In examining Hamlet and Oedipus Rex we are confronted with the notion of
heroism and tragedy. In these plays the protagonists are tragically heroic. The
question is, what is it that makes them tragic heroes. A big part of being a
tragic hero is suffering. In the context of these tragedies the hero meets their
suffering often through defiance of some authority. While in defiance it is that
suffering that unearths the core of the hero. Essentially, suffering allows the
character of the hero to develop and progress.
Neither Oedipus nor Hamlet let authority stand in their way. Oedipus did not
except the Gods prophesy. When he was told that his he was going to kill his
father and end up in his mothers bed, he left Corinth immediately in hopes of
escaping his fate. Hamlet doesnt directly defy authority but he certainly
questions it. When Hamets mother marries his uncle very shortly after his
fathers death, Hamlet shows some skepticism:
HAMLET: A little more than kin and less than kind.
He felt that Gertrude and Claudius had a unnatural relationship and suspected
that something fishy was up. Hamlet was never afraid to say what he felt even it
wasnt proper. In conversation with Polonius, Hamlet called him a fish monger.
Polonius was a respected member of the kingdom but that didnt stop Hamlet
from saying what he felt.
Both Oedipus and Hamlet had the fatal tendency to identify their whole being
with one interest or passion. Oedipus driving force was to avoid his fate. He
left his family in Corinth in hopes of escaping his fate. Even when he was told
that his father was dead, he didnt stop worrying about the prophesies:
OEDIPUS: …must I not fear my mothers bed?…If only my mother were
not still alive! But she is alive. I can not help my dread.
Dedicating his life to avoiding his fate was his fatal tendency because in
trying to escape his fate he made it come true. If he hadnt tried to escape
his fate he wouldnt have left Corinth and would have never had the
opportunity to kill his father or marry his mother. Hamlets driving force is
to be able to take action instead of just talking about it. When the acting
troop came to the palace Hamlet convinced one of the actors to give a speech and
while listening to it he realized that the actor showed more intensity in his
speech then he did in avenging his fathers death.
HAMLET: Am I a coward?…I am pigeon-livered and lack gull…why, what an
ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart
All Hamlet can do is set witty traps. Hamlet manages to talk himself out of
any action he considers taking. He talks himself out of committing suicide, he
talks himself out of killing Claudius, and he talks himself out of the fact that
his fathers ghost is real. Hamlet wants to be motivated and take action like
a man, but he is a man of words. Trying to be a man of action is his fatal
tendency because he is trying to be someone he isnt. His is not a killer by
nature and when he forces himself to become one everything goes array; he starts
killing the wrong people and everyone winds up dead.
Part of Oedipus and Hamlets suffering is their sense of guilt. Neither
of them let their guilt hinder them but they werent blocks of steel either.
Oedipus felt guilty for killing the man in the crossroads even before he know it
was his father. He did not however feel guilty for yelling at Teiresias when he
was only trying to protect him from the devastating truth.
Hamlets sense of guilt motivated him. He felt guilty that he wasnt
taking action to revenge his fathers death. His guilt impelled him and he
decided to give the actors a speech that would test Claudius, and his reaction
would determine Hamlets next move.
Hamlets suffering changes him. Hamlet is unable to avenge is fathers
death. He suffers immensely because of this and becomes a very angry person. He
is angry at Claudius for killing is father, he is angry at his mother for
marrying Claudius, and most of all he is angry at himself for not being man
enough to do anything about it. He holds in this anger. Everything that goes
wrong builds up inside him until he explodes into such a rage that he he kills
Polonius and Laerties and Claudius. Hamlet is a changed man. He gives up in the
HAMLET: the cat will meow and the dog will have his day.
Oedipus suffering changes him. Despite all the precautions he took,
Oedipus still acted out his fate. He becomes angry when the mere idea is
presented that his fate has come true. Oedipus is a sensible , trusting, kind
man. He runs a kingdom and tries to find the murderer of Laos to get rid of the
plague, but when Teiresias tell Oedipus that he is the murderer whom he seeks
Oedipus calls him a
OEDIPUS: sightless, witless, senseless, mad old man
and refuses to believe a word he says. When Oedipus realizes that he did in
fact kill his father and marry his mother, he flips out and stabs his eyes with
pins and makes his daughters cry. Oedipus spent his whole life trying to avoid
his fate and now that it has come true he has nothing to live for.
OEDIPUS: And now what is left? Images? Love? A greeting even, Sweet to the
senses? Is there anything? Ah, no, friends: lead me away. Lead me away from
Thebes. Lead the great wreck and hell of Oedipus, whom the gods hate.
Oedipus goes from a man who didnt let anything get in his way to a man who
has given up.
When Hamlet and Oedipus die, the reader is left with a sense of waste. Hamlet
was only a young man when his father was killed. He had his whole life ahead of
him and everything going for him. We feel pity for him because his life was
destroyed by events he had no control over. He did nothing wrong. If two things
were different this story would be a comedy instead of a tragedy. Oedipus
life was also a waste. He was a very smart , responsible, determined and
dedicated person. He did solve the riddle and saved Thebes. He put it on himself
to find Laos killer and get rid of the plague. He was a great person who had
a horrible fate.