Hesitant Vengeance: Hamlet and Harry Potter

I’m getting near the end of Prisoner of Azkaban in my re-read, which means I’m in the middle of the Marauders’ story and thinking about how tragic the Harry Potter books are from their point of view. I mean, all of them die young, one betrays his friends, another is framed for that betrayal and murder, and the fourth is ostracized from most of society for something that’s no fault of his own. There’s a little flicker of hope with James and Lily’s son and his destiny as the Chosen One, but none of them live long enough to see that happen. In preparation to write about that, I went back to look at those old posts I wrote last winter when I was reading Shakespeare. I was shocked to find that I’d never said anything about Hamlet, because I knew I’d written something comparing the themes of revenge and murder there to things that happen in the final few Harry Potter books. So, I dug this out of my unpublished drafts. Better late than never, right?

Revenge is not as central a theme in Harry Potter as in Hamlet, but the fact that it’s not is noteworthy. After all, the central character is a young man fighting his parents’ murderer, and many of the other heroes have suffered and lost loved ones at the hands of the villains. Neville’s parents, for instance, were tortured to insanity by the Lestranges and Barty Crouch Junior. In the Order of the Phoenix movie, when Neville first meets Bellatrix Lestrange, he responds to her mocking question about his parents by saying they are “about to be avenged”. However, vengeance is never his main motive, and he doesn’t kill any of the people involved in his parents’ torture. In fact, as far as we know, he doesn’t kill any people at all. Instead, his big moment of heroism consists of defying Voldemort in front of both assembled armies and destroying his last horcrux, making him mortal again. It’s the conclusion of an entirely different character arc, one about an awkward young boy learning to believe in himself and fighting for what he knows is right. Neville is, in a way, the opposite of Hamlet; instead of hesitating out of doubt, he hesitates due to low self-esteem, and when he grows past it it’s to find a greater purpose than revenge.

At the beginning of Half-Blood Prince, Draco Malfoy seems eager for revenge. While his father is not dead, he has been defeated and imprisoned, and the family has fallen out of Voldemort’s favor. Being recruited by Voldemort and tasked with murder must have seemed to him like a chance to get even, which he embraces without realizing what it entails. As the year goes on, he becomes more and more hesitant, until – facing a disarmed and helpless Dumbledore – he can’t bring himself to kill him. Like Neville, Draco is something of an inverted Hamlet; while Hamlet hesitates at first but later pursues revenge, Draco becomes hesitant later and never kills anyone. Rather than a tragic flaw, this is portrayed as evidence that he still has a conscience (however deeply-buried).

Neville and Draco are both foils to Harry, so it’s no surprise that similar themes appear in Harry’s own journey. Harry never hesitates to fight against Voldemort, and it’s impossible to say that revenge isn’t at least part of his motivation. In Half-Blood Prince, when Dumbledore asks him how he’d feel if he had never heard the prophecy, Harry replies, “I’d want [Voldemort] dead, and I’d want to be the one to do it”. However, when he faces Voldemort in Deathly Hallows, revenge is the least of his motives. His willingness to sacrifice his life shows that much. Rather, it’s his strong ability to love that drives him: both love for the people he’s lost to Voldemort and love for the people still living who he wants to protect. He would want to be the one to kill Voldemort even without the prophecy because he has seen the worst Voldemort is capable of and will do anything in his power to protect others from him. Any personal desire to see his parents’ murderer die is secondary to this overwhelming, self-sacrificing protectiveness and love.

There are a few moments, however, when he does seem to be motivated by revenge. After Dumbledore’s death, he chases after Snape, shouting out all kinds of curses, including one that he knows from past experience could be deadly. He implies several times in Deathly Hallows that he’d like to seek revenge against Snape, but of course, he never gets the chance. In Prisoner of Azkaban, he initially longs for revenge against Sirius, but later decides to prevent Peter Pettigrew’s murder, preferring to turn him in and clear Sirius’ name instead. He also attempts twice to use the cruciatus curse, which causes its victim immense pain. The first time, he’s unable to, even though Bellatrix has just killed one of his father figures; the second time, he uses it easily, and with much less provocation. In fact, Harry using an unforgivable curse when a stunning spell would have sufficed is one of the darkest moments of Deathly Hallows. These moments stand out because they are uncharacteristic for Harry. He is not usually hesitant, much less cowardly, but he is rarely cruel or vengeful.

In fact, Harry can be described as “reluctant” in one very important way: reluctant to kill. He fights in battles while trying not to cast any lethal spells, which is admittedly much easier when one is a wizard and can stun or disarm the enemy with magic. However, even the other heroes are surprised and dismayed. Once, after Harry refuses to kill a man he suspects to be under the imperius curse, Lupin tells him that “the time for disarming is past”. Harry nevertheless continues in a fairly consistent pattern throughout Deathly Hallows, stunning, disarming, and escaping from his enemies without doing them any lasting harm. The only life he takes is Voldemort’s.

I think it all comes down to what we as a society value. Today, we are less likely to celebrate those who take pursue revenge for its own sake, so we have to find new motivations for our heroes. They instead fight out of a sense of duty, or to protect others, or to defend themselves, all reasons for violence that are viewed more positively today than revenge. This is especially the case in a series like Harry Potter, which emphasizes the importance of love, allows for second chances, and describes murder as “an act against nature” which splits the soul and spoils any innocence a person might once have had. A Harry who acted mainly for revenge would have been much harder to make into a modern-day children’s hero and would not have fit in with the series’ view of the world, while a Hamlet who behaved like Harry Potter would have been out of place in a historical revenge tragedy, even one that often transcends the genre as Hamlet does.

Sorting Hat Saturday: Much Ado About Nothing

As I mentioned on my book blog, I spent Spring Break reading Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing … which naturally means I’ve picked out Hogwarts houses for the characters.

Beatrice: Ravenclaw/Gryffindor. Both witty and fearless, Beatrice could easily fit into either Gryffindor or Ravenclaw. On the one hand, she and Benedick spend most of the play exchanging witty insults. They’re the only ones who can keep up with each other, and that kind of verbal sparring requires a lot of intelligence. But on the other hand, she also shows a lot of courage, both in ignoring social norms for how a woman at the time was supposed to behave, and in standing up for her cousin.

Benedick: Ravenclaw/Gryffindor. He’s as much of a hyper-intelligent verbal warrior as Beatrice. While his true courage takes longer to show, it’s there. In fact, I’m leaning toward Gryffindor with him even more than with Beatrice. It would be so easy for him to side with Claudio, but he believes Beatrice and stands up for Hero, showing that he’s someone who will choose what’s right. “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”

Hero: Hufflepuff. In Shakespeare, it’s pretty typical for feisty, independent, intelligent heroines to have a foil character in a relative or friend who’s sweet and kind, but very ordinary by comparison. Rosalind and Celia. Hermia and Helena. Kate and Bianca. Beatrice and Hero. The second girl in those pairs is almost always a Hufflepuff.

Claudio: Slytherin. A Gryffindor would be outraged, but not so cruel or sneaky about it. A Ravenclaw would keep a clear head and think things through, and a Hufflepuff would be crushed, but would treat the other person fairly. Only a Slytherin could keep his silence until the wedding day and accuse his fiancée of cheating on him at the altar, in front of everyone. It’s not only a cruel and ruthless move, but one that requires careful planning and shows that he’s thinking about how to cause the most pain possible. If you can’t tell, I don’t forgive him.

Sorting Hat Sunday: Shakespeare

This is the last week of Shakespeare Sorting Hat Saturdays (or, Sundays. Sorry about that). Today, instead of doing all the characters from a particular play, I’m sorting a few characters from several plays.

Prospero (The Tempest): Slytherin. It would be easy to call him a Ravenclaw, because he’s basically the archetypal wise old sorcerer. However, he’s not just wise; he’s cunning. He uses his powers and his insights into the people around him to his own advantage and spends the play manipulating the other characters like puppets on strings. He’s not afraid to hold his power over others (Ariel, Caliban), or to keep his true agenda secret even from his daughter, the one person he seems to love most. In the end, his aims are good ones. He forgives his enemies and reconciles the two families. However, his methods are far more Slytherin than Ravenclaw.

King Henry V: Gryffindor/Slytherin. As easy as it would be to put Prospero in Ravenclaw, it would be even easier to make Henry a Gryffindor. And it’s true that he’s very brave. However, he knows how to speak with charisma and win people over, how to make ruthless decisions, and how to move men and armies around like pieces on a chess board. Above all, he craves power. I think he might choose Gryffindor, but there’s a Slytherin side to him.

Troilus & Cressida: Gryffindor & Slytherin. The tragedy of the play is that of an idealistic, passion-driven Gryffindor in love with a cunning, pragmatic Slytherin. He promises undying love and seems to think he can win the war and win her back, but she’s quick to move on. With no expectation that their story can end well, she accepts another man’s courtship. Their priorities are in two different places: she puts herself first and has no room for sentiment, while he remains idealistic until those ideals are crushed.

Rosalind (As You Like It): Gryffindor. Bold, daring, and fearless, Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s most resourceful and capable female characters. She dominates the play with her independence and refusal to give up. Even when her life is turned upside down, she picks up the pieces and heads off into the forest to start a new life of adventure, only her cousin and the court jester at her side.

Celia (As You Like It): Hufflepuff. With a more subdued personality than Rosalind, Celia is characterized by her fierce loyalty. When she’s forced to choose between staying in her father’s court and going into exile with Rosalind, she chooses to stand by her cousin, despite getting nothing for herself out of it. That’s a very Hufflepuff move.

The Taming of the Shrew: Slytherin. Yes, every single character. Katherina is a Slytherin. Petruchio is a Slytherin. Bianca, the sweet younger sister? That probably depends on your interpretation, but I see her as a Slytherin who sees how badly people react to Katherina’s “shrewish” disposition and consciously presents herself as the opposite.

Deadly Dysfunctional Families: King Lear and Harry Potter

I mentioned in my weekly sorting hat post that the siblings from King Lear remind me a lot of Sirius Black and his family. Well, once that occurred to me, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and there are a huge number of parallels – as well as a few obvious differences.

Edgar and Sirius

The eldest son of a nobleman, Edgar is forced to run away from home when his younger brother convinces their father he’s plotting against him. Like Sirius, he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit against a person he would never want to harm. And like Sirius, he’s forced to flee or face a horrible punishment. However, Sirius really did hate his parents, who were pretty awful people. It was his best friend – whose family treated him as their own son once he ran away from home – that he was accused of betraying. Edgar is also one of the few characters to survive the play, whereas Sirius is murdered by his cousin in Order of the Phoenix.

Edmund and Regulus

To be fair, Regulus Black was a better person than Edgar’s younger brother, Edmund. While he did join the Death Eaters, he quickly came to realize how evil Voldemort was and gave his life trying to stop him. Edmund, on the other hand, seems to repent somewhat as he’s dying but never redeems himself the way Regulus does. His decision to call off Cordelia’s execution is too little, too late. However, the rivalry and hatred between the two brothers and the contrast of a heroic older brother and a villainous (or at least morally gray) younger one is similar.

Bellatrix and Regan

Regan is devoted to two things: her own attempts to gain power, and the equally evil man she loves. These two things consume her and drive her down darker and darker paths. She is arguably the worse of the two “bad” daughters, although that’s more up for debate than Bellatrix being the worst out of her family. Regardless, they have a lot in common.

Narcissa and Goneril

Like Regan, Goneril treats her father poorly, forces him to dismiss many of his knights, and eventually joins with Edmund to go to war with him. However, she then poisons her sister and commits suicide, thus ensuring a victory (however hollow) for the heroes. Likewise, Narcissa Malfoy’s lie to Voldemort allowed Harry to conceal his survival and go on to win the battle. As with Regulus, there are more shades of gray in Harry Potter: Narcissa had become disillusioned with her Dark Lord, whereas Goneril turned on her sister out of simple jealousy. The differences are important, but the similarities are there.

Andromeda and Cordelia

Again, these two have as many differences as they do similarities. Cordelia remains loyal to her father and returns to try to save him, while Andromeda walks away from her family and never looks back, never speaking to any of them again except her similarly rebellious cousin Sirius. While Andromeda was disinherited for marrying someone the family didn’t approve of and going against their prejudice, Cordelia’s offense was merely answering a question honestly instead of offering false flattery. However, the idea of a daughter refusing to give up her own principles and suffering for it holds true for both.

I’m not saying the siblings from Harry Potter are exactly like the ones from King Lear. The differences between them are as significant as the similarities: the Harry Potter series has more room for moral ambiguity, is less forgiving of bad parents, and allows different characters to survive the story. The fact that the three sisters and two brothers are cousins, rather than from separate families, impacts the story as well. For example, if Regan had tried to kill Edgar, it would not mean much; when Bellatrix kills Sirius, it’s even worse because they are cousins and likely grew up together.

The fact that Harry Potter is not a tragedy may also have an effect. However, I would argue that this particular family’s story is a tragedy even if the series as a whole isn’t. Sirius’ and Regulus’ stories certainly are, and there are few characters I feel more pity for than Andromeda, who lost her family as a young woman, her only remaining cousin twice after that, and the family she made for herself in a war against the family she was born into.

The families aren’t identical, but the similarities are astonishing: two brothers, three sisters, two good, three evil, the good ones shunned by their parents in favor of the bad ones, all of them pitted against each other in a war that doesn’t benefit any of them in the end. There are so many parallels there that I can hardly believe it was a coincidence, especially knowing that J.K. Rowling has cited another Shakespearean tragedy – Macbeth – as having influenced the series.

Sorting Hat Monday: King Lear

Sorry about the lack of Sorting Hat Saturday … or Sunday. I spent my weekend dealing with a migraine, which I assure you was far less enjoyable than blog writing would have been. Anyway, better late than never. King Lear is, in my opinion, one of Shakespeare’s best plays, so I hope I did it justice.

Cordelia: Gryffindor/Hufflepuff. Hufflepuff would be the obvious choice: she is extremely loyal to her father even after being disinherited, and she’s nothing if not forgiving. She’s also someone with principles and integrity in a world full of deceit and betrayal. However, there’s also a great deal of courage in her refusal to back down from those principles. Refusing to offer the king false flattery requires courage, and raising an army to defend her father certainly does. If not for that combination of courage and loyalty, she could have stayed happily in France with her husband and left King Lear to lie in the bed he made. The only question is which one is stronger, or which one she values more, and I don’t have an answer to that.

Goneril and Regan: Slytherin. King Lear’s two eldest daughters could not be more different from their youngest sister. They are the worst kind of Slytherins: the kind that care for no one but themselves and take what they want at any cost, even by harming those they should care for.

Edmund: Slytherin. I take back what I just said; Goneril and Regan have a rival for the title of “worst”. I’m not sure there’s any explanation needed for why a man who manipulates his father into believing his firstborn wants to kill him in order to become his heir would be a Slytherin.

Edgar: Gryffindor. Edgar is not very smart, falling easily for his brother’s tricks, but you could argue that wanting to believe the best of people is a Gryffindor trait. He’s certainly courageous, not to mention a natural leader, since it’s his taking up the mantle of kingship that offers a flicker of hope at the end.

The Fool: Ravenclaw. The fool from King Lear is known for not being very funny, but he’s certainly insightful. As one of the few people to see through all the layers of falsehood and understand who the other characters truly are, he never ceases to remind King Lear that he himself (the king) is the real fool, and that his youngest daughter, who he banished, was more worthy of his love and trust than her sisters. It would take a Ravenclaw to come up with the kind of wisdom he frequently offers.

King Lear himself is a hatstall. He’s not steadfast or loyal as a Hufflepuff would be, and he may see himself as a wise old king, but his lack of real wisdom disqualifies him from Ravenclaw. He falls for others’ cunning plans too easily to be a Slytherin. If I had to choose, I might put him in Gryffindor by process of elimination. While he never shows himself to be especially brave, he’s certainly reckless and impulsive.

On a very different note, is anyone else reminded of Sirius Black’s family? We’ve got an elder brother, a heroic character framed for a crime and forced to flee; an evil younger brother who repents in his final moments; two evil sisters, one of whom betrays the other in the end; and a good sister is disinherited for refusing to put up with the family’s nonsense. That’s an awfully big coincidence …

Sorting Hat Saturday: Romeo and Juliet

You can hardly do Shakespeare without Romeo and Juliet. I’ll freely admit that it’s not my favorite one of his plays, but it’s iconic, and it wouldn’t feel right to leave it out. Besides, the characters have such distinct personalities, making them fun and easy to sort.

Romeo: Ravenclaw. Romeo is quiet and contemplative where his friend Mercutio is brash and impulsive, distracted and prone to flights of fancy where his cousin Benvolio is down-to-earth. It’s Juliet who makes the plans, while Romeo contents himself with waxing poetic about his love for her. He’s certainly not a books-and-cleverness kind of Ravenclaw, but he fits there better than any other house.

Juliet: Slytherin. Not one to sit back and wait for things to happen to her, Juliet is the one who engineers both the lovers’ secret wedding and their escape attempt. She knows what she wants – to be with Romeo – and she sets about achieving it, resorting to extreme methods and complicated schemes. Even if it doesn’t end well, she’s still one of the smartest, most capable, and sneakiest characters.

Benvolio: Hufflepuff. Despite being a Montague himself, Benvolio cares little about the feud and a great deal about the people affected by it. He’s the one cautious and levelheaded character in a play dominated by rash decisions, and his desire for peace shows a concern for others that would make him a good fit for Hufflepuff.

Mercutio: Gryffindor. Romeo’s friend is the impulsive one of the group, and he’s the cause of most of their most reckless moments, from showing up uninvited at the Capulets’ ball to getting into a deadly fight with Tybalt. He says what he thinks, does what he wants, and doesn’t really care about the consequences.

Tybalt: Slytherin. I might have finally found a good reason why Crabbe and Goyle belong in Slytherin, because much like them, Tybalt is something of a bully, eager to start fights. Many Slytherin characters cling to traditions without questioning their value, such as by trying to exclude muggle-borns from the wizarding world. In the same way, Tybalt takes the feud more seriously than any other character. And he’s cunning about it. When Romeo refuses to fight him, he kills Romeo’s friend Mercutio to provoke him. When he wants something, there’s nothing he won’t do to get it.

Sorting Hat Saturday: Twelfth Night

This past Thursday was Twelfth Night, the last of the twelve days of Christmas (ie. the twelve days from Christmas to Epiphany). It’s not a big deal now, but in Shakespeare’s day, it was a day of widespread revelry and celebration, and his play Twelfth Night is thought to have been written for the holiday. So, as I’m sure you’ve figured out, that’s what I’m doing for this week’s Sorting Hat Saturday.

Viola: Ravenclaw. When she finds herself stranded in a foreign land, having lost everything, Viola does not hesitate to come up with a clever but unorthodox solution: disguising herself as a man and seeking employment at Count Orsino’s court. Throughout the play, she shows herself to be intelligent, capable, and creative, even in the face of confusion, mistaken identity, and the absurdities of Shakespearean comedy. I’m almost tempted to put her in Slytherin, but she doesn’t have any well-defined goals or ambitions; she’s just reacting creatively to her circumstances. If there’s a fine line between Slytherin cunning and Ravenclaw ingenuity, I feel she falls on the Ravenclaw side of it.

Olivia: Slytherin. Olivia manipulates circumstance and emotion to her benefit. Her dramatic show of mourning is too overdone to all be genuine, especially since she uses it as an excuse to avoid Orsino and drops it as soon as she finds someone she does want to marry. She’s skilled at using every tool at her disposal to get what she wants, whether that’s to get rid of Orsino, to see the disguised Viola again, or to convince Sebastian to marry her. She is not especially ambitious, but she uses her wits to get what she wants, and that’s a very Slytherin quality.

Orsino: Gryffindor. Orsino has no subtlety and is not used to being told no. Despite being Viola’s love interest and the play’s lead male role, he actually has a lot of Gryffindor flaws. On a more positive note, his openness about his feelings could be described as a sort of emotional bravery, and he’s certainly not shy about making his opinions or desires known. One could argue that his refusal to back down from what he wants could make him a Slytherin, but even there, he doesn’t use subtlety and cunning to pursue them, just stubborn persistence. On the other hand, Hufflepuff doesn’t fit because his persistence is not a matter of work ethic or loyalty, just refusal to give up on something he wants. There’s no indication he would be a Ravenclaw.

Sebastian: Gryffindor. Sebastian is a flat character compared with his twin sister, but they are similar in many ways. Even their storylines mirror each other; they both believe the other to be dead, find a way to move forward in the land where they’re stranded, eventually find happiness, and are reunited at the end. We do not see him engaging in intellectual pursuits or put in a situation where he has to rely on wit and creativity, so it’s hard to say whether he could be a Ravenclaw or not. There’s nothing particularly cunning or ambitious about his actions, and while I thought about making him a Process of Elimination Hufflepuff, I think Gryffindor might fit him better. There’s bravery in choosing to pick up the pieces and keep going when something horrible happens.

Malvolio: Hufflepuff. You might assume otherwise, but then, this is hardly the first time I’ve sorted an unpleasant character into Hufflepuff. Malvolio is ambitious (seeking to marry above his station), but certainly not cunning. In fact, he’s pretty gullible. A Slytherin (or a Ravenclaw) would have known better than to fall for Maria’s prank. Common sense tells you that a woman who’s in mourning would not want her steward running around in a ridiculous costume and grinning constantly. If anything, Malvolio embodies Hufflepuff values taken to an unhealthy extreme: blind loyalty and obedience at the expense of common sense; hard work taken to the extreme of looking down on anything enjoyable; and “justice” warped into a haughty, judgmental attitude.

Maria: Gryffindor/Slytherin. There’s a fine line between Gryffindor and Slytherin, and while Harry himself could have gone either way, there’s an entirely different kind of character that blurs the lines between the two houses: the mischief-maker. On the one hand, Maria is reminiscent of the Weasley twins and the Marauders: someone who plays an elaborate prank on an unpleasant man who probably deserved it. There’s an element of bravery in choosing to oppose Malvolio, as well, since he’s the steward of the household where she works and in a position of authority over her. However, she’s the brains of the operation; while the other characters enjoy the mischief, she’s the one who comes up with the idea and organizes the details. She’s nothing if not cunning. Twelfth Night is basically the story of three clever women and the men who get caught up in their schemes.

Feste: Ravenclaw. The so-called “fools” are often the wisest characters in Shakespeare, and Feste is no exception. He’s not book-smart, but he’s intelligent and insightful. Witty, perceptive, and observant, he always seems to be more aware than any of the other characters of what’s really going on around him (especially if you buy the interpretation that he knows Viola’s a woman all along).