Two For Tragedy

An Essay By Paul // 1/12/2005

Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet” in the third quarter of his career; with “Julius Caesar” it initiates a stream of third-quarter tragedies. Foreboding and riveting, Hamlet’s unique beginning immediately draws the audience into the play. Another first scene of a Shakespearean tragedy, the start of “Macbeth” distinctively shares important facets of “Hamlet” while differing in other significant ways. It, too, provides a compelling start to a turbulent play. Both protagonists grapple with similar emotions. Yet each responds differently because of their personality and circumstances. While contrasting “Hamlet’s” beginning to “Macbeth’s” reveals key differences and similarities, an examination of the beginnings of “King Lear,” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex” prove interesting to a lesser extent.

“Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “Oedipus Rex” share similar circumstances. Each play begins with a troublesome background. “Macbeth” starts with a closing battle; ambitious, unthankful children scheme before “King Lear” begins. War preparations, King Claudius’ murder of his brother as well as his incestuous marriage with his brother’s wife provide a morose landscape for “Hamlet,” while a pestilence gnaws Oedipus’ kingdom and an incestuous marriage and illegitimate king doom the play. Dethroned by evil, legitimate authority lies in question in each beginning. Hamlet denies King Claudius’ right to authority and serves a ghost instead; apparent prophecy tempts Macbeth to betray his king. Vengeful gods debunk King Oedipus’ authority. King Lear’s rash actions throw his authority into doubt, and his headstrong daughters make it even more questionable. Correspondingly each protagonist asks a question in the beginning of his play. How will Macbeth become the king as the witches prophesied; how will Oedipus find the former king’s murderer, and how will Hamlet resolve his father’s murder? Finally, King Lear’s question, how much do his daughter’s love him, creates an immense problem.

In many ways each play’s beginning differs from the other. Though King Lear and Macbeth deepen the disorder in their world, in contrast the first scene of “Hamlet” makes its protagonist a victim. As a cross between the two, Oedipus authors his demise and becomes the victim in his promise to “. . . .wear out his [the offenders] life in misery to miserable doom!” Uniquely Hamlet soon exposes himself in his first soliloquy, while the other protagonists keep their inner turmoil hidden. Secondary characters represent another distinguishing differences. Though Shakespeare incorporates a strong and grounded witness to Macbeth’s and Hamlet’s visions as well as to King Lear’s terrible rashness, he gives each witness a different personality. Hamlet’s Horatio appears submissive, the domineering Lady Macbeth shames her husband into action, and King Lear’s Kent endeavors to restore Lear to reason.

Particularly “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” share significant similarities and differences in their first acts. Perhaps the supernatural remains the most important. In each case the supernatural oversteps its usual bounds and leaves the protagonist a consuming mission. No one knows the origin or veracity of either apparition. Betrayal also plays a significant role in each beginning. Cawdor reveals his treason to the king, and the ghost condemns Claudius as a traitor. As distinct from each other, wartime paints the background to each beginning, but Macbeth’s victory promises peace, while war mounts in “Hamlet.” In fact, “Hamlet” begins with a tense question, “Who’s there?” This question refers just as much to the previously seen ghost as to war and springs from a sense of brewing evil in the kingdom. Compared to Macbeth, a man of war, Hamlet seems more philosophical and indecisive. However, Macbeth might act less rapidly if not for Lady Macbeth, another key difference, for Hamlet acts alone. Finally, Hamlet suffers personal betrayal from his mother and agonizes over corruption. Unlike Macbeth, he feels driven by justice not ambition.

Shakespeare rivets the audience with the beginning of “Macbeth” and “Hamlet.” As the actors react to the ghost and witches, we find ourselves believing. With bated breath we listen to the words of the supernatural presences. Macbeth’s and Hamlet’s strife become real; their words resonate with meaning. Truly Hamlet’s troubles and Macbeth’s inner conflict become our own as we watch their dramas unfold. Their temptations and confusion affect us. Eagerly we await their decisions and observe the striking truth of man’s nature in their decisions. Indeed through the beginnings of these tragedies Shakespeare shows his masterful art.

(I choose to write about this topic for an assignment.)

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