Being written with only seven years in between, Hamlet and Macbeth reflect the writer’s artistry at its pinnacle. For the centuries to come, Hamlet and Macbeth gained international recognition and were adapted for TV, theater, cinematography, and even comic novels an uncountable number of times. In Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark is summoned back from the university to be at his father’s funeral. Hamlet is shocked to receive the news, but as he returns home, he is even more surprised to know that his mother had married his uncle, Claudius. Through a mystical encounter with the supernatural forces, the prince learns about his uncle’s betrayal which pushes him to take revenge. In Macbeth, Shakespeare also develops the theme of power hunger, and treachery. A Scottish general Macbeth receives a prophecy from three witches about him becoming the next king of Scotland. Blinded by ambition, he kills King Duncan and takes over the throne. This essay will elaborate on these commonalities and point out some differences between the two tragedies.
The Supernatural in Hamlet and Macbeth
In literary works, the supernatural is often used for creating a dramatic effect. It is said that people are often drawn to the darker, forbidden side of life and events that are not quite explainable by common logic. For the reader, such works as Hamlet and Macbeth might be providing a safe medium to encounter the paranormal and experience a wide range of emotions from amusement to terror.
In both The Tragedy of Hamlet and The Tragedy of Macbeth, Shakespeare introduces supernatural creatures early on, which in each case, sets the mood for the entire play. The ghost of King Hamlet, Prince’s late father, and the three witches caught the main characters, Hamlet and Macbeth by surprise. As the readers sympathize with them, they also conclude that coming into contact with something as perplexing and terrifying must be disruptive to the characters’ lives. It becomes clear that Shakespeare sets them for a tragedy – a seemingly intractable dilemma that will test their sanity and good morals.
The supernatural plays a significant role in both Hamlet and Macbeth. When the Prince of Denmark encounters the ghost of his father, he does not believe what he sees right away: instead, he is in doubt about its “questionable shape” (Ham. 1.4.24). Even though he promises to avenge late King Hamlet, he is not completely sure whether he should trust the specter. As the narration unfolds, this hesitancy stops him from murdering Claudius.
When put into the historical context of the period when the events were unfolding, Prince’s uncertainty becomes exhaustively understandable. To him and to those who witnessed the play around the time when Shakespeare was in his active years, there were only two possible explanations. First, a person who sees a ghost or a witch is deluded or insane. Second, this said person is unfortunate enough to meet the devil himself taking the shape of something that he or she is familiar with. Were Hamlet a pagan, he could interpret the event as a reunion with his late father and even be happy about it. However, as a Christian living during the Elizabethan era, he must believe that after death, all souls depart to either heaven or hell, thus, making the apparition strikingly abnormal (George 2). Eventually, for Hamlet, encountering the specter becomes a turning point to depression and madness, which distorts his personality throughout the play.
Another compelling interpretation of the ghost’s appearance in The Tragedy of Hamlet is being the main character’s moral compass. Hamlet was already judgmental of his mother’s choice of spouse, to begin with. However, he would never find out that Claudius murdered his father, King Hamlet, in cold blood if he never saw his specter. Despite its eeriness, the experience makes Hamlet realize the gravity of his uncle’s betrayal and their current family dynamics. It makes him ponder the importance of taking action as opposed to staying passive, which is depicted in the iconic soliloquy “To Be or Not to Be.” Another proof that the ghost provides moral guidance is its invisibility to Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, who is either blind to Claudius’ intentions or an accomplice.
In terms of morality, the role of the supernatural in The Tragedy of Macbeth is very different from that in The Tragedy of Hamlet. While the specter in Hamlet compels Prince to seek justice for the murdered father, which is a righteous thing, the three witches in Macbeth help the general uncover the darker side of his personality (Griffiths 2). He does not want the king overthrown because it is something that needs to be done. Macbeth is only acting on a whim, seeking to satisfy his hunger for power and domination. While Hamlet reflects on the nature of life and death and his choices at length, Macbeth’s change of character is almost instant. Soon after the prophecy is made, he turns from loyal and likable to evil and immoral.
This drastic change aided by the paranormal is quite refreshing to interpret in the historical context. The first viewers, who were Christians, must have seen the character development as a descent into madness and insanity. Only a crazy person could meet the witches in the first place and then act on what they told him. Another interpretation is Macbeth’s corrupt nature that had been hidden right up until the moment when he encountered the witches. If the second is true, it is safe to assume that Shakespeare might have attempted to show that every person can abandon his or her morals if a situation predisposes them to do that.
The Theme of Power Struggle
The power struggle is one of the common motives found in both The Tragedy of Hamlet and The Tragedy of Macbeth. In Hamlet, Prince of Denmark and Claudius are in juxtaposition to each other. They both crave to be in power, but their motives are vastly different. Claudius is not only selfish: he is violent and aggressive in his pursuit. To Claudius, his goal justifies the means, and he shies away neither from manslaughter nor incest (marrying a late brother’s wife was considered incestuous back then). Throughout the play, the uncle does not feel remorse, nor does he ever hold himself accountable for ruining the perfectly fine royal family. What leads Hamlet is not power and greed per se; however, one can say that the kind of control that he wishes to gain is control over the situation on the whole. Hamlet’s uncle is wreaking havoc on his family, and Prince is torn between taking action, which might put him in danger, and disengaging himself.
In Macbeth, Shakespeare presents the theme of power and ambition as something tantalizing but with the potential to corrupt when not handled with caution. Even though from the first reading, Macbeth’s change of character might seem unexpected, upon further examination, it becomes clear that the author foreshadowed his development. In the first, the king of Scotland receives a report that praises Macbeth’s military prowess. Namely, one of the soldiers tells the king that he “unseamed [one of the enemy’s soldiers] from the nave to the chaps” (Mac. 1.2.40). In modern English, this would mean that he ripped another man’s body from his neck up to his chin, thus, instantly killing him. In this episode, Shakespeare shows that Macbeth is capable of brutality if put in the right conditions. After the mystical occurrence, Macbeth’s actions are guided by both his strife for power and his wife’s vision of his life and military career. However, as opposed to Hamlet where both Prince and his uncle are driven insane, Macbeth’s opponent, King Duncan, is in sound mind.
What makes analyzing The Tragedy of Hamlet and The Tragedy of Macbeth especially interesting is that the reader gets to compare two different perspectives. In Hamlet, the reader gains an insight into the world of a teenager crushed by his father’s death and his uncle’s betrayal. It is possible to observe the devastation that murder causes for the victim’s closest relatives. Shakespeare shows Hamlet’s gradual development as he goes through the commonly known stages of denial, anger, and depression. Reading Macbeth allows a person to see things from a different angle. It is highly unlikely that Shakespeare would want the reader to sympathize with someone as corrupted as Macbeth. Yet, he or she at least can have a better understanding of what might motivate a person to commit a crime.
As in his other tragedies, Shakespeare uses fatal flaws to give more complexity to his characters’ personalities and make a disaster that awaits them at the end inevitable. Hamlet’s tragic flaw is his inability to action: for the majority of the play, he ruminates over his father’s death and tries to decide whether he should take revenge. The specter keeps haunting him only fueling the feelings of madness that he cannot quite process. Deep inside, Hamlet knows that there is not enough space for him and Claudius in the royal house and that one of them must go. Thus, he has to deal with both his inability to commit suicide and his hesitancy to kill his treacherous uncle. It is not like an opportunity never presents itself: at one point, Hamlet sees Claudius praying – a moment during which Prince could have caught him off guard. Yet, he does not use his chance to avenge King Hamlet.
Macbeth’s fatal flaw is his unchecked ambition that turns his greatest strengths into his greatest weaknesses. Back in his army days, people praised him for being respectful and courageous. Probably his most distinct personality trait was determination which allowed him to rise through the ranks in the military and survive in many battles. Through Macbeth, Shakespeare shows that there is a darker side to everything. After the mystical occurrence and not without his life’s persuasion, the general grows determined to do whatever it takes to take over the throne.
The Tragedy of Hamlet and The Tragedy of Macbeth end up in the death of the main character. In the world of Shakespeare, death is often the final solution to the most intractable of dilemmas (Apt 6). When Hamlet dies at the hands of Ophelia’s brother, he is liberated from the harsh reality in which he has to make choices that affect other people’s lives. Claudius is murdered as well, but his death does not exactly symbolize the triumph of good over evil. It seems like death in the works of Shakespeare plays the role of a great equalizer. It is indifferent to wealth and status and knows no mercy. At the moment of death, the characters are reminded about the nature of life which they have so far lived succumbing to vanity and greed.
At the end of The Tragedy of Macbeth, neither good nor evil wins: both King Duncan and Macbeth die. Even though Macbeth never acknowledges his misdeeds, death becomes his redemption. One may say that eventually, justice is served because the treacherous general never gets to enjoy his reign. Shakespeare shows exhaustively well where power and ambition can lead any person who lacks self-awareness and is easily malleable.
While it is unarguable that Shakespeare left a very diverse literary legacy, researchers were able to point out common themes and motives in some of his plays. It is possible to draw many analogies when comparing Hamlet and Macbeth. In both of them, the plot development is kickstarted by a paranormal occurrence. However, while the specter of Hamlet’s father compels the prince to seek justice and righteous revenge, the three witches push Macbeth to act on his unhealthy ambition. The Tragedy of Hamlet and The Tragedy of Macbeth employ the theme of power and greed shown through the characters of Claudius and Macbeth. Another commonality is the presence of a fatal flaw in Hamlet and Macbeth – inaction and unchecked ambition respectively. Throughout the plays, the main characters are gradually losing their sanity. However, Hamlet never takes action whereas Macbeth eventually commits a murder. Death makes all these men equal: it frees them from their fatal flaws and saves them and others from more pain and suffering.
Apt, Bryan. A Wave of Destruction: Time’s Inexorable Effects in Hamlet and Macbeth. 2015. Web.
George, David. “Hamlet, the Ghost, and a New Document.” Selected Papers of the Ohio Valley Shakespeare Conference, vol. 7, 2014, p. 1-29.
Griffiths, Charlie. “More Things in Heaven and Earth: The Role of Ghosts and the Supernatural in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth.” Diffusion – The UCLan Journal of Undergraduate Research, vol. 1, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-10.
Shakespeare, William. Macbeth. Penguin, 2016.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Classic Books Company, 2001.