Initial impressions

ClaudiusWhen we first meet Claudius, we have no idea that he is a cunning murderer who has killed his brother in a particularly devious and unpleasant manner, in order to marry Gertrude and to take the throne.

Shakespeare could have structured the play so that the audience learn this before we meet him. Instead, Shakespeare introduces Claudius in such a way that we see him as:

  • readily accepted by the court
  • apparently deeply grieved at his brother's death
  • kindly and concerned with Laertes
  • trying his best to be pleasant to Hamlet
  • above all, an able statesman dealing firmly and swiftly with military threats against Denmark.

His opening speech, in particular, is constructed in such a way that his words are well-balanced, fluent and authoritative.

More on Claudius' language: Some of the effect is produced by Shakespeare's construction of blank verse; for further details, see Shakespeare's Language: Blank verse, prose & rhyme.

Shifting perspective

  • We start to adjust our view when we hear Hamlet's soliloquy ‘O that this too too solid flesh …' in which Hamlet expresses his disgust at Claudius' marriage with Gertrude. Yet it is his mother at whom his bitterness is particularly directed; there is no suggestion yet that Claudius is a villain.
  • In Act I scene iv we hear explicit criticism of Claudius from Hamlet; Claudius is a drunkard:
‘The King doth wake tonight and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail and the swagg'ring upspring reels; ..
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc'd and tax'd of other nations —
They clepe us drunkards.'

Yet this is still the view of one particularly embittered individual.

  • When the Ghost gives his account of his murder, in Act I scene v, we gain a completely different view of the suave and apparently well-intentioned Claudius:
    • According to the Ghost, Claudius is a ‘serpent', a cunning murderer, and an adulterer
    • And Hamlet indicates that he has had suspicions along these lines — ‘O my prophetic soul! My uncle!'


  • Shakespeare still does not confirm for us that these suspicions are true:

  • The Ghost's demand for vengeance may be the temptation of an evil spirit
  • Although Hamlet at first pronounces that it is ‘an honest ghost', he soon begins to have doubts
  • The next time the audience see Hamlet we have heard that he is suffering from melancholy so severe that it has made him mad. If he is really mad, perhaps grief at his father's death leaves him unable to make a sound judgement about Claudius
  • We see no-one else at court sharing Hamlet's attitude to Claudius.

The audience also know, however, that Hamlet told Horatio that he would pretend to be mad.

The admission of guilt

Only in Act III scene i does Shakespeare give us the first strong hint of Claudius' guilt. Polonius is commenting on the prevalence of hypocrisy. Aside, to himself, Claudius remarks:

‘How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience.
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plast'ring art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word!'

Still, however, we do not know what ‘deed' it is that Claudius is referring to. What we do see, however, is a man who is aware of guilt, and appears to be repentant.

Sinister intentions

By the end of Act III scene iii, Shakespeare shows the other, more sinister side of Claudius:

  • Having spied on Hamlet, Claudius is now convinced that Hamlet is not mad, but rather plotting against him
  • Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England — a decision which later is made explicit as a resolve to have Hamlet murdered
  • So, sending for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a way for Claudius to keep a close watch over his step-son (as Hamlet himself has already viewed it), rather than being a way to help Hamlet.

Doubts remain

Yet Shakespeare still keeps us and Hamlet in doubt about Claudius' guilt.

Hamlet's decision to write some extra lines for the performance of ‘The Mousetrap' is, as he tells Horatio, a necessary device to prove whether the Ghost's account of the murder is true:

‘If his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy.'


By the end of the performance, when Claudius calls for light, and rushes out, Hamlet is convinced.

We start to see the guilty and devious side of Claudius again when, in Act III scene iii, he advances his plan to send Hamlet to England:

‘I like him not, nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range …
I your commission will forthwith dispatch,
And he to England shall along with you.'

Possible redemption?

Almost immediately Shakespeare gives the audience the first absolutely clear evidence — through the words of Claudius' soliloquy — that he is the murderer of his brother.

Yet simultaneously we are given a detailed insight into the soul of Claudius:

  • He is aware of his sin and his need of repentance
  • He acknowledges his guilt and knows that he cannot escape divine judgement even if he escapes earthly retribution
  • He also knows that he can, if sincerely sorry, ask for forgiveness

BUT Claudius is aware that he cannot fully repent:

‘O my offence is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't —
A brother's murder ...
... but O what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? “Forgive me my foul murder.”
That cannot be, since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder —
My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen.'

For further detail, see Big ideas: Forgiveness, mercy and grace

Entrenched evil

Hamlet decides to try and kill Claudius' soul as well as his body, which may make us feel sympathy for Claudius.

However, Shakespeare soon shifts our sympathies. From this point on:

  • Claudius rejects the idea of repentance
  • He becomes more and more hardened in his villainy
  • He sets aside all remorse.

More on similarities between Claudius and Macbeth: Claudius is like Macbeth, who, having committed one murder finds that he is led to commit others until he reaches a point of no return —

‘I am in blood / Stepp'd in so far, that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o'er'

  • He is hypocritical when dealing with Laertes — ‘There's such divinity doth hedge a king' and ‘No place indeed should murder sanctuarize'
  • He is cunning in planning the fatal fencing-match and the poisoned chalice, especially as he relies on the good nature of Hamlet, who is ‘most generous and free from all contriving'.

A cool customer

Yet the audience will probably also admire Claudius' calmness, and his voice of authority reminiscent of Act I scene ii, when he is facing the violently angry Laertes in Act IV scene v:

‘What is the cause, Laertes,
That thy rebellion looks so giant-like?
Let him go, Gertrude. Do not fear our person …
Let him demand his fill.'

Damned villain

Finally, however, the audience condemn Claudius for the way that he attempts only a feeble intervention to save his wife — ‘Gertrude, do not drink' — and lets her die from the poisoned cup rather than stop her by revealing his own treachery.

Hamlet is seen as right in his estimate of Claudius as a ‘smiling, damned villain'.

Shakespeare's deliberate structuring of the play, and his gradual revelation of Claudius' nature whereby the audience has different views of him at different times, leads to a much more subtle characterisation than if we had the full picture at the outset. As with Hamlet and Gertrude, there are still complexities to study and unanswered questions by the end of the play.

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