The King

May 2, 2006

As David pointed out in the comments to a previous post, the word "Claudius" is never actually spoken aloud in the play. I'm going to follow standard practice, however, and use "Claudius" to describe him when "The King" doesn't feel right.

Hamlet says so much about the King, describes him with such strong and passionate language, that it's difficult to look at this character objectively. According to Hamlet, Claudius is "the bloat king," "a satyr," "no more like my father than I to Hercules," a "smiling damnéd villain," a "bloody, bawdy villain," a "treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain," "a mildewed ear",

…A murderer and a villain,
A slave that is not the twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole
And put it in his pocket…

A king of shreds and patches…

What's more, Claudius is guilty. He confesses his guilt to the audience — he knows it was wrong to kill his brother and take the throne and the Queen, and he did it anyway.

'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.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?

Interestingly, he tells us that he cannot repent. It's not that he does repent and can't be forgiven, it's that he can't actually make himself wish he had done the right thing.

Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it, when one cannot repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!

And, of course:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

This is a complicated, conflicted character. He is clearly the villain in the play, the antagonist, the just target for Hamlet's revenge, but Shakespeare gives him that third dimension that allows the audience to feel for him just a bit, particularly in his honestly pained reaction to the play-within-the-play. And Shakespeare proves his brilliance once again by ironically using this stab at repentance to give Hamlet an excuse to extend his delay at a crucial moment in the story.

The King is clever, politically astute, and actively engaged in the politics and procedures of running the kingdom. He knows how to work a room, and enjoys drinking with his subjects. His handling of the Fortinbras situation (though mostly cut from my production) is masterful. He pulled off his coup without a hitch, and would have gotten away with it had Old Hamlet not come back from the dead to name names. His seduction of Laertes is likewise brilliant. This clear competence and leadership calls into question Hamlet's descriptions of the King; maybe Claudius isn't such a bad replacement for his warlike brother after all.

Marrying Gertrude was a particularly good move as a way to solidify the succession, and the royal couple seem to genuinely enjoy each other — I don't think they had anything going while Old Hamlet lived, but Shakespeare leaves that possibility open. Up until he starts actively plotting to kill Hamlet, he solicits Gertrude's advice and lets her in on his plans.

And up until Hamlet becomes obviously threatening, the King could be seen as genuinely concerned for Hamlet's well-being. Hamlet is clearly a threat to Claudius  — he has a claim for the throne and the support of the people. Wisely, Claudius begins the play by denying Hamlet's request to leave Elsinore and maybe stir up the kind of rebellion Laertes will return with in Act IV. He tries to get Hamlet to accept him as a father, and while this is somewhat cynical it's also maybe a little bit generous, especially when Claudius names Hamlet his heir. The King spies on Hamlet when Hamlet begins acting mad, but does not seek to kill him until after overhearing Hamlet make a not-so-veiled threat at the end of the "get thee to a nunnery" scene. Up until this point, the King seems to want to accept Polonius' theory that Hamlet's madness is caused by love, which would mean that the King wouldn't have to worry about the threat Hamlet represents. Here's what the King says to Polonius there:

Love? His affections do not that way tend,
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness.

All of this is accurate. Hamlet is not mad, and the King has seen through the act. He continues:

There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger

The King is now on to Hamlet, and he manages to convince Polonius to agree to the England plan — even though Polonius does not know Claudius killed Old Hamlet, and does not know that the King will send Hamlet's death-warrant as well.

At the duel, Claudius tries to stop Gertrude from drinking the poison, but is caught in his own trap — the only way to truly stop her from putting that cup to her lips would be to reveal himself. And despite everything, he still cannot repent enough to do that. He lets Gertrude die to protect his crown and ambition. Laertes, by contrast, does repent; he admits the plot and reveals the King's treachery. And Hamlet finally kills the King.

The Kings' greatest want is the throne — which he possesses at the top of the show, so his objective throughout the play is to stabilize his position. He has changed the world, and he wants to hold on to the new reality he's created. Shakespeare's imagery throughout the play makes clear that the reality of Claudius is diseased and rotten.  It is Hamlet's task to bring the King down; Shakespeare has given Hamlet a worthy adversary.

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