The Character of Claudius in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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The Character of Claudius in Hamlet

It is easy to overlook some of Claudius' villainy. He may not rant and rave, nor pluck out eyes on stage or hands, or tongues, nor does he conspire with crafty rationality like Edmund or Iago in Othello, nor bake little children in a pie. But as the murderer, usurper, and incestuous step-father, Claudius is one of Shakespeare's greatest villains. His distinguishing features are hypocrisy and subterfuge. He is clever in a worldly sense, a flattering strategist, good at manipulating his courtiers, at double-speak. His fawning address to Hamlet in I.2 ('Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet ...') shows him to be a master of persuasiveness. He encourages Polonius to practise subterfuge; his favourite weapon is poison. This recourse to poison, initially against his own brother, nauseously poured into the ear of the sleeping king, is repugnant; and in the final act, poison is used both on Laertes' sword and in the cup of wine that is to be offered to Hamlet. But from the start, his very words are like a drug, aimed at deflecting Hamlet away from his grief. In a wider sense, the state itself is 'poisoned' by Claudius. He uses Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as his tools; he employs spies and underhand methods. He tries to make Hamlet 'disappear' by sending him to England (where his madness is less likely to attract attention!) in the company of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather than by any process of law or a direct challenge. Polonius is a good example of the usurper's pernicious influence: a 'faithful retainer' of the old sort, much given to spouting words of wisdom ('to thine own self be true ..': I.3.78), yet stooping to all manner of intrigue against his own son (II.1), his daughter and Hamlet.

Yet even Claudius is not so wicked as not to be pricked by pangs of conscience. He does at least know what he has done ('O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven': III.3.36). Shakespeare actually shows him kneeling down and praying in this scene, hoping for forgiveness and wondering if he can repent and still retain the effects for which he committed the murder: 'My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen' (III.3.55) - a question many villains have periodically asked themselves. Claudius is wise enough to recognise that this cannot

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