The abstract concept of evil has vastly transformed throughout human history, ranging for the supernatural and mystical to the very humans amongst whom we live. In modern times, evil has become an entirely ambiguous term. Who is evil? What is evil? Men like Adolph Hitler and Saddam Hussein have been garnered with the term ‘evil’ for their atrocities against fellow humans. Now it seems evil has a solely human significance; when a person violates the individual rights of others on a massive scale, he/she is evil. In Shakespeare’s time – the Elizabethan era – evil had a similar, but somewhat altered connotation in the human mind. Evil was an entity that violated the English Christian monarchial tradition. Therefore, a man such as Claudius, from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, a cold-blooded murderer and a ruthless manipulator, who uses “rank” deeds to usurp the thrown is in direct violation with the Elizabethan societal norms, and hence he is an evil character.
In the Elizabethan era, the royal crown was viewed as divinely touched and hence any action against the crown was an action against God. Claudius dismisses God’s right to control the crown by committing a “murder most foul” (I.v.27), yet he concedes that “there’s such divinity doth hedge a king” (IV.v.121). Claudius admits that God influences the monarchy and yet he chooses to violate the divine monarchial progression. Hamlet recognizes Claudius’ evil nature beyond simply the murder of his father; Hamlet sees that Claudius is corrupting all of Denmark. Claudius’ reign is compared to “an unweeded garden/That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature/Possess it merely” (I.ii.135-7), his influence causing the destruction of a previously beautiful environment. Claudius’ infectious evil must be eliminated, and Hamlet feels he is the only man who can do anything; he pulls out all the stops and in the end accomplishes his goal.
King Hamlet’s “foul and most unnatural murder” (I.v.25) tops Claudius’ list of egregious sins, but most of his offenses are psychological rather than physical. Using his mastery of manipulation, Claudius, the “incestuous” and “adulterate beast” managed to win “to his shameful lust the will” of the virtuous queen, Gertrude (I.v.42-6). Gertrude could not be persuaded to switch husbands without a little verbal tricker...
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...er it be through direct divine action or controlled action of another; hence, Hamlet crusades against Claudius and eventually triumphs. A trail of bodies lines Hamlet’s path towards vengeance, but Claudius is revealed, the “yet unknowing world” is told:
How these things came about…
Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause;
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on th’ inventors’ heads.
Claudius’ true nature is exposed; his treachery and heresy is fully recounted, and presumably he is sentenced to eternal damnation for his moral infractions. God’s will prevails in a fundamentally Christian tale of murder in the name of self-interest and revenge in the name of justice and morality.
Joseph, Bertram. “The Theme.” Conscience and the King. London: Chatto & Windus, Ltd., 1953. 130-51.
Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Ed. Cyrus Hoy. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992.
Spencer, Theodore. “Hamlet and the Nature of Reality.” Journal of English Literary History (December, 1938): 253-77.
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