Compare/Contrast-Pengcheng Wang 06-07
Aristotle described the archetypical tragic hero as a noble man by birth that ultimately came to his downfall by virtue of an inherent tragic flaw. While both Prince Hamlet from Shakespeare's Hamlet and Oedipus from Sophocles' Oedipus the King are prominent but flawed individuals who experience a reversal of fortunes, they differ in the intrinsic nature of their predetermined destinies. The contrast between fate and free will eventually leads both men to contrasting ends and provides a different mechanism for each tale by which similar kathartic emotions are released.
"He [the white man] has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart." While from an utterly contrasting era and time, the fall of Okonkwo from Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart mirrors the fall of Oedipus. Like the "white men" of Okonkwo's Nigeria, a force outside of the control of the protagonist dominates the playing field of Oedipus the King. Like a routine drive to the grocery store, Oedipus' course in life has been plotted out since his birth. "Apollo... Packs me home with ears ringing with some other things he blurted out... How mating with my mother I must spawn a progeny to make men shudder; then, be my very father's murderer." The conflict of Prince Hamlet, however, lies in direct contrast to Oedipus' dilemma. Hamlet too is confronted by outside sources, specifically the ghost of his murdered father. "Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched... If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not." But despite this influence, Hamlet is still very much an unchained individual. He has been commanded, but he is not forced to obey. Hence, while Oedipus is faced with a predetermined answer, Hamlet is given an insurmountable question to contemplate.
The reactions of Oedipus and Hamlet to their respective struggles illustrate further the difference between the two as tragic heroes. Oedipus' cycle of futility is first begun by the actions of his parents. Unwilling to accept the fate determined by the Gods, Laius and Jocasta attempt to defy divine will by leaving Oedipus to die. Yet as fated, he is miraculously saved. Later in life, he too hears this prophecy and tries to circumvent it: "I measured out the stars to put all heaven in between the land of Corinth and such a damned destiny." Ultimately, he falls right into his destiny by unknowingly murdering Laius and marrying Jocasta, sealing his fate in the divine order of things. Hamlet, on the other hand, examines the ideas of suicide, the afterlife, and divine redemption as he considers his dark deeds to come. "To or not to be - that is the question: whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them." His indecisiveness manifesting from this confusion leads him to delay what he believes to be his duty of avenging his father for fear of failing in a matter of spiritual penance. "Am I then revenged to take him in the purging of his soul, when he is fit and seasoned for his passage? No. Up sword, and know thou a more horrid hent." Thus Oedipus defies the divine implications of his prophecy and wages a hopeless and simple-minded war against an undefeatable foe, whereas Hamlet exacerbates a solely poignant matter of vindication into a recondite inner tempest.
The utter contrasts between the destinies and subsequent actions of Oedipus and Hamlet finally fully manifest in the katharses of both plays. Once Oedipus realizes his folly in attempting to defy the Gods, he undergoes a sudden and complete metanoia. Oedipus reverses his lifelong conception of light and darkness by gouging out his eyes so that he can finally see. ""Wicked, wicked eyes!" he gasps, "you shall not see me nor my shame - not see my present crime. Go dark, for all time blind to what you never should have seen, and blind to those this heart has cried to see."" In doing so, Oedipus redeems himself as a human being by sacrificing what is left of his societal possessions to fully embrace the truth. Thus dramatic irony is fully lifted and the audience experiences a katharsis with the freeing of the caged reality.
In contrast to the mechanism leading to the katharsis perpetrated by Oedipus' peripeteia is that of the one created by Prince Hamlet. Plagued by indecision throughout the play, Hamlet is finally forced into action and performs the long awaited act of assassinating King Claudius. Yet he undertakes the deed only after Queen Gertrude is inadvertently poisoned, and he is on the fringes of death from the wound inflicted by Laertes. Never does his internal turmoil truly subside, and the audience never truly feels the solvency of "to be or not to be.” For Hamlet comes not moral and personal conclusion but instead the eulogy of future generations: "If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story." By imploring Horatio to live and casting a dying vote for Fortinbras, Hamlet secures the elucidation and subsequent respect of his memory. The purgation of the audience comes from the liberation of Hamlet's image even though he does not achieve mental haven. As Oedipus falls as a disgraced king but redeemed man, Hamlet descends as a tormented human being but rises as an exalted prince.
An ancient Chinese tale tells of a loyal minister and poet named Qu Yuan who was exiled by his king under the influence of other corrupt ministers. In his exile, he continued to write and express his love for his nation until it was destroyed by a rival state. Upon hearing the news, Qu Yuan drowned himself in sorrow. He was so beloved by the locals that when they learned of his suicide they went out on boats into the middle of the river and threw rice dumplings into the water to keep the fish from destroying his body. Today, his death lives on as the Dragon Boat Festival, a day when people eat rice dumplings and hold dragon boat races to commemorate him and the search for his body. In his death, the poet Qu Yuan achieved what both King Oedipus and Prince Hamlet were unable to entirely grasp. Qu Yuan experienced the moral rebirth that Oedipus attained, and also the memorial touch on the hearts of the future consummated by Hamlet. Both born as noble men, Oedipus and Hamlet were faced with entirely different destinies and responded in contrasting ways. In the end, neither fully achieved transcendence, but such served only to further accentuate their tragic falls.