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Hamlet and Macbeth

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Hamlet and Macbeth

The Elizabethan age was a curious admixture of rationalism and superstition, religious dogmatism and scientific exploration, an increased fervor for the literary arts and a zest for sea-bound ventures seeking new horizons. Shakespeare responded to the pulse of his Elizabethan audience by incorporating the elements of dramatic entertainment within the ambit of his plays. His later tragedies testify to his perceptive sensibilities about the concerns of his era. The stratified society of the age was immersed in beliefs about the supernatural world and Shakespeare fused these popular notions with the themes of his tragedies, creating masterpieces like Hamlet and Macbeth.

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Hamlet is steeped in references of the other world, the world beyond the familiar sphere of human life while the drama of Macbeth unfolds with the active intrusion and temptation of the weird witches in the hero’s life, morphing the brave loyal general into the evil tyrant of over-ambition. The appearance of the Ghost in Hamlet unravels the mystery of the cruel regicide of the prince’s father at the hands of his uncle the present king Claudius, at the same time, causing the waves of complications in the noble Hamlet’s life by urging him on the path of vengeance and bloodshed.

John Wilson aptly puts it: “The Ghost is the linchpin of Hamlet; remove it and the play falls to pieces” (What happens in Hamlet 52).

The image of the Ghost is in conformity with the Elizabethan idea of the supernatural : it appears at the stroke of midnight and disappears at the break of dawn; it urges revenge through the mortal figure of the prince as it is unable to inflict physical injury upon the body of its assassin itself; it is a result of the untimely and unnatural death  of the former king as popular belief endorsed that such unnatural deaths caused the spirit of the deceased to wander restlessly till their  murderers were duly punished. The non-corporeal entity, the Ghost of Hamlet’s father sets the stage for the gory events to unfold in the drama. The question looms in the critical analysis of Shakespeare’s use of this supernatural character: is it merely a hallucination of Hamlet, lately bereaved of his father, or is it a ‘real’ entity? The master dramatist tries to stroke the figure of the spirit as concretely as possible: the Ghost is seen by the guards as well as Horatio; also, the detailed description of the Ghost belies any doubt as to its appearance.


Is it not like the king?


As thou art to thyself:

Such was the very armour he had on
When he the ambitious Norway combated;
So frown’d he once, when, in an angry parle,
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice.

            (The Tragedy of Hamlet Act I Sc I ll.58-63)

The apparition in full armor is an explicit pointer to the charge of its appearance before the prince Hamlet demanding revenge as was the noble duty of the son. The whole atmosphere of Denmark is dark with foreboding almost in the manner of the unnatural occurrences before the assignation of Julius Caesar and the fair and foul weather in which the weird sisters are introduced in Macbeth. Like the apparition in Hamlet initiates the dramatic action in the play, the three witches in Macbeth set the ball rolling for Macbeth as he returns from loyal exertions on the field defending the throne of Duncan. The meeting on the heath leads to the fermentation of the dormant ambition festering in his bosom. The words of Lady Macbeth act as a catalyst, speeding up the process of gaining maximum returns through evil shortcuts of murder and treachery. Interestingly, there are diverse theories regarding the significance of the witches in the life of the tragic protagonist. Edwin Wiley in A Study of the Supernatural in Three Plays of Shakespeare conceives the possibility of the weird sisters as projections of Macbeth’s soul, the inner self, hidden at first, and then exposed through subsequent actions. The convenience of the witches thus is a direction to the shortest route to success, paving the way for Macbeth to trudge through the bloody mire of murder and betrayal for the power of the scepter of Scotland. However, Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not only an individual but also a universal symbol of “all men who are tempted and fall. And this, it seems, is the question that the poet is endeavoring to solve. Does sin, he asks have its origin wholly within the human soul; wholly without; or is it the result of an interaction of both the physical and the metaphysical worlds of evil” (A Study of the Supernatural in Three Plays of Shakespeare 44).

 As in the case of the Ghost in Hamlet, Shakespeare takes scrupulous care to present the physical reality of the supernatural entities in Macbeth – whether it is the ghastly sight of the witches appearing, predicting and later vanishing before both Macbeth and Banquo’s eyes, or the elaborate ritual of the cauldron by Hecate and her evil followers. Unlike the supernatural role in Hamlet however where the Ghost urges the prince to think about the means and mode of retribution, Macbeth is not directed to take any specific action by the witches, or later Hecate. The tragic protagonist himself is responsible for thinking immediately of murdering Duncan as assuredly the quickest way to the Scottish throne with his wife as his accessory in crime.

Macbeth is a study of moral weakness in contrast to Hamlet’s psychological fallacies. The weird sisters bring to the fore the deep-seated desire of the brave general to upgrade himself to the heights of kingship through fair or foul means; however, the witches simply direct Macbeth up the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire. It is the moral failure of Macbeth to resist the evil scope revealed by the witches in contrast to the reaction of Banquo. When the sisters predict great promotions for Macbeth, the latter is enveloped in fantasies of royalty, yet the visions of greatness shown to Banquo fail to stir him in the same manner. As Wiley writes: “Macbeth’s defect was not wholly ambition; it was as much selfishness and vanity…Like Richard, he loved but himself” (A Study of the Supernatural in Three Plays of Shakespeare 47). “For my own good/ All causes shall give way:” (Macbeth Act III Sc iv ll. 134). When Macbeth is given the title of the Thane of Cawdor, ironically he is garbed in the same disloyalty that led to the former Thane’s downfall, anticipating his own nemesis at the end of the play:


The thane of Cawdor lives: why do you dress me
In borrow’d robes?


Who was the thane lives yet;
But under heavy judgment bears that life
Which he deserves to lose.

            (Macbeth Act I Sc iii ll. 119-123)

Thus the supernatural element in Macbeth sets the stage of storm and eeriness forewarning the audience of the turbulence in the hero’s mind and soul as well as the series of murders he would commit to continue on his evil bloody path of kingship. However, in the case of Hamlet, the Ghost commences the dramatic action – without its injunctions, the noble prince though suspicious of Claudius’ hasty marriage to Hamlet’s widowed mother, would not have stepped in the direction of murder and vengeance. Hamlet’s procrastination stems from his own psychological weakness to plunge into action as the Elizabethan hero should, in pursuit of the noble duty of punishing his father’s assassin. John Dover Wilson explains: “In Hamlet Shakespeare set out to create a hero labouring under mental infirmity, just as later in Macbeth he depicted a hero afflicted by moral infirmity…” (What Happens in Hamlet 218).

Hamlet is a conglomeration of certain forces which mould him to act in the way he does in the play. Untampered by these calls to duty and murder, Hamlet would have remained the philosophical scholar he was at the beginning of the drama, mourning the untimely loss of his father, a dutiful son to Gertrude, intensely in love with Ophelia and faithful as a friend to Horatio. It is, positioned at the juncture of Claudius’ evil act of regicide and the Ghost’s incessant demand for justice and revenge that Hamlet turns in the direction of fatality that the murder of Claudius would inevitably lead to. Hamlet the prince of Denmark is often labeled as a procrastinator but throughout the play, it becomes increasingly evident to the audience/readers that he is not a weak-minded character swayed from his goal, rather an individual deliberating his way steadily through the mesh of intrigue and conspiracy webbed around him, understanding the murder and the motive, the friends and foes circling him before taking the decisive action of revenge against the real perpetrators of this ghastly crime. To be or not to be — is the central pivot of Hamlet’s meditations. He is a son beguiled by his uncle’s words, only to be stripped off his illusions by the appearance of his father’s ghost imploring revenge, dejected by his mother’s disloyalty and dismayed by the hypocrisies and lies surrounding him. While it was a custom of the Elizabethan times to do the honorable deed and take immediate vengeance against the murderers of one’s kin, Hamlet suffers from the delay of decision. Often labeled cowardice and mental infirmity, it is in fact his inability to accept the grotesque truth of his own near and dear ones’ betrayal. The famous speech where Hamlet questions the spectrum of possibilities before him shows his strength of mind and acknowledgement of his oscillating thoughts.

To be 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. To die, to sleep;
No more; … the dread of something after death,
…conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

(The Tragedy of Hamlet Act III, Sc I, 56-88)

Macbeth on the other hand has the seed of ambition already in the deep recesses of his heart. The external forces of the witches and the coincidences of the immediate promotion to the Thaneship of Cawdor and Duncan’s visit to Macbeth’s castle provide the opportunity and impetus to hatch the conspiracy of assassin and ascendancy to the throne; but it must be recognized that Macbeth’s actions stem from his own weakness of over ambition rather than the mere presence of external prompters of evil. The temptation and the vision of kingship are already seared in Macbeth’s mind and soul when the prophecy of the Thaneship of Cawdor is fulfilled on the heath in Act I Sc iii, as Macbeth deliberates over his situation:

[Aside] Two truths are told,
As happy prologues to the swelling act
Of the imperial theme.–I thank you, gentlemen.


Cannot be ill, cannot be good: if ill,
Why hath it given me earnest of success,
Commencing in a truth? I am thane of Cawdor:
If good, why do I yield to that suggestion
Whose horrid image doth unfix my hair
And make my seated heart knock at my ribs,
Against the use of nature? Present fears
Are less than horrible imaginings:
My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
Shakes so my single state of man that function
Is smother’d in surmise, and nothing is
But what is not.

(Macbeth Act I, Sc iii, ll. 143- 158)

The basic difference between Macbeth the military general used to human carnage and slaughter on the battlefield and Hamlet the philosophical thinker more at home with scholarly discourses, is the manner both perceive the notion of murder. Hamlet indulges in pondering long over the cause and consequence of his duty while Macbeth has only the initial flutter of failing courage in committing the murder of King Duncan, soon overcome by his wife’s dynamic incitement and vitriolic tongue. With each act of butchery and treachery, Macbeth hardens into a veteran player in the field of crime. The role of Lady Macbeth has often been overemphasized by critics. It is undoubtedly her solid presence which catapults Macbeth over the early hindrance of moral questioning – the murder of Duncan was a threefold sin: a crime against one’s king, against one’s kinsman and above all, against the sanctity of the promise to protect one’s guest. It is Lady Macbeth who plans to exploit the opportunity afforded by Duncan’s visit to hatch the conspiracy of murder, yet the seed of murder was already planted in the depths of the protagonist’s mind. Her words, her presence acted as a strong intoxication for the moment of the first murder. She steadies the hesitant hand of Macbeth with her goading words:

What beast was’t, then,
That made you break this enterprise to me?
When you durst do it, then you were a man;
And, to be more than what you were, you would
Be so much more the man. Nor time nor place
Did then adhere, and yet you would make both:
They have made themselves, and that their fitness now
Does unmake you. I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me:
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this.

(Macbeth Act I Sc vii ll. 56-68)

As the crimes against Macbeth increase, the tyrant in the erstwhile loyal hero rears its head and his lust for power and evil manifests throughout the texture of the play. Lady Macbeth on the other hand, though an equal partner in crime, the very first time, cannot bear the smell and sight of blood on her hands as the reality of the sin permeates her senses. Her love for her husband and her desire to see him fulfill his wish of kingship propel her words and actions, which lead to his spiraling downwards on the stairway to hell and damnation. The fall of the giant figure of the tragic hero resounds with the echo of the mental torture and suicidal collapse of his wife in the course of the play. Ironically the murder of Duncan is the first step in the distancing of man and wife as Macbeth continues on his destructive path of massacre with the deaths of Banquo, Macduff’s family and every opponent in his path of material success till the ultimate hour of his own death. With the news of her self-inflicted death, Macbeth’s last link to human relationship is shattered, his sole companion gone forever.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(Macbeth Act V Sc v ll. 21-32)

Hamlet on the other hand is an exacting lover upon the naive Ophelia. Shocked by the venomous betrayal of Gertrude, in league with Claudius, which ultimately proved fatal for the late King, Hamlet becomes embittered against the very notion of love, against the image of womanhood, as he cries out: “Frailty, thy name is woman!” (The Tragedy of Hamlet Act I Sc ii l. 146). In his mad frenzy and fury, he distances himself from the sweet love of Ophelia, causing her to wane in grief and wither away in death. In the nunnery scene, Hamlet is outraged at Ophelia’s attempts to unravel his presumed madness (in unquestioning obedience to the dictates of her father Polonius), as he shouts at her: “Get thee to a nunnery: Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” (Hamlet Act III Sc I ll.124-125). He accuses Ophelia of prostituting her love when it is his own mother’s sin that makes him say this. In the mental make-up of the noble prince, this anomaly of behavior is surprising but when placed in the context of the whole frame of conspiracy, murder, betrayal and impending revenge clouding his horizon, Hamlet’s forsaking of his love seems inevitable in pursuit of his duty as son. As in Macbeth the effect of murder, here the unfortunate slaying of Polonius at the hands of the unsuspecting Hamlet causes Ophelia to be even more alienated from the prince. Unlike Lady Macbeth, Ophelia does not share the dilemma of decision in the life of Hamlet. The latter, like Macbeth is greatly affected by the news of her unnatural death in the famous grave diggers’ scene. Both the women in the tragedies, Lady Macbeth and Ophelia are tortured and mentally afflicted with insanity as a consequence of the actions of their male partners.

Shakespearean tragedies reverberate with the fall of the noble mind of the hero due to the inevitable flaw in his persona. Kenneth Muir expands this definition, saying that the master-dramatist incorporated elements of warning in his tragedies— “warnings against sin, against tyranny, against allowing passion to usurp the place of reason, against pride…[even] the mutability of fortune” (Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence 17). Hamlet and Macbeth are willed into their different paths of duty and destruction through the interplay of character and destiny, and represent the ultimate vulnerability of the human figure in the delicate balance of good and evil. As Ophelia, in frenzied passion speaks about the uncertainties surrounding our existence: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be” (The Tragedy of Hamlet Act IV Sc v ll. 43-44). Hamlet and Macbeth, with their similarities and differences in mental and moral make-up, testify to this universal truth and remain immortal creations of the Shakespearean niche of tragic heroes.

Works Cited

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Tragic Sequence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2005.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Ed. Jack Randall. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917.

The Tragedy of Macbeth. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Created by Jeremy Hylton. 10 December 2008. < http://shakespeare.mit.edu/macbeth/full.html>

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Wiley, Edwin. A Study of the Supernatural in Three Plays of Shakespeare. Berkeley: University of California, 1913.

Wilson, John Dover. What Happens in Hamlet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cite this Hamlet and Macbeth

Hamlet and Macbeth. (2016, Oct 03). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/hamlet-and-macbeth-2/

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