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Hamlet: Revenge and Justice


       What is the most you would do for another person? Would you kill for them? When we take the law into our own hands, we act in retribution, or revenge. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’” (Matthew 5:38, New King James Version) In this passage Jesus alludes to the idea that the God-given Mosaic law endorsed revenge. Vengeance cannot be meted out by the offended. On the cusp of the 17th century, William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, a dark and insane play, relating the tale of Hamlet, who seeks to avenge his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle. This course of action fails horribly for Hamlet. When we step outside of the law and take matters into our own hands, just punishment may result, but our own personalities and emotions interfere with true justice.
     Sin by definition is committing wrong against God and other humans. God, as the creator of the universe, retains the right to do as He sees fit and create whatever laws He desires. These laws can be expanded upon, but distilled they make two relatively simple points. Love God and love your neighbor. But humans do not always love their neighbors. Harm, death, and error follow in the wake of all people. However, there are a select few who glaringly act on their sin. Claudius, uncle of Hamlet and murderer of the king, is one of those few. Provoked by jealousy, he not only killed the rightful king by deception, but also married his brother’s wife and later attempted to dispose of Hamlet.
     It would be obvious to say Claudius has sinned. But a dilemma arises for Hamlet after he discovers his uncle’s treachery—from a ghost, no less. How do you punish your uncle? Hamlet, after becoming assured of Claudius’ guilt, demands life for life. “And do such bitter business as the day / Would quake to look on.” (Act 3 Scene 3 lines 375-376) Hamlet decides, and eventually succeeds, at securing the death of Claudius. The king is avenged. If Hamlet ended on that note, a simple conclusion could be drawn—every human can act as the minister of God’s law if the need arises.
     On the contrary, Hamlet dies. He drives the love of his life, Ophelia, mad. His mother, the queen, is dead. Polonius, advisor to Claudius, is dead. Laertes, Ophelia’s brother and Polonius’ son, is dead. All meet the “consummation” Hamlet speaks of in Act 3. By the end of the play, his thirst for revenge brings about the fall of the kingdom. Hamlet’s revenge is personal, while justice is impersonal. The judge assesses the situation holistically with minimum bias. The avenger is motivated by offense.   
     Like all humans, Hamlet is too invested to judge. Claudius is his uncle, and the king was his father. “If thou didst ever thy dear father love— / …Revenge his most foul and unnatural murder.” (Act 1 scene 5 lines 23, 25) Love can be misplaced. A true love for his father would have moved Hamlet to forgive, not seek vengeance. Revenge’s wheel just keeps turning. Violence leads to more violence, and more backbiting, and more betrayal. Real love—for Ophelia, for Hamlet’s mother and father—forgives. Claudius repented before his death. “O, offence is rank, it smells to heaven;” (Act 3 Scene 3 line 36) Hamlet observes, and recoils, for killing him now would send him to Heaven. Hamlet, misguided by hate and emotion, cannot live out justice. True justice comes from consistency of disposition. We should be passionate for justice and to right wrongs. But God has granted us this inside the law. Revenge is unjust because it is colored with our emotions and personal drives. True justice, out of our hands, comes by the law of God.
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