Exceptional Hamlet and Resistance to Law

  • Derek Dunne
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


Hamlet, at once the most well-known of all revenge tragedies and a significant departure from its predecessors, occupies a unique and complicated place within the genre of revenge tragedy. Shakespeare’s second revenge tragedy has been heralded as the apogee of a genre hitherto lacking in moral and philosophical depth. Indeed a correlation can be made between the inordinate focus on Hamlet by literary scholars and a dearth of critical material on other revenge tragedies. As the second most written-about text after the Bible,2 the critical heritage that has accreted to this play is daunting to say the least. One scholar puts it succinctly when he says, ‘[i]t would seem at this late day that all that could be said about the play of Hamlet has been said and often repeated’.3 Considering this comment was written in 1885, this gives some idea of the scale of the challenge facing today’s literary scholar. Therefore I begin this chapter with the briefest of critical introductions to Hamlet and the law. This then leads into my own argument regarding Hamlet’s aversion to couching his revenge in terms of justice, law, and ultimately, revenge itself. The atypical nature of Hamlet is apparent in the language of the play, where staples such as ‘law’ and ‘justice’ do not feature heavily, and in its politics, which never sees the alignment of the revenger’s aims with the good of the commonwealth.4


Ruling Elite Early Modern Period Filial Duty Complicated Place Divine Justice 
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  1. 2.
    L. E. Semler, ‘A Proximate Prince: The Gooey Business of Hamlet Criticism’, Sydney Studies in English, 32 (2006), 97–127 (p. 100).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    R. A. Guernsey, Ecclesiastical Law in Hamlet: The Burial of Ophelia (New York: Brentano Bros, 1885), p. 6. Originally presented before the Shakespeare Society of New York, 9 June 1885.Google Scholar
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    Unless otherwise indicated, quotations are taken from Hamlet, ed. Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, Arden Shakespeare third series (London: Thomson Learning, 2006), which takes the 1604/5 quarto (Q2) as its base text.Google Scholar
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    ‘When Did Hamlet Become Modern?’, Textual Practice, 17 (2003), 485–503 (p. 496). See also her monograph, Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).Google Scholar
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    Semler, ‘A Proximate Prince’, p. 107. For a good example of this in action, see Harold Bloom, Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998).Google Scholar
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    Guernsey, Ecclesiastical Law in Hamlet; David Gurnham, Memory, Imagination, Justice: Intersections of Law and Literature (Surrey: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 13–37.Google Scholar
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    As recorded in the edition of Samuel Johnson and George Steevens, The Plays of William Shakespeare (London, 1765), Vol 8, p. 278.Google Scholar
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    ‘The “Amending Hand”: Hales v. Petit, Eyston v. Studd, and Equitable Action in Hamlet’, The Law in Shakespeare, eds, Constance Jordan and Karen Cunningham (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 189–207 (p. 205).Google Scholar
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    Martin Dodsworth, Hamlet Closely Observed (London: Athlone Press, 1985).Google Scholar
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    For a contrasting view of how Hamlet allies himself with the lower orders, see Carolyn Sale, ‘The King is a Thing’. See also Robert Weimann on Hamlet’s ‘irreverent popular perspective’, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater: Studies in the Social Dimension of Dramatic Form and Function, ed. Robert Schwartz (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) (first publ. in German in 1967), p. 131.Google Scholar
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    See Rebecca Lemon, Treason By Words: Literature, Law, and Rebellion in Shakespeare’s England (London: Cornell University Press, 2006).Google Scholar
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    ‘so is there some horrible crymes that yee are bounde in Conscience neuer to forgiue: Such as Witch-craft, wilfull-murther, Incest … Sodomie, Poysoning and false coyne’, James I, Basilikon Doron (Edinburgh, 1599) (STC no. 14348), pp. 37–8; Cf. ‘And of all murders, murder by poysoning is the most detestable’, Edward Coke, The Third Part of the Institutes of the Laws of England Concerning High Treason, and Other Pleas of the Crown, and Criminal Causes (London, 1669) Chapter 7, ‘Of Murder’, p. 47, sig. H2v.Google Scholar
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    Gurnham, Memory, Imagination, Justice, p. 13; Mercer, Hamlet and the Acting of Revenge, p. 247. See also Peter Ure, Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama: Critical Essays by Peter Ure, ed. J. C. Maxwell (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1974), p. 42.Google Scholar

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© Derek Dunne 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Derek Dunne
    • 1
  1. 1.University of FribourgSwitzerland

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