Oedipus and Hamlet are characters of extra-ordinary complexity and no simple formula can unfold mysteries about their nature and disposition. Both fulfill the conception of the tragic hero that we gather from Aristotle’s Poetics i. e. both are highly esteemed and prosperous man who falls into misfortune because of some serious hamartia i. e. tragic flaw. So both are essentially noble characters but there is some tragic flaw in their personalities that lead them to a tragic downfall and this tragic flaw is a mix of bad as well as good traits of their personality.
Both Hamlet and Oedipus are intrinsically noble characters with bonafide intentions. The crucial point is that whether Sophocles wants us to think that Oedipus has basically unsound character. One way of deciding this question is to examine what other characters in the play say about Oedipus. The only result that we can arrive at in this way is that Sophocles intends us to consider Oedipus an essentially noble person. In the opening scene of the play, the priest of Zeus refers to him as the greatest and noblest of men and the divinely inspired savior who saved Thebes from being destroyed by the Sphinx.
The Chorus also considers him to be noble and virtuous. They refuse to believe in Tireseas accusations of him. When catastrophe befalls Oedipus, not a single character in the play justifies it as a doom which has deservedly overtaken Oedipus. (Dodds, p. 39) So there were certain other tragic flaws that were acting behind the curtain to bring about Oedipus tragedy. Like Oedipus, Hamlet is a character of extraordinary complexity and depth. No simple formula can serve to solve his mystery. His character is chiefly responsible for his sufferings.
A different Hamlet might have killed his uncle Claudius on the strength of the Ghost’s accusation, ascended the throne, married Ophelia and lived happily ever after. Like other tragic heroes of Shakespeare he is also endowed with exceptional qualities like royal birth, graceful and charming personality among his own countrymen. He has a high intellectual quality as Ophelia observes: O what a noble mind is here overthrown! / The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s eye, tongue, sword, / Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state ,/ The glass of fashion , and the mould of form ,/ Th’ observed of all observers. Act III, Scene I] In spite of possessing all these high qualities which rank him above the other characters the flaw in his character leads to his downfall and makes him a tragic hero. Distinguished Professor Butcher has identified four possible range of meaning of Aristotle‘s Hamartia i. e. tragic flaw. The foremost of these connotations is an error due to unavoidable ignorance of circumstances whereas an error caused by unawareness of conditions that might have been identified and for that reason to some extent morally blameworthy is another manifestation of the sense in which the term hamartia was used by Aristotle.
The third sense is “A fault or error where the act is conscious and intentional, but not deliberate. Such acts are committed in anger or passion. ” Where as fourth one is “A fault of character distinct, on the one hand, from an isolated error, and, on the other, from the vice which has its seat in the depraved will…a flaw of character that is not tainted with a vicious purpose. ” (310-315. ) The tragic flaw in the character of Hamlet is that he thinks too much and feels too much. He is often disturbed by his own nature of ‘self analyses’.
What is required of Hamlet is prompt action, whereas he broods over the moral idealism which leads to his delay in action. When he gets an opportunity to kill Claudius, he puts aside the thought because he cannot strike an enemy while he is at prayer. Several causes account for his inaction. By nature he is prone to think rather than to act. He is a man of morals and his moral idealism receives a shock when his mother remarries Claudius after his father’s death. Chance too plays an important part in shaping his character. Chance places him in such a position in which he is incapable of doing anything.
A character analysis of Oedipus shows that a mix of good as well as bad qualities causes suffering for him and ultimately brings him to tragic downfall. His excessive Pride and Obsession with Intelligence is the foremost of bad characteristic of his character that contributes toward his suffering. Oedipus seems to be obsessed with his own intelligence and this leads him to very unfortunate and uncomfortable situations. This tragic flaw of Oedipus laps over with his pride as he is extremely proud of the fact that he was able to solve the riddle of the Sphinx which had proved too much for any other person.
He thinks that Gods has capacitated him with intelligence and wisdom to solve riddle that the Thebes is afflicted with. Oedipus even taunts Tireseas on his inability in solving the Sphinx’s riddle. After calling the soothsayer false prophet, Oedipus boasts of his own skill in having solved the puzzled which proved too much for the blind seer; “Until I came—I, ignorant Oedipus, came—/ And stopped the riddler’s mouth, guessing he truth/ By mother-wit, not bird-lore. ” (17-19) So he describes Tireseas predictive cautions as the whims of a fanatic and opposes the seer’s prophecy with arguments of his own.
Self-confidence and pride in his own wisdom is an outstanding feature of his character that also brings his tragedy. In addition to above-mentioned bad traits of their personalities, some of their good qualities also contribute significantly toward their downfall. Oedipus is also obsession with truth and this good quality of their (Oedipus and Hamlet) character brings them closer to their tragedy. Hamlet suspects the Ghost and wants to seek the complete truth before taking a proper revengeful action. This causes the procrastination that adds towards his afflictions.
Oedipus’ insistent hunt for the truth is manifested when he thinks that he is solely responsible for an assassination and he is not a sibling of Polybus but he persistently pursue his search for truth by declaring; “I must pursue this trail to the end,”(p. 55). Bernard Knox eulogizes Oedipus’ “dedication to truth, whatever the cost” (p. 117) Another characteristic of these characters that contributes toward their tragedy is their longing for thoroughness. Their inquisitive nature is not content with anything which is either half-hearted or incomplete.
For example Oedipus damns that the direction of the oracle should be given effect at once. As before, Oedipus speaks on the basis of the workings of his own mental faculties that has been tested time and again and have proved their intelligence. Hamlet also pays attention to details meticulously and observes closely Gertrude and Claudius to find out the truth. It can be said that the tragedy of Oedipus is the result more of his good qualities than his bad ones. It is his love for Thebes which makes him send Creon to Delphi to consult the Oracles.
It is the same care for his subjects which makes him proclaim a ban and a curse on the murderer of Laius. It is his absolute honesty which makes him include even himself within the curse and the punishment. So his moral goodness also seems as a tragic flaw that brings his ruin. He replies by saying “Sick as you are, not one is sick as I, each of you suffers in himself…but my spirit Groans for the city, for myself, for you”. (62-62) Hamlet’s character is noble and this nobility prevents him at occasion to kill Claudius without concrete evidence.
Above-mentioned arguments and supporting textual and extra-textual evidence clearly manifests that both are essentially noble characters with certain good qualities and these good qualities also contribute toward their tragic downfall. Furthermore, actions of both these protagonists generate the calamity that originates from a totality of their disposition and there is not a single trait or action that brings them to their tragic ruin. This totality of disposition includes both bad and good qualities.