Hubris: Oedipus’ and Hamlet’s Struggle over the Golden Mean


Enter Hamlet and Oedipus, Stage Right

Plays were often watched by the poorer towns folk because of their ability to promote a cathartic release. Sophocles and Shakespeare were two very pronounced authors and playwrights of their respected times. The two plays we will be discussing here will be Hamlet and Oedipus the King.

An Analysis on “Oedipus the King”

At the beginning of the play Sophocles portrayed Oedipus as a noble person. He showed honest caring to the children and people of Thebes as he said, “Indeed I’m willing to give all that you may need.” (Mays,1738) Oedipus goes to lengths to show the citizens of Thebes that he will put all his effort into fixing their woes. Blind irony, a consistent motif in Oedipus the King due to Oedipus’s inability to see the truth, brought about his downfall. Though Oedipus is blinded to the truth about the fate of Thebes, and ultimately his fate, there are those that are not. Teiresias, the priest he called forth after Creon let’s known the details of his pilgrimage to the prophets of Apollo, refused at first to let Oedipus know what he knows. Due to Oedipus’s hubris he pressured Teiresias into telling him. Oedipus refused to heed Teiresias’s warning when he stated, “I say that with those you love best you live in foulest shame unconsciously and do not see where you are in calamity.” (Mays,1747)

This line gave the audience a sense of foreshadowing because it hinted that the prophet’s words were true. It is also ironic due to Oedipus’s hubris. The audience knew the king would not stop there to figure out this mystery and that it will ultimately be his downfall.

There are multiple characters other than Teiresias that try to push Oedipus away from the truth. Those include Jocasta and the herdsmen that was Laius’s slave. When Oedipus learns that he might have had a hand in the murder of Laius, he begins to become angry in his search for the truth. This is presented in his conversation with the herdsmen and his ill treatment of Creon. In his conversation with the herdsmen he even has a servant get physically violent with the man so he will speak the truth. The herdsmen states “Oh please, sir, don’t hurt an old man, sir” as well as “And I’ll die far worse if I should tell you” in which the latter shows the herdsmen’s reluctance to speak of the past. (Mays, Pg. 1767, Ln. 1210-1220) Previously Jocasta tried to persuade Oedipus to ignore the truth brought up by the messenger from Corinth. She states, “O Oedipus, God help you! God keep you from the knowledge of who you are” which shows Oedipus’s folly even further.(Mays, Pg. 1765, Ln 1135) The audience knows the truth at this point, just as Jocasta does, but Oedipus’s blindness keeps him moving forward to his ultimate fate.

A stone bust of Sophocles

A Stone Bust of Sophocles Source: Indridnotes,

Oedipus, portrayed as a noble character, could be a reason Teiresias, Jocasta, and the herdsmen try to protect him. They also feared the truth. The blindness in Teiresias portrayed the irony of Oedipus’s ignorance. Teiresias has the knowledge but is blind, whereas Oedipus does not have the knowledge, but has sight, and, due to his hubris, his ignorance of the past and future led him to his downfall.

Oedipus the King, Part 1


Shakespeare Revealed

Shakespeare  Source: WikiMedia

Source: WikiMedia

Many records of Shakespeare’s life do not exist today. The records that have lasted time give evidence that Shakespeare was born in 1564 in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. Shakespeare’s family was of the middle class wealth. His father, a merchant and prominent figure in the town of Stratford, had two daughters and three sons. Shakespeare, regarded as an author of merit, enjoyed an extensive education. It is said that he attended the King’s New School in Stratford for free due to his father’s prominence in the town; however, there are no records of his education.

Globe Theater Source: WikiMedia

Globe Theater
Source: WikiMedia

In the winter of 1852 he married Anne Hathaway, and in the next few years they would conceive three children: two of which were twins. After the birth of his twins Shakespeare fell off of the historical timeline for about seven years. Some say he worked as a school master or hid from the local authority. 1592 marked the year, with evidence to support, that Shakespeare began to make a living off of writing plays.

In the 1590’s Shakespeare ventured with the King’s Men Company. The King’s Men Company travelled around England and performed for locals and nobility, and by the 1600’s Shakespeare published half of his thirty seven plays. In 1599 him and the company built the theatre known as the Globe. By investing into the theatre, it gave the company, and Shakespeare, enough money to live off of with relative ease. Shakespeare continued to write with no issues of money. He died in 1616.

Anne Hathaway  Source: No Sweat Shakespeare

Anne Hathaway
Source: No Sweat Shakespeare

An interesting amount of information does not exist about Shakespeare, which can be counted as odd for someone so well known. There should be more records considering his prominent status. Many people began to question the authorship of his writings and expected that the name was a pen name. The William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon was never documented as a playwright and had no educational trail or background. (A&E)



Analysis of Hamlet

Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” took place in Denmark during a time of grieving due to the death of the late king, Hamlet’s father. A dreary overtone sets up a story of deceit, revenge, and tragedy where the main character spiralled into madness and brought him, as well as others, into their own demise. Shakespeare used theme, hubris, and irony to depict Hamlet’s character and the influence he played upon the people around him.

First, theme played a major role in Hamlet. Shakespeare wrote Hamlet during a time of unrest within the aristocracy in England. Queen Elizabeth the 1st had no heir to the throne and “Hamlet” could exemplify the fear of corruption in the common people of England. (Lavery) When Marcellus exclaimed, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark,” it pointed to the political corruption of Denmark (Mays, 1380) which is juxtaposed to “Oedipus the King” where the prophecy stated that the late king Laius was murdered and to stem the disease of Thebes the murderer must be brought to justice (Mays, 1740). Further into the play Hamlet conversed with the ghost of his father and learned of the evil deeds his uncle, Claudius, has committed. This sense of betrayal engulfed Hamlet into a form of madness that eclipsed all. The ideal of revenge and a corrupt society brought up the teachings of Plato’s Philosopher King. In his teachings Plato believed humans are corrupt by nature and a person must be highly trained and educated to be named ruler (Lane). Hamlet’s anger and want for revenge, Claudius’s evil act, and all other characters that portrayed the ideals of ignorance to the corruption gave insight into why Plato regarded humans as easily corruptible.

Denmark Source: Contefly

Source: Contefly

Next, an extension of Hamlet’s anger and want for revenge make up his hubris. Hamlet, in the belief to be right, worked towards his revenge off of the words of a ghost. This ignorance further portrayed Plato’s ideal of corrupt human emotion. Hamlet even stated to Horatio, “O good Horatio, I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?” (Mays, 1414) To look further into Hamlet’s ignorance is to delve into Aristotle’s virtue ethics. Virtue, to Aristotle, comes from continued implementation of specific virtues into everyday decision making. These virtues are in line with the Golden Mean, or, in other words, not too much and not too little (Manias, Dave, Jane, 160). Hamlet used his blind faith to the words of the ghost to fuel his revenge, an embodiment of Hamlet’s character. This extended to such a point that, as stated in Aristotle’s virtue ethics, he became the essence of revenge. He did not acknowledge the need for a middle ground when it came to his anger and it added to his hubris, his tragic fate, and the tragic fate of all around him. Again, this idea of hubris juxtaposed “Oedipus the King” where Oedipus became enraged while seeking the truth. His anger when the truth is at hand pushed him to harm an old man (Mays, 1767). Oedipus and Hamlet both portrayed characters that do not find the middle ground to their emotions.

Elizabeth the First  Source: WikiMedia

Elizabeth the First
Source: WikiMedia

Last, Shakespeare used irony to ultimately define the end of the play. Throughout the story Hamlet, portrayed as mad for differing reasons, hung onto the death of his father and his insatiable love for Ophelia. However, the source of Hamlet’s madness is unknown to most characters. Horatio, in an ironic gest to Hamlet, stated, “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord… And there assume some other horrible form, which might deprive your sovereignty of reason, and draw you into madness?” (Mays, 1380). Horatio spoke of the ghost and his statement offered foreshadowing for fate of Hamlet.

The ghost, in turn, sets upon Hamlet the madness of revenge bred from anger, and because of his anger, and his embodiment of revenge, he pushed others to their demise. This is seen in Hamlets mistreatment of Ophelia and Polonius.

Bust of Plato Source: BucknellEDU

Bust of Plato
Source: BucknellEDU

Hamlet, in his angst and anger, refused Ophelia’s kindnesses – kindnesses that may have stemmed the flood of rage in Hamlet. Hamlet exclaimed, “I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers could not with all their quantity of love make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her,” while fighting with Laertes in the grave of Ophelia (Mays, 1448). This pointed back to irony since Ophelia could have been the character to change Hamlet’s tragic fate and it was Hamlet who led her to her demise. Also, with the death of Polonius, Hamlet sets off the motion of Claudius’s continued treachery where he sought to have Hamlet killed.

He killed Polonius, Laerte’s father, and passed on the anger and spark of revenge. This led Laertes and Claudius to plot against Hamlet, leading to the tragic death of themselves, Hamlet, and Gertrude. This ending showed an ultimate act of irony: Hamlet, Claudius, and Laertes fell to the trap of corruption and set the stage for their own deaths.

To conclude, Shakespeare extended the idea of emotion and corruption. Emotion is the catalyst while corruption is the result. By putting Hamlet and the other characters into a scenario of corruption he portrayed how the emotions can lead to events spiraling out of control no matter how hard a person tried to control them. By using irony and the sense of hubris, Shakespeare fully embodied the theme of corruption.

Quote from Aristotle Source: BlogSpot

Quote from Aristotle
Source: BlogSpot

Sources Cited:

  1. Lane, Melissa. “Philosopher King (philosophy).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, 11 Dec. 2013. Web. 04 July 2014. <>.
  2. Lavery, Hannah. “Hamlet and Elizabethan England.” OpenLearn. The Open Iniversity, 25 Nov. 2009. Web. 04 July 2014. <>.
  3. Mays, Kelly J. “Hamlet.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 1363-458. Print.
  4. Mays, Kelly J. “Oedipus the King.” The Norton Introduction to Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. 1737-776. Print.
  5. Manias, Nicholas, Dave Monroe, and Jane E. Till. “Non-Consequential Ethical Theories, Part 1.” Ethics Applied,. 7th ed. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2013. 149-65. Print.
  6. “William Shakespeare.” Bio. A&E Television Networks, 2014. Web. 24 July 2014.
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