Like Hamlet, the writer is often faced with a simple dilemma: rules or no rules, that is the question. Sometimes, however, that dilemma is rephrased: outline or no outline, that is the question. In other words, should one write an outline of a story before writing the story itself, or should one simply sit down and let what comes come? The battle between the two camps rages on. Some writers, though, have taken a different route. Instead of talking about whether or not one should have a preconceived outline or structure going into a story, they look back on already created stories and search for the common structures in all of them. People like Joseph Campbell, famous for his book A Hero With A Thousand Faces, have discovered an outline that emerges from myths and stories in all sorts of cultures. People call this outline, or structure, the “hero’s journey.”
Hamlet and Macbeth, two plays by William Shakespeare, have many things in common with this “hero’s journey,” and thus with each other. Yet at the same time, while they in many respects follow this narrative structure, they both represent interesting twists on it. Macbeth represents a sort of anti-hero’s journey, while Hamlet seems to portray a hero’s journey gone wrong. Or, if you will, Hamlet portrays the almost-hero’s journey. In order to explain these concepts and highlight the similarities and differences between these two plays, a point-by-point examination of the hero’s journey and Hamlet’s and Macbeth’s relationship to it is in order.
The hero’s journey starts out with what screenwriter Dan Bronzite calls the “ordinary world.” This is simply the world before the action–what happens before the plot kicks in. Here we are introduced to our characters and their hopes, dreams, and fears. Here is our first point of divergence between Hamlet and Macbeth.
Macbeth presents a rather normal “ordinary world.” A victory has been won, Macbeth is returning home to his castle–all is well. With Hamlet, on the other hand, the “ordinary world” is anything but. While Hamlet’s mother, Queen Gertrude, and his stepfather, King Claudius, see the world as ordinary, Hamlet sees a world filled with sadness. He himself is sad over the death of his father, and he sees no end to his grief. Immediately, then, Hamlet appears to deviate from this story structure. It may seem that Hamlet has nothing in common with the Hero’s Journey. Or at least, it may seem that way until the second plot point of the Hero’s Journey narrative structure.
The second part of the Hero’s Journey is what Bronzite names the “call to adventure.” This is precisely what it sounds like–a call to action, to do something. The hero is told that he or she must act, for whatever reason. Whether that call be to defeat the Empire, as in Star Wars, or to take the ring to Mount Doom, in Lord of the Rings, the call is there. Here, Hamlet and Macbeth fall perfectly into the archetype.
Macbeth receives a proto-call to action. His encounter with the Weird Sisters, and their prophecy that he would take the throne, calls him to action. Of course he wants to take the throne! And of course, Macbeth is a little taken aback by this call. This leads directly to point number three in the Hero’s Journey, the “refusal of the call.” Macbeth reacts against the Sister’s prophecy:
“By Sinel’s death I know I am thane of Glamis/but how of Cawdor? The thane of Cawdor lives/a prosperous gentleman, and to be king/stands not within the prospect of belief.”
This is a clear refusal–the declaration that Macbeth being king does not even stand “within the prospect of belief.”
In Hamlet the same happens. Hamlet receives a call to action by a ghost who appears to be his father. The ghost tells him that he was murdered by King Claudius, and calls Hamlet to avenge his death. But Hamlet immediately second guesses himself. Is this ghost telling the truth? Is the ghost really his father? Was his father really murdered by Claudius? Bronzite says this about the “refusal of the call:”
“Although the Hero may be eager to accept the quest, at this stage he will have fears that need overcoming. Second thoughts or even deep personal doubts as to whether or not he is up to the challenge.”
This personifies precisely what Hamlet and Macbeth go through, but here we already see the twists coming on. The “call to action” is almost always a call to defeat evil. Both Hamlet and Macbeth are called to do dark things–Macbeth to do an outright wicked thing. Both seem to be stunned by the violence, perhaps physical violence and perhaps simply emotional violence, required by their calls. And so they hold back, thus falling into the structure perfectly.