As a supporting character in Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, Claudius is not developed to his full potential. His primary role in the play is to initiate Hamlet’s confusion and anger, and his subsequent search for truth and life’s meaning. But Claudius is certainly not a static character.
While Claudius’ qualities are not as thoroughly explored as Hamlet’s, the treacherous King of Denmark is a complete character. When we first see Claudius, he strikes us an intelligent and capable ruler. He gives a speech to make his court and country proud, addressing his brother’s death and the potential conflict with Norway. Claudius knows that a change in government could ignite civil unrest, and he is afraid of possible unlawful allegiances and rebellion. His speech juxtaposes the people’s loss with the new beginning they will have under his care, and he uses the death of Hamlet’s father to create a sense of national solidarity, “the whole kingdom/To be contracted in one brow of woe” (I.ii.3-4). Claudius has assumed the role of the chief mourner, and the people can unite behind a collective suffering. He can now concentrate on his kingly duties, and he takes immediate and decisive action by sending Cornelius and Voltimand to appease the Norwegian king. He also deals skillfully with Laertes’ request to leave for France. “On the whole, then, there emerges a King who is well qualified for his office…there continually appears on the stage a man who is utterly unlike the descriptions, and this in turn gives to Hamlet’s words their real value.” (Lokse, Outrageous Fortune, 79).
But Claudius, in private, is a very different person. The Ghost refers to him as “that incestuous, that adulterate beast” (…
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… from indulging his human desires. He is not a monster; he is morally weak, content to trade his humanity and very soul for a few prized possessions. As the great critic Harley Granville-Barker observes: “we have in Claudius the makings of the central figure of a tragedy.” (Granville-Barker, Prefaces to Shakespeare.3., 269)
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966).
Burnett, Mark, ed. New Essays on Hamlet. (New York: AMS Press, 1994).
Evans Lloyd Gareth. Shakespeare IV. (London: Oxford university Press, 1967).
Granville-Barker, Henry. Prefaces to Shakespeare.3 (New York, Hill and Wang, 1970).
Loske, Olaf. Outrageous Fortune. (Oslo: Oslo University Press, 1960).
Muir, Kenneth. Shakespeare and the Tragic Pattern, Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol.XLIV (London: Oxford University Press, 1958).
Racism in Shakespeare’s Othello
Racism in Othello
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Literary Remains is just one of the essays that presents an attack on Shakespeare for his lack of realism in the ‘monstrous’ depiction of a marriage between a ‘beautiful Venetian girl,’ and a ‘veritable negro,’ in Othello. He sees Shakespeare’s transformation of a ‘barbarous negro’ into a respected soldier and nobleman of stature as ‘ignorant’, since at the time, ‘negroes were not known except as slaves.’ (Appendix) The extract seems to raise two questions – how central is the taboo of miscegeny to the play, and to what extent is Othello’s reputation able to counter this prejudice?
It is certainly not hard to conclude that Othello is probably Shakespeare’s most controversial play. There is a clear theme of racism throughout, one which was firmly embedded in the Venetian society which rejects the marriage of Othello and Desdemona as erring, ‘against all rules of nature,’ [1.3.102] Nothing separates Othello from, ‘the wealthy curled darlings of our nation,’ [1.2.68] except skin-color – he matches or even exceeds them in reputation. At the start of the play, he appears confident that,
OTHELLO: My parts, my title, and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly.
when he is called in front of the court on charges of witchcraft, yet the malevolent Iago is able to call on Othello’s deep-rooted insecurities about his race in order to play Othello and Desdemona against one another until their marriage fails. Essentially, Iago is a representative of the white race, a pre-Nazi figure who tries to inform the public of the impurity of Othello and Desdemona’s marriage. He demonstrates how this miscegenation is threatening to the existing socia…
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… that nothing could be made too marked for the senses of his audience, had practically sanctioned it, — would this prove aught concerning his own intention as a poet for all ages? Can we imagine him so utterly ignorant as to make a barbarous negro plead royal birth, –at a time, too, when negroes were not known except as slaves? — As for Iago’s language to Brabantio, it implies merely that Othello was a Moor, that is, black …. No doubt Desdemona saw Othello’s visage in his mind; yet, as we are constituted, and most surely as an English audience was disposed in the beginning of the seventeenth century, it would be something monstrous to conceive this beautiful Venetian girl falling in love with a veritable negro. It would argue a disproportionateness, a want of balance, in Desdemona, which Shakespeare does not appear to have in the least contemplated.’