Professor Severus Snape and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

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**Serious spoiler alerts for both Harry Potter and Hamlet in this post!  Do NOT read this post if you may ever, possibly, in the most remote future, even consider reading Harry Potter.  This will completely ruin it for you.  I’ll be discussing the biggest plot twist in the entire series in this post.  Also, both of these characters are far too deep and their stories too complicated to summarize in this post.  In this post I am diving right in, and assuming that you are familiar with both of these stories and characters.**

I’ve been slowly re-reading through the Harry Potter series over the past several months.  At the moment, I’m in the middle of the fifth book, The Order of the Phoenix.  Severus Snape’s character is becoming more complex with each book, a change that I always relish with each re-read.  Snape is without a doubt the most fascinating, interesting, confusing and compelling character in the entire series.  In fact, the first time I experienced the stories, I was on the fence as to whether or not I liked the whole Harry Potter story.  But the moment that the big reveal about Snape was unleashed in The Deathly Hallows, I sat stunned, covered in chills and absolutely in awe.  I was instantly convinced.  The story arc surrounding the greasy-haired, sallow-faced, deeply unpleasant professor single-handedly made me a fan of Harry Potter.  I had never encountered a more complex character in any book I’d ever read.

That is, until I read Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Hamlet was my first-ever Shakespeare play, and from the start I was hooked.  I listened to the brilliant Kenneth Branagh audio version of the play, watched Mel Gibson’s movie adaptation, the thought-provoking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and then the incredible 4 hour Kenneth Branagh-directed word-for-word movie.  Hamlet, as a character, fascinated me to no end.  He’s deeply intelligent, covering a raging storm of grief, fury and revenge with a dazzling facade of madness.  Everything he does, every babbling speech and embarrassing situation he puts himself in, every word out of his mouth – all is calculated, all is a sham, all is carefully designed to further his purpose.  His tragic end, brought about in the very hour that he accomplishes his goal, only adds to his appeal.

Although I love both of these characters so much, I had never once thought of them in conjunction until recently.

Last night I was thinking over different literary characters, and wondered what I would say if someone asked me who (in my humble opinion) the most complex characters in literature are.  The answer came immediately and without thinking.  “Snape and Hamlet.”  I did a double-take at my own answer.

Snape….

…..and Hamlet.

I mentally held the two characters up side by side for the first time.  They seem so utterly different – one a prince, the other a professor.  One the most compelling of Shakespeare creations, one the modern brainchild of a British single mother.  One sharply dressed, handsome and compelling, one sullen, pallid and lurking in the background.  Still, a whole list of shocking similarities between Snape and Hamlet presented themselves.  It kept me wide-awake, staring into the dark long after my husband was snoring beside me, and I could hardly wait to write a post about it today.  So without further ado, here are all of the similarities that I have noticed (so far) between Professor Severus Snape and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark:

  1. The Outfit.

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OK,  I know that this one is just surface, but it was the very first similarity that came to mind when I started comparing Snape and Hamlet.  Both men are dressed from head to toe in black (and both rather darkly mysterious and dashing to boot), from the time of their introduction to the time of their deaths.  The darkness of their garb seems to reflect the dark, sorrowful and brooding nature of both Hamlet and Severus Snape.  The prince initially wears black in simple mourning over the death of his father, but when he discovers that his father was murdered, the blackness takes on a whole new meaning.  A darkness enters his soul that doesn’t loosen its grip on him until he finally kills his murderous uncle and fulfill his oath of revenge.  He wears black far longer than his queen mother and her new husband, Hamlet’s uncle, believe appropriate, but he refuses to let go of his father’s death.  It is what drives him every moment of every scene for the rest of his tragically short life.

Professor Snape, too, is never shown in either the books or movies in anything other than black.  Even his hair and his eyes are dark as ebony.  The impenetrable blackness of his eyes shroud all emotion, keeping both the reader (and Harry himself) guessing as to what’s going on inside that brilliant, greasy head of his.  The darkness with which Snape surrounds himself (like Hamlet) goes far deeper than just an affinity for black clothes.  Snape teaches and lives beneath the castle of Hogwarts where no light can reach, and even his home is in the dirtiest, darkest and dingiest of neighborhoods.  I believe that Rowling used the blackness cloaking every aspect of Snape’s life to symbolize his mystery.  And I don’t think I’m stretching things too much to believe that Snape himself may have chosen an entire wardrobe of black to constantly remind himself (as Hamlet does) of the death of Lily.  It is, after all, her death and memory that motivates his every decision.

2. Revenge 

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From the moment that Hamlet’s father appears to him as a ghost, and explains that he was murdered by his treacherous brother, Hamlet’s life is absolutely consumed by revenge.  Everything is calculated toward the single end of bringing justice upon his uncle.  He ultimately succeeds, but at the expense of his reputation, his position in society, and ultimately his life.

Sound familiar?

As Rowling (finally) reveals in The Deathly Hallows, Severus Snape is not just a spiteful teacher.  He is not the traitorous, spying, slinking dog he seems to be – he is actually the most dedicated, passionate, self-sacrificial character in the entire story.  Ever since he (through a horrible mistake) caused the death of the woman he’d loved since childhood (Harry’s mother), Severus determined to do whatever possible to make things right.  He couldn’t reverse the fact that Lord Voldemort had killed Lily Potter, but he could dedicate his life to protecting her son.  And by protecting Harry and saving his life on multiple occasions, as well as the hugely instrumental roles he played in spying on Voldemort and feeding him false information, Snape played a major role in the downfall of the Dark Lord.  Thus Snape is not only (like Hamlet) hell-bent on avenging the death of one he loved, he seeks after redemption for his past mistakes.  It is this cruel, relentless, dual slave-master of regret and revenge that keeps Snape so focused in the maddening facade he must put on for seventeen years.

3. The Facade

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First-time readers of Harry Potter are almost always driven bonkers by the question, “Where does Snape’s loyalty lie?”  He is insanely confusing, complex and mysterious.  Not until the very end of the 7th book to readers finally understand Snape and why he did what he did.  Sometimes there are glimpses of good (as when he saves Harry’s life on different occasions), but the majority of Snape’s actions seem to be overwhelmingly on the side of evil.  It’s not until the end of the story that readers understand that it is Snape’s grief over Lily’s death and his desire for redemption and revenge upon Voldemort that drives everything he does.  Suddenly everything falls into place, and it is clear that nearly everything Snape did and said in the previous books had a purpose and overarching plan.  For a full seventeen years, Severus was forced to keep his true self under strict lock and key, while putting on a show to the rest of the world.

Shakespeare was kinder to his audience.  And to Hamlet.  We as readers understand almost immediately why Hamlet is so grieved, why he must enact revenge upon his uncle, and why he must bury his sorrow and feign madness in order to accomplish his goal.  The strain that Hamlet is under, forced to gibber and laugh when his heart is burning inside, is almost enough to make him truly go mad.  The thing is, Hamlet only has to put on this horribly difficult act for a few months.  Snape has to endure the slow torture of his facade for years and years.  The whole idea of putting on an act is a brilliant and fascinating piece of literary genius on the parts of Shakespeare and Rowling.  It is simply the revelation of each character’s motivation (Hamlet’s is revealed instantly, Snape’s is revealed at the absolute climax of the story) that gives each man and story a different feel.

4. The Girl

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Both the professor and the prince have known true love.  Both of them caused the deaths of the woman they held most dear.  Snape’s entire story-arc is completely saturated with his love for Lily, and his grief over causing her death.  She is absolutely central to his life.

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We as readers initially don’t know terribly much about Lily Potter, except that she was Harry’s mother.  When we discover that she and Snape used to be best friends, and that it was Snape’s fault that their friendship was broken and she turned to James Potter instead, and far more importantly that it was Snape’s fault that both James and Lily were killed by Voldemort, it suddenly makes sense why Severus is so obsessed with Lily’s memory and avenging her death.  Her death is the reason for all of his sacrifice.

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For Hamlet, however, it is almost exactly the opposite.  He appears to truly love Ophelia before the whole deal with his father’s ghost, but as soon as he takes on the mission of revenge, he throws her under the bus.  It would seem like readers would hate him for this, but somehow we don’t.  Being cruel to Ophelia strengthens his facade of madness, as well as separating her from himself.  He truly is single-minded in his pursuit of revenge and has no more room in his heart for a romantic attachment.  He also may have been trying to separate her from himself to protect her – after all, he was on a mission to kill the King of Denmark.  Whatever his motivation for cutting ties with Ophelia, Hamlet ultimately caused her death.  Grief over Hamlet’s cruelty drove Ophelia mad, and she dies (either by accident or suicide, we may never know) directly because of him.

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Both men inadvertently caused the deaths of their beloved, but while Hamlet sacrifices Ophelia for his cause, Lily’s death is Snape’s cause.

5. The Tragic End

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As if these characters couldn’t get any more compelling and complex, they both meet truly tragic ends.  Hamlet is trapped by his uncle, and meets his death at the hands of betrayal and poison.  The poison works quickly, but not before Hamlet fulfills his oath to his father and kills his uncle the king, and makes peace with his once-enemy Laertes.

Again remarkably similar to Hamlet, Snape meets his death in a trap, at the treacherous hand of the main villain (Voldemort), by the means of poison.  Unlike Hamlet, though, Snape is left gasping out his last breaths alone, and it appears to him that he has utterly failed.  When Harry runs into the room and sees that Snape is dying, Snape clings to life long enough to pass on the vital information that Harry needs to defeat Voldemort.  In the process, that night marks the end of the hatred Harry has always held toward Snape.  In short, he and Snape make peace, and far from failing in his mission, Snape gives Harry the last push he needs to end Voldemort once and for all.

…………….

I’m sure that there are other similarities between Hamlet and Severus Snape, but this post is already way too long!  It was just something that blew my mind and that I’d never thought of before.  Have any of you Shakespeare or Potter fans ever noticed any similarities between the professor and the prince?  If you think of any I may have missed, please leave them in the comments below!  Discussing literary characters is really fun, so I’d love to hear any of your thoughts on both Hamlet and Shakespeare.  Also, let me know which character you like best.  I’ll let you guess (based on this post) which one I like best. 😉

 

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2 thoughts on “Professor Severus Snape and Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

  1. Intriguing, and very insightful! And you explained a lot about Snape and Harry Potter I had long forgotten, if I ever knew it!

  2. Personally, I’ve always thought Snape was a pretty straightforward character – revenge was always his motivation – he wanted revenge on Harry because of James and revenge on Voldemort because of Lily. I liked that the movie, conversely, shows him achieving one last-minute act of redemption – he finally saw Harry as a person of his own, and not just a shadow of Lily. That was a very welcome complication of his character. The book, on the other hand, had him care about nothing but Lily, right to the end. Not that that love was completely corrupted, but it was too selfish to achieve any sort of righteousness.

    In that respect, he was quite like Hamlet, who was also completely consumed with revenge. And I think you’re right that they both sacrificed their love interests (I never saw Hamlet really caring about Ophelia, but still) in the pursuit of a political cause (Snape accidentally).

    A more relevant character analog to Snape would be Sydney Carton in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I know J.K. Rowling is a big fan of both the book and the character, and the inspiration is pretty plain.

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