King Claudius, as seen in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is both intelligent and well-spoken, two traits that, put together, complement his manipulative and dangerous nature. In fact though, it is his conscience that makes Claudius such a complex villain. Despite his rise to power seeming to have been carefully planned and executed, he nevertheless encountered certain things that he did not expect, such as the appearance of the ghost of his victim that ignited Hamlet‘s thirst for revenge.
In the play, Hamlet is introduced as a troubled man in deep depression. He was mourning the death of his beloved father and his mother’s marriage to his uncle. In Act 1 Scene 2 Claudius gives Hamlet a speech to try and get him to stop bringing up his father, probably fearing that the more the late King was talked about, or remembered, the more likely people were to look into his death. It is understandable that he wanted Hamlet to move on quickly. This speech seems carefully planned out, as if Claudius had written it out before he delivered it. Hamlet had probably been lamenting his father’s death for quite some time now, so Claudius had ample time to compose the speech.
It is unclear how much time passes between this point and when Hamlet puts on the play intended to catch Claudius in her guilt. He brings the question of time up to Ophelia beforehand, “For look you how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within’s two hours”(3.2. 124-125). But Ophelia says, “Nay, tis’ twice two months, my lord”,(3.2.126). The most notable aspect of the speech is Claudius’s repetition of the word “To” at the beginning of lines 87,91 and 102. The first two uses of “to” are infinitive, an impersonal construct distancing himself from the death of the prior king. The use of an infinitive also lends an emotionless aspect to his words, saying get over it, I already have. The “To” in line 102 is a preposition, introducing the absurdity of faulting heaven, by mourning his father. He is trying to get Hamlet to move forward, away from his father’s death.
Claudius begins his speech saying, “’Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet, To give these mourning duties to your father“, but that he “must know your father lost a father, That father lost, lost his.”(1.2.87-89) But he insults Hamlet, adding “’Tis unmanly grief.”(1.2.94) This is the opposite of what Claudius says to Laertes later in the play, where he says that he should act quickly,
“Time qualifies the spark and fire of it. There lives within the very flame of love. A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it”(4.7.114-116).
He would prefer it is Laertes acted while his feelings of hatred and revenge were still fresh, whereas it would be preferable if Hamlet be quiet about his father instead of keeping his memory fresh in everyone’s minds.
He then convinces Hamlet that his grief “shows a will most incorrect to heaven.”(1.2.95), meaning that he should instead be happy for his father, for he is now in heaven. But it isn’t until later that we find out that the ghost isn’t in heaven at all, instead suffering in “sulf’rous and tormenting flames”(1.5.3). After hearing about his father’s murder Hamlets sadness quickly turns into anger, and he plots the revenge that he feels his father deserves.
While this speech is given to Hamlet, it is for the benefit of Gertrude, who is instrumental in handling the emotional Hamlet. After all, it is she who convinces Hamlet not to go Wittenberg, showing how well Claudius is able to manipulate people, even the ones he claims to love. It is successful in both getting Hamlet not to act, but keeps him from traveling to Wittenberg. What he does no count on, is his victim’s ghost igniting Hamlet’s thirst for revenge.
Claudius’ sneaky and manipulative ways eventually lead to the death of Polonius at Hamlet’s hands. Instead of punishing Hamlet for Polonius’ murder himself, Claudius sent the prince to England alongside Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with letters that would arrange Hamlet’s death, making it look like an accident. Despite the remorse shown in act 3 scene 3 when Claudius prays for forgiveness, he still wants Hamlet dead because he fears losing both his throne and his life. Readers are lead to believe he is having some one else do the dirty work to save the Queen’s feelings, but I think it had just as much to do with politics. Hamlet was well liked by the people, for reasons we are not aware of, and his punishment could lead the people to rally around him and rise up against the King. Claudius’ plans fall apart when Hamlet alters the letters himself, having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern executed in his place.
Meanwhile, Laertes has returned from France to find that his father, Polonius, has been murdered. He first blames the King, but Claudius places the blame on Hamlet. While speaking to Laertes Claudius suddenly receives a letter saying that Hamlet was alive and returning home. Claudius being opportunistic, finds yet another way to avoid killing Hamlet himself in Laertes.
Claudius speech to Laertes, in light of this news, is very off the cuff, clearly lacking in preparation in comparison to his speech to Hamlet on mourning for fathers. It is noticeably shorter than his speech to Hamlet, giving Laertes less time to mull over what was being said. This made him more likely to act, and rashly at that. The length of his speech to Hamlet also helps to obscure what he is saying, where as he is very clear and to the point with Laertes. His speech was also more direct, intended only for Laertes, whereas his speech to Hamlet was also for Gertrude’s benefit.
Claudius insinuates that not to act, would be evidence of him not loving his father, saying
“Not that I think you did not love your father, but that I know love is begun by time, and that I see in passages of proof”(4.7.111-113).
His tone is probably hinting that yes, he does want Laertes to think that he doesn’t love his father if he doesn’t act. I imagine his delivery to be very much like when someone says, “no offense but…”, still offending someone, but trying to lighten the blow. Line 113 also uses alliteration, using “passages of proof” to draw your attention to the image that follows, that of a candle.
Going on, Claudius says “Time qualifies the spark and fire of it. There within the very flame of love A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it,”(4.7.114-116) alluding to the idea that over time a candles wick will burn down, as well as Laertes feelings for his father. This is why Claudius wants Laertes to act as soon as possible, when his feelings are fresh and raw. A candle will burn down on its own, but a snuff requires action, and to get closure over his father’s death, he needs to take action against Hamlet.
He then compares inaction to pleurisy, which can mean excess, or even a chest inflammation, coinciding with the theme of sickness that was appeared throughout the play. Is he insinuating that him taking too much time to think about it could lead to sickness? His comparison here does not seem too well thought out. Maybe it pertains to the next few lines, where Claudius “Dies in his own too much. that we would do, we should do when we would; for this “would” changes” (4.7.119-120), indicating that he would stress over regrets he had about not acting. Note the repetition of the “ould”, an attempt to drive his point into Laertes brain even further.
Claudius continues to talk about the harm of delay, saying “ And hath abatements and delay as many As there are tongues, are hands are accidents; And then this should is like a spendthrift sigh, That hurts by easing.”(4.7.121-124). This means that if he waits long enough, he probably won’t do anything at all, bringing to question whether he really loves his father. A caesura occurs in the middle of line 124, likely indicating a change in Claudius’ tone, “But to the quick o’th’ ulcer, Hamlet comes back”(4.7.124-125). He is indicating that Hamlet is the root of his problems and telling Laertes that now was the time to act, or like an ulcer, this pain would burn in his core for some time.
Finally, he finishes his speech by asking Laertes what he plans to do about the death of his father, “What would you undertake to show yourself in deed your father’s son more than in words(4.7.125-127)? The last thing he says attempts to direct him to action, asking him what he plans to do about this. Laertes makes it very clear that he seeks vengeance, saying that he would “…cut his throat I’th’ church”(4.7.127).
Ultimately, Claudius was successful in his plan to kill Hamlet, not due to some master workings of his own doing, but because of his ability to manipulate events according to his own desires. He may have gained the crown by vote, but not until after he took advantage of the king, killing him in his sleep. In the end, his manipulative and deceptive ways brought him temporary success, but only at the cost of his own life.
Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet." The Necessary Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. N.p.: Pearson, 2005. Print.
Shakespeare, William. "Hamlet." The Necessary Shakespeare. Ed. David Bevington. N.p.: Pearson, 2005. Print.
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Important events he is involved in:
- Becomes new King of Denmark by pouring poison in his brother’s ear in the garden, thus killing King Hamlet and overthrowing him
- Marries King Hamlet’s wife, Gertrude, abruptly after King Hamlet’s death
- Exposes his guilt at the play when the plot on stage resembles the events of King Hamlet’s death
- Tries to figure out why Hamlet is mad, and starts to question the legitimacy of his madness
- Begins to fear Prince Hamlet, so he sends him away to England
- Confesses to God that he killed King Hamlet and prays to God to forgive him
- Finds out that Prince Hamlet kills Polonius, so Claudius devises a plan to kill Hamlet
- Prince Hamlet kills him towards the end of the play, just like Hamlet said he would
Significance of his character
- His role in the play is to oppose Prince Hamlet as the main antagonist of the play.
- Involved in the major conflict of the play, as Hamlet tries seeking revenge and Claudius tries to avoid these threats by devising plans of his own.
- As the play progresses, he becomes more and more obsessed with the power that he possesses, and does whatever he can to keep it.
- He starts to fear Hamlet not because he is mad, but moreover, because he is not. Claudius is able to see through Hamlet’s charades of madness, and sees that Hamlet is a potential threat.
- Demonstrates that fear can create a downward spiral for a character, as he goes from very stable to unstable, thinking about spying and murder as time goes on, until his eventual death at the end.
|Devious||“Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast, With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts,” (I.v. 42-43).||The ghost says here that his brother, Claudius, had an intimate relationship before King Hamlet died and before their marriage. This proves to be devious on the part of Claudius, as he went behind his brother’s back and started an affair with his wife.|
|Deceiving||“O villain, villain, smiling damned villain,” (I.v.106).||Here, Hamlet states that though he is smiling, and happy, he is still a villain nonetheless. This two-faced persona deceives characters into thinking that he is one person, when in reality he is someone else. This quote models one of the major themes of the play and that is appearance vs. reality.|
|Calculating||“Will you be ruled by me? […] No more to undertake it, I will work him To an exploit now ripe in my device,” (IV.vii.58-64).||Claudius asks Laertes if he will work for him to exact revenge on Hamlet. Laertes agrees, and Claudius then says that he will trick Hamlet into something that will be sure to kill him. This proves to be manipulative by Claudius as he lures Laertes into his elaborate plan to kill his nephew.|
|Remorseful||“My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?” (III.iii.51-52).||Claudius is alone when he begins to confess his sins by praying to god. He says that his mistakes are in the past, and now he is asking for forgiveness. God is the only figure that Claudius actually openly accepts his mistakes to, proving that though he may have lost his connection with God at some point, the connection is still there.|
These traits listed are some of the more dominant and important ones that Claudius possesses. However, he expresses different emotions throughout the play, resulting in different traits that could be considered. What are some traits that you feel best describes Claudius’ character throughout the play?