Studying the relationship between Shakespeare’s longest and perhaps best-known work, Hamlet and Aeschylus’ equally famous Libation Bearers, reveals one common theme of revenge. Both plays deal with the over-arching theme of revenge, although they approach it differently.
To cite examples from the plot, both plays open with the tragic hero lamenting his father’s death. In both cases, the father of the hero has been murdered, following the infidelity of the mother whose lover now holds the throne. Both heroes vow to exact avenge the death of the rightful ruler by murdering the infidels, at the behest of a supernatural power. Lastly, both actions turn out more heinous than expected and end in bloodshed and death of almost all the primary characters.
There are minor departures also, for instance Hamlet’s father specifically asks Hamlet to spare his mother, Gertrude but in Libation Bearers Apollo, the corresponding supernatural power, asks him to kill both his parents for justice to prevail. The heroes are also very different in their natures. Hamlet is the intellectual, sensitive, procrastinating hero while Orestes is more aggressive, active and surer of his actions.
However, it is the general theme of revenge that binds these plays closer than anything else. The movement of the plot depends on the hero taking revenge on whom he feels are the wrongdoers. In Hamlet, the actual revenge keeps getting delayed. To begin with Hamlet is too shaken by the knowledge that Claudius did in fact murder his father the way the ghost described; then to make sure that Claudius’ guilt is real he enacts an elaborate play: “The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” (Hamlet 2.2)
Even after the play assures him of his step-father’s guilt Hamlet is unable to kill him at the first opportunity, since Claudius was praying at the time and Hamlet says that killing him then would mean sending him to heaven. The actual deed keeps getting postponed till the gruesome end where all the members of the royal family and Laertes die. Ophelia and Polonius have already died by then. Perhaps if it were not for Hamlet’s delay, so many people would not have died.
Orestes on the other hand is not a procrastinating hero. He takes on the duty assigned to him by the god Apollo and after conspiring with his sister Electra gets to work almost immediately:
“Alas. As you say, totally disgraced./
But she’ll pay for his dishonour,/
by the gods, by my own hands./
Let me kill her. Then let me die./” (Libation Bearers, 535-538.)
His and Electra’s thirst for blood and revenge is also a lot more violent and animalistic as compared to the long, eloquent soliloquies that appear to strengthen Hamlet’s resolve.
In the minor variations of the plot and the polarity of the nature of the heroes, the two plays are different. But in the most significant structural ways, they are both revenge tragedies, reminiscent of each other.
Johnston, Ian. “Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers (e-text)”. Johnstonia. May 2005. Web. 23 Oct 2009.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. New York: Penguin, 1998. Print.
Wordsworth, William and S.T Coleridge. Lyrical Ballads. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.