Monday, October 03, 2005

Installment #9

Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah



HANG JEBAT is the most intriguing person in the story. His character immediately gives the lie to any preconceived ideas about the feebleness of characterisation in this literary work(1). He is not the hero in the feudal conception: neither is he the traitor. Yet he has the characteristics of both. The ‘author’ takes a surprisingly objective (2) view of him, not stating him to be either this or that. Essentially he is a rebel, a revolutioner, a man whose ideas are too radical for his own times. He is, in truth, a hero of another age.

Jebat appears almost at the same time as Hang Tuah. He becomes the latter’s best friend and, until the ‘menderhaka’ episode, he moves quietly and faithfully by his side (except when Tuah exiles himself to Inderapura) and is always overshadowed by him. His violent outburst, when it comes, therefore, takes the reader by surprise. It is almost a shock. Yet it is not incredible. Of all the main characters in the story he alone is capable of such a dramatic performance.

We are introduced to him as one of the four boys (3) with whom Hang Tuah develops a very close friendship. We are told that they go about together like brothers (4) There is only one brief reference to his physical characteristic. A character in a conversation remarks thus: “…. Itu pun baik juga sikap-nya, tuboh-nya puteh rambut-nya ikal….” (5). His clothes, manners and mannerisms are nowhere described. We have tried to account for this general tendency to omit descriptions of this nature in the last chapter.

The bold, almost foolhardy, and reckless traits in his character show up quite clearly. When Tuah suggests that the five of them go on a boating expedition “merantau barang kemana pun menchari makan”, he immediately answers: “Mengapakah maka tiada boleh kita kelima melayarkan sebuah perahu?” (6) The challenging form of his answer seems to reflect his basic nature which persists and develops throughout the book and which logically and inevitably leads him up to the final dramatic event. The same character cited earlier describes him aptly when he says, “….segala perkataan-nya keras” (7).

Although Jebat shares the heroic motivation of personal glory (8), he shows a sense of group responsibility. He is prepared not only to lay down his life in the service of his master but also to go through thick and thin with his friends. One night while in Majapahit Tuah was telling him and Kasturi of how forty Majapahit warriors attacked him while he was bathing and of how he deliberately did not kill them outright. Jebat rebuked him for having the matter lightly, saying: “Benarlah saperti bichara orang kaya itu, tetapi lagi-nya, jika orang kaya hendak ke sungai mandi, maka di-perhamba kedua saudara tidakkah boleh mengiringkan orang kaya? Karena kita ketiga saperti telur sesarang, jika pechah sebiji pechah kesemuanya….” (9) On another occasion when Tuah set out to the palace of Sri Betara to retrieve his stolen magic keris, Jebat and Kasturi were preparing for the worst. Should Tuah not find the keris Jebat’s plan was “esok hari kita masuk mengamuk kedalam istana Seri Betara supaya nama yang jahat jangan kepalang.” (10)

This collective spirit is also reflected in his desire that opportunities to perform good service to the master be not monopolised by any one of them alone. In Inderapura when Tuah talked of killing Megat Panji Alam himself he commented thus: “Jangan Orang Kaya Hulubalang berkata demikian karena Orang Kaya Hulubalang besar pada zaman ini. Baik, jika sesuatu peri dikata orang: ‘lihatlah Laksamana, hendak berbuat kebaktian seorang kebawah Duli Yang Dipertuan. Bukanlah ada lagi Hang Jebat dan Hang Kasturi boleh disuruhkan, karena pekerjaan ini bukan sukar sangat pada orang kaya panglima….”(11)

He is forthright and fatalistic. The diplomacy, restraint and caution of Hang Tuah are all foreign to his nature. When the mystic teacher, Sang Pertala, told him that he would meet a violent death through weapons he unhesitatingly answered that “yang kehendak hati hamba pun hendak mati senjata….” (12) He likes to do a thing thoroughly. He was annoyed with Tuah when the latter stopped him and Kasturi from killing all the Javanese spearmen whom Patih Gajah Mada had loosed on them. (13) His code of action seems to be “nama yang jahat jangan kepalang.” (14) He dwells on this theme again and again and it is indeed this trait in his character that turns him into the incomparable rebel that he was destined to be.

For all that the reader knows about him before he rebelled, it is too slight to avert shock. The rebellion comes like the eruption of a volcano. Not that it is impossible, but that it is too sudden. There is a trick in it. Just as a volcano appears as innocent as any other mountain to the casual observer, so does Jebat, among the other like characters, appear to the casual reader. Until the catastrophe the reader indeed cannot distinguish him from Kasturi. On most occasions both of them act and speak together. (15) Nevertheless, the uneasiness that is smouldering within Hang Jebat can already be sensed. That it does not figure too clearly from the beginning may perhaps be attributed to a likely literary fashion of the day, if it can be so called. This contention that the classical tendency was to present big events in a dramatic way is well supported by evidence from this hikayat itself. We can recall the examples of Patih Karma Wijaya and Patih Gajah Mada.

It cannot be questioned, then, that the rebellion of Hang Jebat is real. It is not artificially imposed by the ‘writer’ in order to bring out a moral point. In fact there is indeed a mark of genius here. We have to recognize that Jebat’s rebellion is, under the circumstances, the logical and inevitable culmination of his character.

What is Jebat’s motive for rebellion? Prior to this Jebat has never shown any rebellious tendencies towards the Sultan. In fact he shares with Tuah the motive of service to the master (16). And until the tragic event he has been discharging his duties as an officer in an unimpeachable manner. The first betrayal of the Sultan towards Tuah seems to have had no visible effect on him. It may be because there is little scope to bring this out here as the story follows Tuah to Inderapura to relate his adventures with Tun Teja.

Thus the reader, has, so far, no clue that a rebellion is in the offing. That Jebat is capable of such a thing has already been recognized, but the evidence he will do it is still wanting. Even at the time he takes leave of the Laksamana, his best friend, before the latter is due to be executed he allowed himself only a few tears. Words he has not. It is unlikely that this is a deliberate technical maneuvering on the part of the ‘author’, but it fits perfectly well with Jebat’s abrupt and repressed nature.

The first rather vague indication of his feelings comes when the Sultan asks him to wear Laksamana’s kris. He is immensely pleased and reflects within himself: ‘Aku pula rupa-nya manjadi Laksamana.’ (17) There is a note of scorn here but the motive is not defined.

Then progressively through his behaviour, though not yet directly through speech, he indicates that he means to challenge the Sultan’s authority. First, when he notices that the Sultan does not come out to be attended by his officers and nobles after the disgrace of Tuah, he questions him in a rather mocking tone whether he has regretted his action (18). Then he flirts with his courtladies. He does not pay attention to Kasturi’s protests which he jokingly dismisses as a sign of jealousy (19). Next he becomes more drastic. He forbids the offices and nobles to enter the court. In a terse and sarcastic manner he tells them: Jangan tuan-tuan masuk haru-biru, karena dahulu lain sekarang lain, bukan saperti adat Laksamana dijadikan orang tua itu.” (20) The Sultan, still unaware of what is afoot, honours him with the title of ‘Paduka Raja’. Jebat is not motivated by ambition here: therefore he cares little whether or not he gets favours from the Sultan. We can gather this from what he said to the latter when the latter was about to confer on him the title. (21) But this new title obviously strengthens his position. He goes a step further: it is practically the last step. He makes love to the royal attendants, to the royal singers and finally to the Sultan’s favourite concubines. (22) This is the crime which the jealous officials alleged Tuah to have committed. It is difficult, then, to avoid coming to the conclusion that Jebat does this deliberately in order to see the reaction of those officers and nobles. Yet they dare neither to question him nor to report the matter to the Sultan.


(1) That not all the characaters are adequately treated is recognized and merely contributes a universal characteristic of its heroic narrative which on the whole “concentrates on the happy few and neglect the others”. (Cf. Brown, p. 53).

(2) Objectivity, incidentally, is a characteristic of the heroic narrative; we have referred to it before (see footnote 2. p.12).

(3) Hang Kasturi, Hang Lekir and Hang Lekiu are the other three (Cf. p. 24).

(4) Cf. p. 24.

(5) Cf. p. 29.

(6) Cf. p. 24.

(7) Cf. p. 29.

(8) Personal glory is a main quest of the heroic character (Cf. Brown, pp. 102-103). In this hikayat, Hang Tuah, Hang Jebat and also the Sultan of Melaka make frequent mentions of this motive. The motive is stated roughly thus” “supaya mashurlah namaku disebut orang.” (see pp. 85, 151, 231, 263, 339).

(9) P. 263.

(10) P. 365.

(11) P.231.

(12) P. 151.

(13) Cf. p. 266.

(14) Cf. pp 265, 318, 330, 334, 338.

(15) Cf. pp. 24, 171, 231, & 236. See also footnotes 3, p.13.

(16) To Sang Pertala’s prophecy about him he says, “….yang kehendak hati hamba punhendak mati oleh senjata dan mati dengan pekerjaan Duli Yang Dipertuan.” (p. 151) Cf. also p. 174.

(17) P. 306.

(18) Cf. p. 308.

(19) Cf. p. 308-9.

(20) Cf. p. 301.

(21) Cf. p. 311.

(22) Cf. pp. 31-32.

Next: Installment #10: Chapter III: Hang Jebat …Cont’d

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