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Shakespeare’s Presentation of Claudius

Claudius is not presented as a typical villain. As always, Shakespeare’s characters are complex, with many facets to their personality. Claudius is not a conventional villain as he has redeeming qualities, making it impossible to categorize him as merely a “damned, smiling villain.” However, he certainly has been condemned to hell according to a Jacobean audience, as he has potentially broken three of the Ten Commandments: “thou shalt not covet,” “thou shalt not kill,” and “thou shalt not commit adultery.” By breaking the divine law, he is definitely “damned” and corrupt from the start, as he has killed his own brother for his crown and wife.

Shockingly, he committed such deeds, as the threat of hell and eternal damnation was more sharply felt in the Jacobean era than it is today. This shows extreme greed, lust for power, and no concern for others, typical villains’ qualities. However, what sets him apart from archetypal villains is that he has a conscience. Most villains lack in this, and this makes Claudius a man of contradictions. In my essay, I will investigate the complexities of Claudius’s character and look at how Shakespeare has presented him to prove he is more than a “damned, smiling villain.” Shakespeare presents the image of Claudius being a “damned, smiling villain” through Hamlet. As Hamlet may be mad, we cannot be sure whether his judgement can be trusted.

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A madman’s view may not be credible, and Shakespeare always leaves an element of doubt over all his characters. We do not know if Hamlet really is mad, and therefore his view of Claudius is biased and unreliable. This essay will consider how Claudius is presented by Shakespeare and analyze his actions to form an opinion of whether or not he is a “damned, smiling villain”. Claudius is not morally upright, as is immediately evident from Act I: Scene II, “our sometime sister, now our queen.” A Jacobean audience would consider marrying your brother’s wife as incest. He shows a lack of consideration and apparent indifference to his brother’s death by marrying her with “Oh most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets.”

By using the word “Oh,” Hamlet appeals to the divine and imploring to the audience. This reminds us of the religious implications of Claudius’s actions and proves that he is indeed damned. Claudius proves to have quite a selfish and predatory nature, “wisest sorrow think on him, together with remembrance of ourselves.” At a time like this, he encourages his nation to think of itself. Another example of his selfishness is at the end of the play in Act VI: Scene II. He doesn’t do very much to prevent Gertrude from drinking the poisoned glass of wine, as he cannot admit his crime to save her life. This is extremely inconsiderate and selfish. He is supposedly in love with her, but he loves himself more.

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He shares qualities with the Devil, as the Devil is considered to make alliances with weak people with the promise of enjoyment and pleasure. However, in the end, the devil is only interested in hurting God through you and brings about your downfall, according to a Jacobean audience. Claudius is similar to the devil, as he uses Gertrude to satisfy his lust and gain the crown. If he loved her, he would sacrifice all his gained power and reputation to save her life. Claudius is an extremely ambiguous character, and he is full of contradictions. This is evident immediately in the play, as he is caught between two emotions, “mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage.” There is an ambivalent feeling with Claudius as you cannot tell if he is happy or sad. However, these paradoxes do not cast him as a villain, as it can be happy and sad simultaneously.

He contradicts himself a lot, which keeps us guessing whether he is a villain or not, “defeated joy.” This could show he is the type who is insensitive to other people’s sadness and only considers himself and his own happiness. However, as it is possible to be happy and sad simultaneously, it does not necessarily make him a villain for feeling like that. He has a predatory nature as he moved in to become king as soon as his brother died, whilst Hamlet was abroad and unable to defend his position. However, the court wanted him to become king, and this proves he has redeeming qualities, “your better wisdom, which have freely gone With this affair along.” He did not have to seize power; the people asked him to become king, so he cannot be blamed for giving the people inadequate time to mourn the previous king as they wished for Claudius to rule them.

This shows that he must have some qualities that make a good king, such as experience, leadership qualities, and his expertise must have shone out to the people. The King is patriotic, “let’s drink to Denmark.” As he is the state, he must be patriotic. There is a symbiosis between the King and Denmark: they are one, “our dear brother’s death.” The use of the word “our” shows how he regards himself as the state. He asserts himself as King, and this makes him popular. He is a seasoned warrior and very experienced. He makes a good king practically, but not morally, “to gather so much as from occasion you may glean, whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus.” He is very fraudulent as he employs spies on his “son.”

He is a wise, shrewd politician as he averts war with Norway. He is level-headed as he doesn’t rush into battle straight away to prove his leadership qualities. This could, however, be interpreted as cowardice which is a villain’s trait. He is an excellent orator and a talented diplomat, enabling him to deal with public relations effectively, “giving you no further personal power to business with the king, more than the scope of these dilated articles allow.” He deals with the threat of war extremely effectively as he does his injudicious marriage to Gertrude. However, his talents are lost on Hamlet, who is set against him, “no more like my father than I to Hercules.”

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Another trait that makes us suspect he is a villain is that he has trouble trusting people, as he judges them by his own standards. Polonius is his only confidante. He is crafty, sly and devious as he uses Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet. He gets other people to do his “dirty work” for him. He also uses Laertes to eliminate Hamlet without involving himself and getting “blood on his hands.” He is very manipulative and clever in a cunning way. He is very cool, calm and collected, which makes his reaction to the play all the more dramatic, unlike him. The performance traps Claudius into admitting his guilty conscience, “Give me some light. Away!” he abruptly leaves the play calling for a light, and a fiction discovers the truth of the ghost’s story.

He is a man of many contradictions, as running from the play and betraying his emotions so easily is uncharacteristic. His honesty contradicts his craftiness during the prayer scene in Act III: Scene III. He is honest enough to admit he has committed a crime and struggles with his conscience, “my stronger guilt defeats my strong intent.” He is a man of conflict; God and the Devil are struggling with his soul. Yet, unlike customary villains, he feels remorseful, and he has a conscience, “my offence is rank; it smells to heaven.” The irony involved in the prayer scene is that Claudius realizes he is guilty of vast amounts of sin but cannot repent. The villain in him prevails, and he is not prepared to give up the life he acquired by committing his crimes, “my crown, my own ambition, and my queen. May one be pardoned and retain the offence?”

This shows he wants life the easy way; he is not prepared to make sacrifices, which is selfish and narrow-minded qualities a villain possesses. Only his fear drove him to pray, as Hamlet’s play made him realize the adversity of his crime. He had chosen to ignore the consequences of murder beforehand, but now he can no longer ignore it. Claudius is an extremely contradictory character. It is almost as if he has schizophrenia. First and foremost, he was asked by the people to become king, yet he is corrupt. He feels no qualms about employing spies, committing incest and murder. However, he has qualities that make him a popular choice as king. He can deal with a crisis effectively as he remains calm and level-headed. He has the appearance of action, as he is a soldier, but he physically does little. He does not stab King Hamlet like a man of action, but “did pour the leprous distilled” this also shows cleverness.

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However, cleverness is not necessarily a good thing. It can be used slyly and cunningly, to help you manipulate people, “they find us touched, we will our kingdom give, our crown, our life…but if not, b you content to lend your patience to us, and we shall jointly labour with your soul to give it due to content.” For example, he faced down Laertes when he tried to attack him for Polonius’s murder. As well as talking him out of stabbing him, he managed to use him and turn the situation around to his own advantage. This is true cunning and adeptness. He manipulates Laertes, and yet he is a talented diplomat.

I feel that Claudius has virtuous and redeeming qualities and traits possessed by “damned, smiling” villains. I believe Claudius is more than that, as he has proved he is an able and capable ruler. However, he is unable to repent, and that is his downfall. He is a talented diplomat, which he uses to his advantage to manipulate people. This is ironic as he was asked to be king due to his redeeming qualities, yet he uses his good qualities in unscrupulous ways. There are other facets to Claudius’s character as he is very complex. He makes a good King practically, not morally, as he was extremely efficient when the Fortinbras crisis arose and talking down Laertes from his rage. This supports the view that Claudius is a potentially good King. It is too simplistic to view him as a “damned, smiling villain.”

We feel almost sympathetic towards him whilst he is repenting, as he is genuinely remorseful. However, he is too greedy to sacrifice anything, which will bring about his downfall. He is set apart from other villains as he has a conscience. He is not cold-blooded and calculating, which is usually the case. He betrays emotions and shows he’s human. Some would agree that although he has redeeming qualities, he is essentially a bad person and cannot be trusted, although he can rule a country. I believe that he has more bad than good, and the villain prevails in his split personality.

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Shakespeare's Presentation of Claudius. (2021, Sep 12). Retrieved August 8, 2022, from