The Isolation of Hamlet and Oedipus
Drama gives its readers a chance to delve into the inner selves of the characters as they sort out their internal struggles and external obstacles. Often times these characters struggles lead them into a world of isolation as they battle against some type of seemingly unconquerable external force. As Tennessee Williams aptly said “. . . we are in the jungle with whatever we can work out for ourselves. It seems to be that the cards are stacked against us. . . .” This is true for both Hamlet of the play by Shakespeare with the same title and also for Oedipus from Oedipus Rex.
Hamlet finds himself facing the obligation of revenge from his recently murdered father, the former King. While he does not particularly want the challenge of avenging this murder, he does take steps to accomplish it. However, the steps he takes are what serve to create his further isolation. Before the ghost appears, Hamlet has the friendship of Horatio, a loving mother and a promising relationship with Ophelia.
He has no real enemies except for possibly his uncle Claudius. As he continues with his roundabout plan for revenge, he alienates nearly everyone.
First, Hamlet struggles with this newfound obligation and his own personality. He notes “the time is out of joint,:O cursed spite / that ever I was born to set it right” (I,v). He does not want to be the one chosen for this task, lacking the confidence and even motivation to take this step. Next, Hamlet struggles against the very credibility of the ghost. He notes to Horatio his doubts when he speaks of adding a scene much like the death of his father and uses the play to test the veracity of the ghost’s claim.
When he sees the reaction of Claudius he is sure, but has raised the suspicion of his uncle, the King, to greater heights, placing himself in danger. Now the struggle becomes a physical one with the king. Even more isolating is Hamlet’s murder of Polonius, Ophelia’s father. While accidental, this death serves to send Ophelia into suicidal insanity and to create a rival in her brother Laertes, who is also now driven for revenge. Now, Hamlet is struggling with himself, guilt, and the dangerous union of Claudius and Laertes, who both want him dead.
During this journey, Hamlet becomes increasingly isolated. First, he feigns insanity himself to allow himself the opportunity to be less conspicuous which creates a rift between himself and his family. To keep his cover, he must act cruelly toward Ophelia, his love. He tells her that she should not have believed him when he said that he loved her and to “Get thee to a nunnery!”(III,i).
Only Horatio remains true to Hamlet, perhaps as the only character that can see Hamlet’s decline clearly. He attempts to warn Hamlet of the finality of the arranged duel: “you will not win this wager, my lord.” As predicted, Hamlet does not win. He, Polonius, his mother, his uncle, Ophelia, and Laertes all die as a result of Hamlet’s inability to win his internal and external struggles.
Oedipus also struggles agains the hands of fate. He has been fated to kill his father and marry his mother. While he is far away at this time, he seeks to avenge Laius murder and travel away. His struggle agains his own arrogance is evident when he condemns the prophet Tieresias who warns him. Tieresias responds with “You blame my temper,/ but do not see the one which lives within you” (line 403-404). This temper reveals itself when he continues to goad Tieresias and discovers that “I [Tieresias] say that you yourself are the very man you’re looking for” (ln.434-435).
He then gives the prophecy that will forever haunt Oedipus:
He will be blind, although he now can see.
He will be a poor, although he now is rich.
He will set off for a foreign country,
groping the ground before him with a stick.
And he will turn out to be the brother
of the children in his house—their father, too,
both at once, and the husband and the son
of the very woman who gave birth to them.
He sowed the same womb as his father
and murdered him. Go in and think on this.
If you discover I have spoken falsely,
you can say I lack all skill in prophecy.
Of course he is referring to Oedipus, but Oedipus’ arrogance will not allow him to see it at this time.
Slowly fate comes to blows with Oedipus. He learns that Laius was killed in a similar fashion as a way he once murdered a man. In addition, he learns that who he believed to be his father died of natural causes and that he had been given as a baby to another man. The knowledge isolates Oedipus from his people and from his wife, who kills herself as a result of the horrible news. Finally, he isolates himself from the world and the truth when he blinds himself saying,
You will no longer see
all those atrocious things I suffered,
the dreadful things I did! No. You have seen
those you never should have looked upon,
and those I wished to know you did not see.
So now and for all future time be dark!
He cannot accept the truth so he retreats into the wilderness alone.
Both Hamlet and Oedipus must accept what fate brings them. Hamlet struggles against his duty and isolates himself from everyone he loves, eventually losing his own life. Oedipus struggles against the truth, ultimately losing his position and family in the process. Indeed, it seems as if these characters were left alone, to their own devices, and did not win the struggles.
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