Novelist, William Styron, once told his son that life “is a search for justice.” The majority of individuals in today’s society can agree that there is always a right and wrong that exists in our world. This belief of good vs. evil can stem from one’s religious beliefs, family upbringing, and societal ideologies. The basic principles of right vs. wrong imply the idea that if one acts genuine and kind, then he or she is rewarded for his or her actions; on the contrary, if one acts in bad faith, then he or she merits the punishment that is to come. This idea of finding justice in the face of evil is further explored in William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. Shakespeare’s play follows the story of Prince Hamlet’s fight for justice and desire to avenge his father after Hamlet’s father is killed by his own brother, Claudius. Shakespeare utilizes Hamlet’s soliloquies, the disputes between Hamlet and Claudius, and Claudius’s ultimate demise in order to illustrate the persistent theme of justice throughout the play; Shakespeare’s ultimate purpose in highlighting the theme of justice in the play is to emphasize the idea that each individual pays for his or her wrongdoings, even if it means in the face of death.
At the beginning of the play, Hamlet is immediately faced with an important decision that will shape the rest of the play and help shape his entire journey as a hero. When Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, dies, Hamlet encounters a ghost-like figure that embodies King Hamlet. The intangible spirit explains to Hamlet that King Hamlet died after being poisoned by Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle. King Hamlet’s ghost finishes off his rant by explaining to Hamlet, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder. Murder most foul, as in the best it is. But this most foul, strange and unnatural.” This arrival and strange appearance of the supernatural being acts as a catalyst for Hamlet’s search for justice and his persistent desire to avenge his father’s death. To a certain degree, King Hamlet’s spirit can symbolize Hamlet’s conscience; in essence, Hamlet is grief-stricken by his father’s sudden death and as result, Hamlet will grasp at any reason to avenge his father’s passing. This encounter between Hamlet and his father’s ghost further illustrates the theme of justice because Hamlet believes Claudius must pay for his wrongdoings, even if it means death. After this particular encounter, Hamlet expresses his desperation and desire for justice as, “Haste me to know ’t, that I, with wings as swift As meditation or the thoughts of love, May sweep to my revenge. Through this stream of consciousness, Hamlet reveals that he truly believes it is right and just to kill Claudius. Hamlet’s outlook, when compared with other characters in the play, implements a very loosened definition of real justice. Hamlet stands by his outlook on justice: revenge for family bonds represents justice’s personal nature. In essence, there is no singular definition of justice as each person construes the concept of justice in their own unique manner.
The most important part of Hamlet’s dialogue is when he starts speaking in his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. With the addition of this speech into the play, Shakespeare has the ability to further expand and evaluate Hamlet’s understanding of justice. In Hamlet’s soliloquy, Hamlet begins to contemplate several life teachings such as life vs. death and action vs. inaction. Hamlet’s intent to get revenge against Claudius has come to a strong conflict, and he thinks that maybe it isn’t worth it living, that, “To die, to sleep—No more—and by a sleep to say we end The heartache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to—’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wished. Through this speech, Hamlet for the first time expresses certain reservations about wanting to kill Claudius. In essence, Hamlet is caught between doing what he believes is morally correct and what should be done according to societal standards. Shakespeare’s illustration of Hamlet’s inner contemplation further connects to William Styron’s quote about life being a constant search for justice; ultimately contemplation of one’s intended actions is part of the process for finding justice. Despite the contemplation Hamlet endures, he still decides that going through with the act of killing Claudius is necessary. With this explanation and truth, he believes that, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” Shakespeare personifies Hamlet’s conscience as the inhibiting force that causes Hamlet to feel this inner turmoil of emotions. By revealing Hamlet’s stream of consciousness, Shakespeare further emphasizes the contemplation one endures in the search for justice. Moreover, Shakespeare humanizes Hamlet because Hamlet is taking the time to ponder his actions rather than simply acting on impulse.
With the continuous storyline of the other characters in the play, it’s not just Hamlet that must choose what true justice is really worth. The final scene shows the many resolutions of all the storylines that have been combined as a whole, which affirms Shakespeare’s beliefs that even though revenge is the only way to truly achieve real justice, the persistence of something for it only leads them into a deadly cycle. Hamlet kills Claudius and expresses that, “Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damnèd Dane, Drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother” With Claudius’s death at the hands of Hamlet, further emphasizes the theme of justice throughout the play; ultimately Hamlet’s defines his search for justice as getting revenge on Claudius. Despite having achieved justice, Hamlet is suddenly killed by Laertes in Laertes’s own search for revenge on Hamlet, “Heaven make thee free of it. I follow thee. I am dead, Horatio. Wretched queen, adieu! You that look pale and tremble at this chance, That are but mutes or audience to this act, Had I but time (as this fell sergeant, Death, Is strict in his arrest), O, I could tell you But let it be. Horatio, I am dead.” This death illuminates the more acrid nature of justice when the “ideal” hero of the play, Hamlet, also faces this downfall after living and facing through his own downfall once finally achieving his true form of justice by killing Claudius.
In this dissolution, the main argument and Shakespeare’s belief that even though real justice is complete through revenge, revenge can be an immoral action, one that can certainly end in the demise of the sinful individual. Ultimately, Shakespeare’s recurring theme of justice illustrates the idea that each individual person must pay for their wrongdoings; although Hamlet may have avenged his father’s death by killing Claudius, he too must meet his own demise because at the end of day, killing another life is simply wrong.