Mighty opposites; Hamlet and Claudius:
In the play ‘Hamlet’, the drama is essentially a contest between Hamlet and Claudius, with the outcome inevitably being the death of one of them. Claudius is Hamlet’s uncle who has married Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother after the death of King Hamlet.
Both characters are presented in Act One. Hamlet is presented as a youthful, innocent and heroic prince sincerely grieving for the loss of his father. His grief for his father is the initial image we get of Hamlet which also corresponds to him being innocent and honourable.
In contrast to Hamlet who is genuinely distraught and bewildered, Claudius is introduced in his court speech as someone manipulative and in control. He is calculating as how he should appear, it is not emotional and he is using this image to mask the true situation, (i.e. killing his brother) and to gain acceptance from the audience. ‘’it us befitted to bear our hearts….that we with the wisest sorrow think of him’’. Thus our initial image of Claudius is that he is in power and also quite clever as he structures his speech so accurately to suspend any suspicions. However, towards the end of the play Hamlet’s character develops as we get to know him better and by the end he stops being the innocent, heroic prince he used to be and he also kills innocent people. Claudius’s character also develops into a much more cruel, villainous character as he plots to kill young Hamlet and anyone else who gets in his way. Claudius does not let emotion take over; he is more like a true politician. His Machiavellian qualities emphasis his evil and corrupt character.
Hamlet and Claudius’s characters have noticeable similarities throughout the play. They are both thinkers. Hamlet is a philosopher, he thinks and takes time to make his mind up, ‘’to be or not to be, that is the question‘’. Hamlet even questions the ghost, although he believes in it. ’’Angels and ministers defend us …..Thou coms’t in such a questionable shape…’’and although old Hamlet instructed Hamlet to get revenge by killing Claudius, Hamlet still thinks thoroughly before taking any action. In the prayer scene where Claudius was arguably seeking forgiveness, Hamlet had the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius but he still thought about its consequences and that it might lead Claudius to heaven rather than hell. ’’Now might I do it pat….And so a goes to heaven…A villain kills my father and for that I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven!’’. Arguably Hamlet thought more than needed and as a consequence took no action. The decision he makes is by putting his position above God as we acknowledge in the ‘prayer scene’.
Claudius is also a thinker. He is manipulative and knows how he should appear in his first speech. ‘our dear brother’s death’, he then moves quickly from the talk of his brother to political situation which suggests that he doesn’t want others to read into it. His speech is cleverly structured. His calculating nature becomes immediately apparent. Always conscious of appearances, of what seems to be. He speaks of Gertrude as ‘’our sometime sister, now are queen/Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state’’ and the addresses Hamlet as his ‘’cousin Hamlet and my son’’. He has considered his relationships to the state, to Gertrude, and to Hamlet in all the ways people might perceive them, and manages to cover himself entirely.
Fortinbras and Laertes are opposite characters of Hamlet and Claudius. Fortinbras and Laertes are rash in contrast to Hamlet and Claudius. Fortinbras is a man of action. Prince Fortinbras of Norway also seeks revenge for the death of his father, the king, but Fortinbras goes about his revenge in a different way than Hamlet. Fortinbras goes to war over a useless piece of territory simply to uphold the honour of his father. The honour of his family is as important to him as it is to Hamlet. The word ‘post-haste’ also emphasises the furious activities the young Fortinbras is up to. The single difference about the revenge of both is that Fortinbras doesn’t procrastinate like Hamlet does, again this shows the audience Hamlet’s careful approach to decision making. Also because Fortinbras is the man of action and doesn’t procrastinate he lives, Hamlet procrastination proved fatal not only to himself, but also to six other people.
This is a preview of the whole essay
Claudius is a thinker but arguably he does not procrastinate like Hamlet does as he has killed the old Hamlet himself to make the throne wrongfully his own, however he isn’t rash, he thinks things through carefully and plans them rationally, but he still fails to take direct action as he sends a letter to Fortinbras and plots Hamlet’s death while he is in England and he also gets other people such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius and others to spy on Hamlet and find out the reason of his madness, ‘’ And can you by no drift of conference get from him why he puts on this confusion, grating so harshly all this day of quiet with turbulent and dangerous lunacy?’’. Claudius’s clever dealings suggest that he is a plotter rather than a procrastinator.
Hamlet himself doesn’t take direct action either as he changes the letters sent to Fortinbras by Claudius to have him killed and instead plots to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They are both also plotters. Claudius plots to have Hamlet killed by Laertes. ‘’No place indeed should murder sanctuaries, Revenge should have no bounds….when in your motion you are hot and dry….and he calls for drink, I’ll have prepared him achalice for the nonce…by chance escape your venomed stuck our purpose may held there’’. Claudius manipulates Laertes by bringing on the matter of his father’s death and getting him to take revenge. ‘’Laertes, was your father dear to you? Or are you like the painting of a sorrow, a face without a heart?’’. Hamlet is also a plotter as he plots to take revenge and he tries to prick the conscience of the Claudius by acting out the ‘play within the play’. Hamlet being a plotter is significant in the play, as he needs Claudius’s guilt to be confirmed in order to take action. Again, further emphasizing his moral mind.
Hamlet’s and Claudius’s love for Gertrude is another similarity between the two. They are both obsessed by Gertrude, yet devoted to her. Hamlet is severely puritanical about love and sex. He is appalled by Gertrude’s show of her pleasure at Claudius’s touch, and he clearly loathes women. ‘’O, shame where is thy blush? Rebellious hell, if thou canst mutine in a matron’s bones, to flaming youth let virtue be as wax and melt in her own fire’’. The inappropriate sexual and passionate language Hamlet uses here, ‘rebellious hell’, ‘flaming youth’ and ‘virtue’ suggests that he is truly obsessed with his mother’s sexual appetite! Hamlet’s anger over Claudius’s and Gertrude’s relationship could as easily result from a general distaste for sexual activity as from desire to be with his mother. This is known as Oedipus complex by Freudian interpretation of Hamlet’s relationship with his mother, this is shown in the closet scene through the sexual language Hamlet uses addressing Gertrude, ‘’in the rank sweet of an enseamed bed, stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty’’. Hamlet dwells on his mother’s sex life, which is completely inappropriate.
Claudius is also obsessed by Gertrude, ‘my sweet queen’, as one of the reasons he murdered Old Hamlet could possibly be that he wanted to be with her. This contrasts with his court speech where he expresses grief for his brother’s death. He seems to be sincere in his love for Gertrude. ‘Gertrude, do not drink’ is used by Claudius in Act five and emphasises that Claudius is trying to protect her, even though he betrays her through the poisoned cup.
Claudius also refuses to give up everything his crime has bought him. ’his crown, his own ambition and his queen’. This also suggests he does have feelings towards Gertrude that he isn’t prepared to give her or his crown up to seek forgiveness. Both Claudius and Hamlet seem to be passionate lovers but then they betray their lovers.
Hamlet and Ophelia seemed to be passionate lovers at the beginning of the play. ‘’The more beautified Ophelia, Doubt thou stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move, doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love’’, there is a sense of betrayal and negativity even in this letter as he repeats the word ‘doubt’. Hamlet betrays Ophelia by showing mixed feelings towards her. ‘’you should not have believed me; for virtue can not so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it, I loved you not’’. Ophelia is used to show Hamlet’s mixed feelings. She is never sure of his true feelings for her neither are we as audiences. Hamlet also uses her through the play by acting as though he is mad of her love and arguably he is also responsible for her death, by killing her father, Polonius.
Hamlet could be, at heart, a brutal misogynist, terrified of love because he is terrified of women. This is shown in the play when Hamlet tells Ophelia: ‘god hath given you one face and you make yourselves another’, arguably Hamlet is referring to his mother as well. His mistrust for women can be a result of his mother’s marriage to Claudius (his father’s murderer). He verbally abuses Ophelia, using sexual innuendo and derision and he encourages her to get to a ‘nunnery’. Another play on words, ‘nunnery’ in this instance symbolizes both sexual abstinence and sexual perversity. In Elizabethan times ‘nunnery’ is brothel. Hamlet uses this word to stop all the temptation of Ophelia tricking men and that in a brothel, she would serve as the basest sexual object. His view on women could be as a result of his mother’s actions.
Claudius and Gertrude were also lovers at the beginning of the play. There is also the suspicion that they had an affair even when Old Hamlet was alive. ‘our sometime sister now our Queen’ is ironic in Claudius’s court speech because you wouldn’t marry your sister in law. Claudius’s marriage to Gertrude is regarded as incestuous by Elizabethan audience. In some senses Claudius betrays Gertrude in a much more cruel way as he lies to her right from the start about Old Hamlet’s death and later plotting to kill her son.
Claudius and Hamlet are both murderers, they are both ruthless and kill innocent people throughout the play. Eight characters in the play meet violent ends, if Ophelia’s doubtful death is included. This doesn’t include Old Hamlet’s murder, which is the spring that drives the revenge that is the heart of the play. Hamlet’s first long speech in Act one, scene two, shows he is so sick of life that he wishes it were not a sin to commit suicide. ‘gaisnt self-slaughter!’ the contrast between life and death is constantly brought to the foreground by Hamlet’s soliloquies, by the graveyard scene and by the deaths that begin to occur with increasing rapidity as the play progresses in Act five.
It is noticeable that in Polonius’s and Ophelia’s deaths which are arguably both done by Hamlet, there is space after the event for other characters to meditate on their demise. This again gives occasion for life and death to be contrasted. There is a huge amount of humour in Hamlet. Death is simply a fact, however terrifying it is inevitable. After Hamlet kills Polonius accidentally in the closet scene, assuming it is Claudius he seems strangely untroubled by the murder, for a man who has debated so long with himself over the justification of killing his father’s murderer, the slaying of an innocent man seems to have little effect on him. He mentions to Claudius that the murder is not as bad as killing a king and marrying with his wife.
Claudius is much more ruthless as he has killed Old Hamlet without having any justification for murder like Hamlet does. Arguably Hamlet’s character as ruthless only appears because he wants to keep the honour of his family and take the revenge he has been instructed to. Where as Claudius’s motive for murder was for his own benefit and on his own accord. Hamlet’s delay of murdering Claudius has been the reason for nearly all of these deaths. So although he didn’t mean for them, he has been responsible in a way. Another point of view can be that although six deaths have been committed by Hamlet, Claudius has been responsible for all. After all he was the one who committed the first murder. He also instructed Laertes to kill Hamlet.
In this play Shakespeare uses soliloquies in a very deliberate way to highlight personality differences of the two characters and to give opportunities to audience to sympathise with both of them through their soliloquies, even to Claudius who is a villain. Both Hamlet and Claudius appear intelligent in their soliloquies. Hamlet’s state of mind as being intellectual first appears in his second soliloquy, as in his first one he is angry, depressed and confused. In his second soliloquy he questions what the ghost has asked him to do. The word ‘commandment’ refers to what the ghost has told him to do and that he himself thinks it would be morally wrong to take someone’s life. So once again he thinks about the consequences of his action and this prepares the reader for future thoughts and delays.
Claudius and Hamlet both put themselves above God in their soliloquies and as intellectuals they try to second guess his actions. Claudius tries to second guess God’s action while he prays in his one and only soliloquy. ‘O, my offence is rank’. Claudius knows he can’t pray because of his sin and guilt but he still puts on the act of prayer. He second guesses God’s actions by asking ’’May one be pardon’d and retain th’offence?
Hamlet sees Claudius praying and even though Hamlet doesn’t hear the content of Claudius’s prayer he will not kill him because there is a possibility that a man killed while penitently praying will go to heaven. Hamlet remembers the ghost’s graphic description of the purgatorial torments he faces each day because he was killed without a chance to confess; ‘’will all my imperfections on my head’’. Hamlet does not want Claudius to escape any of the torments of purgatory, so he will not, despite a perfect opportunity to gain revenge, kill him. This is how Hamlet puts himself above God.
There are two other alternative explanation for Hamlet’s inaction at this point. He may still, despite his claims to being absolutely certain that Claudius is guilty, be prey to his old indecision and inability to act decisively. And he may also be aware that as murders go, moral dilemma he faces, killing an unarmed man at prayer is about as low as a murderer can get. This is how he second guess’s God’s actions.
In the prayer scene we as audience are also given a chance to sympathise with Claudius (arguably the villain of the play).
Almost all Hamlet’s soliloquies make the reader feel pity and sympathy for him, as he is the victim of the play and also because he has been given more soliloquies, he seems much more real to us than Claudius does and of course because he doesn’t have the villain, cruel character like Claudius.
Hamlet’s obsessive nature is shown through his speech in his first soliloquy when he talks about his mother’s marriage with disgust and disbelief. Hamlet uses unpleasant words to describe Claudius, ‘satyr’ is what he describes him as, which is a mythological beast associated with lechery, carnal act and perversity. The image he uses for his mother is quite sexual, ‘’she would hang on him…. Increase of appetite had grown’’. The use of sibilants in his soliloquy emphasises the speed in which his mother has forgotten his father and married his uncle. Sibilants emphasises his anger and that he is possibly hissing the words out. ‘’O most wicked speed, to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets!’’ Hamlet also uses the word ‘villain’ in one of his soliloquies to describe Claudius’s ruthless, cruel character. The amount of punctuation in his soliloquy in comparison to the more flowing line of Claudius’s long disjointed utterances creates the effect of someone struggling with his emotions. The broken rhythm of soliloquies generates an atmosphere of unease and also emphasises Hamlets state of mind in his soliloquy.
There are images of corruption and rankness in both Hamlet’s and Claudius’s soliloquies. The imagery of corruption is shown through Hamlet’s disgust and anger for his mother. ‘’frailty, thy name is women!’’. Garden and flower imagery ‘solid flesh’ emphasises sickness and bodily corruption in Hamlet’s soliloquy.
Imagery of decay and corruption is also in Claudius’s mind. Racked by guilt Claudius compares Hamlet to a physical disease: ‘’like the hectic in my blood he rages’’ and also his cursed hand and that his conscience can not be cleaned, he can’t relieve himself of what he has done. It has been corrupted. ‘’what if this cursed hand were thicker than itself with brother’s blood’’. The fact that imagery of rankness is used by both characters, once again brings out their similarity and in that sense brings them closer together, arguably part of the drama of ‘Hamlet’ is the similarities of the two characters.
Despite all Hamlet’s and Claudius’s similarities, they also have their differences.
Claudius is driven by ambition, ‘Help angels! Make assay’, whereas Hamlet doesn’t seem to be. Claudius makes sure he achieves what he wants, he chooses evil, ‘the present death of Hamlet, do it England’. He has achieved the crown and he married Gertrude, after murdering King Hamlet. Hamlet can’t make his mind up.
Claudius is honest with himself whereas Hamlet seems much more confused in the play. Claudius decides to kill Hamlet, ‘the present death of Hamlet. Do it, England’, because he is a threat to him, ‘‘diseases desperate grown by desperate appliance are reliev’d, or not at all’’, and quickly gets into plotting it whereas Hamlet questions himself and morality of his actions, ‘am I a coward?’ Claudius is also ruthless and chooses evil whereas Hamlet delays to take revenge by murdering Claudius. Claudius murders king Hamlet by pouring a lethal poison in his ear, whereas Hamlet can’t bring himself into killing Claudius to take revenge. Looking at the structure of the play it takes Hamlet a long time to get to his final revenge. Four acts out of the whole play (five acts) Hamlet has been making his mind up and suddenly he realises its time for action in Act five where almost all deaths take place.
In some ways, Claudius exhibits more heroism than Hamlet. He manipulates fortune and takes what is not rightfully his, but remains unapologetic for his actions; he possesses enough strength to admit that he would do the same again. Hamlet, torn by conscience to smite the morally deficient Claudius, causes the death of six innocent people before he accomplishes his goal. By taking full responsibility for his actions, Claudius mitigates his evil nature.
The mark of a great Shakespearean antagonist is how completely he mirrors the protagonist. Claudius is no more Machiavellian than Hamlet; both ultimately believe that the end justifies the means, and both ultimately sacrifice humanity and humaneness in the acquisition of their goals.
Hamlet has a eulogy, Claudius doesn’t. Claudius’s death is cowardly, a well deserved death as everyone realises his true character at the end of the play, whereas Hamlet has the heroic image in the play, he dies at the end of the play in the hands of his grateful friend, Horatio. He is also the last person to die which again reflects his heroic character. Hamlet dies but his memory stands in the hands of Horatio, his only faithful friend and he will be the one to give the audience and others the impression of Hamlet’s heroic character. Horatio: ‘Even while men’s minds are wild, lest more mischance on plots and errors happen’. Hamlet’s justification for all the crimes he has committed is reinforced through that he was instructed to take revenge by the soul of his great father, King Hamlet. He even took a great amount of time, overcoming his moral dilemma and his heroism lied in the hand of his best friend, Horatio.