In the same way that peoples lives in those times were powerfully affected by superstitions and the supernatural, the decisions of several characters in the plays mentioned above were also influenced by superstitions and the supernatural. Although it is often thought that the plots of Oedipus the King and Hamlet revolve around the manner in which Oedipus and Hamlet use human reasoning and rational thinking to fashion themselves as heroes, the purpose of this essay is to argue otherwise, since both heroes are fashioned by superstition and the supernatural that provide the heroic codes that they must follow, dictating them how to live their lives as heroes.
The plots of both Hamlet and Oedipus the King revolve around solving the evils in Thebes and Denmark, respectively. The supernatural reveals the causes of these problems and the actions that the heroes must take in order to put balance back into their worlds. For the heroes to do this, they must complete a superstitious task. As one might see, the tasks of both heroes are strangely similar. For Oedipus, it is taking the sons part (280) and punishing the murderer of Laios. For Hamlet, it is avenging his fathers murder.
In Oedipus the King, the cause of the plague is revealed through the Delphic Oracle. Due to the on-stage absence of the gods in the play, oracles and Teiresias function as their voices. Both of these are essential for truth and revelations. They represent the supernatural. In the play, the truth means power, as Teiresias affirms as he argues Oedipus, [¦] there is power in truth (390). Teiresias knew that the truth itself can kill Oedipus.
The drama evolves through revelations about Oedipus fate and his apparent blindness to it. Oedipus, as a tragic hero complete with characteristics such as hubris, hastiness and blindness, tries to shift the center to himself as a god-like problem-solver, declaring I, Oedipus, who bear the famous name (8). He follows the mystery to the end until his eventual fall, causing him to inflict the punishment upon himself in order to appease justice. Though Oedipus is no slave to fate, he was a victim of it since he could not avoid his fate.
Though fate can be seen as the will of the gods, it is maintained that Oedipus alone is responsible for his actions, as the second messenger pointed out: The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves (1283). The concept of fate is complicated, but it is very similar to the Protestant doctrine of predestination, where one is destined to be somebody or do something even when one has free will. In the first scene, the chorus asks why Oracle does not divulge the identity of the murderer. Strangely, Oedipus himself provides the explanation for this: [¦] no man in the world can make the gods do more than the gods will (296-297).
Teiresias also insisted that [¦] theres no help in truth (334), but Oedipus forces him into saying it. He insisted on knowing out of his own sense of piety and justice. That is his downfall. It is too late when Oedipus realizes this: He [Apollo] brought my sick, sick fate upon me, but the blinding hand was mine own! (1386-1387). Even in the end, superstition limits what he could do to himself. It prevents him from committing suicide, since in Hades, he does not know how to face both his father and mother (1419-1422).
The modern reader would most probably wonder why Oedipus is subjected to such a fate. One may not answer that completely and accurately for the Greeks would argue that it is not any mortals business to ask that. In the play, moral characters lives are contrasted with the gods immortal lives. Through the gods, the Greeks are reminded of their mortality seeing how our lives like birds take wing (183). Oedipus story also reminds them of this lesson. The play concludes with that same thought:
Let every man in mankinds frailty
Consider his last day; and let none
Presume on his good fortune until he find
Life, at his death, a memory without pain (1581-1884).
In Hamlet, it is suggested that the superstitions and the supernatural have a real hold upon the characters. The appearance of the supernatural, in this case, the Ghost, tells the characters that something is rotten in the state of Denmark (1.4.90). Like in Oedipus the King, superstitions provide explanations for certain scientifically unexplainable events and occurrences.
The Ghost first appears on the first scene of act one where Horatio, Marcellus and Barnardo were waiting for it. It doesnt utter a word so one could only visualize the Ghost through what the trio says of it. From Horatio, the audience learns that it looks like the dead king and that he is wearing the armor that he wore when he smote the sledded Polack on the ice (1.1.59-63).
As he tried to question the ghost, he referred to three more popular superstitions to explain the reason behind the Ghosts appearance: it seeks someone whose action will enable it to rest in peace (1.1.130-131), it knows of a future disaster in store for Denmark (1.1.133-134) or it seeks buried treasure extorted when alive (1.1.136-137). The Ghost vanishes as the cock crows. Horatio is not the only superstitious character in the play.
Hamlet meets the ghost on the fourth scene. Though he knew not whether the ghost is of heaven or hell, he calls it Hamlet, his father (1.1.44-45). As the Ghost beckons him to a remote place, Horatio and Marcellus urge Hamlet not to follow it for fear that it might draw him into madness (1.1.75). True enough, that is exactly what will happen in the next scenes and acts.
The Ghost doesnt speak to Hamlet until the next scene. It introduces itself as Hamlets father, hinting at the terrors of the afterlife (1.5.9-13). It asks him to revenge his foul and most unnatural murder (1.5.25). Strangely enough, Hamlet is not completely surprised, even guessing the murderer as his uncle (1.5.40-41). In this scene, the Ghost acts and thinks like Hamlet who also condemns his most seeming virtuous queen (1.5.46). In its last words to Hamlet it cries remember me (1.1.91).
Hamlet does remember him throughout the play. It is this rite of revenge that he will enact until the last act. He has to do it at the right moment, as superstition dictates. The scene where Claudius prays is not the right time for his death. The Ghost and its memory guide his actions and decisions, though invisible. In Hamlets confrontation with his mother, the Ghost appears again in a more domestic garb, preventing him from harming his mother. It is strange though that in that scene, Gertrude doesnt see the ghost.
One may never know if this is a sign of her moral blindness or if this is only a projection of Hamlets madness as Gertrude thinks. The Ghost causes Hamlets dread of something after death (3.1.78). This is exactly the subject of Hamlets most famous speech. Because of the terrifying vision of the Ghost, death becomes an undiscovered country (3.1.87).
Hamlet doesnt know where he will go after death, so he doesnt commit suicide. Conscience, or the lack of it, makes a coward of him and therefore, lose the name of action (3.1.96). When finally Hamlet does avenge his father, all is set aright. As Hamlet dies, he elects Fortinbras as the new king of Denmark, who like him has also lot his father. It is through this deed that Hamlet becomes a fully fledged hero. Like his father in death, Hamlet also appeals to Horatio draw thy breath in pain to tell my story (5.2.183-184). Thus, he passes the call for remembrance.
Superstitions and the supernatural indeed provide the heroic codes which shape the plots of these dramas. Although Oedipus and Hamlet both conform to their periods respective notions of heroes, the concept above runs the same for them. In the endings of both plays, the audiences come face to face with visions of mortality. These visions are intended for them, as well as the characters, to remember life itself.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Folger Library
Shakespeare. NY: Washington Square Press, 1992.
Sophocles. Oedipus Rex. The Oedipus Cycle. Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert
Fitzgerald. San Diego and NY: Harvest/HBJ, 1977.