This work examines whether there is a clear sense of justice in Hamlet by William Shakespeare from three different viewpoints: the one that states there is; the one where the sense of justice is not clear enough; and the one where the concept of justice is completely absent.
At first glance, it may appear that there is a clear sense of justice in Hamlet. The whole premise of the story, the way it is told, and the way other characters react to it make it obvious that the act of Claudius (him killing his brother to take the throne and marry his brother”s wife) is deemed unjust and horrible, while the Ghost demanding revenge is fair and justified. Hamlet is also being a champion of justice when executing the revenge. The Ghost calls what his brother did to be “most foul, strange and unnatural” (I, v). Moreover, Claudius himself uses the same term when he feels remorse and considers praying for his sins to be forgiven. He says, “. . . But, O, what form of prayer / Can serve my turn? / “Forgive me my foul murder”?” (III, iii). Hamlet also feels very convinced throughout the whole play that his cause is just. His friend, Horatio, is sure of it as well. It is interesting that, in the end, even Laertes who blamed Hamlet for all the woes he experienced (losing a father and a sister who were both not buried properly) agrees with the common opinion that Claudius is actually the one to blame. On the verge of death, he exclaims, “the king, the king”s to blame” (V, ii).
On the other hand, there are certain situations in the play where the concept of justice cannot be applied at all, or one can also say that in some cases the sense of justice is completely absent in Hamlet. The most notable example is the story of Ophelia. It is clear from the play that she is not the one to blame for what happened to her. She also did not deserve it, as Ophelia never did anything wrong in the story. She is one of the most likable characters in the play and seems to have no flaws at all, except maybe her exaggerated obedience to her father. Laertes states Ophelia will become “a ministering angel” after death (V, i). So what happened to her cannot be called just. In fact, Hamlet has unconsciously caused Ophelia”s madness and her following suicide by killing her father. But the way the play goes, it appears that the author does not really blame the protagonist for it, and Hamlet also does not feel particularly guilty because of it. The story of Ophelia is regarded more like a tragedy caused by unfortunate circumstances. So it appears that it cannot really be called unjust either, as there is no one to blame except maybe fate. This makes the story of Ophelia neutral in relation to justice.
But there are also certain situations that refer to a morally grey area in the play. They are nuanced and cannot be easily identified as just or unjust. One of the examples here is Hamlet killing Polonius and then hiding the corpse and, therefore, depriving Polonius of a proper burial. On one hand, the play does try to make us dislike the victim, so that we do not pity him in the end. Polonius is a sly hypocrite, fraud, and a sycophant. But this hardly validates killing him. Hamlet even feels a slight level of remorse for stabbing the man, “I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so, / To punish me with this and this with me” (III, iv). But he does not even try to find an excuse for hiding the body and refusing to reveal its location. The only explanation for Hamlet”s actions in this situation can be his selfishness and avoidance of punishment.
A similar example of morally grey area and unclear situation related to justice in the play is Hamlet writing a new letter to England, which sets up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be killed. The specifics of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern”s personalities resemble the case of Polonius. These two characters are also rather flawed: they are bad friends, sycophants, and probably greedy people. But there is no valid proof they knew Hamlet was to be killed in England. So setting up a scenario in which they would certainly be killed was hardly justified on Hamlet”s part. Still, he did it coldheartedly and did not feel any remorse at all. It also seems, the play suggests we should not pity Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as well.
So it appears that the question whether there is a clear sense of justice in Hamlet by William Shakespeare is not an easy one. There are cases where it is clear what the play wants us to think as just. In other situations, the whole concept of justice is ignored or disregarded. There are also cases where characters” actions refer to the morally grey area. It seems that in the end every reader should individually evaluate the story and the characters” morality according to his/her own beliefs and perceptions of what is and what is not just.
- Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Shakespeare Online, www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamletscenes.html. Accessed 2 April 2017.