Beowulf and Hamlet
One of the major characteristics that Beowulf and Hamlet share is the fact that they both rid Denmark of a treacherous monster who poses a serious threat to the land. Beowulf uses his warrior-like skills to fight and conquer a physical monster who literally haunts the swamps outside the state and plagues it with murderous acts.
Hamlet’s monster is also one who commits murderous acts, though this is in the form of his uncle Claudius who kills the King (Hamlet’s father) and usurps the Danish throne. The two men, Hamlet and Beowulf, are thrown into these battles as youth, and both take on the challenge willingly. In fact, Beowulf travels from Geatland specifically to meet the challenge of fighting Grendel. Hamlet too takes it upon himself to kill Claudius as soon as he finds out that this man has been the agent of his father’s death.
Another characteristic that both Hamlet and Beowulf share is their death and the method in which this occurs. Both are defeated in their final efforts at ridding their homelands of the evil that had infiltrated. In fact, both die though their efforts are successful. Beowulf dies at the hand of the final monster (the dragon) whom he succeeds in slaying, but who also deals Beowulf a deathly blow that eventually kills him.
Hamlet also has a similar experience in that, while he is able to slay Claudius by the end of the play, he is caught with a poisoned sword and eventually expires after all his enemies have died. The two characters die by peripheral (yet fatal) blows given them during the melee. Both show bravery by continuing to fight even while they are mortally wounded. Eventually, both succumb to the serious wounds they have acquired, yet they die in the victory of knowing they have defeated their enemies.
Beowulf and Hamlet also differ in many ways, one of which is the character that they show throughout the play. While Beowulf displays a warrior-like character, Hamlet shows himself to be fearful and awkward in acting out the desires of his heart. Beowulf is eager to come to the aid of the King of Denmark, and he pauses only to partake of the feast given in his honor before he sets out to kill Grendel. When he encounters the monster, he loses no time in indecision but immediately performs the actions necessary to kill the beast. In fact, Beowulf fights three ferocious beasts throughout the story with the same vivacity and fierceness.
Hamlet differs from Beowulf in his character, and he displays the tendency to employ a much more subdued and stealthy course of action. Though he too determines to defend the honor of Denmark’s (former) king by killing his murderer, he demonstrates a greater portion of dalliance and indecision than does Beowulf.
When he gets his first chance to kill Claudius, his idle thoughts concerning the condition of Claudius’ heart (while praying) leads him to forfeit that chance and allow Claudius to live. He fails in his pursuits far more than Beowulf does too, because in his second attempt to kill Claudius, he ends up killing Polonius instead. In these ways, Hamlet shows himself to lack self confidence in a manner that is vastly different from Beowulf the ready warrior.
Beowulf and Hamlet show differences in the tenure of their lives and the fulfilment of their royal destinies. Hamlet, unlike Beowulf, fails to ascend to the throne to which he is heir. He dies before the throne falls vacant and also fails to prove King Claudius a usurper in any effort to gain his rightful place on the throne.
Beowulf, on the other hand, is able to spend fifty years as ruler of his Geat kingdom. In addition to this, Beowulf differs from Hamlet in his ability to live out his live and to attain old age. He is able to demonstrate his strength as a ruler for many years and to gain the respect of his subjects. Hamlet, who dies young, is unable to do any of this.
He is never able to command the subjects over whom he was destined to rule precisely because of the fact that his life ends tragically in his youth. Therefore, while both men perform in the role of princes during their youth, Beowulf becomes promoted to the level of king while Hamlet dies with all his potential.
Beowulf. The Harvard Classics, Volume 49. Frances B. Grummere (Trans.) 1910. P.F. Collier & Son, 1993.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. London: Penguin, 1994.