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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: November ::
Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1811  Tuesday, 1 November 2005

[1] 	From: 	David Bishop <
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	Date: 	Monday, 24 Oct 2005 19:40:03 -0700
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

[2] 	From: 	Joseph Egert <
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	Date: 	Tuesday, 25 Oct 2005 20:10:05 +0000
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

[3] 	From: 	David Basch <
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	Date: 	Saturday, 29 Oct 2005 19:37:48 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

[4] 	From: 	Bill Arnold <
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	Date: 	Sat, 29 Oct 2005 19:48:58 -0700 (PDT)
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		David Bishop <
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Date: 		Monday, 24 Oct 2005 19:40:03 -0700
Subject: 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

I find it hard to avoid feeling that Hamlet has achieved a kind of 
justice at the end of the play-and also, apparently unlike John-Paul 
Spiro, feeling that that's good. Not justice in exactly our legal sense, 
because the king in this monarchy has a special relationship to the law. 
Claudius isn't tried and convicted in a court. That's one big problem 
with monarchy, and a problem for Hamlet as well as for the play: what do 
you do with a bad king?

Shakespeare seems to be operating under the assumptions that 1) it's bad 
if the king is a tyrant, and good if tyrants are removed, and murder 
punished; and 2) killing a king is a dangerous act, for the killer and 
for the body politic, and should be publicly justifiable. Claudius 
should be killed because he's a murderer and a tyrant, but only if his 
murder and tyranny can be proved. They are proved by 1) the commission 
suborning Hamlet's death; 2) the dying testimony of Laertes; and 3) 
Hamlet' death. The murder that's proved, I would reply to Don Bloom, is 
Hamlet's. It is for this murder that Claudius is, arguably, justly 
served. If his death can also be taken as retribution for his brother's 
murder, this element all but vanishes at the end. Shakespeare gets from 
revenge to justice by, among other things, substituting Hamlet's murder 
for his father's as the relevant crime, thus providing a publicly 
justifiable reason for killing the king.

Is this end, as Ed Taft asks, the will of God? That seems to me too 
vague a concept to be very useful-like "Renaissance humanism". One 
aspect of God's will is clear: the Christian God opposes personal 
revenge. But this, though an essential point about what's going on in 
the play, and in Hamlet himself, is only a negative rule: a prohibition. 
As for the positive outcome, if God wants what is right, then as far as 
this outcome is right, or the rightest possible under the circumstances, 
maybe it's the will of God--but who knows that save heaven? Hamlet 
defers to special providence, and we may find the end providential. But 
I think that depends first of all on what we decide about justice.

As a private person, Hamlet would, from his father's point of view, have 
a duty to take revenge, and simultaneously, from a Christian point of 
view, a duty not to take revenge. But as the Prince of Denmark Hamlet 
also has a special duty to the state. He doesn't even like Claudius's 
drinking, because it soils Denmark's reputation. How much less would he 
like it known that a murderer sits on the throne? If he simply took his 
private revenge he would have to, as Laertes puts it, "dare damnation." 
But as a responsible prince he has, besides carving for himself, to 
consider the sanity and health of the whole state. I don't think this 
public role can be subsumed, as Joe Egert suggests, under his role as 
son and as Christian, though they impinge on one another. The king is 
the earthly representative of God, authorized to punish crimes as 
private persons are not. Hamlet symbolically takes on this public role: 
"This is I, Hamlet the Dane." There's no official coronation, as there's 
no official trial. But with a little bending, Shakespeare fits the 
requirements of justice into place.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Joseph Egert <
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Date: 		Tuesday, 25 Oct 2005 20:10:05 +0000
Subject: 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

(Hardy has pounced again. My post's last paragraph should read "online 
tome" instead of "onlline to me.")

[Editor's Note: I don't remember doing this. Perhaps sinister forces are 
at work.]

The clash of spirits inside HAMLET is crystallized in the sword oath 
forcing silence on those witnessing, or "testi-fying" to, the Ghost's 
existence. Others have noted the sword hilt's icon as cross. Yet far 
older is the sword's emblem as testicled phallus-- in Christian terms, 
the willful member of sin, recalling thigh oaths of old. In one striking 
tableau the three are merged: Behold the Cross restraining Sword and Sin!

Or, does Shakespeare see the Cross  masking the other two? Behind their 
"seal'd compact", behind their Holy Cross, Kings Hamlet and Fortinbras, 
Catholics and Protestants, sword in hand, rend and slaughter each other 
like demon Tygers burning in the night.

Hallow's Eve "blessings" to all!

Joe Egert

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		David Basch <
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Date: 		Saturday, 29 Oct 2005 19:37:48 -0400
Subject: 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

Some on the list have trouble with the distinction between justice and 
vengeance in Hamlet and the relation to political factors. Let me try to 
clarify this.

The Bible recognizes the fact in biblical times that persons will 
attempt to avenge the killing of a family member, even though 
accidental. To curb the latter practice, the biblical law provided 
"cities of refuge" for accidental killers to flee to for safety. But if 
the killer were guilty of murder, the "cities of refuge" would not avail 
him. Not only was the deliberate killer subject to capture and execution 
by minions of the law but he also was subject to more likely being 
killed by members of the victim's family. In such a case, the family 
would not be liable for murder in carrying out its vengeance, which 
would have been an act of justice.  Hence, justice and vengeance can 
very well coincide at times.

Applying this to Hamlet, it is Laertes who fits the description of the 
"avenger of blood," the practice seeming to have survived in 
Shakespeare's Denmark. Laertes is an example of the pure avenger that 
wants revenge and cares not for the why and how of the killing of his 
father Polonius. Hamlet tries to placate him, telling him that the 
killing was a product of Hamlet's madness, and asks for pardon as 
Laertes is a "gentleman," but does not succeed in placating the fixed 
attitude of this avenger.

The situation of Laertes is different from Hamlet, who finds out from 
the ghost that Claudius murdered his father. Hamlet is a good, moral man 
and will not sweep to vengeance just to fulfill a meaningless and unjust 
tradition of vengeance even when this would accrue to his own benefit in 
gaining the throne. He is the kind of moral person who wants to know for 
sure how the killing happened and whether deliberate murder was involved 
before acting. Therefore, though he had suspected this same thing from 
the start, he seeks earthly proof of the king's guilt and will not trust 
to a ghost that could be leading him to damnation.

Hamlet proves to his own satisfaction (but apparently not to the 
satisfaction of many learned commentators on the play) that Claudius had 
murdered his father, having observed the king's guilty reaction to a 
play reenacting the crime and even checking his reaction with that of 
Horatio.  The two would have brought a persuasive case if Hamlet, the 
then heir apparent to the throne, were brought before a tribunal in the 
setting of a public that adores Hamlet and believes in him. Hence Hamlet 
feels strongly in the right and entitled to act against Claudius as 
agent of justice and as avenger, combining both roles. David Bishop 
seems to want to consider this situation within the modern context of a 
U.S. court trial with all the legal safeguards of our time instead of 
the period of the play in which strong feelings of justice and 
reasonable evidence suffice for action.

As it happens to Hamlet in the play, his own scrupulous righteousness, 
his over righteousness, trips him up. Finding Claudius at prayer, 
thinking him penitent about his crime, Hamlet delays action. So powerful 
a factor is Hamlet's over righteousness that he throws all caution to 
the wind, determined to catch the king in an unworthy act that has "no 
relish of salvation" to it in order to achieve perfect justice, an exact 
measure for measure: since Claudius had murdered Hamlet's father before 
his father had had a chance to repent his evil deeds, so would Hamlet 
dispatch Claudius in a likewise condition in a perfect act of justice 
and vengeance.

As we know, Hamlet is foiled when, thinking Claudius is spying on his 
conversation with his mother that reveals Hamlet's dangerous thinking, 
Hamlet is forced to strike, only to discover that it is Polonius behind 
the arras. (Hamlet's interpretation of the event is that Heaven had 
designed events to make him, in effect, its "scourge and minister" in 
killing Polonius, a man that had probably participated in numerous 
political crimes that Heaven had now seen fit to punish, with Hamlet 
used here as the unwitting agent. The context in the play that Hamlet 
assumes is that the eye of Heaven overlooks human events and brings evil 
to justice directly or indirectly through seeming accidents.)

With Hamlet's violent intentions now exposed, this made it necessary for 
him to pose as a madman to escape the king's punishment and to await a 
new opportunity to bring the king to justice. This opportunity is thrust 
upon him in the last act when he finds that he has fallen into 
Claudius's trap that had also ensnared the queen. The dying Laertes 
reveals this plot to all assembled. Too late to save himself, Hamlet 
then acts as an agent of justice, Claudius getting his overdue death 
sentence.

Notice, Hamlet's last request to Horatio is that Horatio live to tell 
Hamlet's story, namely, the disclosure of Claudius's murder of his 
father and Hamlet's own characterlogical failures that brought him to 
ruin, confirming Ecclesiastes' warnings against "over righteousness" and 
being "wise over much" as sure recipes for self-destruction.

The play also confirms Ecclesiastes' insight about chance that speaks 
against the wisdom of being "overly wise," the thinking that one can be 
clever enough to call the shots on future happenings with 20/20 
accuracy.  Truly, as Ecclesiastes 9:11 observes, "the race is not to the 
swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither ... to men of 
understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance 
happeneth to them all." Hamlet surely had not counted on the 
interference of busy body Polonius nor that avenger Laertes would not be 
appeased. He also misreads the meaning of chance that had just recently 
favored him as infallibly pointing to Divine predestination without the 
need that he take initiative and due caution in confronting his 
circumstance to his best advantage. He ignores the humble Horatio's wise 
counsel to avoid the duel with Laertes ("the wisdom of the poor is 
despised, his words are not heard") and he steps into the king's trap, 
learning his lessons the hard way.

That Hamlet is headed for defeat is telegraphed at the midpoint of the 
play in the incident in which he looks up at the clouds with Polonius. 
As Ecclesiastes notes (11:4), "he that regardeth the clouds shall not 
reap." Indeed, Hamlet regards the clouds and does not reap.

The clues provided by the scores of parallels to Ecclesiastes throughout 
the play are so apparent and clear that I remain baffled as to how this 
factor continues to be overlooked by commentators as a source for the 
play and its message, explanatory of the nature of the tragic elements 
in the play. Obviously, this insight runs counter to cherished theories 
and beliefs about the poet and his play, making this insight anathema, 
to be rejected out of hand and the obvious observable parallels noted 
(with many more not mentioned) to be not seen. Perhaps some on the list 
will be good enough to explain why this is overlooked.

David Basch

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Bill Arnold <
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Date: 		Sat, 29 Oct 2005 19:48:58 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1799 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

John-Paul Spiro writes, "Hamlet does eventually accept that he's gotta 
do what he's gotta do, and his acceptance of his fate is also, as David 
Bishop implies, done in a state of possible madness.  In a sense, he 
stops caring about whether or not the act is just or beneficial, and he 
just does it because it has to be done.  There are parallels to this 
kind of thinking in Ecclesiastes, but I don't think Ecclesiastes 
suggests that one should not be concerned with justice."

When I started this thread, I invoked the western literature masterpiece 
on justice: Plato's Republic.  So, I ask again: aside from the dig into 
the concept of madness, which is one writer's opinion about the matter, 
are the *acts* and *thoughts* of Hamlet taken in toto the acts and 
thoughts of revenge or justice?

Edmund Taft writes, "In fact, the turning point of the play seems to be 
the stabbing of Polonius, which occurs spontaneously, under high emotion 
and extreme stress, and which seems to be an act of pure aggression."

Have we forgotten *where* in the world the act of the killing of 
Polonius took place and under *what* circumstances and *when* in the 
play?  Is not the concept of *a man's home is his castle" apllicable 
here in terms of concepts of justice?  Are they the *acts* and 
*thoughts* of revenge or justice?

Bill Arnold
http://www.cwru.edu/affil/edis/scholars/arnold.htm

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