Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

by Marjane Satrapi

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Is Hamlet's plight in Shakespeare's play as heroic as Marjane Satrapi's in "Persepolis?"

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Whether the character Hamlet is a tragic hero is pretty much indisputable.  The chain of events that consume the young prince and all those around him can only be considered tragic, and Hamlet’s physical and moral courage in confronting the demons that life has placed in his path qualify him as heroic in every sense of the word.  As much as Hamlet is a tragic hero, however, he is also the fictional creation of a playwright, William Shakespeare, whose body of work does not lack for tragedy and for whom mournful resolution of conflict was a stock in trade.

In contrast, Marjane Satrapi’s 2000 graphic depiction of her childhood, Persepolis, includes considerable tragedy, but precious little heroism.  Unlike Hamlet, Persepolis is a true story.  And while Satrapi’s childhood – marked by the twin and dramatic developments of violent revolution and protracted war with neighboring Iraq – is certainly sad for the lost opportunities and draconian measures under which all Iranians, but especially women, are forced to live, she does have the advantage of a loving and socially and politically enlightened family who are a source of comfort and support for the young woman.  And, while her uncle, Anoosh, and family friends Mohsen and Siamet were subjected to imprisonment and torture for alleged crimes of acting outside the strict parameters of fundamentalist Islamic practices, Marjane and her family are not subject to the internal machinations and deadly intrigues prevalent throughout the world inhabited by the ancient Danish prince at the center of Shakespeare’s story.

Finally, Marjane Satrapi certainly faces difficult life choices involving decisions regarding returning to Iran from Europe, but this is nothing compared to Hamlet’s contemplation over whether and when to kill his stepfather, the king, or, more importantly, whether to kill himself.  When Hamlet contemplates the latter option, his reflections are expressed in one of the most haunting passages ever put to paper:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question:

Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of trouble,

And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; . . .

To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub,

For in this sleep of death what dreams may come. . .”

Foreboding and death permeate Shakespeare’s play – the very literary definition of tragedy.  Comparatively, speaking whether and when to lose one’s virginity or risk the application of make-up in the face of possible physical assault and arrest at the hands Ayatollah Khomeini’s militants, while certainly tragic, does not reach the level of either tragedy or heroism present in the fictional depiction of palace intrigue in a Danish court.  

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