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Hamlet vs. Greek Drama

Two plays were written with a time period of two thousand years of human history between them: one that may be the archetypal Greek drama – Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, and the other, among the most influential works in the history of British playwriting – Shakespeare's Hamlet.

They share much in common, and in the words of Sigmund Freud as put forth in his The Interpretation of Dreams, Hamlet may be considered as “rooted in the same soil as Oedipus Rex" (Freud 175).

What are the 3 characteristics that set them apart?

The characters of Hamlet and Oedipus share the common treat of a tragic life. In the Nietzschean context they are both likened to the Dionysian man. And as it was pointed out by Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy, “both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it now disgusts them to act, for their action can change nothing in the eternal nature of things.” (Nietzsche 94) Even if these words mean nothing else for the reader, one must understand that Hamlet and Oedipus are trying to explain to themselves why things are as they are; why do people despair, why do they feel as if they have no power, and what can they do about it.

Hamlet and Oedipus suggest there is a deep, quasi-existential force that commands people; that everything one does is already predetermined by some external force, be it history, society, destiny, or something else. Be that as it may but the extent of predetermination and the power of the particular force in action remains variable, and in question.

For Oedipus, when his history caught up with his present and he learned of his parents abandoning him, he saw the following as something inevitable (even though his parents had only acted upon the perceived suggestions of the oracle), and he gave in to his presupposed destiny as exemplified by his cry for help:

Aaaiiii, aaaiii . . . Alas! Alas! How miserable I am . . . such wretchedness . . .
Where do I go? How can the wings of air
sweep up my voice? Oh my destiny,
how far you have sprung now! 

(Sophocles 83)

Hamlet on the other hand is familiar with the idea of fighting back. In his view of the world – which may seem rather more modernistic –, and although he has become stuck in a plot which he sees and understands more than clearly, he perhaps, perceptibly – may have some influence over it. By that token it may be because of his modern outlook that Hamlet differs from Oedipus in the grand scale of things: it may be that the first characteristic which sets Hamlet and Oedipus apart becomes apparent trough their ability to think about their destiny.

But as Nietzsche pointed out, “knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion — that is what Hamlet has to teach us” (Nietzsche 95). It follows thus that it's also their use of knowledge that differentiates Hamlet and Oedipus – the second characteristic. If measured by that token and by the amount of philosophical things spoken by Hamlet’s character it becomes clear that he's far greater in deliberation, or at least more practiced, than Oedipus (who even had the Chorus at his mercy to help him consider his future). Thereby Hamlet acquires an air of being more educated than Oedipus. For Hamlet the time taken to reflect was important, as it was for the integrity and mood of the entire play; his reflection had a decisive function, not unlike that of destiny –which in the same manner might become a potential force. This idea is perhaps best expressed not by Hamlet himself but by his arch enemy, his mother’s husband, King Claudius, who spoke of the killing of Hamlet:

Let's further think of this; Weigh what convenience both of time and means
May fit us to our shape: if this should fail,
And that our drift look through our bad performance,
'Twere better not assay'd: therefore this project
Should have a back or second, that might hold,
If this should blast in proof. (Shakespeare 202)

Had Hamlet been in the shoes of Oedipus, perhaps he would’ve killed himself. But would he ever make himself blind? Hamlet needed to understand the plots and conspiracies surrounding him in order to refute and revenge. But Oedipus on the other hand convicted and sacrificed himself at will. One wonders if Sophocles was pressured by the 24 hour rule of playwriting and the shortness of his play to make Oedipus reflect on the possibilities before him, or even to question. It follows that Oedipus’ character lacked the complexity of thought distinctive to Hamlet, and resembled only a small facet of Hamlet’s being, a kind subset of his personality.

Due to the actions of Hamlet six people died, including himself; due to the actions of Oedipus, only two – his father and his mother. Hamlet as a play is three times longer, and in that time he gets three times more people killed. Perhaps if Oedipus had had more time on the stage he’d been as destructive. But as said Oedipus’ time was compressed into a 24 hour period as in all Ancient Greek plays, in contrast to the element of time in Hamlet which was far less linear, with various subplots leading to a story three times longer than Oedipus. Thus it was the use of time that is the third differentiating characteristic of Hamlet and Oedipus.

If they had nothing else in common, Hamlet and Oedipus still both dealt in universals and humanity. One cannot ask whether Hamlet is “just about princes, or men of the Renaissance, or introspective young men, or people whose fathers have died in obscure circumstances?” (Cullen 36) as was the question posed by Jonathan Cullen in his Literary Theory – A Very Short Introduction no more than one can ask – is Oedipus just about the lives of kings and queens, and of prophets who know much about the future? Can it be said then that these are plays are about the philosophy of revenge, submission to destiny, and bad luck?

No, Hamlet and Oedipus are more complex than that.

Works Cited

Cullen, Jonathan. Literary Theory - A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York: Random House, 1994.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy. New York: Plain Label Books, n.d.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Plain Label Books, n.d.

Sophocles. Oedipus the King. Trans. Ian Johnston. New York: Richer Resources Publications, 2006.


Written in 2008 at a Tallinn University Baltic Film & Media School class with James Thurlow.

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