The Character of Claudius in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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The Character of Claudius in Hamlet

As a supporting character in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Claudius is not developed to his full potential. His primary role in the play is to initiate Hamlet's confusion and anger, and his subsequent search for truth and life's meaning. But Claudius is certainly not a static character.

While Claudius’ qualities are not as thoroughly explored as Hamlet's, the treacherous King of Denmark is a complete character. When we first see Claudius, he strikes us an intelligent and capable ruler. He gives a speech to make his court and country proud, addressing his brother's death and the potential conflict with Norway. Claudius knows that a change in government could ignite civil unrest, and he is afraid of possible unlawful allegiances and rebellion. His speech juxtaposes the people's loss with the new beginning they will have under his care, and he uses the death of Hamlet's father to create a sense of national solidarity, "the whole kingdom/To be contracted in one brow of woe" (I.ii.3-4). Claudius has assumed the role of the chief mourner, and the people can unite behind a collective suffering. He can now concentrate on his kingly duties, and he takes immediate and decisive action by sending Cornelius and Voltimand to appease the Norwegian king. He also deals skillfully with Laertes' request to leave for France. "On the whole, then, there emerges a King who is well qualified for his office...there continually appears on the stage a man who is utterly unlike the descriptions, and this in turn gives to Hamlet's words their real value." (Lokse, Outrageous Fortune, 79).

But Claudius, in private, is a very different person. The Ghost refers to him as "that incestuous, that adulterate beast" (...

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... from indulging his human desires. He is not a monster; he is morally weak, content to trade his humanity and very soul for a few prized possessions. As the great critic Harley Granville-Barker observes: "we have in Claudius the makings of the central figure of a tragedy." (Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare.3., 269)


Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966).

Burnett, Mark, ed. New Essays on Hamlet. (New York: AMS Press, 1994).

Evans Lloyd Gareth. Shakespeare IV. (London: Oxford university Press, 1967).

Granville-Barker, Henry. Prefaces to Shakespeare.3 (New York, Hill and Wang, 1970).

Loske, Olaf. Outrageous Fortune. (Oslo: Oslo University Press, 1960).

Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare and the Tragic Pattern, Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol.XLIV (London: Oxford University Press, 1958).
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