Literature allows us to travel without having to actually leave our home, we’re able to relate to a novel, play or poem from the edge of our bed, or the palm of hands. Whether the story be the base of a society, usually mirroring the society in which the author lived, in order to make this relatable to the reader, the author will add in trends that were currently happening in society, in addition, the author will focus on adding identity. Identity in literature that is the core of the story, because of the characters. Identity, as defined by the Cambridge English dictionary, is “who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others”. Characters are specially developed to be the personalities of represented identity, such as religion, power, gender. Literature, whether it is fiction or non-fiction, is filled of important components for the best experience for the reader, Identity construction in literature is one of strongest foundations in the story, because a writer must always create different identities in order to achieve the goal of creating interesting characters. We see this form of identity construction with writers like William Shakespeare in his play “Hamlet” and Seamus Heany’s “Beowulf” because though their main character’s identities both rely on self-conception and in respects to how the female characters are represented within the heavily patriarchal society of the Elizabethans and Victorians.
In Beowulf, Seamus Heany presents the main heroic character, Beowulf, a Scandinavian prince through identifying his family ancestry was and how vital it was. Family lines and ancestry was a proper matter on one’s identity during the medieval times in which Beowulf lived. This concept is explored throughout the poem and it is clear that characters cannot be introduced without disclosing their family line, and since Beowulf does also come from a family line of royalty, the reader also gets an understanding of Beowulf’s amount of respect given to him by his society and its members. Thus, Heaney discusses who his characters are, where they each came from, he talks about their patriarchal history focusing on the hero only being a male position, shunning women from ever taking a heroic spot. Instead, he makes a woman, Grendal’s mother, quite the opposite of a heroic act.
Grendel’s mother is a character looked over carelessly by readers because she was not given enough significance, until now, where feminism is increasing while searching through woman characters in literature. Beowulf being one of the oldest poems in literature, some authors and scholars have found some reasons of how significant her characters is. A woman character being another hero to fight shows her strength, loyalty, self-courage and other personality traits that carry on from within to reveal her identity. “The character of Grendel’s mother, as well, has acquired a new significance. In the overall scheme of the poem, she is primarily another monster for the hero to fight. Under the influence of the feminist theories, however, she has been analyzed as an example of a strong and autonomous woman or as a feminine archetype on the mythical level.” While the poem Beowulf predominantly focuses on the heroic males and what they accomplish, females characters do contribute to the poem as a whole. The female characters help with the structure and the story, and how it unfolds.
Unlike Heaney, Shakespeare bases his literary identities in his famous controversial play Hamlet by addressing problems England was facing at the in through his characters. Shakespeare lets us into the seventeenth century by introducing the society he lived in at the time and addressing problems England was facing, like female sovereignty and royal succession. The two main female characters are Ophelia and Gertrude. The social norms of the Elizabethan era was portrayed more through Ophelia’s character than Gertrude. Ophelia heavily identified herself with the men involved in her life, like her father, brother and the fact that she follows Hamlet to feel love. In the play, Ophelia often asks her father for advice, often referring to him as “lord”, showing the full extent of her regards towards her father. The repeated use of lord, for example in in act three, Ophelia speaks in response to her father “I shall obey, my lord”, Ophelia also helps emphasize the patriarchy side of the play by seeking guidance through her brother. Ophelia follows societies norms in such a way that she has been seen to fit the “embodiment of cherished femininity”. By Ophelia acting the normal submissive role, she identifies herself, where she stands and her obedience in society. While more modern audiences today would see Ophelia’s behavior quite different from today’s changes in feminism, her attitude during the elizabthan era with found completely normal and would be seen as a womans true identity in its entirely and what society expected.
If we would compare both Hamlet and Beowulf, we would see similar facts in reasons found that both characters are eventually faced with deadly challenges that they somehow overcome, in the most heroic aspects that fit their societies. Also, they both seek vengeance and while they lived in different societies, vengeance is a normal revenge for both kings during their ruling of their society, both suffered consequences that should the loyal parts of their identity. For both Hamlet and Beowulf, both introduced significant identity of their own selves and shared similar symbols and motifs that were significant during their ruling of the throne and their present time society. The swords were both symbols in their stories, and the identity to the power they held. In Hamlet, the sword represented a cross, also it was said to be a representation of higher power. In Beowulf, the sword also represented a higher fate. Both men were noble, and their nobility both had to do with their family and gaining nobility for themselves, too. All of this represented a part of their society, bringing it to life for the reader, and giving the reader of understanding the meaning of some of the possessions and motivation they had.
Literature helps signify and recognize the troubles, yet happiness experienced in the authors society in which they lived in, but making it relatable to today’s modern society. Whether it be culture related, love and relationship, label’s in society, self-growth, Literature continues to rewrite history through the experiences of different times of society and lifestyles all over the world. We get a glimpse of the world from words in the palms of our hands. What we take form it will be passed on, whether it be good or bad, the point is it is being talked about, and that’s a purpose in itself. New ideas that could bring light to social tragedies occurring and changes happening. this can be taken positively or negatively by readers, giving the piece of literature a different meaning to everyone as not everyone will take away the same feelings from the literature as another person.
Petra Procházková, ‘Female Characters In Beowulf’, Masaryk University, (Brno, April 2007), 1-41 (p. p.6).
Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, ed. By Barbra A. Mowat and Paul Werstine (New York: Washington Square Press, July 2004).
Michael D. C. Drout. “Blood and Deeds: The Inheritance Systems in Beowulf.” Studies in Philology 104, no. 2 (2007): 199-226. https://muse.jhu.edu/ (accessed January 23, 2018).