Guest Post: On Harry and Hamlet

One of the frustrating things about writing a weblog is that, as often as not, the things I think are brilliant get little feedback or response (cough-Dante-cough) and filler-posts about a Potter movie star’s alchemical aside fuel exciting discussion from all quarters. The reward, of course, is when a reader catches hold of an idea and takes it in a direction I hadn’t thought of and takes it to some altitude as well.

That happened this morning when I received the following comment from Tinuvielas in Germany in response to my post on literary influence, Austen, Shakespeare, and Rowling, a post that very few others thought worthy of comment. Needless to say, the shared insights were a double delight for me. I hope you enjoy them even half as much as I did — and that you’ll respond to the invitation for comment and correction at post’s end. Thank you, Tinuvielas!

Hi John,

Thanks a lot for that truly great post, including the fantastic Leavis-quote. Your comments are always inspirational… and [in response] to Arabella Figg’s [question]: There actually is a course (by Monica Arellano-Espizia, entitled “similarities between Harry Potter and Hamlet”), that tries to do just what you said, “use the series as an introduction (…) to read Shakespeare”. Only, it’s not high-school-level, but fourth-grade…

As to how Shakespeare influenced JKR, in addition to the Macbeth-stuff above, there’s another, perhaps less obvious point, i.e. the similarities between those international superstars of the literary universum, Harry and Hamlet. There’s quite a list of them, actually (and not only the fact that both names begin with an “H”…):

* Both have lost their fathers
* both are unwilling revengers
* both are persecuted because they pose a theat to an established (and negatively connotated) order
* both scenarios take place in a labyrinthine castle
* both texts play with the topical opposition of “to be – to seem”
* both probe the problem of death, including references to the ars-moriendi-tradition, the loss of a parent/parents, attempted murder and final self-sacrifice in order to vanquish the villain
* both feature an atmosphere of intrigue and the presence of one or more true friends as well as treacherous ones
* both heroes are traumatized by the loss of their parent(s), suffer from nightmares, and are thought to be mad
* both disown a lover after she has turned against the hero and/or because the time isn’t quite right for romance: Whereas the Ophelia-plot in Hamlet combines these two motives, in HP they are developed via the “Cho” and “Ginny”-characterlines. (Harry’s infatuated with Cho who brings the spy Mariette Edgecomb into his company, while he willingly separates from Ginny). Moreover, Harrys relationship with the constantly crying Cho is just as unsuccessful as Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, and while he doesn’t kill her father/brother, it is in his presence that Cho’s lover Cedric is killed.

That last bit may be a bit far-fetched, I know – but there’s something else: Did anyone ever notice that the whole HP-cycle is, in a way (and of course in addition to everything else it is P) also a detailed illustration of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”-monologue…? Of course the parallels are more with the enumerated evils of the world than with Hamlet’s conclusion that it would be better to kill oneself, if one could only be sure not to wake up in a nightmare…

On the other hand, in Deathly Hallows there is this scene between dream and death that goes to show how it is right (and worth it) to risk one’s life for a just cause – “the readiness is all”, one might add with Hamlet. And if you choose right, in JKR’s universe you don’t wake up in a nightmare, but in “King’s Cross” – rather a more friendly purgatory than the one Old Hamlet mentions and young Hamlet fears. But I’ll come back to that below. First, let me specify what I mean by “illustration” and apply a few “Hamlet”-quotes to HP:

* both heroes obviously suffer “the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks, that flesh is heir to”. Also, in Phoenix Harry comes very close to wishing devoutly for a deathly consummation…
* both experience “the whips and scorns of time” (the Dursleys, the mobbing in Hogwarts, the public persecution by Rita Skeeter…)
* both suffer “the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely” (Voldy, Fudge, Umbridge, Snape, Scrimgeour, the Malfoys, you name it)…
* … and the “pangs of disprized love” (not only Harry, but also Cho, Ron, the Patil-sisters, Tonks)
* … “the insolence of office” (now who would qualify here, I wonder … ? PPP)
* … “and the spurns, that patient merit of the unworty takes” (how about the Weasleys? Neville? The Hufflepuffs in general?)

Like I said, when faced with these evils unlike Hamlet Harry doesn’t contemplate suicide – it’s not really in his nature (though he does act suicidal more than once). And he doesn’t wonder too much about what is waiting for him behind the veil, either – but then he is no brooding melancholic, but a rash cholerical Gryffindor. Thus, one could argue that his courage and his rashness in putting his life at stake is an illustration of one of Hamlet’s alternatives when confronted with life’s evil: “to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” Incidentally, Dumbledore takes the opposite stance, stoically and humorously enduring life’s adversities in the face of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”…

Of course none of these two protestant heroes shares Hamlet’s “fear of something after death”, “the undiscovered country” and the terrors of purgatory (and yes, I’m arguing a catholic Shakespeare here), that make a man incapable of (adequate) action. Instead, Harry chooses and acts right, so that at the end of Hallows, we get a quote of sorts from another Shakespeare play, the comedy “All’s well that ends well” – or rather, “all was well”. A happy-end like this is the identifying feature of the Elisabethan/Jacobean comedy, a genre Shakespeare excelled in in his earlier, more optimistic years. With it, and with the protestant vision of the afterlife in King’s Cross, JKRs early 21.-Century bestseller perhaps refers to a lost (and deeply missed) feeling of security in our secular society – just like the catholic references in “Hamlet” refer to the loss of the security of the old religion in a freshly protestant early 17th century: Both texts invoke religious concepts that aren’t entirely believed in anymore, although they are still deeply embedded in cultural consciousness. Perhaps this feature is one of the reasons for the fact that both books are so successful all over the world?

Well, this turned out a bit longer than I originally intended – probably due to the fact that I’ve been pondering this subject for a while, summing up notes for a lecture I’m gonna give at this year’s Ringcon in Bonn etc. Still, I hope someone takes the time to read and perhaps comment/add/argue…!?



  1. Red Rocker says

    Cho as Ophelia, eh? And who would you have for Gertrude?

    Just don’t see the Hamlet/Harry analogy, except in a superficial sense (both their fathers were murdered, ’tis true, and they both take place in an ancient castle).

    As you said, Tinuvielas, Harry is no brooding melancholic, but a rash cholerical Gryffindor The central characters are so different, that you could have even more similarities than the ones you mentioned and still they would not be the same.

  2. An excellent listing of correlatives and thought-provoking. Thank you, Tinuvielas, for this piece. Of course, it is provoking and I’m sure will get many types of feedback, pro and con.

    Hmm, Harry as Hamlet’s doppelganger and mirror-ed opposite.

  3. John: I, like many others, really appreciated your Dante post. The lack of feedback on my part is simply due to my being out of my depth!

    I am not (yet) convinced that the Hamlet/Harry analogy stands up. I see Hamlet as more of a Slytherin/Ravenclaw hybrid…?

    Hamlet’s brooding, and the desire to avenge his father, his conflicted difficulty in carrying his plan through, briefly brought to mind Malfoy in HBP. Though I must admit that this, admittedly half-baked, idea is less tenable than Hamlet/Harry analogy.

  4. revgeorge says

    I’m more in agreement here with Red Rocker. I can see some similarities but I think to equate Hamlet & HP too closely is stretching things too far. And the dissimilarities are perhaps even greater than the similarities, as Red Rocker notes. Especially in beingness, Hamlet is constantly contemplating death. While Harry desperately wants to live, not because he fears what’s beyond but because he wants to love those in his life now. There’s only the brief moment in OOTP when he wishes he could stop being Harry. But it’s not a sustained feeling.

    And of course there’s the main difference in the works themselves. Hamlet is a Shakesperian tragedy. And HP is anything but that.

  5. Red Rocker says

    Good point, revgeorge. HP is not a Shakespearean tragedy. Harry doesn’t suffer from a fatal flaw (unless we count the Scarcrux) which is his downfall. He is in fact victorious against the slings and shafts of outrageous fortune. He is more like another Harry, Henry Vth, in his ability to lead others and triumph despite the odds. He even gets a speech, like that other Harry:

    Accident, was it, when my mother died to save me? Accident, when I decided to fight in that graveyard? Accident when I didn’t defend myself tonight, and still survived, and returned to fight again?

    Not quite:

    And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
    From this day to the ending of the world,
    But we in it shall be rememberèd;
    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

    but in the same spirit, I think.

    That Harry would have recognized our Harry, I think.

  6. revgeorge says

    Thanks, Red Rocker. I also thought, too, about the fatal flaw & realized Harry does have one, but his fatal flaw, his saving people thing as Hermione puts it, ends up actually saving people & leads to victory for the good side! Not quite the way tragedies are supposed to work out.

  7. Tinuvielas says

    Well, I did ask for it, right…? *rueful grin*. Thanks for the feedback so far! And good point about Harry & Harry! But let me clarify…

    I wasn’t arguing a one-to-one analogy of the kind you find on U-tube-videos entitled “Harry Potter as/is Hamlet” (yup, there’s several of them, albeit hardly convincing ones). Of course you cannot substitute one set of characters from the play with another set from HP – JKR wouldn’t simply model her septology on “Hamlet” (though perhaps it would be worthwhile to make a study of both texts’ deep narratological structures along the lines of Lévi-Strauss’ Theory of Cultural Anthropology – anyone…? Certainly the basic oppositions – life-death, action-contemplation, past-future – are there).

    I’m not even arguing or implying that JKR used “Hamlet” as a literary source the way she obviously used Tolkien’s work or Jane Austen’s or Macbeth – though given the status of Shakespeare’s most famous play it would be surprising if it wasn’t somehow part of the creative “compost” we’re talking about in this thread.

    What I am arguing, however, given the many more or less superficial similarities I’ve listed, is the validity of the idea of “Hamlet” as a point of reference for looking at JKRs work. Others have made use of this idea, and worthier ones than me: Mathias Hoffmann from the German Quality Newspaper FAZ, for instance, who in his satirical criticism of “Phoenix” (film) wrote about (my translation) “our totally abandoned, misunderstood hero, who is in doubt about everything and first needs to overcome himself before he is allowed, together with his allied friends, to shove the dictatress from her throne. And this boy, as you will have undoubtedly guessed, since he is a questioning, doubting orphan, is named: Hamlet.” Hoffmann goes on to say sorry, his mistake, the boy has lost both parents, and so his name really is Harry Potter…

    Now why does this comparison between Harry and Hamlet so obviously spring to mind? I think part of the reason – unless you just want to ridicule HP in snobbishly intellectualist manner for its pretensions – is that both texts are tremendously successful all over the world, (and “Hamlet” has been so for almost four centuries, something which may or may not happen with HP). So obviously they both transport (similar? comparable?) meanings that transcend cultural differences and get to the heart of timeless issues that are relevant to the human condition, regardless of the time/place-context within which they were written.

    Moreover, precisely because of “Hamlet”s worldwide success and renown, the play has become a cultural commonplace, something embedded within popular consciousness, quite apart from the actual historical play (or have you ever seen it staged “straight”, except perhaps at the “New Globe”?). You hardly find a modern literary work that doesn’t quote “Hamlet”, be it written by James Joyce, Salman Rushdie or Tad Williams, to name only a few. Why, even Arnold Schwarzenegger quotes “Hamlet” in “Terminator”…. It goes to JKRs credit that she resists this temptation (as far as I can say). But, obviously, “Hamlet” is a fixed point of reference for modern literature. Because of its thematic richness and popularity, “Hamlet” can easily – and profitably! – be used as a foil to almost everything. I once made a speech for my sister’s 40th birthday comparing her to Hamlet, which was quite a success (P). The question remains, of course, is this legitimate? Well, why not? Even if you don’t investigate strictly philological questions of literary influence or parallel, it is the results that count. Does the comparison enlighten us? Does it help us see things – in the modern text, or perhaps, as John pointed out, in the traditional one, too – that otherwise might have escaped our notice? That’s the kind of discussion I was hoping to start.

    Comparing the two texts gives thus you a common point of reference, a grid that may point to features such as my tentative conclusion about the centennial atmosphere of “lost faith” I offered above. Most people are unaware of this aspect of “Hamlet” btw, seeing the play as entirely “psychological”, and disregarding its background of religious strife and severe persecution of Catholics in Elisabethan/Jacobean England (though I doubt JKR is…).

    Similarly, the popular idea of “Hamlet” as a fat, procrastinating character isn’t historically correct – if you look at the play & character in historical context, you learn that part of the phenomenon of melancholy is sudden action, as well as “foolish acts, fear, delusions and hallucinations”, to quote Wiki. This guy gets a dubious message from the otherworld concerning a murderer and condemning him to revenge or die trying; he tries to find out if it is true; when he does, he acts in a rash way, thus causing the death of an innocent; which death precipitates events to the tragic conclusion which includes the hero’s willing acceptance of his own death („the readiness is all“). I do see certain thematic parallels here with HP. Both texts are deeply concerned with a) facing death and b) making the right choices and acting right in a corrupt world.

    As to Cho/Ophelia… well you did pick my weakest point here, lol. Admittedly, Cho doesn’t go either mad nor does she drown herself wearing a crown of symbolical herbs. Still, they’re both young women torn between conflicting loyalties and incapable of understanding their superficial lover or being understood („superficial“ because neither girl’s relationship to the „H“-hero is consummated, they both remain on the level of infatuation and lead to the death of someone close to her).

    A couple of final points about the comparability of genre: For one, HP, as John has noted, is a melange of genres:
    “Ms. Rowling has “rowled” together a seamless tapestry of at least ten different literary genres. Start with the epic Hero’s Journey Harry takes every year and the alchemical drama of transformation he’s enduring. Mix in a good dose of Gothic Romance and Detective Fiction, not to mention Children’s fantasy. There’s Schoolboy stories a la Tom Brown and Manners and Morals novels from Austen. Don’t forget the King Arthur elements, the broadstroke Satire, Bildungsroman pieces, and adventure thrillers.”
    If you apply the genre-theory of Northop Frye, it becomes obvious that HP combines elements of Romance (adventure, good vs. evil), of Comedy (conciliation), Irony and Satire, and, finally, Tragedy – because in my book Harry does have a (near-)tragic flaw, i.e. his rashness and unwillingness to communicate and cooperate, a flaw that he needs to overcome in the end in order for the almost-tragic end to be averted.

    Secondly, deep narrative structures transcend genre as do themes – such as the difficulty of choosing right in a fallen universe – and literary topoi – such as the opposition „to be/to seem“ present in both texts. Compare what John said about post-modern literature as applied to HP, i.e.
    „Nothing is What you think it is: sense experience is experience of filtered representation: Truth” is absolutely relative, “direct perception” is delusion, “knowledge” is never certain or more than fragmented ideas shaped by our conceptions. “Truth is made, not found”.
    That, in fact, is something that was also decisively typical for the Elisabethan court (compare Norbert Elias!) as well as Elisabethan/Jacobean drama: the overt (read “word”-)play with the differences between sign and signifier. Just like the scheming aristocracy, the theatre played with the ambiguity of things, with the semiotic separation of the word and the thing(s) it connotates. The genre of the (bourgeois, and, at least in England, protestant) novel on the other hand, initially, and for many years to come, postulated the identity of sign and signified, as originally postulated in the unambiguous Word of God (“In the beginning there was the word and the word was with God and God was the word … and the word became flesh”).

    Apart from that, I think the two texts are similar in a curiously opposed sense. HP is about as dramatic a work as a novel can be – I read somewhere that about 80 percent of it is written in dialogue, but don’t nail me down on that. At the same time, the limited omniscient perspective is very similar to what we get in „Hamlet“ – how many scenes are there in the play with the hero not present? And isn’t the play based on his perspective, doesn’t it play precisely with the limitations of this subjective perspective? In fact, „Hamlet“ has the reputation of being a „psychological“ play, of probing the individual’s mind… thus we get a pre-modern play that aims at something the novel would later excel at, and a post-modern novel that recurs to play-mode. Full circle…?

    To me, at any rate, it does seem as if HP – perhaps inadvertently – rises to the challenge of giving answers to (or at least of paralleling) some of the questions “Hamlet” poses!

    Your turn… ! 😉

  8. Tinuvielas says

    (Got one thing wrong: Of course “Hamlet”, having been written around 1601, has been successful for slightly more than four Centuries…)

  9. Arabella Figg says

    John, I’d love to read and participate on this one, but will have to get to it later. This doesn’t reflect on it’s importance, but my preoccupation with a large project.

    And Fullatricks is taking advantage of that by trying to filch Little Flako’s kibbles…

  10. schmalchemy says

    I have to agree with Seajay’s post about feeling out of my league so don’t wish to show my ignorance. I also have to agree with Red Rocker’s second post, especially. Harry is not a tragic character, and the whole series is Harry’s triumph to live his own life. To deal with death, but more importantly, to deal with the life he has been dealt.

    But then, isn’t that what we have to do every day…deal with the life we’ve been dealt (to mix some metaphors)!

  11. revgeorge says


    Well, I’m not going to debate much of what you said, because Hamlet really isn’t my most favorite Shakespeare play. Now, if we want to talk Romeo & Juliet… 😉

    I’ll agree, though, that both Hamlet & HP bear some similarities & that some of the themes dealt with are the same. Over at The Hogshead we’ve just been discussing that the real enemy in HP is death & not Voldemort. Which one could posit is also the main theme of Hamlet, to be or not to be, that is the question. But I’m still not sure Hamlet & HP come to the same conclusions about the matter.

    In any case, it’s hard to refute any connection of Hamlet to anything, since the play can be, as wikipedia notes, “analyzed, interpreted and argued about from many perspectives.”

    But I do appreciate the analysis. As I said, Hamlet isn’t my favorite play & for most of my life my fondest memories of Hamlet come from a Gilligan’s Island episode & a Loony Tunes cartoon. 🙂

    So, it is nice to get a deeper perspective.

  12. Red Rocker says

    Yeah, no fat procrastinator is our Harry, but a decisive boy/man of action.

    Tinuvielas, there are similar universal dilemmas, yes. Both works are rich in human issues which get to the heart of the human condition. But doesn’t any work of art which resonates with people?

    As for deep narrative structures, I don’t think you need to go back to Elisabethan courts to get HPs narrative structure. In my opinion (yet to be debated), HP is in equal parts a boarding school story, a traditional good vs evil story, a quest story, and a moral treatise on the power of love, all of which is wrapped up in an overarcing mystery story: what actually happened on that dark and stormy night, sixteen years ago?

    But like some others, I am totally out of my depth in the area of literary analysis, so I will retire from the lists with this final shot: do you realize what that means about Lily Evans?

  13. Thanks for everyone’s comments so far – and sorry I haven’t been posting in a while (other commitments interfering.) I have, however, given the matter some thought in the meantime, and have also read what Martin Lings has to say about “Hamlet”, following John’s kind recommendation, who pointed out that

    “… all Shakespearean drama is alchemical to one degree or another, which is to say it aims at the transformation and perfection of the lead players and of the audience. Martin Lings, my favorite writer on Shakespeare (and a student of C. S. Lewis), explains this cogently in his The Secret of Shakespeare which I recommend without reservation.”

    One of the things Lings says about „Hamlet“ is something that is also true for HP, and that is the fact that „sacred art“ operates on different levels of meaning – the literal level that captivates the mind and emotions, and the symbolical, allegorical and anagogical levels which convey a deeper meaning (compare John’s post on Dante here).

    The allegorical meaning of „Hamlet“, according to Lings, equates the murder of Hamlet’s father in the orchard with the Fall of Man/Adam in paradise, with Gertrude being the guilty woman Eve, and Claudius being the Devil or the Serpent (the ghost speaks of „the serpent that did sting thy father“). The devil has robbed Man of his birthright, and prince Hamlet is the allegorical Soul who has to regain it by slaying the dragon. „Hamlet is not a drama of love, but of spiritual warfare, of renunciation, and of death and rebirth“, says Lings (p. 32).

    Similarly, one could argue, in HP Man (Harry) has been marked by the snakelike Devil (Voldemort) as his equal, with the result that he now bears the so-to-speak polluting scar of Sin. He is, however, armed against the consequences by Sacrificial Love (Christ/Lily). He then would have to make himself „un-equal“, dissociate himself by choice from the Devil and root out the evil in himself, in order to regain Paradise.

    I think this interpretation – while being pretty unspecific – is rather in keeping with most of the analysis here on John’s site. Harry, like Hamlet, is at one level Everyman on his Spiritual path, descending into hell, discovering and purging his sinful propensities, and emerging purified to vanquish the Dragon. Claudius/Voldemort similarly aren’t only villains who have killed the heroes’ fathers, but also the Serpent/Devil who has made Man mortal, and, on a further (anagogical) level of meaing, Sin itself.

    I would, however, like to add some thoughts regarding certain themes and motifs that “Hamlet” and “Harry Potter” seem to have in common. One of these is the conflict between choice and destiny, the idea of the (fallen) world being “out of joint”, and of the hero being “born to set it right”. Well, Harry isn’t exactly born to his fate, but marked by his nemesis, which probably reflects the different cultural context – in Elizabethan times, social class (and living up to the expectations that came with it) was more important than the individual and personal choice, more important even than life or death. If put to the question, an Elizabethan noble would generally have chosen death rather than dishonor; in fact death was symbolically regarded as a kind of dishonor, a lost battle, an enemy you can’t evade – hence the alternatives Hamlet ponders in “To be or not to be “of enduring or opposing fate’s “slings and arrows”, of facing death or flying from it. This, to me at least, seems pretty close to the idea Harry voices in HBP of walking into the arena with your head held high instead of being dragged into it.

    However, in terms of plot, neither hero really has the choice to flee, i.e. walk away from his destiny, because Voldemort will not let Harry do so, and neither will Claudius let Hamlet go, once he has found out that Hamlet knows about the murder. The only choice Harry really has after having been “chosen” by Voldemort lies in running and be killed or standing up and putting up a fight (which is what he instinctively does in „Goblet“ btw, anticipating HBP and the finale).

    Hamlets situation is at once similar and reversed to Harry’s: Similar, because Claudius resembles Voldemort in that he is both ruthless and in a position of far greater power – „the task laid upon the Prince by his father is something of a death sentence. It is not easy to kill a king, especially when that king is of the nature of Claudius“, remarks Lings (32). Reversed, because from the first act it is Hamlet who’s out to get Claudius (once he has verified the ghost’s truthfulness, that is – he, like Harry, first has to find out what really happened, which incidentally is another theme both texts have in common, i.e. the need to learn to distinguish between facts and appearances). Running isn’t an option for Hamlet, because Claudius, by killing Old Hamlet and seducing Hamlets mother, effectively „marks“ Hamlet, the son, as his chosen antagonist who, as soon as he finds out, is „honor-bound“ to revenge.

    What Claudius confers to Hamlet then when he kills his father is a sort of inner scar, an obligation, the duty to revenge and restore his wounded honor (“I’m bound to listen” says Hamlet – “and to revenge”, adds the Ghost). Choice doesn’t really enter the picture because Hamlet already is „his equal“, and as such he has to live up to his reputation. In the process, he needs to identify himself with his father (viz the word-plays on „sun“, the emblem of a king, and „son“), to take on his father’s obligation, so to speak, and give up his own life and youthful pleasures because of a murder that happened in the past – just like Harry has to do. The difference lies in their motif, in the importance of Choice as opposed to Duty, but the dilemma Harry and Hamlet face, the fact that they are both faced with the alternative to kill or die trying after a revealing encounter with a ghost (or ghostlike prophesy), is the same.

    It is, however, important to note that in HP the time-sequence of supernatural revelation and kill-or-be-killed-dilemma is reversed. Before Voldemort’s action, who marks Harry by killing his father and mother, we have Trelawney’s prophecy which initially motivates the evil deed and sets the play in motion – a motive straight out of „Macbeth“, this, as JKR herself said. It is important to remember here that it is not Harry who initially acts upon this self-fulfilling prophecy, but Voldemort.

    We therefore get a double plot in HP that could be described (in terms of this comparison) as „Voldemort/ Macbeth“ anteceding (and opposed to) „Harry/ Hamlet“. The first or „villain’s“ plot is about the self-fulfilling prophecy, about Voldemort’s attempt to kill Harry which leads to his own destruction, and about Harry’s finding-out-about-it; the second or „heroes“ plot is about Harry’s coming-to-terms-with-what-the-prophecy-implies. One can perhaps show this best by aligning the corresponding plot-elements in chronological order:

    HP (sequence 1):
    Prophesy (causing the murder; Macbeth-Motif)
    try-to-kill-and-be-killed (Voldemort’s storyline)

    HP (sequence 2)
    Ghost/Prophesy (as found out by Harry; Hamlet-Motif)
    kill-or-be-killed-dilemma (Harry’s storyline)
    try-to-kill-and-be-killed (Voldemort’s storyline)

    Ghost (telling-about-the-murder)
    kill-or-be-killed-dilemma (Hamlet’s storyline)
    try-to-kill-and-be-killed (Claudius’ storyline)

    The parallels between Hamlet and the second HP-sequence are striking, even though this schema is rather stripped-down. I would wager, though, that it would be possible to take this parallel further, following Brémond’s system (for those interested in literary structuralism). It is interesting, for instance, that all three sequences end with the motif of „evil defeating itself“ („the villain tries to kill hero and ends up dead himself in the end, stricken by his own murderous spell/weapon“). In Hamlet, this occurs only at the very end, whereas in HP it occurs twice, once in the chronological beginning and then again in the end, thus underlining the moral lesson inherent in „Hamlet“ by doubling it and having the narrative come full circle.

    To summarize at this point:
    1) Both texts feature a hero who has to come to terms with what a supernatural vision implies and face the dilemma to have to kill or be killed;
    2) Both texts end with the villain trying to kill the hero and ending up dead himself, defeated by his own weapons and evil intention.
    3) However, while Hamlet is consciously „bound to revenge“ right at the beginning of the play, Harry needs six novels to reach a similar mental state – quite appropriately, one might say, since he has to overcome his cholerical youthfulness, whereas Hamlet is already a melancholic adult at play’s beginning (youthfulness/summer being the time of life associated with Fire and adulthood/autumn with Earth).

    But Harry eventually does reach a similarly revengeful state of mind (does that imply a union of opposites?) which he voices in the conversation with Dumbledore after they’ve seen Slughorn’s Horcrux-Memory. I’ve recently reread that passage and was astonished to find that while Harry doesn’t actually use the word “revenge”, he’s still pretty explicit when Dumbledore asks him how he would feel about Voldemort now: “’I’d want him finished,”, said Harry quietly. “And I’d want to do it.”’ And at book’s end he says, again, “I’m the one who’s going to kill him” (I’ll get back to the importance of the fact that in the end he doesn’t do so in a minute.)

    Once Harry has made up his mind at the end of „Prince“ (incidentally the Albedo novel, where Harry finally gets to realize a couple of things) that he’s gonna go after Voldemort, in “Hallows” he and Voldy go on to play a game of Hide and Seek just like Hamlet and Claudius do. In both cases it’s the old „David against Goliath“-story, with David having to be willing to risk death in order to vanquish the Giant. The equivalent to the „Ghost/Garden“-scene in the beginning of „Hamlet“, where Hamlet talks about the world being “out of joint” and the “cursed spite that I was born to set it right”, is then perhaps the moment when Harry reviews Snapes memory in the pensieve and finds out about the necessity to root out the evil in himself, to literally die to the world in order to be able to finally overcome evil. As Lings says about Hamlet, „’Everyman“ now knows that he has almost come to the end of his journey and that the end will be victory but also, necessarily, death“ (47). Hamlet I think realizes this necessity right from the start, which adds to his melancholy – although he, too, needs a few acts and monologues and dialogues with the gravedigger before coming to terms with it. When he does, he tells his friend Horatio that “if it be now, it’s not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all”. Ars Moriendi at it’s best, this.

    At any rate, in both texts it is this death of the (symbolically sinful) self and not revenge which is the key to the destruction of evil. In the end, Harry doesn’t actually kills his enemy, since Voldemort is once more vanquished by his own rebounding murderous spell. This again parellels Hamlet because Claudius is killed in the final scene by the poison he himself has intended for Hamlet (admittedly administered by the Prince; however up to this point Hamlet hasn’t plotted against Claudius life, but has finally come to trust in „providence“ or fate – viz. the famous quote „there’s providence in the fall of a sparrow“!).

    Both Harry and Hamlet thus bring about the death of the baddie by turning their weapons against them in a final duel, and what’s more, both realize this possibility at the very last moment. Tellingly, the heroes’ earlier desire for revenge doesn’t work out: All Hamlet acchieves is to kill Polonius, doom Ophelia to madness antagonize her brother Laertes and alert Claudius to his danger, who then tries to ship him off to his death in England. Harry’s record isn’t much better, what with his hatred for Snape and the deaths of Cedric, Sirius and Dumbledore – but at least he’s not directly responsible for these deaths since they happen before his respective moments of revelation.

    Still, Harry’s (or rather his father’s – symbolically, it isn’t uncommon to split the „Everyman“-figure into father and son) relationship to Snape strangely parallels Hamlet’s relationship to Laertes, because in both cases a talented and resentful young man is used and twisted by the villain to everyone’s cost: In „Hamlet“, this results in both the heroes and the villain’s death (not to speak of Laertes himself); simillarly in HP, this results in Voldemort acting upon the prophecy, killing James Potter and having the mortal curse rebound on him – he would in fact have died, if he hadn’t created the Horcruxes. But in HP the matter is more complex:

    * Laertes hates Hamlet because Hamlet has mistakenly killed his father (and seduced his sister?); similarly
    * Snape hates James Potter (not only, but also) because James has married his beloved Lily AND
    * Harry hates Snape because Snape has mistakenly killed/caused the death of his father/parents.

    Both Harrry and Snape thus owe something to the character of Laertes, and like Laertes, they both have to overcome their hatred and see their error before they can be transformed and become truly „good“. Just as Hamlet makes his peace with Laertes before being able to vanquish Claudius, so Harry needs to be reconciled with Snape in order to be able to move on with his quest. I guess this, too, points to the alchemical idea of the resolution of opposites, but that’s for others more competent to say.

    A final word with regard to the mother-element: Here (as in the Ophelia-plot) the two texts obviously differ profoundly. Hamlet’s mother marries the villain, disinheriting her son; Harry’s mother sacrifices herself for her son. I guess they can be said to symbolically represent the two archetypal females, Eve, the fallen woman seduced by Satan, and Mary/mother-of-the-saviour whose love overcomes death and Satan alike.

    However, it is perhaps interesting to note that in the end Gertrude dies of the selfsame poison that was intended for her son, alerting Hamlet to his danger before she „swoons“ and thus enabling him to finally finish off Claudius – so while she doesn’t sacrifice herself willingly for her son, who has anyway already suffered the mortal stroke from Laertes poisoned rapier, she still dies in his stead, thereby helping him achieve his revenge. Here again, as in the case of „evil defeating itself“, a motif from the end of Hamlet shows up in the beginning of HP.

    There is another aspect to the mother-element similar in both stories which I haven’t really puzzled out yet (anyone?), and that is the motif of the Alchemical Marriage with its connotations of death and re-creation. In Hamlet’s case, Gertrude marries her formerly adored husband’s brother and killer, Hamlet’s uncle, “a little month” after the funeral, thus linking the death of the true king and the “incestuous sheets” that Hamlets gets so upset about. Hamlet then becomes the Orphan whose job it is to “set it right” and kill his uncle. In Harry’s case, Lily is more straightforwardly (with respect to the alchemical marriage-symbol!) killed alongside her husband, her love enabling the Orphan Harry to withstand evil and “set it right”.

    Now, I wonder if it is of any importance that Voldemort is also remotely related to Harry (being, in fact, a much removed uncle since they’re both descended from the Peverell brothers)? And how about Harry having to cope with a literal “bad uncle”, i.e. uncle Vernon, his mother’s sister’s husband? Certainly both heroes start their story in the unpleasant situation of being an unbeloved stepson of their uncle/aunt (for all Claudius’ empty words about loving Hamlet as a son, he has actually disinherited him, usurped his place and plots against his life). The similarities go so far that the evil uncle in both texts prevents (or tries to prevent) the hero from going back to school… though that may be a very minor grain of „narrative compost“ indeed to have made its way into HP…

    Anyway this post is long enough as it is, I guess, and like I said, I haven’t really figured out the significance (if any) of these parallels in Harry’s/Hamlet’s relationships. Again, I’m grateful for any comment or criticism, and I hope I have perhaps managed to explore a bit better some of the similarities I mentioned in my original post, and which perhaps are not so obvious on the surface level of the texts!

  14. Thank you very much Tinuvielas. I really enjoyed reading your thought provoking post.

    I feel out of my depth with regard for instance to debating which of the many parallells you have unearthed are strong and which may be an over-stretch. I hope there are others who will be able to contribute to this thread.

  15. Seajay,

    thanks a lot for your response, I appreciate your thoughts – especially the one you voiced in your earlier comment, the idea that Malfoy in HBP has something in common with Hamlet, too. Funny enough, this parallel only hit me this afternoon, and I didn’t consciously remember you mentioning it (which goes to show the workings of subconscious messages P). It actually is a strong parallel, I think, because it also involves and underlines the Snapes/Laertes-connection (or rather, it is an anti-parallel):

    “Good” Hamlet tries to kill “evil” Claudius who plots with “ambiguous” Laertes to kill Hamlet; Claudius is killed after Laertes repents (“becomes good”)

    “Evil” Draco tries to kill “good” Dumbledore who plots with “ambiguous” Snape to save Draco; Dumbledore is killed after Snape (apparently) defects (“becomes evil”).

    Any literary structuralist would see this as basically the same story(sequence) in terms of deep narrative structure. On this level, you can always find parallels in “great” literature, because as Lévi-Strauss has shown, there’s only a handful of stories that make up the literary universe – a handful of stories worth telling… 😉

  16. Sorry to double-post – but there’s even more to Snape/Laertes: They both are the ones to tell the hero about their imminent deaths in a moment of last-minute-reconciliation. Laertes tells Hamlet that he has been poisoned and can’t escape death; Snape tells Harry that he’s got Voldemort’s Horcrux inside his scar (isn’t that a kind of mortal poison, too?) and can’t escape death.
    Or am I seeing things here, late as it is…?

  17. Tinuvielas, you have made a clearer Draco Hamlet connection than I could express; thank you for that.

    Something that is not made explicit in your comment above is that Draco is motivated (at least in part) by the desire to avenge his father / his family’s honour.

    Is there anything deeper to read in the fact that Snape does his best to protect both Draco (Slytherin) and Harry (Gryffindor) ?

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