Is Claudius Presented by Shakespeare as a Tragic Villain Without Any Redeeming Features?

1 January 2017

As the King, Shakespeare presents Claudius as an able ruler who is trying to prove his worthiness to his court. This is apparent in Act 1, Scene 2 in Claudius’ opening speech. Claudius can be seen as being sincere in this speech as he mentions the death of his brother: ‘bear our hearts in grief’ (page 15) and he also states that the country is ‘contracted in one brow of woe’ (page 15). His language could be interpreted as heartfelt in his opening speech as he feels genuine sorrow over his brother’s death.

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This is a redeeming feature as he appears to feel love towards his brother for mentioning him as he takes his place as King. The language Shakespeare uses in Claudius’ opening speech is dismissive about the threat that Denmark may face from Norway due to Fortinbras: ‘So much for him’ (page 17). This is because he wants to display his confidence as a leader and to calm the listeners. This contributes to Claudius’ redeeming features as he appears to be considerate towards the feelings of those within the court. He does not wish to worry them and therefore comes across as an able leader.

It may be interpreted that Claudius is inferior to his predecessor and is trying to provide the court with the reassurance that he can follow on from the previous King. Hamlet states that Claudius is ‘no more like my father/Than I to Hercules’ (page 25). This imagery that Shakespeare uses shows the previous King as a stern warrior in the mold of classical Greek heroes. In contrast, Claudius is a corrupt politician whose weapon is his ability to manipulate others through his skillful use of language. Shakespeare structures juxtaposition between the setting of Act one, Scene ne and Act one, Scene two in order to show a contrast in the reality and the dream in Claudius’ mind. Act one, Scene one takes place outside the castle at the dead of night. This pathetic fallacy creates a foreboding and intense atmosphere, almost predicting the appearance of the Ghost. The Ghost represents the harsh reality that Claudius has to face and the reason for his feelings of guilt. Act one, Scene two contrasts with the previous scene as it takes place inside the castle, with Claudius at the centre. This is Claudius’ dream situation, that he is King of Denmark with Gertrude as his Queen.

The dramatic change in setting between scenes makes Claudius appear more oblivious to the consequences of his actions, as he is now centre of attention as King. This disillusion that Claudius appears to be in may deter the audience, as he cannot accept the effect of his actions. Unlike the majority of speeches throughout the play, Claudius’ opening speech deviates from iambic pentameter. This reflects the disorder that Claudius has created because of the murder. Court life would ordinarily have order and tranquillity and the structure of Claudius’ speech does not reflect this.

However, it can be seen that Claudius is trying to restore order through his speech as he settles the court over the threat of Fortinbras: ‘So much for him’ (page 17). However, this is unlikely as Claudius’ actions led to the destruction of many other characters and does not restore order. The fact that the speech itself does not fit in with the typical Shakespearean structure of iambic pentameter, could reflect that Claudius himself does not fit in as the King of Denmark as he disrupts the divine hierarchy.

Claudius disrupts the Chain of Being, a hierarchy derived from Aristotle and Plato; this would have been followed during the Elizabethan time period. At the top of the chain are God and the angels; whilst at the bottom are plants and rocks. Claudius disrupts the hierarchy as he takes the place of the previous King by marrying the Queen and not being next in line to the throne: ‘…for which I did the murder/My crown, mine own ambition, and my Queen’ (page 165). This can be interpreted as a villainous act that was committed purely for the gain of Claudius.

Such an act would be typical of a tragic villain as his acts lead to the downfall of the other characters. For example, Claudius’ actions lead to Hamlet receiving a visit from the Ghost and therefore feigning his madness in order to, eventually, avenge his fathers’ death. However, it is possible that Claudius is not a typical tragic villain. Claudius appears to feel guilt for murdering his brother, which is clear from his soliloquy in Act three, Scene three: ‘My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent’ (page 163).

His attempted prayer proves he cannot be wholly evil if he seeks forgiveness for his sins. He does this although he is not a religious man: ‘Bow stubborn knees’ (page 165), which suggests he feels deep guilt and resentment over his actions for him to turn to religion for forgiveness. This is not typical of tragic villains, who tend not to be religious or feel any resentment for their behaviour. This could show that Claudius wishes to be saved from going to hell after his death, which would not be a typical concern of a Shakespearean villain. Claudius also creates peace with the other characters.

For example, in his opening speech in Act one, Scene two, he is trying not to worry the court about the potential threat of Fortinbras, and in Act four, Scene five, Claudius tries to calm Laertes’ rage rather than encourage him to kill Hamlet. Such actions would not be typical of Shakespearean tragic villains, such as Iago from ‘Othello’. Iago feels no guilt for his actions against Cassio, Othello and Desdemona and is aware of the pain he is inflicting onto others. His actions against Othello also appear purposeless as it is never revealed why he dislikes him and wants him to suffer so much.

Claudius is unlike Iago as he does feel guilt and his actions are indeed purposeful. Whereas most of the other important men in ‘Hamlet’ are preoccupied with ideas of justice, revenge, and moral balance, Claudius’ actions are focused on maintaining his power. Although Claudius is Hamlet’s antagonist, he does have a number of redeeming features. He appears to have genuine affection for Gertrude, as one of the reasons for the murder of the King was to marry her: ‘My crown…and my Queen’ (page 165). This also comes across in Act five, Scene two, as when Gertrude is about to drink the poisoned wine, he tells her ‘do not drink’ (page 281).

Claudius is aware of the affection Gertrude feels for Hamlet and when trying to be rid of him, considers her feelings: ‘That as the star moves not but in his sphere/I could not but by her. ’ (page 223). The imagery that Shakespeare uses is very unlike Claudius’ character and more similar to Gertrude’s. The imagery of spheres, that at the time where believed to revolve around the Earth containing heavenly bodies, shows that Claudius has love for Gertrude and could not live without her. Claudius also appears to care for Hamlet to some extent.

He appears to be concerned for Hamlet’s well-being, as he brings in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in order to work out the cause of his ‘transformation’ (page 77). However, some may argue this is just an excuse for Claudius to discover whether or not Hamlet may know the truth of his father’s death. He thinks Hamlet’s madness is ‘More than his father’s death’ (page 77) and therefore wants to uncover the reason behind it. It can be seen that Hamlet’s madness is feigned and he does this purposely to see if Claudius is becoming suspicious of his actions.

For example, in Act three, Scene two after witnessing Claudius’ outburst when the Player King is killed, Claudius demands for the lights: ‘Give me some light – away! ’ (page 153). This could be seen as an expression of emotion as Claudius feels tremendous guilt over his brother’s death or as a way of not allowing anyone else to gain suspicion in him through the play. Other interpretations of Claudius that the audience receive are from the other characters. Shakespeare presents grotesque and vile imagery used by Hamlet and the Ghost to describe Claudius.

When Hamlet sees the Ghost in Act one, Scene five, the Ghost uses imagery of disease and corruption to describe Claudius and his actions: ‘Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast’ (page 51). Shakespeare uses the word ‘beast’ in reference to a cuckold. In Elizabethan times, if a woman were to have an affair, the husband would be known as a cuckold with horns to represent their foolishness in “losing” their wives. This imagery contrasts with the audience’s first interpretation of Claudius where Shakespeare presents him as a competent leader.

This is the only alternate view that the reader receives in the play as both Hamlet and the Ghost have reason for hating Claudius. The view that Shakespeare gives them will have been fogged by their hatred of him and not give a fair representation of Claudius’ character. To conclude, Claudius is not a typical tragic villain due to his feelings of guilt and his consideration of others. The representation the reader receives from other characters is not a fair interpretation due to their abhorrence of him. Bibliography Heinemann Advanced Shakespeare – ‘Hamlet’ sparknotes. com sirbacon. org – F. C. Hunt interpretation

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