home contact

The Dramatic Significance of Claudius

From Shakespearean Tragedy by A. C. Bradley.

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 unchanged:
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 hand. 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. iii. 55).

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. < >.


More Resources

 Queen Elizabeth: Shakespeare's Patron
 King James I of England: Shakespeare's Patron
 The Earl of Southampton: Shakespeare's Patron
 Going to a Play in Elizabethan London

 Ben Jonson and the Decline of the Drama
 Publishing in Elizabethan England
 Shakespeare's Audience
 Religion in Shakespeare's England

 Alchemy and Astrology in Shakespeare's Day
 Entertainment in Elizabethan England
 London's First Public Playhouse
 Shakespeare Hits the Big Time

More to Explore

 Hamlet: The Complete Play with Explanatory Notes
 Analysis of Uncle Claudius
 Claudius and the Condition of Denmark

 Claudius and the Dumb-Show: Why Does he Stay?
 Claudius and the Mousetrap
 In Secret Conference: The Meeting Between Claudius and Laertes
 Defending Claudius - The Charges Against the King

 Introduction to Hamlet
 The Hamlet and Ophelia Subplot
 The Norway (Fortinbras) Subplot
 Deception in Hamlet

 Hamlet: Problem Play and Revenge Tragedy
 Analysis of the Characters in Hamlet
 The Elder Hamlet: The Kingship of Hamlet's Father
 Hamlet's Relationship with the Ghost

 Philological Examination Questions on Hamlet
 Quotations from Hamlet (with commentary)
 Hamlet Study Quiz (with detailed answers)
 Analysis of I am sick at heart (1.1)
 Hamlet: Q & A


Did You Know? ... The Theatre was the first London playhouse, built in 1576 by the English actor and entrepreneur James Burbage, father of the great actor and friend of Shakespeare, Richard Burbage. It was located in a northern suburb of London (north of London Wall which bounded the city proper); on the edge of Finsbury Fields, just past Bishopsgate Street, where Shakespeare called home up to 1597. Read on...


 Soliloquy Analysis: O this too too... (1.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!... (2.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: To be, or not to be... (3.1)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Tis now the very witching time of night... (3.2)
 Soliloquy Analysis: Now might I do it pat... (3.3)
 Soliloquy Analysis: How all occasions do inform against me... (4.4)

 The Dumb-Show: Why Hamlet Reveals his Knowledge to Claudius
 Ophelia's Burial and Christian Rituals
 The Baker's Daughter: Ophelia's Nursery Rhymes
 Hamlet as National Hero
 O Jephthah - Toying with Polonius
 The Death of Polonius and its Impact on Hamlet's Character
 Blank Verse and Diction in Shakespeare's Hamlet

 Hamlet's Silence
 An Excuse for Doing Nothing: Hamlet's Delay
 Foul Deeds Will Rise: Hamlet and Divine Justice
 Shakespeare's Fools: The Grave-Diggers in Hamlet


Essential Resources ... Explore our Shakespeare Glossary and find the meanings of old and unusual words used in Elizabethan England and, of course, in Shakespeare's plays and sonnets. Just what is a rabbit-sucker anyway? The Shakespeare Glossary.


 Hamlet's Humor: The Wit of Shakespeare's Prince of Denmark
 All About Yorick
 Hamlet's Melancholy: The Transformation of the Prince
 Hamlet's Antic Disposition: Is Hamlet's Madness Real?

 The Significance of Ophelia's Flowers
 Ophelia and Laertes
 Mistrusted Love: Ophelia and Polonius
 The Significance of the Ghost in Armor
 Shakespeare's View of the Child Actors Through Hamlet

 Divine Providence in Hamlet
 What is Tragic Irony?
 Seneca's Tragedies and the Elizabethan Drama
 Shakespeare's Sources for Hamlet

 Characteristics of Elizabethan Tragedy
 Why Shakespeare is so Important
 Shakespeare's Language
 Shakespeare's Influence on Other Writers