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Beowulf vs. Hamlet: Comparison and Contrast

Introduction

Beowulf and Hamlet have 2 things in common and 2 differences.

Both are heroes but in wildly varying degrees. Beowulf embodies all the characteristics of an ideal hero. His youth is richly littered with feats of heroism ranging from displays of extraordinary strength and bravery to the famous swimming contest in the open sea against the mighty Brecca (Gaiman et al., 165). His ultimate act of heroism is to get rid of the dangers that face Denmark – Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon.

In comparison, Hamlet’s only claim to heroism lies in his all-consuming desire to avenge the death of his father {an action considered very heroic during the Elizabethan era}, and he too gets rid of the danger that faces Denmark – King Claudius, whose greed for power and incestuous lust for his brother’s wife Gertrude leads him to his kill his saintly brother King Hamlet and marry his sister-in-law in a distasteful hurry.

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Both heroisms become somewhat ambiguous at the end. Their last fatal combats could be been staged differently. There was no need for Beowulf to confront the dragon alone; he could have taken the help of a battalion of his soldiers. Knowing his uncle’s treacherous ways, Hamlet should have been more suspicious of the poisoned wine and the poisoned sword during the innocuous fencing match with Laertes (V.ii).

Instead of realizing their responsibility as King of Denmark {Boewulf already was King while Hamlet would have become King if he had shrewdly exposed Claudius’ teacher before all the people} and preserving themselves to act for the welfare of the people, both chose to act impetuously. Beowulf went in the pursuit of yet more glory {He earlier tells Ursula: “There is no end to the battle.” (Gaiman et al., 91)}. Hamlet would not relinquish his single-minded aim to avenge the death of his father.

The first difference lies in their claim to heroism. Beowulf displays the correct manners and values as expected by the Germanic heroic code that also comprises faithfulness, politeness, and pride. Hamlet, apart from being a scholar and thinker, does not have any attributes of heroism. He has no respect for the lives of others {for example, he kills Polonius without compunction} and pursues vengeance so blindly that he is personally responsible for, or has a strong hand in, the death of nearly all the play’s characters.

Secondly, Beowulf respects women and has no problem with them as is noticeable in his interaction with Ursula (Gaiman et al., 73). He even acknowledges the attributes of Grendel’s mother that she is “not a demon but a woman of many names” (Gaiman et al., 65) like Lorelei and Calypso. Hamlet hates women. He hates his mother for her quick marriage to Claudius on the heels of King Hamlet’s death. He brutally rejects Ophelia, callous telling her: “Get thee to a nunnery” (III.i.122) and going on to bitterly denounce all women {causing the stunned girl to wonder: ‘O what a noble mind is here overthrown (III.i.149)}.

References used

Gaiman, Neil & Avary, Roger. “Beowulf: The Script Book.” Harper Paperbacks. 2007.

Shakespeare, William. “Hamlet.” Thomas Learning Publishers, 2001.