The Apocalyptic Tragedies: An Examination of ‘Hamlet’, ‘King Lear’, and ‘Oedipus Rex’

© 2009

            Death: the inevitable end to man’s existence. Judgment Day: the end of the world. These intertwining forces weave themselves through the texts of Hamlet, King Lear, and Oedipus Rex, allowing a glimpse of three instances in which the destruction of the macrocosm of the world is brought about and personified by the microcosm of the tragic hero. These so-called heroes are the paragon of all that is worst in man and wantonly destroy themselves, fulfilling man’s “debt owed to God,”[1] thus plunging their worlds into Armageddon. In this delicate and harmonious struggle, man plummets to his lowest, standing powerless as the inescapable end, Judgment Day, comes to fruition.

Hamlet’s poisonous madness, “like acid eating into metal,”[2] spreads outwards until it envelops all of Denmark within its grasp, smothering and choking it until it collapses into chaos. Throughout the play Hamlet truly believes that Claudius is the snake which lies in the “unweeded garden”[3] of Denmark, distorting a once honorable kingdom into a land of drunkards and debauchers.[4]  Yet what is it that truly comprises the weeds? Many critics believe the weeds represent Claudius’ corruption of the accepted World Order. This is evident; Claudius manipulates and cheats the system, thereby elevating himself to the position of king. However, Claudius is not the true and rightful ruler of Denmark; his own personal defects should not bear any weight upon the downward spiral into which Denmark has plunged. Hamlet, as the rightful heir to the throne, holds the power of his kingdom’s success. Therefore Hamlet is the poison which “[rots] the state of Denmark,”[5]  leading to its destruction.

The darkness which shrouds Denmark first becomes evident after the introduction of the Ghost in Act 1. A “devil of the knowledge of death,”[6]– this apparition- forces upon Hamlet the woes and responsibilities of death and spiritual matters, cursing him to set right all the sins of Denmark.[7] From this point forth, Hamlet, bears the weight of the world upon his shoulders. Instead of rising to the challenge, the tragic hero wallows in the quagmire of his own shattered belief in the world, the state, and the individual,[8] knowing that “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will-”[9] and allows Denmark to slip into inextricable chaos. As Hamlet becomes man as he truly is- “full of darkness and chaos,”[10]– Elsinore has no chance of hope. As the true head of the state, Hamlet’s fall is reflected in the destruction of Denmark into the “quintessence of dust.”[11]

Ellsinore’s Judgment Day arrives in the last scene of the play: Hamlet’s death and Fortinbras’ ascension to the throne. Like the tragic Greek hero, Orestes, Hamlet works in what he believes to be the best interest of the state and murders his mother and her lover. However, he was driven only by his own revenge and madness, thus committing matricide, a profound offence. Yet unlike with Orestes and Mycaene, Denmark- already torn apart by Hamlet’s “antic disposition,”[12]– simply falls without warning[13] in a climactic duel between Laertes and Hamlet. As he lies wounded, he can feel the “fell sergeant, Death”[14] come to collect his due. Yet to Hamlet, this end seems premature[15] for he cannot “tell [his] story”[16] or rule his rightful kingdom. Instead, Denmark falls into the hands of Fortinbras who- while still a prince- is not the rightful ruler of Denmark. His claim is staked in an old battle between Hamlet’s father and his own, in which Old Hamlet killed Old Fortinbras and thus, by the rightful code of war, seized Norway’s lands.[17] Fortinbras, in turn, calls upon the same code in order to seize Denmark,[18] however, as he has not rightly fought Hamlet in battle, his claim is rendered null and void. Order and justice are not truly restored at the end of Hamlet; instead, the fate of Elsinore still remains in the darkness, a bloody picture of the eventual end to the world as Denmark lies in ruin, a reflection of the remains of Hamlet himself.

In King Lear, the catalyst for the apocalyptic plot is Lear’s fatal “act of uncreation”[19]: the division of his kingdom in Act 1 Scene 1. As a result, like a re-creation of Pandora’s Box, “everything is turned loose,”[20] and the “kingdom of Albion [comes] to great confusion.”[21] Lear’s overweening hubris triggers his fall into madness; the state, as a reflection of him, collapses into chaos as well. As the tempest rages in the background,[22] Lear’s mind deteriorates rapidly and only his Fool attempts to help him return to what little sanity is left. This is the base state to which Lear has been reduced: a former king receiving and acknowledging advice from a court jester. More of a metaphor for a conscience than an actual character, the Fool, in the voice of prophecy, tells of a paradoxical world where the natural order has been inversed. The irony of the situation is that this apocalyptic paradox is occurring in England as he speaks because Lear’s pride blinded his judgment

The kingdom of England has no escape for descent into darkness either. In perfect sync with Lear himself, England’s own nature begins to change and a terrible storm while Lear’s mind burns in madness, reflecting how the spheres of the world, the state, and the individual are so strongly bound that “to destroy one was to destroy the others as well.”[23] This destruction which Lear inflicts upon his own nation and which he “invokes the elements to accomplish in the macrocosm [of England]”[24] is in direct correlation to the devastation transpiring within his own psyche. His ritualistic descent into darkness- his deep sleep in Act 4- sends the world into a moment of stillness, where while nothing moves forward there is a brief glimmer of hope for England. Nevertheless, these hopes are dashed by the destruction of innocence in the denouement of the play. Lear loses his true Angel of Mercy, Cordelia, to the cruel reality which was born of his own folly. She represents light and purity in the play, consistently described with celestial or “glimmering” images.[25] Her fragile illusion cannot exist in harsh reality because, by this time, England is too corrupted to be saved.

At the conclusion of Lear, Albany, Kent, and Edgar stand amidst a Pyrrhic victory. Although the side of light and goodness has championed over the base, brutish dark, the costs are heavy. All three express only remorse and there is “no elation in the voice of anyone,”[26] just as Kent remarks, “All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly.”[27] The costs of the war and chaos wholly outweigh the rewards. England has now become “an image of that horror”[28] which is “the promised end”[29] or Doomsday. Like survivors of some great holocaust, Albany, Edgar, and Kent stand amidst death and despair; instead of attempting to move beyond it, they drown in it. Even Kent decides to follow his master (Lear) to the grave.[30] There is no future in sight for England because of the havoc Lear wreaked upon his kingdom and himself.

Oedipus Rex offers a slightly different situation than either Hamlet or Lear in that the Judgment Day for Thebes takes place in the legacy that Oedipus leaves behind. As in Hamlet, order is not restored to the kingdom, even after the truth is revealed and Oedipus banished. The cycle of the fall from grace has begun once the play opens as Thebes is ravaged by a horrific plague.[31] The city itself is described as “tossed on a murdering sea,”[32] reflecting the murderous and wrath-filled spirit of Oedipus. His explosive and violent reaction to Teiresias’ revelations exhibit a moody and choleric temperament which constantly blinds his reason. The situation is so fantastical that ignorance is hard to pin as the tragic flaw which brings about the end of Thebes. It lies more in his denial and inability to accept those truths that are before him that leads to his downfall and ultimately, the end of Thebes.

Oedipus continues in his consistent state of denial until he has literally shred every bit of evidence before his eyes. It takes not just the word of Teiresias, but the words of Iokasate, Kreon, and the shepherd who saved him as an infant in order for him to have his final epiphany. To do what he thinks is right, he carries out the malediction which he “pronounced…upon [himself]!”[33] At the very disgust of his own blindness and the havoc which he has wrought upon his true homeland, Oedipus withdraws inward, no longer the emotional individual, but the stoic and pious martyr to divine will and fate. His self-mutilation is an attempt at purging himself of his sins and castrating the very organ(s) which caused his tragic downfall: his eyes. By rejecting the truth at every turn, Oedipus created more misery for Thebes instead of relieving it and ended by “serving [his] own destruction.”[34]

At the conclusion of the play, Oedipus wanders off alone, away from the Thebes and the chaos he has caused. While Kreon is in power, he is not the rightful ruler. As the brother of Iokaste, he has some claim, but Oedipus- as her son- is the heir and, after him, it is his sons, Polynices and Eteocles, who have the rightful entitlement to the throne. Oedipus leaves behind what he believes to be order, but it is merely a violent blood-feud between his sons. Had Oedipus been forced to make this decision at the start of the play, he would have realized the snag in this conclusion and would have named one son his heir. However, because he has been so distorted from his original, regal character, he has no sanity left to consider the weight of his decisions. Thebes falls because of the bloody legacy Oedipus leaves for future generations.

Each tragedy offers a plot about the end of the world. The macrocosm of the environment falls in tandem with the microcosm of the tragic hero himself. Each hero’s own flaws brings him to man’s lowest, making him the paragon of all that is worst in the world. Like God does in Genesis, the hero’s divide land from sea, the sky from the earth, the day from the night, and the sane from the insane.[35] However, each hero contributes to the very cataclysmic spiral which brings each realm (Denmark, England, Thebes) into chaos, bringing about Armageddon for all.


[1]  Spurgeon, Caroline F.E. Shakespeare’s Imagery, and What it Tells Us. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935. Pg. 184 “Shakespeare does not rebel against death, but accepts it as a natural process, a debt we owe to God…”

[2]  Knight, G. Wilson. “The Embassy of Death.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968. Pg. 110 “The poison of [Hamlet’s] mental existence spreads outwards among things flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.”

[3]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 29 (1.2, 139-140) “Hamlet: ’Tis an unweeded garden / That grows to seed.”

[4]  Ibid. Pg. 49 (1.4, 20-25) “Hamlet: Makes us traduced…pith and marrow of our attribute.”

[5]  Ibid. Pg. 55 (1.5, 100) “Marcellus: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

[6]  Knight, G. Wilson. “The Embassy of Death.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968. Pg. 110 “It was the devil of knowledge of death, which possesses  Hamlet and drives him from misery and pain to increasing bitterness, cynicism, murder, and madness.”

[7]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 69 (1.5, 210-211) “Hamlet: O cursed spite / That ever I was born to set it right!”

[8]  Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949. Pg. 95 “…these shatter his belief into ruins, and the world, the state, and the individual are to him suddenly corrupt.”

[9]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 259 (5.2, 11-12)

[10]  Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949. Pg. 94 “On the other was the picture of man as he is- it was full of darkness and chaos.”

[11]   Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 103 (2.2, 332) “Hamlet: what is this quintessence of dust?”

[12] Ibid. Pg. 67 (1.5, 192) “Hamlet: To put an antic disposition on.”

[13]  Kott, Jan. “Orestes, Electra, Hamlet.” The Eating of the Gods. Trans. Boleslaw Toborski and Edward J. Czerwinski. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1987. “In Shakespeare’s treatment, all the predictions are also fulfilled, but for the first time Orestes-Hamlet dies.”

[14]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. Pg. 281 (5.3, 368-369) “Hamlet: as this fell sergeant, Death, / Is strict in his arrest.”

[15]  Neill, Michael. “To Tell My Story: Unfinished Hamlet.” The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Shakespeare. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg.320 “Instead, [Hamlet] faces his end tormented by a sense of incompleteness, of a story still remaining to be told.”

[16]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992. Pg. 283 (5.2, 384) “Hamlet: To tell my story.”

[17]  Ibid. Pg. 13-15 (1.1, 91-107) “Horatio: That can I…His fell to Hamlet.”

[18]  Ibid. Pg. 285 (5.2, 431-433) “Fortinbras: For me, with sorrow…my vantage doth invite me.”

[19]  Calderwood, James L. “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.” Modern Critical Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. Pg. 122 “With this mind, let us glance again at Lear’s act of uncreation, his division of an ordered…kingdom.”

[20] Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949. Pg. 141 “That is what happens in King Lear: everything is turned loose.”

[21]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. Pg. 133 (3.2, 98-99) “Fool: Then shall the realm of Albion / Come to great confusion.”

[22]  Ibid. Pg. 127 (3.2, stage direction) “Storm still. Enter Lear and Fool.

[23]  Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949. Pg. 95 “…in Shakespeare’s day the three spheres were so closely related that to destroy one was to destroy the others as well.”

[24]  Ibid. Pg. 140 “The destruction which Lear invokes the elements to accomplish in the macrocosm…actually occurs in the microcosm of Lear himself.”

[25]  Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. Pg. 187 (4.3, 24-25) “What guests were in her eyes, which parted thence / As pears from diamonds dropped.”

[26]  Harbage, Alfred. Conceptions of Shakespeare. Massachusetts: Harvard College Press, 1967. Pg. 97 “There is no elation in the voice of anyone…the poetry tells us the war is not yet over.

[27] Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of King Lear. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993. Pg. 259 (5.3, 351) “Kent: Nor no man else. All’s cheerless, dark, and deadly.”

[28]  Ibid. Pg. 255 (5.3, 317) “Edgar: Or image of that horror?”

[29]  Ibid. Pg. 255 (5.3, 316) “Kent: Is this the promised end?”

[30]  Ibid. Pg. 261 (5.3, 390-391) “Kent: I have a journey, sir, shortly to go; / My master calls me. I cannot say no.”

[31]  Sophocles. “Oedipus Rex.” Perrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Eds. Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald and Dudley Fitts. Massachusetts: Thomson and Wadsworth, 2002. Pg. 1313 (Prologue,  28-30) “Priest: A rust consumes…and labor is in vain.”

[32]  Ibid. Pg. 1313 (Prologue, 25-26) “Your own eyes / Must tell you: Thebes is tossed on a murdering sea.”

[33]  Ibid. Pg. 1337 (Scene 1 Antistrophe 2, 777-778) “Oedipus: And I myself / Pronounced this malediction upon myself!”

[34] Ibid. Pg. 1358 (Scene 2 Antistrophe 2, 1466) “Kreon: How, when you were, you served your own destruction.”

[35]  Calderwood, James L. “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.” Modern Critical Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987. Pg. 122 “…remind us of God’s creative divisions in Genesis when, beginning with chaos, he divided land from sea, the sky from the earth, the day from the night…”

__________________________________________________________________________________

Works Cited

Calderwood, James L. “Creative Uncreation in King Lear.” Modern Critical Interpretations of King Lear. Ed. Howard Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Harbage, Alfred. Conceptions of Shakespeare. Massachusetts: Harvard College Press, 1967.

Knight, G. Wilson. “The Embassy of Death.” Twentieth Century Interpretations of Hamlet. Ed. David Bevington. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 1968.

Kott, Jan. “Orestes, Electra, Hamlet.” The Eating of the Gods. Trans. Boleslaw Toborski   and Edward J. Czerwinski. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1987.

Neill, Michael. “To Tell My Story: Unfinished Hamlet.” The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Shakespeare. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine.     New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1992.

—. The Tragedy of King Lear. Eds. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. New York: Washington Square Press, 1993.

Sophocles. Oedipus RexPerrine’s Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. 8th ed. Eds.   Thomas R. Arp and Greg Johnson. Trans. Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald. Massachusetts: Thomson and Wadsworth, 2002.

Spencer, Theodore. Shakespeare and the Nature of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.

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