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Claudius and the Condition of Denmark

From Hamlet, an ideal prince. Alexander W. Crawford.

The second scene of the play makes it clear that it is the weak and corrupt condition of Denmark under Claudius that affords occasion for the warlike activities of Fortinbras. From the beginning of the play Hamlet has had suspicions, which are gradually confirmed as the plot develops, that Claudius has exerted a very evil influence upon the country. The later development shows that Hamlet has rightly divined the true inwardness of the situation. Claudius himself is fully cognizant of the state of affairs, and from his lips we get the true explanation. He discloses the fact that young Fortinbras has no such wholesome fear and respect for him as he had for the late king, and makes the damaging admission that:
"young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth, . . .
. . . hath not fail'd to pester us with message.
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father."
(I. ii. 17-34.)
Claudius further remarks that he has written to Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras, imploring him to restrain the fiery temper of his nephew, and now dispatches two courtiers to the same end. Only by weakly supplicating Norway is Claudius able to keep peace with his neighbor and prevent an invasion. This weakness is in great contrast to the days of the elder Hamlet, when the Danish royal power was feared and respected, both at home and abroad.

There is no doubt that Claudius was a thoroughly bad man. If like Hamlet we cannot prove it at the opening of the play, we need only wait for the later developments and for his villainous attempts on Hamlet's life. Claudius is indeed as much a villain as Macbeth, and with little or nothing of Macbeth's great ability. The ghost speaks of him as one "whose natural gifts were poor to those of mine!" (I. v. 61-52.) And Hamlet, comparing him to his father in his later interview with his mother, calls him:
"A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings."
(III. iv. 96-98.)
Yet Claudius, though a villain, was capable of quick and effective action. He was clever enough to leave no traces of his crime when he killed his brother, and he showed dispatch and skill in quickly bringing about the election of himself as the next king before Hamlet could return from the university. This same power of speedy action is his greatest strength, and enables him to make Hamlet's task at once exceedingly difficult and dangerous.

Gradually there is disclosed in the play considerable evidence of a general corruption and weakening of the state under the example and influence of Claudius. Hamlet is conscious of it on his return from the university, and the king readily admits his dissipations. No doubt Hamlet's sad words about the condition of the world in his first soliloquy are spoken more with reference to Denmark :
"Fie on't! O fie! 'tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely."
(I. ii. 135-7.)
The king had led the way in dissipation and debauchery, and in his first interview with Hamlet promises elaborate festivities (I. ii. 121-9). In the same scene Hamlet refers to these habits, and satirically tells his friend Horatio: "We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart" (I. ii. 175). In his next conversation with Horatio, Hamlet again speaks of the king's drinking habits, and says:
"The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse.
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down.
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge."
(I. iv. 8-12.)
When Horatio asks if this is a Danish custom, Hamlet replies that "it is a custom More honor'd in the breach than the observance." At a later time when Hamlet tries to show to his mother the baseness of his uncle he speaks of him as "the bloat king" (III. iv. 182).

To the virtuous mind of Hamlet one of the worst features of this debauchery is that it has destroyed their reputation among nations, and the fair name of Denmark has suffered irreparable loss:
"This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations;
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition."

(I. iv. 17-20.)
Then he moralizes upon the baneful influence of "some vicious mole of nature" that corrupts the whole being, until such men
"Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault."
(I. iv. 35-6.)
The inevitable implication of course is that the whole state of Denmark has been corrupted by the king's bad habits and vicious nature, until
"the dram of eale,
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal."
(I. iv. 36-8.)
This condition of corruption impresses both Hamlet and his friends almost from the outset. When the ghost has vanished after his appearance to Hamlet and others, Marcellus at once recognizes its relation to the country, and says, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" (I. iv. 90). It is Hamlet, however, with his deep moral nature, who most fully recognizes the king's corrupting influence upon Denmark. After the ghost has revealed to him the matter and the manner of his murder, Hamlet at once sees that the crime is not a mere matter between him and Claudius, but that it has engendered a bad condition of affairs in the state and that it is imperative upon him to set himself to the task of reparation:
"The time is out of joint; — O cursed spite.
That ever I was born to set it right! — "
(I. V. 189-190.)
These thoughts are no doubt in Hamlet's mind when Rosencrantz and Guildenstem tell him the only news is "that the world's grown honest." To this he quickly replies that "your news is not true," and goes on to say that "Denmark's a prison," and "one o' the worst," and at any rate "to me it is a prison" (II. ii. 233-246). A little later in his great soliloquy, referring to his grievous troubles and sufferings, he calls them "The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (III. i. 58). No doubt he is thinking not only of the foul murder of his father, but of the times that are out of joint and that he must try to set right.

There has been a feeling from the first that the coming of the ghost has had to do with affairs of state. Horatio, who has just come from Wittenberg when Marcellus and others report to him of seeing the ghost, volunteers the idea that "This bodes some strange eruption to our state" (I. i. 69). Horatio knows nothing of the murder and yet he thinks the ghost has to do with affairs of state. When he sees the ghost, he thinks of three possible reasons for his appearance. He may want something done; or may want to tell where he has hoarded some treasure; or he may be privy to his country's fate. Taken in connection with what he has just said of the impending danger from young Fortinbras, it seems to indicate a feeling that all is not well with Denmark. Hamlet, however, is the only one who fully comprehends the actual truth.

How to cite this article:
Crawford, Alexander W. Hamlet, an ideal prince, and other essays in Shakesperean interpretation: Hamlet; Merchant of Venice; Othello; King Lear. Boston R.G. Badger, 1916. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2009. < >.


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