Is Justice Served?
Hamlet seems obsessed with moral justice in Act 1 and Act II. He was so concerned that moral justice be served that he refused to murder Claudius in prayer, afraid that Claudius’ soul would go to heaven. In Acts I and II, Hamlet acts with the apparent understanding that revenge would condemn his own soul. As a result, he tries to ascertain Claudius’ guilt in order to justify killing him.
However, when Hamlet finally decides to murder Claudius in Act III, he does so impulsively, actually killing Polonius instead. It can be argued that the death of Polonius leads to Ophelia’s madness and death, which turns Laertes against Hamlet, setting up the final duel. This final paper asks you to analyze the question of whether moral justice is finally rendered at the close of the play.
The conclusion of Hamlet sees both Hamlet and Laertes seeking to right wrongs committed against them or their families. It is significant that, with Polonius’ death, both figures have lost their fathers. However, Laertes seems unconcerned with moral justice, stating plainly his desire for revenge: “I am satisfied in nature,/ Whose motive in this case should stir me most/ To my revenge” (Act V, scene ii, 3882-3885). Discerning Hamlet’s motives is more difficult.
In examining the question of whether justice is served at the end of the play, you might want to consider why Hamlet decides to fight Laertes. It could be helpful to look at the following speeches, although you certainly should not restrict yourselves to them:
1. Hamlet tells Horatio of King Claudius’ plot to have him killed overseas. Hamlet switches the letters, causing Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to be executed instead. In response, Horatio states: “Why, what a king is this!” (Act V, scene ii, 3716). Hamlet condemns King Claudius (Act V, scene ii, 3716-37).
2. Hamlet regrets his fight with Laertes at Ophelia’s grave and equates their causes: (Act V, scene ii, 3727-3735).
3. Horatio asks Hamlet not to fight Laertes, emphasizing that Hamlet cannot win: “You will loose this wager my lord” (Act V, scene ii, 3845-3847).
Chances are that you can pick up a cheap paper copy of the play almost anywhere. If you do, it is suggested that you obtain the Folger Library Shakespeare version.
If you want to read Hamlet online, I would recommend the version at Shakespeare’s Words Web site because it gives both line numbers and definitions of words not commonly used in modern English.
You can also access Hamlet for free online at any one of the sites listed below:
o The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (mit.edu)
o The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (opensourceshakespeare.org)