In Hamlet, what could Shakespeare be saying about revenge and justice?
Hamlet initially determines to seek out justice for his father's murder, determining to catch Claudius in a confession and expose him. Hamlet's desire to serve justice seems to get lost in revenge when he arranges the execution of his betraying university friends, then, after having stabbed him with the poisoned sword, forces Claudius to drink from the poisoned goblet. For Hamlet, revenge was coupled with justice, but the situation of father/uncle, mother/uncle, uncle King confused him and clouded his duty and his decisiveness even after evidence seen during The Murder of Gonzago gave assurance of justice.
Remember that the revenge called for was not Hamlet's revenge but the revenge of the Ghost upon his assassin. Hamlet was required to enact the Ghost's revenge because it was the Prince's duty to be the agent of revenge for his father and King. The Ghost knew that Hamlet would need to have the truth and encouragement to seek revenge against his mother's husband, his uncle and new King, which is why the Ghost was compelled to appear to tell his story and command the required revenge killing.
Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.
Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.
O my prophetic soul! My uncle!
O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. (I.v)
Consider the price that was paid while Hamlet exacted the Ghost's revenge (Hamlet hesitated at and resisted the action of revenge because of his Protestant beliefs):
- Ophelia shunned, gone mad, then dead;
- Friends manipulated into betrayal, then murdered;
- Polonius manipulated into spying, then unintentionally murdered;
- Laertes driven to acts of revenge;
- Hamlet's mother rebuked, frightened, then finally accidentally killed.
In Hamlet, the concept of revenge is presented as a controversial one. While the Ghost of Catholic King Hamlet demanded revenge in accord with ancient cultural norms, Protestant Prince Hamlet rejected the concept of revenge on Biblical precepts that teach that revenge is God's to exact, not humankind's to inflict. Hamlet's greatest conflict came because of his inability to accept revenge killing while his duty to his dead father and King required he kill Claudius for revenge.
This is where justice is introduced. Hamlet perceived that if he could unquestionably establish Claudius's guilt, then, as Prince of Denmark (and rightful heir to his father's throne), he could lawfully enact justice upon Claudius for his multiple guilts: regicide and a marriage deemed incest by the Catholic and Protestant churches.
For revenge, it could allude to how revenge can distort someones mind and result in them becoming crazy themselves. For example, Hamlet's inner guilt was tormenting him that he did nothing for his father and felt sad that his inaction is the cause of him being useless. Hamlet tries many different approaches to find the killer of his father and even then he takes a long time to act upon it, he acts crazy and pushes others away from him. His inner turmoil leads to the deterioration of his mind. The same goes for justice, he goes such intense lengths to find out who is the killer and then takes forever to act upon justice, and when he finally does it is the end of the play. A theme could be how inaction to either or these, or over analyzing this leads to the deterioration of the mind.