From Hamlet to Hunger Games

August 30, 201713 min read

Photo Content Credit: Rojal, darsh.kaur, and Larisa Koshkina

Societies construct heroes that represent and embody the ideals of those who create them and read about them. There is a stark contrast between a hero at the time of Beowulf and Hamlet’s creation and heroes that are created in modern times. Current literature, movies, and television portray a different kind of hero than the one created in 1000 AD to 1600 AD. A hero is defined as someone who is “admired for achievements and noble qualities”,” shows great courage”, and in historical texts such as Beowulf and Hamlet is a “legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability” or an “illustrious warrior” (Merriam-Webster).  Despite the popular belief that the time for heroes has passed away, based on the needs of society, today’s heroes still exist and have evolved into something new.

Heroes in historical literature such as Beowulf, written in 1000 AD, and Hamlet, written in 1599 AD, portray varied types of heroes. Beowulf is an epic hero and therefore portrays the qualities commonly associated and recognized as those of an epic character. Beowulf is significant and glorified, goes on a quest, and has superior superhuman strength, intelligence, and courage. He also portrays ethical behaviour, risks death for the glory and greater good of society, and is a strong and responsible leader. Beowulf’s performing of brave tasks such as battling a monster, the monster’s mother, and a dragon, portray the ideals of Anglo-Saxon society. Hamlet, written by William Shakespeare, is the representation of a tragic hero. Hamlet is of noble birth, and has a noble disposition. He also follows the tragic hero timeline by suffering through a reversal of fortune, recognizing the consequences of his actions, and has a hamartia (or tragic flaw) that inevitably leads to his downfall. This ends with the audiences witnessing the actions of the tragic hero and feeling sympathy, pity, and potentially fear as a result (catharsis). Similar to historical literature, modern literature also has heroes who reflect elements of today’s society. An example of a modern hero in today’s literature is Katniss Everdeen created by author Suzanne Collins. Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist of The Hunger Games trilogy published in 2008. Katniss reflects American society’s ideals of courage, bravery, and determination. She caringly volunteers to compete in a massive war fest in place of her younger sister Primrose, which is a prime example of her displaying selflessness. Selflessness alongside moral decision making and intelligence make Katniss Everdeen a prime example of the modern hero.

To begin with, today’s hero has clearly evolved into something new because the qualifications for becoming one have shifted. Prior to modern times, the ideal hero was often portrayed as a strong, brawny man who could dominate his opponent or obstacle by brute force. Regarding Beowulf it was said “no shielding elder would believe there was any power or person on earth capable of wrecking their horn-rigged hall unless the burning embrace of a fire engulf it in flame” (Beowulf 774.781). His strength was depicted as being so unbelievable that it could possibly be superhuman. His fight with Grendel created more destruction than people believed was humanly possible. Societies no longer value manliness and brute force so much and therefore, the modern hero does not reflect this attribute. Katniss Everdeen is regarded as one of the most talented archers in literature, and is a small, strong woman. Katniss states, “The bow and arrow is my weapon. But I’ve spent a fair amount of time throwing knives as well” (Collins 48). This serves in contrast to the big, brawny figures written in earlier literature. Although strength is still valued in modern society, the concept has evolved from prior depictions of strong men defeating monsters with their bare hands into females throwing knives and killing opponents with bows and arrows. Weaponry has become more advanced to reflect modern emphasis on technology, and the one wielding the weapon has changed due to attempts at gender equality and advances in modern society.

Additionally, today’s hero has transformed because of the globalization of the content in which they are featured. At the time of which Hamlet was created, the means of producing most plays and distributing the story was all done in the United Kingdom, and most famously the Globe Theatre in London. The audience to which the story pertained to was limited. Methods of redistribution of content were limited and therefore the story was written just so English viewers and readers could identify with Hamlet and other characters. This can be easily seen by the language Hamlet was written in. For example the phrase, “that flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep; To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” (Hamlet 58.90), is written to be understood and read or viewed by English people, therefore, the text would not make much sense to someone who lived somewhere else. This differs from how modern heroes are written because historical literature heroes were not internationally known, yet modern heroes are. Modern heroes are written to be read and viewed by large audiences internationally. This means that their character must be identifiable and relatable to a larger population of people and therefore the way in which the character is made is different. For example, when Katniss states, “When I was younger, I scared my mother to death, the things I would blurt out about District 12, about the people who rule our country, Panem, from the far-off city called the Capitol. Eventually I understood this would only lead us to more trouble” (Collins 6), readers can identify with her childlike behavior and saying things you aren’t supposed to accidentally. In addition, the language used to portray this moment is easily understandable by a wide audience. The Hunger Games are written in the third most commonly spoken language in the world and primarily uses simple phrases and words to make the text easier to read by a larger audience. Today’s heroes have evolved into something new because the way in which they are written are made to appeal to a larger audience.

Moreover, based on society’s needs, the modern hero reflects the issues that are the most relevant today. Beowulf and Hamlet reflect the ideas of a kingdom. Hamlet strives throughout the book to kill his uncle Claudius, who has married his mother Gertrude following his father’s (King Hamlet’s) death. The entire family is royalty and the story is centered around the outline of a royal family. For instance, the woman who loves Hamlet, Ophelia, cannot love him because they are of different class and societal ranks. In Beowulf, set in Scandinavia, Beowulf who is a hero of the Geats fights a monster in order to aid Hrothgar, the king of the Danes. The monarchical governmental system was relevant to the times in which the stories were written. This theme, however, would not suit modern heroes because the majority of countries around the world practice democracy. Katniss Everdeen, created in the United States, lives inside an American-esque society to reflect the society in which her character was created. Her reflection of the original United States, called Panem, has thirteen districts, each specializing in a variant of modern industry or technology. This is very similar to the concept of states and they all fall under one central democracy called the Capitol. The Capitol is a representation of Washington, DC and is headed by President Snow, who falls in line with American politicial ideals and presidents.

Contrastingly, the opinion is held by many that the time for heroes has passed. This is a false statement. Heroes have become increasingly prevalent in literature, films, and television. Films have seen the rise of superheroes such as Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America in the box office hit The Avengers. Literature has become bombarded with relatable heroes such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and aforementioned Katniss Everdeen. Television is also home to a wide array of heroes from Doctor Who to Dexter Morgan to Walter White. These heroes serve as evidence of the rise of heroes in modern content. Additionally, the belief is held by several today that these heroes have not evolved from the traditional heroes written into historical literature such as Hamlet and Beowulf. “Often heroes are seen as the harbingers of crucial changes in societies. While heroes may have a profound impact on society, the converse is also possible: that society alters and shapes heroes in turn” (Kid Spirit). Because our society has changed, the heroes that serve as our representatives have also been altered. Heroes reflect the society which creates them, therefore the assumption that heroes have been unaltered is to say that our societies have not changed since the creation of heroes in historical literature, which is false.

To conclude, based on the needs of society today, the modern hero has evolved into something new. This can be easily seen from the transition from old heroes such as Beowulf and Hamlet to modern heroes such as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. The qualifications for being a hero have shifted, resulting in a different kind of hero. The globalization of content in which heroes are featured has changed the way heroes are written about and their attributes entirely as a result. Today’s heroes represent current issues and reflect on the society’s government and atmosphere in which they are created. Although it is commonly believed that today’s heroes are not as prevalent and have not evolved from the early creation of heroes in classical literature, the changes within society are clearly reflected by today’s heroes which are more abundant than ever before.

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Casey Craiger

Casey, who is commonly referred to by her last name Craiger, is an eighteen year old journalist and filmmaker from Danville, Kentucky. Contact: [email protected] Twitter: @craigercasey Instagram: @craigercasey Snapchat: @caseycraiger Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/caseycraiger