Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah
IT IS inaccurate to refer, in the modern sense, to methods of characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah. Its ‘composer’ did not approach his task as modern novelists do. Nevertheless, it would be absurd to deny that in this work certain patterns do emerge – patterns that may, without offence, be termed methods of chracterisation.
Modern novelists resort to various techniques in order to bring out their characters. They give overt descriptions: of a person’s appearance (physique, clothes, manners and mannerism) and of the other traits of his character. They make him speak, act, think, and feel in a certain way. They also throw light on a character’s appearance by making the other characters refer to it. Likewise they throw light on his motives, capabilities and may other things about him: be revealing the attitudes of other characters towards him and their opinions of him.
In this hikayat it will be seen that overt descriptions of personal appearance[i] and overt analysis of character[ii] are very rare, if not entirely absent. The dominant device is dialogue. A character expresses himself mainly in speech.[iii] Action too is important mode of character portrayal.[iv] Sometimes the thoughts and feelings of a character are directly laid bare to the reader; frequent references by one character to another also occur.
The degree of distinctiveness a character achieves depends very much on the role he plays in the story. Although the number of named personnel in this epic runs to more than 100, very few can be considered major characters. The story is essentially the story of Hang Tuah and he is obviously the most important character. After him comes the somewhat enigmatic Hang Jebat. Both of them are depicted quite clearly. Then there are a few not too vivid personalities – Tun Teja, the Sultan of Melaka, Bendahara Paduka Raja, Patih Karma Wijaya, Patih Gajah Mada -- whose roles are quite important, but who do not come out so distinctly. The rest of the characters are generally more types without any individuality.
There appears to be a persistent line running through the whole character delineation. Persons most involved in the officialdom of the state come out the least clearly. They are flat and dull. On the other hand, those who are less involved in it come out much more strikingly. They are more human and interesting. Let us take an example, The Sultan of Melaka appears much more often in the story than Hang Jebat, yet there is no doubt that the latter comes out more realistically and convincingly that he. The same applies with Tun Teja. She occupies a very small space; compared to that filled by the Bendahara Paduaka Raja, hers is negligible. Nevertheless, the reader feels more about her than he does about him.
From this trend in characterisation it would seem that we could formulate an axiom, thus: that the degree of realism achieved by a character depends on the degree of his involvement in officialdom – the less involvement, the more real the character.
What is the explanation for this pattern of characterization? However one may account for it, one thing seems clear. This is essentially a human story. It is interested in depicting human powers and limitations. A character caught in the trappings of official affairs has to be sober and restrained in his manners and movements. He has to be correct and formal. This at once robs him of his humanity. The more officially involved a character is, the less real he becomes.
Next: Installment #5: The Minor Characters
[i] There is no attempt to individualise character through description of personal appearance. Such overt descriptions occur only when the ‘author’ gives a general impression of the physical looks of the character. This is done through the use of conventional phrases like “terlalu elok rupa-nya” (p.11), “muka-nya saperti bulan pernama empat belas hari bulan” (p.11) and such similar formulae. Even the appearance of the two most important characters are, to all intents and purposes, not described. As far as Hang Jebat goes, there is only one sentence that comes nearest to this category of characterization. In a conversation a character remarks “….tuboh-nya (Jebat) puteh rambut-nya ikal….” (p.24). As for Hang Tuah, at pone place when he is about to set out for the great duel with Hang Jebat, the ‘writer’ describes the items of clothing as he puts them on (p.331).
This tendency to omit descriptions of physical attributes and characterisation seem to reflect two things: first, a mechanical difficulty and second, as social convention. An elaborate description of this nature tends to bore an audience and causes them to lose the trend of the story. A modern reader can skip the descriptive parts of a novel if he likes; in any case he can turn back the page to recapitulate what he has read. This cannot be done with a recited narrative. It was thus to meet this demand of a listening public that as little as possible of this kind of description was given. Second, it would appear that no great value was placed on physical appearance. A hero had to be handsome and well-built, of course, but, generally, people were not interested to know what he looked like.
[ii] Overt analysis of character is avoided like the plague. Character traits are brought out by the character himself mostly through his speeches, through actions and thoughts and through reports and opinions of other characters. Western writers have, of course, long recognised the effectiveness of this procedure and have consciously pursued it. It is, however, a little strange and discouraging to have to note that modern Malay writers have yet to achieve this objectively and realism in character portrayal when actually one of the earlier works in their tongue has done so. For if there is any work that is substantially free from didactism in Malay literature, it is Hikayat Hang Tuah. Absence of didactic tendencies is the an characteristic of a heroic story. Its only purpose is to entertain (Cf. Chadwick, Growth, p. 20) and Brown (, pp. 29-31). Such is Hikayat Hang Tuah. It was conceived in, and it tells about, a time of national confidence. There was no urgent message to put across – hence its objectivity.
[iii] Speeches occupy the greater portion of this book. There is a tendency to make more than one character speak collectively. More often this applies to the minor character speak collectively. More often this applies to the minor characters alone (Cf. pp.34, 100, 211, 212, 217), but sometimes major characters are also involved (Cf. pp. 35, 54, 123-124). Also it often happens that a character repeats the same speech, when in different situations (Cf. Megat Panji Alam’s speeches on pp. 221,22 & 225).
[iv] This is especially so with reference to Hang Jebat. His “menderhaka” episode is so dramatic that it is very difficult too discover his exact motive unless every action of his is carefully scrutinized. Moreover, before this catastrophe he has been moving in relatively quiet way and when Hang Tuah is gone he gives no clear verbal evidence of what he intends doing or what he is doing until his rebellious actions can no longer be mistaken (Cf. pp 304-17).