The present paper focuses on comparison and contrast of the two literary characters who seek for the murderer of their father: King Oedipus and Hamlet from two most famous classic dramas, Sophocles’ Oedipus the King and William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In Sophocles’ play, King Oedipus appears a persistent seeker of the truth who disregards the dangers this truth might bring to him. Shakespeare’s drama discloses Hamlet as a doubting philosopher whose search for truth destroys his inner balance and necessitates a change in his personality. King Oedipus is a type of character who initially attracts by his desire to solve the problems of his state at any cost. When he hears that the reason for the terrible plague epidemic in Thebes is the unfound murderer of the previous king Laius, Oedipus reasonably wonders at why the perpetrator has not been found yet. Since the Sphinx curse has been solved, Oedipus decides that it is time to settle the present troubles, “… I will start afresh and once again / Make dark things clear” (Sophocles 12).
In his speech to his brother-in-law Creon, the proud king voices the desire to find the murderer to secure not only the wellbeing of his state but his own safety as a ruler as well. On the way to discovering the truth, King Oedipus demonstrates remarkable persistence. He uses every chance of finding out the details that might lead to the answer and interrogates every possible witness to the case of Laius’ murder. First, he questions the blind prophet Tiresias, then he hears his wife Jocasta’s story of Laius’ murder, and finally has the courage to let a shepherd tell the true story of his origins. Hot-tempered and decisive, King Oedipus appears not to possess any political duplicity since he strives for the truth even facing the danger of losing the throne and his life. Unaware of the terrible curse put on him by gods, he is sure that he is doing the right thing by trying to reveal the truth and thus acting according to his conscience. In a dialogue with the chorus warning him about the circumstances of Laius’ murder, King Oedipus states that “Words scare not him who blenches not at deeds” (Sophocles 19). This utterance demonstrates his assuredness of his own righteousness and the desire to know the truth, since the truth cannot harm the innocent.
As compared to King Oedipus’ persistence in seeking the truth and his active life position and attitude to solving the existing problems, Hamlet appears a much less energetic character. It is not that he does not want to find out the truth; on the contrary, he desires it strongly since he suspects something is not right with his mother marrying so soon after his father’s death. However, Hamlet is more a philosopher than a warrior, and therefore he precedes his actions with much contemplation and reflection on the events. He uses much of his intuition in approaching the answer to the question torturing him; in one of the monologues he voices a suspicion that things are not as smooth as they seem, “nor it cannot come to good” (Shakespeare 116). This foreboding of evil appears to be confirmed in the astonishing truth about the murder that Hamlet learns from the ghost of his father. While King Oedipus demonstrates decisive action in his search for truth, Hamlet chooses to find out the real state of events in a bypass way. He checks the veracity of the ghost’s words not by inquiring about the truth directly (like a man of Oedipus’ character would have done) but via observing his murderous uncle’s reaction to the play acted by visiting comedians. Unlike the bold and straightforward King Oedipus who does not give much about insinuating words that help to find out the truth, Hamlet appears rather inventive in his search for the real murderer.
Staying on his own before the play, Hamlet builds an ingenuous psychological strategy to reveal the perpetrator: “I’ll observe his looks; / I’ll tent him to the quick. If he but blench, / I know my course” (Shakespeare 173). In doing this, Hamlet presents himself as a rational person, able of stepping aside and taking a balanced decision despite the emotional breakdown he is experiencing. The critical situation Hamlet finds himself in provokes a major change in the prince’s personality. Spurred by the ghost of his murdered father to revenge the crime, the young philosopher renounces all the learned books he has studied and lets his actions be guided by the oath he gives to his father: “And thy commandment all alone shall live / Within the book and volume of my brain“ (Shakespeare 140).
Apparently, in this situation Hamlet is led not by his personal ideas and aspirations but mostly by the solemn pledge he has undertaken to restore justice and punish the murderer of his father. In order to fit the requirements of the situation, the young scholar has to demonstrate a new, more active attitude to life and conquer his fear of struggle and conflict. In a monologue, Hamlet confesses, “Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, / That I, the son of a dear murdered, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, / Must like a whore unpack my heart with words / And fall a-cursing like a very drab, / A scullion!” (Shakespeare 173). Those words reveal the deep inner tragedy of the young philosopher who is struggling with his true personality in order to fulfil the oath to his father.
United by their desire to reveal the truth and punish the perpetrators, King Oedipus and Hamlet demonstrate various approaches to the search. The active and energetic personality of the one and the philosophic, pensive, and doubting personality of the other lead both to achievement of their aims. However, the finger of fate foreordains a tragic end to them both, and after revealing the truth and accomplishing their task Oedipus and Hamlet are crushed by the severity of their doom.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Robert Hapgood.
New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print. Sophocles.
Oedipus the King. Minneapolis, MN: Filiquarian Publishing LLC, 2006. Print.