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Hypocrisy of Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

“‘Forgive me my foul murder’! That cannot be; since I am still possess’d of those effects for which I did murder-.” (III.ii.52-6) The hypocritical Claudius proclaims the aforementioned prayer, but is Claudius’ prayer superficial? Shakespeare’s Hamlet is teeming with deceit, incest, and hypocrisy; all of which are clearly portrayed through Claudius. Shakespeare obscures Claudius’ sinister characteristics through hypocrisy, but as the play develops, Claudius’ Mephistophelian nature becomes evident.

In the early acts of Hamlet, there is no direct evidence of Claudius’ villainy.

Claudius’ first appearance depicts him giving a speech to Queen Gertrude, Hamlet, Polonius, and other attendants. Claudius explains, “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death the memory be green, and that it us befitted to bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom to be contracted in one brow of woe…therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, the 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 with dirge in marriage, in equal scale weighing delight and dole, taken to wife. Nor have we herein barr’d your better wisdoms, which have freely gone with this affair along.” (7)

The naïve audience is unaware of the truth of King Hamlet’s murder, therefore, are also unaware of Claudius’ hypocrisy. In the beginning of Claudius’ speech, he implores the attendants to mourn deeply the death of his brother, the former King, Hamlet. The underlying hypocrisy lies within his orders to mourn because Claudius is not actually mourning Hamlet’s death. Claudius also misrepresents his marriage to Gertrude by providing seemingly sound reasons and downplaying its awkwardness. Noted critic Joseph Bertram also relates Claudius’ hypocrisy to his devilish tendencies by stating, “Elizabethans viewed it (hypocrisy) as a particularly serious character flaw.

The king’s hypocrisy is perhaps most evident in his eloquent speech in Act I, scene ii in which he openly discusses his hasty marriage to Gertrude.” (Bertram 138-139) Claudius continues to mask evilness with sincerity when Hamlet refuses to obey the common theme: death of fathers. Claudius assures Hamlet that, “‘tis a loving and a fair reply. Be as ourself in Denmark. Madam, come; this gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet sits smiling to my heart…

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…Bertram explains, “Shakespeare makes Claudius a hypocrite in what he says and does as the action progresses, and when the last scene has arrived we have been able to understand the kind of villainy that lurk beneath his fair and smooth appearance. It is obvious then that he has been created by the playwright as this particular kind of dangerous person, the hypocrite, who by virtue of his position and of his seeming splendor can pervert not merely his queen, but the very land, which he has stolen from his victim. Claudius is not a mixture of good and bad, he is an evil man who seems good.” (Bertram 141) Shakespeare removes the obscurities of hypocrisy and portrays the real Claudius.

By the completion of Hamlet, the audience recognizes the Mephistophelian nature. Shakespeare provides the proof is Claudius’ true nature chronologically as the play proceeds. “Claudius dares to be both a villain and a hypocrite; his heart does not smile with his face; he is guilty of murder and incest, the smile on his face hides guilt and the planning of yet more villainy in his heart.” (Bertram 141) From Claudius the audience learns the dangers of such character flaws and traits that he possesses.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet and its Gertrude

Hamlet and its Gertrude

How queenly is the current queen in Shakespeare’s tragic drama Hamlet? Is she an unprincipled opportunist? A passion-dominated lover? A wife first and mother last? Let’s study her life in this play.

Courtney Lehmann and Lisa S. Starks in “Making Mother Matter: Repression, Revision, and the Stakes of ‘Reading Psychoanalysis Into’ Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet,” comment on the contamination of the queen in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Hamlet, a play that centres on the crisis of the masculine subject and its “radical confrontation with the sexualized maternal body,” foregrounds male anxiety about mothers, female sexuality, and hence, sexuality itself. Obsessed with the corruption of the flesh, Hamlet is pathologically fixated on questions of his own origin and destination — questions which are activated by his irrepressible attraction to and disgust with the “contaminated” body of his mother. (1)

At the outset of the drama, Hamlet’s mother is apparently disturbed by her son’s appearance in solemn black at the gathering of the court, and she requests of him:

Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,

And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.

Do not for ever with thy vailed lids

Seek for thy noble father in the dust:

Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die,

Passing through nature to eternity. (1.2)

The queen obviously considers her son’s dejection to result from his father’s demise. She joins the king in asking Hamlet to stay in Elsinore rather than returning to Wittenberg. Respectfully the prince replies, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam.” So at the outset the audience notes a decidedl…

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Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets. London : George Bell and Sons, 1904. p. 342-368.

Jorgensen, Paul A. “Hamlet.” William Shakespeare: the Tragedies. Boston: Twayne Publ., 1985. N. pag.

Lehmann, Courtney and Lisa S. Starks. “Making Mother Matter: Repression, Revision, and the Stakes of ‘Reading Psychoanalysis Into’ Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet.” Early Modern Literary Studies 6.1 (May, 2000): 2.1-24 .

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. No line nos.

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