Claudius the Bad Guy in Hamlet
This essay will thoroughly delineate the character of King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, show his place in the drama, and interpret his character -- with the assistance of literary critics.
Philip Burton in “Hamlet” discusses Claudius’ sudden rise to the Danish throne upon the death of King Hamlet
The fact that Claudius
has become king is not really surprising. Only late in the play does Hamlet complain that his uncle had "popped in between the election and my hopes." The country had been in a nervous state expecting an invasion by young Fortinbras, at the head of a lawless band of adventurers, in revenge for his father’s death at the hands of King Hamlet. A strong new king was immediately needed; the election of Claudius, particularly in the absence of Hamlet, was inevitable. What is more, it was immediately justified, because Claudius manages to dispel the threat of invasion by appealing to the King of Norway to curb his nephew, Fortinbras; the ambitious young soldier was the more ready to cancel the projected invasion because the object of his revenge, Hamlet’s father, was now dead, and in return he received free passage through Denmark to fight against Poland (Burton).
The drama opens after Hamlet has just returned from Wittenberg, England, where he has been a student. What brought him home was the news of his father’s death and his uncle’s accession to the throne of Denmark. Hamlet has also learned the disturbing news of the new king’s “o’erhasty marriage” to Hamlet I’s wife less than two month’s after the funeral. It would seem initially that Gertrude, rather than Claudius, is to blame for the protagonist’s “violent emotions” (Smith 80); thus in his first soliloquy Hamlet cries out, “Frailty, thy name is woman!”
Claudius’ first appearance
is at a court gathering where he very dishonestly laments the death of his brother:
Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him,
Together with remembrance of ourselves. (1.2)
Claudius handles the affairs of state very confidently, regarding Norway and Fortinbras; and personal matters with familial concern, like Laertes’ return to studies in France and Hamlet’s dejection: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” The king is a “capable ruler and a resourceful man” (Boklund 120). Claudius shares the decision-making with Gertrude, and “perils his very soul for her”(Faucit 11). Claudius supports her wish that Hamlet remain at Elsinore rather than return to his studies: “Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet, / I pray thee stay with us, go not to Wittenberg.” Coleridge states regarding this scene:
In the king's speech, observe the set and pedantically antithetic form of the sentences when touching that which galled the heels of conscience, - the strain of undignified rhetoric, - and yet in what follows concerning the public weal, a certain appropriate majesty. Indeed was he not a royal brother (351)?
The ghost informs Hamlet that Gertrude was seduced by “that incestuous, that adulterate beast,/With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts” prior to his brother’s passing. “So lust, though to a radiant angel link'd,/Will sate itself in a celestial bed,/And prey on garbage.” Thus Claudius is a very dishonorable type who has stolen the throne and his brother’s wife. This revelation shows Claudius’ complex temperament and motivation and renders him much more rounded in the dramatist’s development of him (Abrams 33). Hamlet chooses to use an “antic disposition” to disguise his actions as he maneuvers to kill the one who poisoned his father in the garden, thus exemplifying double-plotting.
After Hamlet enters Ophelia’s room “with his doublet all unbraced,” etc., Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain, involves the king with “Hamlet’s lunacy.” But Claudius has already dispatched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to uncover the cause of the protagonist’s “transformation.” Polonius’ reading of a love-letter from Hamlet to Ophelia causes Claudius and Polonius to secretly observe a planned rendezvous between the young lovers. To his girlfriend Hamlet reveals, somewhat cryptically, his intention to execute the king with these words: "Those that are married already, all but one, shall live." From this “chance” meeting Claudius is convinced that Hamlet’s problems are not related to his love for Ophelia.
Love! His affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
Was not like madness. There’s something in his soul
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger. . . (3.1)
Claudius decides to play it safe by putting Hamlet far, far away, in England where he will be collecting "neglected tribute."
A troupe of actors arrives at Elsinore. “[. . .] just as their patrons have proved fickle in their loyalty, so Claudius has dispossessed King Hamlet, and the people have proved likewise fickle” (Burton). The coming of the players has inspired Hamlet with a scheme to test Claudius’ guilt. In his “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Hamlet explores why he is delaying in killing Claudius; it is for the same reason that one delays in committing suicide – it is serious matter; there can be no uncertainty about the guilt of the intended victim, who, in this case, complicates matters because he is exceptionally professional and cunning. During the presentation of “The Murther of Gonzago,” renamed “The Mousetrap,” the players enact the crime which Claudius committed on King Hamlet I. Hamlet keeps the king on edge with insinuations in his dialogue with him, for example, “No, no, they do but jest, poison in jest – no offense in the world.” Finally, the king panics and yells, “Give me some light. Away!” and the play ends. Both Horatio and Hamlet have observed Claudius’ guilty reaction to the “poisoning in the garden” scene. Claudius, reflecting on his guilt in the privacy of his room, laments:
O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. . . . But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence? (3.3)
Claudius kneels in an unsuccessful effort to pray, at which time Hamlet, en route to his mother’s room, passes to notice Claudius in a vulnerable position physically but not spiritually. Maynard Mack in “The World of Hamlet” asks: “Will a revenge that takes him in the purging of his soul be vengeance, or hire and salary” (117-18)? And Hamlet, desiring that the king’s soul go to hell and not heaven when he is killed, opts for a time when the king is in a less prayerful posture.
As Hamlet talks emotionally with his mother, he fulfills, regarding his purpose concerning Claudius, “in the largest sense, the ultimatum of the Ghost’s charge: ‘Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest’” (1.5.82—83)(Jorgensen). Gertrude in her nervousness prompts Polonius to reveal his presence behind the arras, motivating Hamlet, who thinks it is the king, to kill him with his rapier. Claudius is not extremely alarmed about the incident since Gertrude does not share with him Hamlet’s feeling that he was killing the king behind the curtain. Nevertheless, the incident hardens Claudius in his resolve to get the protagonist away from Elsinore:
His liberty is full of threats to all,
To you yourself, to us, to everyone.
Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered?
It will be laid to us, whose providence
Should have kept short, restrained, and out of haunt
This mad young man. But so much was our love,
We would not understand what was most fit. (4.1)
The final two verses reveal the deep intelligence of Claudius, and his deception and cunning since he plans to have Hamlet killed once he is escorted to England by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Claudius’ pretence of love and care is continued in his statement to the prince:
Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety,--
Which we do tender, as we dearly grieve
For that which thou hast done,--must send thee hence
With fiery quickness: therefore prepare thyself;
The bark is ready, and the wind at help,
The associates tend, and every thing is bent
For England. (4.3)
Hamlet thus leaves for England, but a pirate ship captures him and returns him to Denmark. Claudius, upon receiving Hamlet’s letter telling of his imminent return to Elsinore, schemes the death of the protagonist with the help of Laertes. After Ophelia’s burial, Hamlet is challenged to a rapier contest with Laertes, whose foil has been secretly poisoned by Claudius and Laertes; likewise Hamlet’s drink has been poisoned. At the climax of the tragedy, the queen drinks accidentally from Hamlet’s poisoned cup, and both Laertes and Hamlet are wounded by the poisoned rapier. Laertes confesses the king’s role:
The King, the King’s to blame.
He is justly served.
It is a poison tempered by himself.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet.
Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me. (5.2)
Hamlet then runs Claudius through with his foil – finally fulfilling the ghost’s request. Claudius’ final words are an appeal on his own behalf: “O, yet defend me, friends; I am but hurt”; but his words are quickly belied by his death.
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999.
Boklund, Gunnar. “Hamlet.” Essays on Shakespeare. Ed. Gerald Chapman. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965.
Burton, Philip. “Hamlet.” The Sole Voice. New York: The Dial Press, 1970. N. pag. http://www.freehomepages.com/hamlet/other/burton-hamlet.htm
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets. London : George Bell and Sons, 1904. p. 342-368. http://ds.dial.pipex.com/thomas_larque/ham1-col.htm
Faucit, Helena (Lady Martin). On Some of Shakespeare's Female Characters. 6th ed. London:
William Blackwood and Sons, 1899.
Jorgensen, Paul A. “Hamlet.” William Shakespeare: the Tragedies. Boston: Twayne Publ., 1985. N. pag. http://www.freehomepages.com/hamlet/other/jorg-hamlet.html
Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet.” Yale Review. vol. 41 (1952) p. 502-23. Rpt. in Readings on The Tragedies. Ed. Clarice Swisher. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1996.
Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. http://www.chemicool.com/Shakespeare/hamlet/full.html No line nos.