In Shakespeare's Hamlet, what does Claudius' immediate reaction to the news of Polonius' death reveal about his character?
Claudius: Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?
Hamlet: At supper.
Claudius: At supper? Where?
Act 4, Scene 3
Hamlet is brought before Claudius out of breath and wearing the expression of an innocent child in the midst of an exciting game called "Hide fox, and all after." He looks as if he expects to find the “fox,” and when he sees the King he pretends to take him for that fox. Claudius pretends to be playing the game along with him. He gives his stepson a friendly, indulgent, confidential, paternal smile (he is always smiling) and asks, “Now Hamlet, where’s Polonius?”
It is very significant that he says “Where’s” rather than “Where is,” because it makes it seem as if the two are going to share a secret. It is also very significant that the King says “Where’s Polonius?” rather than “Where’s the body?” It is even significant that he says “Now, Hamlet,” because it is as if he is saying, “Now it’s time to stop playing. You have to tell me where Polonius is hiding.”
Hamlet replies “At supper.” No one but Shakespeare could have thought of such an unexpected but such a marvelous reply. It conveys a vivid visual impression—a picture the viewer can see as well as Claudius: an old man sitting peacefully at a table in a quiet room eating something out of a bowl. This would not have been the case if Hamlet had said something such as, “I don’t know” or “He’s hiding.”
The King loses his mask, the mask of the benevolent monarch and loving father. If Polonius is alive, then a coup must be underway and Polonius is in on it. So are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are Hamlet's friends, not his. So is his own wife Gertrude, who told him Polonius had been killed. Claudius looks terrified. His jaw drops. His eyes widen. He stands up, using the arms of his chair or throne to get to his feet. He looks to the left, looks to the right, looks back at his stepson who is now wearing the smile which seems to have been transferred from one man’s face to the other’s, just as the crown may be transferred from one’s head to the other’s if Claudius’ fears prove true.
The King is not looking for Polonius when in a hollow voice he asks, “Where?” He is asking himself where the attack will be coming from. He is wondering how he should handle this situation. Should he call for help? Or would that precipitate the murderous attack he fears? Crazy people are unpredictable. Hamlet’s happy and friendly manner could change to murderous rage. Crying for help is not always the best course. The King doesn’t know it, but Polonius would not have died if he had not called for help.
After Hamlet lets Claudius suffer for a few long moments, he launches into his speech about the convocation of politic worms. We can imagine the King lowering himself heavily back down and breathing a deep sigh of relief. His stepson is mad but harmless—at least for now!
It would seem that there is a method in Hamlet’s apparent madness. If he cannot bring himself to murder his uncle, he can at least make him worry and wonder. Perhaps it has occurred to Hamlet that his procrastination has had an unforeseen effect. The supernatural knowledge imparted by his father’s ghost has enabled the Prince to inflict the mental punishment Claudius richly deserves before putting him out of his misery at a time and place of his own choosing.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, Claudius' initial reaction to Polonius' death shows that the King is really concerned not for the death of the old man, but as to how the murder affects Claudius himself.
First Claudius realizes (and probably does not know just how accurate he is) that it could well have been him.
It had been so with us had we been there. (IV.i.14)
Then Claudius is sure that he will be blamed for the murder—once again worried only about himself.
Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered? / It will be laid to us, whose providence / Should have kept short, restrained, and out of haunt / This mad young man. (IV.i.17-20)
Next, we also discover how truly evil and deceitful Claudius is (had we any doubt before...) when he blames his lack of foresight in controlling Hamlet on his love of his step-son.
But so much was our love, / That we would not understand what was most fit. (IV.i.20-21)
In essence, we clearly see that Claudius' character is black to the core. He is wise enough to know that he could have been killed. He then says how everyone is in danger, but this is not his true concern. He is sure that somehow the blame will fall on Claudius because he did not "take care of" Hamlet before. Finally, he lies and excuses the deed in saying he loved Hamlet too much to act before something terrible happened. Claudius is a sly, self-serving blackguard. This is, of course, when he puts into play, his plans to have Hamlet disposed of.