œdipus. London: Doubleday, 1954.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.
Sophocles. Oedipus the King (Oedipus Rex). New York: Filiquarian Publishing, 2006.