Editor's Choice

In Act 4, Scene 1 of Hamlet, what are Claudius's main concerns about the murder?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Firstly, Hamlet's act is not actually murder but culpable homicide. He had no intention to kill Polonius. His target was Claudius and he thought that he was the one that he had stabbed through the arras. We know this because when Gertrude asks him if he knows what he has done, he replies:

Nay, I know not:
Is it the king?

When he later discovers that it was Polonius he killed, he responds thus:

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better....

It is evident that he thinks he has stabbed Claudius. Polonius's death was, therefore, accidental and Hamlet cannot be said to have murdered him.

When Gertrude tells Claudius what happened, he says that it is a hefty and burdensome deed since it has to be answered for and involves two pre-eminent members of Danish society. He further expresses the idea that he could have been the one harmed if he had been there:

It had been so with us, had we been there....

He states that Hamlet's freedom is a threat to everyone, implying that the young prince should be curbed or in some way incarcerated to ensure the protection and security of all:

His liberty is full of threats to all;
To you yourself, to us, to every one.

Claudius then expresses concern about how the unfortunate incident is to be explained and feels that he would be held accountable since he had not restricted Hamlet, who he refers to as "This mad young man." He states that he loved Hamlet too much to have him placed under restraint, just as a person with a foul disease would not contain or treat it and allow it to fester and then break out to infect everyone else.

He has no sympathy for Hamlet, though, because he tells Gertrude to get over herself when she mentions that Hamlet was tearful about what he had done. Claudius clearly believes that Hamlet is remorseless. He then states that he himself will both face and answer for what has happened and that he will also provide adequate excuses in this regard. He then calls on Guildenstern and Rosencrantz to seek out Hamlet and find out what he has done with Polonius's body.

This incident sets in motion a series of events that will ultimately lead to the deaths of many innocents.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Claudius's first concern is for his own safety. He says, "It had been so with us had we been there." He acknowledges that Hamlet would have killed anyone who happened to be standing in Polonius's position.

Claudius's second concern is also for himself. He is concerned that he will be accused on not reigning in Hamlet's wild behavior. He says, "Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered? / It will be laid to us." Claudius is more concerned for public perception that for Hamlet's condition.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In this scene, Claudius comes and talks to Gertrude and finds out that Hamlet has just killed Polonius, who was behind the arras.

Caludius's main concern is for himself.  The first thing he says is, essentially, "that could have been me."  He is talking about what would have happened if he would have been the one hiding.

Then Claudius starts worrying about what the Danish people will think of him now that this has happened.  He worries that they will blame him for not keeping better control over Hamlet when he is obviously a bit crazy.  This is why he decides to send Hamlet to England -- to get him out of sight and (we learn later) to kill him on the way.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

By this point in Shakespeare's Hamlet, Claudius is becoming increasingly concerned about Hamlet's erratic behavior and with good reason. Hamlet never liked Claudius. Compared to his father, Claudius was "Hyperion to a satyr" and "no more like my father Than I to Hercules" (1.2.143, 155–156). Claudius married Hamlet's mother far too soon after Hamlet's father's death, and Hamlet has shown his displeasure with Claudius for that:

CLAUDIUS: . . . But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,—

HAMLET: A little more than kin, and less than kind!

CLAUDIUS: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?

HAMLET: Not so, my lord: I am too much i' the sun. (1.2.64–69)

Then Hamlet starts acting a little crazy. Claudius isn't sure if it's all an act, but he needs to be careful, so he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet:

CLAUDIUS: Something have you heard
Of Hamlet's transformation
. . . What it should be,
More than his father's death, that thus hath put him
So much from the understanding of himself,
I cannot dream of. I entreat you both
. . . to gather
So much as from occasion you may glean,
Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus
That open'd lies within our remedy. (2.2.4, 7–10, 15–18)

There's also the business with Hamlet and Ophelia, some of which Claudius observed for himself—including the "To be, or not to be" speech (3.1.63–98)—followed by the "Get thee to a nunnery" scene (3.1.130–158). Claudius still isn't convinced Hamlet is really, truly mad, but he's decides that he must be vigilant:

CLAUDIUS: . . . Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go. (3.1.198)

Now comes the play-within-a-play, The Murder of Gonzago, that Hamlet arranges to be presented; through this performance, Hamlet basically accuses Claudius of the murder of his father. Claudius knows that he overreacted and gave himself away. Now Hamlet knows for sure that Claudius killed his own brother. However, Claudius has no idea that, if it weren't for Hamlet's indecision in act 3, scene 3, he'd be dead now. Claudius stays alive until the end of the play.

At the beginning of act 4, scene 1, Gertrude comes to Claudius and tells him that Hamlet just killed Polonius, who was secretly listening to Hamlet's conversation with her. Until now, Claudius has been thinking about Hamlet's behavior in the abstract, but this incident with Polonius brings the situation into sharp focus: Hamlet is capable of killing people. Claudius's first thought and concern is that the man behind the curtain could have been him:

CLAUDIUS: . . . It had been so with us, had we been there. (4.1.14)

Claudius very quickly decides what needs to be done:

CLAUDIUS: O Gertrude, come away!
The sun no sooner shall the mountains touch
But we will ship him hence (4.1.29-31)

Claudius isn't taking any chances. The next time we see Hamlet and Claudius together (in act 4, scene 3), Hamlet has armed guards, and, soon after that, he's on a ship to England to have his head cut off.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What concerns Claudius most about the murder of Polonius is his realisation that he could very easily have been killed if it were him hiding behind the arras rather than Polonius. He says as much in response to the news:

It had been so with us had we been there.

He also goes on to express his regret that he let Hamlet continue to enjoy freedom when it was clear that he was plotting some kind of violence. As king, he recognises that he should have paid attention to the signs earlier and done something to restrict his freedom so as to protect himself and his people. What is interesting about this scene however is that Claudius now clearly suspects that Hamlet knows what he did to his father and how precisely his father died. He therefore acknowledges that Hamlet's actions are not the result of any madness, but a deliberate, cold plot to kill him. He however is not able to reveal this to Gertrude, and so has to watch his words very carefully. The murder of Polonius however certainly increases the tension, as it shows just how far Hamlet is willing to go in order to bring about his revenge. Claudius begins to fear for his own person.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial