The Grand Jury in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Okay, so we all agree that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a ghost story and a murder mystery (like Chalk Ghost by yours truly), but did you know it’s also a courtroom drama?

To remind you: In the play, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, kills Polonius (stabs him behind an arras), who is his girlfriend Ophelia’s father. Eventually (Act IV, scene v—in Roman numerals that no one can read anymore that means Act Four, scene 5) Ophelia’s brother Laertes storms into the castle and tries to “arrest” King Claudius, whom he mistakenly believes to be the man who murdered his father.

Recently, when rereading Hamlet for the umpteenth time, I noticed for the first time that Claudius employs a grand jury to exonerate him of the charge of killing Polonius. Toward the end of the aforesaid scene, King Claudius says to Laertes, speaking Early Modern English:

“Go but apart; make your choice of whom your wisest friends you will, and they shall hear and judge ‘twixt you and me. If by direct or collateral hand they find us [that is, the king who’s always plural] touched, we will our kingdom give, our crown, our life, and all that we call ours, to you in satisfaction; but if not, be you content to lend your patience to us, and we shall jointly labor with your soul to give it due content.”

In Modern American English this means:

Go outside and choose a jury of your friends. I will present my case for innocence to them. If the jury finds me guilty of direct murder or even of instigating your father’s murder, I will turn over the keys to the kingdom to you in payment of my debt to you. But if they don’t find me guilty you must agree to go along with my plans to punish the guilty party (that is, Hamlet).

King Claudius and Laertes leave the stage. They return in the next scene, after the grand jury has met and failed to produce an indictment of Claudius. Claudius says:

“Now must your conscience my acquittance seal. . . .”

Claudius claims he’s innocent of Polonius’ murder—and he’s right about that, although it’s the only murder in the play that he is innocent of.

Justice in Hamlet and the Bible

Reading Hamlet for the first time as a mystery writer, I’m struck by the number of legal references in the play. I won’t list them now (maybe later), but the idea of justice that Claudius relies on does strike me as particularly relevant to many of the trials that America has obsessed over recently (think Casey Anthony).

For Claudius and everyone in Shakespeare’s time, justice isn’t sought through trials on behalf of society: justice is sought on behalf of the injured party, rather as our civil court system does. Even murder in Hamlet is a crime against the victim’s family, not all of Denmark. In fact, the only murder in Hamlet that is a crime against society is Claudius’ murder of King Hamlet, a murder he committed in order to usurp the throne.

The Bible (especially the Old Testament) also treats most crimes as crimes against individuals, not society: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” The Ten Commandments are mostly prohibitions against injuring others—coveting a man’s wife or ass, for instance. Even in ancient Greece, a murderer was brought to trial not by society but by the victim’s family.

This makes a great deal of sense to me: the people most concerned by a murder are the victim’s family. I’m not saying I think we should do away with anti-murder laws. Clearly modern society must have a way to remove from its midst those individuals who are anti-social, or else they will continue to harm more innocents. But in Shakespeare’s day, the notion of sociopathy and psychopathy were non-existent. Madness, it was believed, could be either divine or infernal, and in both cases God, not the court system, was expected to deal with the problem. You could be executed for just about any crime, too, whether killing a rabbit on the lord of the manor’s manor-grounds or for killing your baby.

The key thing is that society as a whole didn’t become rabid about a single murder. Society went wild only when the murder affected all of society—such as the murder of the king, the equivalent of a political assassination today. An assassin takes in his own hands what ought to be the choice of the whole nation. A mother who may or may not have killed her child—whether accidentally, negligently, or intentionally—ought not to be the business of the whole nation. Yes, arrest her, try her, and punish her like Claudius suggests, but “if they don’t find her guilty, society must her acquittance seal.”

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