The Dark and Haunted Prince

Batman, Hamlet and Burdens of Vengeance

I whole-heartedly believe that comics, movies, and television shows are imbued with all the power and meaning of the classic works we read in university classrooms—and as such, deserve to be written about critically, and linked to the pillars of literary theory. In this new series, a collection of academic close-studies of popular culture, I aim to do just that. For my first installment, we will examine the connections between the characters of Batman, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the true burdens of vengeance.


In our modern age, the saying “there are no new stories” is especially true. We are a culture in love with retellings, and in our time they happen faster, with more special effects. However, the reworking of universal themes bridges centuries and cultures to strike a common human chord (whether it was the author’s intention or a happy accident of time). Certainly, Shakespeare’s knack for digging into the common nature of humanity has contributed to his relevance and cultural longevity. Everyone knows Hamlet, even if they’ve never read the text or seen a live performance. Everyone knows “to be or not to be.” Everyone has the image of a sad black-clad prince talking to a skull in their cultural consciousness. And even if one doesn’t know the whole story, they know Hamlet’s tale is a tragic one, and that Hamlet is an icon of angst, revenge and sorrow. 

In our modern cultural psyche, Batman holds a similar position. Everyone knows the bat symbol, the black costume, and that he is propelled by the murder of his parents to seek revenge and justice. We also know that as his alter ego, Bruce Wayne, he has a dual benefit and burden of his wealth and status in society. Of course, we also know that the Joker is his prime enemy, a force of anarchy and evil for the sake of evil alone. We know of Catwoman as the lover/enemy of his life, and Robin, his ward. In this way, the Batman comics, TV shows, movies, and even video games have made him one of the central figures of our cultural mythology. His tragedy is not merely a staple of fandom, either. Years of exposure in a variety of mediums have ensured that the story of Batman (alongside many other DC characters) is well known to the media-consuming public.

The theme of a dark hero, with good intentions and tragic outcomes, is nothing new in the history of storytelling. These are reiterations of eternal and popular tales. Both Batman and Hamlet are problematic protagonists, obsessed with vengeance in the name of family oath. Their resultant actions are violent, which begets more of the very violence they try to end. Additionally, they cause their own isolation through their bizarre sense of ethics. 

Perhaps the most recognizable thread between the Prince of Denmark and the Dark Prince of Gotham is revenge in the name of family. Hamlet converses with the ghost of his father saying, “Haste me to know’t, that I, with wings as swift/As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge” anxious to avenge a wrongly fallen father king [ 1 ]. Similarly, in The Long Halloween, Batman ruminates on his pledge to his parents, repeatedly, in one variation or another, saying, “I made a promise to my parents to protect this city from the evil that took their lives” [ 2 ].

In fact, near the climax of this particular Batman storyline, Batman nearly goes too far in beating up a criminal. This is the first time in the story that he has to be stopped from doing something lethal, and crossing that unforgivable line. The scene showcases the power of his prime motivation over his rationality [ 3 ]. As Kristine Kathryn Rusch explains in her essay “Batman in the Real World, “That flaw is this: When Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered, he doesn’t seek revenge on his parents’ killer. He seeks revenge on all criminals for all time” [ 4 ]. This is where the burden of justice becomes problematic for both Hamlet and Batman. Where exactly can it end? Where is the unforgivable line for a vigilante—and what does it mean if he crosses it?

A quick note: I’m well aware that the earliest iterations of the Batman didn’t adhere to this same code. We’re not discussing that today, as the Dark Knight has grown to embody a path of ethics that might’ve been seen as untenable in the early years of Detective Comics.

This morally ambiguous sliding scale, this shifting line, has one definite result: alienation from nearly everyone. Our protagonists are telescopically focused on the burden of their particular aims and oaths, rather than true comprehensive good. They do not trust many others to understand their ethics and imperatives (often with good reason). As John C. Wright points out, “[Batman] is supposed to be the most dangerous man on the planet, the smartest and the toughest” [ 5 ].

The Batman, as a figure in pop culture leans on many prior sources for inspiration, from Sherlock Holmes to Zorro.

When You Seek Vengeance, Dig Two Graves

Such a position leaves little room for peers. To put it bluntly: it’s lonely at the top. This is especially the case with both love interests Catwoman and Ophelia. Although the women have vastly different personalities—Ophelia is demure, while Catwoman is anything but—they both rank equal with their male counterparts. Ophelia is a noble, worthy of courting the Prince of Denmark, while Catwoman is Batman’s rival in cunning and strength. Yet both heroes spend a great deal of time rejecting and being annoyed with the advances of these women [ 6 ]. The cost of being outside of society’s laws is to also be outside of its friendships or close relationships with others.

Both characters also experience a tremendous spiraling in their revenge. The primary obsession of vengeance expands exponentially into further violence for which there is no end in sight until both protagonists are fighting not just wrong doers but the constant injustice of fate itself. Lou Anders describes this obsession in Batman quite well: “He chose his territory Gotham City, and as his target, the criminal underworld (as Ahab chose the whale), but his real target (and intended audience) was the cosmos itself” [ 7 ]

As for Hamlet, he voices his all-consuming pledge to the ghost of his father, saying, “I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records/all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past/ that youth and observation copied there;/ And thy commandment alone shall live/ Within the book and volume of my brain” [ 1 ]. Hamlet offers his father his entire mind, willing to forget everything else. This obsession leads him further and further down the path of despair and uncertainty as the bodies pile up and the violence escalates. The stage is left literally littered with the bodies of the guilty and innocent alike, when only King Claudius was the intended target [ 8 ]

Both of these all-consumed avengers face another blow-dealing product of their own vigilantism: the reality that they have the capacity to create much more harm than good for those around them. In the worst-case scenarios, their actions lead to the ironic death of the very people they hope to protect. 

For instance, Commissioner Gordon (ever the voice of hard truths for Batman, in possible competition with his butler) makes the keen observation that in his attempts to save others, his presence brings out the horrors of Gotham in fuller force. In The Long Halloween, Gordon states, walking through the halls of Arkham, “So many are here. Nearly doubled from when you first appeared. Not that there is a direct correlation but…do you give it any thought?” To which Batman replies, “no,” but in his private thoughts says, “I know what Gordon is implying. That my … presence … somehow attracts these men and women to my city […] But Gotham needs Batman to protect her” [ 9 ]. As Batman has his climactic fight with the notable criminals of Gotham in this story, he recalls his father’s recorded voice: 

“‘When faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem your only option is to act swiftly, some might even say, irrationally. Removing the most dangerous elements first and methodically attacking each subsequent challenge in a separate but deliberate way. He was referring to surgery” [ 10 ].

Hamlet’s journey of investigation, royal intrigue and revenge, echoes The Count of Monte Cristo’s, and later, Bruce Wayne’s.

Batman rationalizes the harm he may cause by insisting that he is protecting the city, even as he understands the hydra-headed and cancerous nature of crime and violence. He insists himself a protector, a surgeon against the tumors of crime. Yet he spends the entire story arc from beginning to end riling up Gotham’s warring mafias, which contributes directly to the decay of Harvey Dent from the city’s golden son into the killer Two-Face [ 11 ]. In his actions, Batman paradoxically ignores the reality of violence begetting further violence, even as he perceives the concept clearly in his mind.

Hamlet engages in exactly the same sort of rationalization and willful cognitive dissonance. He is no stranger to creating collateral damage with the excuse of justice, staying blind to his own sins. Perhaps the most pivotal of his errors is accidentally killing Polonius, father of Ophelia and Laertes. Hamlet shows little remorse over the death. Instead, he is angered by Polonius’s eavesdropping and immediately uses the opportunity to scold his mother for what he perceives is her greater sin. Gertrude exclaims, “O, What a rash and bloody deed this is!” to which he replies, “A bloody deed! Almost as bad, good mother/As kill a king, and marry with his brother” [ 12 ].

Gertrude has had her parallels over the years here. Our minds might immediately leap to Alfred, however. As he has, quite possibly, the most personal interest in Bruce Wayne’s continued well-being, it seems it would fall to him to be the voice of caution, reason, and compassion. 

Hamlet is too obsessed with the crime of his mother against his father to spare empathy or guilt, even for a man he has senselessly murdered. Were Hamlet not shortsighted by his furious need for retaliation, he could have realized that through courtship with Ophelia, both Laertes and Polonius could have been powerful political allies against his uncle. Courting Ophelia would also have cemented royal statuses and alliances through a marriage into her family. However, in his rage and growing insanity, his actions lead to a domino effect of death in which Ophelia committed suicide in grief over her father’s death, and Laertes and Hamlet destroyed each other. The great irony of this is that Hamlet, in seeking vengeance for murder, became a murderer himself and the subject of another son’s vengeance. 

Longtime readers of Batman (or perhaps those who remember the Animated Series in the early 1990s) might begin to look toward Bruce Wayne’s other romantic interest: Talia Al Ghul. The daughter of Ras Al Ghul, she has, much like Selina Kyle, acts as an antihero for the series and femme fatale for the Dark Knight. In the course of the comics, she gives birth to Damian Wayne, who would eventually become Robin. Batman’s actions and inactions bring her to lust for vengeance. At one point, she even beds the infamous Jason Todd in an effort to sever emotional ties with her “beloved.”

But what are his actions? He spurns her. He abandons her. He fails their son as a role-model (by an odd definition of the term, but a failure in her eyes nonetheless). She is no Ophelia, this child of the Demon. She is perhaps another path Hamlet might have taken. Or perhaps, she nearly takes on the role of Hamlet’s mother, her crimes warranting the Batman’s disapproval. She doesn’t spell his doom, but she vexes him nonetheless. Or maybe she is Laertes, her indignity leading her to clash with the one whose love is unrequited as if he were a newly made, mortal enemy [ 13 ].

Methinks she doth pine too much? Or maybe I just see someone who has become an ass? Okay, Bard of Avon off for a moment. I’m looking over what I’ve just written, and I am perplexed at my change in demeanor. It’s true what some say; reading Shakespeare really does have an effect on you. Oh William … In any event, let’s come back to the character who is the focus of our studies today. So, why do we love these kinds of heroes? Could it be it is because they are so desperately imperfect, and this is exactly why we find them so fascinating? Is this why we might think Batman is so much cooler than Superman, or, as John C. Wright says, “Why my girl goes for Batman over Superman” [ 14 ]. Similarly, Hamlet’s self-destructive angst is the very trait which catapults him into pervasive public consciousness, while Shakespeare’s own golden son, Prince Hal, barely crosses the mass media radar. We are inherently fascinated by problems and complications in our heroes, which is why both dark princes and all their heavy issues will endure for many years to come.

Images

  1. “The Batman, as a figure in pop culture leans on many prior sources for inspiration, from Sherlock Holmes to Zorro.”
    Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/gdynia-poland-april-2020-medicom-japanese-1710656617 (Shutterstock. “Gdynia, Poland – April ,2020 – Medicom, Japanese toy manufacturer, launch action figure series Mafex based on famous DC Comic’s character Batman.” AM-STUDiO.)
  2. Hamlet’s journey of investigation, royal intrigue and revenge, echoes The Count of Monte Cristo’s, and later, Bruce Wayne’s.” Source:https://stock.adobe.com/images/a-romantic-young-man-in-a-medieval-costume-with-a-sword-says-a-shakespearean-monologue/394100253?prev_url=detail (Adobe Stock. “A romantic young man in a medieval costume with a sword says a Shakespearean monologue.” By Ulia Koltyrina).

A true Renaissance woman, Katherine’s a studious nerd across a wealth of disciplines. When not
inhabiting her bellydance persona, she loves to wash off the lipstick, throw on her glasses, and inhale a
new subject or technique. From dance, literature, art, neurobiology, or linguistics, she’s invested and
taking notes. Her passions are constructive something whether it’s new choreography or various written
forms. Recruited out of TempleCon, she’s been a staunch contributor. Her series “Chasing At Shadows” analyzes comic adaptations and other fiction through the lens of film Noir.

Resources

  1. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, I.5. Circa 1600. Reprinted by Shakespeare at MIT, 2019. shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html. Accessed 19 Sep 2021.
  2. Loeb, Jeph and Tim Sale. Batman: The Long Halloween, p. 239. DC Comics, 1996.
  3. Loeb, Jeph and Tim Sale. Batman: The Long Halloween, pp. 328–329. DC Comics, 1996.
  4. Rusch, Kristine Kathryn. “Batman in the Real World.” In Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City. Edited by Dennis O’Neil. Benbella Books, Inc., 2008.
  5. Wright, John C. “Heroes of Darkness and Light.” In Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City, p. 188. Edited by Dennis O’Neil. Benbella Books, Inc., 2008.
  6. Loeb, Jeph and Tim Sale. Batman: The Long Halloween, pp. 270–271; 1, III.1. DC Comics, 1996.
  7. Anders, Lou. “Two of a Kind.” In Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City. Edited by Dennis O’Neil. Benbella Books, Inc., 2008.
  8. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, V.2. Circa 1600. Reprinted by Shakespeare at MIT, 2019. shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html. Accessed 19 Sep 2021.
  9. Loeb, Jeph and Tim Sale. Batman: The Long Halloween, pp. 87–88. DC Comics, 1996.
  10. Loeb, Jeph and Tim Sale. Batman: The Long Halloween, pp. 348–349. DC Comics, 1996.
  11. Lapin-Bertone, Joshua. “Batman: The Long Halloween Explores the Tragedy of Harvey Dent.” DC Comics, DC Entertainment, 17 Aug. 2021, dccomics.com/blog/2021/08/17/batman-the-long-halloween-explores-the-tragedy-of-harvey-dent.
  12. Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, III.4. Circa 1600. Reprinted by Shakespeare at MIT, 2019. shakespeare.mit.edu/hamlet/full.html. Accessed 19 Sep 2021.
  13. “Talia Al Ghul And Her Relationship With The Bat Family.” The Comic Vault, The Comic Vault, 29 Jun 2017. thecomicvault.wordpress.com/2017/06/29/talia-al-ghul-and-her-relationship-with-the-bat-family. Accessed 19 Jul 2021.
  14. Wright, John C. “Heroes of Darkness and Light.” In Batman Unauthorized: Vigilantes, Jokers, and Heroes in Gotham City, p. 181. Edited by Dennis O’Neil. Benbella Books, Inc., 2008.