'But is this law?' The nature of law, sovereign power and justice in Hamlet

The 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.
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