Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah
The difficulty in dealing with this subject is the choice of point of view. There appears to be two methods that immediately present themselves to us as possible alternatives. The characters could be approached either from the modern standpoint, or from the standpoint of the audience of that time. The first method would be comparatively easy but it would not be fair or make sense. It is not possible to apply our modern standards to characters which are the products of a different scale of values. Our conceptions of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, of the ideal human character, of heroism and of such other basic matters are different from those held by the society of Hikayat Hang Tuah. Their values are the integral components of their culture. Hang Tuah was, to his fellowmen, a hero because he fulfilled their ideal of manhood.[i] On the other hand, Hang Jebat was a traitor precisely because he violated this ideal. But the modern reader who judges from the subjective standard of his culture will find both of them unintelligible. Hang Tuah would appear as an intolerable defender of the feudal principle, Hang Jebat as indeed a poor rebel. Obviously this view is inadequate; these characters did not act, and could not have acted, along our pattern of behaviour.
Alternatively, we can view the characters from the standpoint of the audience for whom the story was meant. Nothing could be fairer for them. Both the characters and the audience are creatures of the same cultural background and there would probably be nothing for us to criticize. We would have to uphold Hang Tuah as the undisputed hero and condemn Hang Jebat as the irredeemiable traitor. But the result would be not a critical study but an appreciation.
It is quite clear that these approaches are subjective. Is there, then, any other approach that could make a rationally consistent case for itself? In other words, is there an objective standard? It would be unhistorical to deny that such feudal concepts as the absolute sovereignty of the ruler and therefore the absolute loyalty of his subjects to him, the belief in the power of magic and asceticism operated in the society projected in Hikayat Hang Tuah. They did exist and determined social behaviour. To argue outside them, that is, outside this feudal-cultural framework, is to argue against the objective existence of Malay classical literature itself. Nevertheless we cannot take a fatalistic view of human nature. Human actions are not wholly predetermined. It is thus possible that the characters in the story might have fallen short of the possibilities offered to them by the flexibility of their culture. Conversely, they might have overstepped its probable limits. It is precisely in this plane of dialectic – the unity between what is humanly possible and what is socially determined – that we shall examine our characters.
This method would demand a fairly accurate knowledge of the social foundations on which the existence of the characters rested. The question is asked: how far do the characters convincingly depict the peaks and limits of human endeavour offered by such social foundations?
The technical difficulty with this method of approach is, however, not unique. A prerequisite knowledge of the social conditions in which the characters of Hikayat Hang Tuah were bred and born is essential even for the second subjective method. To obtain such knowledge we are almost forced to fall back upon the book itself. There are no historical sources. There are of course contemporary writings and Sejarah Melayu is the best of them. It is our opinion that enough information could be gleaned even from these two books alone.
We will try to reconstruct a bare outline here. The society mirrored in Hikayat Hang Tuah is substantially pre-Islamic in character. It is essentially a feudal-agricultural structure based on a servant-master relationship. The head of state is the Sultan to whom all pay homage and render absolute loyalty.[ii] Below him is the hierarchy of officials who help him to discharge various affairs of state. It seems that these officials have under their charge certain territories or kampongs. The residents of each kampong are known as ‘anak buah’ of the official-in-charge and they serve under him.[iii]
Physical courage is a cardinal virtue besides loyalty. It is admired and respected. Even persons of humble beginnings can attain fame and royal favour through sheer physical prowess. Hang Tuah and his four comrades are a case in point. However, physical prowess is always associated with, and acquired through, ascetic learning and practices. Belief in the power of asceticism and also of magic is a force in society. Bound up with this belief is the concept of invulnerability (kebal).[iv]
Morality is not a strong point. Instances of adultery (bermukah) occur without seeming to attract much social approval.[v] It would seem that a man may have affairs with women of several categories: maidens, wives of other men, royal singers or even ladies-in-waiting; the exceptions are the royal concubines (gundik) or the fiancés of other men.[vi] However, the hero would do better not to indulge in these frivolous activities.[vii]
Marriage seems to be monogamous for a large section of the people. The ruler, however, can marry as many as he likes[viii] and keeps concubines even before he is married.[ix]
The greatest crime is disobedience (durhaka) to the ruler ad it is punishable by death. At the extreme this takes the form of revolt against his authority.[x] Acting against his orders is also disobedience.[xi] Another for of ‘durhaka’ is to have an affair with his ‘gundik’.[xii]
Life is not as valuable as honour. Where honour is concerned, it is better to die than to lose it (biar puteh tulang jangan puteh mata). Even justice is sacrificed at times in order to defend honour.[xiii] In the social scheme of Majapahit there would appear to be less respect for life.[xiv]
Such, then, is roughly the social picture projected in this hikayat. It is important to grasp these underlying concepts before a real analysis of its characters can be made.
Next: Installment #4 Chapter II: General Considerations
[i] 1. The ideal was absolute loyalty to one’s master, that is, the Sultan (mempertarohkan nyawa ka-bawah duli).
[ii] When Islam came his position was somewhat rationalised since the conception of absolute authority vested in man contradicts the cardinal principle of Islam. He then became the shadow of God on earth (al-Khalifata zillul-Lahi ala-ardi – Raja itu akan ganti Allah taala di-dalam dunia ini – H.H.T., p.246).
[iii] A clear example of the relationship of ‘anak buah’ to their master is afforded in the instance when Sultan Mahmud ordered the execution Bendahara Seri Maharaja (Cf. Sejarah Melayu , p.285).
[iv] Hang Tuah is said to have achieved this state; hence he could not be killed by weapons. This concept is still operative in Malay society to-day. At the beginning of the B.M.A. [British Malaya Administration] period several ‘invulnerable groups’ sprang up to lead the Malay fight against Chinese terrorist gangs. Panglima Salleh of Batu Pahat, who is still living, was a leader of one of this groups.
[v] Cf. H.H.T., p.200
[vi] op. cit. p. 197
[vii] Hang Tuah was a married man and at no time indulged in illicit relations.
[viii] Ibid., p. 246.
[ix] Ibid., p. 124.
[x] Only once did this happen in the story, that is in the famous allegedly treasonous act of Hang Tuah.
[xi] The Bendahara twice acted against his orders by not putting to death Hang Tuah. But it seems that the Raja forgave him.
[xii] On both occasions when he pronounced the death decree on Hang Tuah it was because the latter was accused of having illicit relations with his ‘gundik’.
[xiii] Hang Tuah killed Megat Panji Alam because the latter threatened to take revenge on the Sultan of Malacca even though he and his master were in the wrong for having robbed the Megat of his betrothed.
[xiv] There are frequent instances of the common people unjustly killed by the numerous warrior-ascetics in the employ of the ambitious Patih Gajah Mada.