The Libation Bearers and Hamlet Many of Shakespeare’s plays draw from classical Greek themes, plot and metaphors. The tragedies of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Homer have themes like royal murders, assassinations by near relatives, the supernatural, ghostly visits, and vengeful spirits of the dead- themes which reappear in Shakespeare’s tragedies with a difference. Shakespeare’s tragic hero Hamlet and Aeschylus’s Orestes have a great deal in common. Both the plays are set in a time when the society is going through transition.
In Orestia gods are changing. Furies turn into Eumenides or the Pacified Ones. Social and political norms are changing. The old laws of revenge and retribution have to be re-established. Similarly Hamlet’s philosophical ideals no longer hold. Earl Showerman observes: “Hamlet and Orestes are perhaps even greater as tragic heroes because their dramas move through times of cultural liminality. ” In case of Hamlet Medieval ideas of honor and morality are going down through renaissance while Orestia is set in a time which is changing into the Iron Age.
It is the age when Greek dramatists hailed human heroes more than Olympian gods. Gilbert Murray compares the tragedies as: “There are first the broad similarities of situation between what we may call the original sagas on both sides; that is the general story of Orestes and Hamlet respectively. But secondly, there is something much more remarkable; when these sagas were worked up into tragedies, quite independently and on very different lines, by great dramatists of Greece and England, not only do most of the old similarities remain, but a number of new similarities are developed.
That is Aeschylus, Euripides, and Shakespeare are strikingly similar in certain points which do not occur at all in Saxo or Ambales or the Greek epic. ” (14) Both Orestes and Hamlet are revenge heroes who have to avenge the blood of their murdered fathers. In both cases the murderer is a near kin. Both the tragic heroes regret their mothers’ marriages with the murderers of their fathers. In both the tragedies the stepfather doesn’t measure up to the dead father. Both the tragic heroes are troubled by supernatural visits and nightmares.
Both have ethical and moral dilemmas , nevertheless, Hamlet is much more scholarly and agonized than Orestes who better fits in the robe of a Classical Greek revenge hero. Jessica Price observes: “An onslaught of tragic elements appear in both Hamlet and The Oresteia. Hamlet’s hamartia in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet leads to his succumbing to corruption and his eventual demise. In The Oresteia by Aeschylus, Orestes’ hamartia takes a slightly different course, causing him to stumble, but not completely fall. While Orestes never indulges in long existential speeches or philosophical thinking Hamlet delays the action in his endless quest for a right answer. Hamlet is not faced with the terrible commitment of killing his own mother. He has to kill his uncle to whom one is not as dearly related as a son is to his mother. Still he does not consider it right to kill his uncle on an apparitions’ command. He puts him to test to affirm what his father’s ghost said. He arranges a play based on the actual event of king’s murder to be performed before his uncle and mother and note their responses to it.
Even after his suspicion is validated he cannot bring himself round to kill his uncle. He wants to heal what has been hurt, make right what is wrong, do the justice but deep inside he does not want to kill Claudius. Orestes, on the other hand, right from the beginning is full of vengeful spirit and hatred for his father’s murderers. He can exact punishment on the murderers of his father only by killing his mother but in doing so he “breaks the god’s first law” (Eumenides 170). However, he does not have to justify his action.
He has a clear command from Apollo to revenge his father failing which he will have to suffer the wrath of gods and his father’s furies. Orestes’ tragedy lies in what he does. At the end of The Libation Bearers he is tormented by his mother’s furies. Apparently there is no refuge for him. He is followed by “these torment… the hounds of mother’s hate”, his mother’s furies “like Gorgons, shrouded in black, their heads wreathed, swarming serpents”(Libation Bearers 1052-1054). On the other hand Hamlet’s tragedy lies in his inaction. If he was Orestes he would have killed Claudius sooner and saved the day.
If Orestes was in Hamlet’s shoes he would have deferred matricide long enough for the gods to come to the conclusion to which they ultimately come. Hamlet is rather like Electra in his excessive mourning and frustration. Both Hamlet and Electra in The Libation Bearers are depressed with a grief which, in the words of S. T Coleridge is A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear, A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief, Which finds no natural outlet, no relief (Dejection, An Ode) Both are forced to live with their mothers and step fathers.
Electra cannot voice her disgust for her mother and Aegisthius while Hamlet’s suppressed protests to his mother against her marrying Claudius never get registered. Unlike Orestes, Hamlet is not the “godless man who tears his parents’ heart” (Eumenides 153). He decides to kill Claudius immediately after the play he directs to affirm his suspicions. He would have done so had he not found Claudius knelt before the cross. He cares for the soul and cannot send his father’s murderer to heaven by killing him while he is praying to Christ. He gives vent to his mournful passions by shunning his responsibility.
He grieves, mourns and rages every time he lets his step father go and invents long philosophical, religious and ethical reasons why it was not the right time to kill him. That’s why as the sense of duty towards his dead father grows, fed partly by his father’s ghost, partly by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he becomes abnormally fierce and frustrated. However he is not delaying Claudius’s murder because of the madness which is fake as Eliot calls it “a simple ruse, and to the end, we may assume, understood as a ruse to the audience”.
He defers the action because of too much idealization, pondering and lack of planning till most of his friends are dead. Whereas Orestes’ delay is not because of any emotional instability or late planning. Right in the beginning, on his father’s tomb, with his sister Electra, he vows vengeance. He kills Aegisthius and is deferred for a time from killing Clytemnestra due to failure of plan. None of the women in Shakespeare’s Hamlet are comparable with women in Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers. Ophelia is no accomplice or support to Hamlet as Electra is to Orestes.
Clytemenestra as a queen is no match to Hamlet’s mother whose, according to Hamlet, very name is “fraility”. To conclude Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and Aeschylus’s “The Libation Bearers” may have a good deal in common in matter and theme and resemble in situations the characters are put in, nevertheless both the great tragedies are integrated by the characterization which is a “ruse”. Hamlet does not confirm all the norms of a revenge hero as Orestes does. One is deeply philosophical tragedy while the other is deeply Greek still former is rooted in later. Works Cited Aeschylus.
The Libation Bearers. Prentice Hall, 1970. Colridge, S. T. “Dejection An Ode. ” www. poetryfoundation. org/poem/173229. Eliot, T. S. “Hamlet. ” Elizabethan Essays. New York: Haskell House, 1964. Murray, Gilbert. Hamlet and Orestes: A study in Traditional Types. British Academy, 1914. Price, Jessica. 18 August 2009. 27 10 2012 . Shakespeare, William. Hamlet(Folger Shakespeare Library). Washington Squre Press, 2003. Showerman, Earl. “Orestes and Hamlet: From Myth to Masterpiece. ” shakespeare-oxford. com/wp-content/… /Showerman-Orestes. pdf. n. d.