A Level English: “Smiling” face, “limed” soul- It can only be “Hamlet”s Claudius

BTE PictureClaudius Pic The villain of the story- oh the dread, the fear, the dark scary-looking clothes; you can practically feel the evil radiating off them. They are manipulative, often dishonest and very much wicked, the kind of people you don’t tend to want to bump into on the streets, unless you like that sort of thing.

So what marks out a formidable villain from the general crowd of ‘villains’ in theatre, film and literature? The greatest villains are characterised by their considerable amount of power, intelligence, cunning, ambition, and often their ruthlessness and immorality too. These are the kind of villains that you dress up for on Halloween. In theatre, they are sometimes, at least in Shakespeare’s time, subjected to hissing by the audience upon every one of their entrances onto the stage.

Claudius the Villain

Henry Norman Hudson, in “Shakespeare: His Life, Art, and Characters: With an Historical Sketch of the Origin and Growth of Drama in England” writes: “Claudius is essentially a low, coarse, sensual, brutish villain; without honour and without shame; treacherous and cruel in the last degree; at once hateful, loathsome, and execrable… he is mighty shrewd and sagacious… utterly remorseless and unscrupulous, and sticking at nothing, however base or wicked, to gain his ends… formidable from his astuteness, formidable from his unscrupulousness; above all, formidable from the powers and prerogatives with which he is invested as an absolute king”

The extent to which Claudius is formidable is great according to Hudson, but how far is this really true? Let’s take a look: Claudius Pic

To a greater extent, Claudius appears to fulfil the role of a typical revenge tragedy villain, possessing many Machiavellian (the end justifies the means) traits. However, it could be argued that Shakespeare humanises his villain– Claudius’ uncertainty over “May one be pardoned and retain th’ offence?” echoes a question the audience might even have asked themselves: Would they be tempted to do something they knew was wrong to get what they wanted? In this way, though the audience might want Claudius dead, perhaps Shakespeare, in humanising his villain, intended to encourage the audience to judge themselves– did he really deserve to be punished with death for succumbing to temptation? Though a mere character in a play, Claudius possibly provokes some important questions for Shakespeare’s audience.

On the other hand, Claudius not only ignored God’s command by killing King Hamlet, one of ‘God’s appointed’, and committing incest, but also masterminding Hamlet’s downfall, and indirectly Gertrude’s downfall. These would have been severe crimes in the eyes of Shakespeare’s 17th century audience, and also our own. Arguably, Shakespeare gradually increases Claudius’ villainy throughout the play until by the denouement, the audience is practically on the verge of screaming out “Die, Villain, die!!!” From the perspective of a Machiavellian thinker, and probably Claudius himself, the King might be seen as a tragic hero, although this doesn’t really help his case considering the Machiavellian way of thinking was particularly denounced by Elizabethans.  

The extent to which Claudius is a formidable villain is for you to decide. Certainly, it is important to examine to what extent Claudius prevented Hamlet from carrying out his revenge mission, and how far he succeeded in achieving his own aims.


What do you think? How formidable is Claudius? Feel free to comment below!

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