The World of Hamlet: Providence as a Form of Justice

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The Kingdom of Denmark has been torn apart with Claudius' incestuous greed and ravenous desire for power; the whole nation thrust into an utter state of chaos. With the death of the King and feared invasion by young Fortinbras hanging in the balance, Hamlet searches out a way to avenge his father's death and set things right. Within this turmoil overwhelming Demark, the characters perceive two external forces that mediate the sequence of events in the play. The unpredictable workings of fortune occur purely as happenstance, or luck, as this force allows anything possible to happen. However, the predominant force of divine providence plays a greater role in this world, particularly as a means by which to uphold justice in the kingdom.

The play begins with the state of Demark in an utter mess. The King has been poisoned; his brother Claudius has usurped the throne and married his wife; and the enemy has threatened an invasion. Hamlet remarks, "All is not well. / I doubt some foul play. Would the night were come! Till then sit still, my soul. Foul deeds will rise, / Though the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes" (19: 255-58). Upon seeing the Old King's ghost for a second time, even Marcellus, a common soldier, recognizes that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (27:90). This notion of an unsettling evil overwhelming the kingdom becomes apparent as Hamlet postulates that his father's death was no accident, or simple act of fortune. When his father's ghost confirms that Claudius is behind the murder, Hamlet swears to avenge the death, saying, "Yes, by heaven! That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain…I have sworn't" (31:104-112).

The role of fortune in this play is best represented by Hamlet in one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare. "To be or not to be: that is the question: / Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer / The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them" (63:56-60). In this passage, Hamlet contemplates the manner by which he should fulfill the promise he has made to murder Claudius. He can actively carry out his mission by taking arms against Claudius, and devising some plan for his eventual murder. However, he can also do very little, or virtually nothing, to accomplish the desired task. In this passive way, Hamlet would not take any active resistance against Claudius, but rather would rely on the randomness of fortune to exact revenge. Essentially, he would rely on luck to bring about justice.

Hamlet initially believes that fortune mediates the events in Demark, and therefore only it can right the wrongs that have been committed. This belief is reflected in his subsequent actions, since he continually dances around his uncle's murder. He would rather Claudius die by fortune's hands than his own. Hence, Hamlet poses the above question is because he is struggling with the promise he has made to murder his own flesh and blood. He does not know whether "to be," that is to act to ensure Claudius' death, or "not to be," thereby allowing fortune to randomly work its course. Hamlet curses the predicament he now faces, stating, "O curséd spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!" (34:188-89). Hamlet's confidence in his ability to carry out the promise once made to his father is terribly shaken, and he continually doubts the purpose he has sworn to undertake. He utilizes the play as a test of his uncle's guilt, stating, "Out of my weakness and my melancholy…The play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King" (60:613-17). Even after Claudius' abrupt departure and suspicious reaction to the play depicting the king's murder, Hamlet is still unable to kill Claudius when the opportunity presents itself in the church. He states, "Now might I do it pat, now ‘a is a-praying / And now I'll do't. And so ‘a goes to heaven, / And so I am revenged. That would be scanned" (85:73-75). Hamlet reasons that...