The character of Claudius the King in Shakespeare s Hamlet is a complex individual. In the play he murders his brother, marries his former sister-in-law (the Queen), and ascends to the throne of Denmark. These three deeds were performed by a shrewd and self-serving man. The King will do almost anything to protect the throne, in spite of knowing that he did not rightfully earn it. He resorts to underhanded tactics such as spying, manipulation, and deceit in order to overcome whatever he perceives as a threat to his supreme position.
Claudius first appears in Act 1, scene 2, where he addresses the court after his marriage to the Queen. He begins by acknowledging their feelings of sorrow for the former King Hamlet, then transitions into expressing his thanks for their acceptance of the marriage. By receiving the court s acceptance of him as King, Claudius can proceed to comfortably reign and carry out the affairs of the state of Denmark. He continues on with his speech to discuss the plans that he has developed to remedy a situation that is brewing with Young Fortinbrau. Claudius demonstrates great strategic planning skills by diverting Young Fortinbrau s revenge on Denmark and it s citizens. The Fortinbrau issue helps Claudius to prove to the court that he is most immediate to the throne . Claudius also takes advantage of this opportunity for his own self-promotion.
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Claudius had successfully gained the loyalty and respect of the court, his Queen and the state of Denmark. However, Claudius had not been able to gain any amount of loyalty and respect from Hamlet, his stepson and former nephew. Hamlet clearly does not accept his new uncle-father nor is he pleased with his mother s quick marriage. Claudius makes attempts to win over his cousin and son , but is
disrespected and treated with contempt.
A little more than kin, and less than kind
(Act I, sc. ii, 65)
Hamlet is suspicious of the King, and those suspicions yield some validity by Hamlet s meeting with the Ghost of his Father. The ghost informs Hamlet that Claudius poisoned him while taking a nap. The former King instructs Hamlet to get revenge for his unnatural murder . As a result of this meeting, Hamlet s behavior changes. Everyone perceives this change as lunacy due to Hamlet s inability to accept the death of his father. However, Claudius does not believe that this is the root cause of Hamlet s madness. Since he is uncertain of Hamlet s knowledge of his secret, Claudius feels that his supremacy is being threatened by Hamlet.
Claudius sends for Hamlet s childhood friends Gildenstern and Rosencrantz to assist him with getting to the source of Hamlet s so called transformation . Claudius
played on their loyalty and respect for his position, in addition to their long-standing friendship with Hamlet, in order to get their cooperation.
When Polonius presents the idea to Claudius that Hamlet s madness is due to his daughter (Ophelia) rejecting Hamlet s affections, he reserves judgment on this notion. Claudius needs assurance, and recognizes an opportunity to get to the bottom of this situation. He proceeds to manipulate Polonius into spying on Hamlet. Together they use Opheila in a scheme intended to test Polonius the theory of rejection. The outcome of the test reveals to Claudius that his concern should be for something other than a rejected lover.
There’s something in his soul,
O’er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger: which for to prevent
(Act III, sc. i, 167 – 170)
Claudius realized that he must resolve this situation with Hamlet to eliminate the potential threat to his security. However, Claudius was astute enough to know that there were two special reasons why he could not openly do anything to harm Hamlet.
so that my arrows,
Too slightly timber’d for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again,
And not where I had aim’d them.
(Act IV, sc. vii, 22 -25)
Claudius also knew that any direct action taken against Hamlet would likely result in negative consequences for himself. To compensate for this, he used Laertes to do his dirty work.
Claudius took advantage of Laerte s intentions to revenge the death of his father. He was able to put Laertes anger to rest and win over his confidence. He then succeeded with leading Laertes into a scheme intended to kill Hamlet.
Although Claudius was skilled at manipulating others and events to retain his crown, he was not always able to keep his own emotions under control. Claudius confident exterior showed signs of deterioration due to his guilty conscious.
The sight of Ophelia s maddened state stirred up some emotion in Claudius.
He sighed a cry of grief for pretty Ophelia , but then quickly gained his composure. In that brief moment he recognized that she was not guilty of any crime, but that she fell victim to his scheme on Hamlet. Claudius sends Horatio to spy on her, which appears to be a show of concern to the Queen for Ophelia s safety, but was more likely due to Claudius need to protect his secret. He also withholds information from the Queen concerning the scheme that ultimately led to Ophelia s madness. To protect himself, he explained to the Queen that Ophelia s divided fair judgment stemmed from the death of her father.
The play staged by Hamlet, in addition to Hamlet s wit, agitated the King. His reaction during the play causes a disruption, and the play is discontinued. His self-conscious struggled with his self-serving mission to remain in power as the Dane .
It hath the primal eldest curse upon t,
A brother s murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
(Act III, sc. iii, 37 – 40)
Claudius attempts to repent but realizes that he can not do so because the throne of Denmark meant more to him than obeying the natural laws of divinity.
Claudius was an individual whose greed and selfishness was responsible for his rise and fall from the throne of Denmark. The power and position that he tried so hard to maintain was ultimately destroyed by the same evil methods that he used to acquire them.