‘But is this Law?’ The Nature of Law, Sovereign Power and Justice in Hamlet

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This paper addresses questions of legal and political theory concerning the representations of law, sovereign power and justice within Hamlet. I explore how the play can be seen to emphasise the significance of the restraints that can be placed upon the sovereign and Hamlet himself, by natural law and justice. Applying the natural law theories of Shakespeare's contemporaries and John Finnis's modern theory of natural law in particular, I argue that Claudius is an illegitimate figurehead of state and law whose exercise of practical reason and prudentia is flawed, and that his actions cause his law to lack the moral content demanded of ‘law’ worthy of that name. In part II of the paper, I assess Hamlet's unfulfilled potential as a sovereign lawmaker and consider whether his philosophical, cautious nature would have been apt for this role. In the final part of the paper, I argue that Hamlet's own actions are also open to legal and moral critique. I contend that at the end of the play, Hamlet neglects his duty to the people of Denmark since his killing of Claudius is an act of personal revenge that, at the very most, achieves a crude version of justice, rather than a public act legitimated through law.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2007

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  • Law and Humanities is a peer-reviewed journal, providing a for for scholarly discourse within the arts and humanities around the subject of law. For this purpose, the arts and humanities disciplines are taken to include literature, history (including history of art), philosophy, theology, classics and the whole spectrum of performance and representational arts. The remit of the journal does not extend to consideration of the laws that regulate practical aspects of the arts and humanities (such as the law of intellectual property). Law and Humanities is principally concerned to engage with those aspects of human experience which are not empirically quantifiable or scientifically predictable.
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