King Claudius rarely gets from the reader the attention he deserves. But he is very interesting,
both psychologically and dramatically. On the one hand, he is not without respectable qualities.
As a king he is courteous and never undignified; he performs his ceremonial duties efficiently; and
he takes good care of the national interests. He nowhere shows cowardice, and when Laertes and
the mob force their way into the palace, he confronts a dangerous situation with coolness and
address. His love for his ill-gotten wife seems to be quite genuine, and there is no ground for suspecting him of having used her as a mere means to the crown.1 His conscience, though ineffective,
is far from being dead. In spite of its reproaches he plots new crimes to ensure the prize of the
old one; but still it makes him unhappy (iii, i. 49 f., III. iii. 35 f.). Nor is he cruel or malevolent.
On the other hand, he is no tragic character. He had a small nature. If Hamlet may be trusted,
he was a man of mean appearance -- a mildewed ear, a toad, a bat; and he was also bloated by excess in
drinking. People made mouths at him in contempt while his brother lived; and though, when he
came to the throne, they spent large sums in buying his portrait, he evidently put little reliance on their
loyalty. He was no villain of force, who thought of winning his brother's crown by a bold and open
stroke, but a cut-purse who stole the diadem from a shelf and put it in his pocket.
He had the
inclination of natures physically weak and morally small towards intrigue and crooked dealing. His
instinctive predilection was for poison: this was the means he used in his first murder, and he at
once recurred to it when he had faile to get Hamlet executed by deputy. Though in danger
he showed no cowardice, his first thought was always for himself.
I like him not, nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range,
-- these are the first words we hear him sspeak
after the play-scene. His first comment on the
death of Polonius is,
It had been so with us had we been there;
and his second is,
Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered?
It will be laid to us.
He was not, however, stupid, but rather quick-witted and adroit. He won the Queen partly
indeed by presents (how pitifully characteristic of her!), but also by 'witch-craft of his wit' or
intellect. He seems to have been soft-spoken, ingratiating in manner, and given to smiling on the
person he addressed ('that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain'). We see this in his speech to
Laertes about the young man's desire to return to Paris (i. ii. 42 f.). Hamlet scarcely ever speaks
to him without an insult, but he never shows resentment, hardly even annoyance. He makes use
of Laertes with great dexterity. He had evidently found that a clear head, a general complaisance, a
willingness to bend and oblige where he could not overawe, would lead him to his objects, --
that he could trick men and manage them.
Unfortunately he imagined he could trick something
more than men. This error, together with a decided trait of temperament, leads him to his ruin. He has a
sanguine disposition. When first we see him, all
has fallen out to his wishes, and he confidently
looks forward to a happy life. He believes his secret to be absolutely safe, and he is quite ready to be kind to Hamlet, in whose melancholy he sees only excess of grief. He has no desire to see him leave the court; he promises him his voice for the succession (i. ii. 108, iii. ii. 355); he will be a father to him. Before long, indeed, he becomes very uneasy, and then more and more alarmed;
but when, much later, he has contrived Hamlet's death in England, he has still no suspicion that he
need not hope for happiness:
till I know 'tis done,
Howe'er my haps, my joys were ne'er begun.
Nay, his very last words show that he goes to death
Oh yet defend me, friends, I am but hurt [ = wounded],
he cries, although in half a minute he is dead.
That his crime has failed, and that it could do
nothing else, never once comes home to him. He
thinks he can over-reach Heaven. When he is praying for pardon, he is all the while perfectly determined to keep his crown; and he knows it.
More -- it is one of the grimmest things in Shakespeare, but he puts such things so quietly that we
are apt to miss them -- when the King is praying for pardon for his first murder he has just made his final arrangements for a second, the murder of Hamlet. But he does not allude to that fact in
his prayer. If Hamlet had really wished to kill him at a moment that had no relish of salvation
in it, he had no need to wait. 2 So we are inclined to say; and yet it was not so. For this was the
crisis for Claudius as well as Hamlet. He had better have died at once, before he had added to his
guilt a share in the responsibility for all the woe and death that followed. And so, we may allow
ourselves to say, here also Hamlet's indiscretion served him well. The power that shaped his end
shaped the King's no less.
For -- to return in conclusion to the action of the play -- in all that happens or is done we seem to
apprehend some vaster power. We do not define it, or even name it, or perhaps even say to ourselves that it is there; but our imagination is haunted by the sense of it, as it works its way through the deeds or the delays of men to its inevitable end. And most of all do we feel this in regard to Hamlet and the King. For these
two, the one by his shrinking from his appointed
task, and the other by efforts growing ever more
feverish to rid himself of his enemy, seem to be
bent on avoiding each other. But they cannot.
Through devious paths, the very paths they take in order to escape, something is pushing them
silently step by step towards one another, until they meet and it puts the sword into Hamlet's
He himself must die, for he needed this
compulsion before he could fulfil the demand of
destiny; but he must fulfil it. And the King too, turn and twist as he may, must reach the appointed
goal, and is only hastening to it by the windings which seem to lead elsewhere. Concentration on
the character of the hero is apt to withdraw our
attention from this aspect of the drama; but in no other tragedy of Shakespeare's, not even in
Macbeth, is this aspect so impressive. 3
1. I do not rely so much on his own statement to Laertes (iv. vii. 12 f.)
as on the absence of contrary indications, on his tone in speaking
to her, and on such signs as his mention of her in soliloquy (ill.
2. This also is quietly indicated. Hamlet spares the King, he says,
because if the King is killed praying he will go to heaven. On
Hamlet's departure, the King rises from his knees, and mutters:
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
3. I am indebted to Werder in this paragraph.
How to cite this article:
Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean tragedy; lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. London, Macmillan and Co., 1905. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/claudiusbradley.html >.
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