Classical and Renaissance paradigms of heroism in Hamlet
In the early part of the seventeenth century, when William Shakespeare wrote The
tragedy of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, Europe was the center of a waning Renaissance that had,
over the past three centuries, changed the intellectual bedrock of the West beyond recognition.
The moral code of conduct for the common people had been transformed into one that embodied
the tenets of Christianity, but there was one thing left undone. The upper classes still clung to the
old ways – the Graeco-Roman ideas of royalty, nobility and heroism. The question of what it
meant to be a king or a prince had yet to be addressed in the context of the Renaissance. The
paradigms of heroism and rulership set forth in the great Greek epics yet held sway over
members of royalty and the noblesse. In the play Hamlet therefore, Shakespeare attempts to
provide the prototype of a hero of the Renaissance, personified by Prince Hamlet. The qualities
necessary for such a hero are compared and contrasted with those associated with classical
heroism through the use of classical allusion and transitions between religious and secular
language. Further, the juxtaposition of Hamlet with the characters Laertes and Fortinbras – both
of whom are to be regarded as heroes of the old paradigm – shows with enormous clarity, the
conflict that prevailed between the two schools of thought.
Shakespeare depicts the quintessential classical hero as having a number of great
qualities. These are not enumerated explicitly; rather we are led to infer them from the
playwright’s frequent allusions to the mythical champions of the Graeco-Roman tradition. On
the urging of Hamlet, one of the players recites part of a speech describing the slaughter of
Priam, last king of Troy, by Pyrrhus, son of Achilles. The following lines portray the immense
physical strength of the latter:
And never did the Cyclops’ hammers fall
On Mars’s armour, forg’d for proof eterne,
With less remorse than Pyrrhus’ bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam (II. ii. 477-480).
In the above lines, the ferocity of the remorseless attack by Pyrrhus on Priam is likened to the
awesome force of the Cyclopean hammers busily crafting the armor of Mars, the Greek God of
war, thereby stressing Pyrrhus’ physical prowess. Of equal weight are Hamlet’s references to the
corporeal beauty of his late father:
See what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New lighted on a heaven-kissing hill:
A combination and a form indeed
Where every god did seem to set his seal
To give the world assurance of a man (III. iv. 55-62).
One of the most poignant speeches in the play delivered by Hamlet, there can be no better
description of a classical hero: the perfect prototype of a warrior-king.
The renaissance hero, as portrayed by Hamlet, is by no means physically...