Claudius Hamlet Essay Research Paper Every one

Claudius (Hamlet) Essay, Research Paper

?Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare

not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to

defend them.?

- Nicolo Machiavelli, from The Prince

Italian political theorist Nicolo Machiavelli speculated that the strongest leaders

are ones who are able to carefully balance appearances to his benefit, strategically using

them to strengthen his regime. If Machiavelli was indeed correct, then Claudius, from

Shakespeare?s Hamlet, starts off as an ideal Machiavellian prince. However, as the play

develops, Claudius? loses his previously immovable command and composure, largely due

to his concern over the potential threat posed by his stepson, Hamlet.

At the beginning of the play, Claudius appears to have complete control over

Elsinore, as evidenced by his imposing speech to the court:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,

Th? imperial jointress to this warlike state,

Have we (as ?twere with a defeated joy,

With an auspicious and a dropping eye,

With mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage,

In equal scale weighing delight and dole)

Taken to wife… [1.2: 8-14]

In this scene, Claudius, who has only recently taken the throne after the death of his

brother, addresses some pressing issues. Seeking to create a strong early impression,

Claudius uses his words very carefully, taking great pains to both mourn his late brother

and celebrate his marriage. Furthermore, with the words ?imperial jointress to this warlike

state? he justifies the potentially controversial union by making it appear like a benefit to

the entire kingdom. Claudius is clearly a shrewd politician, for he deliberately emphasizes

the contrast between his marriage and Hamlet?s death, using phrases such as ?defeated

joy? and ?with an auspicious and a dropping eye.? The benefits to such an approach are

obvious : on one hand Claudius appeals to popular sentiment by remembering his popular

brother, and on the other hand, with his celebration of his marriage, the King proves that

he is ready to move on and attack his new role with vigor. The oxymoronic phrases ?mirth

in funeral? and ?dirge in marriage? recall Machiavelli?s words, for Claudius demonstrates

his ability to express whatever emotions make him look wise and just, showing that he is

in command of Denmark, despite his limited experience as king.

Claudius fortifies his majestic appearance by taking decisive and positive action.

When faced with the threat of Fortinbras, he immediately takes diplomatic measures,

sending Cornelius and Voltemand to protect Denmark?s borders and create an alliance

with Norway. Later, Laertes asks for permission to return to France. Knowing the value

of the advice of Laertes? father, Polonius, Claudius gives his consent in a jovial manner,

thus strengthening his position with the courtiers. The King even senses the troubled state

of Hamlet, and rather than letting things run their course, Claudius immediately sends

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as spies. Most importantly, in every decision he makes,

Claudius appears confident, maintaining a balanced temperament in the public eye. Yet

underneath this smooth facade lies a man who is concerned above all about Hamlet. A full

two months after the death of his father, Hamlet continues to mourn, thereby keeping Old

Hamlet?s death in the public spotlight. Claudius, of course, would much rather forget

about the incident, for that would not only decrease the likelihood of his being discovered

but also help lighten his overburdened conscience. Unfortunately, Hamlet will not let him

nor the public forget. Furthermore, Claudius realizes that Hamlet has a justified claim to

the throne that could destabilize the King?s regime. In an attempt to alleviate the situation,

Claudius stresses Hamlet?s role as his successor, not potential replacement. Nevertheless,

the threat of Hamlet remains, and Claudius becomes extremely concerned with it. ?That

do I long to hear!? [2.2: 53] refers not to news of Fortinbras but to the cause of Hamlet?s

perceived lunacy. This exclamation is also the first time that we have seen Claudius stray

from his even-tempered public appearance, as he reveals a bit of emotion where Hamlet is


The effect of Hamlet on the King reaches a climax during The Murder of Gonzago,

during which the King?s composure breaks down completely. Hamlet?s plan to confirm

Claudius? guilt succeeds brilliantly: when the murder in the play pours poison into

Gonzago?s ear, telling the audience that the plot is based on true events, Claudius

suddenly rises, shouting ?Give me some light. Away!? [3.2: 295] Gone is the calm that

had begun to make Claudius a successful leader, replaced by a sudden outburst of emotion

in the presence of many others.

Now that Claudius? even-tempered shell has been shattered, we get a better idea of

what he would call the ?inward man.? [2.2: 6] In the third scene of the third act, we finally

see Claudius alone, and he reveals his innermost thoughts while acknowledging his guilt.

Clearly, he is not a cold-blooded and inhumane monster but a person whose conscience is

making him regret his sins. He explores the similarities between himself and Cain, the

Biblical first man to commit fratricide. Claudius knows that in order to achieve divine

salvation he must be truly repentant for his sins. However, he is unwilling to give up either

the crown or Gertrude, both of which he loves very much, and he resigns himself to a

hopeless fate.

Claudius is clearly a tormented man who has fallen victim to the temptations of

love and power, very similar to the situation of Macbeth. At no point in the play does

Claudius glorify his crime; instead, he simply tries to forget about it and move forwards. In

the first two acts, Claudius is able to mask his turbulent conscience with a confident

appearance. While this approach certainly succeeds in making Claudius a strong leader, it

is unable to heal the deep wounds in his soul. As the King wrestles with the increasingly

unenviable task of balancing his outward appearance with his interior thought, it is

impossible not to feel sorry for him. By the time Claudius kneels and prays, he has been

reduced to a man who is now the slave of one terrible deed.

To properly portray Claudius, an actor must focus on the gradual fall of the

character. In the first two acts, Claudius is at his best, running the court with the sharpness

of an experienced leader and decisively acting on every issue of importance. Therefore, the

actor must have an imposing and confident presence on stage, for Claudius dominates

Elsinore and is in full control of Denmark. However, by the third act, the King must be

depicted as a man who is growing increasingly fearful of Hamlet, and during the play,

Claudius is so startled that he must appear as though he has seen the ghost of Old Hamlet.

But in my opinion, Claudius? defining moment comes during his lengthy soliloquy in which

he acknowledges his guilt. As he mourns his condemned soul, he should seem so helpless

that the audience views him with intense pity, for the character of Claudius, like Macbeth,

is not intended to represent evil but instead to show the universal ability of power to

corrupt and to destroy lives in the process.



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