Claudius and Hamlet

King Claudius has presumably never been to college. Yet he has managed to become king and rule over all of Denmark. He thinks that material prosperity is all that really counts. He prides himself that he has learned directly from life. College, however, teaches people how to think--and this is what Claudius is most afraid of in his nephew. Tyrants hate and fear intellectuals for good reason.

When Claudius is directly addressing Hamlet in Act I, Scene 2, the King is deliberately insulting his nephew and insinuating that Hamlet's years at Wittenberg have not given him any practical knowledge of the real world, the kind of knowledge that Claudius himself possesses and which gave him the ultimate worldly success. Claudius is trying to persuade Hamlet--as well as himself--that he has somehow learned through practical experience much of the knowledge and theory which he thinks is taught at schools like Wittenberg. Here are pertinent examples of Claudius's rationalization, along with his thinly veiled insults of his bookish nephew.

'tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father;
But you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd;
For what we know must be, and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we, in our peevish opposition,
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died today,
This must be so.

Anyone who has acquired a good academic education will meet many men outside the ivy-covered walls who, like Claudius, will pretend to despise "book learning" and at the same time show they think they have somehow managed to acquire it without going to college or reading many books. Claudius would like Hamlet to feel he has really learned nothing at Wittenberg, but at the same time Claudius is a bit in awe of his intellectual nephew, who must know a half-dozen languages and who must have an in-depth knowledge of such matters as Aristotelian logic and civil and canon law. The fact is that Claudius only knows how to take things away from people who have them. He would like to pry into Hamlet's mind and steal whatever he can understand in order to use it for his own purposes. Ignorant people will always try to exploit educated people.

There is a certain "mystique" that goes with a college education. People who have never been to college often have a certain awe and fear of those who have, because they think the college-educated person must know practically everything there is to know about everything. Claudius is really afraid of Hamlet. He spends the entire play trying to probe into Hamlet's "soul." As Claudius tells Polonius in a beautiful and characteristically simple Shakespearean metaphor,

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; 

Claudius not only uses his own cunning mind to try to analyze his melancholy nephew, but he undoubtedly has spies watching Hamlet all over Elsinore--courtiers, domestic servants, and others. Claudius has cunningly recruited Hamlet's own mother Gertrude to spy on her son for him, along with Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and even Ophelia. Hamlet's mind is too complex for the relatively simple Claudius ever to understand him. Hamlet has decides to pretend to be mad in order to make it all the more difficult for Claudius to pry. As a result, Claudius naturally reads more into Hamlet than is actually there, and this is causing the wicked king to experience fears which show themselves in his heavy drinking and other behavior. What if this highly intelligent and well-educated nephew were to deduce the truth about Claudius' deep, dark secret--that he murdered his own brother to usurp the throne?