As one travels through the classical literary canon, the traditional view of the time honored hero remains relatively the same. Variations of Achilles present themselves all over classical literature, with a few exceptions, such as Odysseus. We hesitate to call him aner because his heroism isn’t strictly thumos-driven. In fact, his heroism is derived from his intellectual prowess, ability to weave tales and beguile his components. Yet, even so, “Slaughter in the Hall” at the end of The Odyssey relieves any doubt a reader might have of his classical heroism.
Continuing on in the literary canon, heroism, as expected, evolves over time. Suddenly, the reader has to reconcile ideas of classical heroism with an unprecedented level of introspection, as we see in Hamlet. The difference that we see here, however, is that Hamlet’s turn to intelligence and introspection as his major characteristics as opposed to physical strength leads him down a dark road. Though he is the clear protagonist of the work, it is unclear whether we might call him a hero in the traditional sense; in fact, the term anti-hero, serves a better purpose here. In this paper, I argue that the turn to intelligence and the psychology of protagonists, turns them into anti-heroes and vigilantes rather than the classic hero. It can be seen in the intellectual and psychological depth of Hamlet’s soliloquies, as well as in his fixation with avenging his father’s death. In addition, I will argue that the same work can be done on the modern hero, Batman, in the ways with which he is intellectualized, grapples with insanity and works through his desire for vengeance for the murder of his parents.
Odysseus may have been one of the first street smart heroes, but he is nothing compared to the University of Wittenberg educated Hamlet, who speaks in riddles, double entendres, and biting sarcasm. From the start, his intelligence plagues him, sending him into an existential crisis induced depression. He says, “O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,/Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,/Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter….How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable/Seem to me all the uses of this world!” (Shakespeare, I.2.129-134) Based on prior knowledge of Shakespeare, typically his higher-born, more educated characters speak in verse, yet there is still a level of elevation and poeticism in Hamlet’s speech that is not quite achieved by any of the other characters. Though the rest of the cast also speaks in verse, such verses as Gertrude’s “Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet./I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.” (Shakespeare, I.2.118-119) do not have the same effect. Hamlet spends much of the play lost in his own introspection, his own poetry, so much so that he seems to have lost touch with the real world, as shown in the aforementioned quotation. His insistence on thinking leaves him feeling existential to the point that he has considered suicide at some point. This otherwise valiant character trait leaves him susceptible to feelings of apathy in the world around him.
This is not something that exists exclusively in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The trope of the intellectually disturbed individual returns to us in the more familiar form of modern America’s Bruce Wayne, a charming young man with a head for business. His ability to be quick on his feet in the business world transfers to Batman’s ability to outthink his opponents, acting as if every battle is a game of chess. His impeccable strategies would make Athena proud. However, rationalization leads him to often distrust even his closest allies. In almost every storyline, Batman is known to carry kryptonite, one of Superman’s only known weaknesses, in his utility belt, on his person at all times. Actions like this isolate him and give readers pause, wondering if a hero that is so distrusting can truly be considered a hero.
Hamlet’s classification as an anti-hero is something that is furthered by his dabbling with the psychological. In most of the classic hero myths, there’s a lack of interiority that is overwhelmingly present in Hamlet. He confronts the ghost of his father, a scenario that we can only assume is imaginary. This, coupled with the fact that he mentally copes with a lot over the course of the play, including thoughts of suicide as well as the alleged suicided of his supposed girlfriend, indicates that Hamlet rests in a precarious mental state. Not to mention, Hamlet is the beginning of the use of soliloquies in theater to express the thoughts of characters. Though it is true that the use of this form is a result of experimentation, and thus that can contribute to the amount of soliloquies Hamlet has, they give Hamlet some of his distinctive characteristics. His habitual speaking to himself in asides gives us a look at his interiority, which we can see is conflicted. In the classic “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet takes down a road of dark thoughts. He considers whether to live or die (III.1.56), the unfathomability of death (III.1.66-68) and fear of it (III.1.78), and which is worse, this unknowable death or every horrible feeling one might live through, such as unrequited love or the injustice of law (III.1.72). Yet, he implies that it is this ability to think that causes him to be unhappy: “Thus conscious does make cowards of us all.” (III.1.83) He considers all of these unhappy possibilities, and dwelling on them is part of what makes him depressed. “To be or not to be” brings together both Hamlet’s ability to intellectualize and his own personal psychology to create a character that is fueled by negative, rational energy, instead of the positive, blood-pumping energy created by thumos.
This leads him down a path that very few classical heroes are exposed to: that of insanity. If Hamlet is not insane, his encounters with his father’s ghost, the way Ophelia describes him as “if he had been loosed out of hell,/To speak of horrors—he comes before me” (II.1.83-84), and his encounter with Polonius in the following scene during which he lapses in to prose and mistakes Polonius for a fish monger, would dictate otherwise. Insanity is what drives most of Batman’s world. Gotham is home to chaos and madness. Batman’s villains are housed in an insane asylum. The most dangerous and terrifying part of Batman’s mythos is that, as mentioned previously, he typically outsmarts his mentally unstable opponents. This would indicate that he is able to think along the same vein as they are. One must stop and consider: Batman is able to defeat the Joker because he is able to think like him, must be able to think like him, and not only that, but he is required to think several steps ahead of the Joker. To enter Gotham is to leave Metropolis, home of Superman, land of binary oppositions. Both Hamlet and Batman and their mental states can be characterized by the state of their respective homelands: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” (Shakespeare, I.4.90), just as Gotham is often described as a dying, or decaying city. No longer is it the simple morally good, honest man (Superman) versus the evil, deceitful opponent. It becomes much more ambiguous than that when insanity enters the mix. We enter into territory where even heroes are corrupted in some way. Who is right when both are at least a little wrong, or worse, when both may be right? This is the question we get when we are faced with either pair: Claudius and Hamlet or Batman and Joker. With Claudius and Hamlet, we have Hamlet, who feels himself to be morally in the right to kill Claudius, who we know is wrong to have killed his brother. The difficulty lies in that Claudius himself knows he was wrong and is repentant of his sin and that Hamlet is becoming steadily more mentally unstable, so the reader becomes unsure if they are willing to trust his judgment. Hamlet is also readily mentally manipulative, another sign that his own mental stability is at question. Instead of physically fighting his uncle, he chooses to wage psychological warfare on his uncle with The Mouse Trap. This induces feelings of guilt and shame, shaking Claudius’ nerves, which Hamlet uses to his own benefit.
We can also see that we are now on a psychological battlefield to an even greater extent when we stop to consider issue of family. While Batman and Hamlet’s instabilities can be attributed to the anxiety that often accompanies higher intelligence levels, they also come stem from family issues. Hamlet suffers from the very Freudian/Oedipal issue of being unable to categorize his family: if Claudius, his uncle, marries his mother, does that make his mother his aunt, or Claudius his father? Claudius himself unintentionally mentions the issue saying, “my cousin, Hamlet, and my son—“ (Shakespeare, I.2.64) to which Hamlet ungraciously replies, “A little more than kin, and less than kind.” (Shakespeare, I.2.65) If that weren’t enough to concern him, he is haunted by his father’s ghost and urged to seek revenge for King Hamlet’s murder. Though the ghost only makes appearances in a few key scenes, Hamlet’s soliloquies are enough to let the reader know that his insistence on bloodlust weighs on Hamlet’s psyche, so we carry the ghost of King Hamlet throughout the play. The more Hamlet thinks about his father’s wishes, the more he considers, the greater the toll of revenge is on his mind.
Bruce Wayne operates in similar ways to this. His parents were murdered in cold blood in front of him when he was a child. Naturally, anyone would find it difficult to overcome this psychological trauma. Though outwardly Bruce Wayne appears to be a completely function man, heading his multi-billion dollar corporation, the presence of Batman signifies something is not quite right. Superman, by contrast, is not that different from when he operates as Clark Kent than when he fights crime in a red cape. Bruce Wayne goes from being charming, mysterious yet still rather personable, as one has to be when one is a socialite, to a mistrusting, overly rational, and harsh individual with limited compassion when he fights crime. This is could be attributed to the fact that in every act of crime Wayne prevents, he is trying to get retribution for the deaths of his parents. He carries their murders with him in a way that makes his crime fighting style cold and detached. The weight of this trauma, compounded with his tendency to over-think, stunts his relationships, leaving him unable to having long lasting relationships with women or completely trusting relationships with the BatFamily, the team of side-kicks, and other heroes, assembled to help him fight crime.
Between Hamlet and Batman, we have truly departed from the rather comparatively simplistic idea of the classic Homeric hero. Modernity coupled with the development of the self in literature and the development of introspection mix to create heroes that can no longer simply be called heroes. To do that would be to deny them of their moral complexity and their rich emotional and mental states. The result is heroes who more effectively convey the complexity of human life. Life simply has too many variables in the modern day for simple good versus evil to be completely effective. In fact, it explains the modern appeal of such media as the Game of Thrones series, in which you hesitate to call anyone a hero or villain because, the moment you, your hero murders someone or the villain saves a child. People are complex, not purely good or bad, and are subject to the entire spectrum of human emotion. This complexity, as shown in this paper, only gets further complicated when heightened intelligence enters the mix. Thus, if all this is true, perhaps it is time for a redefinition of what we now consider heroism.