The question of whether Claudius is a better king than Old Hamlet is one that critics have often encouraged us to ask. He shows some skill in diplomacy and dealing with court business in a timely and efficient fashion: in the scenes where he holds court, he gives every indication that he is a decisive and pragmatic king and an effective politician: perhaps more than Prince Hamlet would have proved to be, and perhaps even better than Old Hamlet, who whiled away his afternoons, on a regular basis, asleep in his orchard (all right for some, eh?). But, like Macbeth, he has only attained the crown through being ruthless, immoral, and murderous. He murders his own brother – by poison, too, while his brother slept in the Edenic paradise of his orchard, which suggests cowardice and treachery. (If he’d killed his brother in a duel, even one fought on unethical grounds, things would have been very different.) This crime is, as Claudius himself admits in III.3, the ‘primal eldest curse’, going back to the very first murder in the Bible: Cain’s murder of his brother Abel in the Book of Genesis.
He has also married his brother’s widow, which, both Hamlet and Claudius suggest at various points in the play, is viewed as an act of incest. (Such an understanding of ‘incest’ – marrying someone who was not a blood-relative but a relative by law – would have doubtless been familiar to many of the original playgoers in Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience: the Queen’s own father, King Henry VIII, had justified his divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, on Biblical grounds that it was a forbidden act to marry one’s brother’s widow.) What’s more, the crown has not passed, as one might expect, from Old Hamlet to his son, Prince Hamlet: Hamlet has been cut out of the line of succession, for some unstated reason, and Claudius has instead seized the throne.
If this all suggests a man greedy for power, then we should at least acknowledge that Shakespeare portrays Claudius as a character who is contrite – although more, we suspect, because he fears his punishment in the afterlife (and from Prince Hamlet, once he realises his nephew has learned the truth) than because he feels genuine remorse for having his brother murdered. As Claudius admits in the famous speech he gives in III.3 (‘O, my offence is rank, it smells to heaven …’), when he tries to pray for forgiveness, it is useless to ask for forgiveness for a sin if he doesn’t also renounce all of the worldly benefits he has accrued from that sin: the crown, Gertrude, and his ambition to rule and carry on ruling.
If Claudius did usurp his brother because Old Hamlet wasn’t as good a ruler as Claudius knew he himself could be, this is neither stated nor even heavily implied in Shakespeare’s play. We are left to speculate ourselves: did Claudius do the wrong thing for honourable reasons, or did he simply want to grab the crown and rule for himself? Did he want to marry Gertrude, so that’s why he wanted his brother out of the way? (This is certainly what Old Hamlet believes, referring in I.5 to his brother’s ‘shameful lust’ which led him to contrive a way of winning his ‘most seeming-virtuous queen’ to his bed.)
Claudius shows himself to be a politician-king, delegating his dirty work to other characters, such as when he sends Hamlet to England and asks the English to kill his nephew upon arrival. But as V.2 reveals, this was a mistake, for Claudius’ clandestine behaviour proves his own undoing: Hamlet is able to forge a letter from Claudius, using the royal seal which he has in his possession, ordering the killing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rather than Hamlet. Hamlet can then escape during his tussle with the pirates and speed his way back to Denmark, where he again uses Claudius’ underhand methods against him, with the poison-tipped sword leading to Laertes’ death as well as Hamlet’s, prompting Laertes to reveal the plot to Hamlet, culminating in Claudius’ own death. And, of course, Claudius’ back-up plan – the chalice of poisoned wine – leads to Gertrude inadvertently drinking it and dying.
Much ink has been spilt over Hamlet’s delaying and inaction, but in many ways, if we place the character of Claudius next to Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark shows himself to be more active and direct than his uncle. If Claudius is more decisive, he is also someone who rarely acts himself, if he can get someone else to do so on his behalf. This is partly because he is King, but also partly because the only way he can rid himself of Hamlet is through deceptive and underhand means.
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