Throughout the history of the educated world, one thing has always been consistent: Literature. Literature is the most effective way to express one’s thoughts, feelings and ideas. Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King are no exception.
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Each work develops the idea of the tragic hero. Although some aspects of the tragic hero must be present with every tragedy, some things can be altered (i.e. how the hero reaches his downfall). Shakespeare and Sophocles develop Hamlet and Oedipus, respectively, to express differing ideas; therefore each hero is both alike and different. In Sophocles; Oedipus the King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Oedipus and Hamlet can be compared and contrasted as tragic heroes.
Generally, when an author writes something, he or she works toward a theme to convey to the audience. The theme usually includes the author’s own thoughts and feelings. In the two plays being discussed here, the themes are easily identifiable. Sophocles develops two themes; one cannot escape fate and those that can see are “blind” to the truth. Shakespeare, on the other hand, works toward a theme involving the consequences of procrastination.
In literature, there is a pattern; most works written are influenced by works preceding them. Oedipus the King, for example, is based on myths surrounding Greek gods. “Like other dramatists of his time, Sophocles wrote his plays as theatrical interpretations of the well-known myths of Greek culture” (CliffsNotes). Hamlet, however, is based on a previous work called “Ur-Hamlet”, which was lost or destroyed. “Shakespeare’s main source, however, is believed to be an earlier play about Hamlet (known as the Ur-Hamlet), which is attributed to Thomas Kyd and is known to have introduced a ghost to the story” (Wikipedia). Although this anomaly is not present with some literature, it is at least true with the two being discussed here.
One area that Hamlet and Oedipus can be contrasted in is each hero’s view of fate. Hamlet unwillingly submits to his fate “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right” (188-189). This submittal leads to a loss of sanity. Oedipus, however, fights his fate causing figurative blindness. A big question in Hamlet is “Is Hamlet sane?” What makes answering this question hard is that Hamlet often changes from his fake state of sanity back to his real self, making it tough to tell if his insanity is real. There are several examples that point to Hamlet losing his sanity. First, there is Hamlet’s encounter with the ghost of King Hamlet. Hamlet is passive by nature and having such a huge responsibility (avenging his father by killing Claudius) put on his shoulders is more than enough, at story’s close, to have driven Hamlet mad. Another possible cause of Hamlet’s loss of sanity is the false insanity Hamlet pretends to have in order to find out more about his father’s murder. Hamlet has trouble killing Claudius because he tends to talk himself out of situations before taking action. “Hamlet’s difficulty is aesthetic. His problem is one of form and content, of suiting the action to the word, the word to the action – that is, of finding a satisfactory shape for his revenge” (Bloom 123). The last argument to prove Hamlet’s loss of sanity seems to be the most probable. In the play when Hamlet has escaped eminent death at the hands of the unknowing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and has arrived back to Elsinore, Hamlet happens upon Ophelia’s funeral. “Extreme provocation (from Laertes) coupled with his (Hamlet’s) shock at Ophelia’s death is surely sufficient to account for a momentary release of emotion” (Prosser 225). In contrast to the issue of sanity in Hamlet’s case, with Oedipus, there is no reason to believe he has lost sanity. Oedipus, rather, is perfectly sane, but struggles with an identity issue and being “blind” to his fate. In Greek mythology, the gods frequently used humans as “science projects”. They would test a person’s strength, character, ability to love and other such things. In the case of Oedipus, Apollo has placed a fate on him. Oedipus constantly tries to fight his fate and is blinded from the truth. When Tiresias says that Laius was killed at the same crossroads Oedipus traveled through on the way to Thebes, Oedipus is unable to see his self as a possibility. “Oedipus puts his past far from being an option to who the murderer is, and instead begins making plans to find Laius’s murderer and avenge his death” (Miles). Oedipus is unable to put two and two together and see that he has fulfilled the prophecy given to him. Not until Jocasta is dead and he has spoken to the messenger who saved him, does Oedipus realize that he has killed his father and was the cause of his mother and wife’s death. Oedipus is blatantly told by Tiresias that his is the murderer of his father and the husband of his mother, yet instead of accepting Tiresias’ words as true, Oedipus turns their conversation into a quarrel in which Tiresias reveals Oedipus’ blindness to both the audience and Oedipus himself. “Hear this, since you have thrown my blindness at me: / Your eyes can’t see the evil to which you’ve come”(417-418). The irony here is that once Oedipus is able to see the truth, he gouges his eyes. “He snatched the pins of worked gold from her dress, / with which her clothes were fastened: these he raised / and struck into the ball joints of his eyes” (1278-1280). This act changes Oedipus’ blindness from figurative to literal. Oedipus, until he realized the truth, viewed his fate as something he could control.
Oedipus the King and Hamlet are both tragedies; therefore they contain tragic heroes who both have a tragic flaw. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus’ tragic flaw is his blindness and habit of swiftly taking action. Oedipus, as previously stated, is constantly fighting his fate, causing a figurative blindness. Oedipus’ downfall also can be contributed to his arrogance. For instance, in an argument between Oedipus and Tiresias, Oedipus flaunts his victory over the Sphinx as wit and infers that he is better than Tiresias because he didn’t need the help of the gods either. “I came along, yes I, / Oedipus the ignorant, and stopped her — / by using thought, not augury from birds (401-403). What Oedipus was blind to here, was that he only helped his fate by doing this because it led him back to his birthplace and a marriage to his mother. Although Oedipus should realize that it was his destiny to return to Thebes, he treats it as an accomplishment. “In other words he is a man who trusts his luck and wits and wins, or so he thinks” (Cameron 138). In yet another revealing instance of Oedipus and Tiresias’ discussion, Tiresias tries to warn Oedipus that he has married his mother and that marriage will be his downfall. “What place will not be harbor to your cry, / or what Cithaeron not reverberate / when you have heard the bird-song in your palace / to which you sailed? Fair wind to evil harbor!” (425-428). Oedipus constantly makes decisions that he sees as altering his fate, but which actually allow his fate to align with what the gods intended. “He put his hand to his fate in this event (marriage) as he had in others” (Cameron 139). On the other hand, Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his procrastination. Hamlet did not expect or want what was placed upon him; he accepted that he had to avenge his father, but he couldn’t understand why he was given the burden and often took too long to take action “The time is out of joint: O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right” (I. v. 188-189). Often times, Hamlet becomes very intent on killing Claudius and avenging King Hamlet. While talking to the ghost of his father, Hamlet vows to kill Claudius as soon as possible. “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift / As meditation or the thoughts of love, / May sweep to my revenge” (I. v. 29-31). In at least one instance, fate furthers Hamlet’s procrastination. After Hamlet orchestrates the “play within the play” and knows for sure that Claudius is the murderer of his father, he charges himself to kill Claudius as soon as possible. After talking to Horatio, Hamlet seeks out Claudius who is in his bedroom having a confessional. Hamlet almost makes a rash decision to kill the king anyway, but rationalizes with his self by saying that killing Claudius after he has repented would not properly avenge King Hamlet. The king decides that he isn’t sorry for his actions and would rather keep everything he has and have a heavy heart than ask for forgiveness. “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below, / Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (III. Iv. 97-98). This moment is ironic because at the perfect time for revenge, fate keeps Hamlet from killing Claudius while he is vulnerable. A possible explanation for Hamlet’s procrastination deals with the Oedipus complex which was studied by Sigmund Freud (a psychologist associated with sexuality). According to the Oedipus complex, Hamlet’s procrastination is due to the fact that he is in love with his mother, Gertrude. Hamlet is aware of the fact that if he were to kill Claudius, he would attain his goal of seeking relations with his mother. He knows that this plan of action cannot be carried out because it would not avenge the ghost in a proper way due to Hamlet’s selfishness; it would also make Hamlet just as evil as his uncle. If Hamlet kills Claudius to be with Gertrude, he is taking the same plan of action as Claudius had. The Oedipal complex does not seem like a likely reason for Hamlet’s procrastination, although a case can be argued for it. The main reason, it seems, for Hamlet’s downfall is that he simply didn’t want to bear the burden placed on him. At the beginning of the play, Hamlet has lost his father but still has Horatio, his mother and Ophelia. At the end of the play, Ophelia has committed suicide due to her situation with Hamlet, Hamlet played a role in his two friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s death, he has killed Polonius, his mother thinks he is crazy and eventually is killed accidentally by Claudius’ poison. Hamlet is even the cause of Laertes’ rebellious rage. The only solace left for Hamlet is his friend Horatio. Only when Hamlet has next to nothing left, does he take action and kill Claudius, but by the time he avenges his father, it’s too late because he was cut by Laertes’ poisoned blade. As with Oedipus’ self inflicted blindness as he comes to the realization that fate prevailed, Hamlet comes to the realization that his procrastination was his downfall just as he dies.
Although Sophocles and Shakespeare had two different things in mind when writing their plays, there are things that can be compared in each work. Each work stays true to similar core traits of the tragic hero and there is a correlation between each work involving the Oedipal Complex.
Cameron, Alister. The Identity of Oedipus the King. New York: New York University Press, 1968.
Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. California: Stanford University Press, 1967.
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Interpretation: William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986.
Miles, M. “Was Oedipus Blind As Well?.” Humanities Index 27 June 2006 1. 30 July 2006 .
CliffsNotes, “Introduction to the Plays: The Oedipus Myth.” CliffsNotes. 2006. 30 Jul 2006 .
Wikipedia, “Hamlet.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia. 30 Jul 2006 .
Littauer, Joel. “The Central Question of the Play – Part III.” Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. 31 Jul 2006 .
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