The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1730 Wednesday, 11 July 2001
From: Brian Haylett <
Date: Tuesday, 10 Jul 2001 14:57:24 +0100
Subject: The Tragedy of Claudius
Recent threads have shown, yet again, that the character of Claudius
resists simplification. A critic who labels him a villain should be
stymied by 'The Mouse Trap': if you want stock characters, says
Shakespeare, I can parody them too, but you won't pluck out the heart of
my mystery that way.
It is quite possible to consider 'Hamlet' as the tragedy of Claudius.
Set the murder to one side for a few minutes, and what do we have? Here
is a king who skillfully arranges preventive diplomacy (which works)
instead of waging continual warfare. There is no reason to doubt his
love for Gertrude nor his initial good intentions towards Hamlet. His
approach to whatever life brings is reasoned and prudent. But then - in
a way reminiscent of Richard II and Lear - he makes a fatal
misjudgement: while agreeing to Laertes' departure, he hangs on to
Hamlet. In so doing he ensures continual sniping and subversion which
leads to the death of innocents as well as his own. This is the path of
the tragic hero.
Why emphasise this decision rather than the murder? Firstly, Shakespeare
himself downplays the murder by keeping it out of the dramatic action;
secondly, at the time of Claudius's decision, there is no murder known
to the audience - the decision is the spur to the revelation. It could
be surmised, given a little knowledge of Shakespearean dramatic
structure, that if Hamlet had been given leave to depart, the Ghost
would not have spoken. He would have remained a silent portent that
makes the old guard (literally) suspicious of defensive precautions'
replacing violent action.
Nevertheless, Claudius has committed a murder and he has decided to keep
Hamlet in the court. Hamlet, the hectic in his blood, returns him always
to a consciousness of guilt. In the prayer scene - recently discussed -
his rather resigned 'All may be well' is followed immediately by the
entry of Hamlet, who stands by him like a personified conscience until
he rises again, admitting his thoughts remain below. Readers (myself
included) have often been tempted to see Claudius as a personified
aspect of Hamlet, but to see Hamlet as an aspect of Claudius makes sense
in this scene at least.
The play of 'Hamlet' is the richer for supporting two tragic heroes:
Hamlet and Claudius. I do not think that happens in any other
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