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King Claudius: The Villain In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, revenge is a common theme throughout the play. Almost every major male character in the play, whether it is Prince Hamlet, Laertes, the Ghost of King Hamlet, or King Fortinbras of Norway, is acting with purpose to avenge a death. The obvious exception to this trend in the play is Claudius, King of Denmark and brother of King Hamlet. Instead of possessing a noble or vengeful purpose throughout the play, Claudius is instead motivated by more evil qualities like his greed and deceptive natures. But despite his solidified role as the antagonist to Prince Hamlet, Claudius’ degree of true villainy is more so in question. Claudius shows traits that stray from traditional idea of a heartless, animal-like villain working for evil, while also representing villainous qualities of the foulest kinds that ultimately overpower his humane soul. This complexity in Claudius’ character helps Shakespeare transcend the traditional villain.

Unlike traditional villains, facts suggest that Claudius does have conscience, despite not following it. Though his negative qualities ultimately overweigh the good that he attempts to magnify to the public, the King shows certain qualities like his ability to care, love, and express his guilt that are somewhat hidden to the people of Denmark. He seems to think of highly of Polonius’ opinion and is also kind to Ophelia. His love for Queen Gertrude is one of the more intriguing aspects of the play because it could be seen as his tragic flaw. He explains to Laertes why he does not seek justice against Hamlet after the killing of Polonius, saying “The Queen his mother lives almost by his looks…my virtue or my plague…I could not by her” (4.7, 13-18). This reluctance to get ri…

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…acter and create somewhat of a new kind of villain. While Claudius is a lustful, greedy, corrupt, manipulating, deceiving murderer that will stop at nothing to achieve his own powerful ambitions, he also has a lighter caring and loving side that he shows to the public. Though unbeknownst to the public his omissions of guilt would be seen as positive if not for his immediate declination for achieving forgiveness in favor of keeping his power, queen, and fortunes. It is things like this that make Claudius such a complex character. He acknowledges that there are right and wrong things to do but often refuses to do the right things because doing wrong is more beneficial to him. He is a selfish villain who does not commend the use of evil but rather the results. By portraying Claudius this way, Shakespeare manages to transcend the traditional view of a villain.

The Character of King Claudius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Delving into the character of King Claudius in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, we find a character who is not totally evil but rather a blend of morally good and bad elements. Let’s explore the various dimensions of this many-sided character.

Peter Leithart in “The Serpent Now Wears the Crown: A Typological Reading of Hamlet,” considers the gravity of the main sin of offense of Claudius:

Claudius’s murder of King Hamlet, the act catalyzing the drama of the play, is presented as a sin of primordial character and cosmic implications. Claudius confesses that his fratricide parallels the murder of Abel:

O, my offense is rank, it smells to heaven;

It hath the primal eldest curse upon ‘t,

A brother’s murder (3.3.36-38).

[. . .] Claudius has not only committed fratricide, but regicide. The king being peculiarly the image of God, regicide is a kind of deicide. At least, it is an act of rebellion against divine authority. Claudius is thus not only Cain but Adam.[7] Claudius’s sin has, for Hamlet at least, turned Denmark into a fallen Eden; thorns and thistles dominate the landscape. (n. pag.)

The drama opens after Hamlet has just returned from Wittenberg, England, where he has been a student. What brought him home was the news of his father’s death and his father’s brother’s quick accession to the throne of Denmark. Philip Burton in “Hamlet” discusses Claudius’ sudden rise to the Danish throne upon the death of King Hamlet I:

The fact that Claudius has become king is not really surprising. Only late in the play does Hamlet complain that his uncle had “popped in between the election and my hopes.” The country had been in a nervous state expecting an invasion by young Fortinbras, at the head of a lawless band of adventurers, in revenge for his father’s death at the hands of King Hamlet. A strong new king was immediately needed; the election of Claudius, particularly in the absence of Hamlet, was inevitable. What is more, it was immediately justified, because Claudius manages to dispel the threat of invasion by appealing to the King of Norway to curb his nephew, Fortinbras; the ambitious young soldier was the more ready to cancel the projected invasion because the object of his revenge, Hamlet’s father, was now dead, and in return he received free passage through Denmark to fight against Poland.

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