Last Updated on September 11, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625
Extended Character Analysis
Claudius is the newly crowned King of Denmark whose ascent to the throne follows the death of his brother, King Hamlet. He enters into an “o’erhasty” marriage with his former sister-in-law, Queen Gertrude, making him Hamlet’s stepfather. Claudius is the antagonist of the play, guilty of murdering King Hamlet. Prince Hamlet characterizes Claudius as a drunken, lecherous, and villainous man, calling him the “bloat king” and emphasizing his inferiority to King Hamlet. However, Claudius is shown to be a capable ruler, beloved husband, and at least somewhat remorseful character, casting doubt on whether Hamlet’s judgements are entirely accurate.
Act I, scene II opens with Claudius addressing the Danish court. He is portrayed as a capable and confident monarch who has graciously stepped forward after the tragic death of his brother. Hamlet is the only character who seems to harbor any genuine distaste for Claudius, and even that reaction seems to stem more from his disgust with Gertrude and Claudius’s marriage than anything else. Claudius even expresses concern over Hamlet’s continued melancholy, urging him to cheer up. This is potentially a self-serving concern, as Hamlet’s gloom casts a shadow over what should be a joyous time for Claudius. However, Claudius, at least superficially, does all that he can to treat Hamlet as a dignified son, even naming him as the heir apparent to the throne. Further complicating Claudius’s character is his decision to allow Prince Hamlet to live in the first place. It is not until Prince Hamlet makes it clear that he is aware of Claudius’s role in King Hamlet’s death that Claudius turns his thoughts to assassination.
However, Claudius also establishes himself as an underhanded politician and unrepentant murderer. Though he does not immediately try to have Hamlet killed, he does resort to using Hamlet’s friends to spy on him. After the play within the play in act III, scene II reveals Claudius’s guilt, he goes to the chapel and attempts to pray. However, he is unable to seek salvation because, despite his guilt, he does not truly regret his actions. In Claudius’s mind, the ends have justified the means. His crown, his ambition, and his queen please him more than his sins disgust him.
The origins of the relationship between Gertrude and Claudius remain unclear, but for much of the play the pair seem to be a genuinely happy couple. However, their relationship is considered incestuous by Elizabethan standards, since no distinction was made between relations by marriage and those by blood. The marriage is a source of disgust for Hamlet and guilt for Gertrude, but Gertrude still jumps to Claudius’s defense, expressing genuine affection. However, a different interpretation positions Gertrude as another means to an end for Claudius, with her role as the “imperial jointress” being the true cause of Claudius’s attraction to her. By this reading, Gertrude is a hapless victim of Claudius’s charms and Claudius is a ruthless politician who uses her for his own ends.
Whether Claudius is truly the villainous figure Hamlet makes him out to be is left ambiguous, but his status as a murderer is not. It is his “foul and unnatural” murder of King Hamlet that irrevocably establishes him as a villain. There is ultimately no grand justification behind Claudius’s actions aside from ambition and earthly gain. In a society where kings were considered to have a divine right to rule, Claudius went against the natural order of the world. His unatoned murder of the king makes him morally inferior to Prince Hamlet, who has been divinely sanctioned by the ghost of his father to restore proper hierarchical order and justice to Denmark.
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