Hamlet Sample Answer: Claudius

2011 HL Paper II
Based on a student essay

“Claudius can be seen as both a heartless villain and a character with some redeeming qualities in the play, Hamlet”. 

Discuss both aspects of this statement supporting your answer with suitable reference to the text.

This essay discusses the evidence in the play for viewing Claudius as both a heartless villain and as possessing some redeeming qualities. It follows the trajectory the audience takes as they are initially presented with an efficient, diplomatic and seemingly caring man. As the play progresses, the audience is provided with evidence of the villainous characteristics of the King. The question to be considered is whether these redeeming qualities outweigh those of a heartless villain. But it isn’t as simple as an equation of good versus evil. Indeed, Shakespeare’s work survived for many generations because of the realism and depth of insight with which he describes the dichotomy between good and evil in a single person: Claudius’s good side allows him to be so evil.

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"It's meowine now!" Not a quote from Hamlet! Image credit: Susan Herbert
It is the second scene of the play by the time the audience sees Claudius. However, the support of the people for his reign can be gauged from as early as the third line of the first scene as Bernardo announces 'Long live the king!' Despite this, there is a nervousness amongst the characters at the beginning of the play, which may indicate that all is not what it seems with the reign of King Claudius. In contrast to the support for Claudius, the first mention of his predecessor – King Hamlet - is when King Hamlet's spirit is referred to as 'this thing' and 'this dreaded sight'. 

In Claudius' opening speech to the court, he is presented as an excellent orator and an efficient and diplomatic leader. He cleverly assigns responsibility for his marriage to Gertrude to the nobles and their 'better wisdoms which have freely gone with this affair all along'. He also acts in a diplomatic fashion in his communication with the King of Norway. This provides the audience with a contrast between the late King Hamlet and Claudius. King Hamlet was a warrior king who 'smote the sledded Polacks on the ice' and was happy to go to war. Claudius is more of a diplomat who tries to avoid war, and this must be considered a redeeming quality. However, while Claudius' excellent oratory skills may be seen as a redeeming quality in his role as King of Denmark, it is these very same skills which allow him to become the corrupt politician and heartless villain. 

Claudius appears to show concern for his nephew as he asks 'how is it that the clouds still hang on you?'. However, his reference to Hamlet as his son could be seen as mischievous and heartless. Claudius appears to observers to be supportive of Hamlet as he considers Hamlet's actions to be 'sweet and commendable'. When Hamlet isolates Claudius in his reply to Gertrude: 'I shall in all my best obey you, madam', Claudius claims to consider it 'a loving and a fair reply'. On the surface to the unaware audience, Claudius appears to be doing his utmost to be civil and generous to his nephew. However, given what we know as the play develops, Claudius clearly has the attributes of someone who has the ability to be cunning and mischievous.

The audience may be deceived by the cunning Claudius, but not so Prince Hamlet. In his first soliloquy, Hamlet claims that comparing his father to Claudius is like comparing 'Hyperion to a satyr' and that Claudius is 'no more like my father than I to Hercules'. It is not long before the suspicions swirling in Hamlet's 'prophetic soul' are confirmed by his late father who unambiguously states that 'the serpent that did sting thy father's life now wears his crown'. The ghost leaves the audience in no doubt as to the heartless villainous characteristics of Claudius, describing him as 'that incestuous, that adulterate beast'. The ghost refers to Claudius' 'wit and gifts', which are the very tools that Claudius uses to reveal his redeeming qualities. The phrase 'smiling, damned villain', espoused by Hamlet to describe his uncle demonstrates very well the dichotomy between the smiling Claudius and his heinous crime. As the cloak of respectability slips further from the shoulders of Claudius, in a further soliloquy, Hamlet no longer refers to Claudius as smiling but simply in villainous terms: 'bloody, bawdy villain! Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless!' 

However, there does appear to be an of an inner humanity to Claudius as he reveals his guilt and 'heavy burden' to the audience: 'How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!' He provides the audience with their first reliable first hand account of 'a brother's murder'. To confirm the crime, he speaks of 'brother's blood', and just in case the audience were unsure of the King's association with the death of Hamlet's father, he asks 'Forgive me my foul murder'? However, Claudius is incapable of giving up his crown and queen. He wonders if he may be forgiven and still retain the proceeds of his crime.

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Image credit: Susan Herbert
Claudius' selfishness is demonstrated in his concern for his own safety after the murder of Polonius rather than for any danger Gertrude may have been in: 'it had been so with us had we been there'. It is only when he wishes to withdraw Hamlet's freedom of movement around Elsinore that he announces his concern for Gertrude to be a reason for confining Hamlet. Equally, we cannot take his show of caring for the insane Ophelia with any degree of sincerity. These are the same outward shows of affection that he displayed to Hamlet at the start of the play. There is little doubt but that if Ophelia was a threat to his crown, he would have her murdered as well. This is his plan for Hamlet as he sends him to England. This plan also questions any affection Claudius has for Gertrude. He is happy to murder the son of the woman he claims to love. It points to the fact that Claudius' main motive for murdering King Hamlet was to obtain the crown first and foremost. It is jealousy, ambition, greed and selfishness that defines the character of Claudius. But of course he had to marry Gertrude in order to become King, as Prince Hamlet was next in line to the throne. 

Claudius' calming of Laertes as he storms into the castle seeking revenge for his father's death is an admirable feat. Laertes charges Claudius with the accusation of being a 'vile king'. Not only does Claudius impressively calm Laertes down, he manipulates Laertes to take his revenge on Hamlet by choosing 'a sword unbated'. This seemingly calming influence wasn't out of wisdom or care for Laertes, but, once again, an instrument to achieve his own ends. In addition, Claudius claims not to have already acted against Hamlet because 'his mother lives almost by his looks'. However, Claudius has no hesitation introducing the poisoned cup as a back-up to the poisoned sword. 

Again at the end of the play, Claudius demonstrates that his foremost thought is for himself as he makes a feeble verbal attempt to prevent Gertrude drinking the poison: 'Gertrude, do not drink'. For a man who throughout the play demonstrated such oratorical skill, his feeble half-hearted verbal attempt to prevent Gertrude drinking the poison is lacking in the decisiveness and action he has demonstrated throughout. Any lingering doubt as to whether he truly loved Gertrude is answered in this defining scene. Claudius may have considered Gertrude 'so conjunctive to my life and soul', but his primary concern is self-preservation. 

In conclusion, while Claudius' excellent oratory and diplomatic skills may be seen as a redeeming quality in his role as King of Denmark, it is these very same skills which allow him to become the corrupt politician and heartless villain. While the audience is not initially aware that King Claudius is a murderer, the haste with which he has married his brother's widow is cause for concern and could not be regarded as a redeeming quality. His actions could be said to be heartless as young Hamlet grieves for the recent loss of his father. As the play progresses it is clear that the redeeming qualities possessed by Claudius are used to maintain a hold on the rewards of crown and queen he has gained from being a heartless villain. It is certain that the heartless villain in Claudius overpowers his few redeeming qualities.




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