Miss Woodhouse's Musings

…about life, the universe, and everything. Don't panic!


on 18 February 2010

It’s finals time again, which is why I’ve been MIA around here this week. However, I can’t leave you, dear readers, without something to think about. In going over some papers from last semester, I found a short post I wrote on how the theme of justice is treated in Shakespeare’s plays. We read eight plays in eight weeks, plus some sonnets. I only cover five of the plays- Hamlet, Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, and The Tempest. If you have any thoughts about justice in these five plays, or any other Shakespearian works, feel free to leave them in the comments field. One of the things I love about classes is the discussion aspect, so it would be nice to have that here as well. Enjoy!

One of the overarching themes I have noticed through Shakespeare’s plays is the idea of justness and rightness. With the notable exception of King Lear, the good end well and the bad end in disgrace. In plays like The Tempest, this idea is a little vague and hard to grasp. However, we can see that Ferdinand and Miranda, two innocent characters in a sea of magic and manipulation, are able to be happy together (5.1, 199-201). Caliban, the evil plotting man-fish, ends in disgrace and ruination (5.1, 299-301). Even Prospero experiences a form of justice- he can regain his place in society, but he must surrender his somewhat overused magical powers to do so (Epilogue, 1-3).

Much Ado presents a simplistic form of justice. After attacking the very character of Hero, Claudius is able to regain her and her love by simply mourning her “death” and agreeing to marry her “cousin.” Don John, the instigator of all things unpleasant, is captured in flight and put aside until someone could be bothered to devise a good punishment for him (5.4, 121-122).

Shylock receives the rougher end of the complication of justness when Portia’s pleas to him for grace and mercy go unheeded (4.1, 228-229; 303-307). As Greenblatt points out, the justice Portia serves is lacking in the very mercy she begged for Antonio, but that should not matter to the reader since the characters are satisfied by it (254). Though Ophelia’s death in Hamlet does not seem fair, the injustice of it is somewhat tempered by the fact that all the truly bad characters meet their death in various ways as well. Othello shares the same idea- though readers are saddened by the senseless death of an innocent woman, the event is made slightly less tragic by the clearing of her name and the death of her murderer.


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