The Motif of Justice in Literature (Tolkien’s the Fellowship of the Ring and Shakespeare’s Hamlet)

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In this essay, I, will be focusing on how justice is portrayed in Hamlet by William Shakespeare and also The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien by looking at how the ghost in Hamlet influences him to agree to committing murder in the name of justice, whilst with taking a look at how the protection of the ring in The Fellowship of the Ring is providing justice in its own way as they are keeping it out of the wrong hands.

These two texts were written in two completely different times, by two people who led life’s that couldn’t be more dissimilar. However, despite this the two texts portray justice very clearly. Shakespeare’s use of displaying justice as a kind of revenge abides by the face that during the 1500 and 1600s, when this was written revenge tragedies were very popular among writers and even though the play does focus on revenge mostly, I feel that justice as I will explain more, later, is just another type of revenge. Also, at the time that Shakespeare was writing ‘Hamlet’, it was common to take previous works by other people and incorporate them into your own, which Shakespeare does with ‘Hamlet’. Whereas, when Tolkien was writing, ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ this would have been regarded as plagiarism and anyway Tolkien did not want to retell other old myths or legends, he wanted to create his own that was purely his own ideas rather than somebody else’s. Furthermore, Tolkien’s use of portraying justice through the protection of the ring, I feel abides by the time in which he was writing as he began writing in the 1940s and as it took him twelve years to complete the trilogy means that he would have been writing during the entire Second World War. This could be where Tolkien got his idea from to keep the ring out of Sauron’s hands to provide justice as at this time the allies, France, England and America would have been trying to keep Hitler from taking over countries such as Poland as a way to provide justice for all those who lived there. So, my point is that even though, we see the novel as this fantastic fantasy that transports you to another world, if you focus enough you see aspects of what life was like during the time Tolkien was writing. Also, you get an insight of what the world was experiencing at this time, which could be why he uses the ring and Sauron as an extended metaphor for Hitler and his urgency to invade other countries as they’re both trying to obtain something that it not theirs in order to gain power.

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In ‘Hamlet’ justice is portrayed through his father’s ghost as he wants justice for what has happened to him. However, he wants vengeful justice, “So art thou to revenge when thou shalt hear” // “The serpent that did sting thy father’s life Now wears his crown” (1.5 7//39) meaning that in order for Hamlet to serve justice for his father he would have to murder his uncle instead of just exposing him. In these quotes, the ghost is telling Hamlet who murdered him and what he wants doing which is revenge however, it is also justice as the ghost was wrongfully murdered in the first place by his own brother. In addition, Shakespeare uses Hamlet’s contemplating to portray justice and revenge as two similarities and show that the line between the two is blurred, however though, when you do think of justice it has quite positive connotations as it tends to be seen as the right thing to do whereas revenge has quite negative connotations as it seems more brutal and dark. Furthermore, Hamlet’s contemplating between whether afflicting the revenge of murder upon Claudius is a good or bad thing is shown when he says, “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;” (3.3) this highlights that the line between good and evil is blurred but even so, deep down in Hamlet’s subconscious he knows that what the ghost is asking for is wrong, and therefore making Hamlet second guess whether he’d even go through with the act of justice for his father, King Hamlet due to his own conscience making him a coward.

Whereas, in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ justice is portrayed through the protection of the ring as by keeping it out of Sauron’s hands they’re maintaining peace therefore providing justice. The following quote, “It is no small thing to have come so far, and through such dangers, still bearing the ring” is from book two of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ however, even though is isn’t telling Frodo that he must protect the ring in order to gain justice it is highlighting how dangerous this journey is but yet also an achievement for Frodo and his team. This is because the ring has the ability to change an honest person into a selfish and conniving person along with having an evil wizard like Sauron after it, to come this far and face so much danger all while still protecting the ring is an accomplishment. Therefore, with it being an accomplishment it means that they are also providing justice to all who would be affected if Sauron were to obtain the ring. Even more so, critics have said “that Ring, is not merely an essential part of the plot: it is, in fact, the pivot of the whole work” (13). This furthers what I previously stated as it is showcasing that justice is portrayed in this novel through the protection of the ring as if the ring was not in this story then there would be no need to protect it, therefore no need for any justice and in turn there would be no story.

Throughout Hamlet, there is a prominent theme of religion and a recurring theme of contemplating the afterlife which only highlights the confusion centred around religion in the sixteenth century. As, around this time many protestant reformers believed that the devil would frequently choose a form such as a dead friend or family member which only emphasises the idea that the apparition that visits Hamlet is not his father but in fact, the devil, which could be why the ghost is so determined to inflict murder upon Claudius and using the act of justice and revenge to hide his other motives. The ghost even says, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (1.5 25) which instantly stresses how this act is evil which is something that the devil himself would try and persuade people to do in order to darken a pure soul, especially though the conniving and invective way of making Hamlet believe that what he is doing is for his dead father’s benefit and for the greater good of everyone involved. However, due to Hamlet being unsure of what to do and contemplating whether this act of justice and revenge is actually the right thing to do as either way he would still be committing murder, critics have said that this “reinforces his weak and unstable nature” (Emmerichs, 1) This, however does go against my previous point as even though the apparition came back as Hamlet’s father, King Hamlet, Hamlet may not listen to his orders of revenge and justice and not actually go through with the murdering of his uncle which would therefore mean that the devil would not be getting Hamlet to do wrong, then he would still be a pure soul.

Additionally, justice is again portrayed in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ when Frodo leaves to continue the quest on his own. This is portraying justice as a positive thing as everyone will be safe and won’t become corrupted by the ring as they won’t be in any contact with it whatsoever, as Frodo can see that some are beginning to become manipulated by it already such as Boromir as when speaking to Boromir, Frodo notices that he has a “strange gleam in his eyes, yet his face still kind and friendly” (2, 10 398) but then within minutes, Frodo says that “his fair and pleasant face was hideously changed; a raging fire was in his eyes.” (2, 10 399). Therefore, only reinforcing that Frodo’s decision to go on alone is for the best for everyone, it is as though he is providing justice to them before they realise that they need it. Furthermore, Frodo is then confronted by Sam asking him what happened to which Frodo replies, “Go back, Sam. I’m going to Mordor alone.” (2, 10 406). This is supporting the good, kind and gentle person that Frodo is as he would rather put his own life at risk if it means he would be protecting everyone around him as he is avoiding them becoming obsessed with the ring, which can be seen as a type of justice as he is saving them before they need to be saved.

Furthermore, ‘Hamlet’ portrays justice through the death of Polonius. This is because Polonuis’ wrongdoing is the reason behind his downfall, as if he would not have been eavesdropping on Hamlet, then Hamlet would not have accidentally stabbed him. However, when describing Polonius’ death, Laertes says that he was “justly killed” (5.2 337) this reinforces how justice is portrayed in the play because even though he got murdered, if he hadn’t of been listening into Hamlet’s private conversations from behind a curtain then he would have been safe and stayed alive. Thus, this goes onto provide Hamlet with justice in a way due to there being one less person to spy on him and report back to Claudius which then also gives him a better chance of exposing his uncle and plotting his revenge thoroughly.

Furthermore, justice plays a role in war, seen in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. As, in ‘Two Towers’ Frodo is resistant of an unjust war which leads to him telling the hobbits not to kill unnecessarily. This only supports my point that Frodo knows right from wrong he knows that justice is achievable without having to commit murder. Also, it is bringing about the idea that Frodo could be an epic hero. Now, going back to ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, the novel ends when Sam joins Frodo to go to Mordor, so we actually don’t get to see what happens unless we read the next book but, I feel that this is supposed to be like this. This is because it allows the reader to come up with their own theory about what may happen along with leaving them with a feeling of happiness as Frodo has been able to achieve justice by keeping the ring out of Sauron’s hands throughout the entire novel. But, it also makes the reader feel uneasy as they are left on a cliff hanger which means maybe in the next instalment, Frodo might not be able to provide justice so easily. This then links to the beginning of this paragraph when I mentioned the third book in the series, ‘Two Towers’ as we get a glimpse that there is a war but yet, we also see Frodo as the man we know him to be by protecting people by telling them and learning them they do not need to kill therefore this means that he himself has gained justice as he has not been taken over by the power of the ring, which is a good thing.

In addition, the seventeenth – century philosopher, Francis Bacon condemned revenge as ‘a kind of wild justice’. Which reinforces an earlier point that the line between justice and revenge is blurred. So, it could also be insinuating that even though the ghost of King Hamlet specifically asks for revenge, it would mean that if Hamlet went through with the murder, he would also be supplying his dead father the justice he deserves, wild justice but still justice. Moreover, I would also say that when thinking about Ophelia’s death it would be sensible to describe it as unjust and unfair. This is because all throughout the play, all she does is obey and follow what her father tells her to do, proven when she says, “I shall obey, my lord.” (1.4 135). This then could be what plays a significant part in her death, as if she would never have obeyed her father and began to spy on Hamlet, maybe he would not have began to send her mixed signals in order to confuse her so she would have nothing to report back to Polonius. Therefore, I feel she can be described as just a piece in the battle between Hamlet and Claudius as, the constant demands of her father, and the mixed signals of Hamlet along with the then death of her father are all major factors in her losing her sanity and then of course, her life. Which is why her death is unjust and unfair, as she is just an innocent bystander that gets swept up in all of this madness that led her to lose her mind and then eventually lose her life and no justice comes from Ophelia’s death, it is just an unfortunate event as she doesn’t do anything wrong throughout the play.

Although, it may not seem like it I believe that there are many similarities in regarding to justice within ‘Hamlet’ and justice within ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’. For example, when looking at the protagonists from these two texts, you can see that they just want to do good and the right thing. However, in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, Frodo appears more headstrong compared to Hamlet, this is because unlike Hamlet, Frodo knows what he has to do in order to obtain justice, which is go to Mordor alone, with the ring. This is proven when he says, “I must go now or I shall never go. I shant get a chance again. I hate leaving them, and like this without any explanation. (2,10 402). This is showcasing Frodo’s heroism, as he is torn about leaving his companions behind but he will not let it stop him from doing what is right therefore he is humbling himself to protect others along with sacrificing himself to go on alone. These are all heroic acts of justice which could be why some people have described Frodo as an “epic hero” (Lisa Walters, Lecture). On the other hand, in relation to Hamlet, he does want to do good, like Frodo, he isn’t able to make a clear and concise decision like Frodo’s decision to leave his companions. This could be because he doesn’t understand whether killing Claudius would be the best or worst thing to do. This is also the reason for his constant and consistent contemplating of whether he should go through with the act of murder. This can be seen in one of the most famous soliloquys of the play when Hamlet says, “To die, to sleep, No more, and by a sleep to say we end // To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub: For in that sleep of death what dreams may come” (3.1 59-65). So, as seen here, he is saying that death would just be like going to sleep which isn’t so bad but then within seconds he is arguing with himself and saying that the sleep may be peaceful at first but it would soon get taken over by nightmares. This could be seen as an example of Hamlet’s contemplating right or wrong as it is showcasing his confusion which is why he is so unsure whether killing Claudius would be the right thing to do. Furthermore, this could be why in order to avoid having to murder his own uncle, he creates a play in hope that it would force Claudius to admit what he has done. Which in turn, would provide justice to his dead father, King Hamlet along with all the people of the land as they would finally know the truth of what Claudius has done.

Overall, I believe that justice is portrayed very differently in these two texts. For example, in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, justice is applied through the protection of the ring and the lengths Frodo would go to keep it out of Sauron’s hands. Whilst, in ‘Hamlet’ justice is seen mostly at the end when Claudius is finally killed as it is what the ghost wanted all throughout the play.

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