As with all the supporting characters in Hamlet, Claudius is not developed to his full potential. His primary role in the play is to spawn Hamlet's confusion and anger, and his subsequent search for truth and life's meaning. But Claudius is not a static character. While his qualities are not as thoroughly explored as Hamlet's, Shakespeare crafts a whole human being out of the treacherous, usurping King of Denmark.
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" (1.2.3-4).
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 skilfully 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" (1.5.42), and we soon realize that his crime is what is "rotten in the state of Denmark." The King has committed fratricide and regicide and has bedded the Queen with "the witchcraft of his wit" (I.v.47). Claudius represents the worst in human nature -- lust, greed, corruption, and excess. Claudius and his corrupt court bask in the pleasures of the flesh:
The king doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And as he drains his draughts of Renish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge (1.4.8-12)
However, Claudius is not a total sociopath, devoid of moments of guilt and regret. His deeds, on occasion, weigh heavy on his heart:
(aside) O, 'tis true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word:
O heavy burden! (3.1.49-53)
He tries to ask God's forgiveness in a moving soliloquy but he realizes that he still reaps all the benefits of his crimes and cannot give them up:
My fault is past. But O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? "Forgive me my foul murder"?
That cannot be, since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen. (3.4.52-55)
Claudius can also be sensitive and gentle. He is genuinely sorry for Polonius' death, and he truly loves Gertrude. He must kill Hamlet, but he refuses to do so with his own hand for Gertrude's sake. He also sincerely likes Ophelia, and treats her with the kindness that she should receive from her great love, Hamlet. But even those whom Claudius cares for cannot come before his ambition and desires. He will use the grieving Laertes to whatever ends necessary, and he denies Rozencrantz and Guildenstern the knowledge of the contents of the letter to England -- knowledge that would have saved their lives, or at least made them proceed with caution. And Claudius does not stop Gertrude from drinking the poison in the goblet during the duel between Hamlet and Laertes because it will implicate him in the plot.
It is clear that we are intended to see Claudius as a murderous villain, but a multi-faceted villain: a man who cannot refrain 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. New York: Hill and Wang, 1970.
Loske, Olaf. Outrageous Fortune. Oslo: Oslo University Press, 1960.
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare and the Tragic Pattern.
How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Introduction to Claudius. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/hamlet/claudiuscharacter.html >.