A Comparison of
Hamlet and Oedipus the King
Sophocles' "Oedipus the King" and Shakespeare's "Hamlet",
both contain the basic elements of tragedy, although the Shakespearean tragedy
expanded its setting far beyond that of the ancient Greek tragedy. The tragic
hero of Hamlet finds himself burdened with the task of avenging his father's
death from the start of the play, and is not himself the source of the pollution
of regicide, while Oedipus is of course the unwitting fashioner of his own doom,
which is unveiled to him through recognition and repentance.
Sophocles has Oedipus foretelling his own tragedy when speaking to the people of Thebes. The city suffers because of the pollution of Oedipus, and irony is shown when Oedipus suggest that by avenging Laius he will protect himself, or that by getting children upon Jocasta, the dead king's wife, he will be taking the place of the son of Laius, which, unknowingly, is himself. The irony reaches its peak when Oedipus calls on the prophet Tiresias to help uncover the murder of Laius and seek an cure to the plague; the metaphor of vision is ironic in that the blind Tiresias can see what the seemingly brilliant Oedipus has overlooked, namely the king's crimes of incest and murder.
The other major ingredient of the tragic equation, the purging emotion, is worked out by Sophocles. The hubris of Oedipus is demolished when he confides in Jocasta concerning the predictions of the seer Tiresias; she tells him the story of the murder of Laius, and as she speaks Oedipus comes to recognize the scene and circumstances of the regicide as being the same as those encountered on the road to Thebes. The full hypothesis of his doings come to him and he cries out to Jocasta. However, when he faces the shepherd who had found the child Oedipus, and who now reveals that the child was the same infant who was cast out to the wolves by Laius; Laius had feared the fulfillment of a prophecy that he would die by his own son's hands, and Oedipus now sees that the prophecy has indeed come true, for he has killed his own father and committed incest with his mother. He then blinds himself, as if to acknowledge the charge of the blind seer Tiresias that he was blind in his pride.
Hamlet treats the crime of regicide from a somewhat different point of view, and the young hero becomes a tragic figure less through the sin of pride than through his character flaw. In the first act, after he is conscious of the tormented ghost of his father walking on the ramparts, Hamlet goes to see for himself, and there he is convinced to revenge his father death by his father's ghost. Hamlet's father is a symbol of his conscience and the corruption of regicide is laid at Hamlet's doorstep. Hamlet is guilty because he failed to right this wrong, and the tragic flaw that emerges in his character is that of indecision. As Hamlet lays the trap for the new King Claudius, he is procrastinating in order to solve his self-doubt, although he tells himself that wishes only to be certain that he is not imagining the figure of his father's ghost and the strange duty which he must perform. Although the king gives himself away at the performance of the play within a play, Hamlet is still inconclusive, and winds up being sent away to England by the king and his mother and Hamlet's insanity, feigned or not, has served him well. As long as Claudius reigns, however, he has failed in his duty.
The common theme of "Hamlet" and "Oedipus the King"
is regicide, and self- destruction of the tragic hero is one way of riding the
pollution of that crime, as well as the incest which has developed out of it.
Both plays share the emphasis on a tragic irony in the chain of events that
lead up to ritual of catharsis, but the plot of "Hamlet" makes a much
more complicated character than that of the classic Greek tragedy of "Oedipus