The Character of Claudius in Hamlet
It is easy to overlook some of Claudius' villainy. He may not rant and rave, nor pluck out eyes on stage or hands, or tongues, nor does he conspire with crafty rationality like Edmund or Iago in Othello, nor bake little children in a pie. But as the murderer, usurper, and incestuous step-father, Claudius is one of Shakespeare's greatest villains. His distinguishing features are hypocrisy and subterfuge. He is clever in a worldly sense, a flattering strategist, good at manipulating his courtiers, at double-speak. His fawning address to Hamlet in I.2 ('Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet ...') shows him to be a master of persuasiveness. He encourages Polonius to practise subterfuge; his favourite weapon is poison. This recourse to poison, initially against his own ...view middle of the document...
Polonius is a good example of the usurper's pernicious influence: a 'faithful retainer' of the old sort, much given to spouting words of wisdom ('to thine own self be true ..': I.3.78), yet stooping to all manner of intrigue against his own son (II.1), his daughter and Hamlet.
Yet even Claudius is not so wicked as not to be pricked by pangs of conscience. He does at least know what he has done ('O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven': III.3.36). Shakespeare actually shows him kneeling down and praying in this scene, hoping for forgiveness and wondering if he can repent and still retain the effects for which he committed the murder: 'My crown, mine own ambition, and my queen' (III.3.55) - a question many villains have periodically asked themselves. Claudius is wise enough to recognise that this cannot be, and knows, like the evil spirit in Doctor Faustus, that he will be accountable for the evil he has done, and will not be able to talk his way out of it: 'But 'tis not so above:/ There is no shuffling, there the action lies/ In his true nature, and we ourselves compell'd/ Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults/ To give in evidence' (III.3.60-64). And though he prays, his prayers have little value, as he himself recognises ('My words fly up, my thoughts remain below': III.3.97).
One further mystery surrounds Claudius: the fact that he is largely unmoved by the play on whose performance Hamlet relied so heavily. He does not break down, he does not confess his wrong-doing, he merely walks away. His 'distemper' is only hinted at: there is no monumental revelation. Is this because he is so guilty that he can don the mask of innocence without trembling? Or because he didn't bother to watch? Or because the ghost misled Hamlet in some respect?