Does Hamlet's success as a tragic hero stem from his theatrical creativity, and does Hamm's lack of success correspondingly arise from his insistence on theatrical staleness/repetition?
The definition of a traditional ‘tragic hero’ originated in Aristotle’s work ‘Poetics’ where he suggests that a hero of a tragedy must evoke a sense of dread from the audience due to their own misfortune; a sense of catharsis, purging the emotions of an audience through art (Merriam-Webster's encyclopaedia of literature, 1995). The change of said fortune "should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad.” (Butcher, Aristotle. and Aristotle., 1902) From this formula therefore, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is essentially the perfect tragic hero in the sense that he begins the play with the just intentions of avenging his father’s death using his own theatrical creativity, but by the end of the play where he decides to finally commit suicide after all the deeds he has done. This contrasts with the character Hamm from ‘Endgame’ who tries to become a tragic hero much like Hamlet yet fails in this plan as he cannot evoke the same catharsis as Hamlet can, arguably because of his lack of creativity due to the repetition of simple moves around the stage compared with Hamlet’s intricate creations of the ‘play within a play’.
When focusing on Hamlet, there are numerous references to art particularly concentrating on the power of language and words. This is seen through the use of multiple soliloquies allowing the audience to learn Hamlet’s inner feelings and his plans. Shakespeare’s use of this was actually unexpected at its time of release as all play’s dramatic structure were expected to focus more on action than on character. Contemporary scholar’s however, debate this change in dramatic structure as it creates sudden twists and changes to Hamlet’s thoughts with his intentions becoming unclear. An example of this is Hamlet’s intentions of killing Claudius. At multiple points in the play, Hamlet seems to be purely dedicated to enacting revenge on his father’s killer, so much so that he would kill them on sight. Even Hamlet himself is quoted in a soliloquy in Act 4 Scene 4 with “O, from this time forth my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (Act 4 Scene 4 68-69) However, in other scenes, Shakespeare decides to make Hamlet’s intentions unclear and show extreme hesitation whilst having Claudius in his grasp, such as in Act 5 Scene 2 where both Hamlet and Claudius are present at Ophelia’s funeral, yet Hamlet shows no physical action toward Claudius and brawls with Laertes instead. This confusion between Hamlet’s actions on stage and his thoughts shared with the audience, show how Shakespeare was testing the limitations of theatre at this time, but also links back to how tragic a hero the character really is.
Due to Hamlet’s actions being so restricted, his thoughts are what sets everything into motion and it’s these feelings that spark his creativity. This contrasts with ‘Endgame’ where the characters are constantly trying to tell seemingly random stories yet seem disconnected from the language itself thus rendering their creativity unusable and stale. In summary, because of the introspective writing style of the character, Hamlet is presented more as an extremely modern inward-looking man, with his focus on intricate creative actions – such as his plan to feign madness and specifically ‘perform’ as a clown to escape blame of implicating the King in murder: "How strange or odd some'er I bear myself (As I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on)” (Act 1 Scene 5 190-192) – rather than an instinctual physical reaction focusing on action. This therefore creates a disconnection between the stereotypical Aristotelian tragic hero, choosing to instead create a contemporary and modernised tragic hero.
A pure show of the theatrical creativity that makes Hamlet the perfect tragic hero is the ‘play within a play’, which acts as an important turning point in the character’s actions as he believes he has finally revealed Claudius as his father’s killer. As mentioned previously, the lack of action from Hamlet up until this point is odd as his thoughts seem he is ready to kill Claudius; however, this shows a creative process that is present throughout the whole play of preparation, Incubation, Illumination and finally Implementation (Gilkey, 2008). He prepares this idea to reveal the king as the killer of his late father after learning from the ghost in Act 1 Scene 5 yet doesn’t know how. For a portion of the play, the character is ‘incubating’ this idea trying to wrestle with his doubts about the ghost’s story and how he could prove this fact of Claudius being King Hamlet’s killer. The ‘illumination’ moment could be after Rosencrantz announces the arrival of a theatrical troupe at the castle with Hamlet witnessing one of the players perform a moving speech from ‘Aeneid’ – which ironically is about Pyrrhys, son of the warrior Achilles, coming to Troy to avenge his father by killing Priam. This allows Hamlet to see the player moved to tears from simply a fictional character which gives birth to the final step of the creative process of ‘Implementation’. That is the decision to create ‘The Mousetrap’ in order to gauge Claudius’ reaction. Hamlet directs the actors by saying “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.” Shakespeare has deliberately placed Hamlet in the role of director for this entire scene and when the court finally watches the play, it proves how powerful the words he has written are and how they can affect every character that is present to hear them with Claudius leaving and creating this huge shift in the play’s dynamic from this point forward.
Furthermore, Hamlet is quoted saying, “The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.” (Act 2 Scene 2 633-634). From this quote Hamlet is clearly aware of his actions and seems to be one of the only characters in the play that understands the immense power of language and the tragic thinking that follows it (Articlemyriad.com, 2011). This is further supported as words are often used as weaponry referred to as ‘daggers’ as Hamlet says, “I will speak daggers to her, but use none” (Act 3 Scene 2 358). This metaphor is even reciprocated by Gertrude as she says “O, speak to me no more. These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears.” (Act 3 Scene 4 106-107). In brief, Hamlet’s success as a tragic hero comes from his tragic flaw which is his creative use of language, most specifically, in a theatrical sense originating from his own performance of madness and the performance he directs successfully.
The character of Hamm in Samuel Beckett’s ‘Endgame’ is clearly attempting to either become his own version of a tragic hero or simply emulate Hamlet’s version of a tragic hero. Much like ‘Hamlet’, one of the main focuses in ‘Endgame’ is language, more importantly Hamm’s obsession with language. At many times during the play, Hamm almost bullies Clov for not being keep up with his rambling. This could be seen as Hamm having an abundance of ability with words much like Hamlet, but this is not the case. Hamm uses words rather to comfort him and to keep him company within his own existence rather than creating a theatrical masterpiece. These words act like a prison for all characters involved, especially Clov in this quote: CLOV: “I'll leave you.” HAMM: “No!” CLOV: “What is there to keep me here?” HAMM “The dialogue.” (580-582) The script then becomes very meta-theatrical and most definitely challenges the norms of theatre at this time as it breaks the fourth wall and directly talks to the audience almost about the power that words have over everyone. This relates to the context of ‘Endgame’ as the play was released in 1957. This was during the height of the Cold War fear which is reflected in the quote: HAMM: “Nature has forgotten us.” CLOV: “There's no more nature.” HAMM: “No more nature! You exaggerate.” CLOV: “In the vicinity.” (103-106). This arguably shows the consequence of a nuclear blast which is described through the technological race at the time such as the Space Race and race to build Nuclear Weapons. This therefore meant everyone lost sight of the power of language which is what Hamm so badly craves. So, in contrast to Hamlet whose tragic flaw is his personal power of language, Hamm’s tragic flaw is his inability to control language which ironically doesn’t enable him to become a tragic hero. Hamlet’s proficiency with spoken word – referring to his fondness of soliloquys – specifically assisted his theatrical creativity which enabled his death, thus making him a successful tragic, whereas Hamm’s ineffectiveness with spoken word assists in his creativity becoming stale and repetitive, which in turn means his death cannot occur thus making him an unsuccessful tragic hero.
When first studying ‘Endgame’ outwardly as a piece of art (rather than focusing inward toward the characters), the title comes into question. Beckett has deliberately titled his play in this way even after being translated previously from French and it relates to all the characters within this play. Endgame is defined as the final stage of a game of chess when few piece or cards remain. This then must mean that all of Beckett’s characters within ‘Endgame’ are the last few pieces on a chess board before the end of the game, however Hamm is described as prolonging the game as ‘he does not want to give up, or reach the end’ as Hamm is supposedly the only character that can end the play, except, Clov if he leaves (Orsel, 2006). This explains why Hamm is so controlling over Clov and constantly questions him. An example of this would be: HAMM: “Before you go… (Clov halts near door.)…say something.” CLOV: “There is nothing to say.” HAMM: “A few words…to ponder…in my heart. (781-783) where Hamm is directing everything as if he wants to gain control over the endings of everything, forcing Clov to try and create this theatrical exit for the character – this once again relates to Hamm forcing a stale and untrue sense of theatrical creativity onto himself and others. The idea of characters being players on a chessboard is contributed to Hamlet’s actions as he wants to checkmate the opposite King, Claudius. Both Hamlet and Claudius are Kings beside Gertrude and Ophelia as their dead Queens. The metaphor continues to describe Horatio and Laertes as Knights or Bishops on opposing sides, with both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern becoming Pawns that are sacrificed by Hamlet to reach an endgame such as seen in Act 5 Scene 2 of ‘Hamlet’ (Orsel, 2006). This does give way to a deeper connection between the two characters but once again it ascends to the point of Hamlet succeeding in his journey (or more thematically, ‘game’) of tragedy whereas Hamm tries desperately but fails.
This end of the game scenario can be relayed as a metaphor for death, which once again is a pivotal theme in ‘Endgame’. The theme of death is almost what the entire play is surrounding considering that the set itself is considered to resemble an empty skull and all the characters themselves are said to be trapped inside purgatory simply waiting for the release of death. This can easily be compared with ‘Hamlet’ as death is a pivotal theme also and you could argue that waiting for death is a central theme, as characters such as Claudius and Hamlet wait for death due to their actions whilst the Ghost is legitimately quoted “I am thy father's spirit, doom'd for a certain term to walk the night and for the day confined to fast in fires till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away” (Act 1 Scene 2 14-18) (Purgatory was often thought to be a fiery place where souls needed to be ‘purged’ before moving on to heaven). Therefore, despite the differences between Hamlet and Hamm in terms to their personal theatrical creativity, it’s undeniable to say that they are connected and/or similar in a variety of ways.
When comparing Hamm and Hamlet as characters, there are multiple factors that come into play. Firstly, there are many sources that say Beckett deliberately used ‘Hamlet’ to influence his work of ‘Endgame’; he possibly even ‘makes a tragedy of Endgame using Hamlet’ (Piacentini, n.d.). Hamm is described as an energetic Hamlet, trying to create his own ‘play within a play’ and almost trying to become the exact same type of soliloquy based tragic hero as Hamlet is. Beckett seems to reference Shakespeare’s work at least three time with allusions to at least one more. An example of this would be Hamm’s obsessive questioning about endings: “And yet I hesitate, I hesitate to... to end. Yes, there it is, it's time it ended and yet I hesitate to— (He yawns.) —to end” (93). This most definitely has similarities to Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy (Orsel, 2006). However, his creative process is ritualised to a point where he forgets three of the four steps previously mentioned: Preparation, Incubation and Illumination. Hamm simply tries to implement his creativity without any previous planning which is ironic as the character is obsessed with process. This explains his theatrical staleness and why he is quoted “"I feel a little too far to the left.'' Then, "Now I feel a little too far to the right." Then, "I feel a little too far forward." And then, "Now I feel a little too far back" (281)”. His obsession with how everything should be staged gives the play a self-aware nature whilst showing off Hamm’s theatrical inability and how repeated his attempted theatre is as he becomes a demanding director, not connecting with his ‘actors’ unlike Hamlet whom directly associates with his ‘players’ advising them on how to act instead of ordering direction like a dictator. This could also relate Hamm to Samuel Beckett also as Beckett is quoted “Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theatre production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me” (McCarthy, 2009). This fixation on staging takes away from the creative process that is stereotyped into every piece of theatre, once again questioning Aristotle’s thoughts on what a traditional theatrical piece should be. However, when referring to this under the pretence of ‘tragic hero’, Hamm cannot be described as a tragic hero, at least not on the same level as Hamlet.
Despite the focus on specific characters in this essay, looking at these plays at the base level also gives relevance to this question of the tragic hero. Concentrating on ‘Endgame’, the play is simply about the human condition and involves everyone whom reads, watches or acts in it at an extremely personal level. The play asks many questions of its audience regarding life and what we are as human beings, with our morality and a multitude of existential points coming into play. However, this brings us as an audience so deep into the play that it disregards all attempts at a natural plotted storyline because it would rather ask these questions to use than answer them in a stereotypical and possibly cliché way, once again rejecting the definition posed by Aristotle as to what a tragedy should be. Being theatre of the absurd, Beckett has already focused his work less on a truly plotted narrative and more of a piece of theatre based around sending a political message and making a statement about the human condition. This inclusivity between the audience and theatre of the absurd creates a theatrical barrier where the audience is never allowed total immersion into the piece and is constantly reminded that this is theatre. This is perfectly summarised by contemporary critic Jodi Hatzenbeller, as she is quoted saying: “Beckett uses Shakespearean allusions, theatric references, and formal stage conventions to constantly remind the audience that the play is a fictitious performance within the boundaries of a stage” (Hatzenbeller, n.d.) These references to Shakespeare’s work – most notably ‘Hamlet – reinforces that theatrical barrier created and breaks any attempt at immersion preventing Hamm in any way fulfilling his dream of becoming a tragic hero. Furthermore, this new personal relationship that this style of theatre creates is what prevents Hamm from achieving the stature of tragic hero as his theatrical creativity is stifled and stale from the very opening of Beckett’s play, and it’s impossible to produce the type of conclusive actions that Hamlet does despite Hamm begging for an end to his own narrative.
It is undeniable to say that both the plays ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Endgame’ break the genre surrounding traditional tragedy, and that’s most definitely intentional. Beckett writes in a letter: ‘My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended) made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else’ (Bair, 1978). These plays both break Aristotle’s definition of tragedy and therefore forge their own intended ‘sounds’ that they ‘accept responsibility’ for. However, despite the numerous similarities between the two plays and between the characters in both – most especially Hamlet and Hamm – the suggestion that both Hamlet and Hamm are one and the same in the case of a ‘tragic hero’ is simply not true. Hamlet is most definitely a successful tragic hero directly because of his theatrical creativity, due to the pivotal turning point in the play being his own direction of ‘The Mousetrap’ which displays his power of language (his ‘tragic flaw’) to the extreme. Whereas in ‘Endgame’, although Hamm can be argued to have a ‘tragic flaw’, his flaw is the inability to create the same beautiful creations as Hamlet, as his creations lack flair and instead repeat endlessly creating a loop of stale theatre. Overall, Hamm attempts to become a ‘tragic hero’ akin to Hamlet but instead is shown as a failed Hamlet ambition whom is unable to construct his own stage on the stage.
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