Oedipus and Hamlet:  Defining Language by Embodying Its Antithesis in Two Heroes of Western Literature
Copyright Ó by Max Herman, 2/27/01

  Like the eastern symbol of the yin-yang, language functions according to the principle of a dynamic inter-relation between similarity and difference, identity and distinctness.  In most, if not all, of the various structural relationships that constitute language and written or oral literatures this type of principle plays an essential part.  Examples would be the author/reader relationship, which depends on differentiated roles within a connected whole; the chorus/hero relationship, in which neither would make sense without the other; and the author/work relation, in which the author's creative message is expressed through how and why he shapes a form, not through an exact identification of the author with the form in a literal sense.   Moreover, language itself--the basic principle that lends words meaning--is the principle of contrast within a context, or sameness combined with difference.  This is why "hot" cannot be the opposite of "black," but only of "cold," and "wrinkled" cannot be the opposite of "circular," but only of "smooth." 
  Opposites, then, can only exist where there is a contextual identity. This principle becomes central in the formation of any literature or refined concepts in language.  In Western literature (which is not necessarily a tidily definable category, nor is it the precise opposite of Eastern literature) this principle of contrast--the generation of
distinction through the means of similarity--can be traced as a recurrent influence on the patterns and trends that are often considered as this literature's characteristic elements.  There is a distinctive pattern in the use of contrast that pervades all levels of meaning in the Western tradition. This is, briefly put, a tendency to pursue an understanding of language by creating a literature based on pictures of what language is not.  Because of an implicit dichotomy between "art" and "life" that characterizes the West from its earliest origins, the properties of language are explored through the creation of a literature that serves as language's opposite.  Language and literature are similar in that they are both verbal, but are invested with differences centered in the way they are created and their cultural functions.  Thus we can understand the language/literature relation as the most over-arching example of dynamic dialogue between similar yet different entities.  In trying to discover the attributes that distinguish Western literature from literature in the abstract, then, it is very useful to explore the specific ways in which literary art is portrayed as a similar yet opposite counterpart to non-artistic language.
  In the characters of Oedipus, as presented in Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus, and Hamlet, from Shakespeare, we see two of the most enduring and influential examples of the Western conception of the hero. (Heroism in this sense should be interpreted as exclusive to tragedy, as neither Hamlet nor Oedipus are comic figures.  In this paper, except where otherwise noted, "heroism" will refer to the tragic protagonist, which is a literary construct which is in many, but not all, respects distinct from
the comic hero.)  In exploring the similarities and differences between these two characters, and how they function in historical and aesthetic literary context, it is useful to examine the ways in which contrast is used in the delineation of their respective attributes.
  The convention of heroism is one of the most ancient and widespread literary methods through which human experience is transformed into literature.  In a very literal sense, Hamlet and Oedipus both "become" literature.  This is of course in the obvious sense that they are central components of the plays in which they appear; it is also the case in how
they function within the context of the plays themselves.  At Hamlet's death, he pleads with Horatio to

  "Absent thee from felicity awhile,
    And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
    To tell my story..." (5.2.349-51).

  In this way, Hamlet's life, though it ends in tragedy, becomes a story providing instruction and guidance to Denmark for the future.  In the same way, Hamlet becomes, as a literary hero, a source of instruction for those of us who read his story as Shakespeare (not Horatio) told it.
  Oedipus also becomes a living example for the people of Thebes.  The chorus says it will "lull myself to sleep with your name" (T:ll. 1222-23), and "There is much to ask and much to learn and much to see" (T:ll.1304-5). Oedipus becomes, at the time of his death in Oedipus at Colonus, not a source of horror and ugliness to be expelled from the polis as a pollution, but a source of blessing which will insure that the city that takes him in will never be destroyed.  His crime while in its living form was dangerous and vile, but once having been transmuted into a legend, it becomes a healing and preservative force to the degree that his remains' worth to Creon warrants the insulting of a powerful monarch and the imminent risk of war.
  In the characters of Oedipus and Hamlet we see vivid and refined expressions of how the Western tradition uses a heroic paradigm to make literature out of human experience, or to put it another way, to shape human experience to fit the Western definition of literature. There are numerous and complex parallels between the ways Hamlet and Oedipus are made to be heroes worthy of literary immortality. In nearly every respect, the method of hero-making draws heavily on the manipulation of contrast, that is, the rendering of literary relationships between things which are simultaneously alike and different.  In a way that helps to some degree to understand the fundamental operative methods used in Western literature, it is possible to trace a pattern in the hero-making techniques that can be seen as a tendency to pursue a literary paradigm based on the long-term survival and canonization of highly stable literary works or plays.  In other words, the convention of heroism shapes Western literary forms or "plays," and is reciprocally defined as that which serves the purposes of the play form. The creation of the hero in literature, then, is a focal procedure in which we can trace the most fundamental and essential originative patterns of the Western tradition, and observe the processes that have shaped the formal practices that predominate in that tradition.
  Hamlet and Oedipus are made into heroes through an uncannily similar process of characterization. There is a virtual checklist of qualities that must be selected and heightened if an ordinary human's (as opposed to a god's) experience is to attain the stature of hero, and thus be worthy of being recorded as a spiritual or moral guide for subsequent generations. Perhaps even more than the similarities, the differences between Hamlet's and Oedipus' respective heroic identities reveal the building and evolutionary processes that make Western literature what it is. (If we define literature and language, as this paper implicitly, if hypothetically, does, as the sustainment of contrast, it becomes extremely useful to describe literature itself, as well as literary tradition,  as a continuous process or set of processes rather than as a static object or set of objects.)
  There is a striking pattern in the heroic attributes used to make literature out of Hamlet and Oedipus.  While there are certainly other motifs present, as well as exceptions to the basic pattern of character, it is nonetheless an important and recurrent aspect of the hero's persona that he embodies the breakdown or obstruction of communicative relationships.  The hero in Western literature, and in Oedipus and Hamlet in particular, exists in a state of profound disruption of the relationships of human life, including sexual, familial, political, religious, and what might be called "cognitive"--the consonance of perception with reality.  The hero's defining trait is isolation; he fights alone, besieged by enemies, uncertainty, ignorance, or a cruel fate, and has no recourse to the communal supports offered by human contact.  This isolation, or inability to relate effectively, is portrayed in many various ways corresponding to the central relations that make up human society. Though each relationship is treated differently, all of the important ones (to which most people turn for assistance or assurance in times of crisis) must in some way fail the hero, and force him to rely only on his own resources. To be heroic, Hamlet and Oedipus must reach the state of complete (if involuntary) individualism, and to that end relations between them and their communities must collapse on all levels.
  For both Hamlet and Oedipus, one of the most important relationships that is subject to this disruption is that of father to son.It is no coincidence that this relation, perhaps the most profound and socially crucial in a male-centered society, forms the foundation of these characters' dilemmas. The murder of one's father compels both Hamlet and Oedipus to search out and destroy the perpetrator, in order to save the state or city from the corruption caused by uncleansed guilt. Conversely, it is almost impossible to conceive of anyone being completely isolated if one's father is alive and one is on good terms with him.For a hero to be placed in a crisis situation, the father relationship must be profoundly disrupted.
  It is clear how Oedipus has destroyed the socializing influence of a strong patrilineal bond--he has murdered Laius. This fact of parricide makes Oedipus a pollution unfit to remain in civilized society; this fact is true despite the legalistic arguments of self-defense and unconsciousness that Oedipus raises in Colonus.  For the purposes of Tyrannos, the parricide must be expelled; the oracle leaves no question. Thus Oedipus from the start has a crushing fate hanging over his head.
  There are further elaborations on the theme of paternal ostracism, or the perversion and distortion of the paternal relationship. Oedipus is not merely a parricide who intentionally killed his father to gain the throne. Rather, he acted out of ignorance.  Not only has he killed his father, but as far as his understanding goes, he has no father. Tereisias taunts him, "Do you know who your parents are?" (T: l.415).Oedipus would only be a coarse and distasteful brute if he had slaughtered his father out of greed, as if dispatching a sacrificial goat.  We are drawn in to his dilemma because of the far more psychologically complex reason for his parricide--oblivion to his own identity. Not only does his unconsciousness make Oedipus sympathetic, it drives the plot of the play. As we see the truth slowly dawn on him, we experience the satisfaction of seeing a great imbalance being corrected. We sense the wringing irony in statements like "Helping the dead king I help myself" (T: l.141), and feel a keen desire to see the truth brought out. That keen interest causes us to attend raptly to events, and not see them as distant or mechanical. For reasons of plot and character, then, it is very useful for Oedipus to "have no father," so to speak, as this lack leaves a void which causes tremendous dramatic pressure and makes us urgently wish to see its resolution. We feel the intense folly of Oedipus's statement "I account myself a child of Fortune, beneficent Fortune" (T:ll.1080-81), and its tragic resistance to compulsion.  Sophocles uses our instinct that no person can be fatherless to persuade us that no person can be free from "destiny."  Thus we see how the existential uncertainty requisite to the true hero, the true victim of fate, can be strongly reinforced by the removal of the paternal/filial consciousness, and the relationship it organizes.
  Hamlet's connection to his father, and all the exchanges and emotional engagement that make up that connection (especially in a hereditary monarchy), is also violently severed, and the revenge necessary to purge the stain of that violence makes up the primary action of the play.  Hamlet's story, the tale of his life, could hardly have been very interesting if Hamlet Sr. had lived, and Hamlet's life was spent carrying out the bland administrative duties that make up government, marrying Ophelia, and socializing and joking with Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Laertes.In order for a character to be heroic, his life must be different than our own, and different in a way that evokes awe, wonder, and fascination, not merely indifference. The hero must be charismatic and larger than life.
  What makes Hamlet's life intense and tragic, riveting, is the fact that he must avenge his father's death, and what's more, avenge it upon his uncle, now king and married to Hamlet's mother. Certainly here we have a "destiny" of heroic dimensions.  To fail in this vengeance would be so degrading that we feel an almost unbearable urge for Hamlet to act; it is this urge that makes his deliberations and setbacks so excruciating, and his surmounting them so aesthetically gratifying. The ghost admonishes Hamlet, with a poignancy and tenderness that riles up our most fervent filial instincts,

"If thou didst ever thy dear father love--"
    "O God!" 
    "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder." 
    "Murder most foul, as in the best it is, but this most foul, strange,
    and unnatural" (1.5.24-30).

  The simple yet striking meter in this passage, moving in seemingly innocuous but ineluctable iambs and powerfully sounding the chord "Murder--Murder?--Murder," expresses remarkably the feeling of tenderness, loss, and passion that must have been wringing Hamlet Jr. at hearing this news.  The beauty and simplicity of true love and respect of a son for his lost father is shown here with subtlety and feeling, and is rent--emotionally and linguistically--by the word and the idea of death almost as by a dagger. Our feelings of filiality, inflamed in this way, do not make us jump up from reading to go play chess with our father in the next room; our emotion is for the abstract father, the archetypal father. Our thirst for revenge, fired by a purity of father-love most of us probably never felt for our own fathers who are of course less than archetypes, impels us through the revenge with a furious intensity that is almost unequaled in literature. Hamlet is for many writers (as well as myself) the great expression of the disinherited, the wronged son, and the anguish and longing for lost paternal nobility and power--the lost paradise we seek passionately (the Christian connotations included) through art. There is no small meaning or power extracted by Shakespeare from the picture of a son broken off from his father.
  The paternal/filial instinct is expressed not only in the drive for revenge. It is used also to explain Hamlet's single-minded intensity, "Thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain" (1.5.103-4). (The literary implications of this line are immense, and make a powerful statement bringing together the strands of the metaphor of paternal obligation, the solitude and single-mindedness of the artist inherent in the heroic paradigm, and the literal equation of the mind with the written and finite work of literature. A paper on heroism and literary purpose in the Western tradition could be written on this line alone.) The spirit-deep revulsion verging on mania that Hamlet feels toward Claudius-- "I am too much in the sun" (1.2.67) (or son, implying the repugnance of having two fathers)--utilizes the father metaphor to express the corruption and spiritual obscenity that the false man, the usurper, is felt by the oppressed artistic individual and lover of truth and beauty to be. In yet another layer, the reappearance of the ghost to Hamlet to "whet thy almost blunted purpose" (3.4.114-15) uses the energy and unique character of the feelings of obedience and lawfulness that traditionally accompany the father figure to symbolize the sense of duty and simultaneous denial of duty felt by the hero, especially the tragic one.In showing the persistence of filial instincts--in a sense, the compulsion to be, like Oedipus, the son of the father--Shakespeare reinforces his particular presentation of the impulse for truth and justice as unignorable, fundamental, primal. The bulk of the dramatic energy in Hamlet, then, is attained through the portrayal of the broken or dysfunctional father/son relation.
  Another basic human relation whose breakdown is a central element of the Western heroic tradition is that between mother and son, and its psychological mirror or mature manifestation, the relation between husband and wife.  (The child's primary relation with females is to his mother, the adult's is to his wife, and secondarily to his daughters. I am discussing the mother-wife-daughter relationships as contextually bound because of their strong interconnections.  Since most tragic heroes are male, their spousal relationships are to women, and in heroic literature women are thus most meaningful as wives, mothers, or daughters. The ramifications that arise regarding heroic literature in terms of the portrayal of women are hugely complex, and cannot be meaningfully treated in a paper of this scope and emphasis. Suffice it to say that the perceptions of women in a society having a heroism-based literature are very likely to be in many ways unworkable and inaccurate. The nature of my approach makes it necessary to emphasize the role of portrayals of broken male-female relations in the definition of the hero, and this definition's influence on Western literary forms. The impact of such portrayals on the social definition of women is strongly connected and definitely worth inquiry, but far beyond the capacity of a short paper emphasizing formal literary patterns.) The paternal bond, one could argue, is the psycho-social focus for instincts like justice, order, and stability, while the maternal is the focus for instincts of reproduction and sexual love. To disfigure the father/son relation then creates a feeling that honor and law have been corrupted; to disjoint or pervert the mother/son relation creates a similar feeling of corruption of reproductive and sexual propriety. Both Oedipus and Hamlet experience major revulsion and disturbance toward their mothers. This disequilibrium contributes to the overall tragic qualities of both of their situations in two major ways: by inflicting on them a personal, painful feeling of corruption and decay, and by divesting them of the communication and mutual support of wife and mother relations.
  Oedipus's relationship with his mother is probably the worst aspect of his suffering. Although the murder of Laius is what the god considers pollution, the incest that Oedipus commits is (at least to the modern audience) the more personally distasteful. Certainly, there is nothing particularly sexual about killing one's father; Freud has construed such an act as sexual (this theory is in itself debatable) but even he did so by equating hostility toward one's father with sexual desire for one's mother. Whether or not the two "Oedipal" impulses are perfectly equivalent, it is certain that by including maternal incest in Oedipus's fate, Sophocles introduced a piercing sting of sexual agony. It is incest and the children of incest that are called "the foulest deeds that can be in this world of ours" (T: ll.1406-7). It is no coincidence that the discovery that he killed Laius comes to Oedipus first; the crushing blow that prompts Jocasta's suicide is not the prospect of Oedipus's banishment as a murderer, but the knowledge that her relation with him was incestuous. Similarly, the chief agony for Oedipus is the incest. He bears up strongly, declaring himself "a child of Fortune" (T: ll.1080-81) despite knowing he killed Laius; but on finding out that Jocasta is his mother, he rushes to kill her, finds her dead, and blinds himself. We see in this involvement of the sexual aspects of psychological torment, achieved (despite Freud) through showing an unnatural mother/wife combination, a further example of a disrupted personal relation being used to characterize the hero. That Oedipus's misery would have been nearly as total had he only been a parricide is highly doubtful; this quite possibly reflects the way in which the remaining healthy relationships tend to compensate for those that fail, and why Oedipus's incest was crucial in making his downfall utter and his story truly tragic. His banishment from Thebes (for Laius's murder) is aggravated into an unmitigated psycho-sexual aberrancy, and his outcast status insured.
  Though mother/wife incest is the chief female relationship that degenerates for Oedipus, others are worth noting briefly. His daughters, whose successful marriage would, on a very important instinctive level, moderate his ostracism and temper our sense of his tragedy, share the devastation of his fate. They are "men, not women, in bearing troubles with me" (C: l.1562); Creon hints at Antigone's risk of being raped while attending Oedipus through foreign parts, which highlights her miserable condition; both daughters are "doomed to waste away in barrenness unmarried" (C: l.1502), a misery that we empathize with and thus find Oedipus's fate all the more cruel for its extension to his children. Oedipus's suffering is enhanced by showing how it disrupts the normal relations between father and daughter, how future hopes and the social benefits of family will be inverted into barrenness, poverty, and vulnerability. The comfort that daughters both offer and receive can be seen as communication, and is often couched in terms of seeing, hearing, and touching. All communication with his daughters is poisoned by the fact of their corrupt origins; to see them and even to love them is only an added reminder of his transgression that intensifies his desolation.
  For the case of marital communication as a source of relief from pain, it is denied Oedipus--though he foolishly thinks he possesses it when he says to Jocasta "whom should I confide in rather than you" (T: ll.772-73)—and rather serves as an additional blow from fate. As she leaves the stage to commit suicide, she laments "O Oedipus, unhappy Oedipus! That is all I can call you, and the last thing I shall ever call you" (T: ll.1071-73). By destroying the basis of mother/son as well as husband/wife relations, Sophocles removes yet another possible source of relief from his hero, making him all the more tragic, and his story all the more distant from the accounts of average people's daily life.
  Hamlet's feelings toward the female are similarly those of revulsion and alienation. He denounces Gertrude for being weak in the defense of Hamlet Sr.'s honor, classically declaiming "Frailty, thy name is woman!" (1.2.146). She has, in Hamlet's eyes, abandoned his father; his relationship to her ceases to be that of son to mother, and she becomes a necessary object of his cleansing mission, not an ally in that mission. In "honeying and making love over the nasty sty" (3.4.95-96), she becomes an integral part of Denmark's rot, and thus a further source of pain and responsibility to Hamlet. "He must speak daggers to her, but use none" (3.2.395), the implication being that he can no longer treat her as a healthy and supportive fellow human, but must instead act as a scourge toward her as he does toward Claudius. There is an implied impulse to simply kill her, but Hamlet's heroism lies in purging evil, not degenerating to its methods or motivations.
  Hamlet is similarly bereft of any comfort from Ophelia. He utterly derides her intellect and speech, saying (as of all women) "You jig, you amble, and you lisp, you nickname God's creature's, and make your wantonness your ignorance" (3.1.146-48).  Clearly he sees no comfort from her as a confidant or comrade in his dilemma; if I had been him and really loved and been able to relate to Ophelia, I would have gushed my heart out to her over a picnic lunch. Of course that wouldn't have helped the avenging of my father any; that's the point. For the hero, relationships with women don't help any. In his disgust over what he sees as the frivolity, shallowness, and corruptibility of women, and their utter irrelevance to his heroic struggle, he bluntly says, to Ophelia and all women, "Get thee to a nunn'ry" (3.1.122). And although Ophelia offers no aid in his jeopardy, she is far from insignificant--her death, and the loss of the life Hamlet had hoped to lead with her are bitter punishments and profound statements about the harshness and coldness life inflicts on any human of feeling. Shakespeare's message, as his drama, is expert; yet there is no denying that by choosing the heroic mode he sacrificed the ability to show human beings successfully and fulfillingly relating.
  Though it is beyond the capacity of a short paper to cover all the relationships whose disruption or deformity are used to create heroism, even in these two plays alone, they can nonetheless be briefly listed. Relationships, based on communication, are all shown in their broken or insufficient form in the following situations: That between the hero and the polis; the hero and his kinsmen or allies (Creon and Theseus; Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, and Horatio); between human speech and human knowledge, sight and comprehension; between humanity and the divine, such as oracles and prophecies, or ghosts; and even between the author and the reader, who, in the heroic paradigm and its attendant canonical approach to literary authority, are implicitly placed on vastly disparate planes of prerogative and knowledge.In almost no work in the heroic tradition, be it Beowulf, the Iliad, or The Old Man and the Sea, will one find any of these relationships functioning smoothly and effectively. Their breakdown and the ensuing heroic action are the bedrock of the Western tradition; and although communication and relationship are almost always affirmed as ideals through the hero's death, (as we see in the way Oedipus's body blesses Athens, causing Oedipus to claim that "Only in this people...have I found...no hypocrisy" (C: ll.1291-93), and the chorus of Athenian elders to say "All of these matters have found their consummation" (T: ll.2021-22)) living and functioning communication and relationships are never a part of the hero's life.
Now that we have seen some of the ways that relationships are disrupted in the heroic genre, certain questions arise as to whether such disruption is necessary, and if so, what are the limitations on the literature for which the portrayal of disabled communication is the foundation.
  The purpose of heroic individualism is to establish the sufficiency of one person's story--a story with fixed characters--to describe and illuminate the human experience. If Hamlet's dilemma were resolved through some human relationship, then it would follow that we should pay attention to that relationship, not to Hamlet's heroism in making do without it. If fixed and canonical artifacts, rather than general and non-mimetic discussions of language relationships, are to constitute a literary culture, then the limitations of fixed works must be de-emphasized. This is done by inordinately stressing the individualistic experience of language, or how language works for people who are, at least temporarily, out of relationships.
  The paradox is that language itself is a relationship, so that if relation breaks down, then so must language. Creating the heroic, communicatively isolated individual, then, means creating a work in which language is confuted, disrupted, disabled--in a very real sense, does not exist as a functioning reality. These works usually end with the removal or expiation of the obstacle to communication, and present a statement about communication as a human ideal, but rarely with the resumption of communication itself. (In the cases of both Hamlet and Oedipus, the protagonists die or are banished at the end of the plays; they do not go on to live lives rich in functional social communication.) Heroic literature (and to the degree that it is based on a heroic pattern, Western literature) thus explores the relationships that constitute language by creating pictures of those relations when malfunctioning or non-existent.
  This brings up serious questions as to the ability of heroic literature to fulfill the potential language possesses to improve and facilitate human communication and well-being. At some point, the heroic mode, with its tremendous emphasis on the individual as the defining participant in literature, begins to undermine our ability to grasp the fundamental nature of language and its basis in relationship or mutuality. Perhaps in its beginnings, when literature had less of a grip on the human intellect and a less established cultural status, it was less of an imbalance to make the individual's role in language preeminent.  Now, however, with the strong influence literature has on how we conceptualize language, the heroic paradigm (and the literary canon from which it is inextricable) has diminished society's ability to recognize, absorb, and master the co-operative elements of communication.
  While heroism made us conscious of the relationships that make us human, it belongs to a very different (and yet unformulated) literature to provide us with the particular, utilitarian skills to sustain and nurture those relationships and not merely bemoan and heroically endure their decay. Heroism showed us the ideal; we must now invent other literatures to shape and forge the reality. Accordingly, heroic literature ought to be re-assessed as a means or phase in the ultimate maturity of human communication, and not as an end in itself. The heroes will be forgotten once they have truly triumphed.

Notes: "T" before the line number indicates Oedipus Tyrannos, "C" indicates Oedipus at Colonus.  Both are from the University of Chicago translations of David Grene.  Quotations from Hamlet are taken from the Scott-Foresman edition by David Bevington.

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