Though Shakespeares’ Hamlet and Sophocles’ Oedipus the King were written in two different eras, echoes of the latter can be found in the former. The common theme of Hamlet and Oedipus the King is regicide. Also, like in Oedipus the King, there is a direct relationship between the state of the state and the state of their kings. Furthermore, there is also a relationship between Oedipus’ armed entrance into the bedroom in which Jocasta hanged herself, and Hamlet’s confrontation of Gertrude in her bedroom. 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 the King.
Sophocles’ Oedipus 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 as a result of Oedipus’pride, 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. “I will bring it all to light… I shall rid us of this pollution, not for the sake of a distant relative, but for my own sake (Knox, 10).” 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. “You are the murderer, you are the unholy defilement of this land(Knox, 23).” Tiresias goes on to say “I say that without knowing it you are living in shameful intimacy with your nearest and dearest. You do not see the evil in which you live (Knox, 25).”
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, “Oh, it is all clear as daylight now (Knox, 54).” 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. “Oh God! It has all come true. Light, let this be the last time I see you. I stand revealed -born in shame, married in shame, an unnatural murderer.
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 avenge his father death by his father’s ghost. “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder (Act 1,Scene 5).” 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; after watching the reenactment of his murder of King Hamlet he shouts,”Give me some light. Away!(Act 3, Scene 2),” 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.
Although Hamlet has pledged it to his father’s ghost, the mission of revenge is something he takes no pleasure in. At first he seemed very anxious to kill his uncle, but as the play progresses, he contemplates his responsibility in more serious terms. He acknowledges that the task at hand is immense. His father was king, and the death of a king creates turmoil and generates a disturbance in the balance of the state. The anomalistic death of King Hamlet bodes evil for an all of Elsinore. Similarly in Oedipus the King, the death of King Laius also yielded a turmoil.”The city is like a ship rolling dangerously; it has lost the power to right itself and raise its head up out of the waves of death. Thebes is dying (Knox, 3).”
The relationship between the scene involving Oedipus’ armed entrance into the bedroom in which Jocasta hanged herself, and Hamlet’s confrontation of Gertrude in her chambers is that in both, the protagonists were driven to their highest degree of madness. With Oedipus, when he saw Jocasta hanging, “he ripped out the golden pins with which her clothes were fastened….and speared the pupils of his eyes (Knox, 93).”
Still at the height of his madness, he proclaims, “Open the doors, someone: show me to all the people of Thebes, my
father’s killer, my mother’s (Knox, 94).”
In Hamlet, the confrontation is a central moment in the play. Hamlet must speak with his mother before he resumes his plans for revenge. Hamlet meets with his mother in an attempt to set her straight. He intends on making her understand her wrongdoings. “Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge; You go not, till I set up a glass Where you may see the inmost part of you (Act 3, Scene 4).” It was Gertrude’s subsequent reaction that led to the pivotal moment when Hamlet kills Polonius. The murder of Polonius was completely impetuous. Hamlet went from pondering murder to actually committing murder. When he does so it is not the actual act that is insane, but his lack of emotion which is. Scarcely acknowledging what he has just done, he continues preaching to Gertrude, and accuses her of plotting to murder his father. “With tristful visage, as against the doom, Is thought-sick at the act (Act 3, Scene 4).” After an elongated interrogation which sounded more like an S&M chat, we begin to realize Gertrude’s’s guilt for marrying Claudius, as well as her innocence in the actual plot to murder the King. It is only after the reappearance of the apparition that Hamlet begins to ease up on his mother.
Hamlet and Oedipus the King though quite different, have a lot in common. They are the similar from an oedipal perspective, as well as having in common the element of madness. Though many would have a problem putting Shakespeare in the same category as Sophocles, it is not difficult to place their works, Hamlet Oedipus the King respectively, in the same category.