Evil men do not understand justice


What recourse does one have when a King, who rules by Divine Right, is deposed and usurped by another? The Heavens who have chosen the now usurped King cannot be thought to sit idly by while an illegitimate sovereign now reigns. Shakespeare’s second installment of his Second Tetralogy explores how the Heavens resolve the problem of the illegitimate sovereign. In particular the First Part of Henry IV explores how the Heavens attempted to solve the question of the illegitimate King. The first act of the play demonstrates that an uprising of supporters of the slain King Richard II is underway and both Prince Hal and his friend Falstaff discuss the relation of the Moon’s power to govern the affairs of men. It appears that the Law, which governs the Heavenly Bodies and men, is personified by Shakespeare in the First Part of Henry IV as a means of gaining satisfaction against King Henry IV for his usurpation of God’s chosen King, Richard II.

Some have seen Henry IV, Part One[1] as a play about the creation of a Prince and King in the character of Prince Hal; however, the play focuses on the career of a usurper.[2] Falstaff and Prince Hal discuss the new situation that they find themselves in. Falstaff says to Hal, “let men say we be men of good government, being governed, as the sea is by our noble and chaste mistress the moon, under whose countenance we steal.” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 28-31.) The moon has the power to make the ocean rise and fall at will and that same power governs men according to Falstaff. The moon is governed by God, and therefore the moon appears with water, the prominent literary image of redemption and a new beginning.  The moon will be used by God to cleanse the Kingdom of England by stirring the passions of the people into a outright rebellion.   The rebellion of the Welsh seems to be caused by stirrings of the moon in accordance with Falstaff’s belief of the moon’s power over mankind. The Prince responds to Falstaff by saying, “Thou sayest well, and it holds well too, for the fortune of us that are moon’s men doth ebb and flow like the sea, being governed, as the sea is, by the moon.” (Act 1, scene 2, lines 32-35) The question that Prince Hal now must face is how to protect stability in England despite the wrath of Heaven against his father. Yet, to demonstrate to the Heavens that he, Prince Hal, is deserving of the throne his father stole, Hal acknowledges, “And pay the debt I never promised” (Act 1 scene 2, 216) This prophetic statement by Hal indicates that his father will in fact be saved from Divine justice, instead the Prince and the English people will be forced to pay for the sins of Henry IV.

Having disposed the King, Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke is prepared to turn his attention to the restoration of time and the kingdom of England; he proposes a crusade to the Holy Land. However, as King Henry IV, Bolingbroke faces his first threat from the Welsh, who as supporters of the late King Richard II are prepared to revolt against the usurper King.[3] Because of threats to his throne the crusade must be put on hold.  The play of the First Part of Henry IV focuses around the hostilities the new king faces in the aftermath of his execution and disposition of the previous king. In particular, a theme of the play is posed by the King’s son Hal; he will be forced to pay for the actions of his father in taking the thrown. The play looks to the relationship of the Heavenly Bodies and political affairs; England’s political affairs throughout the play are chaotic. Something seems to be seeking retribution for the deposing of God’s chosen monarch. The Law appears in various forms throughout the play, each seeking retribution against the King. The threat of a Welsh uprising is also an indication that Shakespeare plans for Part 1 of Henry IV how the Heavens handle usurpers.  Henry’s rule has ushered in a period of lawlessness in England that will last until the last of the Lancaster Monarchs has reigned. As Falstaff states, “I am accursed to rob in that thief’s company.”(2, 2, 10) The only way to restore the rule of law and order in England is restore the monarchy to a King who represents lawfulness rather than lawlessness. Henry’s choice to overthrow his cousin Richard plays out in the play to show the consequences of his choice: England and his family will suffer Divine justice.

The final element of the story of Divine Justice against King Henry IV is the war against the Welsh.[4] Falstaff says, “Rebellion lay in his way….” (5.1.29.)  The rebellion, a result of the moon’s power over the passions of men, symbolizes the Divine Justice against King Henry and as Falstaff indicates the rebellion was predestined when Henry usurped Richard. Rebellion by the Welsh calls into question the English Constitution under Henry IV and even his successors; primarily the weakness and irresponsibility of the King. Prince Hal comes into his own during the war as his plan expressed in his soliloquy in the first act. He draws others to himself, much like a jeweler places a diamond against a black background. And by executing his plan, and taking part in the war, Hal has made himself the object Divine Justice will aim toward.[5] This is evident by the action of Part II of Henry IV as Henry IV is terminally ill rather than dying from an external condition. Prince Hal kills the rebel leader Hotspur at the end of the play; and if the rebellion is the heavens seeking Divine Justice upon Henry then Hotspur must be the chief sword for that Divine Justice. This action places Hal, and not Henry, in the sights of the heavens as they seek retribution for the death of their legitimate, Divine Right King Richard.  As the Kingdom is taking account of what has happened in the rebellion, the King observes, “Thus did rebellion find rebuke…”(5.5.1) The divinely ordained rebellion was rebuked by the son of the man who disobeyed the Lord’s command that Richard be King of England. The theme at the beginning of the play, the restoration of time and the Kingdom, alludes to the words of Henry after the rebellion has been put down. Time represents a temporal order, indicating that Henry has restored a temporal monarchy after a period of Divine monarchs.

Many Shakespearean critics claim that the story of the play Part I of Henry IV is the story of Prince Hal and his career on the path to becoming king of England. Yet, the story of the play focuses on the Divine Justice planned out by the heavens against the usurper King Henry IV. The Prince interferes with this plan of the heavens by intersecting himself in the rebellion and killing the leader of the rebel army. The movement of the play does involve the establishment of Hal as the true and proper heir of Henry IV but in the sense that Hal becomes the focus of Divine Justice throughout Part II of Henry IV and Henry V where Hal becomes King Henry V. The rebellion is the main object of the play whereby Prince Hal reveals himself as the proper heir to the lawless, usurper King Henry IV. Rather than being good, this event actually shows the inevitable downfall of one of Shakespeare’s most important characters.


[1] All quotes from the play taken from Folger Shakespeare Library: Henry IV, Part 1. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York, 1994.

[2] David Berkeley and Donald Eidson, “The Themes of Henry IV, Part I” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 1 (Winter, 1968), pp. 25-31 accessed from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2867838 on 5/1/10. The authors argue in “The Themes of Henry IV, Part I” that one of the themes in Henry IV, part One is the education of a prince. However, they ignore that the play also demonstrates Divine justice on usurpers. More importantly they fail to notice that Prince Hal, while “learning” to become King models himself on his father who is a lawless usurper in the eyes of the heavens. Thus, the Prince’s education is complete when he kills the leader of the divinely ordained rebel army, Hotspur.

[3] Trafton, Dain A. “Shakespeare’s Henry IV, A New Prince in a New Principality” in Shakespeare as a Political Thinker edited by John E. Alvis & Thomas G. West, (ISI Books: Wilmington, DE. 2000) pg. 94-104. This article is similar in the argument that I make in that the story of Henry IV is about Henry IV despite other underlying storylines. In addition, Trafton argues that Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 demonstrate the consequences of Henry’s decision to overthrow the Divine Right King Richard II.

[4]Leggatt, “Henry IV, Part 1: A Modern Perspective” in Folger Shakespeare Library: Henry IV, Part 1. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks: New York, 1994. Similar to the argument made by Berkely and Eidson, Alexander Leggatt in his essay “Henry IV, Part 1: A modern perspective” argues that the movement of the play is towards the establishment of Hal as the true heir to Henry. However, his focus is on the battle of Shrewsbury where Hal proves himself the heir by killing Hotspur. This point I do not disagree with, as Hal’s killing of Hotspur shows him the proper object of Divine Justice.

[5] In Hal’s soliloquy at act 1 scene 2 he hatches a plan to make himself appear as the proper heir to Henry’s thrown. He says, “I’ll so offend to make offense a skill….”(1.2.223) Indicating that he will throw off attention on his father, making himself appear as “the sun.”

Notes on The Tragedy of Caesar


When looking at Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Julius Caesar it is important to consider first and foremost the situation of Rome at the time the play takes place. In his unofficial Tetralogy of Roman History, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is the third installment following the “Rape of Lucrece” and Coriolanus. To consider the situation of Rome one need only look at the beginning of the play. A group of commoners are confronted by Flavius, a Patrician. The commoners are not recognized as citizens by Flavius and they are not wearing badges indicating their position. The great Roman war between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great has ended and the commoners are calling for a celebration, a holiday. Yet, this call for a celebration is an indication of the fracturing of Roman politics and the dissolution of the Republic. Only victories over foreigners were traditionally celebrated by Rome, and so celebrating Caesar’s victory over a great Roman general is an important element to observe in the play.

From this point the play takes two positions, one as the Tragedy of Julius Caesar and the second as the Tragedy of Brutus.

In regards to Caesar, the commoners view Caesar as a “Super” Tribune though he held no official office. Historically speaking Caesar was a dictator at the time but there is question over whether the Senate recognized this office. If they didn’t recognize it, then Caesar was left to strive for something even more: the crown of King. This is the situation of the play, as Caesar has returned home there is discussion of naming Caesar Dictator for Life and providing him with a crown (albeit the Senate will insist it only be worn outside the city.) In addition to seeing him as “Super” Tribune, the people generally regard Caesar as a living god which some suggest is what Caesar is truly after. However Caesar suffered from epilepsy, got sick, and lost a swimming race, all of which may call into question the divine nature of Caesar.   One thing is very certain though, Julius Caesar was a very accomplished conqueror.  Caesar is also a shrewd politician who is well aware of the nature of the Roman people and so despite any desire to hold the crown he will refuse it knowing the people’s hatred of monarchy.

Throughout the play Caesar speaks of himself in the third person and refers to himself as the “unmoved mover”, which those familiar with theology and Aristotelian metaphysics will note that the unmoved mover is God. And to drive this point home further, Caesar calls himself Jupiter who was the Chief god of the Romans.  As a result of this  Shakespeare departs from his source (Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans) who suggests that Caesar struggled with his assassins and yet Shakespeare’s Caesar does not. This may indicate that Shakespeare’s Caesar desired some more than the crown of King or Dictator.

Caesar’s assassination calls the audiences attention to problems within the Roman Republic. The people’s devotion to a man who may or may not have desired to become King or at worst a god suggests that the people cannot rule themselves and are in need of a Caesar. This may be a result of the nature of the Roman Republic, which is also an Empire. One of the faults of Empire is that Republic is not possible. This is in part because you will constantly be on extended military adventures and will need a General willing to lead these exhibitions. As a result the soldiers that make up that General’s army will become devoted to their General more than to the republican government. A Republic exists so that no one person can say that anything is done according to their will, yet in an Empire such proclamations is feasible.

Caesar’s death comes early in the play and Brutus’ struggle to understand himself dominates the rest of the play. At Caesar’s death  Shakespeare reports his last words as “Even you Brutus?” However, despite Shakespeare placing Latin words into Caesar’s mouth he is reported historically to have used Greek. The translation of Caesar’s historical Greek last words are, “Even you child?” Causing the question to arise, was Brutus Caesar’s bastard? Brutus’s view of the “self” is that it is only possible to see and know oneself through others. Brutus views himself as his ancestor who helped to overthrow the Tarquin Kings. Every action he takes are with this image in mind; Brutus portrays himself as a lover of “res publica” and opposed to the private goods. The Roman Republic is his chief concern, not his private fears. His devotion to the cause of the Republic links him to the persons of Lucretia and Junus Brutus (his ancestor.) He places a strict emphasis on honor, but unlike Coriolanus who places an emphasis on honor without regard to the ancestral, Brutus sees honor very much in the light of the ancestral. Brutus, therefore, regards Rome under Caesar as not different than Rome under the Tarquins. It is at this point that Brutus chooses to take part in the assassination of Caesar.

Two important questions are to be considered in Brutus’ decision to join the conspiracy. First, what should a responsible Roman, committed to the common good, consider when deliberating joining a conspiracy against Caesar, which will end in his death? Secondly, the issue of Republic: how do you maintain Rome as a republic with Caesar’s death in particular when only a handful of people take part in the assassination?

As a result of taking part in the conspiracy Brutus objects to the attempt by the others to recruit Cicero to the cause; Shakespeare departs from Plutarch on this point. Brutus may fear that Cicero may take all the honor from the assassination, stealing Brutus’s role as savior of the Republic. In addition, Brutus is careful to make want Caesar’s death look as a sacrifice and not as a murder. Brutus is so high minded that he neglects seeing the assassination as others may see it: a crime.

In his speech following the death of Caesar, Brutus appeals to “Friends, Romans and lovers” in contrast to Antony’s “Friends, Romans and Countrymen.” For Antony the people are primarily fellow citizens and Romans but for Brutus they are less fellow citizens and more as lovers and friends. Brutus’ devotion to honor causes him to betray his Countrymen and his Friends causing him to have to exile from the city in the midst of a war. The speech is important to note as well because it is given in prose, typically Shakespeare used verse for the educated and noblemen and prose for the base.

Brutus’ suicide is a result of two factors: A. Brutus believes he can stand outside himself and view his actions and B. because he cannot be honest with himself as a result of the conflation of honor and justice. Ultimately, his suicide is a result of his persistence to see the assassination of Julius Caesar as an act of justice and because he still believes he is seen as Junus Brutus.

Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.


My friend Ashok asked that I provide a commentary on Hamlet.

As a student of Political Philosophy and American Studies I may not seem like the proper person to provide a commentary on William Shakespeare’s epic play Hamlet. However, this semester in pursuance of my Master of American Studies, I am taking a class on the playwright.

 Hamlet begins with a question; more importantly, it is a challenge by a watchman. The question is returned with yet another question, or challenge, by a second watchman. The Kingdom of Denmark is on alert after the King’s untimely demise.  Questions and challenges play an important role in Hamlet, some of the questions penetrate throughout the entire play. How did the King die? Is Claudius, the new king and the dead king’s brother, the cause of the king’s death? Is the dead king’s wife Gertrude guilty as her new husband, the new king? Is Hamlet, the son of the dead King, truly insane or is he simply putting on an antic-disposition? All of these questions riddle throughout the play, but there are even greater esoteric questions that one can ask.

In the second act of the play, Prince Hamlet is charged by the ghost of his dead father to kill his uncle. Thus presents our first question, is it right for a Christian to commit tyrannicide? Is it right for a Prince to commit tyrannicide? And if it is right, under what circumstances can a Christian or a Prince commit tyrannicide? Hamlet spends the play in contemplation, in fact he spends more time in contemplation than any other Shakespearean character. Yet he spends very little time contemplating the justice in his charge to commit tyrannicide. Instead, Hamlet spends his time contemplating the meaning of life. His time thinking causes him to delay in his charge, yet at other times (death of Polonius) Hamlet acts quickly and almost without any thought.

Before we can answer the key question of whether or not he has a right to commit tyrannicide, we have other questions that  must be asked. Hamlet has to have a justification for tyrannicide, even in Protestant thought tyrannicide is only acceptable with a just cause. As it stands in the play only two people know for a fact that Claudius killed Hamlet the elder…Claudius and Hamlet. Hamlet the younger only knows this fact through a ghost, which he doesn’t know if the Ghost is a belligerent or not. As Hamlet himself admits only, “Heaven and Hell” know whether or not the Ghost can truly be trusted. And since no other character attests to having heard the Ghost, Hamlet is left alone to defend his actions based on the information of a Ghost. As a result, Hamlet does have legitimate cause to delay in his cause so that Claudius has a chance to incriminate himself. But before Hamlet can even consider killing Claudius, he must be prepared to take the throne once the deed is done. This brings us to our first problem of committing tyrannicide. Hamlet is considered by other characters in the play a competent leader. Ophelia in her sentiments supports the theory that Hamlet is capable of being king. He also appears to be capable in foreign policy, but he doesn’t appear thrilled to become King.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas Tyrannicide is acceptable in two situations, when there is a Tyrant by Usurpation or a Tyrant by Oppression. In this instance, is Claudius a Tyrant by Usurpation? Did he usurp the legitimate king and take his throne? In Denmark the monarchy is elected, albeit for life. The first time we see Claudius we find that he had the support of the people for his reign and in this instance Hamlet cannot legitimately commit Tyrannicide. But is Claudius a Tyrant by Oppression? Again, Claudius appears to have the support of the Danish people. He also doesn’t seem to be an oppressive ruler, and only resigns to become such towards Hamlet once it becomes clear Hamlet seeks to murder him. And so at least in the Catholic understanding, Hamlet does not have just cause to commit tyrannicide.

The first question of the play then, whether or not Hamlet is entitled and justified in committing Tyrannicide, is answered in the negative at every turn. Hamlet is not prepared to take the throne, and Claudius is neither a usurper nor an oppressive ruler.

The second major question then is found throughout Hamlet’s soliloquies. Hamlet has more soliloquies than any other Shakespearean character with seven. The soliloquies are important, because throughout the play, with the exception of his first appearance, Hamlet is putting on his antic disposition. As a result, Hamlet’s true thoughts and feelings come through in his soliloquies. As such, to what extent is Hamlet’s concern with Fortune and Honor in contest with his charge to commit tyrannicide?

The first soliloquy is the most unique because it comes before Hamlet decides to put on an antic disposition and even before the Ghost appears to him. The first theme found in the soliloquies is suicide. Hamlet contemplates suicide so that the, “sullied flesh would melt away.” In this instance, flesh can mean either the actual physical human flesh that covers the body, or it could mean the passions. Flesh is another theme found throughout Hamlet’s soliloquies and it seems that it is constantly connected to the theme of Fortune. Finally, in the first soliloquy Hamlet does what he does throughout, he generalizes. In this instance, Hamlet generalizes about life through the particulars of his own. He also generalizes about women through his mother Gertrude. In his generalizations about women he comes to feel that they are weak and fragile and this is something he ultimately generalizes about Ophelia.

The struggle for Hamlet about tyrannicide is deeper than it’s proper justice. Like in his thoughts of suicide, Hamlet is concerned with saving all from the flesh and in particular Claudius. He doesn’t want to send Claudius to Hell, he wants to save him from his passions or his flesh. Flesh and passions are connected to Fortune and as a result Reason is connected with God. Passion and Fortune govern the affairs of men, and neither Reason or God can rule over them and this upsets Hamlet to the point that he wants to be released and wants to release everyone else. Hamlet’s anger over the inability to govern the Passions and Fortune are expressed in the recitation of Aeneas’s story to Dido about the Fall of Troy. Hamlet sees himself as Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles who wants to murder Priam to avenge his father. But like Hamlet, Pyrrhus is unwilling to do what he must to avenge Achilles.

Hamlet contemplates this speech in his third soliloquy, where he is aware of his father’s death but cannot bring himself to perform the murder. As a result, instead of action Hamlet decides to catch Claudius in speech. He does this in part to find if the Ghost is from heaven or hell. Hamlet authors lines to insert into the play within the play to convince Claudius to admit the murder. What is odd about the lines is that Hamlet doesn’t create the lines to bring out Claudius’s guilt, but rather to torment his mother over her disgrace. Her frailty has been a point of contention for Hamlet throughout the play.

The typical reading of Hamlet’s fourth Soliloquy, the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, is that it is about suicide. Hamlet begins the soliloquy generalizing about life itself, “being or not being.” Again fortune and flesh play a key role in Hamlet’s thoughts. The passions are always in concert with fortune, and reason can never rule over them and so it makes life unbearable for Hamlet. He sees death as a passageway to Heaven, which is our native country; but like the famous Hotel California, once you check in you may never leave. It is also in this soliloquy where Hamlet admits clearly that the passions do not submit to reason.

The problem with reason for Hamlet is that he sees it as two functions: the faculty that has the ability to understand events and actions and the faculty which governs the passions.Hamlet strives to see them both as one but cannot; the play itself is about these two functions of reason. The ability to control the passions with the ability to understand. Hamlet must be able to rise above his passion to kill Claudius to avenge his father, and use the ability to understand to do it.

The final soliloquy before the end of the play concerns itself with one basic premise of the play. Hamlet’s deliberation always resolves down tot he futility of action, in particular political action. Yet Hamlet admits that he has, “cause, and will, and strength, and means to [kill Claudius.]” The final soliloquy focuses around the concept of honor, and like the first soliloquy it stands unique. The final soliloquy centers around Hamlet recovering himself and is no ready to do what his dead father charged him to do. What prompted this change is difficult, was it the encounter with Fortenbras’s men? Or was it Ophelia who saved him? If it was Fortenbras, does Hamlet want to be like him? Fortenbras seems to be the timocratic man to a fault.

Finally, Hamlet finally resolves to kill Claudius only after he himself has become Claudius. His murder of Polonius has caused the suicide of Ophelia, and now his unwillingness to take responsibility for the destruction of Polonius’s family will bring about the destruction of Laertes.

So to conclude, the play Hamlet is about the justice of tyrannicide, and overcoming the passions.

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