The places of Homer and Shakespeare in the history of the world can no longer be debated. Their collection of written works has echoed through the times to influence literary movements until the present day. Enshrined in their immortal pages are larger-than-life characters that have made countless generations weep, laugh and all the possible emotions in between. Both writers also have a distinctive idea of what makes a hero and in many senses, provide a glimpse of what virtues were considered masculine during their period. Odyssey, the enduring hero of Homer in the Odyssey, and Prospero, the wily dethroned Duke of Milan in Shakespeare’s Tempest are the subjects of this essay.
Although the writings of Homer are not considered historical treatises, they provide a glimpse of what ancient Greece was like, along with the virtues that were the most valued. Historian Perry (1989) explains that it would appear from Homer’s writing that to him, a hero was more than just a brave warrior. On top of a hero’s physical superiority was a combination of courage and intelligence.(p.66) Developing these characteristics became the ideal goal of Greek education and Homer supports this by creating characters that are almost demi-godlike.
Odysseus’ depiction is true to form with the above-mentioned Greek ideals. Although he is hardly distinguishable, in terms of physique or lineage, from the rest of the men in the story, he is portrayed as being more powerful, more beautiful, more courageous, and more clever than the ordinary men of his day. The tales of his deeds and expeditions cut awe-inspiring and breathtaking stories. (Klapp, 1963, p.254) All the books of the Odyssey are replete with instances where one can glean the superiority of Odysseus; this paper will use excerpts of the text itself as springboards to discuss the characterization of Odysseus.
Odysseus physical strength is one trait that sets him apart from the rest of the men. Even in the Iliad, the universally accepted prequel of the Odyssey, Odysseus skill in battle was worthy to mention with the names of Achilles and Hector. This has spilled over unto the pages of the Odyssey. In Book VIII, he is persuaded to join in contests of physical skill even though his identity was not yet known. There is a passage of the text wherein he is persuaded to fight merely because he showed the air of someone possessing physical superiority:
“Let us ask the stranger whether he excels in any of these sports; he seems very powerfully built; his thighs, claves, hands, and neck are of prodigious strength…”(Odyssey, Book VIII)
Despite Odysseus’ proven physical strength, skill and superiority, this is not what he is better known for. The name Odysseus speaks now of a magnificent wit and mind that fooled enemies, entire armies and demi-gods, a trait that makes his expeditions all the more interesting. This clever mind was already displayed in the Iliad as he is the main author of the Trojan Horse scam that brought them victory. In the Odyssey, his cleverness is best portrayed through an encounter with a Cyclops, Polyphemus. He and his men, in a period of rest, got in the dangerous path of one of those feared creatures. In order to save his own life and those of his men, Odysseus blinded the Cyclops. Fearing retribution should his identity be learned (a great danger considering that other Cyclops were in the proximity), he devised an ingenious way to take the scent off his trail. He gave his name as No-Man. When Polyphemus started wailing in pain, his cry for help earned him only jeers from his group, as Odysseus relates in his own voice:
‘What ails you, Polyphemus,’ said they, ‘that you make such a noise, breaking the stillness of the night…But Polyphemus shouted to them from inside the cave, ‘Noman is killing me by fraud! Noman is killing me by force!’ ‘Then,’ said they, ‘if no man is attacking you, you must be ill; when Jove makes people ill, there is no help for it, and you had better pray to your father Neptune.’ Then they went away, and I laughed inwardly at the success of my clever stratagem…” (Odyssey, Book IX)
While the positive qualities of Odyssey may be many, he has one negative trait that was perhaps the proximate cause of the delay in his return journey him. It was his arrogance and insatiable need for his name to be etched in the minds of people that might be considered a downfall. This was a literary way in which Homer weaved a moral lesson. Homer is no stranger to this characterization. In the Iliad, Achilles is a demi-god that is invincible save for his one physical weakness in his heel. It was Achilles’ need for immortal glory that prompted him to unwisely go to war despite the prophesy of his death. Although Odysseus’ arrogance did not lead to the same downfall as Achilles’ did, it delayed his much awaited return journey. Although he triumphed over the Cyclops, it would seem that the one-eyed creature got the proverbial last laugh. Not being able to hold his pride at bay, Odysseus shouted real name once out of danger’s way. He said this with a sneering pride, wanting the Cyclops to know exactly who it was who bested him. Poseidon, god of the sea, and the father of Polyphemus learned of this trickery and avenged his son by ensuring that Odysseus was lost at sea for years.
In comparison to the Homeric heroes, characterized by bravery and a dangerous lack of hubris, Shakespeare’s heroes are more romantic at core. The character of Prospero from Shakespeare’s last work, the Tempest, does however share one characteristic with the warrior Odysseus; he too is a wily and wise character. He possesses worldly knowledge and is insatiable in his thirst for more (as can be seen in his reverent treatment of books); immortal are his words: library was dukedom large enough. If Odysseus had the strength of his sword, Prospero had the strength of magic. As a quasi-magician, Prospero could command the spirits on his island to do his bidding, such was his power. Prospero’s ability to conjure storms, objects and disguises is proof positive of his role as controller of the elements, orchestrator of events and manipulator of human behaviour. (Brook, 2004, p.12)
His character, although initially painted to be gruff, rough and callous, assumes a softer palate as the play goes on. The Tempest’s romantic sub-plot is usually assumed to be the ‘tested’ love of Miranda and Ferdinand. However, I am of the opinion that in the play there was a portrayal of a more enduring love. The romantic side of Shakespeare’s quill can be felt in the love Prospero has for his daughter and co-castaway, Miranda:
Mir. Alack, what trouble
Was I then to you!
Pros. O, a cherubin
Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile,
Infused with a fortitude from heaven,
When I have deck’d the sea with drops full salt,
Under my burthen groan’d; which rais’d in me
An undergoing stomach, to bear up
Against what should ensue. (The Tempest, Act I, Scene 2)
Thus, the wise old character of Prospero is cast in a different light when one considers his sole reason for being, his beautiful daughter. Moreover, his wisdom also softens his character. Instead of wanting pure, unabashed and unrelenting vengeance on his brother, along with the co-conspirators, he finds forgiveness in his heart. In Act V, Scene I, Prospero wisely and magnanimously proclaims that “the rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” Prospero truly makes an enigmatic and often-times unfathomable character. The love for his daughter makes him appear vulnerably mortal at times. However, when he is caught up in conjuring those which cannot be normally conjured by man, he appears godlike. When he pettily ponders on his little schemes to get his way, he then also appears like an ordinary and meddlesome human. However, taking the play as a whole, Shakespeare used the character of Prospero to comically comment on some of the then society’s ills: obsession with wealth, vengeance and power-grabbing elites. The character of Prospero shows a different kind of man, and perhaps this is where Shakespeare tries to paint the ideal, virtuous man: a mixture of mortality and immortality; a man grounded by love but whose goals are held aloft.
Both landmark authors, Homer and Shakespeare have used the written word to portray a certain type of man which undoubtedly also shows what their ideas on masculinity and heroism were. While the styles of both greats were different, each taught the same virtues: do not be satisfied with being like the others. Whether in love, battle or politics, mediocrity is not an option. Homer does teach us about the dangers of arrogance while Shakespeare sells the lessons of forgiveness and being the ‘better man.’ These two timeless characters have provided much entertainment and moral lessons throughout the centuries while showing a different class of men to emulate. Although both characters are definitely mortal, there are traces of immortality and supernatural ability to underscore that they are in fact better than the rest. And if the lessons enshrined in Homer’s and Shakespeare’s hallowed pages are anything to live by, we must always strive to become the best—but ofcourse, always within reason, lest the forces of the universe be angered.
Homer, The Odyssey.
Klapp, W. (1963) Manual of Mythology Tudor Publishing House, New York.
Perry, M. (1989) A History of the World: Ancient Greek Literature and Art. Houghton
Mifflin Company, Boston, Massachusetts.
Shakespeare, W. The Tempest.