In 'Hamlet', Is Claudius a careful ruler, a good king and loving husband; or a hateful, lying villain?

Claudius?

“Claudius makes a good king. He is a careful ruler and a loving husband, providing stability for his country and his wife”

“Murderer of the rightful king, Claudius is the play‘s hateful, lying villain.”


Which of these two quotes gives the better and truer description of Claudius?

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The 'Real' Claudius?


Claudius reaches his audience only via Shakespeare’s text, yet viewers of the play, and readers of the text, have drawn different conclusions about him. The quotes above indicate two such views.

How correct are they, according to the information that Shakespeare imparts?

Is Claudius a good, careful ruler, who provides stability for his country, or a murdering, lying, villainous, usurping traitor?

Is he a loving husband, or a hateful human being?

Is it possible that he could be all of these?

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare's Birthplace. Stratford Upon Avon, Warwickshire. Copyright Tricia Mason
Shakespeare's Birthplace. Stratford Upon Avon, Warwickshire. Copyright Tricia Mason

Rightful King?

Is Claudius a good king?

The most straightforward claim to consider is whether Claudius murdered the rightful king.

Certainly Old Hamlet is dead. That is made evident from the very beginning of the play, when, in Act 1, Scene 1, Marcellus and Barnardo tell Horatio that they have seen, what appears to be, Old Hamlet’s ghost.

When Horatio then sees it, he confirms that the entity has the same ‘fair and warlike form in which the majesty of buried Denmark did sometimes march'. But was he murdered?

When the ghost actually speaks, in Act 1 Scene 4, it is to young Hamlet, where he tells him that he is his ‘father’s spirit’ and the victim of ‘foul and most unnatural murder‘. Furthermore, he states that ’the serpent that did sting thy father’s life now wears his crown’. This is his brother, Claudius.


Accusation - True or False?

The audience has heard the accusation, but is it true? The text gives the answer. In his public speech, in Act 1, scene 2, Claudius speaks of ‘grief’, ’woe’ and ’sorrow’, over his late brother, but in Act 3, Scene 1, the truth begins to emerge, when Claudius, in a private moment, describes a ‘deed’, which is a ’heavy burden’ on his conscience. His guilty feelings become more public in Act 3 scene 2, when he reacts as if ’frighted with false fire’ to a play, organised by Hamlet, which mirrors the murder scene, as described by the ghost.

In the following scene, Claudius admits his ‘stronger guilt‘, in an attempt at prayer. He speaks of his ‘cursed hand‘ and ‘brother‘s blood‘, then considers a prayer asking: ‘Forgive me my foul murder‘, confirming that this murder brought him ‘my crown, mine own ambition, and my queen'.

"Murder Most Foul"

The text confirms that Claudius murdered the old king, it is only left to discover whether Hamlet was the rightful king. The text gives us a few clues about this. Horatio, in Act 1, scene1 states that Old Fortinbras had challenged Old Hamlet to combat over certain land. Hamlet had won and had killed his enemy, but, while Young Fortinbras wanted revenge, his uncle, the current Norwegian king, acknowledged that Hamlet’s victory was ‘rightful’. Hence, by refusing to support his nephew’s bid, he accepted Old Hamlet as the rightful king. Furthermore, Claudius has married the old king’s widow and he proclaims the old king’s son as his own heir. It is likely that he would only do this if it would strengthen his own position, so, in spite of murdering his brother, he must have considered that he was accepted as the rightful king.

Murderer

The text does indicate that Claudius is a murderer. This alone would make him the villain of the piece. The fact that he murdered his own brother, while he slept, makes the matter worse. This is why Shakespeare has the ghost describe it not simply as ‘foul‘, but also as ‘strange and unnatural’. Further, the ghost describes Claudius as an ‘incestuous .. adulterate beast’. Claudius has married his sister-in-law, which would have been considered incest by many. Incest was both immoral and illegal. He had married her within weeks of his brother’s death, which might indicate that they were having an affair before Old Hamlet’s death. If the ghost was correct about the murder, the audience may be able to rely on him regarding this information, as well.

A hateful villain

This is enough evidence to support the allegation that he is a hateful villain. Is he also a liar? Since Old Hamlet described his wife as ’seeming virtuous’, one assumes that he was unaware of any adultery, so lying must have occurred on the part of Claudius. Furthermore, in the circumstances, Claudius’s claim, in Act 1 scene 2, to feel ‘dole’ and ‘sorrow’ on the death of his ‘late dear brother‘ cannot be trusted. Another obvious lie is in Act 5 scene 2, where Claudius, referring to Hamlet, claims that ‘our son shall win’ the fencing tournament, knowing full well that Laertes has a sharpened, poisoned blade, while Hamlet’s sword is blunted, and that Hamlet is to be murdered. The important point is that, by killing his brother and pretending grief for him, then planning the death of his nephew / step-son, while claiming to have for him ’no less nobility of love than which dearest father bears his son’ Claudius is living a lie throughout the text.

Fratricide, regicide, adultery and incest?!

The text shows that Claudius is guilty of fratricide, regicide, adultery and incest. However, it may be possible to commit such crimes and still be ‘a careful ruler and a loving husband‘. Is this the case in the text of ‘Hamlet‘? Is there evidence for Claudius being a good careful ruler? One act that the audience will recognise as ‘kingly’, rather than personal, is Claudius’s response to Young Fortinbras, who ‘hath not failed to pester us with message importing surrender of those lands lost by his father’. He comments ‘so much for him’ and sends envoys to the King of Norway, asking him to deal with his errant nephew. Both the response to Fortinbras, and the speech referring to it, indicate a strong king, with confidence in his ability to deal with political matters, by negotiating, without taking his country to war. This would lead to stability.

Claudius - Planner and Controller?

Indeed the whole speech, planned and political, confirms what has happened regarding his becoming king and marrying Queen Gertrude, and indicates a king who will take control and will not expect opposition: ‘Nor have we herein barred your better wisdoms, which have freely gone with this affair along.’ This is a king who, in spite of his misdemeanours, might inspire confidence, and generate stability. In this sense, he might be considered a ’more careful ruler’ than his predecessor, who was willing to take arms against Old Fortinbras, but it seems unlikely that he is considered a better king, since his popularity is in question. Horatio describes the old king as ‘our valiant Hamlet’, and continues: ’for so this side of our known world esteem’d him’. Yet the new king is concerned about ‘the great love the general gender bear’ to Young Hamlet. He states this shortly this after Laertes returns, at the head of a mob. This mob cannot consider Claudius to be a good king, since they are chanting ’Laertes shall be king’.

A Russian Claudius

Massalitinov and Knipper. Moscow 1911. Massalitinov is Claudius. - Photo: public domain - copyright expired. - Accessed via Wikipedia.
Massalitinov and Knipper. Moscow 1911. Massalitinov is Claudius. - Photo: public domain - copyright expired. - Accessed via Wikipedia.

Massalitinov and Knipper

Nikolai Osipovich Massalitinov is Claudius and Olga Knipper (Mrs Anton Chekhov) is Gertrude, in this Russian production of Hamlet, at the Moscow Art Theatre, in 1911, produced by Edward Gordon Craig and Constantin Stanislavski'.

A loving and stable husband?

Is Claudius a loving husband, who provides stability for his wife?
Claudius seems to be caring and attentive towards Gertrude. It would appear from the ghost’s claims that they have been indulging in an adulterous relationship prior to the murder, and their relationship is a physical one, as illustrated by Hamlet’s disgust and his entreaty to his mother not to ‘let the bloat king tempt you again to bed’. When Claudius gives his long introductory political speech, the ‘joy’ and ‘mirth’ he mentions relate to his marriage. However, the audience will question how genuine this is, since the comparatives he uses, like ‘dirge’ and ‘dole‘, relate to insincere feelings of grief about his late, murdered brother. When he talks to Laertes about Gertrude, in Act 4, scene 7, he claims that she is ‘conjunctive to my life and soul’. This is the reason he claims that he cannot kill Hamlet ~ because she ‘lives almost by his looks’. Yet he soon plans Hamlet’s murder, with the help of Laertes, and, in the final scene, does little to prevent Gertrude drinking the poisoned wine that he had offered to his nephew. Women in Tudor times might have required a husband for stability ~ though this wasn’t the case for Queen Elizabeth ~ and a widowed queen could have been in a vulnerable position. As Ophelia states: ‘we know what we are, but not know what we may be,’ so marriage to Claudius could have given Gertrude some stability, if he were a popular monarch, who had her happiness in mind. The incident with Laertes and the rabble shows that he was not popular, and the planning of Hamlet’s death proves that his mother’s happiness was not paramount to Claudius. He does, though, indicate that his bother’s murder was not just to gain his crown, but also to claim his wife.

Some good decisions and some bad?

It is possible for a ruler to make some good decisions and some bad. It may be possible for a man to make a good husband, but a poor king. In the case of Claudius, it is possible that by using political negotiation, rather than physical combat, to deal with Norway, he could have proved himself to be a good king and a careful ruler. However, while Old Hamlet may not have been a negotiator, he was popular with the people, who considered him ‘valiant’, while, under Claudius, the people have formed a mob who wish to replace him, even with a rash young man like Laertes. By marrying a widowed queen, whom he loved, and whose place had become uncertain, he might have shown himself to be a loving husband, providing Gertrude with stability. However, in Gertrude’s own words it was ‘over hasty’ and did not take account of anyone’s misgivings over the mourning period, or the possibility of incest. This might have added to popular disquiet and might have caused concern as to whether adultery and even murder might have taken place. Furthermore, the lack of concern for Young Hamlet’s grief, and the dismissal of his potential claim to the throne, do not show political understanding. Planning the young man’s death certainly does not indicate any concern for Gertrude’s happiness or stability.

My Opinion

In my opinion, while, on the surface, Claudius might be considered ’a good king, a careful ruler and a loving husband, who provides stability for his country and his wife‘, on deeper inspection of Shakespeare’s text, he is found to be a deceitful murderer, who cares little for anyone or anything, but his own status, even if that means an after-life in hell. The fact that he is willing to kill a popular king and commit treason is a huge crime; that this king was his brother makes it worse. That he wishes to kill his nephew, though it would break his wife’s heart, shows no desire to provide her with real love and stability. Shakespeare does indeed portray Claudius as the play‘s hateful, lying villain and I do not believe that he intended his audience to consider that such a person could possibly provide true stability either for his wife or for his country.

Derek Jacobi is 'Claudius' - in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet'

What Is Claudius - In Your Opinion?

Is Claudius a careful ruler and loving husband, or a hateful, lying villain?

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Comments 6 comments

studient 4 years ago

in my point of view king claudius was not able to b a king at the place of king hamelet


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 4 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi Studient :)

Thank you for reading and commenting!


AW 3 years ago

He didn't stop Gertrude from drinking the wine.

IMO he's still the villain.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 3 years ago from The English Midlands Author

Hi AW :)

Oh, yes, he's definitely a villain.

But is there more to him than just villain?


The Schreibfeder profile image

The Schreibfeder 23 months ago

I really think that there's more to him than just a villain. I love how Shakespeare has even the typical "evil" ruler as a dynamic character than can be examined and debated. While Claudius is both selfish, incestuous (for the time), and a murderer; he also hints to those golden moments of diplomacy and reason. So while he does make some poor decisions, I believe that Claudius made a better king than Hamlet would have. After all, Hamlet was suicidal throughout the play. He's not the man I want running the country.


Trish_M profile image

Trish_M 23 months ago from The English Midlands Author

Hello The Schreibfeder :)

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Yes, you make some good points there.

We sometimes forget that the lives and behaviour of kings in those days may not always have been as squeaky clean as we might now expect :)

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