This is just a summary of Claudius’ main appearances in the play but you need to make up your own mind about his character. Is he purely a villain? Does he have any redeeming features? Are there moments when you admire him? Is he a good king? A good husband? What motivates him as a person? What are our final impressions of him?
Act 1, scene 2
- Claudius addresses the Danish court and although he claims to be filled with grief because of his “dear brother’s death” we immediately feel his hasty marriage to Gertrude “our sometime sister now our queen” is inappropriate.
- He handles the threat from Fortinbras of Norway in a peaceful /diplomatic way, sending ambassadors to the King (Fortinbras’uncle) insisting he control his nephew.
- He seems too eager to please: “What wouldst thou have Laertes?” especially when it comes to getting Hamlet on side “my cousin Hamlet and my son”.
- Claudius is deeply insensitive towards Hamlet’s grief and has the audacity to suggest that Hamlet is insulting God by not accepting his father’s death “tis unmanly grief, it shows a will most incorrect to heaven” (we later learn that Claudius is the one who has actually challenged God’s power over life and death).
- He is clever in his attempts to get Hamlet on side – he announces publicly “you are the most immediate to our throne”. We know it is unlikely that Hamlet will ever accept Claudius despite Claudius’ request to “think of us as of a father”.
- He is determined to keep up appearances that all is well but comes across as false & irritatingly good humoured – when Hamlet says “I shall in all my best obey you madam” Claudius says with forced merriment “Why tis a loving and a fair reply”
- He obeys the rule of all tyrants – keep your friends close and your enemies closer – by asking Hamlet not to return to college in Wittenburg “remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye”. Claudius phrases it as a request but Hamlet has to obey.
- The contrast between the dead King Hamlet (“he was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again”) and the new King (“no more like my father than I to Hercules”) upsets Hamlet greatly.
Act 1, scene 5
- We hear indirectly of Claudius’ crime from the ghost. There are echoes of the garden of Eden when the ghost describes his murder in the orchard “the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown”. Claudius is referred to by the ghost as “garbage” & “that incestuous, that adulterate beast” who “won to his shameful lust the will of my most seeming virtuous queen”.
Act 2, scene 2
- Claudius again appears as a skilful liar. He sends for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern so they can spy on Hamlet. He pretends to be concerned and baffled as to what is upsetting him “What it should be, more than his father’s death…I cannot dream of”. He is phoney and patronising “welcome dear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern…we much did long to see you” .
- He is sceptical of Polonius’ explanation of Hamlet’s madness (he is lovesick) but goes along with Polonius’ plan to spy on a meeting between Ophelia and Hamlet.
Act 3, scene 1
- Claudius suggests that Hamlet may be a danger with his “turbulent and dangerous lunacy” and concludes that “Madness in great ones must not unwatched go”.
- We get our first glimpse of Claudius’ humanity. Polonius comments that it is easy to cover the truth & “suger o’er the devil himself” & Claudius reflects “how smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience” . His guilt is a “heavy burden”.
- Having watched Hamlet with Ophelia Claudius is clever enough to realise that Hamlet is not lovesick, or crazy “Love? His affections do not that way tend, nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness. There’s something in his soul o’er which his melancholy sits on brood”.
- He wants to send Hamlet away to England but Polonius convinces him not to. Instead, Gertrude will confront Hamlet while Polonius eavesdrops (spy plot 3!)
Act 3, scene 2 – the Player’s Play
- Claudius is exposed. He says very little in this scene but briefly tries to stop the performance “Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence in it?” and changes the subject “what do you call the play” but when this fails he storms out.
- We hear from R & G that he is “marvellous distempered” following the play.
Act 3, scene 3 – Prayer Scene
- Claudius again reveals his more human side. Rather than offering us a completely evil ‘villain’, Shakespeare shows us a glimpse of his inner turmoil “O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven”. He realises that he cannot gain forgiveness for as long as he still possesses the advantages he gained from committing the crime “my crown, mine own ambition and my queen”. He pleads with heaven for comfort “o wretched state! O bosom black as death!…help angels”
- Ironically, Hamlet postpones killing Claudius because he wants him to suffer for all eternity “trip him that his heels may kick at heaven” . Hamlet leaves & Claudius then reveals that he hasn’t been able to truly repent & thus hasn’t been forgiven “my words fly up my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go”. Claudius has been extremely fortunate – if it weren’t for the circumstances Hamlet would have murdered him (& sort of tries to in next scene)
Act 4, scene 1 & 3
- Our brief sympathy for Claudius is quickly extinguished. Despite Polonius being his chief adviser, his reaction to Polonius’ murder is selfish relief that it wasn’t him that was killed “O heavy deed! It had been so with us, had we been there”.
- Claudius now has the perfect excuse to send Hamlet away. He knows that Hamlet is popular and so doesn’t punish Hamlet himself for fear of negative publicity “yet must not we put the strong law upon him, he’s loved of the distracted multitude”.
- His order that Hamlet be killed upon arrival in England will solve the greatest obstacle to Claudius retaining power and ensure his crime remains undetected “do it England for like the hectic in my blood he rages and thou must cure me” .
Act 4, scene 5
- Ophelia’s madness is revealed and Claudius lists their woes “O Gertrude, Gertrude! When sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions”. “First her father slain, next your son gone and he most violent author of his own just remove; the people muddied… poor Ophelia divided from herself and her fair judgement…her brother is in secret come from France” but his main concern is that people would believe he had something to do with Polonius’ death.
- He courageously faces down Laertes’ accusations “o thou vile king, give me my father” & ironically finds comfort in the idea that as God’s representative on earth God will protect him “Let him go Gertrude, do not fear our person, there’s such divinity doth hedge a king that treason can but peep to what it would” . Laertes is difficult to calm “t0 hell allegiance…I dare damnation” & Claudius again uses his talent for flattery to win him over, “Good Laertes…why now you speak like a good child and a true gentleman…I am guiltless of your father’s death” urging him to distinguish between friend & foe “where th’ offence is let the great axe fall”.
Act 4, scene 7
- Laertes demands an explanation why Claudius has not punished Hamlet for murdering Polonius. Claudius uses Hamlet’s popularity “the great love the general gender bear him” and Gertrude “she is so conjunctive to my life and soul, that as the star moves not but in his sphere I could not but by her” as excuses.
- Claudius receives news that Hamlet has escaped the ship & returned to Denmark.
- Claudius uses emotional blackmail to manipulate Laertes “was your father dear to you? Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, a face without a heart?” “What would you undertake to show yourself your father’s son in deed more than words?” (Laertes replies “to cut his throat i’ th’ church”).
- The entire plan to challenge Hamlet to a duel, to poison the tip and the poisoned cup is dreamed up by Claudius but Leartes goes along with it because Claudius has convinced him that this will be proof of his devotion to his dead father.
- Claudius’ reaction to Ophelia’s death is irritation. He fears it will provoke Laertes “How much I had to do to calm his rage! Now I fear this will give it start again”
Act 5, scene 1
- Claudius is eager to separate Hamlet and Laertes “pluck them asunder” and to keep Laertes calm “o he is mad Laertes” because he doesn’t want their plan to be ruined. He wants Hamlet’s death to seem like an accident.
Act 5, scene 2
- Claudius makes only a very feeble attempt to save the Queen’s life “Gertrude do not drink” and then tries to distract attention from her when she collapses “she swoons to see them bleed”. Claudius clings to life until the very end “O yet defend me friends, I am but hurt”.
Now think about how you might organise this information into 6 paragraphs of information.
- You might begin with your first impressions of him. Act 1, scene 2.
- Then you might discuss the scene where Hamlet meets the Ghost of his dead father and how the audience are heavily influenced by the vivid description of his horrific crimes (regicide, incest, adultery). From the very beginning of the play we are seeing events through Hamlet’s eyes. Once the ghost clarifies what really happened we find it hard to escape our impression of Claudius as a murderous usurper.
- In your third paragraph you might discuss the steps he takes to find out how much Hamlet knows. He’s a clever actor who plays the part of concerned uncle very well when he summons R&G. He’s also remarkably calm under pressure during the Murder of Gonzago.
- Next discuss his aside (How smart a lash) and the Prayer scene which offers evidence that he has a conscience and think about the effect this has on the audience’s sympathy for him. However balance that against the fact that he doesn’t confess OR give up the fruits of his crimes.
- In your fifth paragraph look at the completely selfish reaction to the deaths of Polonius (his chief advisor), Ophelia, and Gertrude (his wife and think about how this influenes our view of him.
- Finally discuss the Machiavellian ruthlessness revealed in his emotional manipulation of Laertes. To say we admire him seems strange but in a way we do admire his evil genius – his determination, his intelligence, his practical decisive nature – even though we cannot approve of the way he uses these talents for evil rather than for good.