The presentation of Claudius is interesting. He is by no means the classic villain of melodrama. The more reprehensible aspects of his character are filtered to us entirely through the speeches of the two characters he has grievously wronged: Hamlet, father and son. But there is another Claudius, rather different from the one seen by Hamlet and the Ghost. Shakespeare allows us glimpses of this other Claudius from time to time, and thereby humanises and balances the portrait. Claudius is one of the many illustrations of the fact that Shakespeare, even when confronted with the necessity to present ‘evil’ characters, gives us men, not monsters.
The attractive side of Claudius belongs, of course, mainly to the surface. He behaves at the beginning, as more than one critic has noticed, like the typical kindly uncle, anxious to put his nephew at ease and to make him feel at home in the court, holding out to him the prospect of royal succession, and generally cajoling and flattering him: ‘And now my cousin Hamlet, and my son…..Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet…think of us as a father…remain here in the cheer and comfort of our eye…..Tis a loving and a fair reply…’ This courtesy, relatively unforced at this juncture, extends to Laertes and the Ambassadors, although in the case of Laertes, the desire to please is carried to the point of fulsomeness: ‘And now Laertes, what’s the news with you… You told us of some suit, what is’t Laertes?…What wouldst thou beg, Laertes…What wouldst thou have, Laertes?…Take thy fair hour, Laertes’. He is courteous and considerate to the Ambassadors: ‘Meantime we thank you for your well-took labour / Go to your rest; at night we’ll feast together / Most welcome home’ (11, ii, 83).
Hamlet’s view of Claudius as a King, as distinct from his hatred for him as a man, is not the one that emerges from the play. His nephew sees him as a ‘vice of king’s and ‘a king of shreds and patches’. We are, however, allowed to see enough of Claudius in his capacity as a monarch to realise that he is an efficient, capable and practical ruler, with considerable diplomatic ability, which he turns to good account in the Norwegian business. His speech of commission to the Ambassadors shows clear judgement, incisiveness, and control of matter in hand:
Giving to you no further personal power
To business with the king, more than the scope
Of these delated articles allow
Farewell, and let you haste commend your duty. I,ii.36.
He achieves and easy and peaceful settlement of the problem. In the light of his efficient management of public affairs suggested here, it is perhaps somewhat surprising to learn that Claudius may not be is full control of his country’s affairs following the death of Polonius: ‘the people muddied / Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers’ (IV,v,66, and then, more dramatically, the news from the Gentleman that Laertes has raised an armed rebellion, and that the common cry is ‘Laertes shall be king’. It is, however, at this point of most acute crisis that Claudius shows his political skills at their most impressive; confronted by the armed Laertes, he displays a rare presence of mind, considerable coolness in the face of real danger, and even an exalted sense of the dignity and inviolability of his royal office:
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
Acts little of his will…IV,v,108.
He ensures his self-preservation by plotting treachery with the incensed Laertes against Hamlet. He quickly converts a dangerous enemy into a useful instrument of his purposes. Hamlet may be able to win his verbal battles with Claudius, but the latter is far the shrewder plotter. He skilfully plays the delicate game of accommodating his undoubted love for Gertrude to his irreconcilable conflict with her son. When he decides to have Hamlet killed, he chooses a place far from home and away from Gertrude. A further point deserves emphasis. If we can accept the reading of the Play Scene which sees Claudius as being able to witness the dumb-show without reacting openly, then we can only agree with Peter Hall that he is ‘a superb operator who hardly ever loses his nerve. He is a better actor in the play scene than the players themselves are’.
Claudius has his strengths, then, as a politician, as a monarch, and as a diplomat. He has a strong nerve and a cool head. He can handle people, even those potentially dangerous to himself, with much assurance. He has an attractive presence, and is endowed with the art of pleasing, despite Hamlet’s talk of him as ‘a mildew’d ear’. When Hamlet, in his calmer moments, can forget his hatred of Claudius the man, he accurately describes Claudius and himself as ‘mighty opposites’ (V, ii, 62), an unconscious tribute to his adversary’s stature. There are, however, other aspects of Shakespeare’s presentation which call to mind a celebrated comment from All’s Well that Ends Well: ‘The web of our life is of a mingled yarn / Good and ill together’. The evil aspects of Claudius are more than adequately exposed by Hamlet and the Ghost, and no weight of emphasis on his more endearing qualities or his statecraft can obscure the fact that he has committed one of the most reprehensible crimes known to man, the crime, as he himself recognises, with ‘the primal eldest curse upon it’. His hypocrisy on his very first appearance appears nauseating in retrospect. But Shakespeare, master, as Hazlitt pointed out, of the mixed motives of human character, does allow for the possibility that even the treacherous murderer of a brother can be a devoted husband. There can be no doubt that his feelings for Gertrude are deep and genuine. There is no reason to question the sincerity of his statement to Laertes that,
My virtue or my plague, be it either which –
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 …. IV, vii, 12.
This utterence earns some sympathy for the speaker, but it is in the Prayer Scene that the audience finds it most difficult not to respond imaginatively to his plight. Few tragic villains have ever been given a more beautiful or moving prayer than this:
what if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? …… III, iii, 43.
What is most striking about the remainder of the soliloquy is that it reveals a conscience-stricken, rather fearful man, ‘a limed soul, struggling to be free’, facing the terrible truth that there is ‘no shuffling’ where heaven is concerned, that no forgiveness is possible where the fruits of crime are still enjoyed. The effect of this revelation of the hidden Claudius as a man with a tormented conscience reinforces that of the other direct glimpse of his inner self, his aside following the remark of Polonius on the hypocrisy of human beings:
O, ‘tis too true!
How sharp lash that speech doth give my conscience.
The harlot’s cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burden! ….. III, i, 50.
There is, then, no single formula for Claudius, no ready phrase which can do justice to Shakespeare’s portrait. He has been called ‘a slimy beast’ by one critic, and several nastier names by Hamlet: incestuous, adulterous, a smiling damned villain, and so on. He is all of these, but he is more. He is a complex and totally convincing representation of humanity. Voltaire thought that Shakespeare offended against the laws of artistic propriety when he represented Claudius as a drunkard, feeling that this trait somehow made him less than completely royal. In answer to Voltaire, Samuel Johnson argued that ‘Shakespeare always makes nature predominate over accident’, and that he added drunkenness to the other qualities of Claudius, ‘knowing that kings love wine like other men, and that wine exerts its natural power over kings’.
Shakespeare’s presentation of Gertrude has never attracted favourable comment. Rebecca West shows unbridled contempt for her when she declared that,
‘The Queen is one of the most poorly endowed human beings Shakespeare ever drew. Very often he created fools, but there is a richness in their folly, whereas Gertrude is simply a stately defective. The whole play depends on her not noticing and not understanding’.
A.C. Bradley was somewhat kinder:
‘The Queen was not a bad-hearted woman. But she had a soft animal nature, and was very dull and very shallow. She loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun; and to do her justice, it pleased her to see others happy’.
(Poor old A. C. hasn’t much of a clue about P. C.!!!).
Her great anxiety seems to be to avoid trouble at any cost, any disturbance of the smooth currents of her existence. Her early request to Hamlet to cast off his mourning clothes and to look on Claudius as a friend is typical enough of her general attitude. Essentially, therefore, Gertrude is a woman who means no harm but whose poor judgement contributes greatly to the terrible events that occur. There are only two female characters in the play, and neither one – Gertrude or Ophelia – is assertive. However, like her son, the decisions Gertrude does make eventually lead to her death and the downfall of others as well. Indeed, as I have said elsewhere, at the end of the play there are so many dead victims in the Danish Court that the next King of Denmark is from Norway!
We first realise in Act I, Scene ii, that poor judgement is her major character flaw. As the mother of a grieving son, Gertrude should have been more sensitive to Hamlet’s feelings. Instead, less than two months after King Hamlet’s death, Gertrude marries Claudius, her dead husband’s own brother. Gertrude should have realised how humiliated Hamlet would feel as a result, because at that time it was considered incestuous for a widow to marry her husband’s brother. There is also jealousy on the part of a son, who feels his mother should be giving him more attention during the mourning period. She is not in touch with her son’s feelings to see why he is angry. Hamlet expresses this outrage during his first soliloquy:
O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets.
Gertrude is shown to be a loving mother but a parent who cannot read into her sons’ behaviour. When answering Hamlet, she says that it is common for all men to die, but this is not just any man who has died, she should realise; it’s Hamlet’s own father! Also when Gertrude asks Hamlet:
If it be, why seems it so particular with thee
She means to calm him down, but the word ‘seems’ only makes Hamlet more suspicious. She fails to realise that in his sensitive mood, the word ‘seems’ will give Hamlet the impression that she is hiding something. Indeed, there are times when we wonder if she has been implicated in the plot to kill her former husband, but in Act II, Scene ii, there is some evidence that Gertrude really hasn’t any knowledge of the plot. Hamlet suspects her of being an accomplice with Claudius in his father’s murder. It’s too bad, therefore, that Hamlet doesn’t hear Gertrude’s private conversation with Claudius in which she gives her theory about Hamlet’s anger:
I doubt it is no other but the main,
His father’s death and our o’er hasty marriage.
Gertrude’s conscience may finally be bothering her, but only about her quick marriage, not about anything worse. If Hamlet hadn’t scolded her, the thought might never have occurred to her that the marriage took place too soon. Her comments show that Gertrude probably was not an accomplice. Up until now, we might have believed that Hamlet had grounds for his suspicions but here Claudius and Gertrude are talking privately and Gertrude makes no reference to any plot. She is also very sincere in wishing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may be able to shed some light on her son’s disaffection. This is in sharp contrast to Claudius’ devious scheming. Therefore, her worst fault seems to be insensitivity towards her son and she shows no awareness of how her former husband died and therefore no insight into what Hamlet suspects. The irony here is that Gertrude’s motivation in watching Hamlet’s behaviour is motivated by a genuine concern for his well-being, while Claudius’ concern is for his own well-being.
Another example of Gertrude’s lack of awareness is her inability to see that her second marriage may be seen as adultery by those around her. Her attitude seems to be that if she and Claudius had simply waited longer before marrying to give Hamlet more time to grieve Hamlet might have reacted better. She doesn’t face up the fact, as hamlet sees it, that perhaps the marriage shouldn’t have happened at all. Love seems to be the answer to all problems for Gertrude.
She shows this simple-minded thinking again in Act III, Scene i. She tells Ophelia about her hope that Hamlet’s madness came from his love for Ophelia. If Gertrude keeps believing this, she won’t have to face up to the possibility that it is her marriage which is causing the problems. Gertrude’s romantic outlook again keeps her from seeing the truth.
Because of Hamlet’s powerful belief in his mother’s guilt, he takes his anger out on Ophelia, who Hamlet may think is just another insincere woman like his mother. Hamlet is determined to prick his mother’s conscience as well as Claudius’ in the Play Scene. But Gertrude reacts casually and she does not show guilt about her relationship with Claudius but instead, she has a very practical approach to the Player Queen:
The lady doth protest too much, methinks.
She is realistic enough to say that in real life, a widow would easily want to remarry, and that this is why the Player Queen is not a believable character. However, this is another example of how Gertrude can’t or refuses to see how other people are affected by her behaviour. Even after Hamlet’s questioning, Gertrude is not aware enough of her actions to make a connection between the play and her own life. Her reaction to the play also shows that she is unaware of Claudius’ guilt. Even though she is described as being upset after Claudius leaves excitedly, she is anxious more about how Claudius feels than about anyone’s guilt.
Finally, in Act III, Scene iv, Hamlet forces Gertrude to see what he is accusing her of: murder, incest, adultery. He does reach her conscience, because she says:
Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.
In this scene, Hamlet confronts his mother and it seems as if Gertrude is being asked to choose between her son or her husband. Up to this point she has tried to please both, which is impossible. However, it seems to me that Hamlet has some success here in warning Gertrude about the evil of her new husband. She is shocked when he kills Polonius in such a cold blooded manner and he replies that it is indeed ‘a bloody deed’:
Almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king and marry with his brother.
Her shocked response of:
As kill a king!
Removes all suspicion of guilt from Gertrude and she begins to comprehend the terrible situation she has gotten herself into. She ends the scene by telling her son:
Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe,
What thou hast said to me.
We see the results of this important confrontation immediately in Act IV, Scene i, when she tries to protect Hamlet from Claudius. When describing to Claudius Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, she covers up Hamlet’s callous attitude by saying that he cried afterwards. She knows that Hamlet did not show sorrow.
Gertrude is not a very good judge of character and she does not have the insight to distinguish between sincerity and deception. She is finding it very difficult to come to terms with the fact that she has married a corrupt man. He is adamant that he is sending Hamlet away for her safety, while in reality he is only concerned for his own life. If her judgement were better, she would object to the idea out of fear for Hamlet’s life. Her chief aim in life seems to keep everyone happy, even though her actions caused many of the problems in the first place.
Her reaction at Ophelia’s funeral shows again that Gertrude is a romantic thinker rather than a realist. She is very superficial, not showing any great grief but more regret that Hamlet and Ophelia did not get married. Gertrude still wants to believe that their love would have made everything better. It is yet another case of Gertrude not facing up to reality and escaping into romantic fantasy. It is only at the very end, when Gertrude realises that the cup contains poison, that she faces the truth. The irony in this scene is that Gertrude actually offers the wine to her son to help and encourage him! But she finally has to admit to herself that Claudius is guilty of murdering her former husband and of trying to murder her son also. When she warns Hamlet not to drink the wine, she is, at last, showing compassion for her son and her wish to protect him from danger.
In other words, the play’s last scene neatly summarises Gertrude’s two sides. As a mother, she means well and does have concern for her son but her bad decisions and failure to judge people correctly are a major cause of the tragedy. Shakespeare does her no favours: he depicts her as a weak and shallow woman. Her only redeeming feature is her love for her son. She dies a pathetic death, another victim of Claudius’s treachery, knowing that he has murdered Hamlet as well as herself.
Bradley, A. C., Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth. 2nd edition. London: Macmillan, 1905. p.167
Eliot, T.S. Selected Essays 1917 – 1932.Essay entitled Hamlet and his Problems (1919). London: Faber and Faber, 1932
Peter Hall’s Hamlet in Royal Shakespeare: Four Major Productions at Statford-on-Avon by Stanley Wells. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976
West, Rebecca, The Court and the Castle, Yale University Press, 1957.
Voltaire quoted by Theodore Besterman in his Introduction to Voltaire on Shakespeare (Genève: Institut et Musée Voltaire, 1967).
Samuel Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare, paras 1 – 40, (1765), in Famous Prefaces, The Harvard Classics 1909 – 14.