shakespeare and justice

Shakepeare and Justice #

Shakespeare canvasses the issuses of order and good governance in most of his plays. Order tends to be disrupted and then restored at the end. The question of whether justice comes from the heavens or from humans is raised repeatedly. When Macduff’s wife and children are murdered by Macbeth, the questions, Did heaven look on,/ And would not take their part?

We look for evidence in other plays.

In King Lear, Edgar attributes justice to the gods:

“The gods are just and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plaque us.”
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.

And Edmund replies:

“Tis true. The wheel has come full circle” V.3 174.

Albany, commenting on the demise of evil:

“This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge!“
IV. 3. 78 – 80.

ALBANY , after he hears that Goneril has poisoned Regan and then killed herself:

This judgment of the heavens, that makes us tremble,
Touches us not with pity.

Kent: It is the stars, The stars above us, govern our conditions. IV. 3.32.

(the final word) Albany (Quarto) / Edgar (Folio) ambiguously counterpoints it with human justice:

“All friends shall taste
The wages of their virtue, and all foes
The cup of their deservings.
V.3 . 276

A major issue is the delivery of severe justice or clemency depending on mitigating circumstances.

In 1606, presents two contrasting plays about power; Macbeth about usurping Power and King Lear about relinquishing Power. Many other plays, especially Richard II and III, and Julius Caesar are clear examinations of the proper exercise of Power.

We live in a Post-Modern world of subjective values, no absolute truths and a pluralistic world of varied cultures, beliefs and values, “where we all dutifully believe six impossible things before breakfast”.

The Western world has accepted empirical knowledge, egalitarianism, feminism and tolerates wide, diverse forms of life styles. To someone from Shakespeare’s time this would appear chaotic, confusing and distressing.

The Merchant of Venice #

In 1594, the Queen’s Jewish physician was accused of trying to poison her and condemned to death. Did Shakespeare write The Merchant of Venice to reprove her?

Legal conflict frequently appears in the comedies, romances, and problem plays, often leading to formal or mock trials of thematic significance. The use and abuse of law also abounds in the histories, and emerges in the tragedies, where the transcendental forces of justice dictate the outcome of human disputes. Overall, the sheer weight and diversity of legal terminology in Shakespeare’s works has resulted in multiple lines of scholarly research on the topic.

The following speech by Portia is perhaps one of the most profound articulation of humanising Justice:


The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which, if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there


The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?

Measure for Measure #

As in Measure for Measure, among the problem plays, offers a legal framework and, according to John D. Eure (1975), expresses Shakespeare’s statement on the limitations and competence of law. Employing an abstruse edict that invokes the death penalty for fornication, Measure for Measure dramatizes the folly of legal systems that seek to adjudicate human imperfections.

Daniel Kornstein explains in his book Kill All the Lawyers: Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal:

Measure for Measure is an ideal play for lawyers. It quivers with legal immediacy and raises fundamental questions of law and morality. Legal themes permeate the play and rivet the attention of both lawyers and nonlawyers alike. “Good counselors lack no / clients” one character announces in the first act (1.2.198-99), and we know near the start that we are watching a play about law (Kornstein, 35).

Duke Vincentio

We have strict statutes and most biting laws.
The needful bits and curbs to headstrong weeds,
Which for this nineteen years we have let slip;
Even like an o’ergrown lion in a cave,
That goes not out to prey. (1.3.21)

Angelo to Escalus

We must not make a scarecrow of the law,
Setting it up to fear the birds of prey,
And let it keep one shape, till custom make it
Their perch and not their terror.

Angelo to Escalus

The jury, passing on the prisoner’s life,
May in the sworn twelve have a thief or two
Guiltier than him they try.
….. You may not so extenuate his offence
For I have had such faults; but rather tell me,
When I, that censure him, do so offend,
Let mine own judgment pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial. Sir, he must die.


O just but severe law! (2.2.56)

Angelo to Isabella:

The law hath not been dead, though it hath slept. (2.2.112)

Angelo to Isabella:

You seem’d of late to make the law a tyrant. (2.4.123)

The Tempest offers a rich and complex exploration of human emotions, power dynamics, the human capacity for both good and evil, and the transformative power of forgiveness.

King Lear #

Only after he has lost his power, does King Lear see reality for what it is.

In Act 2, Scene 4 Lear calls upon heaven in most pitiful manner:


[…] O heavens!
If you do love old men, if your sweet sway
Show obedience, if you yourselves are old,
Make it your cause. Send down, and take my part!”


Then ’tis like the breath of an unfee’d lawyer; you
gave me nothing for’t.

Lear abdicates his throne and loses his kingdom by the conspiracies of his daughters Goneril and Regan supported by Edmund. At Dover, Edmund-led English troops defeat Cordelia-led French troops and Cordelia and Lear are imprisoned. Cordelia is executed in the prison and Lear dies out of the grief of his daughter’s death. Despite all the suffering that good undergoes, evil is punished. Goneril poisons her sister Regan due to jealousy over Edmund. Later, she kills herself when her disloyalty is exposed to Albany.

In a climactic scene Edgar kills Edmund in Act 5, Scene 3 and says:

My name is Edgar, and thy father’s son.
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us.
The dark and vicious place where thee he got
Cost him his eyes.”

the gods are Just” because they punish the evil for their evil actions.

Fool expresses some profound truths:

Help, master, help! here’s a fish hangs in the net,
like a poor man’s right in the law.

In his Perceptions on Justice speech: 4.6. 150 – 175, Lear reflects on how earthily justice sides with power and money.

> ”Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pygmy’s straw does pierce it.”

Bob Dylan says much the same in his protest song, The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.

In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ’em
And that the ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence
Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears

Songwriters: B. Dylan

Jonathan Swift, quoting Solon, agreed: “Laws are like cobwebs, which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through”.

At first, if you want true Justice it can only come from the Gods:


“This shows you are above,
You justicers, that these our nether crimes
So speedily can venge!“ IV. 3. 78 – 80.

However by the end Albany realises we have to create our own justice with his final words on natural Justice:

“All friends shall taste The wages of their virtue, and all foes The cup of their deservings.. V.3 276

Henry VI, Part II #

When Shakespeare wrote; ‘‘Let’s kill all the lawyers,’’ it was the corrupt, unethical lawyers he was referring to. ‘‘The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,’ stated by Dick the Butcher in, Act IV, Scene II, Line 73. Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who thought that if he disturbed law and order, he could become king. Shakespeare was supporting attorneys and judges who instill justice in society.

Romeo and Juliet #

MERCUTIO suggests Queen Mab’s effects on various people:

O’er lawyers’ fingers, who straight dream on fees;

Macbeth #

In the Porter scene, Shakespeare is mocking many professions and here he could be ridiculing Lawyers or more likely clandestine Catholic priests masquerading as pedlars:

Faith, here’s an equivocator, that could
swear in both the scales against either scale;
who committed treason enough for God’s sake,
yet could not equivocate to heaven: O, come
in, equivocator.
(Act II. Sc.2)

This is likely an allusion to Father Henry Garnet, a Jesuit, complicit in the Gunpowder Plot, defending his right to confessional confidence. It can also apply to all legal chicanery.

Shakespeare is well aware how adept lawyers can be with linguistic tricks, eristic reasoning to win arguments:

O! some authority how to proceed;
Some tricks, some quillets,
how to cheat the devil. Love’s Labour’s Lost, 1598

In this exchange between Lady MACDUFF and her son, who are about to be killed by henchmen of Macbeth, Shakespeareraises the whole question of the conflict between the forces of good and evil:


Every one that does so is a traitor, and must be hanged.


And must they all be hanged that swear and lie?


Every one.


Who must hang them?


Why, the honest men.


Then the liars and swearers are fools , for there are liars and swearers enow to beat the honest men and hang up them.

It is evident, Lady Macduff has no answer for her son, but we can assume that she acknowledges the fact that evil forces often outnumber the good in the “earthly” world as her next observation demonstrates:


I have done no harm. But I remember now
I am in this earthly world; where to do harm
Is often laudable, to do good sometime
Accounted dangerous folly:

In past times, solitary evil forces were defeated by the combined strength of good, however, the rise of corporations and institutions have allowed evil forces to unite.

Hamlet: #

Hamlet’s predicament is a universal one; as Marcellus states, “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark” and Hamlet’s reflection, “O cursed spite that I was born to set it right” forms the basis of this play.

When he contemplates suicide, Hamlet itemises his Reasons for despair:

That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, …

Later in the Grave scene, Hamlet picks up a skull:

Why, may not that be the skull of a lawyer? Where be his quiddities now, his quillities, his cases, his tenures, and his tricks?