The Concepts of Honour and Revenge in Beowulf and Hamlet

Term Paper, 2011

13 Pages, Grade: 2.7



1. Introduction

2. The Sources

3. Beowulf- The Theme

4. Beowulf- The Hero

5. Hamlet- The Theme

6. Hamlet- The Hero?

7. Conclusion



"Beowulf" and "Hamlet" are probably two of the best-known works in British literature. Both deal with themes that are in many aspects interesting and fascinating to us modern human-beings. They are stories about royalty, heroism, honor, love, glory, hate and revenge. Ingredients that are even today essentially for every movie which is supposed to bring in money. But during the bygone ages "Beowulf“ and "Hamlet“ take place in, making money was not the only goal. The authors wanted to deliver certain messages to the audience.

In this work I will concentrate on the concepts of honor and revenge in both texts. What is considered as honorable? Which behaviour is typical for a coward? How important is revenge and how can it be achieved? And, most important, how does these concepts differ if you take a closer look on "Beowulf" and "Hamlet"? What are the differences between the ages?

To answer this questions it will be important to compare the main characters, as there are Beowulf and Hamlet. Both of them are confronted with situations in which decisions have to be made. Decisions on how to act, on how to react to different events and threats in their lives. By watching the characters, it should be possible to point out differences and similarities between them.

I suspect that there are quite a lot of differences, because "Hamlet" several hundred years younger than "Beowulf". Therefore some concepts (e.g. that of revenge) may have changed during the time.

At first I will do a critical assessment on the sources I used for this paper. I think this is very important, because over the years a lot of different varieties of both texts were published. The second step will be to analyse them in order to gather informa- tion about the plot as well as the characters and their behaviour. At that point I used also some secondary literature and essays which you can find in the bibliography at the end. By doing so it should be possible to draw a sufficient conclusion and to ans- wer the questions stated above.

2. The Sources

In this chapter I will take a look on the versions of "Beowulf" and "Hamlet" I used for this term paper. This is important because of the wide variety of versions that exist today.

"Beowulf", "the oldest of the great long poems written in English"1, is supposed to be written in the first half of the eighth century. Although the original author is un- known, the scientists believe that there was a single poet rather than many. It survi- ved as a manuscript from the tenth century. Unfortunately, these manuscript was damaged in a fire. As a result, some lines had been lost forever.2 It is interesting that "Beowulf" does not deal with the English people, but with Danes and old Germanic tribes. More than that, it is not a text written by Danes. It is am English poem about them.3 It is likely that the reason for that is the intense contact the English had with the Danes as they invaded the British Isles. For this work I used the text, written in modern English, that is printed in "The Norton Anthology English Literature, Volume I" from 2006.

"Hamlet" as we know it today was written by William Shakespeare in the 17th century. But he was not the first. The original story was written by the Dane Saxo Grammaticus in the 13th century. It included more elements than Shakespeare's ver- sion and was published in 1514.4 Therefore I assume that Shakespeare was inspi- red by Saxo Grammaticus to rewrite these story. More than that, the popularity of Saxos's text may have been another strong motivation for William Shakespeare.

As I wrote before, there are a lot of versions of the text today. I used the critical edition of Holger M. Klein from the "Reclam"-publishing company for this work. But let us now examine, after this short excursion into the history of literature, the characters who fascinated whole generations over the past centuries and even to-day: Beowulf and Hamlet.

3. Beowulf- The Theme

In the poem "Beowulf“ several themes do exist: the relationship between the king and retainers, the terms of kinship, gift giving and, most important for this work, re- venge and feud.5 In "Beowulf", there are many examples of feuds. One is mentioned in the victory-song after Beowulfs victory over Grendel. It is about Danish warriors who take revenge for a Frisian attack against their Danish guests.6 This song shows us that the concept of revenge is already an old tradition at that time. Some deeds cannot be counterbalanced only by money.7 Grendel attacks the meadhall without being exactly provoked. He is an evil creature, cursed by god.8 Anyway, by acting this way he began a feud with the humans. Beowulf kills Grendel, which should have settled the feud. But Grendel's mother wants to take revenge and kills Aeschere, a close friend to the king Hrothgar.9 This deed provokes the humans (in this case Beo- wulf) to take revenge again. The hero enters the home of the monster, kills her in an exausting fight and takes treasure and the head of Grendel with him.10 The third and last fight with a monster is with the dragon. This time, the monster is provoked first. A thief enters the hoard and steals a cup. The dragon takes revenge by attacking and destroying villages. Beowulf, now king, attacks the beast not only to take reven- ge but also to save his people from further attacks.11 In all these examples the ques- tion whether to take revenge or not never occurs. Why this is the case will be dis - cussed in the next chapter.

The difficultiy of the fights increases during the poem. Grendel is no match for Beowulf, his mother is more difficult to beat. The dragon is a real difficult fight. So difficult that it finally kills the hero, although Beowulf is able to kill the dragon first. This is also visible if we take a look on the weapons he uses. Against Grendel he fights with his bare hands, against Grendel's mother he needs two weapons, against the dragon he uses sword, armour and shield.12

4. Beowulf- The Hero

Beowulf is a complex character. As one could expect, he is described as a hero, "the mightiest man on earth, highborn and powerful"13. He is the descendent of a noble family and has available great physical and mental power. And he is a leader, the commander of a mighty warband and well-known in the northern countries.14 Beyond that, he is able to express his thoughts and deeds in his boasts. They show him as a "proud, highspirited, young man"15. More than that, he is humorous, optimistic and can take part in the feelings of others.16

This qualities become visible throughout the poem. Beowulf is clearly a man who acts without hesitation. He boards his ship as soon as he hears of the problems of Hrothgar. He decides to fight Grendel's mother as soon as he hears of the horrible murder of Aeschere. And he rides out to fight the dragon as soon as he hears of the attacks on the peasants and on his own home.17 But he does not see himself as in- vincible. On several occasions it becomes obvious that he is well aware of the possi- bility to die in battle. Before the fight against Grendel's mother he says that "living in this world means waiting for our end"18 and before his attack on the dragon he is sure that he will die: "[…] sensing his death. His fate hovered near, unknowable but certain"19. But although he is aware of death, he does not hesitate to risk his life. The author tells us one reason for this attidude:

"Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark."20


1 David, Alfred;Simpson, James (2006). cf. p. 29.

2 David, Alfred;Simpson, James (2006). cf. pp. 29/30.

3 Tolkien, J.R.R..p. 38.

4 Klein, Holger M. (1984). pp. 13/14.

5 Hill, John M. (1997). p. 258.

6 "Beowulf". l. 1070-1158.

7 Hill, John M. (1997). p. 266.

8 "Beowulf". l. 86 ff.

9 "Beowulf". l. 662-835; l. 1251-1298.

10 "Beowulf". l. 1383-1650.

11 "Beowulf". l. 2200-2705.

12 Orchard, Andy (1995). p. 28-29.

13 "Beowulf". cf. l. 197-198.

14 "Beowulf". l. 198 ff.

15 Tolkien, J.R.R.. cf. p. 94.

16 Clark, George (1997). p. 278, 282.

17 "Beowulf". l. 199-201; 1384-1391; 2336.

18 "Beowulf". cf. l. 1386-1387.

19 "Beowulf". cf. l. 2420-2421.

20 "Beowulf". cf. l. 1387-1389.

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The Concepts of Honour and Revenge in Beowulf and Hamlet
Technical University of Braunschweig  (Englisches Seminar)
Survey Course: British Literature I
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concepts, honour, revenge, beowulf, hamlet
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Daniel Ossenkop (Author), 2011, The Concepts of Honour and Revenge in Beowulf and Hamlet, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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