Revenge And Justice In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Plato defined justice as “the preservation of what is right”. In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the dilemma of justice, especially in connection with retribution, takes center stage. The play’s characters see justice as a balance that must be preserved, and they utilize vengeance to preserve it. From Fortinbras, Prince of Norway’s desire to avenge his father’s death at the hands of the former Danish King by invading Denmark to the protagonist Hamlet’s quest for vengeance against his uncle Claudius for killing his father, to Laertes’ killing Hamlet as retribution for his father Polonius’ death, the protagonists and antagonists alike seek rashly to restore an equilibrium, be it just or not.

Hamlet’s perception of justice as a balance restorable through retribution is perhaps the purest of all the characters’ – he is driven to restorative retribution by a sense of duty rather than vengeful passion. Hamlet’s line, “O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right!”, indicates that Hamlet is anything but eager to seek his father’s justice: rather, he acts on a sense of loyalty and duty to his father. This is further established almost indisputably near the end of Act II, when Hamlet decides to test Claudius in order to ascertain his guilt rather than begin plotting immediately. His hesitation suggests that Hamlet greatly the balance of justice: he is only willing to exact revenge if he is sure that the retribution will restore the balance, and is weary of upsetting the equilibrium even more. While he is misguided to think that spilling more blood will actually re-establish an equilibrium of justice, he is at least principled, and operates more consistently than others under the assumption that justice is the preservation of a balance in the beneficial and detrimental effects of actions that people take towards each other: a balance that can and should be preserved through gratitude or revenge. He is of course subject to tempers, but Hamlet’s apparent outbursts of passion should be attributed at first to his discomfort with exacting revenge and his weariness of making matters worse, and later to his search for Lex Talionis type justice, whereby he believes that the balance can only be restored if it is restored precisely in the manner in which it was upset.

Hamlet’s search for uncompromising punishment that fits the crime is unexpectedly revealed when he sees his first chance to kill Claudius. Rather than act and avenge his father with no risk of failure, Hamlet loses his cool and resolves instead to wait for a chance to dispatch of Claudius when the latter has sin on his mind, so that he may have no chance of vindication. Ironically, this progression in Hamlet’s attitude towards avenging his father and his stricter understanding of justice lead him to act irrationally and unjustly when he rashly kills Lord Polonius just a few lines later, supposedly mistaking him for King Claudius but apparently attacking blindly in any case. After realizing that it is Polonius he has murdered, Hamlet recognizes that he has upset the balance and may have to do the same again in order to finally achieve retribution in his father’s name, saying, “Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.” This is the first indication that Hamlet’s quest for justice is failing – he has further upset the very balance he seeked to restore, and his thus far tragic descent from his initially pure goals suggests that he is correct in realizing that little good will come of his future attempts, but dillusionaly mistaken in hoping that the worst has passed. Hamlet’s deterioration of values is a quintessential example of a protagonist’s descent, and a result of Hamlet being too weak of character to prevent the external disbalance concerning his father’s unavenged death from disbalancing his own peace of mind. However, he does not simply narrow his focus in on killing Claudius and block out the rest of the world; when he says “[I] will answer well the death I gave him”, Hamlet shows lucidity: he acknowledges that he has disturbed the equilibrium of justice even more and further recognizes that he will answer for Polonius’ death upon the reestablishment of balance.

As Hamlet becomes more and more erratic, he resolves to be increasingly brutal and to the point in his revenge. Whereas Hamlet thinks little of detail and perfect balance in the time shortly after he discovers his uncle Claudius’ treachery, he becomes increasingly obsessed with precise retribution and convinced that he too will be victim of the rebalancing. Shakespeare’s detailing of Hamlet’s moral descent, as it would likely appear to most, questions the validity of an equilibristic view of justice. As Hamlet’s vengefulness foments, he only causes more injustice; he invariably demonstrates the old adage that “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Shakespeare develops Hamlet’s character like this to suggest that justice cannot exist as a line of equilibrium, that is as if sinusoidally approached and deviated from with the innumerable and unpredictable actions of people. Instead, the implication is that nature is either in some way unbalanced, or so incomprehensibly balanced that balancing effects cannot be determined to be related at all, so that a disturbance to the status quo or shift from the equilibrium must be somewhat accepted. While ignoring an offence completely is unjust in that turning a blind eye makes no attempt to preserve what is right, Shakespeare certainly indicates that restoring the balance perfectly is impossible and dangerous, and the preservation of what is right should be approached in a spirit of general preservation rather than precise restoration.

In the end, Hamlet’s quest for what he perceives as justice is a failure. That he kills Claudius and avenges his father is overshadowed by the general carnage that consumes the viewer at the play’s end. One after the other, the main protagonists and antagonists die off, ruining themselves in their defense of an untrue justice or being caught up in the calamity. The killers are all killed; even Ophelia, Hamlet’s lover and Laertes’ sister, slays her killer in committing suicide. She is apparently an innocent victim of others’ passions and misguidings, but her crime is the same. Everybody receives the punishment of death that matches their crime of murder, and this is an unsurprisingly tragic conclusion. Shakespeare implies through Hamlet’s descent that the series of murders he sets off is unjust; in the end, “what is right” is not preserved. In fact, the opposite triumphs: death and tragedy, the archetypes of what is wrong. The quest for justice ending in total injustice is meant to be ironic, but not paradoxical. Hamlet’s tragic flaw, which he shares with Laertes and the rest, lies in his simplistic view of what is right – he neglects that the nature of violence and murder is destructive to society and therefore inherently wrong, instead thinking only in terms of actions that require equal and opposite reactions. The mutual obliteration that this mindset leads to at the novel’s end perfectly exemplifies the famous saying, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” With the equilibristic perception of justice shattered to pieces, Shakespeare does not explicitly offer an alternative. It is for the viewer, or reader, to decide: is there ultimately, and perhaps inexplicably, a universal justice, preserved by nature? Is “what is right” preserved at all? Perhaps the chaos of the play and the characters’ excessive lust for vengeance suggests a deeper question still: if justice is “the preservation of what is right”, must not one ask if anything is indisputably right, and by extension, whether justice exists at all? 

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