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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: October ::
Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1767  Tuesday, 18 October 2005

[1] 	From: 	David Bishop <
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	Date: 	Sunday, 16 Oct 2005 16:16:55 -0700
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1754 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

[2] 	From: 	David Basch <
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	Date: 	Monday, 17 Oct 2005 12:05:10 -0400
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1754 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		David Bishop <
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Date: 		Sunday, 16 Oct 2005 16:16:55 -0700
Subject: 16.1754 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1754 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

As I see it, to put it simply, in Hamlet Shakespeare transforms revenge 
into justice.

The ghost calls Hamlet to revenge with the story of his murder. As far 
as there's any doubt about the truth of this story, it is dispelled, for 
Hamlet, Horatio and the audience, by the play scene. However, since no 
one else suspects a murder, since the Mousetrap is only a play, and 
since Hamlet's behavior plausibly explains the king's choler, no one 
else suspects Claudius of anything. The truth is now objective, but not 
public. For revenge, Hamlet only needs to kill Claudius. For justice, he 
needs public proof.

The proof--of a different crime--comes first with the commission 
suborning his death. Hamlet symbolically transforms himself into the 
king--the proper agent of justice--by sealing the new commission with 
his father's signet. When he gets back he also introduces himself as 
"Hamlet the Dane." In his mind, Claudius is a proven tyrant, not a 
legitimate king. One snag is that the commission was not carried out, so 
indicates only an intention, not an act. It is saved to buttress the 
irrefutable proof that comes later.

At the end, legally speaking--so to speak--Claudius is convicted of the 
crime of killing Hamlet. The evidence is the commission, Laertes' dying 
testimony and the essential fact of Hamlet's death. Meanwhile, the 
emotional energy of revenge is displaced onto Hamlet's mother. His 
immediate rage seems to be on her behalf more than on his own. But since 
her death was an accident, this revenging rage disperses in a funny 
way--on a kind of side track. So at the end we feel almost no sense that 
Hamlet kills Claudius in revenge for his father; we feel a sense of hot 
emotional action on behalf of his mother; and we feel a sense of 
objective justice for all that Claudius has done, most pointedly--and 
publicly--the murder of Hamlet. The story of the ghost need not come 
into the public justification any more than it comes into the audience's 
consciousness, at the end, since Claudius is proven a tyrant and 
murderer by Hamlet's death.

Incidentally, Claudius's cry, "I am but hurt", indicates that he is not 
killed by Hamlet's sword thrust but by his own poison. That element of 
poetic justice helps quell any remaining qualms about Hamlet's killing 
the king.

Shakespeare has not approved of taking revenge on the word of a ghost. 
He has allowed the energy of revenge to be expended in the form of 
publicly defensible justice, a justice that Horatio will no doubt 
explain to everyone's satisfaction.

This is a thin summary. More detail can be found at clashingideals.com.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		David Basch <
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Date: 		Monday, 17 Oct 2005 12:05:10 -0400
Subject: 16.1754 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1754 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

Shakespeare was obviously highly tuned to the distinction between 
justice and revenge. This is apparent in his comparison of Hamlet with 
Laertes. Laertes wants to kill the man who killed his father, no 
questions asked about the details. This typically is pure revenge, 
though it can happen that sometimes there are situations where vengeance 
is justice.

In Hamlet's case, he is very conscious of the justice of his case in 
killing Claudius. He wants to make sure that the spirit that spoke to 
him was not a damned spirit that was trying to manipulate him to kill an 
innocent man. Therefore he wanted earthly evidence, just like in the 
Talmudic controversy where the rabbis reject heavenly evidence for 
settling judicial matters on earth. One could not take the testimony of 
a spirit but had to use evidence collected right here on earth.  Hence 
Hamlet has the play staged to test the "conscience of the king" and even 
sought Horatio as a witness to compare the king's reaction with his own. 
He succeeds to his thinking that he has proved his case but trips 
himself up by his over righteousness in wanting the perfect punishment 
for the guilty king, one that would not be mitigated by the king's 
supposed repentance, as Hamlet had thought. This in Hamlet's mind would 
be perfect justice considering that his father had not prepared himself 
with repentance before he was murdered.

As we see, Shakespeare agreed with Ecclesiastes, who recommended against 
over righteousness as a trait that leads to self destruction, by ending 
his play with Hamlet's death, made possible when he spares the king when 
he could have dispatched him justifiably. Others at the play would have 
confirmed Hamlet's observations of Claudius and would have accepted 
Hamlet's just cause.

I think Shakespeare's audience was attuned to these distinctions and 
would have found Hamlet's cause just but tragic that he came to a bad 
end because he mismanaged his dispencement of justice.

David Basch

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