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Aeschylus’ Influence on Shakespeare in Writing Hamlet

Outline

Shakespeare, was influenced by the Greek play ‘The Libation Bearers’ written by Aeschylus in writing his play ‘Hamlet.’ This is evident throughout the play, with the similarities both have in the theme, characterization and character development. The heroes, Orestes and Hamlet, are presented with similar qualities and characteristics. The main theme in both the plays is the son avenging the murder of the father, who was a king. The queens in the two plays are presented as negative characters, who marry the murderers of their husbands. In spite of the similarities, Shakespeare has been careful to shape the story according to his own style. Though Hamlet ends with a single paly, The Libation Bearers continue with another play, Eumenides.

Hamlet And Libation Bearers

William Shakespeare, who needs no introduction is considered as the best dramatist ever. Though none of his original works were published, his fellow actors published a collection of his works after his death. 36 plays were published of which ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is the most acclaimed. His themes mainly included tragedies, though he wrote comedies as well. Among his works, Hamlet, is the largest drama, one greatly known for its tragedy, and deep theme. The influence of Oedipus Rex and its concept Oedipus complex is greatly known. However, the main theme of the play was adopted from an ancient Greek play, ‘The Libation Bearers’, written by Aeschylus. The purpose of this essay is to discuss the extent to which the Aeschylus play has influenced Shakespeare in writing Hamlet, the similarities between the two plays, and the differences between both.

Aeschylus, is considered as one of the greatest Greek writers, believed to have authored more than ninety plays, out of which unfortunately, only seven survives. His works basically ended in tragedy, the reason for which is claimed as an order by Dionysus to write tragedies. It is through his works that, tragedy attained a dignity and a different meaning. Oresteia, is a trilogy written by him, which included three plays, Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers and Eumenides. The influence of the second play, The Libation Bearers, on William Shakespeare in writing the play Hamlet is obvious throughout the story. To begin with, the fact that both Aeschylus and Shakespeare wrote tragedies is significant. Like most of their other works, Oresteia and Hamlet are tragedies too. Similarities can be seen in characterization and character development too. The two plays follow the concept of an absent father, who never comes in the play, yet remains important, rather the crux of the play.

The theme in the two plays is similar. The heroes, Hamlet and Orestes avenge the murder of their fathers. ‘The Libation Bearers’, begins after the death of Agamemnon, who is the father of Orestes. He is killed by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, because Agamemnon killed his own daughter and her husband, as seen in the first play, ‘Agamemnon.’ Orestes, who was taken to another land to live exile by an old nurse returns to his country to avenge the death of his father. By then, Aegisthus marries Clytemnestra. He is accompanied by his friend Pylades. He goes to his palace as was planned earlier and eventually kills Aegisthus, who was brought to the palace by trick. Later on, he kills his mother Clytemnestra too, because she too was a part of the murder.

Hamlet, narrates a theme very much like that of ‘The Libation Bearers’.’This play, too begins after the death of King Hamlet. Soon Hamlet, his son comes to know that as he had feared, his father was murdererd by his uncle Claudius, who by that time married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude. This is revealed to him by his father’s ghost during night. The angered decides to take revenge on his uncle. His unnatural behavior, fears Claudius and he sends Hamlet to Hamlet returns successfully, and ends up in a sword duel with Laertes, the court advisor’s son. During this, a poisoned drink which was meant for Hamlet kills Gertrude, the poisoned sword kills Hamlet, who in turn kills Laertes and Claudius with it.

Shakespeare has obviously adapted the story of a son who takes revenge on his father’s death with a planned murder. Both the stories take place in palaces and deal with the kings and their families. The plays showcase the queens as cruel characters who marry their husbands’ murderers soon after their deaths. The difference is while, the murder in Oresteia, is done by the queen herself and in a very cruel manner, King Hamlet is killed by Claudius by pouring poison in his ear. Still, Gertrude, like Clytemnestra is part of the conspiracy to kill King Hamlet.

Hamlet is believed to have been influenced by another work, which is Sophocles’ ‘Oedipus Rex.’ Hamlet shows a mercy to his mother, though he knows she too conspired in killing his father. He decided to Claudius, but leaves his mother from it. Even the knowledge that Gertrude Claudius to marry her, does not make him kill her. His is explained and justified by the famous ‘oedipus complex.’ Shakespeare seems to have taken this not only from the Sophocles’ work, but also from The Libation Bearers. In the play, unlike in Hamlet, Orestes, returns from exile to kill not only Aegisthus, but also his mother.

Though the reason for this is that, Clytemnestra herself kills the king in the play, conspiring against own husband can be considered equally cruel and offending. He plans the murders and comes to the palace. As had planned, he kills Aegisthus and goes to the queen to kill her. However, as the queen recognizes her son, she tries to reason with him. She asks him if he wants to kill the woman whose milk made him grow strong. On hearing this, Orestes, doubts for a second, if what he is going to do is right. Pylades, what do I do? It’s a dreadful act to kill my mother.”(Aeschylus, line-1117). At this moment, Pylades, his companion, reminds him of his duty to Apollo and he kills her for fear of being punished.

The difference in the plays is in the mental strengths of the heroes. While Orestes, makes only a single delay, Hamlet is depressed throughout the play for several reasons. He delays even in killing Claudius, for fear of making a mistake. The appearance of ghost adds to it, and his inability to understand the confusion and depression in his mind even more worries him, causing him to delay his revenge. He lacks concentration in the play because of his troubles. Orestes, is presented as a stronger character who kills both Aegisthus and Clytemnestra to avenge his father’s death. Hamlet, however, leaves his mother from his revenge though she ultimately dies at the end of the play.

Hamlet has a companion, a friend who loves and cares for him in the play. His name was Horatio. He attempts to suicide on seeing Hamlet dying. This character was born out of inspiration from a similar character, Pylades in The Libation Bearers, who accompanies Orestes to his palace. Pylades does not have a long role in the play, but his role is very significant. At the end, when Orestes, doubts his decision to kill his mother, it is Pylades who encourages him to do his duty to Apollo. He reminds him of the consequence of not following Apollo’s orders. Orestes justifies his future action with Pylades’ support and kills her by stabbing her. Hamlet, is different in this, because Hamlet does not kill his mother. Hamlet duels with Laertes, who was given a poisoned sword by Claudius to cheat Hamlet. A poisoned drink was brought for Hamlet, which Gertrude unknowingly drinks, and this leads to her death. Hamlet ,who wins the duel, is scratched by Laertes. Hamlet, in return, stabs him and kills Claudius too.

Another influence of The Libation Bearers in Hamlet is the appearance of ghost in both plays. In the beginning of The Libation Bearers, as Orestes stands at his father’s grave, a chorus of women called the libation bearers come and pour libation on his grave. They say that the queen had ordered them to do so, because she saw a dream in which the ghost of the king appeared to her and she feared it. Shakespeare, influenced by this appearance of the murdered king’s ghost, uses the same kind of approach in his play. Hamlet, who doubts his uncle’s hand in his father’s death, sees the ghost of his father. The ghost comes at midnight to him, and confirms his doubts. It says that it was Claudius who killed him. The interesting part is that what the writers in both the plays mean is not the appearance of ghosts. Instead, in The Libation Bearers, Aeschylus wants to show the intensity of the crime that Clytemnestra has done. The ghost is only a concept which makes Cltemnestra understand that she will receive punishment for her mistake. Similarly, the ghost of hamlet’s father is the idea of Shakespeare to help Hamlet confirm his doubts. This is because the murder has no other witness who can help Hamlet and only the concept of a ghost anf its confirmation of the murder will help the hero to go forward with his revenge. “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. (Shakespeare).

At the end of the play, hamlet dies due to poisoning. This is a change that Shakespeare has made in order to end the play. The Libation Bearers, which is a part of the trilogy, Oresteia, does not end with this play. Orestes does not die at the end of this play. It ends with him going to Apollo for purification after completing his duty to him. The Libation Bearers is followed by another play, called Eumenides. Thus, Hamlet is similar to and dissimilar from the Aeschylus play in many ways. The main theme is the same, but necessary changes have been made to suite the contemporary time of Hamlet. Besides, though Shakespeare was influenced with the story and the techniques used in ‘The libation Bearers’, he has shaped the play and its climax according to his style, giving it a dramatic tragic end. All the qualities of Hamlet, have made it a part of the history of drama, always to be remembered.

Works Cited

Aeschylus. The Libation Bearers. Line-1117. Publication year- unknown.

Shakespeare, William. Act I: Scene V- ‘Hamlet’. 1603.