William Shakespeare’s much-produced play Hamlet is a story of a young Danish prince’s struggle with his belief in a mission assigned him by a ghost to avenge the murder of his father, the one-time king, while questioning his own intestinal fortitude to actually carry out such a violent act. That mission constitutes the play’s definition of justice; the fact that nearly everyone dies by the play’s end could represent the playwright’s indictment of such antiquated notions of justice defined and executed at the whim of an individual no matter how wronged.
Hamlet is a tortured soul. His encounter with the ghost in Act I, Scene V both sets the stage (so to speak) for the action that follows and suggests that the play’s protagonist, Hamlet, is torn by his devotion to his dead father and the turmoil experienced by the spirit he encounters. It is the following dialogue between prince and spirit that presents the play’s concept of justice as defined by an act of vengeance:
Hamlet: Speak; I am bound to hear.
Ghost: So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear. . .I am thy father's spirit, Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night, And for the day confined to fast in fires, Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature Are burnt and purged away. . . Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”
Having informed Hamlet of the circumstances surrounding his father’s death, the ghost now enlightens the young prince of Denmark regarding the identity of his father’s killer: “. . .know, thou noble youth, The serpent that did sting thy father's life Now wears his crown.” With this, Hamlet is informed that King Claudius, his uncle, has murdered his father and assumed the crown. Compounding this injustice is the fact of Claudius’ having married Hamlet’s mother, his brother’s widow, Queen Gertrude.
This sense of justice defined as vengeance propels Hamlet’s actions for the duration of the play, but not without considerable self-doubt regarding his ability to avenge his murdered father in the manner suggested by the ghost. In Act II, Scene II, in a pivotal soliloquy delivered by Hamlet following his discourse with his “friends” Rosencratz and Guildenstern, who in reality are spying on the young prince at the behest of Claudius and Gertrude, the prince questions his courage, having failed to date in his mission of exacting revenge for his father’s death:
“But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall To make oppression bitter, or ere this I should have fatted all the region kites With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain! O, vengeance! Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murder'd, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words, And fall a-cursing, like a very drab, A scullion!”
While Hamlet is torn by his inability to murder Claudius, though, his capacity to carry out such an act of violence is suggested by his determination to slay his uncle only to be delayed in his actions by the sight of the king praying – an act that forces Hamlet to consider the final disposition of the king’s soul following the latter’s death at the prince’s hand:
“Now might I do it pat, now he is praying; And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven; And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd: A villain kills my father; and for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send To heaven.”
Hamlet’s introspection regarding his despondency, his life, and his mission to avenge his father’s murder is decided in favor of executing the ghost’s request, but doubt regarding the legitimacy of such a course of action remains. That Claudius is praying at the precise moment that Hamlet hopes to finally carry out the act of revenge provides a hint of the prince’s concept of justice. Hamlet delays the murder of Claudius because he fears that, if he kills the king while the latter prays, the king’s soul will go to heaven instead of hell, where it rightfully belongs. Further, that Hamlet possesses the innate ability to conduct the act of murder is definitively illustrated by his killing of Polonius, mistaking his victim for the king.
Hamlet’s sense of justice, as noted, is defined by his need to avenge his father per the urging of the ghost. Throughout the play, however, just as Hamlet’s ambivalence about life in general is encapsulated in the play’s most famous soliloquy – “To be, or not to be: that is the question” – his ambivalence regarding the morality implicit in exacting vengeance is suggested throughout Shakespeare’s text. In the play’s final scene, Hamlet and Laertes engage in an ostensibly friendly duel the stakes of which the former cannot at first imagine. Laertes is now the one seeking revenge for the death of his father, Polonius, and the play’s final denouement reflects both characters’ attempts at reconciling the futility of a life lived solely for revenge. That Horatio alone survives the political intrigues that have permeated this play could very well represent the playwright’s views regarding the futility of “an eye for an eye” justice. Mohandas Gandhi biographer Louis Fischer famously summarized his subject’s philosophy of nonviolence by writing (paraphrasing here) that ‘an eye for an eye would make everybody blind.’ The end of Hamlet would certainly be consistent with that sentiment.