Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a compelling play delving into the psyche of one of literatures most famous protagonists; his insanity, his cruelty, his love all lead the reader into Hamlet’s world and allow the audience to empathize with his actions, be they driven by madness or love for his father. Oscar Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Ernest deals with the same issues as Shakespeare’s play, in the mistaking of identity, and the search for the true self through society’s misconceptions (be they forced or subtle). This paper will explore the literary techniques of character development in both of these plays as well as establish a definition of a tragic hero in order for a base comparison to be made between these two works of art.
The hero or protagonist of a play has one tragic flaw (ego) that conquers them, ruins them, or brings them humility. In the case of Hamlet, his tragic flaw conquers him, in the case of “Ernest” his tragic flaw brings him humility, as Jack states, “When one is in town one amuses oneself. When one is in the country one amuses other people.” (Wilde Act 1). This fallible nature is show the imperfections of humanity designed through sin; sin is one of the many idiosyncrasies which mark us as human, that create specific characteristics and through confession or the confession of characters in a play, this nature becomes like a myth in the end there is death or forgiveness. Aristotle’s definition for a tragic hero is one who is not in control of his own fate, but instead is ruled by the gods in one fashion or another. The tragic hero for Aristotle is tragic because of their lack of control or will in the face of their predetermined future and downfall. A great tragic flaw (hamartia) is the hero’s devil may care attitude at the beginning of each story, and then their despondency and stagnation of hope that meets them at the end of the play.
Human nature is a nature of reason, not strictly adherent to passion or feelings, and in modern drama playwrights strive to be exact in their representation of reality. Morality then, becomes the crux of playwriting. Morality is reason. This is not to say that Plato and other classic Greek writers were ascetic; rather they placed passion, and feelings in their plays but the ethics of humanity are tied into the good of a person because reasonably, being virtuous, or good leads a character to happiness or release at the end of a modern play. The word for this given by Plato is eudemonism, which means blissful. In modern, and Elizabethan drama, the lesson is not about escapism but coming to terms with life and making a fundamental choice. Modern drama juxtaposes a character’s dwindling faith in themselves and reality. The playwright’s tragic heroes have survived in life under false pretences, thus they are doomed to suffer from their one flaw of ego.
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Choices can be broken down into good and evil in modern drama or to be more exact they can be dichotomized into heroic and a state of succumbing to one’s own humanity. The tragic hero may do evil deeds but in the end of a play, virtue is heeded. The source of a character doing evil is brought about by unlimited desire. Something that goes unmitigated becomes possessive of that person and they in turn want, and want, without satiation. This is when the appetitive part of the soul (the part of the soul that wants sex, food, etc.) overtakes the rational (part seeking truth, and reason) of the soul resulting in moral weakness or akrasia.
It is not then self-interest that leads a person to happiness, and there is a definite equilibrium between the allowance of each part of the soul guided by reason, and asceticism, as Wilde writes, “I should have remembered that when one is going to lead an entirely new life, one requires regular and wholesome meals.” (Wilde Act 2). Here Wilde explains the point false identity of these characters in the play. In Shakespeare reinvention of this characters persona to the public he writes, , “My fate cries out/ And makes each petty artere in this body/ As hardy as the Nemean lion’s nerve./ Still am I called! Unhand me, gentlemen. / By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!/ I say, away! Go on. I’ll follow thee” (Shakespeare Act One, Scene Four, lines 82-86).Plato was a not a Sophist. Without the guidance of moral reason then a state of chaos would ensue entailing an everyman for himself type of attitude.
Morality must then be shown as adhering to individual interests. Plato did not agree with the type of hedonism exhibited by the Sophists, who thought human nature was an extension of the animal world. Instead, Plato states that the nature of man is reason; and in this reason exists an organized society constructed by reason which seems to be the main question in Hamlet’s case as parts of the play he is seemingly mad whilst in others he is coherent, , “He waxes desperate with imagination” (Act One, Scene Four, line 87). This is another point in this thesis, Hamlet’s identity, and his madness.
First Comparative Point
Happiness for the rational man in modern drama then comes into fruition by governing their more base, animal, desires, which are irrational; it is with Wilde that such states of humanity are more succinctly defined. This morality is extended into the realm of society because of human interaction. Therefore, if a man is to be the pinnacle of reason, and morality, and happiness, then the society that he lives and associates must then also exhibit such a moral temperance. In The Importance of Being Ernest, moral fortitude is what best describes Jack Worthing’s behavior as Ernest, “I could deny it if I liked. I could deny anything if I liked” (Wilde act 2). Though Wilde’s idea delves slightly into an escapist view of the world he does so with great puns and a true grit of urban life in London juxtaposed with the more bucolic scenes of Hertfordshire. Yet it is in the city that Jack is found out, and as
“Algernon. You have always told me it was Ernest. I have introduced you to every one as Ernest. You answer to the name of Ernest. You look as if your name was Ernest. You are the most earnest-looking person I ever saw in my life. It is perfectly absurd your saying that your name isn’t Ernest. It’s on your cards. Here is one of them. [Taking it from case.] ‘Mr. Ernest Worthing, B. 4, The Albany.’ I’ll keep this as a proof that your name is Ernest if ever you attempt to deny it to me, or to Gwendolyn, or to any one else” (Act One, Scene One). In this social realm of reason for Hamlet, it seems that reason pales in comparison to the intrigue of murder, and thus for Hamlet happiness cannot be found.
Comparative Point Two
Both plays present a dual side of human nature in both Jack/Ernest and Algernon, and Hamlet before and after he encounters his father’s ghost and begins his plotting. The scandal of identity is that a person is susceptible to a dual nature and this dual nature is epitomized in both playwright’s take on drama. The plays are littered with the two sides of humanity as is expressed in Algernon wanting to be Ernest as well as Jack wanting to become his own fictitious brother as well as Hamlet’s own presentation to the public and his private soliloquy’s or revenge. Hamlet is trapped by his own misgivings and his own denial of trust. Without the characteristics of a man, of standing by oneself and for oneself in what that man wants in the world, then that man, Hamlet, is nothing more than the plaything of the fates. He does not reach out and take what he wants, but plots for his father and his father’s wishes. What is denied Hamlet is a piece of his own mind.
Even with his mother, Hamlet finds himself devoid of identity, “I must be cruel only to be kind. / Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” (Act Three, Scene Four, lines 179-180). In the terms of civility and sarcasm, Wilde gives a captivating story of secret identities and misconceptions while Shakespeare gives the same put in a more dramatic tone, “To be or not to be, that is the question…” (Shakespeare Act 3 Scene 1), and as Jack says, “Gwendolen - Cecily - it is very painful for me to be forced to speak the truth. It is the first time in my life that I have ever been reduced to such a painful position, and I am really quite inexperienced in doing anything of the kind.” (Wilde Act 2) Misconceptions themselves are a major player in modern drama as they lead not only the audience/reader but also the characters into self-epiphanies.
Third Comparative Point
If then a society is blinded by hedonism, or pure desire of self, a man in that society has no hope for personal happiness because of lack of morality, reason, and thus fully succumbing to akrasia. The concept of good and evil twined together is the elixir of playwrighting; writers breed fears from dreams, the hidden wants of subconscious become known through their character’s actions. Writing and reading plays is a revelation into that unsaid facet of the mind; the mute archetype finally is given voice, and in a way bears witness by both being involved in the action and telling of the story. Shakespeare, gives the world of drama the definitive tragic hero, Hamlet as opposed to Wilde’s more lackadaisical hero Jack, “Gwendolyn, it is a terrible thing for a man to find out suddenly that all his life he has been speaking nothing but the truth. Can you forgive me?” (Wilde Act 3). It can be contested that Hamlet was not a true hero as the Elizabethan Era relinquished his control over to his father. Since Hamlet is controlled by fate and not by choice, his heroism is not that of a free will; in modern drama, free will is the defining attribute of a hero. Without free will, the play’s characters are victims of circumstance.
This too however, is a plot in the schematics of plays. Characters are brutalized with circumstance. Hamlet is not a hero but a pawn for Fate while Jack is not a pawn as the end of the play perceives. Hamlet’s actions are not controlled by his own will but instead are parlayed into the compartments of the hierarchy of gods, of wishes and destiny: A man knows himself through the choice and follow through of his own actions. Hamlet does choose revenge but in this, he is guided and pushed by his father’s ghost. As Horatio contends, after Hamlet’s departure to bare witness to his father’s ghosts, “He waxes desperate with imagination” (Act One, Scene Four, line 87). It is with Jack’s character and his known choice of inventing a new identity that these plays diverge. In Hamlet’s imagination, there is a world of difference between the reality of the play and what the reader is led to believe through Hamlet’s soliloquies.
In conclusion, it may be seen that the two protagonists of these two plays diverge on a single point of choice; one is in the hands of fate and other’s wishes such as his father’s, while the other one made a conscious choice to be another person. In the rues of misconceptions and false identities these two plays are on point with one another but in the outcome of the plays there is a striking difference: the social commentary of Wilde’s play points toward forgiveness in a witty dialogue while Hamlet’s play’s end speaks toward the future of the kingdom after revenge, and murder have lead it to its downfall.
- Shakespeare, William. (1992). Hamlet. Washington Square Press, New York.
- Sophocles. (1977). The Oedipus Cycle. Harcourt Inc. Florida.
- Wilde, Oscar. (2005). The Importance of Being Ernest. Simon and Schuster. New York.