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David C. Hakim
English 240
Instr: Dr. Gay

Nov. 30, 1962

To compare these two figures, Hamlet and Romeo, is somewhat

like comparing life with death, love with hate, and the brightness of a sun-filled day with the gloom of a cold winter's night.

Naturally there is some likeness between the two tragic

figures, such as their both being brilliant idealists and men of

action, of good breeding, and well-loved by the populace, but even these

points of comparison have some difference in degree of development.

That the plays project different tragic effects is obvious from

their first scenes onward.

Far from humorous is the tone of Hamlet,

for we see Francisco, a soldier, say in the first scene,

For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold, And I am sick at heart. (I. i. 8-9)

And Marcellus adds later,

What, has this thing appeared again tonight? ( I. 1. ? 21..)

Yet Romeo and Juliet opens with a humorous scene, even though Sampson and Gregory speak of conflict with the

Montagues, around which the central action of the play resolves itself. They jest about the practicality of staying close to the wall in case of

conflict, and extend their hatred even to the women:

Sampson:  'Tis all one, I will show myself a tyrant.   When I have fought with the men, I will be (cruel) with the maids; I will cut off their heads.

Gregory:   The heads of the maids?

Sampson:  Ay, the heads of the maids, or their maidenheads; take it in what sense thou wilt.

Gregory:  They must take it in sense that feel it. (1.1.22-30)

The above passage, being derogatory, as well as the fact that throughout the play it is

members of the house of Capulet that usually provoke the actual conflicts with the

Montagues, serves to lend sympathy to Romeo and help to build him up as a tragic figure.

Nevertheless, Romeo is less a tragic figure than is Hamlet, even though most of

Hamlet's conflict is profound. Not only is he disturbed by his

desire for the throne itself, and the fact that his uncle now occupies it, he is also troubled that his mother has remarried with only a

month having gone by since the death of his father, and has violated

the code of the times by committing the sin of incest by marrying

her husband's brother. (I. ii.)

In fact, Hamlet's distress is

such that he wishes himself dead:

0, that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!   (I. ii. 129-130)

One can imagine the further effect upon him when he learns from the

ghost that his uncle may have killed his father. Yet he doesn't

act immediately because he does not know whether what the ghost had spoken

isi the truth or whether the ghost actually is the spirit of his

father. (III. ii.)

He knows that the person of the king is

sacred and wants to be sure of the king's guilt, added to the fact that he feels guilty because of his own desire for the crown. One may

note this in his talk with Rosencrants and Guildenstern:

Hamlet:   Why, then, 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

Rosencrants:   Why, then, your ambition makes it one. 'Tis too narrow for your mind.

Hamlet:   a God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.   (II.ii. 255-262)

Hamlet is even able to deny the intense love he has for Ophelia (II. i) due to his inner conflict, and herein lies the greatness of the tragic

figures: Hamlet can forsake love and live to avenge the murder of his father, whereas

Romeo is shredded by the "loss" of his love ant therefore takes his life.

Almost immediately upon the opening of Romeo and Juliet we see sorrow, because of his unrequited love of Rosaline (I.i.)

His character is nowhere near the development of Hamlet, although he is

pictured as an excellent swordsman and does try to reconcile the feuding houses at the risk of his own life and honor, and in doing so

angers Mercutio, causing him to incite swords play with Tybalt, who wounds him, making Mercutio curse,

A plague 0' both (your) houses! (III.i.94)

Yet one can sympathize with the great love of Romeo for Juliet, which Shakespeare expects by our own knowledge of love, and also by

his superb portrayal of the mutual love of the two young people.

Romeo (to Juliet):   If I profane with my un-worthiest hand This holy shrine, the gentle (fine) is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

Juliet:   Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much, Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims' hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss.


And later in the same scene, Juliet says to the nurse:

Go, ask his name. If he be married, My grave is like to be my wedding-bed.

To this is added Romeo's soliloquy in Act II:

O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard, Being in night, all this is but a dream, Too flattering-sweet to be substantial.

(I1.ii. 139-141)

Shakespeare also brings us to understand more fully Romeo's love

of Juliet by portraying him somewhat mad, exhibited by his grovel-

ing in the dust at Friar Lawrence's cell. (III,iii)

This, added to the prologues before Acts I and II, keeps one from being shocked upon the fact that Romeo takes his life on seeing Juliet dead.

He looks upon her and says:

Ah, dear Juliet

Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe That unsubstantial Death is amorous,
And that the lean abhorred monster keeps Thee here in the dark to be his paramour?
For fear of that, I still will stay with thee, And never from this (palace) of dim night Depart again.


It is significant that Shakespeare uses the imagery of fairness upon "death" and the repeated images of light and the brightness

of the sun in reference to both Romeo and Juliet's love for each

other, as well as the references to the darkness of the night:

Romeo: ...But, soft! what light through yonder window break's?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun. Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon, Who is already sick and pale with grief
That thou, her maid, art far more fair than she.

(II. ii .1-6)

Juliet: ...Come, gentle night, come, loving, blackbrowed night,
Give me my Romeo; and, when (he) shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.


By such projection one has sympathy with their love for each other.

It is as if it were deified, as if each were a deity to Bach other, that the tragic element is produced, and one is led to understand the effect of the loss of

one to the other, that such loss would be akin to the loss of God himself if he roamed the earth and left it suddenly.

It is the repeated appearance of the ghost of Hamlet's father, the principal image of the play, which first introduces the facts concerning the king's death

and thereby Hamlet is made to swear

that he will avenge his death (I.v).

Thus Hamlet is coerced into the act of vengeance, despite his concept of the sacredness of

the kingship and guilt on perhaps becoming king himself. One

transfers the recrimination of Hamlet's actions, such as the accidental death of Polonius (III.iv) and

Ophelia's resultant suicide, ghost, and thus Hamlet is built further as a tragic figure. As if this weren't enough, Hamlet is made to

appear as quite the noble figure. Hamlet's feigned madness (which also in of itself leads to greater sypmathy to Hamlet's

state of mind and future actions, for we can understand that Hamlet's conflict is sufficient to actually drive almost anyone

to actual madness):

0, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword; The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down! (111.i.158-162)

And thus, by such portrayal of internal and external conflict, we see justification for Hamlet's vengeance, especially since the

medium of it is precipitated by a planned fight with Laertes,

Ophelia's distraught brother, and the fact that Hamlet does see his

mother die through the treachery of the king. (V.ii). One

feels that the only pure and undefiled person whose life is ended

in this last scene is Hamlet himself. Indeed, one feels that

it is a tragedy to see him die.

Perhaps it would be fitting to conjecture upon the possibility of there being less gloom and less internal preoccupation of self in Hamlet; however, to

do so would possibly have thrown out the whole tragedy, for Hamlet, had he been more rational, may have tried, by his own power over the people,

to create a rebellion against the king and avenge his father in this manner. And also, perhaps it

would be safe to say that if fate had played a lesser role in Romeo and Juliet, had either the Friar delivered the message to

Romeo, had Juliet wakened when Romeo arrived in the tomb, or had the Friar arrived at the tomb before Romeo, there would not have

been the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet.

Another comparison needs to be made of the two tragic heroes.

Hamlet is the central, dominant figure in the play, whereas Romeo shares almost equal prominence with Juliet.   Her love is made to equal Romeo's,

and as this writer has tried to show, the loss of

kin by the conflict between the houses is portrayed almost as great. We can see that there would have been no tragedy had Juliet not

been given such a role, or had she not loved Romeo so much.

She might not have taken the sleeping potion and married Paris and Romeo

might have reconciled himself to the loss.

But here again the complete tragedy would have been thrown out, and the writer feels, along with many others, that to throw out any of Shakespeare's

works would indeed be a discredit to the individual and to society at large;

for not only would there be loss of excellent verse, but also the profound insight of a genius into the very heart and soul of man


In conclusion, this paper has attempted to compare Hamlet and

Romeo as tragic figures. This was done by comparing the tone of the

plays, the complexity of conflict, the different types of imagery,

and the manner of achievement of tragic effect.

One cannot help coming to the perhaps erroneous conclusion that Hamlet is everything that Romeo is and more. This is the feeling the writer has upon

reading both tragedies. For Hamlet is more withdrawn as shown

by the greater number of solilozuys and the fact that he cannot

communicate with others about his problems, whereas Romeo can, ,

Hamlet has forsaken a great love, whereas Romeo cannot. But principally, Hamlet is one of Shakespeare's most completely developed characters,

embodied with such noble virtues as keen intellect, sensitivity,

and the ability to act when it counted most, whereas (although if

this were done the tragic sense would have been destroyed) it seems that the simple procedure of elopement was beyond Romeo's attainment. Yet

perhaps the comparison is doing Shakespeare an injustice, for

the characters as this writer has tried to show, play different roles, one of the untarnished avenger, the other the romantic lover, who,

when love became impossible of attainment, took his life in sheer

heart-breaking, reason destroying emotion. And finally, perhaps one can say that Romeo and Juliet was written during the earliest period of

Shakespeare's development, when he was

still yet apprentice and experimenter (and at that an excellent one), whereas Hamlet was written when Shakespeare was surer of himself and could

exhibit human character in the

fullness of its complexity