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William Shakespear’s “Hamlet” and Sophocles “Oedipus King”

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When reading the works of two great writers, a person can find many similarities between them. The underlying themes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Sophocles Oedipus King excite the reader yet leave us with the desire of wanting more. There are significant similarities between Oedipus King and Hamlet, especially when it relates to the theme of the tormented king, incest, and Shakespeare’s and Sophocles metaphorical references to vision and hearing. 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 theme of the tormented king is perhaps the strongest comparison between Hamlet and Oedipus King. In Hamlet, Shakespeare establishes the theme of torment early in the play with the arrival of the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father, the former King of Denmark. Even before the ghost is revealed to Hamlet, Shakespeare suggests some instability in Hamlets mind: “My father / I thinks I see my father / in my minds eye” (Act I, Scene II). Throughout the play the reader will begin to see Hamlet as the tormented prince of Denmark, which has always proven to be melancholy, bitter, cynical, and full of hatred.

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. The 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. Clearly both Oedipus king and Hamlet share the common theme of self-destruction and torment of the tragic hero, but the plot of Hamlet makes a much more complicated character than that of the classic Greek tragedy of Oedipus the King.

Another powerful similarity between Hamlet and Oedipus king is the theme of incest. The motif of incest runs throughout Hamlet and is frequently alluded to by Hamlet and the ghost, most obviously in conversations about Gertrude and Claudius, the former brother-in-law and sister-in-law who are now married. A subtle motif of incestuous desire can be found in the relationship of Laertes and Ophelia, as Laertes sometimes speaks to his sister in suggestively sexual terms and, at her funeral, leaps into her grave to hold her in his arms. However, the strongest overtones of incestuous desire arise in the relationship of Hamlet and Gertrude, in Hamlet’s fixation on Gertrude’s sex life with Claudius and his preoccupation with her in general.

In the same manner, Oedipus king conveys the most repulsive incest of all, child and mother. Jocasta was married to Laius. An oracle warned the parents that their son would murder his father, so they ordered him killed. Oedipus survived, however, and returned to Thebes, where he unknowingly killed his father. He then married his mother, who bore him Eteocles, Polynices, Antigone, and Ismene. When they learned that the prophecy was true and their shameful secret revealed Jocasta returned to her home and cursed the bed upon which she had slept with both Oedipus and Laius. She then hung herself. Indeed, both authors used the theme of incest to further exemplify the complexity of their characters.

References to vision and hearing, both literally and metaphorically, are frequent in both Hamlet and King Oedipus. In a scene between Hamlet and the ghost, Hamlet talks about his disgust towards his mother’s sex life and says that he wishes to be a blind man who would not be able to see her. Shakespeare’s reference to hearing occurs when Claudius murders the king by pouring poison into his ear, and then when Hamlet claims to Horatio that “I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb”. The poison poured in the king’s ear by Claudius is used by the ghost to symbolize the corrosive effect of Claudius’s dishonesty on the health of Denmark. In Oedipus the king, the reference to clear vision is used as a metaphor for knowledge and insight. 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 man Tiresias can see what the seemingly brilliant Oedipus has overlooked, mainly the king’s crimes of incest and murder. When Oedipus finds Jocasta dead in her room, he takes a broach from her dress and proceeds to blind himself and live a life of a wanderer.

In conclusion, Shakespeare and Sophocles use many themes throughout Hamlet and Oedipus king to form strong similarities between the two main characters: such as the tormented king, incest, and sight and hearing. Sophocles Oedipus King and Shakespeare’s Hamlet both contain the basic elements of tragedy. These three elements are the prime examples of the similarities between the works of two literary legends.

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