Shakespeare's Hamlet - Hamlet’s Villain, King Claudius Essay

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Hamlet’s Villain, King Claudius

In the drama Hamlet Shakespeare has concocted a multi-dimensional character in the person of King Claudius. It is the intent of this essay to analyze and probe all the various aspects of this curious personality.

Ward and Trent in The Cambridge History of English and American Literature consider Shakespeare’s options in designing the character of Claudius:

There were at least two ways in which an ordinary, or rather more than ordinary, dramatist might have dealt with this other “majesty of Denmark.” He could have been made a crude dramatic villain—a crowned “Shakebag” or “Black Will,” to use the phraseology of his creator’s own day. He could have been made pure straw—a mere
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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.)

So, in the estimation of most critics, where exactly does Claudius fit in? How guilty is he? 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
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