Hamlet’s Villain, King Claudius
In the drama Hamlet Shakespeare has concocted a multi-dimensional character in the person of King Claudius. It is the intent of this essay to analyze and probe all the various aspects of this curious personality.
Ward and Trent in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature consider Shakespeare’s options in designing the character of Claudius:
There were at least two ways in which an ordinary, or rather more than ordinary, dramatist might have dealt with this other “majesty of Denmark.” He could have been made a crude dramatic villain—a crowned “Shakebag” or “Black Will,” to use the phraseology of his creator’s own day. He could have been made pure straw—a mere common usurper. And it would appear that he has actually seemed to some to be one or other of these two. Neither of them is the Claudius which Shakespeare has presented; and those who take him as either seem to miss the note which, putting sheer poetic faculty once more aside, is the note of Shakespeare. It is not to be supposed that Shakespeare liked Claudius; if he did, and if he has produced on respectable readers the effect above hinted at, he certainly was as ineffectual a writer as the merest crétin, or the merest crank, among his critics could imagine. But neither did he dislike Claudius; he knew that, in the great Greek phrase, it was the duty of creators to “see fair”—[char]—in the handling of their creations. It would appear that the successor of Hamlet I might have been a very respectable person, if his brother had not possessed a kingdom and a queen that he wanted for himself. (vol.5, pt.1, ch.8, sec.16, no.53)
Literary criticism varies in its evaluation of Claudius. The “very respectable except for. . .” evaluation cited above gives way to a very condemning criticism cited below. Peter Leithart in “The Serpent Now Wears the Crown: A Typological Reading of Hamlet,” considers the gravity of the main sin of offense of Claudius:
Claudius's murder of King Hamlet, the act catalyzing the drama of the play, is presented as a sin of primordial character and cosmic implications. Claudius confesses that his fratricide parallels the murder of Abel:
O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't,
A brother's murder (3.3.36-38).
[. . .] Claudius has not only committed fratricide, but regicide. The king being peculiarly the image of God, regicide is a kind of deicide. At least, it is an act of rebellion against divine authority. Claudius is thus not only Cain but Adam. Claudius's sin has, for Hamlet at least, turned Denmark into a fallen Eden; thorns and thistles dominate the landscape. (n. pag.)
So, in the estimation of most critics, where exactly does Claudius fit in? How guilty is he? The drama opens after Hamlet has just returned from Wittenberg, England, where he has been a student. What brought him home was the...