The royal plural

Monarch as representative

 A mode of address, used historically and in Shakespeare, is the ‘royal plural' — that is, the monarch using the plural form ‘we' to refer to himself.

Claudius addressing the court The first time we see Claudius, holding court and acting his role as the sincere and noble king, he speaks of himself in the plural:

 ‘Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death The memory be green … Our sometime sister, now our queen.'

 This stems from the fact that the ruler (usually a king rather than a queen) was seen as the representative of, almost the embodiment of, the whole country:

  • Claudius means himself when he tells Laertes, ‘You cannot speak of reason to the Dane and lose your voice.'
  • In Act V scene i, Hamlet finally lays unequivocal claim to the throne when he announces, ‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane.'
More on the use of nationality to define identity: In Shakespeare's King Lear, King Lear demands, ‘Call France! Who stirs? Call Burgundy' — meaning that the King of France and the Duke of Burgundy are to be sent for.

Characters' use of the royal plural

Hamlet himself only once uses the royal plural (in Act III scene ii):

  • When Rosencrantz tells Hamlet that the queen wishes to speak with him, he replies: ‘We shall obey, were she ten times our mother. Have you any further trade with us?'
  • He wishes to show Rosencrantz and Guildenstern how much he despises their betrayal, and how far he distances himself from the friendship they had enjoyed in earlier times.

Claudius uses the royal plural at times throughout the play — particularly when he is being his most hypocritical:

  • in Act IV scene iii, he is planning to send Hamlet to his death in England, and tells him:
    ‘Hamlet, this deed for thine especial safety —
    Which we do tender, as we dearly grieve
    For that which thou hast done — must send thee hence.'
  • It is noticeable here that Claudius, while stressing his own kingship through the use of the royal plural, simultaneously uses the intimate ‘thou' to Hamlet — both indications to the audience, who now know Claudius to be a murderer, of his deceit and hypocrisy.
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